Barbara Bel Geddes, the winsome actress who rose to stage and movie stardom but reached her greatest fame as Miss Ellie Ewing in the long-running TV series “Dallas,” has died. She was 82.
The San Francisco Chronicle said she died Monday of lung cancer at her home in Northeast Harbor, Maine. Jordan-Fernald Funeral Home in Mount Desert, Maine, confirmed the death Wednesday, but owner Bill Fernald said the family asked that no further information be given out.
Bel Geddes, daughter of renowned industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes, was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress for the 1948 drama “I Remember Mama” and was the original Maggie the Cat on Broadway in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
“Dallas” came late in her career. She had retired to take care of her husband, Windsor Lewis, after he fell ill with cancer in 1966. He died in 1972.
Her earnings depleted by his long illness, she found work scarce for a middle-aged actress and said she was “flat broke” in 1978 when she accepted the role as matriarch of a rambunctious Texas oil family.
‘Dallas’: Fun marked by tragedy
Though castigated by critics, “Dallas” hurtled to the top of the audience ratings and spawned copycat shows. Bel Geddes won an Emmy in 1980 as best lead actress in a drama series and remains the only nighttime soap star to be so honored. She was only eight years older than actor Larry Hagman, who played her son, J.R.
Bel Geddes called “Dallas “real fun,” but it was also marked by tragedy. In 1981, Jim Davis, who played Miss Ellie’s husband, Jock Ewing, died.
“It was like losing her own husband again,” said “Dallas” producer Leonard Katzman. “It was a terribly difficult and emotional time for Barbara.”
In March 1984, Bel Geddes was stricken with a major heart attack. Miss Ellie was played by Donna Reed for six months, then Bel Geddes returned to “Dallas,” remaining until 1990, a year before CBS canceled the show.
Hagman said he had encouraged Bel Geddes to give up the smoking habit, but it was doctors who got her to quit after the heart attack, he said. He recalled the makeup room on the “Dallas” set as being so filled with her cigarette smoke that he would ask to be made up in his dressing room.
Of the lung cancer deaths of Peter Jennings and Bel Geddes, Hagman said: “I hope it’s a wake-up call to a lot of people.”
Broadway to Hollywood
In 1945, Bel Geddes made a splash on Broadway at 23 with her first important role in “Deep Are the Roots,” winning the New York Drama Critics Award as best actress.
She announced to a reporter: “My ambition is to be a good screen actress. I think it would be much more exciting to work for Frank Capra, George Cukor, Alfred Hitchcock or Elia Kazan than to stay on Broadway.”
Hollywood was quick to notice. In 1946 she signed a contract with RKO that granted her unusual request to be committed to only one picture a year. In her first movie she costarred with Henry Fonda in “The Long Night,” a disappointing remake of a French film.
Her second film was a hit playing a budding writer in George Stevens’ “I Remember Mama,” the touching story of an immigrant family in San Francisco starring Irene Dunne as Mama. With her delicate features and patrician manner, Bel Geddes became a popular leading lady in films.
“I went out to California awfully young,” she remarked. “I remember Lillian Hellman and Elia Kazan telling me, ’Don’t go, learn your craft.’ But I loved films.” After four movies, Howard Hughes, who had bought control of RKO in 1948, dropped her contract because “she wasn’t sexy enough.”
Bel Geddes was devastated. But it turned out to be a good happenstance. She had time to return to the stage, and she scored a triumph in 1955 as Maggie the Cat in Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
Yet her biggest Broadway success was “Mary, Mary,” a frothy marital comedy by Jean Kerr, which opened in 1961 and ran for more than 1,500 performances.
In her film career, Bel Geddes was able to work with great filmmakers such as Kazan (“Panic in the Streets”) and Alfred Hitchcock (“Vertigo”). She also costarred with Danny Kaye in “The Five Pennies” and with Jeanne Moreau in “Five Branded Women.”
“By Love Possessed” in 1961 was her last film for 10 years. She made her final films in 1971 — “Summertree” and “The Todd Killings.”
Among Bel Geddes’ other major theater credits were roles in Terence Rattigan’s “The Sleeping Prince” (1956); Robert Anderson’s “Silent Night, Holy Night” (1959), which co-starred Henry Fonda; and Edward Albee’s “Everything in the Garden” (1967). Her last Broadway appearance was in 1973, when she starred in another Kerr comedy, “Finishing Touches.”
She was born in New York City on Oct, 31, 1922. Her father, born Norman Geddes, and mother, maiden name Helen Belle Sneider, coined Bel-Geddes as the title for a magazine they were planning. He took the name without a hyphen as his name. The couple divorced when Barbara was 3.
“I didn’t see much of my father,” she said, “but I absolutely adored him.” After her education in private schools, he found her a job at a summer theater and used his connections with stage people to help her get work.
Her first role was a walk-on with Ethel Barrymore in “The School for Scandal” at a summer theater. Her father helped land her Broadway debut in the 1941 “Out of the Frying Pan,” for which a critic called her “plump, pleasing and amusing.” She dropped 20 pounds and continued in a variety of roles until her breakthrough in “Deep Are the Roots.”
Early in her stage career Bel Geddes married Carl Schreuer, an electrical engineer, and they had a daughter, Susan. The marriage ended after seven years in 1951, and that year she married director Lewis. They had a daughter, Betsy.