Wednesday, December 18, 2013
I Remember Audrey Totter
Audrey Totter remembered the day in the MGM commissary when Lionel Barrymore threw his cane at her and started shouting.
"You're too versatile," the old trouper shouted. "Every picture you're different. Continue in that vein and you'll never be a star. June Allyson is always June Allyson. Lana Turner is always Lana. But you! You're a female Lon Chaney!"
When I first met Totter in 1974 she chuckled over the anecdote and then said "I should have taken his advice. Louis Mayer never quite knew what to make of me."
Totter's death this week at 94 was not unexpected.
I offered to come out and see her at the Motion Picture home a few years ago and she said over the telephone "Please don't. I want to remember happier times with you."
In 1974 when we first met she had been busy in the middle of co-starring in the CBS hit Medical Center which ran from 1969 through 1976. Totter replaced Jayne Meadows in the cast starting in 1972.
"Jaynie said she didn't want to do it anymore. They needed a new veteran nurse to work just one day an episode. I happened to go out for dinner with my husband at Hamburger Hamlet and the producers saw me and hired me right then.
"That's L.A. for you --thank goodness for Hamburger Hamlet."
And so Totter found herself back at MGM's Culver City lot for the first time since the studio had dropped her contract in 1951.
"It was all so different when I arrived there in 1944. Mr. Mayer said he hired me although at 26 I was a bit old to be a starlet. He immediately typed me as a bad girl and my early competition was with a Southern gal named Ava Gardner and another one was Gloria Grahame.
First off she had bit parts in Main Street After Dark (1945) and Dangerous Partners (1945) as well as contributing her voice only to Bewitched (1945).
"I'd gotten my start in radio doing up to six live radio soap operas a day from Manhattan. And that was the reason Bob Montgomery hired me for The Lady In The Lake --he shot it and starred in it but you only saw him in mirrors. The camera took the subjective view meaning we saw the action through Philip Marlowe's perspective. As a radio actress I was unafraid of peering right at the camera which movie actresses would not do."
The film was a minor success and Totter began a great career as a dark dame.
"We didn't call them film noirs. We called them B flicks!"
Next came The Unsuspected (1947) on loan to Warners. "I was the naughty niece. Claude Rains was the star and he came in the first day wearing enormous elevator shoes. Hurd Hatfield was also on loan to Warners. The star was Lauren Bacall who worked one day and walked, she was that petrified of Claude-- Joan Caulfield was rapidly hired from Paramount. I loved doing that one. Decades later I spotted Claude at Columbia where both of us were doing TV. I reminded him of his fabulous dinners presided over by a much younger wife.
"'My dear that is all so long ago,' he murmured, his eyes filling with tears. Because she had long since left him --he had six wives I believe."
Back at MGM Totter excelled as a psychiatrist in High Wall (1948) trying to discover if Robert Taylor is guilty of murder. "We did one scene until 1 a.m. and neither of us had any supper. The restaurants were all closed so Bob said 'I know where we can find the best scrambled eggs in town!' So he drove me to his home, woke wife Barbara Stanwyck up and Missy scrambled some mighty fine eggs. The fact she had an early cal next day didn't faze her."
Totter's biggest disappointment? "Missing out on The Killers because I was busy making Lady In The Lake. Mr. Mayer told Universal 'I gotta another sexy gal here, can't act, but a real looker.' And they took Ava Gardner and she whizzed to stardom on it."
I told Totter how much I enjoyed her and Ray Milland in Alias Nick Beal (1949).
"It was well set up but they got cold feet and changed the title so it gave away the trick ending that Ray Milland really is the devil. One night at the conclusion of shooting I told Ray I had an appointment with a famous Paramount director about a future part. He said 'X is a notorious womanizer. I shall come with you.' When director X saw I had come with reinforcements he was very curt and I never did get that part."
Then came Totter's favorite movie: 1949's The Set-Up. "Photographed in real time. Bob Wise gave it a superbly gritty texture. As the deteriorating boxer Bob Ryan is terrific. The greatest ever fight picture. But RKO panicked upon hearing Champion with Kirk Douglas was coming out. They released it quickly with out publicity and it just died."
For years Totter was the most dated actress in Hollywood. "Clark Gable asked to marry me and I said no. He was still in love with Carole Lombard who had died in a war time plane crash. And, yes, I did go steady with Ross Hunter until he realized he was gay. Then I met my future husband Dr. Leo Fred and that was that. He was a teaching doctor at UCLA. Had never heard of me --that I loved. At our engagement Mr. Mayer told him 'You are marring the only virgin at Metro!' A lot of famous actresses were in the room and looked really bummed out!"
By 1951 MGM was faltering and Totter's contract was terminated. She went to Columbia on the promise of Harry Cohn that she'd be co-starred in From Here To Eternity. "It didn't happen. Director Fred Zinnemann chose Donna Reed instead. Instead I made stuff like Cruisin' Down The River and Massacre Canyon."
But it didn't matter --now happily married and with a young daughter Totter only acted for the money. She made two TV series that quickly folded: the western Cimarron City (1958-59) and Our Man Higgins (1962-63) --"that one was quite good with Stanley Holloway as our butler but it opened against a new CBS series The Dick Van Dyke Show."
After Medical Center folded and Totter worked less frequency retiring completely after a 1988 guest appearance on Murder She Wrote.
Fred died in 1995 and when I picked her up at her Westwood apartment in 1998 for dinner she chose a local Italian eatery. At 81 she still looked chic and glamourous in a Chanel pant suit. Leafing throgh the stills I'd brought she joked "Nobody should look that young or that slim!"
But she admitted "Sure, I'm lonely. But I had quite a successful marriage. Do you know whom I'm dating these days? Turhan Bey! We were starlets together and now we are old together! Now I'm known as a cult figure.
At the party for That's Entertainment in 1974 in Vegas Ava Gardner came up to me and said 'Audrey you had what I never had --a successful marriage and a child.' And she was right, I have been blessed."
Audrey Totter died December 12 2013 eight days short of her 95th birthday.