Classic Hollywood: Nancy Olson Livingston
Nancy Olson Livingston was all of 20, a theater arts major at UCLA and a newly signed ingénue at Paramount when she was cast as Betty Schaefer in “Sunset Blvd.,” Billy Wilder’s 1950 masterpiece about Hollywood. The film starred Gloria Swanson as the former silent movie star Norma Desmond; William Holden as Joe Gillis, a struggling screenwriter who agrees to write her comeback vehicle; Erich von Stroheim as Max, Desmond’s former husband and director now working as her butler and chauffeur; and Livingston as the young reader at Paramount, who falls for Joe.
“Billy Wilder did something unusual before I was cast,” Livingston recalls. “I would be walking through the streets of Paramount on my way to the commissary where I would watch everybody enter. He would catch up with me and he asked me what I was studying in school and what UCLA was like. It wasn’t until years later I thought, ‘How did I get into that movie?’”
“I think it was that the role of Betty Schaefer is a young woman who is an aspiring writer. He thought that maybe that could be believable with me.”
Though she earned a supporting actress Oscar nomination for the role, Livingston was a reluctant movie star. The Wisconsin native, the daughter of a doctor, had transferred to UCLA from the University of Wisconsin after her freshman year. She lived with her uncle, a dean at UCLA, and her aunt in the Pacific Palisades.
“I was in every play, every musical, it was heaven,” says the youthful 82-year-old, relaxing in the living room of the expansive Beverly Hills home she shared with Alan Livingston, her late husband of 47 years who was a longtime president of Capitol Records, a composer and the creator of " Bozo the Clown.”
A talent scout was in the audience one night at UCLA while she was appearing in Ferenc Molnar’s “The Play’s the Thing” and brought her in to screen test. (Her leading man in the screen test was George Reeves, who would go on to star on TV’s " Adventures of Superman.”) Paramount put her under contract.
She was lent to 20th Century Fox to star as a half-Indian/half-Caucasian woman opposite Randolph Scott in the forgettable 1949 western " Canadian Pacific.” “It was a harrowing experience,” she says. “But I was young enough and stupid enough to pull it off.”
“Sunset Blvd.” made her one of the top young stars at Paramount. She was paired with Holden in three more films and starred with another of the studio’s superstars, Bing Crosby, in “Mr. Music.” But she wasn’t happy. “I felt my life was absolutely closed in,” she says. “I spent two hours with makeup men and hairdressers and then I would go on the set and sit and wait. My friends were having a life outside. I said, ‘I don’t really want to be a movie star.’”
In 1950, she married Alan Jay Lerner, who with his partner, Frederick Loewe, wrote the scores for such musicals as “My Fair Lady,” “Gigi” and “Brigadoon.” The couple had two daughters during their seven-year marriage. A few years later, a friend who worked for Alan Livingston introduced him to the actress. She married him in 1962 and had a son, Chris, two years later. Livingston died last year at 90 after a long illness.
Nancy Olson Livingston kept a toe in acting, appearing on Broadway in “Mary, Mary” and doing TV. After Walt Disney called her to appear in the 1960 favorite “Pollyanna,” Livingston became a regular at the studio in such Disney comedies as “The Absent-Minded Professor” and “Son of Flubber.” But she relished her role as a wife and mother and as a member and eventual president of the Los Angeles Music Center’s Blue Ribbon, an arts outreach program.
Though she has no interest in acting again, she did guest on an episode of HBO’s “Big Love” last season. She couldn’t say no to the episode’s director, Adam Davidson, who is the son of her good friends Gordon Davidson, founding artistic director of the Center Theatre Group, and his wife, publicist Judi Davidson.
Livingston played a well-connected Washington, D.C., matron who helps Bill ( Bill Paxton) get into a cocktail party fundraiser. Her cameo harked back to “Sunset Blvd.” The names of Betty’s two love interests in the film, Joe and Artie, are mentioned in the episode along with a few other inside jokes.
“Let me tell you, the most fascinating thing about it for me was when I walked on the set — there was a huge amount of extras — everybody stopped talking and started whispering,” says Livingston. “I said, ‘What are they whispering about?’ [They said], ‘You are here.” I said, ‘Am I now an icon? That’s fantastic.’”