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.