Barbara Bel Geddes was an actress whose career on stage, screen and television spanned six decades. Born on October 31, 1922 in New York City, Barbara came to prominence at the age of 18 in the Broadway hit comedy Out Of The Frying Pan. In 1946 her performance in Deep Are The Roots garnered her both a Clarence Derwent Award and a Donaldson Award (forerunner of the Tony Awards) presented to her by Laurette Taylor, for "Outstanding Achievement in The Theatre." 1951 brought further critical acclaim in Otto Preminger’s blockbuster hit comedy The Moon Is Blue.
Barbara created the role of Maggie The Cat in Elia Kazan's legendary original Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The demanding role garnered her high critial acclaim along with a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Play. The play was also awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
A second Tony nod followed for her charmingly comedic performance in Jean Kerr’s smash comedy, Mary, Mary. The New York Times pronounced the show “a Hale and hearty hit”, prompting comedian Jack Benny to extol her “impeccable comedic timing”. The show went on to become Broadway's longest running show of its era with over 1,500 performances.
Commemorating its third anniversary on Broadway in 1964, the New York Times reported “Mary, Mary is a big hit in Paris, Madrid, Johannesburg, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Stockholm and Helsinki." and "has earned more than $10 million in box‐office receipts in the United States alone."
Barbara starred with Michael Redgrave in the original Broadway production of The Sleeping Prince. Later, the roles were reprieved by Marilyn Monroe and Lawrence Olivier in the film adaptation retitled The Prince and the Showgirl. Her list of appearances in other notable original Broadway productions includes John Steinbeck's Burning Bright, Edward Albee's Everything in the Garden and Silent Night, Lonely Night with co-star Henry Fonda.
In 1952, Barbara received the prestigious Woman of the Year Award from Harvard University's Hasty Pudding Theatricals, America's oldest theater company; In 1993, having starred in fifteen Broadway productions, she was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame. Notably, the same honor had been bestowed decades earlier upon her father, stage and industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes.
Heading to Hollywood in 1947, Barbara began a contract with RKO Pictures starring with Henry Fonda in The Long Night directed by Anatole Litvak. "I went out to California awfully young," she remarked. "I remember Lillian Hellman and Elia Kazan telling me, 'Don't go, learn your craft, But I loved films." The following year, she was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in the George Stevens film
I Remember Mama.
In 1958, Barbara co-starred with James Stewart and Kim Novak in the Hitchcock classic, Vertigo. In 2012, The Hollywood Reporter reported "Vertigo Tops Citizen Kane in Poll of Greatest Films of All Time".
In a 2003 interview, Barbara discussed her experience working with Hitchcock:
Other Hollywood highlights include Elia Kazan's 1950 film noir Panic in the Streets, and screen musical The Five Pennies with Danny Kaye and jazz great Louis Armstrong.
When the House Un-American Activities Committee investigation stalled her film career for a short time, Barbara found new opportunity in television when Alfred Hitchcock cast her in four episodes of his legendary series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In the quintessential episode Lamb to the Slaughter, she played a pregnant housewife who killed her husband by bludgeoning him to death with a frozen leg of lamb, cooking the murder weapon and... see for yourself!
(View the entire episode on uTube!)
Numerous other television appearances included the role of Mrs. Webb in the 1977 Emmy-winning production of the Thornton Wilder classic, Our Town with Hal Holbrook.
In 1978, Barbara was the first artist signed to star in the landmark television series Dallas in the role of family matriarch, Miss Ellie Ewing. The show held first place in the national ratings for 3 years, remaining in the top ten for 7 of its record-setting 13 years, and became a television sensation around the globe. The 1980 episode revealing "Who Shot J.R.?" remains the second highest rated prime-time series telecast in U.S. history.
Larry Hagman, who played J.R. Ewing, told the Associated Press: "The reason I took the show, they said Barbara Bel Geddes is going to play your mother, and I said, 'Well, that's a touch of class, you know,' so of course I wanted to work with her. She was the rock of Dallas. Just a really nice woman and a wonderful actress. She was kind of the glue that held the whole thing together."
In the early 1970s, Barbara had undergone a radical mastectomy, an experience she relived on Dallas. The performance garnered her the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, and she was later honored by First Lady Betty Ford for helping to raise breast cancer awareness. Barbara appeared on the series from 1978 to 1990 (absent during the 1984–85 season) and remains the only cast member to win the Emmy Award, and the Golden Globe Award (Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series); she also received Germany's Golden Camera Award.
Real-life drama intruded into the run of Dallas when emergency quadruple by-pass heart surgery forced Barbara to depart the show. In a controversial casting decision, veteran star Donna Reed replaced her for the 1984–85 season. With health improved, Barbara returned to the role of Miss Ellie for the 1985–86 season, and continued through the series' penultimate season. Historically, she remains television’s only performer to relinquish, and later return to the same role.
Barbara joyfully retired from acting in 1990 to her beloved home on the rocky, pine-scented shore of Northeast Harbor in Maine where she continued her life-long work as a fine artist. An author of two children's books, and the creator of a popular line of greeting cards, her drawings also appeared in The New Yorker magazine. Barbara passed peacefully on August 8, 2005.
Looking back on her career, she told People Magazine: "They're always making me play well-bred ladies. I'm not very well bred, and I'm not much of a lady."
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