Where Were You the Day Mia Farrow Cut Her Hair?: A Micro Oral History
February 11, 2014
In the early days of 1966, a seismic event rocked the soundstages of one of the most popular television series of the time, and, eventually, the pages of the gossip magazines.
Mia Farrow cut off all her hair.
Farrow, the twenty year-old breakout star of ABC’s smash prime-time serial Peyton Place, had become famous not just for her work on the series, but also for her romance with Frank Sinatra (who was two and a half times her age) and for the trend-setting long blond locks that hung down almost to her waist.
One morning, in the middle of a shooting day, Farrow took a pair of scissors and chopped off nearly all of those locks. Eventually, her androgynous new ’do would become just as much of a fashion statement as the old one. But, in the short term, the writers and production crew scrambled to fix the gigantic continuity problem that their mercurial star had suddenly created. It wasn’t the first time they’d had to scramble to accommodate Farrow’s whims: a few months earlier, her insistence on joining Sinatra for a vacation on a private yacht off Martha’s Vineyard had forced the writers to abruptly put Farrow’s character, Alison Mackenzie, into a coma following a hit-and-run accident.
Ultimately, the episode in production during the infamous haircut- number 182 – took a self-reflexive turn. A petulant Alison attempts to defend her shearing to a skeptical Dr. Rossi (Ed Nelson), in whose care she has remained after awakening from the coma. Rossi guesses that Alison is acting out because of recent upheavals in her family life (specifically, she has learned that her birth occurred out of wedlock). “You know what it really means, Doctor? It really means that I got tired of my long hair. Simple,” is Alison’s final word on the matter. Well, nearly final: as other characters saw Alison and reacted over the next few episodes, the writers worked in a few more barbs about the short hair.
This was Peyton Place’s JFK assassination moment, and its Rashomon – everyone who was present remembered it, and all of them remembered it differently. Over the years, as I did the research that became the basis for my A.V. Club piece on the series, I came to see the incident of Mia’s hair as the ultimate example of both the value and the peril of oral history. If the accuracy of any single source’s memory must be subject to doubt, the cross-section of incompatible impressions nevertheless captures the essence of the moment in dramatic detail.
Ed Nelson (actor, “Dr. Michael Rossi”): One time she had been on a cruise with Sinatra and Claudette Colbert, on Claudette’s yacht down in the Caribbean. When she came back, she was in a scene where she had been in bed and I had to help her walk. And she wouldn’t look at me in any of the dialogue. In between rehearsals, I said, “What’s the deal? You’re not looking at me.” She says, “Well, Claudette told me, ‘Never look at the man that much. Let him look at you.’” I said, “Oh.” So when she got up to walk and I was supposed to grab her when she almost fell, I let her go and she fell. She got up and started pounding on my chest: “You let me fall!” I said, “If I’d let you fall as far as you should, you’d have gone to China!” She was very, very upset ….
Patricia Morrow (actress, “Rita Jacks”): That’s so cute, because Mia, long before she went on a cruise, she knew more from her dad and her mom than anybody that there was a way for everyone’s attention to be [on her]. I was cracking up, because I loved her. She was just so unique and one of a kind. But in every scene, everybody’s eyes would gravitate to Mia on film. It was because she was playing around with the makeup. Bob Hauser, the director of photography, would say, “She can’t do that!” He’d go to the makeup man and say, “You’ve got to do this and that,” and Mia always found ways around it. She was so smart in her guts about what was attention-getting.
Richard DeRoy (executive script consultant): I’m not the earliest riser in the world, particularly in those days, and Paul [Monash, the executive producer] called one morning. My wife Jewel comes into the bedroom and [says], “It’s Paul!” I’m groggy. What could he be calling me about? He says, “Dick! Mia cut off her hair in the middle of an episode!”
I said, “Paul, we’ll deal with it.” And hung up. I don’t even remember what we did.
Del Reisman (associate producer): That was one of those times when Paul called me and said, “Get down on the set, fast. Mia cut her hair.” So I went down on the set with two or three other people, maybe Sonya [Roberts, a staff writer], and she had indeed cut her hair. Well, film has to match. You can’t have a girl with blonde hair down to her hips, and then the next scene there’s nothing.
Everett Chambers (producer): We went through the haircutting of Mia Farrow. I got a call from the assistant director, who says, “You’d better come down on the stage. Mia’s just cut her hair off.”
I said, “What are you talking about?”
He said, “She cut her hair!”
“What do you mean?”
“She cut her hair off.”
So I go down there and she’s in the makeup room with no hair, right? And I said, “Holy shit. What is shooting?” And they shot this scene, and they shot that scene, and they were supposed to shoot another one that was supposed to before the ones that she just did. I said, “Uh-oh. We’re in trouble. How are we going to work that out?” So I said to the hairdresser, “I dunno how you do it, put her hair back on! I’ll be back.”
I went up to Paul Monash’s office. I said, “Paul, we got a problem.”
“What is it?”
I said, “Mia just cut her hair off.”
He looked at me for a minute and he said, “You know, I just bought this book. Takes place in Singapore. It’s about this guy….” He starts telling me all about that book. Nothing to do with this problem.
I said, “Okay, Paul. Thank you!”
So I went into my office, looked at the script, saw we would have to change this and this, and then reverse this scene and put it here and add a couple of lines over here so it’ll make sense that she did it in between scenes. So I worked that out, and we had to then get a writer to fix it and put the pages through and get it down on the stage. That’s how we dealt with that.
Ed Nelson: I think she cut it herself, because it was whacked up originally. Of course everybody knew nothing about it. We were shooting and all of a sudden we found out. So I went over to [makeup department head] Ben Nye and I had him put me on a bald head. Bill Hole was our [associate producer], and I had him go in front of me and say, “Yeah, I know about Mia, but have you seen Nelson?” And I went into the set and they went crazy! They all laughed. They even shot a couple of feet of film of Mia and I, which I wish I had.
Patricia Morrow: Ed is the one who actually made the situation much less tense on the set because all the producers and the broadcast people were there. It was a nightmare. All of us were just tiptoeing around on eggshells. And it was such a relief to laugh.
Walter Doniger (series director, shooting or preparing another episode while 182 was being filmed): You know the story of her cutting her hair, don’t you? Mia had beautiful long hair, and one day I’m walking down the street and I feel a [tense] vibration in the air. I asked someone who worked on the show, “What the hell is going on?”
“Mia cut her hair!”
I said, “What? In the middle of the day?”
Paul Monash asked me to talk to her, and I went in to her and said, “What happened, Mia?” She said, “It’s Barbara [Parkins, who played Alison's on-screen rival Betty Anderson]. She looks in mirrors all the time. I couldn’t stand it. I decided I didn’t want to be that way myself, so I cut my hair.” Barbara was a sweet girl, but very self-adoring.
Jeffrey Hayden (director of episode 182; from his Archive of American Television interview, conducted by the author): Mia was lovely – very young, very malleable, very eager to make it. She, at a certain point, was going out with Frank Sinatra. I knew Frank Sinatra; I’d met him a few times. She came to me one day and said, “Oh, Jeff, I’m so excited. I’m going to go out with Frank tonight, and we’re going to go here and there….” This was early in the relationship.
I said, “Mia. You’re in the first shot tomorrow morning, and I know Sinatra. He’s going to keep you out, if he can, till three o’clock in the morning, with his date at the club, and he’s going to be singing, and he’s going to want to go out with his buddies. And you’re going to go with him, and it’ll be four in the morning, and Mia – you’re in the first shot tomorrow morning. Please. You’ve got to be here on time, we gotta go. It’s a big day’s work ahead of us, and I want to see you not bleary-eyed first thing in the morning, first shot.”
“Okay, Jeff, okay. Don’t worry, don’t worry.”
Next morning, seven o’clock, seven-thirty, no Mia. Eight o’clock, no Mia. I start shooting inserts, keeping the crew busy. Nine o’clock, she’s not there. She walks in [at] ten o’clock. I said, “Mia, do you realize – you know, I’m shooting inserts so they don’t bother me from the front office. But we have,” whatever it was, “ten pages to do today. It’s ten o’clock. Get to that makeup table. Stop this little girl stuff! You’re an actress. You’re a mature person. You’ve got a crew of seventy-five people waiting to shoot your scenes.”
She left. She walked over to the makeup table. I’m now setting up the camera for her first shot. She came a minute, a minute and a half later, she walked over to me, held up her hand, full of the hair from the back of her head, and she said, “Jeff, no more little girl stuff.” And handed me all her hair.
I said, “Mia. We’ve gotta match your last scene from yesterday’s shooting. What’ll we do?”
“Well, I don’t know,” she said. “I just wanted you to know: I’m growing up. No more little girl.”
Del Reisman: She was, or had been, involved with Sinatra, and Nancy Sinatra, the wife or ex-wife of Sinatra, threw a birthday party for him. It was his fiftieth birthday. [Mia] was definitely not invited, and he [Sinatra] would not take her. And she was so angry that she did this to herself.
Everett Chambers: After she did it, I had a meeting with her and understood that she was in some pain, with this relationship – with Sinatra. She told me he didn’t invite her to his birthday party. Then, of course, they get married [six months] later.
Del Reisman: The whole writing group met in my office: “Okay, what are we going to do?” We decided that off-stage, she had had some kind of an emotional breakdown, because it was easy with that character to suggest that. We had Dr. Rossi come in to the room, and the scene was this: Dr. Rossi, very angry, saying, “Why have you done this to yourself? You’ve done a terrible thing. You’ve hurt your mother, you’ve really heart a lot of people by mutilating yourself.” He had a huge speech, which a number of us worked on, and it was kind of our annoyance, the writing staff’s annoyance, at the fact that she messed us up.
Mia Farrow (from What Falls Away: A Memoir, 1997): It amazed me that girls my own age so often wrote about my hair, which in those days of “flips” and “bubbles” hung loose to my waist, solely because I was lazy and had never given much thought to it. The sudden focus on my looks and all the attention my hair was receiving was not entirely unpleasant, and that in itself made me wary. The horror of vanity instilled in convent school – the same fear of pride that had let me to bury the rosary beads I had made from acorns – compelled me to cut my hair.
I waited for a moment in the Peyton Place storyline when it would fit; Alison’s nervous breakdown was perfect. I didn’t ask for permission because I knew I wouldn’t get it: they would certainly oppose my changing any ingredient in a successful series. So one morning before work, in the makeup room, I picked up a pair of scissors and cut my hair to less than an inch in length, laid it in a plastic Glad bag, and turned to the mirror. It looked fine to me. But the hairdresser was aghast, and the producers were upset, and people with wigs were summoned, and there were stern lectures about responsibility, and I apologized a lot, but privately I couldn’t see a problem.
There must have been nothing going on in the world that week, because my haircut got an absurd amount of press coverage. There was wild speculation as to why I’d done it: some said it was to spite Frank, and back in New York, Dali, never one to minimize, labeled it “mythical suicide.” But there was no drama, no fight with Frank, he loved my hair the minute he saw it, so I kept it short for years.