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About Barbara Bel Geddes
Barbara Bel Geddes (October 31, 1922 – August 8, 2005) was an American actress, artist and children's author. She is best known for her role in the television drama series Dallas as matriarch Eleanor "Miss Ellie" Ewing. Bel Geddes also starred in the original Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the role of Maggie. Her notable films included Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) and I Remember Mama (1948). She was the recipient of several acting awards and nominations throughout her career.
Bel Geddes was born in New York City, the daughter of Helen Belle (née Schneider) and stage and industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes. She married theatrical manager Carl Sawyer (aka Carl Schreuer) in 1944; they had one daughter, Susan. They divorced in 1951. Later that year, she married stage director Windsor Lewis with whom she had a daughter, Betsy. When Lewis became ill in 1967, Bel Geddes suspended her career to care for him until his death in 1972.
Bel Geddes came to prominence in the 1946 Broadway production of Deep Are The Roots. The performance garnered her the Clarence Derwent Award, and the Donaldson Award (forerunner of the Tony Awards) presented to her by Laurette Taylor, for "Outstanding Achievement in The Theatre". From 1951 to 1953, Bel Geddes played 924 performances of the Otto Preminger hit comedy The Moon Is Blue. In 1956, she created the role of Maggie "The Cat" in Elia Kazan's original Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and in 1961 created the title role in the Jean Kerr comedy Mary, Mary which became Broadway's longest-running show with over 1,500 performances. Both roles earned her Tony Award nominations. Other highlights include John Steinbeck's Burning Bright, Edward Albee's Everything in the Garden and Silent Night, Lonely Night with Henry Fonda.
In 1952, she received the prestigious "Woman of the Year" Award from Harvard University's Hasty Pudding Theatricals, America's oldest theater company; In 1993, having appeared in fifteen Broadway productions, she was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame (located in the Gershwin Theatre in New York City), a distinction she shared with her father, stage and industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes.
Bel Geddes began her film career starring with Henry Fonda in The Long Night (1947), a remake of the 1939 French film Le Jour se lève. "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." The following year, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the George Stevens classic film I Remember Mama. She played Richard Widmark's wife Nancy in Kazan's 1950 film noir Panic in the Streets. In 1958, Alfred Hitchcock cast her with James Stewart in Vertigo as the long-suffering bohemian, Midge. Bel Geddes also starred with Danny Kaye and Louis Armstrong in the screen musical The Five Pennies.
When a House Un-American Activities Committee investigation stalled her film career for a short time, Bel Geddes found new opportunity in television when Alfred Hitchcock cast her in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Lamb to the Slaughter", in which she played a housewife who killed her husband by bludgeoning him to death with a frozen leg of lamb, cooking the murder weapon, and then serving it to the investigating police. She appeared in series such as Playhouse 90, CBS Playhouse, Dr. Kildare and Death Valley Days. In 1977, she starred in the highly-acclaimed production of the Thornton Wilder classic, Our Town with Hal Holbrook.
In 1978, Bel Geddes was the first performer contracted to star in Dallas. The role of the family matriarch, 'Miss Ellie' Ewing, brought her renewed international recognition. She appeared on the series from 1978 to 1990 (absent during the 1984–85 season) and remains the only cast member to win the Emmy Award (Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress - Drama Series) and the Golden Globe (List of Golden Globe Awards: Television, Best Actress, Drama). In 1985 she also received Germany's Golden Camera Award.
Larry Hagman, who played J.R. Ewing, told the Associated Press that "She was the rock of Dallas. She was just a really nice woman and a wonderful actress. She was kind of the glue that held the whole thing together." In a later interview for the website "Ultimate Dallas", Hagman said, "The reason I took the show, they said Barbara Bel Geddes is going to play your mother, and I said, 'Well, that's a touch of class, you know,' so of course I wanted to work with her."
In the early 1970s, Bel Geddes underwent a radical mastectomy, an experience she relived in the 1979–80 season of Dallas. The performance garnered her the Emmy Award. She was also honored by First Lady Betty Ford for helping to raise breast cancer awareness.
In March 1983, Bel Geddes underwent quadruple by-pass heart surgery and subsequently missed a third of the 1983–84 season. The following year, still contending with compromised health, she found it necessary to step down from the role and was replaced with actress Donna Reed for the 1984–85 season. However, with the rival show Dynasty finally surpassing Dallas in the ratings, the producers made efforts to stabilize the show's slow decline. With health improved, Bel Geddes was restored to the role of Miss Ellie in time for the 1985–86 season where she remained through the series penultimate season.
Life after Dallas
Bel Geddes retired from acting in 1990 and settled in her home in Northeast Harbor, Maine, where she continued to work as a fine artist. She was the author of two children's books, I Like to Be Me and So Do I, as well as the creator of a popular line of greeting cards. Looking back on her career, Bel Geddes told People: "They're always making me play well-bred ladies. I'm not very well bred, and I'm not much of a lady."
She died of lung cancer in Northeast Harbor on August 8, 2005.
Broadway credits and Filmography