On June 25, I was awakened by a telephone call from a friend telling me to read Page 14 of the Calendar section. Someone I did not know--a Michael Stein--had mentioned my name in a sweet letter he had written wondering why actresses with "foreign" accents have consistently been ignored in Hollywood--Greta Garbo and Sophia Loren being exceptions ("Accent on U.S. Stars," Calendar).
I had to smile when I read the letter. He understands. And then my life in Hollywood flashed before my eyes.
I was brought to Hollywood by Gene Roddenberry and Michael Eisner, chosen from 600 hopefuls to star in the original "Star Trek" motion picture. The success of the film, coupled with the allure that I had shaved my head for the role, put a spotlight on me.
I was asked to be a presenter at the Academy Awards. I was invited to the A-list parties; whisked to the best tables at the "power" restaurants. I had a growing career as a model and an actress in London--I had starred opposite Michael Caine and Sidney Poitier in "The Wilby Conspiracy"--but everyone told me to stay in Hollywood. This was the place, they said, and I could have a big career.
What they failed to mention was that no one would quite know what to do with me. I knew I was not about to displace Florence Henderson as the mother of the "Brady Bunch," but America is a polyglot of accents, faces and backgrounds.
When I went to apply for a driver's license I had the choice of taking the test in 49 different languages. I chose English. In Bombay, where I am from, English is the language that cuts through all barriers.
Casting directors asked me if I spoke Spanish, and I was considered for many Latino parts. I was asked if I could speak French. I learned German in 24 hours for my starring role in "Nighthawks." But when a role for an Indian became available in the miniseries "Far Pavilions," it went to a U.S.-born and bred, blue-eyed and accent-less actress because she was "more American."
I still haven't figured out that logic.
Sixty years ago, Merle Oberon had to hide the fact that her mother was Indian lest it ruin her career. Forty years ago, CBS almost didn't buy a TV pilot because they said no one would believe the red-haired "all-American" female star was married to a Cuban. That series was, of course, "I Love Lucy," and lucky for the world, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz prevailed.
Soon after I arrived in Hollywood, I married an American man. I got to know the culture and the people. That marriage did not work out, but a subsequent one brought me to Des Moines, where I lived in the heartland for several years before returning to Hollywood.
I love America. I eagerly became a citizen. I have no bitterness toward those casting directors who dismissed me because of my accent, nor toward the producers and directors who wanted to cast me but thought the audience wouldn't accept my accent. I think they're selling their audience short.
People want good stories, good entertainment and, yes, pretty faces. They don't seem to mind that Rick was in love with a woman with an accent in "Casablanca." I'll bet once the story and the characters hooked them, they didn't even hear her accent.
It's tough to make it as an actor, tougher still to make it as an actress--the Screen Actors Guild is eager to provide the statistics to verify the latter. Statistics also tell us that as much as 50% of the gross revenues of all motion pictures now comes from foreign sales. They don't seem to mind American accents.
Hollywood's trepidation with accents has become not just an archaic attitude, but an albatross limiting the textural realism today's directors, writers and producers crave. When I saw Isabella Rossellini--a second-generation Hollywood actress with an accent--portraying Jeff Bridges' wife in "Fearless," I thought perhaps we've made a little movement in the right direction.
There are many of us--trained, seasoned actresses--available to continue the broadening of our American tapestry.