Barry King

One Man's Family


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July 26, 2016

Six Decades of Sainthood

Eva Marie Saint recalls the early days of live TV, plus highlights and high jinks of her storied career.

Jane Wollman Rusoff

As a tour “guidette” at NBC in New York in the 1940s, Eva Marie Saint demonstrated TV sets and talked up the wonders of that new phenomenon, television broadcasting.

Within just a few years, she’d be starring in live teleplays herself, newly christened “The Helen Hayes of Television.” Throughout her six-decade career,Saint has blended iconic feature film performances with a robust body of television work, capturing awards in both mediums. The Emmy winner celebrated her 92nd birthday on July 4.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, and bred in Delmar, New York, Saint was the "Sweater Queen" of Bowling Green State University before she moved to New York to study acting.

She did live TV commercials and studied at the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg and at the American Theatre Wing. By 25, she was starring on stage in dramas while holding down a role on a soap opera, One Man's Family, which had moved to TV from radio.

She won an Oscar for her film debut as naive Edie Doyle, playing opposite Marlon Brando in 1954's On the Waterfront. A year later, she sang and danced live on TV with Paul Newman and Frank Sinatra in a musical version of Thornton Wilder's Our Town.

Her first Emmy nod was for playing a garment-maker's inamorata on the Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse production of Paddy Chayefsky's Middle of the Night (1954) before it went to Broadway.

In the 1950s, she also appeared in live Golden Age teleplays on Studio One and The General Electric Theater, and in series like Martin Kane, The Web and Suspense.

But Saint is perhaps best known as the femme fatale who meets Cary Grant on a train in Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959). She's worked with a luminous roster of other leading men, including Warren Beatty, Richard Burton, Tom Hanks and Gregory Peck.

She returned to television in the 1970s, appearing in movies, miniseries and weekly shows. She notched Emmy nominations for the miniseries How the West Was Won (1977) and the two-character movie Taxi! (1978), then played Cybill Shepherd's mother on Moonlighting in the '80s.

Her role as a rich dowager in the 1990 miniseries People Like Us, based on Dominick Dunne's bestselling novel, finally won her an Emmy after five nods.

By her eighth decade, the actress was balancing features such as I Dreamed of Africa (2000), Superman Returns (2006) and Winter's Tale (2014) while voicing Katara, a recurring character on Nickelodeon's animated The Legend of Korra (2012-14).

Emmy contributor Jane Wollman Rusoff chatted with Saint, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband, TV director Jeffrey Hayden. Wed for 64 years, they have a son, a daughter and four grandchildren.

You performed live plays on early television. What was that like?

Like doing theater. We'd rehearse for weeks and weeks; then it was like opening night. Crazy things happened. One time during a commercial break, as I was changing clothes, I looked up and saw an NBC tour going through. I was in my bra. I just waved and continued.

What was your first job on television?

Applauding acts on The Borden Show, a wonderful variety show. I was off screen. Afterward, my folks called and said, "Oh, honey, we heard you applauding!"

The next week, sitting at a little table, I applauded on camera. I got 15 dollars. I had to buy a new dress, so I was in the hole. But they panned, and my folks called and said, "You were wonderful!"

You were an NBC tour guide one summer during college. Why did you want that job?

I thought I'd meet people in the business, but all I met were the newspeople, who pinched my fanny in the elevator. One day, Joan Crawford got on. She looked at me and said, "You want to be an actress?" I said, "Yes." She said, "You will be, you will be," and got off at her floor.

As a "guidette" giving tours, did you like explaining the new medium of television?

Loved it. I'd show Studio 8H, where Toscanini performed. And I loved the cathode-ray oscilloscope. I'd have people say where they were from into a mic, and you'd see all these wiggly lines moving around according to the sound of their voices.

But my favorite thing was demonstrating sound effects. I sat in a little booth and said, "Now close your eyes. This is the sound of a burning house." And I'd crinkle red cellophane into the mic. It sounded exactly like a fire. Everybody went, "Oh, wow!"

Is Eva Marie Saint your real name?

Yes, but they called me Bubbles when I was a child because, as a baby, I'd make bubbles with my mouth. When I left for college, I said to my folks, "I don't want to be known as Bubbles anymore."

What prompted you to get into acting?

My major was education. I thought I'd become a teacher. One day the drama professor asked me to try out for a play, and I got the role. I thought, "This is an incredible experience!" And I changed my major to drama.

When you started out, you did live commercials on TV shows. Recall any?

I did one for Keds on Campus Hoopla. It was a cheer: "Keds are keen! Keds are neat! Keds are best for the family feet! Wear 'em!" You thought this was going to be a very intelligent interview, didn't you? [Laughs]

Can you recall any others?

There was one for linoleum: [sings] "We welcome you all to The Bonnie Maid Show. Relax and have fun. For we'd like you to know, when you buy Bonnie Maid at any good store...." and so on.

You worked your way up to small roles, and by 1950 you were playing Claudia on the live soap opera One Man's Family. Was that fun?

All the actors — Tony Randall was on the show — would have lunch together and complain: "Oh my God, sometimes this gets boring!" We'd always be bellyaching. But when they canceled the show, everybody at lunch was crying.

Did any snafus break the boredom?

In one scene, I was on a plane with the actor who played my father-in-law. He was talking about marriage, and I was listening. All of a sudden, he turned to me and said, "Jesus Christ! I've blown the scene!" He'd forgotten his lines.

I was in shock because it was live, of course. I said, "Father, I think I'll just take a nap." And I leaned my head to the right, where the window was.

Then what happened?

We went to commercial. I told him, "Don't worry. They didn't hear what you said," and got him back on track. But it was an awful experience. When it was over, I said, "I need a shot of whiskey!" and they brought me one. I didn't drink it, though, because I can't stand the smell.

Can you recall any other live broadcasts that went wrong?

In one show, my character left the living room to have a discussion in the kitchen. In between, there was a commercial, and the wardrobe lady put a different outfit on me [for the kitchen scene]! I figured she knew what she was doing.

But that changed my whole attitude about the independence that actors need to have. You can rely on wonderful people, but you really have to know what's going on. It's your responsibility. All the terrible things that happened on live television made you tough.

You later won an Emmy for People Like Us, with Ben Gazzara. That was filmed. How did it go?

I loved doing it because I played a hard, insensitive woman. While we were shooting in L.A., there was a little earthquake. My character was in bed. Everyone quickly left the set, but I couldn't, because the bed was hard to get out of — it was very high, for the cameras. When they all came back, I said in a loud voice: "Okay, everybody, thanks a lot!"

How was working on live TV with Paul Newman and Frank Sinatra in the musical version of Our Town?

There was some problem with Frank and the network. We rehearsed for about three weeks. He was there at the very beginning but didn't show up again till the dress rehearsal. I loved working with him. But the situation was difficult, especially for Delbert Mann, who was directing. I don't think he spoke to Sinatra again after that.

How did you meet your husband?

He saw me on the subway from the back — blonde hair, wearing a purple corduroy coat and carrying a big modeling book with my name in gold. I was modeling, working at NBC and understudying in Mr. Roberts on Broadway. He liked the way I walked. He said it was love at first sight — and he hadn't even seen me from the front!

So he didn't try to talk to you on the train?

No, no. But soon after, he saw me again — wearing the same coat, carrying the same modeling book — at NBC. He was walking through a room I was in, where the actors picked up their phone messages.

I was talking with Arnold Stang, who was the only actor that Jeff knew in New York. He was working in radio but wanted to be a television director. So he went over to say hi to Arnold, and Arnold introduced him to me.

Before moving to L.A. to do features, you and Jeff were guests on Person to Person, Edward R. Murrow's show that visited live with celebrities in their homes. Did you like doing the show?

I worked that morning. When I got home to our little love nest in Greenwich Village, all these men were there, and equipment and cables were hanging outside the windows. I said, "Jeff, they're going to mess up everything!" He said, "They need all that equipment. Why don't you go out and have lunch with the girls."

I never have lunch with the girls, but I left and walked around and had a sandwich. I was so upset. But we enjoyed doing the show.

What was your next career step?

I started making rounds for movies. They'd take your measurements. I thought, "I'm not studying at the Actors Studio to have my bra size taken." It seemed so frivolous. They didn't sit down and talk about the role.

But you went on to make some big films, like North by Northwest. How was that job?

Great! Wouldn't you love to see Cary Grant every day for a few months! I had just had a baby five or six weeks before, but there I was, climbing that mountain [a Mount Rushmore mock-up]. They'd bring the baby to me, and I'd give her a bottle.

Once, after receiving an award, you regretted your acceptance speech. Would you talk about that?

Jack Benny gave me such a big, long build-up about my acting that I was totally embarrassed. So when I got up to the dais, I said, "Oh, shit!" I knew I'd done something not great, but people laughed. They just couldn't believe that The Saint said shit.

Hedda Hopper was there and laughed her head off. She made a big thing of it. It wasn't a televised event, but I called my mother: "There may be some bad press. It was a mistake, but it just came out." She said, "Honey, your sister and you never swore till you went off to college."

How do you stay in such good shape?

I walk in the park every day with Jeff. And I've been drinking milk my whole life. I have it in the morning, at noon and before I go to bed, warmed up a little in the microwave. It's great for sleeping.

I don't eat meat now, but I make chicken and fish and lots of salads. I buy all our fruit at Trader Joe's. Jeff is Jewish; I'm not, but I've grown to love bialys with chopped chicken liver and cream cheese. I'm in heaven!

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