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On Jeanette Nolan
To be honest, I must say that Jeanette Nolan – who appeared in one movie alongside Hunt, The Happy Time 1952 - is probably too name-recognizable to be highlighted here (as is James Whitmore, following next). But Marsha was so rapturous about Nolan that I had to include her. “Oh, Jeanette Nolan could play everything. Could and did,” said Hunt. “She had that chameleon kind of voice. She was one of the great actresses of radio. My husband, Robert, did a lot of radio directing and writing before he came into screenwriting and came out here. But in New York he knew Jeanette Nolan and her husband,” she gropes for a moment for the name, “John McIntire. Between them they played dozens of roles.” Nolan was just about equally prolific on TV.
Think television work is crazy? Radio was crazier. “They worked themselves on five shows a day and just skated from CBS to ABC to NBC hitting all their marks on time to be on all those different shows. And then, after that they would join hands,” the pace of her speech changes here, “and go to, I think, it was Montana where there was a large country home where they didn’t see a neighbor, they didn’t have a schedule and they had a lovely respite of country life. And then they would return to New York and radio’s rat race. They were a wonderful pair.”
On James Whitmore
As I warned, here is probably another too-name-recognizable supporting player to be profiled here but as, “Jim Whitmore was a good friend,” to Marsha and he was, as she praised, “a fine actor,” here are her fond recollections of him. “I knew him best through the Gombergs." Marsha is referring to screenwriter Sy Gomberg and his wife Maxine. "They had a beautiful spread-out estate of a home and they gave their place for annual garden parties for the American Civil Liberties Union. All the liberals of Hollywood would gather every summer for this fund raiser and I would see Whitmore at their house again and again.”
Hunt served on the board of the Screen Actors Guild during 1946, in what she calls, “it’s ugliest year.” It was not a good time for liberals or humanitarians; the Red Scare was brewing and it was just a few years before Hunt’s harrowing blacklisting. “Because it was such a turning point in time in the industry I was asked, many years later, to come and speak to the Guild membership about those days.” She relates that as she was pulling up outside the building on Wilshire Boulevard where SAG is headquartered and there was Jim Whitmore. “I asked, ‘what are you doing here?’ and he said, ‘I came to hear you talk.’” With wonder still in her voice she said, “I couldn’t believe that Jim - who knew my story so well - would bother to come all those miles to sit and listen to me talk about it. I was very touched.”
Whitmore worked alongside Marsha in a 1959 segment of Checkmate and again, ten years later, in an installment of a TV series called Name of the Game. She spoke of the theatre he founded in partnership with his wife, actress Audra Lindley who, among her numerous credits, is probably especially remembered for her spin with Norman Fell as the Ropers on the sitcom Three's Company. (The Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center in North Hollywood is currently running My Big Gay Italian Wedding.) She remembered once seeing James at a 3-day writer’s conference that he went to with Gomberg. “It was in the most beautiful place with the foam of the waves of the Pacific dashing against the rocks of the coast.” She said he came just because he loved the setting. “This is how I knew Jim. A very bright man, and so gifted.”
On Lois Nettleton
I didn’t like being the one to have to tell Marsha Hunt that the likable actress Lois Nettleton had died.
Nettleton is probably best remembered for her starring role in one of the most frequently aired episodes in the popular Twilight Zone marathons – the Midnight Sun. When I brought up her name there was an instant gush of an intake of breath from Marsha. “Oh, a lovely person,” she said, “a lovely person. We must have worked together on a television show,” they did, on two (a Studio One in 1950 and an episode of an NBC series titled Accidental Family in 1967). “We liked each other; we became friends.” She told of getting Lois’ mother to join the Motion Picture Mothers, a non-profit still active today that we’ll go into more when Part 2 of Marsha Hunt’s story appears. Hunt’s and Nettleton’s mothers became pals, too.
Of Lois, Marsha said, “I just remember how much I liked her but it’s been such a long time." She asked me for an update, "What can you tell me about Lois Nettleton?” And I had to tell her. Lois made her final exit six years before the interview with Marsha. Breathily, “Oh, she’s died,” she said. Then, in a very practical tone she remarked, “You know I’m outliving everybody.”
She hasn’t yet outlived Mark Richman or Richard Erdman.
On Mark Richman
I recently realized that he goes by the name Peter Mark Richman but Marsha recognized him the way I do – as just handsome Mark Richman. “I keep running across him. Way off in Sedona, Arizona…like a miniature Grand Canyon, I went to a party and there was Mark Richman.” She did recall appearing, “many years ago ,” on Cain’s Hundred, the TV show in which he starred. “We’ve coincided at several functions. I don’t know him but we say ‘Hi.’”
On Richard Erdman
Erdman and Hunt worked together as recently as 2008 in a made-for-TV tribute to classic crime movies titled The Empire State Building Murders. Though it was a return to television for her after a nearly 20-year hiatus from screen work, Hunt was more interested in talking about her much earlier co-appearance with Erdman in the feel-good film The Happy Time (1952). She describes Richard Erdman as, “a very close friend. Dick is funny and lovely and very gifted.”
Marsha is delighted that her 90 year old friend, whose career stride has never broken, has recently garnered attention for his work on the droll, Emmy Award winning sitcom Community in which he plays Leonard - an indomitable, non-traditional college student. (Among his nearly countless roles, I cannot help but remember him as a paparazzo in The Blue Gardenia 1953, and as the insufferable gabber with the magic stopwatch in a frequently aired Twilight Zone episode.)
When his name comes up a second time Marsha, again, chimes in with, “Dick is just so funny.”
On Being in the Twilight Zone
“Just don’t name the episode,” Marsha bade me. “If you don’t name the episode, then people can’t look him up.” We laughed.
Whereas Marsha Hunt usually remembers very little about any given TV performance she ever did, by comparison, she recalls the Twilight Zone segment in bas-relief. She had just told me a little backstage dirt when we laughed about how protective she was being of someone’s identity. So, per her wishes, I will name neither the episode nor the director. (But how hard could it be to unravel?)
First of all, Marsha played the mother of the lead character portrayed by the haunting Diana Hyland (pictured here at right of Marsha). “She was a good actress, a lovely person. Died young,” at age 41. (Diana had been the girlfriend of the much-younger John Travolta who, I have heard, would never discuss her in interviews in all the years that have followed.) “She did a stunning job in that. It was the story of just a young woman who marries the wrong man.” She describes, “It has to do with drinking - alcoholism - and bad behavior. There’s this charging steed with hair in the wind and all.”
“I remember several dramatic things,” she says.
It was a small, tight cast. Roger Davis (pictured below, right, with actor Philip Ober, left), “was, I think, a new actor and he was a little unsure of his lines. And this director,” she recounted, “had found a victim. Jumped all over him. I hated his sadistic treatment of that poor young actor who was rendered incapable of doing anything because the director was so awful to him.” She explained that as the hours progressed, “I remember once I went to my room and [the director] came in and said, ‘We’re ready for you,’ and I said, ‘I’m sorry. Until you tell me that you will treat this poor actor more patiently, more kindly, we’re never going to get the scene.’ I had it out with him.”
Philip Ober played Marsha’s husband and she recalled that he was married to Vivian Vance of I Love Lucy fame. “I knew him very slightly but pleasantly,” she says.
But on the set, “Things got worse and worse.” Hunt relates that she was making a professional stage appearance in a play at UCLA at the same time as the shooting, with the promise from the Twilight Zone crew that she would always be released in time to get to the theatre. By the final day of shooting they were not finished by quitting time. The TZ shooting had to be finished that day because the set had to be struck and another set had to be built for the next day. Huge amounts of money were at stake for having to pay forfeits. “There was no question but what I had to stay on the MGM lot where we were shooting it until finished.”
They finished in time for Marsha to reach the theatre – the characters age in the course of that TZ story and she rushed from the filming, still in her age make-up and body padding - just as the audience was emptying the lobby to be seated for the start of the first act. She tip-toed in and ushers seated her in an empty aisle seat in the last row, reserved for such emergencies, “And I watched the performance of the play I was supposed to be in.” she told me in measured speech. “Watched my understudy. It was a very strange experience,” she says with the sound of reminiscing in her voice.
At intermission, she raced to an office off the lobby to hide, downing a sandwich and a malt the ushers brought her for her dinner, and returned to her seat to witness the second act. (It was George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House and the later-famed Carroll O’Connor played her father.) She mused, “It’s the only performance on stage that I’ve ever missed.”
Marsha Hunt has an exceptional generosity of spirit. In asking me not to name the director of that TZ episode she said, “He might still be alive,” - he IS - “and he may have seen the light and become a much nicer person.” I may just always have to wonder.~FW
Tune in again soon for “Marsha Hunt: Part 2 – Hollywood’s Ugliest Years” and the profile of actress Maggie Hayes. Check Facebook for notices.
Also see TV Cast Notes - Winter 2014-2015.
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