Lau­rie’s re­bel­lion and hard-won re­spect

The ac­tress who split from her stu­dio ended up earn­ing mul­ti­ple Os­car nom­i­na­tions.

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - su­san.king@latimes.com

Piper Lau­rie has been re­flect­ing on her ca­reer of late, a ca­reer that has ca­reened from B-movie “bimbo” roles to Os­car nom­i­na­tions — not to men­tion that bag full of con­doms she once scored as a bud­ding star­let.

Though she was painfully shy, Lau­rie knew at a young age that she wanted to act. At 15, she joined an act­ing class in Hollywood, ly­ing about her age to get in. For the next three years, “I worked my butt off,” says Lau­rie, who re­cently par­tic­i­pated in the Women in Film Legacy Se­ries for UCLA’s Film and Tele­vi­sion Ar­chive and just com­pleted her bi­og­ra­phy, “Learn­ing to Live Out Loud,” which is set for pub­li­ca­tion next year. “I was go­ing to New York.”

But New York was put on hold when some­body from Uni­ver­sal spot­ted her in class, and soon Lau­rie was au­di­tion­ing for the stu­dio, then known more for lowend movies than pres­tige pic­tures. “They de­cided to make a screen test, and I thought, ‘I am go­ing to get to do some fine work,’ ” she re­calls. “And I’m go­ing to get paid for it too. I didn’t re­al­ize I was be­ing signed in a place where they made pro­gram pic­tures. I didn’t un­der­stand that,” says the gra­cious 78-year-old, re­lax­ing in her com­fort­able Hollywood Hills home dec­o­rated with her own ab­stract sculp­tures.

And then came the con­doms.

Be­fore toss­ing her into the movies, Uni­ver­sal first needed to groom their new in­génue, play­ing her up as a glam­our girl and bud­ding sex sym­bol. “They were break­ing me in, get­ting me used to peo­ple star­ing at me,” says Lau­rie, who was born Rosetta Ja­cobs. “We went down to Long Beach for a med­i­cal con­ven­tion, and I was in­tro­duced on­stage as Uni­ver­sal’s new young star.” After­ward, the pub­li­cist at­tend­ing to her that day handed her a bag and told her to help her­self to all the free­bies be­ing of­fered. “They had all of these med­i­cal prod­ucts. I walked around and there was noth­ing that re­ally ap­pealed to me. Un­til I saw these lit­tle pack­ages, which I thought maybe had bub­ble gum in them. So I just filled my bag with them. They were ac­tu­ally con­doms. The pub­lic­ity guy saw it with a mix­ture of hi­lar­ity and ter­ror — he con­fis­cated them.”

It didn’t take long for Lau­rie to re­al­ize that Uni­ver­sal wasn’t go­ing to of­fer her the kind of ca­reer that she imag­ined. In fact, it was pretty clear when she was cast in her first film, 1950’s “Louisa” with Ron­ald Rea­gan. “The first part was a car­i­ca­ture of a teenager,” she says with a sigh.

And then it went from bad to worse with the likes of “Francis Goes to the Races,” “Son of Ali Baba” with Tony Cur­tis and “Ain’t Mis­be­havin’ ” with Rory Cal­houn.

She tried for sev­eral years to get out of her con­tract, to no avail. Fi­nally, at 23, she said enough is enough. “I was trained to be a nice per­son,” she says. “I wouldn’t con­front peo­ple; I didn’t know how to. I expressed my­self through the work.”

Lau­rie had just moved out of her par­ents’ home and had bro­ken off an en­gage­ment with a man she re­al­ized she didn’t want to marry. “I was re­belling against ev­ery­thing I knew,” she says. “My agent sent me a script, and it was a western and the part was stupid and I said, ‘I can’t do it.’ I walked to the fire­place and dropped it in. I called my agent at home and said, ‘They can’t jail me. I don’t care what they do. I am not go­ing to do this.’ It took about a week, and they fi­nally made a deal. I got out of my con­tract.”

But it took awhile for the film in­dus­try that later saw her play Paul New­man’s drunken girl­friend in 1961’s “The Hus­tler” and the re­li­gious harpy of a mother in 1976’s “Car­rie” — both of which earned her Os­car nom­i­na­tions, as did 1986’s “Chil­dren of a Lesser God” — to give her any re­spect.

“No one would give me work,” she says. “They thought I was a bimbo.”

So she fi­nally made that move to New York, where she was em­braced by the rel­a­tively new medium of tele­vi­sion, find­ing work in live TV drama af­ter live TV drama, cul­mi­nat­ing with the role of the al­co­holic young wife in the 1958 “Play­house 90” ver­sion of “Days of Wine and Roses.” Three years later, she landed “The Hus­tler” but didn’t act in an­other movie for 15 years.

She mar­ried jour­nal­ist Joe Mor­gen­stern and, feel­ing am­biva­lent about her ca­reer, be­came a full­time house­wife and mother to her now grown daugh­ter. (She and Mor­gen­stern even­tu­ally were di­vorced.) She cam­paigned for Ge­orge McGovern’s pres­i­dency and pur­sued her work as a sculp­tor. When di­rec­tor Brian De Palma called her about play­ing the mother in “Car­rie,” Lau­rie was ready to re­turn and she hasn’t looked back.

She notes that she was a dif­fer­ent per­son when she re­turned to Hollywood in her 40s.

“I didn’t feel the life-or­death pres­sure I had put on my­self” in the ear­lier years, Lau­rie says. “That’s not bad for a young ac­tress to have, but be­ing a mother and hav­ing some per­spec­tive about the world changes you and your val­ues.”

HER PATH:

Mel Mel­con

Piper Lau­rie worked in live tele­vi­sion drama and won Academy Award nom­i­na­tions for “The Hus­tler,” “Car­rie” and “Chil­dren of a Lesser God.”

ZEALOT:

Lau­rie, top, with Sissy Spacek in “Car­rie” (1976).

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