An Interview with George Chakiris

Audiences sat up and took notice when they saw standing near Rosemary Clooney, arms crossed as she crooned “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me.”

Later, he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his best known role, as Bernardo in WEST SIDE STORY (1961)

Earlier this year, he published his memoirs, “My West Side Story: A Memoir,” co-written with Lindsay Harrison.

Reading Chakiris’s memoir makes you feel like you’re sitting down to coffee with an old friend. “My West Side Story” is incredibly personable, charming and kind. I found myself smiling as soon as I was reading the first couple of pages.

To discuss his book and career further, I interviewed Mr. Chakiris over the phone on Nov. 16, 2021. You can read a transcription of that interview below and also listen to it here:

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Carroll Baker: An interview on “Baby Doll” and Hollywood’s studio days

Carroll Baker will be attending a screening of “Baby Doll” (1956) this weekend, Saturday, Aug. 17, in Winston-Salem, NC through the RiverRun Retro film series. Following the film, Ms. Baker will be interviewed by film historian Foster Hirsch. Learn more about how to get tickets.

Today, Ms. Baker is retired from films and is now an author. Her fourth book, Who Killed Big Al?, was published this May.

I interviewed Ms. Baker on the phone about her career and upcoming appearance:

Comet Over Hollywood:
Have you ever done anything with River Run Film before?

Carroll Baker:
My daughter has. Um, she, she does the short films with her students. She’s an acting teacher. She went to the festival (River Run International Film Festival) last year, and I think she’ll go again this year. Then Rob came to New York. And then he came up with this incredible thing of doing, uh, and evening with just me. They do wonderful stuff. So the screening will be of “Baby Doll” and then Foster Hirsch, a film historian, will interview me, and we will talk about my new book, “Who Killed Big Al?”

Comet Over Hollywood:
I had some questions about your career that I was going to ask. So we’ll start kind of at the beginning of it all. What made you get into acting? What interested you about the craft?

Actress Carroll Baker in the 1950s

Carroll Baker:
Well, you know, this is a long story. My mother and father had divorced, and I was living with my father in Pennsylvania. We didn’t have very much money. And when I graduated from high school, I was working in a factory. All my girlfriends had gone to university. The boy I was in love with went to university. And, and I said to myself, “I’m just not going to be stuck in this small town working in a factory.”

Because of my mother, I had taken dancing lessons. So when I was off work, I would go to our attic, which had a wooden floor. I used to tap, tap, tap and follow Ann Miller’s routines. So then my mother said, “Well, why don’t you come for a while and stay in Florida with me?” Well, that was terrific, because in Florida they have every conceivable club, like the Lions Club. And I got my first engagement there dancing. I earned $20. I kept getting dancing engagements and went to beauty contests.

We went to Daytona Beach and there was an International Convention of Magicians. There was this one magician, named Burling Hull and he called himself the Great Volta. So He was retired, and he didn’t have an assistant. He said, “I’m inventing acts now, and I’ve invented an act that’s just for a woman. It’s the magic jewel act.” So I went to stay with he and his wife and practiced really hard. And learned how to do this magic act. And this ties me into North Carolina! I was booked on Kemp Time, which was one of the last vestiges of vaudeville. It was a western show. Everybody famous you could think of was in it, like Elvis Presley. Virginia Mayo did her act with Pansy the Horse.

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“The next 58 years will be a breeze”: An interview with RiverRun Master of Cinema awardees Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin

The RiverRun International Film Festival has been held since 1998. Originally held in Brevard, NC, the festival now takes place in Winston-Salem. Held this year from April 4 – 14, 2019, the festival is screening 172 films from 47 countries—71 features and 101 shorts.

Each year, a pillar in the film industry is recognized with the Master of Cinema award. This year, that award goes to husband and wife Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin, and film producer and head of Orion pictures Mike Medavoy.

Prentiss and Benjamin have been married for 58 years. Paula Prentiss is best known for her 1960s and 1970s roles including “Where the Boys Are” (1960), “The Honeymoon Machine” (1961) and “What’s New Pussycat” (1965). She co-starred with Jim Hutton in three films. Her film “Man’s Favorite Sport?” (1964) with Rock Hudson will screen at the festival. Richard Benjamin both acts and directs. His directorial debut was the Peter O’Toole film “My Favorite Year” and he also directed “The Money Pit” (1986) and “Mermaids” (1990). His acting roles include “Goodbye, Columbus” (1969) and “The Sunshine Boys” (1975), which is screening at the festival. The two acted together on the TV show “He and She” as well as “Catch-22” (1970), “Saturday the 14th” (1981), and the Broadway play “The Norman Conquests” (1975).

I had the opportunity to interview actress Paula Prentiss and actor/director Richard Benjamin via phone on Sunday, April 7:

Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin in the 1960s

Comet Over Hollywood: Tell me about how you two met.

Richard Benjamin: We met at Northwestern University. Paula had transferred from Randolph-Macon College. And Paula had transferred from Randolph-Macon. She was a year ahead of me and I came from New York, New York City, and that’s where we met. And the first second I saw her, I thought, that’s it for me, so … I don’t know how long it took her to feel the same way exactly, you can ask her, but I knew that was it.

Paula Prentiss: Well let me see. I was at a women’s college beforehand and the dating that we had was off to other universities. I was at Randolph–Macon Women’s College, I went to the University of Virginia, went to Yale one time. But I thought to myself, I have to find some guy that I really like. These individual dating trips are a little … I don’t know what I thought. But anyway, that’s one of the reasons I transferred from Randolph–Macon Women’s College.

And when I saw Dick … He was very cute. Tall and thin and stuff like that, and I thought, I didn’t know much about acting, but he was supposed to be a director so perhaps this will work. I tried out for a play, even though I was very inexperienced in acting, and he liked me. So then when we had rehearsals, we were left alone in the rehearsal room…

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“It was my father’s success”: An interview with the real “Gidget”

 Comet Over Hollywood has reviewed the three “Gidget” feature films this summer. To wrap up the series, Comet interviewed Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, the real Gidget whose summer story inspired her screenwriter father to write a book. The conversation was delightful. Ms. Zuckerman was down-to-Earth and it felt like talking and laughing with an old friend. 

(r) Kathy Kohner in 1957 in the photo that was used on the book cover. (L) Kohner Zuckerman pictured in 2014 at Duke's, where she works.

(r) Kathy Kohner in 1957 in the photo that was used on the book cover. (L) Kohner Zuckerman pictured in 2014 at Duke’s, where she works.

It was a different world for Kathy Kohner as she walked on the film set of “Gidget” in 1959.

“It was hard to understand that they were making a movie about me,” said Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, the real “Gidget,” in a phone interview with Comet Over Hollywood on Tuesday, Aug. 25. “They weren’t even filming at Malibu.”

The 1959 “Gidget” film that starred Sandra Dee, James Darren and Cliff Robertson spawned two more feature films, two television shows and several made-for-TV movies. And it all began with a 15-year-old girl telling her father that she wanted to write a story about her summer.

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Life of groundbreaking Hollywood composer explored in new film

Ever wanted to get involved with a documentary or see your name in the credits of a film? Learn more about how you can get “Lives of Bernard Herrmann” closer to completion through their crowdfunding campaign.

What would the shower scene of “Psycho” be like without his piercing, staccato strings? Would the theme from “Vertigo” be as dizzying without those swirling woodwinds?

Rehearsal of The Free Company radio drama with conductor Bernard Herrmann. Image dated April 6, 1941. Copyright © 1941 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. Credit: CBS Photo Archive. File X4467_2

Rehearsal of The Free Company radio drama with conductor Bernard Herrmann. Image dated April 6, 1941. Copyright © 1941 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. Credit: CBS Photo Archive. File X4467_2

Forty years after his death, composer Bernard Herrmann’s still hasn’t stopped playing. His themes constantly appear in pop culture; whether it’s looped into mainstream music, used in a commercial or reworked into another composer’s score. Examples of these include Quentin Tarantino’s use of the whistling “Twisted Nerve” theme in “Kill Bill,” or the Lady Gaga using a portion of “Vertigo” in her “Born this Way” music video.

But Herrmann’s influence doesn’t stop at pop culture. You can hear traces of his impact in the scores of 20th and 21st century composers such as John Williams, Danny Elfman and Michael Giacchino

To highlight his work and continuing relevance, New York-based director Brandon Brown is directing a new full-length documentary, “Lives of Bernard Herrmann,” on the composer who worked with Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Ray Harryhausen and Martin Scorsese. In February, Brown interviewed actor and former co-host of TCM’s “The Essentials” Alec Baldwin, who called Herrmann an equal to all of those artists.

Comet Over Hollywood spoke with Brown about what inspired the project and when his love for the composer began:

“Lives of Bernard Herrmann” director, Brandon Brown

COH: What made you decide to make the documentary? What is your goal?

BB: The documentary is my dream project; I want to make a film that I would like to watch on Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann was not only an amazing composer but he was also an interesting person. I think his music and story deserve to be more closely examined in a longer film with new interviews. My goal is to introduce people to Herrmann’s music and also sympathize with him not only as a composer, but as a character in the documentary.

COH: What inspired the title?

BB:  In an interview from 1970*, Herrmann said, “There’s no one performance of a piece [of music] that can ever reveal the whole piece… It’s not finished. It goes on and on and on. Each performance reveals something new about it again.”

When I decided on a title for this film, I had that quote in mind and applied it to Herrmann’s life. To me, a documentary on Bernard Herrmann’s life would in fact need to be a documentary on many lives. It’d be a documentary examining Herrmann’s life before music, his life of composing music, his life as a husband and father, and, finally, how his music has lived on long after his passing.

This interview is available through the Film Music Society.

COH: When did your love for Bernard Herrmann begin? What started it?

BB: It started when I was 12 or 13 after I heard the score from “Vertigo.” Up until that point, I had a general love of soundtracks that started with my love of movies and it evolved from there. John Williams was my favorite composer before Bernard Herrmann. As I got more interested in Herrmann, I learned that Williams was influenced by Herrmann and that he knew him personally. It was interesting to connect my two favorite composers.

COH: Do you remember the first time you were introduced to Bernard Herrmann? What was the score and when was it?

BB: The first score I ever heard was “The Trouble with Harry,” which was also my first Alfred Hitchcock film. I was six or seven years old.  The score that later made me aware of Herrmann was “Vertigo.” I saw how Hitchcock’s direction, the visuals of Robert Burks, the acting of Stewart and Novak and Herrmann’s music all paralleled each other.

Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann.

Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann.

BB: What is your favorite Herrmann score? What makes it memorable?

COH: “Obsession” (1976). It’s a genuinely haunting score through his use of organ and strings and how his themes reflect the characters. “Obsession” is really the same story as “Vertigo,” which has more of a romantic score. The score for “Obsession is much more haunting and eerie than “Vertigo,” and Herrmann’s finale makes the film.

COH: Though you are still in the early stages, when do you hope for the documentary to be complete?

BB: Summer 2016.

COH: What do your viewers have to look forward to? (Interviews, new information)

BB: The documentary will include interviews with Herrmann’s family, people he worked with and people who know his music well. Most of these are interviews that haven’t been conducted before on film. We’ll be revealing more information as the interviews are filmed.

COH: Why is it important that we remember Bernard Herrmann and his work today?

BB: First and foremost, Herrmann wrote some of the greatest music of the 20th century, ranking with any celebrated classical composers. Writing music wasn’t just a job for Herrmann, it was his life. He saw it as an art form and was dedicated to preserving that art form.  He demonstrated this by conducting the music of Ives, Ruggles and other great but generally unknown composers.

Orson Welles and Bernard Herrmann

Orson Welles and Bernard Herrmann

COH: How has Herrmann influenced pop culture, contemporary composers and scores?

BB: You hear his music everywhere, whether it is being reused or parodied, people are constantly finding new uses for his music. Try to think of any slasher movie that doesn’t pull inspiration from the shower scene in “Psycho,” or an outer space film that doesn’t use musical techniques from “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Herrmann’s music was a foundation for horror, thriller and sci-fi film music. You always hear it. Every time you hear the theme from “Jaws,” you will hear traces of Herrmann.

COH: What interested you in film making and documentaries?

BB: There are plenty of stories to tell about people who made a significant impact in the world. I want to help tell these stories of people who are no longer around or left their mark on history.

Best in Hollywood: An interview (and meal) with James Best

James Best in The Cimarron Kid (1952). He said he always died in his movies.

James Best in The Cimarron Kid (1952). He said he always died in his movies.

Known for his role as Roscoe P. Coltrane on “Dukes of Hazzard,” I interviewed actor James Best last week about his Hollywood career.

Best came to Shelby, NC last week to the Don Gibson Theatre with his one man show, “Best in Hollywood,” where he tells anecdotes about his career. I interviewed Best, 87, for a preview story about the show for The Shelby Star newspaper.

I ended up going to the show and later eating at Denny’s with Mr. Best and his wife.

Before Best starred in “Hazzard,” he acted in films with James Stewart, Ann Sheridan, Maureen O’Hara, Audie Murphy, Rock Hudson, Randolph Scott, Charlton Heston, Susan Hayward, Paul Newman, Humphrey Bogart and Jerry Lewis.

“I got into acting overseas after World War II while I was in the service,” Best told The Star during a phone interview Wednesday. “I was in the play ‘My Sister Eileen’ that the GIs did. When I got back I decided to take acting up permanently and hitchhiked to New York.”

During the show, Best called himself a “dumb country boy” –born in Kentucky and raised in Indiana– asking the cab driver to drop him on Broadway, because he was going to be an actor.

In New York, Best did winter and summer stock plays and was in a show on Broadway before heading to Hollywood.

“I was put under contract in 1949 to Universal Studios and then I freelanced,” Best said. “I have made 87 feature films and made 600 TV show appearances.”

In his show, Best shows clips from several movies and tells a story about each one. He joked he always died or was injured in all of his films.

Rock Hudson and James Best on the set of "Seminole" (1953)

Rock Hudson and James Best on the set of “Seminole” (1953)

He laughed at the script writing for “Seminole” (1953), starring Rock Hudson, when his character is drowning in quicksand, made of cork.

“Those script writers were so stupid! We are sneaking up on Indians and the soldiers are taking a cannon through quicksand,” Best laughed on stage. “I was injured, riding on the cannon and Rock Hudson had to dive in the quicksand to save me.”

He told how it took several takes to get the scene right. He was supposed to breathe through an air tube underwater. One take there was no air, another time too much air causing him to float and the third he came up laughing because Rock Hudson grabbed him awkwardly.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Best was in several westerns, including five movies with James Stewart such as “Firecreek,” “Shenandoah” and “Winchester ’73.”

“Jimmy Stewart was my icon,” he said in the interview. “I was good friends with Paul Newman, and I was in five films with Audie Murphy. Randolph Scott was a lovely man.”

James Best (far right) with Paul Newman in "Left Handed Gun" (1958)

James Best with Paul Newman in “Left Handed Gun” (1958)

Though Best worked with some of Hollywood’s top stars, he says he was never star struck.

“When I started acting in Hollywood, I was doing one show after another and you work with nearly every movie star that existed,” Best told the Star. “It’s a job. It’s different than most people’s job, but it’s a job. You work four to five days on one project and then move on to the next.”

After playing everything from cowboys to murderers, Best was in his first comedy in 1966 called “Three on a Couch” with Jerry Lewis and Janet Leigh.

Though Best had already acted in nearly 100 films before 1966, the opening credits said “Introducing James Best.”

“I asked Jerry Lewis why he did that. I said ‘What do you mean introducing; I have already been in 100 movies.’ Jerry said this was introducing me to doing comedy,” Best said with a laugh. “I had played so many murderers and been on ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents,’ but I hadn’t done much comedy.”

Best learned the comedy skills he used on “Dukes of Hazzard” from Lewis.

James Best with Flash in "Dukes of Hazzard." He said he never got the girl, so he got a dog.

James Best with Flash in “Dukes of Hazzard.” He said he never got the girl, so he got a dog.

“I loved Jerry Lewis. I once told him he was five different people, and I hated three of them,” Best said. “I learned a lot from Jerry and I thank him for that.”

Most of the comedy for Roscoe P. Coltrane was improvised before the scene began.

“I didn’t want Roscoe to be mean, so I played him like a 12-year-old buffoon,” Best said. “Ninety-percent of it was improvised and it just came off the top of my head.”

After the series, Best and his wife Dorothy formed their own independent film company. At 87, he hasn’t stopped acting. He recently acted with his wife Dorothy in the play “On Golden Pond” in Hickory, NC, where he currently lives.

“Hollywood has changed so much,” he told me on the phone. “It has lost its glamour and they have given away all the secrets that made it so glamorous. It’s all reality stars now. None of them are trained actors. When I was working with Bogart, Newman and Stewart, those were actors.”

After his show on Friday, I was able to introduce myself and thank him for the interview. James Best is just your average, elderly gentlemen and is very kind.

After the show, I was searching for a place to eat and ended up at Denny’s.

My close friend who works at the Don Gibson Theater happened to already be at the restaurant and urged me to sit with her group. James Best and his wife happened to be part part of the group.

I talked with Dorothy about what plays she had acted in with the Hickory theater and James Best taught the table the proper way to eat pancakes. (If you are curious, he cut the center out and poured the syrup into the center. “That way your syrup doesn’t run all over your eggs,” he said.)

When he was ready to return to his hotel he turned to his wife and said, “Are you ready to go sweetie tootie?”

Again, we shook his hand and he smiled warmly. A class act.

“From the time I was adopted when I was 4 years old up to now, my life has been like a roller coaster,” Best told the Star. “There have been more ups than downs and I have been enjoying everything. I thank God every day for it.”

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Interview and review: “Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait”

vivien leigh book coverAfter 75 years, her fresh portrayal as Scarlett O’Hara is one of the most memorable screen performances of all time.

Last November, the “Gone with the Wind” actress celebrated her 100th birthday. And to help celebrate, film historian Kendra Bean published a biography on Vivien Leigh, “Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait.” Bean’s book is also the first book written about Leigh in 25 years.

Leigh won two Academy Awards for Best Actress during her short, 18 film career for playing two iconic Southern belles: O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind” (1939) and Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951)

“An Intimate Portrait” tenderly chronicles Leigh’s life, from her childhood in India through her marriage and divorce to Laurence Olivier to Leigh’s early death at age 51. The book is well-researched, unbiased, beautiful and heartbreaking.

Through her writing, Bean shows her passion for the subject and allows the reader to connect with the English actress. Leigh feels relatable and human compared to the unreachable and ethereal portrait that usually seems to be painted of the mysterious beauty.

A publicity photo of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh for "Gone with the Wind" (1939). This photo also appears in Bean's book.

A publicity photo of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh for “Gone with the Wind” (1939). This photo also appears in Bean’s book.

Reading the page-turning biography is almost like reading “Romeo and Juliet.” Similar to the Shakespeare story that ends in tragedy, you are aware of the impending heartbreak in Leigh’s life. While reading about her successful career and marriage to Laurence Olivier, most readers know the whole time of her heartbreaking divorce, bouts with depression, tuberculosis and Leigh’s early death.

Bean chronicles these events sensitively and through extensive research, quoting interviews throughout the book. She is also the first author to delve into Laurence Olivier’s files. The 272 page book is also filled with gorgeous and rare photos of Leigh.

Bean started her Leigh and Olivier research on her website,, before moving from California to England to do more in-depth studying of Leigh’s life and romance with Olivier.

In December, she was kind enough to answer several interview questions for Comet Over Hollywood: 

Comet Over Hollywood: When did your love for Vivien Leigh begin? What started it?
Kendra Bean: I saw Gone With the Wind as a teenager and began reading everything I could get my hands on that would tell me more about the film, including biographies of the stars. The more I read about Vivien, the more interesting she became in my eyes. That’s really what started it. Having a website and online community centered on her and Laurence Olivier has definitely helped keep my interest alive over the years.

Vivien Leigh proudly holds her Best Actress Oscar on March 2. 1940. She was recognized for her portrayal of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind.

Vivien Leigh proudly holds her Best Actress Oscar on March 2. 1940. She was recognized for her portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.

COH: I have always understood that you moved to England to better study Olivier and Leigh. Is that correct? How difficult of a decision was that? What was that transition like to study something you love?
KB: That was only part of the reason. I actually moved to London for graduate school. I did my BA in Film and Media Studies back in California and then spent the next four years working. But I knew I wanted to be a film historian and to do that, I felt I needed to get a further degree. I wasn’t really satisfied with what I was doing back home, and just felt like I needed a change if I was ever going to actually pursue these interests. I always wanted to live in London for at least a year, so I applied to the Film Studies graduate program at King’s College London. Luckily, they accepted me and offered a couple of scholarships, so off I went!
It was a big change, but I knew some people here already and knew my way around the city. I also made some great friends through the program who I still keep in touch with today. I think the most difficult period was the transition from graduation to whatever was going to happen next. I was determined to make this book project work, but the process of actually getting a publisher was a long one. It was a very stressful period because being on a visa kind of limits things. There were several times when I thought I might well have to move back to the US and that the book would never happen.

COH: You have been working on the book for five years. What all goes into the research that you had to do?
KB: There were two parts to my research: constructing the book and getting it published. Because it’s a coffee table book, a good deal of the process involved locating, sourcing, and licensing photographs (I don’t think a lot of people realize what a lengthy and involved process that is). I also spent a good deal of time in various archives in the UK and in Los Angeles looking for interesting information (fellow fans/research assistants sent me information from New York and Australia, as well), reading through various biographies, tracking down and interviewing people who knew and worked with Vivien, and seeking permission from various estates to quote from letters.
When I first started this project, I had no idea how to get a book published. So, I also had to do a fair bit of research into the actual publication process: how to get an agent, possible marketing angles, crafting a proposal, etc. It was a lot of work, but very much worth it in the end!

COH: What was a misconception you had that came to light during your research?
KB: I think there have been a lot of misconceptions about Vivien’s battle with manic depression (bipolar disorder) and her relationship with Laurence Olivier, in general. One major grey area has always been the infamous 1953 incident, when Vivien had nervous breakdown whilst filming Elephant Walk in 1953. She was flown back to England, legally sectioned, and committed to a mental asylum. The picture I had in my mind from reading previous Leigh biographies was something akin to Frances Farmer getting hauled off to the state institution.
There were also a lot of rumors surrounding this event, including the suggestion that Olivier was having a long affair with actor Danny Kaye and that this set Vivien off. I found no evidence to support any of that. Rather, there was plenty to support the fact that Vivien had been headed toward a mental health crisis for a long time and previous attempts at intervention in 1951/52 were refused by her. Although this was not surprising given the stigma surrounding mental illness in the 1950s, it was still sad to learn that there’s a chance that this particular incident might have been avoided. I was given access to some files pertaining to this incident that hadn’t been by previous biographers (of Leigh or Olivier). What emerged was a clearer picture not only of the harrowing experience that Vivien went through, but also how that experience affected those closest to her – particularly Olivier. It was a very stressful and frightening time for all involved.
Today it seems fashionable to focus on their interpersonal problems; specifically how horrible Olivier was to Vivien. Through moderating and the accompanying Facebook page over the years, it seems to me that there’s a tendency to view their relationship in black and white terms. In fact, it was very complicated. How could it not be? They were together for nearly 25 years and she remained obsessed with him for the rest of her life. Their marriage did turn very sour in the 1950s but before that, and I think sometimes during that period, there was actually a lot of love, respect, and camaraderie between them. That notion was reinforced when going through Olivier’s papers, and those of other people who knew them.

Arriving in New York by boat in 1951.

Arriving in New York by boat in 1951.

COH: Why is it important to study actors like Leigh and Olivier and their relationship?
KB: Because they both made significant contributions to 20th century popular culture. They considered themselves artists and their work deserves to be remembered and reappraised. Unfortunately, their stage work was very ephemeral but luckily their films still remain to be enjoyed and discussed by fans and casual viewers alike. On top of that, they lead interesting lives.

COH: Was there anything you learned that didn’t make it into the book and why?
KB: One of the main tasks of an author is to decide what is important and what isn’t for the story he or she wants to tell. Coffee table books require even more editorializing than standard biographies because they rely just as much – sometimes even more – on visuals as they do text. A couple of examples of things that were left out of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait: I was told some stories during interviews that I felt were interesting but they ended up being more about the interviewee than Vivien, or I didn’t feel they added anything thematically that hadn’t been said already, so they were left out. I also didn’t spend much time talking about the films she made for Alexander Korda in the 1930s, instead opting to cut to the meat of her fame, which really took off with Gone With the Wind. I did write an essay about these films for the Vivien Leigh Anniversary Collection released in November by Cohen Films though, and that’s something I would definitely expand upon in a full biography.
leighOne of the challenges in writing a biography of a famous figure is that many materials are still in copyright and permission is required to publish them if they fall outside of fair use. This meant that, unfortunately, there were some letters and photos that I very much wanted to use, but couldn’t.

COH: Recently you have given several speeches and interviews. What has been your proudest moment since the book has been published?
KB: I think my proudest moment was actually getting the book published. It was such a long and often emotional journey and there were several instances where I worried it wouldn’t come to fruition.
I’m grateful for the opportunities that have arisen from being published. It’s been such a wonderful learning experience and I’ve met some very passionate and intelligent people because of it. I never thought I’d get to curate an exhibit at a major museum, for example, but Terence Pepper (who edited some of my favorite photo retrospectives) asked me to help curate the “Starring Vivien Leigh: A Centenary Celebration” exhibit that’s currently on at the National Portrait Gallery. I also gave my first-ever big lecture to a sold out audience at the NPG. Public speaking has always been one of my worst fears, but this went really well and has given me confidence for the lecture I’m giving at the V&A in February.

COH: Do you see another book in your future?
KB: Yes! Watch this space!

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Leaving Hollywood for a new habit: An interview with Dolores Hart

She gave Elvis his first on-screen kiss.

Roles in “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” and “The Ticklish Affair” that later went to Shirley Jones were originally offered to her.

Her career began in 1957 with the film “Loving You” along side Elvis Presley and ended in 1963 with the film “Come Fly with Me.”

But at the height of her career in 1963, Dolores Hart left Hollywood to follow a vocational calling to become a nun.

Dolores Hart in the 1960s and now as Revered Mother Dolores today (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica Pickens)

Dolores Hart in the 1960s and now as Reverend Mother Dolores today (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica Pickens)

 “I am not leaving anyone or anything behind me. I am taking with me a full and grateful heart,” Hart left as a statement with her publicist.

The media frenzy that followed cited her broken engagement with her former fiancé Don Robinson. The National Enquirer headline read “Star Driven into Nunnery by her Love for Elvis.” Colleagues and friends were dumbfounded.

To Hollywood, family and friends, Hart’s decision to become a nun may have seemed rash. But her choice was a long road of exploration of her faith that was triggered by her first visit to the Abbey of Regina Laudis in 1958.

Hart published the book “The Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows” in May that explores her parent’s tumultuous marriage, why she became a Catholic, her career as a film star and her life as a nun.

Her parents had the desire to become Hollywood film stars. However, her father Bert Hicks mainly played bit roles. Her parents divorced while she was still young. While attending Catholic school, she decided to convert so she could have hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls with the other children.

She is often asked if her role as Saint Claire in “Francis of Assisi” (1961) is what influenced her decision to become a nun. The role had no effect but meeting Pope John XXIII while filming left an impact on the actress.

Saturday morning, I had the privilege to meet with Dolores Hart in Charlotte, NC before she spoke at the Charlotte Eucharist Convention. “Ear of the Heart” is one of the best celebrity autobiographies I have read. Rather than full of gossip and salacious rumors, it discusses her journey through life. I couldn’t help but feel calm and soothed every time I picked it up.

We met and spoke about her book as well as her time in Hollywood and at Regina Laudis.

Though she was a little older and was dressed in a nun’s habit and robe, her smile and sparkling clear blue eyes were the same ones you see in her films such as “Where the Boys Are.”

Revered Mother Dolores was warm, personable and an overall lovely woman.


Reverend Mother Dolores and myself in Charlotte, NC on Sept. 14

 Q: Tell me about the Eucharist Conference you are in town for today.

I’m actually not that familiar with it because I have been in an enclosed monastery.  I don’t remember anything like this before I entered. It’s wonderful seeing the intensity of love for the sacrament…Not love in the usual form of the word but transcending love that can hold the passion of and sadness of life.

Q: What influenced you to write the book?

I think it’s because my old friend Dick DeNeut encouraged me to do it. He told me if I didn’t write it soon, I would forget everything. We started in 2003 and it has taken a long time to put it in its present form. I’m fortunate to have someone like Dick. He knows me so well and we were very close. We have had strong communication for decades. I think the beautiful part of the preparation is that he would always be frank with me. He wouldn’t say things that made me feel good but would be frank in order to awaken and receive an honest response.

Q: Which Catholic celebrities in Hollywood supported your decision?

Dolores Hart with George Hamilton in "Where he Boys Are"

Dolores Hart with George Hamilton in “Where he Boys Are”

Hart discusses in her book being friends with other Hollywood Catholics during her stardom such as Irene Dunne and Loretta Young. She once was invited to speak at a Jesuits’ Church of the Blessed Sacrament breakfast in 1958 that was attended by Catholic celebrities.

June Haver was one of the most faithful friends I had in Hollywood, and so was Patricia Neal. Others were complimentary. June would visit several times a year and try to find ways to help us. She loved visiting our dairy farm and working with the farm animals. Once she asked how the pigs reproduce. We told her we had a semen tank, but it was actually running low. She said that was how she would help us. Well, the local newspaper in town heard about it and came out with a story saying June Haver was buying nuns a semen tank. It was hysterical. But she would come to visit us on a yearly basis.

Q: How often were you compared to June Haver, who once entered as a nun and later left?

Dolores Hart with Elvis Presley in 1957 in a still for "Loving You"

Dolores Hart with Elvis Presley in 1957 in a still for “Loving You”

When I first started considering, Mother Benedict told me to take some time to put everything in order so I wouldn’t become another statistic. I didn’t know June at the time and I wasn’t aware of her personal struggles. She once entered as a nun herself and left. When we finally met I could perceive the depth of goodness and that she had struggled a great deal. She was very honest and never claimed what wasn’t true. She was a great lesson to me.

Q: How did Hollywood help or hurt you in a cloistered community?

I didn’t understand in the beginning how I could benefit from my Hollywood experiences. I accept the time in Hollwood as part of God’s will. I appreciate the goodness of the venture. I didn’t leave to reach for something better or a higher value.

People in the industry are so open. Producer Hal Wallis saw some sort of value in me to give me a seven year contract. He was furious when I left and told me not to bother coming back to work for him. I understood that because I was breaking professional expectation of truth. That was a profound step in his reality of life. But then after 15 years, he broke down and we became friends again. His wife Martha Hyer still sends us a basket of fruit every year.

My agent Harry Bernson sent me a note and asked if I had swallowed razor blades and said I had committed suicide. But then he eventually saw it was the right thing.

Those friendships shown to me by a number of actors showed me integrity of human values in every religion.

Q: If you hadn’t left Hollywood, how do you think your career would have ended up?

If I hadn’t left Hollywood, we probably wouldn’t be talking right now. The interest in me wouldn’t be there. People are interested because I became a nun.

I don’t think my career would have petered out, but then I have seen so many people come and go and you never see them again. Depending on roles, most women in Hollywood only work until their early 40s. You can’t bank on your career being a given.

My grandfather was a movie projectionist and had seen all the films. When I got older, I confessed to him that I wanted to become an actress. He told me he had seen them all and knew I would be the best at it. For a grandfather to say that was the best possible compliment.

Q: You also left Hollywood right before things began rapidly changing. Were you aware of the changes in Hollywood with the studio system?

Because I was still a member of the Academy, I still had an interest in what was happening with the studios, but I don’t remember judging it. People say that the film industry is what led the way to society changes. I could tell changes by the way people talked and dressed. There was a deeper sense of fear that life wasn’t worth much. I noticed people were dressing sort of in a dumpy way. I couldn’t believe a woman would wear jeans and high heels in the airport. That was really campy to me.

I think the film industry really reflected what was going on in society. They were always champions in exfoliating what was going on with people.

Hart with fan mail in 1960

Hart with fan mail in 1960

Q: How much fan mail do you receive each year?

It depends on what’s going on. As I have been on tour for the book, I have received a considerable amount. I usually receive two or three letters a day. By the end of the week it turns into a mountain of mail, so it’s a continuous obligation. When the documentary “God is Bigger than Elvis” came out two years ago, the situation changed. We did the film and it was my break through back into public life. I got so much fan mail after and I had to have some of the sisters help me stamp and address letters.

 Q: One last question, do you still watch any of your movies?

I have seen them so often that they bore me. I will watch them though if someone requests to watch a movie with me. Sometimes I discover something new by a question they present. The community doesn’t want to see my movies anymore, because they are tired of them.

For more on her kiss with Elvis and acting with Montgomery Clift stay tuned to Comet Over Hollywood in the coming days for a full book review.

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