June 13--Polly Bergen grew up in Ohio and Indiana loving the musicals of Shirley Temple and Deanna Durbin. In one of Durbin's films, she sang in her kitchen, was overheard by a producer and became a star.
"I would stand in my kitchen and sing my life out waiting for someone to show up, if not today, maybe tomorrow," Bergen said. "I was so naive and so unsophisticated."
That didn't work, but Bergen became a singing star anyway in 1945. She sang on a radio teen talent show and from that got her own weekly 15-minute show at WKBV in Richmond, Ind.
"Everybody thought I was black and thought I was 25. I was 15," she said. "I thought Sarah Vaughn was the best singer in the business. I learned to sing listening to Sarah Vaughn records."
After radio came nightclubs, TV, Broadway, movies. Sixty years later, Bergen is still performing. Her most recent movie, "Struck by Lightning," in which she plays Chris Colfer's grandmother, came out on DVD just three weeks ago.
On Friday, June 21, the veteran star will be in Hartford to present one of her best-known films, "Cape Fear," in which she starred with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. Bergen is bringing film critic Rex Reed with her to the event at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. The two lifelong friends will do a presentation before the screening of the classic 1962 thriller.
Bergen, 82, lives in Southbury. She moved there a few years back to be close to Reed, who has a home in Roxbury. "When I lived in New York I went to his house in the summer and sometimes the winter, for a weekend, a week," she said. "When I decided to kind of retire I immediately though of coming to the area where he is at."
Her home, on a beautifully landscaped 10-acre lot, is shared with another lifelong friend, her manager Jan McCormack, and a frisky black poodle. "We both decided to retire at the same time, except that she doesn't really want to retire and I don't really want to retire either," Bergen said. In the entrance hall hangs a sign Reed gave her: "The older I get the more everyone can kiss my ass."
Bergen is full of stories about people she's known. Photos on top of the grand piano in her living room show her with Louis Armstrong, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Marlon Brando, Martin Luther King. She has kind words for all of her former colleagues, friends and acquaintances except one. "Jerry Lewis is a disgusting man," she said. "Every day I worked with him, he made me cry."
Well, maybe more than one. "I don't know why I married him," she said of her third husband. "I liked him, but I was never in love with him." McCormack laughs when Bergen brings him up, and she tells a story about their wedding day. "She said 'I do. Oh, f---'," McCormack says. "Isn't that true?" The friends smile together.
Her first two husbands, however, bring up fond memories. Her first husband was a "sweet, lovely man" driven away by her focus on her career. Her second husband, producer-agent Freddie Fields, "was the love of my life." Fields and Bergen raised three children together during their 17-year marriage.
In an interview at her home and her favorite restaurant, Carole Peck's Good News Cafe in Woodbury, over a lunch of stuffed poblano pepper and a glass of merlot, Bergen shared her recollections of her roles, films and collaborators.
"The Helen Morgan Story," the 1957 "Playhouse 90" live musical drama that won her an Emmy:
"I had been doing Martin and Lewis movies, secondary stuff. I did all the TV shows ... Perry Como, Dean Martin ... Then came 'Helen Morgan.' Overnight, it made me a star. It was one of those magical things you read about but don't really believe actually ever happens, but it does and it did. ... I was only cast because they coudn't find anybody else to do it. I was the last person on Earth they wanted to do that part. ... Greg Peck had seen me in 'Helen Morgan.' ... He was such a fan of mine from that one thing that he saw. He thought there was nothing I couldn't do. ... So he called and wanted me to do a film he was getting ready to do called 'On the Beach' in Australia. I said I had just adopted a child and I cannot go to Australia for three months. I turned it down and Ava Gardner did the part. Just to show you what a schmuck I am."
"Gregory Peck was a gigantic star and I was this little nothing and he would say 'would you like to rehearse this scene?' I say 'could we, are we allowed to do that?' He would say 'are you happy with that?' ... I admired Peck. He was very reserved, but he was just a love. Then Mitchum arrived on set. He was a kerplunk! He was open and loving and funny. The very first scene we did was the rape scene. ... They were finally ready to shoot and [director J. Lee Thompson] said 'I'm just going to let you go, I'm not going to stop you, just go and the camera will be there, whatever happens don't worry.' He's saying to Mitch, not to me, because what do I know? And we started. ... Mitch, I think literally he said later he didn't know what happened. He said 'I don't know, it's like I lost it.' ... The door that was supposed to be semi-shut had accidentally been completely closed and clicked. He used my body to physically open that door. You can imagine the kind of force. By then I was starting to sob. I was really in pain. He just kept right on going and I kept right on going because I didn't know anything anyway. We arrived at the end of the scene and he completely fell apart. He grabbed me put his arms around me and said 'I'm sorry, I'm so sorry I hurt you, I didn't mean to hurt you.' And we were friends for life."
"Move Over, Darling":
"I was violently opposed to that film. The director Michael Gordon had directed me in a Broadway show called 'Champagne Complex,' a three-character play with Donald Cook and John Dall. ... He was casting 'Move Over, Darling' and said 'I want you to do this movie.' I said every movie I've done so far I've been the female star. If I do this movie, Doris Day is the female star and I'm going to end up on the cutting-room floor. ... He said. 'Polly, you are perfect, you will be wonderful and I will protect you. Please do it for me.' So I said yes. I arrived on that set and I fell in love with Doris Day within three minutes. ... She was just heaven. We had the best time working together. ... It was a secondary part, but he made it work for me. I was fine."
"Winds of War," the 1983 miniseries, in which she played Mitchum's wife:
" 'Winds of War' and [sequel] 'War and Remembrance' was probably the best work I've ever done. ... Mitch is the one who insisted I do 'Winds of War.' He put his foot down. He said 'I don't want any of those no-faces!' which in his terms meant blondes. They were looking at Eva Maria Saint, Hope Lange, all these blondes. He said. 'I want Polly Bergen!' They sent me the script. ... I thought if I could play this part it would be the greatest part I would ever play. ... I was sure I wasn't going to get it. ... It was Thursday morning, Thanksgiving day. I am in the kitchen in New York City preparing a meal for 25 people. ... I get a call, 'can you get on a plane now, you do wardrobe tomorrow and you start shooting on Monday.' ... I cooked my Thanksgiving dinner, then I packed and I caught the earliest plane that leaves Friday morning and I went straight from the airport to the studio."
"I walked into John Waters' house for the first reading. Nobody really knew anybody and nobody had ever heard of Johnny Depp. I made a call during the first break, about 45 minutes into the reading. I called Jan and said 'I just did a scene opposite the next big movie star and you should go after him for management.' "
Jan says: "At that time, I had just signed Brandon Lee as a client, Bruce Lee's son. I couldn't find it in my heart to hook up with Johnny Depp."
Bergen: "Fool that she was. ... I don't like that movie. I'm a big fan of John Waters, but I am not a big fan of John Waters' films." (Brandon Lee died a few years later in an on-set accident.)
Her days in the '50s as a headliner in Las Vegas:
"If I went to Vegas, I could make $50,000 a week. ... Me and Lena Horne were the two highest-paid and the two biggest female draws because we were the two sexy women. The others were [she plays cutesy games with her fingers] all kind of Dinah Shore. She's one of my closest friends, but you know, sort of adorable. We brought in the big gambling guys. We brought in the mob guys. ... Those days were really dangeorus in Vegas because it was the days of the mob. It was also the most exciting time. Vegas is like going to a country fair now. They watched after me. They really did know who the good girls were and who the bad girls were or who they could make a bad girl. The good girls they protected. If anybody got too close or smart alecky or handsy the pit man would say 'what are you doing, move it, out, out, out!' ... One of my favorite mobsters had a girlfriend whose name was Ug. That was her nickname, a beautiful, beautiful girl. They would have me over to their house for dinner. They made sure that all of my money went straight home to my mother and father so I did not gamble it. They would take my paycheck and take 15 or 20 dollars out of it. They would give me that for fun money. They would make sure that I was OK and I wasn't going down the wrong path. There was nobody in the world who knew good from bad better than they did."
On her longevity as a performer:
"I think a lot of people are not prepared to go for less and so they lose it. I think there are a lot of people who start out and become stars and then they demand to stay stars, and nobody can stay a star. It just doesn't work. I have a poster in the other room of a movie that I did ["The Caretakers," 1963] in which I had the lead with Robert Stack and Joan Crawford has a cameo. Joan Crawford has a cameo! She wanted to keep working. She didn't need the money. A lot of people won't do that. They won't go there. And so they disappear. In England, stars will agree to do two lines. We're much more star-orieinted here. You couldn't suddenly play a character part if you used to be the lead, because people would say 'what happened to her career?' I never really worried about that."
"CAPE FEAR" will be shown at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St. in Hartford, on Friday, June 21. The reception begins at 6 p.m. with complimentary hors d'oeuvres and a cash bar. At 7 p.m., Polly Bergen and Rex Reed will have an onstage conversation. The film will be shown at 8 p.m. Admission is $15, seniors and students $13, members $12, Insider Access $5. Tickets: www.wadsworthatheneum.org anytime, or 860-838-4100 during museum hours.
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