Tony Nominee Barbara Bel Geddes, Broadway's "Cat" on a Hot Tin Roof, Dead at 82
By Kenneth Jones
Barbara Bel Geddes, the actress who originated the role of antsy, hungry Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof decades before she played the more composed matriarch Miss Ellie Ewing on TV's "Dallas," died Aug. 8 of cancer, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Ms. Bel Geddes, whose Broadway credits also included Jean Kerr's smash Mary, Mary; Robert Anderson's Silent Night, Lonely Night (opposite Henry Fonda); The Living Room; Burning Bright; and Edward Albee's Everything in the Garden, was 82.
Her father was the designer, producer and architect Norman Bel Geddes. The actress reportedly died at her home in Northeast Harbor, Maine. Ms. Bel Geddes had smoked for many years.
Ms. Bel Geddes was Tony Award-nominated in the category of Leading Actress for both Cat and Mary, Mary (two title roles), and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the film ''I Remember Mama.''
For her turn as the thoughtful, loyal and sometimes quietly exasperated wife and mother of a family of oil tycoons, Ms. Bel Geddes won an Emmy Award in 1980 as Best Lead Actress in a Drama Series.
''She was the rock of 'Dallas,''' Larry Hagman, who played son J.R. Ewing, told The Associated Press. ''She was just a really nice woman and a wonderful actress. She was kind of the glue that held the whole thing together.''
After Ms. Bel Geddes suffered a heart attack in 1984, Miss Ellie was briefly played by Donna Reed until the original actress returned.
Those who know her as the bird-like, winsome Miss Ellie of "Dallas" may have been surprised to learn that she was the first actress to play sexually frustrated (indeed, greedy) Maggie in Tennessee Williams' Southern-fried Pulitzer Prize-winning play about lies and avarice, Cat on the Hot Tin Roof (1955).
Ms. Bel Geddes was born in New York City. She first appeared on stage in 1940, in a walk-on role in The School for Scandal at the Clinton Playhouse in Connecticut. She made her New York City debut in 1941 in Out of the Frying Pan at the Windsor Theatre, followed by a tour of Junior Miss, and Broadway turns in little-known plays such as Mrs. January and Mr. X, The Moon Is Blue and Deep Are the Roots (for which she won a New York Drama Critics Award as Best Actress in 1945).
At the Robin Hood Theatre in Wilmington, DE, she appeared in plays produced by her husband, Windsor Lewis, who died of cancer in 1972. (A previous marriage to engineer Carl Schreuer ended in divorce.) In Wilmington, she starred in Liliom, Born Yesterday, The Respectful Prostitute, Claudia, The Voice of the Turtle and The Winter Palace.
Her movie credits included Elia Kazan's ''Panic in the Streets,'' Alfred Hitchcock's ''Vertigo" (as James Stewart's concerned ex-fiancee) "The Five Pennies," ''Five Branded Women," "By Love Possessed,'' ''Summertree'' and ''The Todd Killings.''
According to Cat director Elia Kazan's memoir, "A Life," Tennessee Williams did not want Ms. Bel Geddes as Maggie, but Kazan did. In an early rehearsal, Williams interrupted her lines by saying, "More melody in your voice, Barbara; Southern girls have melody in their — "
Kazan cut him off. "She was the kind of actress I liked," Kazan wrote. "I'd known her when she was a plump young girl and I had a theory — which you are free to ignore — that when a girl is fat in her early and middle teens and slims down later, she is left with an uncertainty about her appeal to boys, and what often results is a strong sexual appetite… I trusted my knowledge of her own nature and life and therefore cast her."
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