January 25th, 2008

carole lombard 05
  • vp19

A bittersweet celebration

The addition of a new star to the Hollywood Walk of Fame (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/20762.html) is always a welcome event, but the ceremony taking place next Thursday will be a bit subdued for several reasons.

First, it will be conducted without the longtime emcee of such events, Johnny Grant; he died earlier this month at age 84 in his suite at the Roosevelt Hotel. Grant, dubbed the "honorary mayor of Hollywood" by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, had been a radio announcer in Los Angeles for many years, most notably at KMPC, the station Gene Autry owned for decades. He made numerous trips overseas to emcee shows for U.S. troops, and was beloved for his enthusiasm and charming sense of humor. Here's Grant kneeling next to soap star Susan Lucci when she received her Walk of Fame star a few years ago:

Another reason next Thursday's ceremony will be bittersweet is because the one being honored is no longer with us. Suzanne Pleshette died of cancer last week, and next Thursday was to have been her 71st birthday.

Pleshette was born Jan. 31, 1937 in Brooklyn Heights. Her father managed two legendary movie palaces, the Brooklyn Paramount (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/43015.html) and the Times Square Paramount, shown below. (If it looks uncharacteristically quiet around Times Square, there's a reason -- this picture was taken during an air raid drill in December 1941, not long after Pearl Harbor.)

Even from her youth, Suzanne was known for her husky voice; she once said that as early as age four, when she answered the telephone, people mistook her for her father.

Growing up in such an environment, she naturally became interested in entertainment, and began appearing on stage and on TV in the late 1950s. Her big break in films came in 1963, when she had an important supporting role in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds":

Unfortunately, unless your name was Julie Andrews, the 1960s wasn't a good decade for movie actresses. Like many of her contemporaries, Pleshette had to settle for supporting roles or playing eye candy. Not that she wasn't up to that task, as these pictures show:

Noted TV sitcom writer Ken Levine (who has a splendid blog, http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/) recalls seeing her on stage in the mid-1970s with some other stars, and said, "Suzanne Pleshette was so stunningly beautiful that it was almost like she was in color and everyone else was in black in white. She was simply radiant. Shimmering. Breathtaking. And all she did was just stand there. ... If there is such a thing as star presence Suzanne Pleshette had it."

Had Pleshette been born 30 years earlier, she probably would have had movie stardom of some kind, as the studios would have known what to do with her. But it took television to define her for posterity. (And it almost did in the '60s; Pleshette was the first choice to play Catwoman on the 1966 "Batman" series, but negotiations broke down and producers cast Julie Newmar, who made it her signature role.)

If you're an American who lived in the 1970s, you no doubt recall Pleshette's portrayal of Emily Hartley on "The Bob Newhart Show," part of the CBS 1970s Saturday night "murderers' row" of sitcoms (alongside "All In The Family," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "M*A*S*H").

Funny, intelligent and sexy, Emily represented the 1970s married professional woman just as Mary Tyler Moore's Mary Richards did for single women. She was loving and honest, and one wondered why she married a rather plain psychologist rather than some dashingly handsome millionaire.

Levine notes, "Maybe the most thankless role in sitcoms is the star’s wife. Usually they’re relegated to the voice of reason, the wet blanket. Not Suzanne. She was Bob’s partner, his equal. Bob and Emily didn’t have to fight to be funny. They didn’t have to be opposites. They were grown-ups. Their comedy sprung from how real and relatable they were."

That was Pleshette's most renowned role, but she did so much else. She won acclaim for her portrayal of hotelier Leona Helmsley in the 1990 TV movie "The Queen Of Mean." Late in life, she played recurring roles on "Will & Grace" and "8 Simple Rules." And she reprised her role as Emily Hartley in the hilarious classic finale of "Newhart," where we discover that everything that happened in this Bob Newhart sitcom was simply a dream of Bob's character in the last one.

The two series had another link, too -- in the late 1950s, Pleshette had a romantic relationship with Tom Poston when both were in a Broadway play, but things never quite worked out. But after their respective spouses died, they got back together and married in 2001. It lasted for nearly six years until Poston's death last April.

If you had to compare Pleshette to a star of the classic era, the best match might be Myrna Loy; there was an intelligence about her work that made it special. But she had some Lombardic attributes, too. Levine notes one of them...her raunchiness:

"Yes, dear sweet Emily Hartley could drop F-bombs with the best of ‘em. And every other word and expression you might hear on 'Deadwood.' But God, was she funny. Used to maximum effect, and in that deep husky voice, Suzanne could shock and pulverize you almost instantly. And somehow she always managed to be racy without being vulgar. How do you do that? I guess that’s why the Tramp is still a Lady."

Two other attributes she shared with Carole were her professionalism and her generosity. One person who worked with Pleshette on the Aaron Spelling series "The Nightingales" recalled, "She was always on time; she knew her own lines and everybody else's from the first day; she was friendly, cooperative and approachable. I never had to go 'looking' for Suzanne - unlike a lot of other actors I have had to hunt down. If she wasn't in hair and make-up or in her dressing room, she was in her chair near the set, going over her lines."

On the set, this person lost a bracelet she had purchased in Solvang, Calif.

"Suzanne overheard me asking a couple of people to please look around for it and said, 'That's not the way to do it!' Then, in her husky, beautiful, commanding voice, she got everyone's attention by saying, 'Listen up! We have to look for a bracelet!' and described it. Everyone was kind enough to look, but it was gone for good.

"One morning about a week later, when I walked in to say good morning to Suzanne in the make-up room, she handed me a small package. Inside was my bracelet! I was stunned, and asked her where on earth she had found it. She twinkled at me and replied, 'At a store in Solvang, just like you did!'

"She went on to explain she had a friend in Santa Barbara who had driven up to Solvang to find a replacement and send it to her.

"I still have that bracelet, and think of her whenever I wear it."

What a wonderful story.

If you believe in a Hollywood heaven, Pleshette is up there, exchanging ribald jokes with Lombard.

P.S. This evening, you can catch Pleshette on Turner Classic Movies (U.S.) at 11:30 p.m. in the 1971 western comedy "Support Your Local Gunfighter," starring the always-engaging James Garner. It follows a 1969 Garner film in that mode, "Support Your Local Sheriff," which airs at 9:45.