Valerie Perrine may be the only former Las Vegas showgirl to win the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Just a few years after she had hung up her glitzy showgirl costume, Perrine was the toast of the town as Lenny Bruce's stripper/showgirl wife Honey Harlow in Bob Fosse's acclaimed 1974 biopic "Lenny," with Dustin Hoffman as the groundbreaking comedian.
After eight years working at the Desert Inn and the Lido, which was a topless revue, Perrine was visiting a friend in Los Angeles looking for career opportunities.
"I had left the Lido show in Vegas and I had gone across Europe and thought I better settle down and get a job doing something," the 69-year-old Perrine recalled of her start as an actress. "I thought I could get a job doing commercials." But much bigger things were ahead.
Perrine, who retired from acting three years ago, will be appearing Thursday at the American Cinematheque's Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. She'll be discussing her career with screenwriter Larry Karaszewski ("Ed Wood") between screenings of "Lenny" and George Roy Hill's underrated "Slaughterhouse-Five" (1972), in which she had her first significant film role, as the voluptuous starlet Montana Wildhack.
"She was the thinking man's sex symbol," said Karaszewski. "Valerie always felt very kind of real and honest and yet she had this sexual freedom that was sort of new to movies at the time. She could be a really good dramatic actress and a really good comedic actress. But you got the sense there was a real human being there.
"She managed to connect in this pretty amazing run of good films — 'Lenny,' 'Slaughterhouse-Five,' 'Steambath' on TV, 'Superman' and 'The Last American Hero.'"
Her movie career kicked off unexpectedly when her girlfriend in Los Angeles had a small dinner party. She invited an agent who immediately took a liking to the lively, curvaceous Perrine. He asked if she had any publicity photos. The only one she had was in her topless Lido costume.
The sexy picture made its way to the desk of Monique James, the head of new talent at Universal. "She called me in and asked if I had ever acted before and I said 'no,' Perrine said. "She arranged a screen test."
Paul Monash, the producer of "Slaughterhouse-Five," which was based on Kurt Vonnegut's acclaimed novel revolving around World War II and time travel, directed the screen test. "They told me to wear a bikini because they wanted to see what my body looked like. I didn't have a bikini. I wore my G-string and that was it."
Director Hill was impressed, and not just because of her body.
"I had been working in Vegas all the time and had been on the beach in St. Tropez, so being [naked] didn't mean anything to me," she said. "It was my attitude that sparked his interest and the way I read the line, 'Oh, you're a moon child.' He hired me."
A few years later she worked with Fosse on "Lenny." Besides winning Cannes and the BAFTA for newcomer to leading film roles, Perrine received lead actress Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. "I did everything he told me. He made everything easy for me. Both George and Bob said I was a natural."
And she was a natural prankster on her sets. Though she had a great time playing Eve Teschmacher, the mistress of Lex Luthor in 1978's "Superman" and 1981's "Superman II," opposite Gene Hackman, she admits that her pranks could irritate the actor. But she had a great time on "Lenny."
She had a field day with Hoffman while they were shooting the film in Miami. "A lot of the times his fans got him confused with Bobby De Niro and Al Pacino," she said. "He told me the story that it really annoyed him that people would come up on the street and say, 'Mr. Pacino.'"
One day, they were shooting at a large restaurant in Miami. "All of these tourists and retirees were watching and passionately in love with Dustin. I came out and they were all going 'Valerie, Valerie.'"
She told the crowd, "When Dustin comes out, I want you people over here on the left to all yell 'Bobby, Bobby De Niro' and on the other side I got them to yell 'Al Pacino.' So Dustin came out and not one of them said 'Dustin Hoffman.' Dustin took his script and threw it down and said 'where the … is Valerie?'"
Where: American Cinematheque's Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica
When: Thursday at 7:30 p.m.