The Elusive Lois Nettleton

Lois Nettleton (1927-2008) was something of an anomaly in show business; beautiful enough to be a leading lady, but normally cast in character parts. She did possess a quirky intelligence and a humor that maybe confounded some. She reminds me a little of Miriam Hopkins or Glynis Johns: sexy, delicate, and vulnerable, but not stupid or naive. I believe wider fame eluded her because she was one of those who loved acting so much she just went where the next job took her (theatre, television, film, and for a while, radio) with little thought of building momentum in a single medium.

I found this rather patronizing quotation by Tennessee Williams about her and her performance as Blanche in the short-lived 1973 Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s apologetic about the fact that she had worked in television, but oddly fails to acknowledge that she understudied Barbara Bel Geddes as Maggie in the original 1955 production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or that she had a key role (fourth billed) in the 1962 screen version of his Period of Adjustment. How can she have been the stranger to him that she seems to have been? She was also a member of the Actors’ Studio and had a small role in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, among other signifiers of prestige. She was in no sense an outsider to the world of the “serious”. But people do have their fixed ideas. His talk of “other people’s prejudices” seem advertently to reflect his own.

Nettleton started acting in local Chicago theatre and radio during her childhood, and had gotten training at the Goodman School of Drama. She was a literal beauty queen: Miss Chicago of 1948 and a contender for Miss America that same year. Her first Broadway role was in Dalton Trumbo’s The BIggest Thief in Town (1949), followed by Sidney Kingsley’s Darkness at Noon (1951), with Claude Rains, Kim Hunter, and Jack Palance. She was in Robert Anderson’s Silent Night, Lonely Night (1959-60) with Henry Fonda and Barbara Bel Geddes, and nominated for a Tony for her performance in the 1976 revival of Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted. In 1958 she was in an off-Broadway played called Look, Charlie, penned by radio personality/humorist/memoirist Jean Shepherd, to whom she was married from 1960 to 1967,

Nettleton was not in many movies, though we have written about several of them. Three of them were comical westerns made by Burt Kennedy, who clearly had a thing for her: Mail Order Bride (1964) with Buddy Ebsen, The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969) with Robert Mitchum, and Dirty Dingus McGee (1970) with Frank Sinatra. She has an excellent turn in the obscure artifact The Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker (1970). She has a major role in Matt Cimber’s notorious Butterfly (1982), and that same year Colin Higgins cast her in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

But admittedly, television was was where Nettleton worked the most and undoubtedly where I first encountered her talents. She stars in the classic 1961 Twilight Zone episode “Midnight Sun”, in which she is one of the last people left in New York as the earth hurtles towards its fiery doom. She’s in the 1971 TV distaster movie Terror in the Sky and in a memorable episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She had great roles in two high profile TV mini-series: Washington: Behind Closed Doors (1977) and Centennial (1978-79). From 1988 to 1989 she was a regular on The Heat of the Night, and she co-starred with Jerry Van Dyke on his sit-com Accidental Family (1967-68). Nettleton was nominated for six Emmys; won two. Scores of other credits! A recurring role on the first season of Crossing Jordan (2001) was one of her last high profile jobs. Her last was in the Hallmark made-for-tv film The Christmas Card (2006) with Ed Asner.