It’s no secret that I’m in love with Barbara Rush, star of stage, screen, and television. She appeared in some of my favorite movies and added immeasurably to every one of them. And her co-stars were equally legendary. The Young Philadelphians with Paul Newman, Come Blow Your Horn with Frank Sinatra, three Douglas Sirk films with Rock Hudson including Magnificent Obsession, The Young Lions with Marlon Brando, Dean Martin, and Montgomery Clift, the hard-hitting Bigger Than Life opposite James Mason, and so many others, including two iconic sci-fi films, When Worlds Collide and It Came from Outer Space which was based on a Ray Bradbury Story. On television she starred in an award-winning version of What Makes Sammy Run? and was a regular on the long-running Peyton Place and, much later, Party of Five. She even played Gotham City villain Nora Clavicle on a hilarious episode of Batman.
Barbara has been a friend of my wife’s family for many years, having starred in plays written by my father-in-law, Oliver Hailey, and mother-in-law, Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey. It’s a joy knowing her in real life and seeing that she is the polar opposite of a diva. I’ve interviewed her a few times including at the TCM Classic Film Festival where she has introduced several of her films. Barbara was a very close friend of TCM’s late host, Robert Osborne, and has many wonderful stories about him.
Having already talked to her about her illustrious career and her many famous co-stars, I wanted to catch up with Barbara on her 93rd birthday for Classic Movie Hub to chat more generally about what it was like to be a star back in the 1950s when she first burst upon the scene. Of course, as you’ll see from the very beginning of our freeform chat, she refuses to accept that moniker and tends to deflect most praise she receives for her career.
I headed to Barbara’s gorgeous home in Beverly Hills where Hedda Hopper once reigned. Barbara must have burned a lot of sage at the manse following Hopper’s era because the energy in the house is homey and friendly even though it looks like where you’d hope your favorite movie star lived. At 93, Barbara is as vibrant and gorgeous as ever and it’s always a joy to talk with her.
Danny Miller: Happy Birthday, Barbara!
Barbara Rush: Oh, thank you, Danny! I’ve made it this far!
We’ve talked about your films and co-stars a lot, but today I just wanted to chat for a bit about what it was like being a “star” back when you first made a splash in Hollywood.
A star? Oh goodness, I don’t think I’ve ever used that word in my life. I’m just a movie actress, sweetheart, I’ve never even had a passing thought that I’m a star!
Well, you are one, whether you like it or not!
I was just happy to have a job! I was working at the Pasadena Playhouse with a bunch of former GIs after the war. We’d do different scenes and it was fun because I got to do all of the women’s parts. Movie scouts used to come to see us from time to time and one day one of these people approached me and asked me if I wanted to do a screen test at Paramount.
Were you reluctant in any way to do that? Did you have your heart set on working in the theater?
Are you kidding, Danny? I said, “I get to go to Paramount? Thank you! What time should I be there?” (Laughs.) I honestly couldn’t believe they were interested in me. So I did the test and, to my utter surprise, they liked it and put me under contract.
How long between signing the contract and getting your first film?
They put me right away into the movie version of the long-running radio and TV show The Goldbergs which starred Gertrude Berg.
Right, Debby, the shiksa girlfriend, I love that movie! Do you remember the first time you saw yourself up on the big screen?
I really don’t, but I used to go to the rushes whenever I got the chance. I remember Laurence Olivier came to talk to us once at Paramount and he told us it was very important for actors to watch the rushes to see what you liked and what you didn’t like. I know some actors don’t like to see themselves in that way but I always found it helpful.
You never had issues with the way you looked on screen? Of course you were always so gorgeous, why would you?
I never thought too much about my appearance, to be honest. I was just happy whenever it seemed that I knew what I was doing!
Did being under contract immediately change your life in a big way?
Well, I moved! I had been living with this couple in Pasadena and taking care of their child. The father was a doctor and I think the mother was part of the Gamble family which was pretty famous in Pasadena.
Whoa, I never heard this.
I was probably making about $15 a week at the Pasadena Playhouse so it was a good living arrangement where I not only didn’t have to pay rent, they paid me a little bit. But when I started at Paramount they moved me over to the Studio Club with a bunch of other actresses which was just wonderful. There were so many great people there, I remember being good friends with Peggy Dow, remember her? And Marilyn Monroe was there for a while. It was really fun, like being in a sorority!
Oh, how cool, it sounds like Stage Door.
Yes, very much so! I remember being close this wonderful girl named Renata that was being trained by the famous opera singer Lotte Lehman. We had a little stage at the Studio Club and people would get up and perform, it was really fun. Renata was just great but her parents made her quit, I wonder whatever happened to her. I had such a wonderful time at the Studio Club. We had a very pretty dining room and you could invite a male guest which I used to do a lot because I had just met (first husband) Jeffrey Hunter.
Where did you meet him?
He was doing a screen test on the lot and I happened to run into him.
And you thought, “Oh, look at that handsome young actor, he’s cute?”
I thought a lot more than that! (Laughs.) It was more like “Wow!” And “Look at those blue eyes!” So I invited him to the Studio Club for dinner and the lady who was in charge got us tickets to a show, I think it was at the Shrine. We started going out quite a bit.
Did the studio have any issues with you two dating? I think he was at Fox when you were at Paramount, right?
I don’t think they cared that much. We were kind of in the same boat in terms of our careers at that time. But we had so much fun. I think I brought a lot of culture into his life and he enjoyed it. We were very young.
And then you got engaged pretty quickly?
Yes, he decided we should get married. He gave me a ring, his parents came out from Wisconsin, it was all planned. And then one day he came to me and said, “Barbara I don’t think I can get married, I’m having second thoughts.”
I said, “That’s fine, we don’t have to.” And then I went off on location in Sedona to do a picture called Flaming Feather with Sterling Hayden and Forrest Tucker. They have these Indian caves in Sedona and I remember in one scene I was slung over the villain’s back, I think it was Richard Arlen. I was just hanging there, looking down while he was dragging me to the caves, and all of a sudden, I look up and there’s Jeffrey Hunter who had come to Arizona to say that he wanted to get married after all. He stayed for the rest of the shoot and then we slipped off to Las Vegas and got married.
Did the studio mind that you didn’t have a big wedding?
Oh, they definitely wanted us to have one when I first told them about it but we fought them and said we didn’t want anything like that. By then, Hank (Jeffrey Hunter’s real name) was getting a lot of attention at Fox. Then, a few months later he said to me, “Barbara, I don’t think we should be married,” but this time I said, “Too late, Hank! I’m not going for that again!” That kind of thing went on and on but then I got pregnant and we had Christopher. Hank wasn’t there, he was off in England making a film.
Did he ever pressure you to stop your career after having a child?
Oh, never! And I had no intention of doing so. My mother helped take care of the baby.
It sounds like you were an ideal studio contract player in many ways. Did you like being under contract?
Definitely! I had a job and I was getting paid!
You made so many movies in those early years. How did you find out what your next film would be?
They’d just tell you. I don’t remember every trying out for a part, I would just be informed what the film was and where to go.
And you never objected or worried that some of them weren’t good parts?
No, Danny, I just wanted to work. I honestly didn’t think about it. I made a lot of movies for Paramount and then went to Fox. The only role I ever really wanted to do was The Three Faces of Eve. I wanted that so badly, as did every other actress in town, but Joanne (Woodward) got it and won the Oscar.
You would have been amazing in that part. Did you fantasize about winning an Oscar yourself?
No, I never thought like that.
At the very least, you should have been nominated for Bigger Than Life, that was such an amazing performance.
I was only mad that James Mason wasn’t nominated for that picture. He was extraordinary.
He was, but so were you! You sound like one of the most grounded people to ever step foot in Hollywood.
I was just realistic. I loved to work, I enjoyed being there, and I would have happily done anything they asked me to, I never refused a role.
We’ve talked about the studio’s crazy decision to make you an Indian girl with Rock Hudson in Taza, Son of Cochise. I love the film but you never even thought to yourself, “This is ridiculous!”
Oh, no, why would I? I loved my gorgeous Indian costumes and we had such fun making that picture, I’ve told you how much I loved working with Rock! I had a wonderful time on location in Utah. My character’s name was Oona and Rock always called me “Oona, Dos, Tres!”
Did you like your performances in those earlier films?
I learned how to act from the actors I worked with, like James Mason, for example. I just watched everything they did. That was better than any acting class. Working with Paul (Newman) or on The Young Lions with Brando, Dean Martin, and Montgomery Clift was an acting school in itself. I remember a scene in that when Dean Martin and I were discussing how he was trying to avoid going to war. Montgomery Clift gave me such great advice for that scene. He told me to make it more confusing. He thought it was too obvious that I was trying to get information from Dean so he told me to hide that and be much more subtle. After the scene, Hope Lange came up to me and said, “Oh Barbara, I wish I could do what you do!” And I said, “I didn’t do a thing, that was all Montgomery Clift!”
Do you look at your films now and think you got progressively better?
I never thought of it that way, I just tried to be that person, whoever she was, and not Barbara Rush.
Did you ever ask a director if you could do a scene over again?
Only when we got the dialogue wrong, then I would say something. Other than that, I always left it to the director. Fortunately, I worked with some of the best like Douglas Sirk. He was such a wonderful director, I always thanked him for hiring me.
As low-key as you are about your acting, you seem to have always had a lot of confidence.
Oh, Danny, the first time I worked with Frank Sinatra I was a basketcase! Warren (Cowan, Barbara’s second husband) represented Frank so I knew him a little socially, but I never dreamed I’d make a film with him. I was completely intimidated, even more so because I knew Frank hated to rehearse. I was so nervous that I called Carolyn Jones who had just worked with Frank. And she told me what to do. I came up to him on set and said, “Mr. Sinatra, can I talk to you?” And then said, “First of all, call me Frank, what can I do for you, Barbara?” And I said, “I’m from the stage and I know you don’t like rehearsing, but I have to rehearse at least one time, I don’t think I can do the scene otherwise.” And he said, “Baby doll, of course I can do that for you. CLEAR THE SET! Barbara and I are going to rehearse.”
That’s sweet. And I so love your films together, I thought you had great chemistry.
He was so nice to me and he would find a way to give me my gorgeous wardrobes. I remember we were making Robin and the 7 Hoods together when President Kennedy was assassinated. Howard Koch drove onto the lot to tell us the news, it was just awful. Frank was very close to the Kennedys and he was just was devastated, he just kind of shriveled up. We had to shut down the picture for a few days, and then as soon as we came back, Frank Jr. was kidnapped so that ended it for good. Frank never came back to the picture.
Whoa, how did they ever finish the movie?
With some very careful editing! I had been rehearsing this big musical number I was going to perform with Frank called “I Like to Lead When I Dance” and I was thrilled I was going to sing and dance in a movie with Frank Sinatra! I was so excited and rehearsed for a long time. But because of everything that happened, we never got to do it. It’s probably my biggest disappointment from my entire career!
Ugh, I would have loved to have seen that! Legend has it that Sinatra could have a very bad temper, you never witnessed that?
He never got angry with me. If he felt he was respected, he would do anything for you. You can’t believe all of the people in Hollywood he helped, often anonymously like Lee J. Cobb who was having a very hard time. He would have his secretary send cashier’s checks to people who needed money. I remember how much Frank loved Dean Martin. Dean had such a different style of working. He’d come to the set and say, “Tell me what we’re going to do today.” So different from Frank. I remember being at Dean’s home once for dinner and he had a hole-in-one earlier that day and was so excited he said it was the best day of his life! I loved his singing, and Frank’s, and also Sammy Davis, Jr., who I knew very well. You just can’t ask for better voices than those.
I remember seeing photos of you presenting at the Academy Awards. Was that a fun thing to do?
Oh, yes. But probably different than it is today. I did my own hair and makeup and I remember asking them if I could walk out barefoot because my shoes were killing me, I had a hard time with high heels. I remember driving to the Oscars one year with Paul Newman, I think it was at the Shrine. The parties were fun, but I always wanted to go to a real ball, like the one Audrey Hepburn goes to in War and Peace. But I’ve never been invited to one.
What?! Get this woman to a ball immediately! We’ll have a birthday ball in your honor!
Oh, thank you, Danny, I’m ready!
The following video was created by Sara Henriksson for Barbara’s appearance last September at the Cinecon Classic Film Festival where she was honored.
–Danny Miller for Classic Movie Hub
Danny Miller is a freelance writer, book editor, and co-author of About Face: The Life and Times of Dottie Ponedel, Make-up Artist to the Stars. You can read more of Danny’s articles at Cinephiled, or you can follow him on Twitter at @dannymmiller.