An appreciation of the life and career of Eileen Heckart
By: Michael Buckley
On December 31, 2001, cancer claimed the life of a consummate actress and a truly nice woman. Since I had the good fortune to interview her on three occasions, I'd like to share some quotes and take a look back at the times of Eileen Heckart.
Fame came to Heckart with back-to-back successes: William Inge's Picnic and Maxwell Anderson's The Bad Seed, her seventh and eighth Broadway plays, in both of which she had memorable drunk scenes. In Picnic, Heckart played the spinster schoolteacher Rosemary Sidney, a role for which director Joshua Logan initially thought her too young (at 33). "Inge wanted me; he'd seen me on television," Heckart recalled, "but Josh Logan had already cast an older actress. I really got the part because Josh found out that Elia Kazan wanted me for a small role in Tea and Sympathy, and [Josh] said, 'He can't have her; I've got her!' I played the part for eight months before I felt that I really understood it and gave a good performance."
In The Bad Seed, Heckart gave a heartbreaking performance as Mrs. Daigle, mother of the boy drowned by Patty McCormack's murderous young Rhoda. According to Heckart, "The reason [McCormack] got the part was not only because she looked right--her mother had dyed her hair and put it in braids--but also because she came in by herself. She told [director] Reginald Denham, 'I conduct my own interviews.' She was eight! Of course, that had all been rehearsed between the mother and Patty, but she got it." Heckart left the cast after six months, she explained, "because I was getting sick. I carried too much of the baggage of the part with me. I didn't have enough technique. About four o'clock in the afternoon, I'd start getting depressed. I started to see the face of my son, Mark, who was about 2 at the time, as the drowning child. A doctor told me, 'You can't do this to yourself.'" Reprising her role in the 1956 movie version, she received an Oscar nomination but lost to Dorothy Malone for Written on the Wind. "I sent a wire of congratulations," said Heckart, "and she sent me a tub of begonias. I was overwhelmed!"
That was Heckart's first and most prolific year on the screen. Preceding The Bad Seed were three other movies: Miracle of the Rain (her film debut), Somebody Up There Likes Me (playing the mother of Paul Newman, with whom she had acted in Picnic and who was only six years her junior), and Bus Stop, in which she appeared as Marilyn Monroe's friend, a waitress--not, as stated in the Variety obit, an actress. In adapting William Inge's drama for the screen, George Axelrod created the role of Vera; and Josh Logan, who directed the film, talked Heckart into playing the part. "He read the entire script over the phone. The whole time he was reading, my family's waiting for dinner. Finally, the housekeeper walks in and says, 'Tell him yes, so we can eat.' That's how I did Bus Stop! But I'm glad I did."
Heckart had mixed emotions when it came to Monroe: "Off the set, she'd play catch, using oranges and grapefruits, with my sons. Guess who got stuck with cleaning up?" During filming, the star could be very difficult: "She didn't know her craft, but she knew every angle of the camera. There was so much pathos about her, it was painful to watch." Following an outdoor scene, Heckart and Monroe were walking back to their trailers ("I had a tiny one; she had this big mother") when some fans asked Monroe for autographs. "She signed, but didn't stop walking. People started to converge. I started to panic; the bile rose in my throat. Boy, did she handle herself well. She said to me, 'Walk faster. Don't look right or left.' She signed the entire time till we were at a break-run. Finally, we got inside her trailer and slammed the door. Outside, they were clawing to get in, trying to climb through the windows!"
Heckart could not have envisioned such a scene when she first stepped on stage, at age eight, in a Girl Scout camp. "I smelled blood," she admitted. "That start was enough to keep me going for the rest of my life." She was born Anna Eileen Heckart on March 29, 1919, in Columbus, Ohio. When she was two, her parents divorced. She stayed with her mother, who married four more times; her brother went with their father. As a child, Heckart accompanied her mom "to two double features on Saturdays and Sundays. That was eight movies in a weekend! I cut my teeth on Joan Crawford movies...she dragged a mink better than anyone else." Later, at Ohio State University, Heckart joined a theatrical group and there met her future husband, Jack Yankee. Married from 1943 until his death in 1996, the couple had three sons: Mark, Philip, and Luke.
Contrary to the New York Times obit, Heckart did not go directly from stock to television. After graduating from college in 1942, she came to New York, where she worked on the stage and radio; her TV debut occurred in 1947 and she later appeared in telecasts of numerous live dramas in the early '50s. Her Off-Broadway debut was in 1942's Tinker's Damn: "I played a cow--literally--who sat on a piano like Helen Morgan and sang a song." A role in an Equity Library Theater production of Holiday led to her first Broadway show, The Voice of the Turtle, in which Heckart understudied Betty Field (who had succeeded Margaret Sullavan) and Audrey Christie. "I was so naïve that I thought understudies automatically got to play," Heckart remembered. "Audrey Christie did allow me to go on, one matinee; she said, 'I'm going to have a toothache.' Ever since, I've tried to let the understudy go on at least once in plays I've done."
In 1944, she was cast in the ensemble of Our Town at New York's City Center. "Martha Scott came back from Hollywood to do it and Montgomery Clift played the boy. I had a wonderful cape and they said, 'Martha Scott wants that cape.' I said, 'Oh, boy, that's what being a star means.' I had to wear something that was too short. Years later, [Scott] and I laughed about it one night at dinner." Later in '44, Heckart did a USO production of Over Twenty-One starring Dorothy Gish. "I remember Dorothy saying, 'Lillian [her sister, Lillian Gish] is coming to see us. Don't offer me a cigarette.' I said, 'You're 46! Doesn't she know you smoke?' She was scared to death of her."
Stock, repertory, and touring preceded Heckart's next Broadway understudy stint in the short-lived Brighten the Corner. Other Broadway credits included They Knew What They Wanted (as an understudy), Trial Honeymoon (her actual debut), The Traitor, Hilda Crane, In Any Language, A View from the Bridge/A Memory of Two Mondays, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (Tony nomination), Invitation to a March (Tony nomination), Everybody Loves Opal, the musical A Family Affair (Hal Prince's directorial bow), Too True to Be Good, And Things That Go Bump in the Night, Barefoot in the Park, You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running, The Mother Lover (which closed opening night), Butterflies Are Free (Tony nomination), Veronica's Room, Ladies at the Alamo, and The Cemetery Club.
The Times and Variety obituaries, among others, erroneously stated that Heckart originated the part of the mother in Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park; actually, she took over the role from Mildred Natwick and played it for eight months. "I'd turned it down originally because I didn't want to sign a two-year contract," she told me, "and also because I was unsure of Mike Nichols as a director. It was his first show and I only knew him from [his] comedy act with Elaine May."
Her favorite stage role, Heckart claimed, was Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage, which she played at UCLA in 1960 and in a 1975 engagement at the McCarter in Princeton, New Jersey: "Those last four performances were the most gratifying of my life." She believed that her best work on Broadway was "as Lottie Lacey in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. The part was beautifully written [by William Inge], and Elia Kazan [who directed] had four ideas for every one I had." Though Heckart's performance was praised, her role in the 1959 movie version went to Eve Arden.
One of my personal favorite Heckart performances was as Melba Snyder, the reporter who sings "Zip," in a 1961 City Center revival of Pal Joey that had Bob Fosse in the title role. "During rehearsals," Heckart recalled, "Fosse [who was neither choreographing nor directing] asked if I was happy. I told him that I wasn't pleased with the way my scene was staged. He rented a studio. Gwen [Verdon] cooked dinner for us. We reworked the movement, with Fosse in front of me and Gwen beside me. They were just marvelous!"
In 2000, Heckart announced her retirement following an acclaimed performance as Gladys Green, an Alzheimer's victim, in Kenneth Lonergan's The Waverly Gallery. She also received a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement. She won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress of 1972 for recreating her Broadway role as the possessive mother in Butterflies Are Free. Among Heckart's other awards were a 1966 local New York Emmy for Save Me a Place at Forest Lawn and a 1994 Emmy for a guest appearance on the sitcom, Love and War. Many fans recall her from The Mary Tyler Moore Show; her three appearances as Mary's globetrotting aunt earned Heckart two Emmy nominations. She also was nominated twice for playing Eleanor Roosevelt in TV productions.
When she won the Academy Award, Heckart observed, "It's nice, but it's not my life." She told me that, by that time, she was "bored to death" with the role of Mrs. Baker in Butterflies Are Free. "I'd done the part on Broadway [having replaced Maureen O'Sullivan during tryouts] and in London [marking her West End debut]. I think I got the Oscar for years of doing, not necessarily for that particular performance." She always preferred the stage to movies, claiming, "I don't know camera that well." Her other films include Hot Spell, Heller in Pink Tights, My Six Loves, Up the Down Staircase, No Way to Treat a Lady, Zandy's Bride, The Hiding Place, and Heartbreak Ridge. She appeared in five TV series: Trauma Center, Partners in Crime, Out of the Blue, Annie McGuire (as Mary Tyler Moore's mother), and The Five Mrs. Buchanans.
Her friendship with Marlene Dietrich began when the legendary lady saw Heckart in a 1953 TV drama, Tad Mosel's The Haven, and was so moved that she sent her a bouquet of geraniums and white orchids. In Marlene Dietrich's ABC Book, published in 1962, Dietrich notes (under H): "Heckart, Eileen. If she were acting in Europe, she would be Queen of the Boards. In America, the typecasting barbarism deprives the world of her true talents." Everybody's favorite, "Heckie" will be missed.