Classic Hollywood: Paula Prentiss returns to the screen in a film close to her heart

Paula Prentiss thinks there’s a certain kismet that her first screen role in almost a decade is in a movie directed by Osgood Perkins.

She and her husband, Richard Benjamin, had appeared with Anthony Perkins, Osgood’s father, in the 1970 film “Catch-22.” Prentiss was pregnant with her son, Ross, at the same time Osgood’s mother, Berry Berenson, was pregnant with him.

“I was one of the first people to see him when he was born,” Prentiss recalled. “We shared family holidays through their early years. We’d go to their house and or they would come to ours. We always had a wonderful time because we had children the same age.”

The story has a tragic element as well; Berenson was a passenger on the American Airlines flight that was crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11; Perkins died in 1992.

Prentiss has a small but pivotal role in Osgood Perkins’ tightly coiled ghost story, “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House,” which premiered last month on Netflix. It stars Ruth Wilson (“The Affair”) as Lily, a hospice nurse who arrives in the isolated and hermetic home of horror novelist Iris Blum, played by Prentiss.

Perkins reached out to Prentiss last year about taking the role of Iris. “It was on my 78th birthday,” she said. “I knew this [gift] was from Tony and Berry out of the blue, and it was so fun because there were pictures of them on the set [the film is dedicated to Anthony]; all kinds of references to the life before this. That’s why I wanted to do it. It was like a little homecoming.”

A review of the film in the British newspaper the Guardian barely mentioned Prentiss, to which one reader commented online:  “You mean THE Paula Prentiss?” The legendary Paula Prentiss who was in ‘What's New Pussycat,’ ‘Catch-22,’ ‘The Parallax View’ and ‘The Stepford Wives’? THAT Paula Prentiss? Surely her presence is worth more than just a (mention).”

Prentiss is pleased when told about the online comments and the fondness film fans have for her work. “Well, bless your heart,” she says with her native Texas twang, as distinctive and ebullient as when she made her 1960 screen debut in “Where the Boys Are.”

“To me, Dick and Paula were [like] my crazy aunt and uncle,” Osgood Perkins said.  “To know somebody for as long as I’ve known her and have her be so close to my parents, who are now gone, and then we’re making a movie together, is at once surreal, but at the same time completely organic and meant to be.”

Shooting had already begun when Perkins offered Prentiss the part. “I had never worked with Paula. But I knew she possesses an intensity and a dedication. The dream of any director is to be in the editing room with choices. I would shoot five takes and get five completely committed and very different choices.”

Iris is a Shirley Jackson-esque author, who unnerves Lily by referring to her only as “Polly,” a murdered character from one of her books. Though “Pretty Thing” is not Prentiss’ first brush with horror, Iris is unlike anything she has done on-screen; a role that deprives her of her typical, charismatic life force.

 “It’s fun to get the opportunity to play a different kind of character,” she said. “I looked on this as a real adventure. I just jumped in, which is what I was like when I was a little girl. I remember I went to a swimming pool with my mother. I didn’t know how to swim. I said, ‘Mother, I want to jump in,’ and she said, ‘Go ahead, honey.’ So I jumped in. I’ve always had this sense of, ‘I want to try that.’ ”

Prentiss does not identify herself as retired or semi-retired. “You’re never retired if you’re an actress,” she said. “You keep doing things. One of the reasons I went into acting was because I thought those characters by Chekhov, Shaw and Shakespeare I studied when I went to Northwestern were so fascinating. I thought if I played those characters, I would find something out about myself. That’s the fun of it. It never really ends, and you can always find something to do.”

What Prentiss has primarily done in recent years are plays, sometimes, and most rewardingly, with family. In February, Prentiss and Benjamin co-starred in “Dearest Friend,” consisting of love letters exchanged between President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills.

Plays were the thing when Prentiss attended graduate school at Northwestern to study acting. “All of us had our noses in the air,” she said. “We were going to go directly to theater and have nothing to do with movies.”

 So much so, she recalled with a laugh, that no one initially signed up for a screen test when it was announced that the MGM talent scout who had discovered Northwestern alum Patricia Neal had scheduled a return visit. “Until the next morning,” she said. “Then, everyone’s name was on the board and ended up auditioning. Our real feelings about wanting to go to Hollywood and be a star came out.” (Her classmates included Tony Roberts and Karen Black).

     Her eclectic resume includes indelible ensemble work in such films as “The World of Henry Orient,” co-starring roles in Howard Hawks’ “Man’s Favorite Sport?” and “He & She,” an ahead-of-its-time one-season CBS sitcom credited with paving the way on the network for more sophisticated urban comedies like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

 Prentiss is of the “no small roles” school. “I do [a role] for the experience of doing it,” she said. “If it goes well or it doesn’t go well, it still has accomplished what I needed for that time. I haven’t ever had the thing where I thought, ‘I’ve got to get something out there or nobody will want me.’ Somebody’s going to want you. You have an obligation to just live life.”

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