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Barbara Bel Geddes

Barbara Bel Geddes

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Also Known As: Died: August 8, 2005
Born: October 31, 1922 Cause of Death: lung cancer
Birth Place: New York City, New York, USA Profession: Cast ... actor painter illustrator author greeting card designer
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BIOGRAPHY

Known around the world as Ellie Ewing, the long-suffering matriarch of the affluent and combative Ewing clan on the highly popular primetime drama "Dallas" (CBS, 1978-1991), Barbara Bel Geddes was familiar with the world of performing from her childhood, thanks to the behind-the-scenes Broadway success of her father, Norman Bel Geddes. After a stint at the Actors Studio and a handful of plays, she made her own name on the Great White Way with the controversial "Deep are the Roots" (1945-46) and was subsequently cast in other successful productions like "The Moon is Blue" (1951-53), "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1955-56), and "Mary, Mary" (1961-64). She also earned notable credits in the motion picture world, including "I Remember Mama" (1948), for which she received an Oscar nomination, "Panic in the Streets" (1950), and Alfred Hitchcock's suspense masterpiece "Vertigo" (1958). Her greatest notoriety, however, came via the small screen. Bel Geddes earned a footnote in television history with her turn as a sly murderess in "Lamb to the Slaughter," one of the most fondly remembered episodes of the darkly humorous "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (CBS/NBC, 1955-1962). However, it was that Emmy-winning stint on "Dallas" that brought Bel Geddes the most lasting recognition and when health issues forced her to drop out of the show, the public was unwilling to accept an actress of even Donna Reed's calibre in her place.

The daughter of celebrated Broadway scenic designer-producer-director and industrial design pioneer Norman Bel Geddes, Barbara Bel Geddes was born on Oct. 31, 1922 in New York City. Thanks to her father's profession, she came to know the theatre world quite well and began performing in her teens. Upon finishing private school, Bel Geddes joined the celebrated Actors Studio and made her Broadway debut in "Out of the Frying Pan" (1941). That led to roles in productions like "Little Darling" (1942), "Nine Girls" (1943), and "Mrs. January and Mr. X" (1944). However, it was Elia Kazan's highly successful interracial love story "Deep are the Roots" (1945-46) that really established the young actress. Bel Geddes was presented with a Theatre World Award for her performance and accepted a movie contract offer from RKO Radio Pictures. The company was so eager to have her, they agreed to Bel Geddes' request that she was only required to appear in one movie a year, an unusual concession during the contract player days when studio bosses ruled with an iron fist and only the top stars had any real say in their careers.

RKO first paired her with Henry Fonda in the film noir thriller "The Long Night" (1947). The picture was something of a disappointment, but many more moviegoers were able to see Bel Geddes in her next outing. George Stevens' "I Remember Mama" (1948) cast her opposite Irene Dunne in a superb adaptation of John Van Druten's moving drama about the trials and tribulations of a Norwegian family living in California during the early 20th century. Bel Geddes earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination and also appeared with RKO stalwart Robert Mitchum in the Western "Blood on the Moon" (1948), but when the studio was purchased by Howard Hughes, the eccentric millionaire let her go. The man who had become fixated by the likes of Jane Russell felt that Bel Geddes was "not sexy enough," so after appearances in the James Mason drama "Caught" (1949), Elia Kazan's "Panic in the Streets" (1950) and "Fourteen Hours" (1951) for other studios, she returned to the Great White Way with roles in "Burning Bright" (1950) and Otto Preminger's hugely successful adult comedy "The Moon is Blue" (1951-53). She also began to log time on the small screen, with guest appearances on programs like "Robert Montgomery Presents" (NBC, 1950-57), "Pulitzer Prize Playhouse" (ABC, 1950-52), and "Studio One" (CBS, 1948-1958).

Any regrets Bel Geddes might still have had regarding her experience in Hollywood were further diminished when she was given the lead role in another huge Broadway success, Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1955-56). Once again acting under the supervision of Elia Kazan, Bel Geddes gave a remarkable performance as "Maggie the Cat" in the steamy Southern Gothic, receiving a Tony Award nomination. As with "The Moon is Blue," Bel Geddes did not reprise her role in the subsequent film adaptation, but her return to the big screen came in one of the decade's finest productions. While not all critics were kind upon its original release, Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958) was later considered to be among his most stylish and fascinating thrillers. While Kim Novak played the female lead, Bel Geddes provided excellent support as the loyal friend of James Stewart's troubled, acrophobia-plagued protagonist.

The actress' association with the Master of Suspense carried over to his popular television series, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (CBS/NBC, 1955-62). Bel Geddes appeared in four episodes of the program, including the classic "Lamb to the Slaughter," in which she memorably portrayed a murderess who bludgeons her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb and disposes of the murder weapon by cooking and serving it to the policemen investigating the case. She notched additional TV appearances on "Playhouse 90" (CBS, 1956-1960), "The United States Steel Hour" (ABC/CBS, 1953-1963) and "Riverboat" (NBC, 1959-1961), and also graced the superior Danny Kaye biopic "The Five Pennies" (1959), the World War II drama "5 Branded Women" (1960) and the Lana Turner vehicle "By Love Possessed" (1961). However, movie audiences soon had to do without Bel Geddes for an extended stretch, thanks to the knockout Broadway success of the comedy "Mary, Mary" (1961-64) for which she garnered a second Tony nomination. She also did stints as a replacement performer in the comedy hit "Luv" (1964-67) and Edward Albee's "Everything in the Garden" (1967-68), as well as a handful of guest spots to keep the money rolling in on shows like "CBS Playhouse" (CBS, 1967-1970) and "Daniel Boone" (NBC, 1964-1970).

In the wake of these successes, Bel Geddes decided to put her career on hold in 1966 when her husband, Windsor Lewis, was stricken with cancer. The cost of the required medical care took a toll on their finances and she went back to work in the movies "Summertree" (1971), an early vehicle for Michael Douglas, and the lurid psycho thriller "The Todd Killings" (1971). Following Windsor's death in 1972, she took a final Broadway bow opposite Robert Lansing in the comedy "Finishing Touches" (1973) and co-starred in a well-regarded made-for-TV remake of "Our Town" (NBC, 1977). Now in her mid-fifties, Bel Geddes reportedly did not care for much of what played on network television, so she must have been surprised when the part she was most famous for came courtesy of that medium.

Cast as Ellie Ewing, matriarch of a Texas family who made its fortune in the oil industry, Bel Geddes was arguably the most dependably impressive cast member of "Dallas" (CBS, 1978-1991). The primetime soap quickly became a cultural phenomenon and the "Who Shot J.R.?" cliffhanger episode from 1980 was the highest-rated program in television history up to that point, with an estimated 83 million viewers. Unfortunately, Bel Geddes experienced her own health crisis in 1984 when she suffered a major heart attack. She was replaced as Ellie for a six-month stretch by veteran movie and television star Donna Reed, but Bel Geddes had become so established in the part by that point, viewers never really accepted her. After Reed was rather unceremoniously dumped from the program, Bel Geddes rejoined to the cast when she well enough. Appearing in just under 300 episodes of the show, Bel Geddes won the 1980 Best Lead Actress Emmy Award and followed it up in 1982 with a Golden Globe.

Following 12 seasons on "Dallas," Bel Geddes retired in 1990, a year before the show left the air. She spent her time working on a line of greeting cards and writing a pair of children's books, but her many years of smoking brought about another health crisis. Bel Geddes was diagnosed with lung cancer and succumbed to the disease on August 8, 2005. In 2012, "Dallas" made an unexpected return to television screens via an updated version of the show on the TNT network. Although Bel Geddes had passed away almost a decade earlier, the producers of the new incarnation paid tribute to her and co-star Jim Davis, who had played Ellie's husband on the series until his death in 1981, via a painting of the couple, which was featured prominently on the Southfork Ranch set.

By John Charles

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