Eva Marie Saint won a supporting actress Oscar for her luminous film debut as Marlon Brando’s character’s girlfriend in Elia Kazan’s landmark 1954 drama, “On the Waterfront.” And she’s given memorable turns with Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 “North by Northwest,” Paul Newman in Otto Preminger’s 1960 epic “Exodus” and Tom Hanks and Jackie Gleason in 1986’s “Nothing in Common.”
But she wasn’t an overnight sensation. Arriving in New York in the late 1940s, Saint modeled, studied her craft, worked in radio and was an understudy on Broadway in “Mister Roberts.” Though she became a mainstay on the small screen during the Golden Age of television in such classic live dramas as Horton Foote’s 1953 “The Trip to Bountiful,” her TV career began inauspiciously when she was hired to appear off-camera and supply applause.
“It was ‘The Borden Show,’” recalled Saint, who at age 89 is lithe, lively and stunningly beautiful.
Saint called her parents to tell them about the job. “I’m on television but not really on television,” Saint said, laughing. “After the show, they called me and Mom said, ‘Honey, we just love the show, and Dad thinks he heard you applauding.’ Next time, I was on the show applauding and sitting at a table.”
She relished doing live TV, “but, oh, my God, terrible things happened,” Saint noted recently at the Westwood condo she shares with her husband of 62 years, director Jeffrey Hayden.
Like the time she accidentally exposed more than her talent on the soap opera “One Man’s Family.”
Saint was doing a scene in a small pool with the actor who was playing her brother. “Someone was doing something offstage,” said the mother of two and grandmother of three. “You learn not to look away from what you are doing because you can be distracted.”
But she finally looked offstage and saw a man pulling his shirt up and down. “I looked down and my boobies were showing coast to cast,” Saint said, laughing. “I just kept in the scene and slid under the water. What else could I do? It was live television. To this day, all of these years later, someone will say to me, ‘Miss Saint, you were doing “One Man’s Family”’ ... and I’ll say, ‘Yes, I remember.”’
Six decades after “On the Waterfront,” Saint is, as she likes to say, “still in the ballgame.”
On March 31, TCM will present an interview she taped with Robert Osborne last year at the TCM Classic Film Festival. She also has a new film, the romantic fantasy “Winter’s Tale,” which opened on Valentine’s Day.
In the film, adapted from the novel by Mark Helprin and directed by Akiva Goldsman, Saint has a moving cameo as a woman who helps a thief (Colin Farrell) find his destiny. The role gives her the opportunity to play a strong, powerful woman who has not let go of her childlike innocence.
“Eva Marie is a legend,” said Goldsman. “We sent her the script as sort of a ‘Hail, Mary.’ I got a phone call that she wanted to have lunch with me. We just talked about life and the screenplay and talked some more about life and at the end, she took my hand and looked at me and said, ‘I think this will be fine.”’
Saint and Farrell, said Goldsman, “had a really wonderful, very playful, very lively, and at times, flirtatious relationship. The movie is about timelessness, and there was a kind of timeless quality to the way they appreciated each other as if they were both 19 together.”
“Colin was so dear,” Saint said. “I was in my trailer [before] my last show in the movie and I said, ‘What’s that?’ And it was a bouquet of five dozen pale, pale, pale yellow roses from him with the dearest little card.”
Though the actress has starred in countless romantic movies, none of those fictional tales holds a candle to her own love story. Saint and Hayden met in the late 1940s when he was working in radio at NBC in New York.
“He saw me on the subway from the back, and he liked the way I walked,” she said. He also noticed a big black book of photos she carried as a modeling portfolio. “The book I was carrying said ‘Eva Marie Saint’ in gold letters,” she recalled. “He thought, ‘I like that name.’”
Fate intervened shortly thereafter when Hayden saw her at Radio City talking with Arnold Stang, who happened to be the only actor Hayden knew in New York. “So he could go over to Arnold and Arnold would say, ‘Hi, Jeff, do you know Eva Marie?’”
Just the other day, Saint said, “I was thinking about life, and I guess I was a little low, and I said, ‘Jeffrey, what in today’s world inspires you?’ He just put his head up and said, ‘You.’”