The Louise Latham Centennial

In a universe that’s got a Louise Lasser, a Louise Dresser, a Louise Carter, a Louise Carver, a Louise Fletcher, and a Luise Rainer, you perhaps can’t be expected to keep track of a Louise Latham (1922-2018). But the odds are fairly certain that you have seen her onscreen as many times or more than all of those other actresses, even if the name fell through your fingers. She would have been 100 years old today, a benchmark she nearly lived to celebrate, expiring as she did just shy of her 96th birthday.

Latham’s best known role is also associated with what is (or ought to be) one of the film industry’s best “audition from hell” anecdotes. Due for her try-out for Alfred Hitchcock, her taxi got stuck in traffic. She grew more and frantic as the minutes ticked away and the time of the appointment drew nearer. When she finally arrived, she was a half hour late, and through the taxi window she could see Hitchcock’s limo start to pull away. According to her own account, she jumped out of the moving cab, ran to catch Hitchcock’s car which was stopped at a light, and then knocked on the window like a crazy person, yelling desperately “I’m Louise Latham!” Hitchcock rolled down the window and said “You were supposed to have been older”. And she quipped, “Well, I just aged ten years!”

So you see, perhaps she might have lived to 100, if not for that audition!

The role, in case you haven’t recognized her from the photo, was that of the title character’s mother in the 1964 suspense melodrama Marnie. Latham was only seven years older than Tippi Hedren at the time, prompting Hitchcock’s remark when he saw her in person, but her relative youth (she was 42) served her well in the role, for it also required her to play the character’s younger self in a flashback. This, by the way, was Latham’s first movie role, one that was highly emotionally demanding, and required her to play both a persnickety, cross old woman, as well as her younger incarnation, a prostitute who makes her living off of local sailors. Latham was a bullseye for this part, as she had a Southern accent, and a face that could credibly play both old and young. She was at best “beauty adjacent”: slightly wall-eyed, with a crooked nose, and an expression that looked dour in repose, even if (as we see in the photo above) in her younger years she “cleaned up nice”, as the expression goes. But the fact that Latham was a bit older, and slightly unconventional looking, meant character roles only, and few films (although lots of television).

TV is where you are most likely to see Louise Latham, and it’s what tips the balance in favor of us pointing a spotlight on her today. While not a cast member of any hit series, she is known for many high profile guest appearances on hit shows. For example, she played the aunt who brings the children to live with Uncle Bill (Brian Keith) on the premiere episode of Family Affair (1966) and in a couple of later episodes. She was in the series finale of The Fugitive (1967), one of the most-watched episodes in TV history. She had a showy role as the mother of the Sugarbaker sisters (Dixie Carter and Delta Burke) on an early episode of Designing Women (1986). She was in the classic ABC TV Movie of the Week entitled Winter Kill (1974) which became the pilot for the short-lived Andy Griffith series Adams of Eagle Lake. She was in the 1973 Columbo episode where Robert Culp plants subliminal messages into an advertising film to fake an alibi. She had a key supporting role in the very high profile TV movie In the Matter of Kathleen Quinlan (1977). She had recurring roles on The Waltons and, Eight is Enough. She was also in multiple episodes of Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and The F.B.I. and mini-series like Backstairs at the White House (1979), Scruples (1980) and Fresno (1986).

And if you’re not a TV junkie like me and didn’t see her in that stuff, you might have caught her in cinemas in the Steven Spielberg movie The Sugarland Express (1974), White Lightning (1973) with Burt Reynolds, Love Field (1992) with Michele Feiffer, Firecreek (1968) with Jimmy Stewart, and The Philadelphia Experiment (1984). Or maybe not!

You’ll notice lots of Texas settings among Latham’s screen vehicles, and lots of westerns. She was from a ranching family, and grew up about an hour west of Waco. She got her theatrical start under the wing of regional theatre pioneer Margo Jones in her various productions in Dallas. Upon Jones’ sudden, sad death in 1956, Latham moved to New York where she got a small role in a Broadway revival of Shaw’s Major Barbara. In 1962 she appeared in a short-lived play called Isle of Children starring Patty Duke. She was already 40 years old at this point in her career. Nearly 40 years later, she gave her final performance in an episode of The X-Files entitled “En Ami.”