Friday, July 18

Suzanne Pleshette

Oh, wasn't she lovely?  When she first came on the scene and I heard that sultry voice, noticed that flirty manner, dark hair, big smile and almost-perfect face, I was so smitten.  There were some young beauties of her time (three coming up soon) but no one captured my attention then quite like Suzanne Pleshette.

On the big screen, I detected a contemptuous manner... quite pronounced in dramas and a bit toned down for comedies.  She enkindled her leading men while remaining slightly suspicious of their motives.  Being intrepid she always brought a strong spirit to her characters and often drifted into a smart-ass demeanor which, as you know, always got my attention in actresses.

She was born at the end of January in 1937 in New York City to an artist-dancer mother and a father who managed Brooklyn's Paramount Theater during the Big Band era.  She was close to her parents and they heartily approved her interest in show business and all agreed she should attend Manhattan's famed High School for the Performing Arts.  She briefly attended a couple of universities before joining Sanford Meisner's equally-famed Neighborhood Playhouse.  From there it was an easy jump to the lights of Broadway.

She appeared in a number of Broadway shows but most famously replaced Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker.  She felt she wasn't treated very well by many of her coworkers and it left a bitter taste in her mouth.  She also began guest-starring in a goodly number of television series.

There won't be another performer I will say this about if I do this blog for years to come... she started her movie career in a Jerry Lewis movie.  In this case, it was The Geisha Boy (1958)... enough said.  She didn't make another movie until 1962 and it turned out to be one of my two favorite movies of hers, Rome Adventure.  It was one of those delicious Warner Brothers confections they did so well at the time... love stories for older teens and 20-somethings.

Pleshette played a young woman who moved to Rome and took a job in a bookstore run by the wonderful character actress Constance Ford.  She soon meets up with Hollywood stud muffin of the moment, Troy Donahue, who joins her in a tour tasting the delights of Rome.  While they're doing so, they're falling in love, of course.  And we're falling in love again with Rome, photographed so well by Charles Lawton and set to gorgeous music by Max Steiner.  It also featured Emilio Pericoli singing a song that became enormously popular, Al Di La.

Pleshette had a bit of a career in films where she vied with a blonde to capture the leading man with our girl usually winning.  Mostly the blonde's charms were rather obvious and a great counterpoint to Pleshette's ability to corner the market on smoldering.  Here the blonde was one of my favorite movie sexpots, Angie Dickinson.

Next up was a stupid little comedy that brought about director Norman Jewison's debut, 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962).  The only thing worth noting is that it proved Pleshette could handle comedy as well as she did drama.  And oh my goodness I loved her laugh.

Her portrayal of smalltown schoolteacher Annie Hayworth in Hitchcock's 1963 The Birds is probably the film she's best-known for.  The role was small and certainly took a back seat to that of Tippi Hedren's.  But Pleshette was powerful and so memorable and I think she played the character as a closeted lesbian although my partner disagrees.  Hitchcock probably didn't think that either. 

Nineteen hundred sixty-four was quite a year for Pleshette.  In January she married Troy Donahue.  Starting with Rome Adventure, two years earlier, there had been talk of a serious romance.  They were photographed together because those two beautiful faces were too beautiful not to share often.  In May, there second film together, a routine but enjoyable western, A Distant Trumpet, was released.  While cavalryman Donahue hunted down the Indians, Pleshette sparred with Diane McBain at the fort for his affections.  McBain should have won because by September, Pleshette and Donahue were divorced.

Like most 8-month marriages, tongues wagged in Hollywood about what the reason could be.  What indeed?  Hadn't they been lovingly photographed everywhere?  Hadn't their romance, Hollywood-style, been rather rammed down our throats?  And it went buhbye in a mere eight months?  And of course the principals aren't speaking.  In later years on talk shows, if someone mentioned the marriage, all color came out of Pleshette's face and she remained mum.

With rival Diane McBain in "A Distant Trumpet"

Ok now, let's sit up straight and think about this.  Either he beat her, she discovered he was a gambler or an alcoholic or someone was gay.  Given that he came from the same flamboyant agent that gave rise to Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter, I was going for gay and naming Donahue.

Let's fast forward for a moment to 1981.  I was working for a company that hired a temp employee and I was assigned to train him.  I knew instantly that he was gay so we bonded nicely.  One day we were talking about Troy Donahue and he mentioned that I might like to join him for dinner in a few nights at the home of Valerie Allen, who was married to Donahue for two years after he and Pleshette divorced.  I told him I'd check my calendar.

Not.  Of course I went and it was a great time and Allen was a wealth of information as a sometimes-actress who liked to dish Hollywood.  So I steered her to Donahue and was amazed she didn't blast him.  At one point I said I thought that he was gay and that is why his marriage to Pleshette ending so quickly.  She said, "Oh no, he's not gay.  It's Pleshette who is gay and her current husband is also." 

Was it the invention of a rum-soaked evening or was there some truth here?  I thought of The Birds and that husky voice and the occasional mannish manner and I have wondered.  

In 1964 she made a well-done drama, Fate Is The Hunter.  With a cast that included her Birds costar Rod Taylor, Nancy Kwan, Glenn Ford, Jane Russell and Dorothy Malone.  It concerned why a plane crashed, with Pleshette as a flight attendant and the only survivor.

That same year (gee, maybe the Donahue marriage didn't work because she was never home) she made Youngblood Hawke, my other favorite Pleshette film.  Costarring James Franciscus (a Donahue lookalike) and Geneviève Page (as the blonde), it told of a country boy who becomes a bigtime New York novelist while caught between two beautiful and willful women.  Page's role was the juiciest and most memorable, but Pleshette gets her man.  The critics didn't much care for the film but who pays attention to critics?

In 1965 she played a horny adulteress in the mostly-unknown A Rage to Live.  Her scenes opposite Ben Gazzara were pretty steamy.  She was bewitching in a brief role as a cajun opposite Steve McQueen's escaped prisoner in Nevada Smith.  She dies from snakebite in the swamps.  She then pulled a humdrum stint at Disney with The Ugly Dachshund, Blackbeard's Ghost and The Shaggy D.A.  Better was a feisty turn opposite James Garner in Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971).

Perhaps her movie career was never what she expected.  She always did a lot of television right along with movies but eventually seemed to gravitate toward more the small tube.  She did scores of talk shows, guest-starred on popular series and television movies and was a regular in several series of her own, none more popular than The Bob Newhart Show.  Playing Emily Hartley is unquestionably her claim to fame.

Her second husband had died and she married a former Newhart costar, comedian Tom Poston.  Several years later he also died. 
In 2006 she was diagnosed with lung cancer.  She was a life-long smoker but various news releases stated that she was much improved.  Nonetheless, the disease claimed her life in early 2008, 12 days before her 71st birthday.

I thought she was one of Hollywood's incandescent personalities.

Her Ex-husband


  1. She was reaally lovely, with a slight something of Liz taylor. Really lovely. In those years there was another newcomer, very lovely, I think good actress too: Ina Balin. It's a shame that she's been involved in that horrible movie Tha Black Orchid, I think. Any time You'll feel like telling something about her, I'll be grateful. If You can, say something of Stuart Whitman too. Thanks. Carlo

    1. As always, Carlo, thanks for your comments and your loyalty. I will certainly include Stuart Whitman and Ina Balin in a posting soon. Each is perfect for my 1960s postings. They even costarred in a film. Do you know which one?

  2. Replies
    1. Comancheros is right. I knew you'd get it...!!!

  3. I loved her,, had sex with her, Of course I only wish she had been there,

  4. Just watched Roddy McDowell home movies on malibu and saw suzanne kiss another woman

  5. Not sure if this was deliberate, but there certainly seemed to be some sexual energy between Suzanne and Constance Ford in Rome Adventure.

  6. How interesting, Darnell. I thought so, too.