The Washington Post

Hard to believe, but true: Baby Doll is a grandmother now.

Carroll Baker, who won an Oscar nomination for her role as a child-wife in the steamy 1956 Tennessee Williams story "Baby Doll," grew up when American moviegoers weren't looking, reared her children in Rome, and became a star in Italian films.

She's back to co-star with John Forsythe in ABC's "On Fire" Monday (9-11 p.m., Channels 7, 3, 10 ,42), a two-hour drama about a man forced into mandatory retirement at age 60. Baker plays his wife.

"What we tried to do is show you the repercussions of something like this: what the wife goes through, how the man feels not only seeing his colleagues still active and still on cases. At home he doesn't know what's been going on in the house--the house has to run anyway--and he's in the way. Your heart breaks for your husband because he's lost so much of what he loves, but on the other hand you keep trying. Then when he can't pull himself together right away, you become annoyed."

Of the movie, she explained: "This is something that's very close to John's heart, because apparently his father was in a similar situation, a vital man who loved his work and was forced to retire. It basically ruined his life and the life of the family."

Baker said right off that "I'm so thrilled to have this movie--it's the best thing I've had in ages." To get the part, she gained 20 pounds and dyed her blond hair gray so that producer-director Robert Greenwald, and Forsythe and Jonathan Bernstein, who are the executive producers, would visualize how she would look in the role.

She says she's now losing the extra poundage and is back to blond as she travels about the country promoting her two books, a novel, "A Roman Tale," and another based on her travels called "To Africa With Love" (Donald I. Fine Inc.). "To Africa With Love" is due out in paperback this spring, published by NAL.

" 'A Roman Tale' is my first novel," Baker said. "It's about the film industry in Italy, when it was the hottest industry in the world. It was too hot to handle, so I made it a novel."

Baker should know: She spent years making movies she admits were not always good, even though they grossed a fortune for her. "I think I made more films in Italy than I made in Hollywood, but the mentality is different," she commented. "What they think is wonderful is not what we might."

She fled Hollywood to live in Spain and Italy and to escape a career that was disintegrating in front of the klieg lights. She had started out well, with the "Baby Doll" role, which won her a 1956 Academy Award nomination even while the film was condemned by the Legion of Decency. She was the next Jean Harlow, said her press releases, and in 1965 made a film based on the life of the '30s star.

But "Harlow," "The Carpetbaggers" and "Sylvia" were mediocre and eclipsed her better work in "But Not for Me," with Clark Gable; in George Stevens' "Giant," appearing opposite James Dean in his last film, and in John Ford's "Cheyenne Autumn," playing a Quaker girl.

Baker was under contract to Joe Levine, "who behaved like he owned me," she said in a 1977 interview, and "my husband (Jack Garfein, from whom she was later divorced) thought it was all terrific as long as I kept bringing in the money. I started objecting to everything, but it was too late. The sex-symbol image had already started. I turned down parts and they blacklisted me. . . .

"Then Paramount tried to squeeze me out of my contract and take me for everything I was worth financially and my marriage was breaking up. . . . The press attacked me viciously at every opportunity. I came very close to suicide."

So she left Hollywood at the end of the '60s and went to work in Italian films. She has no regrets about moving to Rome, saying the change was "marvelous for me because it really brought me back to life, and it gave me a whole new outlook. It's wonderful to know about a different world. . . . That was a great place to raise my kids, but when they graduated from high school and came back to America to go to college, I moved to London."

She now lives in Hampstead "near the heaths, on an Old World street near the shops. I don't go into the center of the city much, but when I want to, it's only 20 minutes."

Her daughter Blanche, who lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, is nearly 30, has two children, a boy 2, and a daughter, 5 1/2 months. Her son, Herschel, is working in Boston teaching music. She returns to the United States fairly often to see them and lately to tout her two books, published by a small firm that did little to promote them. "You'd probably have to go into a bookstore with a machine gun and say, 'I want the Carroll Baker books.' "

Although she enjoys writing, she wants to keep her acting career afloat, and talked about making the transition from the young, sexy blond to roles in the senior division. "The big breakthrough was when Bob Fosse let me do the part in 'Star 80.' I lost weight, scrubbed my face, wore the right clothes to convince him that I could do it." She played the mother of Dorothy Stratton (Mariel Hemingway) in the 1983 film based on the life and murder of the Playboy centerfold.

"The thing that's so wonderful for me is the fact that I get to be John Forsythe's leading lady," she said, returning to "On Fire." And while she thinks her face will probably always look younger than her age -- 53 -- she's no longer the the girl who was Miss Florida Fruits and Vegetables of 1949.

Fortunately, she noted, "We're thinking of age quite differently now.'

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