Barbara Bel Geddes (October 31, 1922 – August 8, 2005) was an Oscar-nominated American actress, artist and children's author. Best known for her role on the hit CBS drama, Dallas, as matriarch Eleanor "Miss Ellie" Ewing, Bel Geddes also created the role of "Maggie" in the original broadway production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, and collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock in the classic Vertigo (1958).
Bel Geddes was born in New York City
, the daughter of Helen Belle (née Sneider) and stage and industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes
. Married to theatrical manager Carl Sawyer (aka Carl Schreuer) in 1944, and had one daughter, Susan. They divorced
in 1951. Later that year, she married stage director Windsor Lewis with whom she had a daughter, Betsy. When Lewis became ill in 1967, Bel Geddes suspended her career to care for him until his death in 1972.
1940s and 1950s
Bel Geddes began her career as a stage actress at the age of eighteen, going on to star in fifteen major Broadway
productions. Her most notable stage performances included the role of Maggie "The Cat" in Elia Kazan
's original production of Tennessee Williams Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
in 1956, and the title role in the long-running Jean Kerr comedy Mary, Mary
in 1961, both of which earned her Tony Award
nominations. Other highlights include F. Hugh Herbert's The Moon Is Blue
, John Steinbeck
's Burning Bright
, Edward Albee
's Everything in the Garden
and Silent Night, Lonely Night
with Henry Fonda
In 1946, Bel Geddes was awarded the Clarence Derwent Award, and the Donaldson Award for "Outstanding Achievement in The Theatre" for her performance in Deep Are The Roots. In 1952, she received the prestigious "Woman of the Year" Award from Harvard University's Hasty Pudding Theatricals, America's oldest theater company; In 1993, she was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame (located in the Gershwin Theatre in New York City), a distinction she shared with her father, stage and industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes.
Her film career began opposite Henry Fonda in 1947's The Long Night. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for I Remember Mama (1948). A House Unamerican Activities Committee investigation stalled her film career for a short time. She found new opportunity in television when Alfred Hitchcock cast her in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Lamb to the Slaughter," in which she played a housewife who killed her husband by bludgeoning him to death with a frozen leg of lamb, cooking the murder weapon, and then serving it to the investigating police. Hitchcock cast her again with James Stewart in his classic film Vertigo (1958). Bel Geddes also starred with Danny Kaye and jazz great Louis Armstrong in the screen musical The Five Pennies.
In 1978, Bel Geddes was the first performer signed to star in the CBS prime time soap opera
. The role of family matriarch, Miss Ellie Ewing
, brought her international recognition among modern audiences. She appeared on the series from 1978 to 1990 and remains the only cast member to win an Emmy (Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress - Drama Series
), as well as a Golden Globe (List of Golden Globe Awards: Television, Best Actress, Drama
). "She was the rock of Dallas
," Larry Hagman
, who played 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." In a later interview for the website "Ultimate Dallas", Hagman said "the reason I took the show, they said Barbara Bel Geddes is going to play your mother, and I said 'well that's a touch of class you know', so of course I wanted to work with her."
In the early 1970s, Bel Geddes underwent a radical mastectomy, an experience she relived in the 1979-80 season of Dallas. This was the storyline that earned her the Emmy Award.
In March 1983, Bel Geddes underwent quadruple by-pass heart surgery and subsequently missed a third of the 1983-84 season of Dallas, her character being temporarily written out of the show. The following year, she decided to step down from the role altogether. Rather than kill off the character, the producers decided to replace Bel Geddes with veteran actress Donna Reed for the 1984-85 season. However, with the rival show Dynasty finally surpassing Dallas in the ratings for the 1984-85 season, and with the departure of Patrick Duffy that year, the producers made efforts to stabilize the show's slow decline. They reached an agreement with Bel Geddes that returned her to Dallas in time for the 1985-86 season.
Life after Dallas
Bel Geddes retired from acting in 1990 and settled in her home in Northeast Harbor, Maine
, where she continued to work as a fine artist. She was the author of two children's books, I Like to Be Me
and So Do I
, as well as the creator of a popular line of greeting cards. Looking back on her career, Bel Geddes told People magazine
: "They're always making me play well-bred ladies. I'm not very well bred, and I'm not much of a lady." She died of lung cancer
in Northeast Harbor
on August 8
- Barbara Bel Geddes: I Like to Be Me, Viking Juvenile (1963) - ISBN 0-67039-059-3
- Barbara Bel Geddes: So Do I, Price Stern Sloan Pub (1973) - ISBN 0-44803-420-4