Polly Bergen dies at 84; Emmy-winning actress, nightclub singer
Polly Bergen, an outspoken actress who also gained acclaim as a nightclub singer, a cosmetics entrepreneur and a ubiquitous quiz-show panelist, did not start out as an overnight smash.
When her first film — a Dean Martin-and-Jerry Lewis comedy called “At War With the Army” — came out in 1951, Los Angeles Times reviewer Philip K. Scheuer allowed that there might be hope for the attractive but inexperienced newcomer.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this article said Bergen died Sunday. She died Saturday.
“Miss Bergen looks like a nice person, and her voice is pretty good, but she doesn’t know how to face a camera,” Scheuer wrote. “Give her time. She’s new.”
FOR THE RECORD:
Polly Bergen: In the Sept. 21 California section, the obituary of singer and actress Polly Bergen misquoted a line from “I’m Still Here,” which Bergen sang in Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies.” The lyric is “good times and bum times,” not “good times and bad times.” —
Seven years later, Bergen won a best-actress Emmy for her compelling “Playhouse 90” portrayal of Helen Morgan, the troubled torch singer of the 1920s and ‘30s.
Over the next six decades, Bergen appeared in memorable productions such as “Cape Fear,” a 1962 suspense thriller with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, and the World War II TV epics “The Winds of War” (1983) and its sequel “War and Remembrance” (1988). For the latter, she was nominated for an Emmy as best supporting actress.
Bergen died Saturday at her home in Southbury, Conn. She was 84.
Her death from natural causes was confirmed by her agent, Judy Katz.
Bergen had a history of emphysema and circulatory problems that she attributed to 50 years of smoking.
But she worked as a character actor well into her older years, appearing as the mistress of Tony Soprano’s father on “The Sopranos” and as the mother of Felicity Huffman’s character on “Desperate Housewives.”
“She was ‘a great broad,’ as they said in the vernacular of her day, a wonderful actress and a lovely woman,” Huffman told The Times. “I will miss her fire, her courage and her irreverence.”
For a woman born in Tennessee and who grew up in Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere as her father traveled between low-paying construction jobs, Bergen radiated urban sophistication.
Rex Reed, film and theater critic for the New York Observer and a close friend of Bergen’s for over 50 years, called her a legendary “A-list, New York Oscar party host.” In an interview, he recalled watching the show while sitting on Bergen’s bed between Paul Newman and Lucille Ball.
Bergen also was an ardent feminist, campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment and women’s reproductive rights. She spoke publicly about having had an illegal abortion when she was a 17-year-old band singer — a procedure that she said prevented her from bearing children for the rest of her life.
In 1964, Bergen starred with Fred MacMurray in “Kisses for My President,” a film premised, incredibly for the day, on a woman becoming president. It wasn’t quite an anthem to feminism, though: “Is America prepared?” the posters asked. “What happens to her poor husband when he becomes the First Lady?”
In 2008, Bergen campaigned door-to-door for Hillary Rodham Clinton, when the former first lady ran for president.
“She always thought a woman president in real life was long overdue,” said her longtime manager, Jan McCormack.
Born in Knoxville, Tenn., on July 14, 1930, Nellie Paulina Burgin remembered being wowed by the films of Shirley Temple and Deanna Durbin — especially one where Durbin shot to fame after a producer overheard her singing in her kitchen.
“I would stand in my kitchen and sing my life out waiting for someone to show up — if not today, then tomorrow,” she told the Hartford Courant in 2013.
At 14, she played her first professional gig with her guitar-strumming father on a radio station in Richmond, Ind.
Early in her career, she tried hard to “discard the hillbilly label that had been attached to her,” The Times said in 1952, noting her debut at “the plush Maisonette Room in the St. Regis Hotel, New York, where the ringside is a veritable sea of mink and ermine.”
In the 1950s, Bergen also was a regular in Las Vegas, singing standards like “The Party’s Over” for as much as $50,000 a week to an audience of high-rollers and what she called “mob guys.” One mobster and his girlfriend befriended her, she later said, and made sure she sent most of her money home to her parents.
“There was nobody in the world who knew good from bad better than they did,” she explained.
At around the same time, Bergen started a lengthy run on quiz shows, primarily “To Tell the Truth.”
In her mid-30s, she started experiencing voice problems and for years abandoned singing.
“I had a choice of quitting smoking or singing another chorus of ‘Night and Day,’ and I chose to continue smoking and quit singing,” she told Charles Osgood on CBS News in 2001. “And it was a decision that I regretted from that day forward.”
In the early 1960s, Bergen formed a cosmetics firm that marketed beauty preparations made from “the oil of the turtle.” In 1973, she sold the company to Faberge.
Hard-hit by the financial crisis of 1987, Bergen sold her 4,000-square-foot Park Avenue apartment, appeared in a few TV movies, and moved to Montana for a few years.
“I just couldn’t bear the humiliation of what I was doing,” she told the New York Times. “I just can’t stand in these lines with 35 actresses who’ve each got 63 million miles of film, waiting to audition for some idiot who’s 12 years old.”
She later returned to singing, working with a vocal coach to freshen her skills.
In 1999, she performed at a Miami Beach benefit performance of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.”
The audience loved her.
“They were like, ‘Is she still alive?’” she recalled. “It felt like I’d never been gone, but I knew I could get better.”
At 70, she was back on Broadway, nominated for a Tony award in Sondheim’s “Follies.” Her hit song was “I’m Still Here”: Good times and bad times — I’ve seen them all. And, my dear: I’m still here…
Bergen’s marriages to actor Jerome Courtland, agent Freddie Fields and entrepreneur Jeff Endervelt ended in divorce.
Her survivors include daughter P.K. Fields and son Peter Fields, the children she adopted with her second husband; stepdaughter Kathy Fields Lander; and three grandchildren.
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