Wonderful Trip to 'Promised Land'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Celeste Holm is not afraid to speak her mind about anything or anybody. Just ask her for her opinion on Hollywood today.

"I think we seem to be in the middle of suicide on the part of the motion picture industry," says the 79-year-old actress. "I don't think the motion picture people realize the influence they have on people, and they are making such nonsense! Look at the average stuff which is being made. I don't go to the movies unless someone says, 'You have got to see that.' "

The vivacious, sophisticated actress is relaxing in the living room of a friend's home in Brentwood. She's on the last few hours of a break from filming her CBS series, "Promised Land," which is shot outside Salt Lake City. Holm plays Hattie Greene, the wise and warm mother of Russell (Gerald McRaney), in the feel-good spinoff of "Touched by an Angel."

Holm, who won an Oscar more than 50 years ago for best supporting actress in "Gentleman's Agreement" and starred in the original Broadway production of "Oklahoma!," believes critics have dismissed the sentimental dramatic series because "I think at the moment we are sort of in love with dysfunction. We are not realizing [that] the whole business of bringing up children is to provide examples."

The show does have its fans, however, and receiving letters from them helps her get through the long shooting days.

"It's wonderful to be so appreciated," she says. "The East Coast and the West Coast, I am not sure they are quite as comfortable with the series as the inner part of the country. But I think when people are concerned about a family, it's a pleasure to see a show about a family."

Holm pooh-poohs the fact that "Promised Land" doesn't appeal to the 18-34 demographic desired by advertisers. "I don't understand something," she says. "When you are 18 to 34, I don't think you are in a position to spend a lot of money. It's the people who are older who have the money, so what's that all about? I don't understand. We buy cars. We buy tractors!"

Though Holm has been in show business for more than 60 years, she maintains she never wanted to be a star. She recalls famed British actress Flora Robson as the first person to tell her she had "star quality" when they were appearing in a long-forgotten Broadway play together in the early '40s.

"She was a lovely lady," Holm says. "Every night I would run downstairs and talk to her before she went on stage. She suddenly said [one night], 'You are going to be a star.' I said, 'How come?' She said, 'You are going to get a show in which the show is going to be great and you will be a star.' I said, 'How can I avoid that?' "

Holm realized even back then that it is a huge responsibility being a star. "You know, everybody in the audience thinks you wrote the lines and everything," she explains. "So you have to be sure to choose very good material."

Robson's prophecy came true in 1943 when Holm lit up Broadway as the comedic flirt Ado Annie in Rodgers & Hammerstein's landmark musical "Oklahoma!"

" 'Oklahoma!' was like a blessing," Holm says. "I mean, I'll never forget when I first got the job. Do you know that story?"

No.

Holm smiles and begins her audition tale: "I was carrying music," she says, "and I couldn't see over the three steps leading down [from backstage] onto the stage, and I fell flat with the music skating out in front of me. My belt busted--the final indignity. So I am on my knees picking up my props and the voice in the front said, 'That's pretty funny. Can you do that again?' I said I'd rather not."

The voice in the darkness belonged to composer Richard Rodgers. After gathering herself, Holm says, she "never sang better in my life. You know what? I wasn't nervous. Once you've fallen on your face, you have nowhere to go but up."

Impressed as he was with her voice, Rodgers then asked Holm to sing as if she had never had a lesson in her life. "He said, 'I want a bold, unedited farm girl voice.' So I said, 'We have a farm and I can call a hog.' So on the stage of the St. James Theater I said, 'Suuueeeeeeeeeee' for a long time. He said, 'That's loud enough and funny enough.' "

Hollywood soon beckoned and Holm signed with 20th Century Fox on the condition that she get script approval. "They gave it to me," she says, "and I made a picture called 'Three Little Girls in Blue.' It was one of the silliest movies in the world but a sweet score and fun."

No one remembers her next picture, "Carnival in Costa Rica," which was made on the Fox back lot. "I remember the producer thought he was a genius because he wore his hair like Einstein," she says with a sigh. "He said, 'This is going to be a great picture. It's going to be a Costa Rican 'Life With Father' with music.' "

Screenwriter Moss Hart had to fight to get Holm cast in "Gentleman's Agreement," the 1947 best picture Oscar winner that dealt with anti-Semitism. Studio head Darryl Zanuck, she recalls, only saw her as a musical-comedy performer. "So they made me do the big emotional scene first as a test," she says. "I didn't know it was a test."

By the time writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz asked her to appear in the 1950 classic "All About Eve," Holm had already walked out on Zanuck. "I was on suspension a good deal of the time at Fox. Mr. Mankiewicz insisted that I come [back]."

Holm is due to leave for the airport soon but has time for one last story about being a lady-in-waiting and understudy to Ophelia in Leslie Howard's touring production of "Hamlet" 61 years ago.

"We opened in Chicago on Christmas night," she says. "I was wearing a gorgeous scarlet dress with a gold wimple and a train. [After my scene] I immediately exited to the first wing. I could see the show from there."

Enter Leslie Howard. "He took one look at me and before I could say anything, he took me in his arms and kissed me as beautifully as I had ever been kissed before or since. I was totally unprepared. I had only met him the night before."

After the kiss, the nearsighted Howard pulled away and said, 'I beg your pardon.' He turned and walked on stage. I was stunned."

Holm staggered up the stairs to her dressing room. "One of the actresses I was working with said, 'What happened to you? You look like you've seen a ghost.' "

When she told the actress what happened, the woman began laughing. "She said, 'He was having an affair with the girl in New York who wore your dress. He probably forgot where he was.' "

Holm laughs. "It does make one realize how interchangeable we all are!"

* "Promised Land" airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on CBS.

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