Hilda & Hildy

February 7, 2011

Who was Hilda Brawner?

If you’re a fellow devotee of the New York-based television dramas of the early sixties, I’ll bet you’ve wondered the same thing at some point.

Hilda was a pretty brunette who appeared on Broadway a lot, starting in the late fifties, and then in some of the last gasps of live television.  On stage, Elia Kazan directed her in Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth; the stars were Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, and Rip Torn, and Bruce Dern and Diana Hyland toiled alongside Hilda in the supporting cast.  For television, she was on The DuPont Show of the Month and on The Guiding Light for a while in 1963.  She played small parts on The Nurses and Route 66 (in the Sam Peckinpah-directed episode “Mon Petit Chou,” with Lee Marvin and playing second fiddle to French import Macha Meril, later the star of Godard’s Une Femme Mariée).

If you’re lucky enough to have seen Reginald Rose’s meticulous, devastating indictment of capital punishment, the “Metamorphosis” episode of The Defenders, then you will remember Hilda as the wife of Robert Duvall’s young death row inmate.  But it’s most likely that you recall Hilda from Naked City, which seemed to hold a particular affection for her.  She appeared on the show three times, first in secondary roles, then finally in a lead in “Alive and Still a Second Lieutenant,” latterly famous as Jon Voight’s television debut.  In “Alive,” Hilda played the girlfriend of Robert Sterling’s sweaty, ulcerous business executive (dare I say it? a Roger Sterling type; could the actor be the source of the name?), who spirals out of control following a violent road-rage incident.

Now that you’ve seen the screen grab above, you’ll have some idea of why I became mildly obsessed with Hilda — and with whatever happened to her.  Because Hilda’s last credit came in 1964, and there seemed to be no trace of her after that.  Did she die young?  Marry and raise four kids on Long Island?  Hook up with a network executive and ensconce herself on Central Park South?

Well, no, none of that, it seems.  Hilda Brawner, pretty ingenue, changed her name and became Hildy Brooks, busy character actress.  Hildy played supporting roles in lots of movies (The Anderson Tapes, Islands in the Stream, Playing For Keeps, Eating) and guest-starred in dozens of television episodes during the seventies and eighties.  I remember her as one-third of “A Very Strange Triangle,” a bisexual love story that was controversial when it aired on The Bold Ones in 1971.  Hildy still works – she’s in one of the last episodes of Nip/Tuck, one that I haven’t seen yet – although I couldn’t locate her for this piece.  Are you out there, Hildy?

Incidentally, although I seem to be the first person on the internet to put Hilda & Hildy together, I can’t really take credit for it.  Her name change is mentioned in a couple of memoirs, and Jeffrey Sweet’s Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of The Second City & The Compass Players.  Plus, there was a big clue that I missed for years: under different names, Hilda and Hildy played the same role in the two recorded versions of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, Sidney Lumet’s videotaped videotaped Play of the Week two-parter of 1960 and John Frankenheimer’s film from 1973.  Here she is in both.

Hilda Brawner (left) and Julie Bovasso as Margie and Pearl, 1960.

Hildy Brooks (left) and Nancy Juno Dawson as Margie and Pearl, 1973.  Below: Hildy Brooks in a 2007 episode of Boston Legal.

HildyBL

Cloud Minder Girl

March 21, 2010

A few months ago, I watched an episode of Hawaii Five-O, “The Second Shot,” which guest-starred a little-known actress named Charlene Polite.  Who was this pretty redhead with the congenial name, I wondered, and whatever became of her?

She was born in Ohio, on June 30, 1943, and attended Youngstown University in the mid-sixties.  There she met and married the writer Frank Polite, who was probably one of her instructors.  Frank Polite, who died in 2005, became a poet of some renown and influence, especially in Ohio; of the many tributes to him that can be found on the internet, this is the best.

After graduating from Youngstown, Charlene Polite enjoyed some success in regional theater.  She went to the Pittsburgh Playhouse on a post-grad scholarship and joined the American Conservatory Theater, a company formed by the controversial young Off-Broadway director William Ball.  (Ball, a suicide in 1991, also passed briefly through television: He directed a couple of episodes of The Defenders.)

Polite made her film debut in 1968, in Bullitt; she had already done some stage roles on the West Coast, and may have followed the ACT when Ball moved it from Pittsburgh to San Francisco in 1967.  By 1969, Polite had relocated to Los Angeles and was doing guest leads on shows like My Friend Tony, Mayberry R.F.D., Cannon, and The Doris Day Show.  Like many actors, she is best known today for a single appearance on Star Trek.

“The Cloud Minders,” a late entry in the show’s third and final season, is one of those well-intentioned but clumsy political allegories for which Star Trek became famous.  It’s the story of class warfare between a race of cave-dwelling miners and the privileged layabouts who oppress them from a cloud city floating far above the surface.  Sparks fly between Captain Kirk and the sexy rebel leader played by Polite, while Mr. Spock explains his seven-year mating cycle to the cloud city princess (Diana Ewing, another ingenue who had a busy career in the late sixties and early seventies and then disappeared completely).  As “Vanna,” Polite gets to grapple in the dirt with William Shatner (twice), show off a pair of Bill Theiss’s gravity-defying gowns, and shriek as she’s tortured in an alien ray machine.

*

Charlene Polite’s career in television lasted only a few years.  A Mod Squad in 1972 and then a Blue Knight in 1976 were her last jobs.  I couldn’t find much about what she did afterward; a second marriage, stepchildren, and possibly more work in local theater.

In the late nineties, Polite became ill and moved back to Youngstown to be close to her ex-husband.

“Charlene was like my Auntie Mame,” said Khepri Polite, a son of Frank Polite by his second wife.  “She was beautiful, extravagant, and eccentric.”

Khepri added, in a note to me via Facebook, that

my favorite line from her was from Star Trek, “You sleep lightly, Captain!” I remember when she would come to visit. She would stay with my father and step-mother. My father would creep into her room in the morning and wake her up with that line. He’d have a cup of coffee instead of a dagger in his hand though. We’d laugh, she had a great sense of humor.

Charlene Polite died of cancer on June 21, 1999.

Above: Charlene Polite in Star Trek (“The Cloud Minders,” 1969).  Top of post: Polite in Hawaii Five-O (“The Second Shot,” 1970).


Mary Scott in “Mr. Blanchard’s Secret”

Our last obituary for 2009 (or so I hope) is also a belated one.  Based on a search of public records and information provided by the Screen Actors Guild, I have confirmed that actress Mary Scott died on April 22 in Riverside County, Los Angeles, under the name Mary Lydia Heller.

Scott accrued a number of film and television credits from the early forties through the early sixties, but she will probably be remembered as (1) the wife of British character actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke, in one of Hollywood’s more unlikely May-December romances; and (2) the star of “Mr. Blanchard’s Secret,” one of the seventeen episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents directed by the Master of Suspense himself.

Born in Los Angeles on December 9, 1921, Scott began her movie career at Twentieth Century-Fox in 1940.  She was still underage when the head of that studio, Darryl Zanuck, spotted her working in the coat-check room at Ciro’s.  Zanuck admired her legs and directed an underling to sign Scott to a player contract.  She made her film debut in an early scene in Kings Row, as one of the Ross sisters.  (The other sister was Julie Warren, who gave up her acting career to marry John Forsythe.)

Hardwicke, an esteemed character actor of the English stage with a famously plummy voice, was under contract to Fox at the same time.  Their romance began on a double date in Beverly Hills, and Scott followed the married Hardwicke back to Broadway (where he contrived to have her replace Lilli Palmer, his co-star in Caesar and Cleopatra, when Palmer took ill) and then on to London.  Only when she became pregnant with a son, Michael, did Hardwicke divorce his first wife and marry Scott, who was twenty-eight years his junior.

More socialite than serious actress, Scott played small roles in a number of films and TV segments during the fifties.  She supported Grace Kelly and Richard Greene (TV’s Robin Hood) in a live production of “Berkeley Square” for the Prudential Family Playhouse, and turned up on M Squad, Hazel, and The Patty Duke Show.  “Mr. Blanchard’s Secret,” a semi-parody of Rear Window, had Scott as distaff version of James Stewart’s character, a mystery writer who thinks her neighbor may have committed a murder.

“Mr. Blanchard’s Secret” was a major showcase for Scott, and much like “Into Thin Air,” an earlier Hitchcock episode built around Hitch’s daughter Pat, it feels as if someone had attempted an act of star-building – albeit perhaps more as a favor than out of true conviction in the prospective star’s talent.  Mary Scott appeared in seven more segments of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and, like Pat Hitchcock’s roles on that series, Scott’s parts gradually diminished in size until, in 1965’s “The Trap,” she was just an extra in a crowd scene.

I always surmised that Scott was part of either Hitchcock’s or producer Joan Harrison’s social circle, but I could never find any substantial information on her.  For years I tried, off and on, to track her down, but I had no idea if she was still living or even how old she was.  In “Blanchard” Scott wore her hair in an unusually short, tomboyish cut that subtracted some years, and in the pre-Internet Movie Database era, there was no source that connected her TV credits with those of the obscure pre-war Fox contract actress.  And then Scott seemed to have disappeared after her last Hitchcock appearance.  She was a mystery, with a name too common to track down.  Finally I found her – eight months too late.

But then I made another discovery that partly makes up for that disappointment.  In 2000, Scott published a memoir, Nobody Ever Accused Me of Being a ‘Lady, through a now-defunct British vanity press.  It is a disjointed and somewhat superficial book, but a fascinating read.  Scott offers a matter-of-fact account of many personal tragedies: abandonment by an alcoholic father; molestation by a neighbor at age five; a brother’s death in combat during World War II; and finally the drug-related suicide of Michael Hardwicke in 1983.

Candidly, she depicts her show business career as a welcome escape from those grim events, and perhaps that’s why her autobiography ends up dwelling more on party-going and name-dropping than on matters of substance.  (Among the gossip: affairs with Ronald Reagan and David Niven; Darryl Zanuck, diminutive penis exposed, trying to rape her in his office at Fox.)

Still, Scott turns a droll phrase now and then – Charles Laughton cut a figure “like a limp macaroni tube” – and while she left many of my questions unanswered, this passage went a long way toward satisfying my curiosity about her attraction to Sir Cedric:

He was the most distinguished man I had ever met.  He displayed a sly wit which was so subtle that it might easily have been missed if one was not alert.  He dressed immaculately – Savile Row, naturally.  And while Cedric did not have conventional good looks, he had – and I hate using this term, but it really fits – class . . . and plenty of it.  His honesty and integrity were above reproach.  His voice, sonorous, deep and rich, . . . was like a good vintage wine; it kept improving.  It was his premier instrument and I often wished that I could bottle it.

And as for Hitchcock?  Scott does recount a few stories about working and dining with Hitch . . . but for those, you’ll have to track down her book.

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