Posted by medusamorlock on January 29, 2008
It’s been a bad couple of weeks to be a celebrity; the sheer number of recent show business deaths is daunting, and somehow even I missed the passing of one of my favorite actresses on January 18th. The reliable, lovely, and extremely talented Lois Nettleton died of lung cancer (like Suzanne Pleshette) on that date, and once again we’re left knowing mostly how much we will miss her.
Born in 1927, Lois came to show business from humble beginnings, from a broken home and limited circumstances. The determined and imaginative young girl who put on shows in her backyard grew into a charming young woman with her heart already on the stage, and she took one of the few openings available to her. She entered a beauty pageant and became Miss Chicago, parlaying that exposure into study at Chicago’s famed Goodman Theater and later in New York with the Actors Studio. Lois made her Broadway debut in 1949, and had many theatrical successes including understudying Barbara Bel Geddes in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 1955 production.
As a successful NY stage actress she was primed to enter the verdant world of live TV drama which was flourishing during the 1950s. She broke into the medium and became a frequent guest star on the big anthologies of the day — Studio One, Armstrong Circle Theatre — and managed to make her big screen debut in an uncredited role in the Andy Griffith feature A Face in the Crowd, helmed by her Cat on a Hot Tin Roof director Elia Kazan (which is probably how she got the part). Then it was back to television for more guest roles, then Lois was spotted by MGM and became one of the last of their contract players. After a major co-starring role in Period of Adjustment in 1962 opposite Tony Franciosa and Jane Fonda, she stepped into the role of a stewardess in 1964’s Come Fly with Me. It was a role first offered to one of MGM’s other talented young female contractees Mariette Hartley, but when Hartley had to drop out when she received a hepatitis diagnosis (from a doctor who soon committed suicide) — and she later found out she didn’t have it at all — Lois got the part, opposite Karl Malden. That same year she also made a modest western called Mail Order Bride opposite Keir Dullea, in which one of her costumes was the same wedding dress that Mariette Hartley had worn in her role as Elsa in MGM’s 1962 Sam Peckinpah-directed Ride the High Country.
But a career on the big screen wasn’t to be Nettleton’s strong suit. She became instead a stalwart television performer, a perennial guest star on just about any major series of the time, including a memorable role on The Twilight Zone in an episode called “The Midnight Sun” which is an eerie tale about an Earth where the sun keeps getting hotter and hotter, and other great dramas like Dr. Kildare, The Fugitive, Bonanza, The Nurses, East Side, West Side, Route 66, Gunsmoke and so many more. She also had a brief try at a series of her own opposite Jerry Van Dyke in NBC’s 1967 sitcom Accidental Family, but had better luck with the hour dramas that clamored for her classy presence. The growing world of made-for-TV movies also benefited from her performances; though often a tad on the B-movie subject matter side — Weekend of Terror, Women in Chains, Terror in the Sky (the titles tell it all) — the talented ensemble casts of TV favorites and slumming movie stars made for a lively and popular form that pepped up TV schedules throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In addition to the more cult-ish titles, she also appeared in pretigious TV movies like The Forgotten Man, a 1971 production co-starring Dennis Weaver about a returning Vietnam vet, and 1975’s Fear on Trial starring George C. Scott and William Devane (as blacklisted personality John Henry Faulk). She also made a wonderful impression in her role in the sprawling 12-episode miniseries Centennial in 1978, and in the mini Washington: Behind Closed Doors in 1977.
In addition to all the TV credits which kept piling up with satisfying regularity — Kung Fu, Medical Center, Hawaii Five-O, Mary Tyler Moore, Night Gallery, Marcus Welby, M.D., Bracken’s World (in a great episode about a nude scene!) — Lois also managed to make a few big screen appearances, including 1982’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas opposite Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton, 1975’s The Man in the Glass Booth with Maximilian Schell, 1970’s Dirty Dingus Magee with Frank Sinatra, 1976’s Echoes of a Summer with a very young Jodie Foster, and a few others. She won two Daytime Emmy Awards, was nominated for several primetime Emmy acting awards, for her work in an episode of The Golden Girls, her regular role on In the Heat of the Night, and for her role in the Fear on Trial movie.
Lois Nettleton never stopped. The TV work went on, and she also had a triumph onstage when she took over the role of Blance DuBois in a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1973, and as the years went on she was a frequent stage performer in NYC and other venues, including a run in A Little Night Music in Los Angeles in 1991. There was hardly a TV show or a genre that she didn’t tackle, and thankfully she got the opportunity to play both in drama and comedy, showing off her easy versatility and grace that made every Lois Nettleton performance a special treat to behold. One of her last TV credits was a TV movie in 2006 for the Hallmark Channel, but she had been constantly busy up until that time, also moving in to doing voice work for several popular animated series.
In terms of her private life, Lois was married to humorist/raconteur Jean Shepherd from 1960 – 1967, an interesting relationship which was forged when she and Shepherd appeared in a play together, then when Shepherd was a late-night radio call-in show host in NYC, Lois would call in frequently and became a regular on the broadcasts. After they divorced, Lois would never marry again. She divided her time between an apartment in New York and a place in Los Angeles; she passed away at the Motion Picture and Television Fund Hospital in Woodland Hills, California. (Please read the third comment below posted by Mr. Bergmann; he has more –and more accurate — information about Lois and Jean Shepherd's marriage. Thanks, Mr. B!)
In hundreds of performances, Lois Nettleton came across as an intelligent, warm, and genuinely gifted actress, an independent spirit who stayed true to herself when lesser talents frittered away their uniqueness. Keep an eye out for her when you are watching television; she’ll never be far away, and you’ll never forget her.
Lois Nettleton, August 6, 1927 – January 18, 2008.
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