Read Read My Lips Online

Authors: Sally Kellerman

Read My Lips (2 page)

BOOK: Read My Lips
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That night I had gone to the Cosmo with a friend to hear Stan Getz play. Working the door was Al Lettieri, a good friend and great character actor who would go on to play Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo in
The Godfather.

“Come on,” Al said. “I’ll sit you right over here.”

Al sat us down right beside—guess who? Marlon Brando.

Taking my seat next to my idol, I stared straight ahead, afraid to breathe.

Suddenly a star-struck tourist spotted Marlon. “Hey!” he called out in an exuberant Southern accent. “Marlon Brando!
Sayonara! On the Waterfront
! How Do You DO?!”

Marlon loved it. He threw his head back and laughed.

I still didn’t look. I didn’t budge. Eyes front, wishing all the time that I had the confidence, the freedom to express my great excitement.

But that’s how I stayed. For two entire sets of one of my favorite musicians, I was frozen, not so much as tapping a toe. Before I knew it, the music had stopped and the lights came up.

“I’m gonna go,” my friend said.

As he got up to leave, I remained rooted, and without looking, I uttered weakly, “Bye.”

Then Marlon turned to me and started to speak.

“Okay, so, what are you, an actress?” he asked.

Breaking free of my spell, I whirled around to face him. “Yes, I am, and I don’t think that’s funny!”

“Well, would you like to go for a ride with me?” he said.

“Yes, I would.”

I followed Marlon out to his rather nondescript white car.
Once I’d spotted him driving it down Hollywood Boulevard and was so excited that I almost wrecked my own dilapidated Chevy. I couldn’t believe he wasn’t being chauffeured around in a limo. Another time, when it was raining, I spied him going into the movies on Sunset, wearing white pants. White pants in the rain?! My mother would have gasped in horror. Of course, I ran out and bought my own pair as soon as I could scrape together enough tip money.

But now here I was with Marlon, Marlon Brando, slipping his frame behind the wheel, and I was sitting in the front seat right next to him. He pulled out of the parking lot and began driving down the alley. I looked around, quiet, trying to be nonchalant about it all.

Then, after about half a block, he leaned over and touched my arm. That was enough to send me reeling, feeling so many conflicting impulses at once. I was so hopelessly in love with him that I was both scared and thrilled. I immediately pulled away. I didn’t know what to do, and I had no idea how to act.

“Riiiight,” Marlon said, a little pissed off. “I wouldn’t want to spoil this ‘beautiful friendship’ we have.”

He turned the car around and dropped me off back at the club.

I stood there, watching my hero drive off into the night. I was bursting out of my skin with excitement. I ran to the nearest pay phone to call my best friend, Luana, to tell her I had just been in Marlon Brando’s car. I was twenty years old and I had actually been in Marlon Brando’s car.

I knew I wanted to be a performer ever since I was a skinny little kid growing up in Granada Hills in the San Fernando Valley. In the middle of my sophomore year we moved to Park La Brea in Los Angeles, and I went to Hollywood High School. By then I was a five-foot-ten, 170-pound, thick-wristed, moon-faced, duck-billed blonde in saddle shoes and a very unflattering blue
wool skirt that hid layers of crinoline and chub held in place by a Playtex girdle. The term “leading lady” didn’t exactly jump to mind.

I remember sitting down with my bag lunch on a bench under a tree in the tiny quad on my first day at school when, like a vision emerging from the midday sun, came these four beautiful girls. They were so stylish, they wore makeup—just enough—and they floated up to me in their high-heeled shoes. I’d never seen anything like them. Wow, I thought,

I looked up at them, my tomato and mayonnaise sandwich sticking halfway out of my mouth.

“Evidently someone doesn’t know whose bench they’re sitting on,” one of the fashionable foursome said.

I stood up, grabbed my sack lunch, and went straight to the girls’ bathroom. There I pulled myself together and stood in front of the bathroom mirror. I had a mantra for times like these: “Someday . . .” I said to my reflection, “Someday . . .” I did this in times of stress. It was a quiet reminder that things would always get better. I was on a path to somewhere better, somewhere different. Someday . . .

I had started the mirror pep talks as a young child. I was constantly putting on shows for anyone who would watch, singing for anyone who would listen, and even for those who wouldn’t. But the self-chats were my secret. And as long as I was banishing myself to the bathroom for lunch—I ate there for the next three weeks—I was going to make good use of my time. Every time somebody came into the bathroom, I hid in the stall, sandwich and all.

I soon learned that each bench outside in the quad was for a different club. There were bad-girl clubs (they smoked) and wholesome-girl clubs (they studied and dressed cute). Some clubs had mild hazing; some had auditions. As time passed and my personality beamed out, I got more comfortable and made friends. I had to brave a little rejection at first, and I was sure that no club would want me because of my size. But I eventually
got into one of the more goody-goody clubs. My friend Mary Finwall was in the bad-girl smoking club, but I loved hanging out with her.

Despite that rocky beginning, I ended up having a ball in high school. No boyfriends, mind you, but lots and lots of friends. Boys still teased me—calling me names like “Barge!” “Boat!” “Klondike Sal!” I hit five-foot-nine in fifth grade, so being self-conscious about my size was nothing new. I coped the way a lot of people do—I began to embrace my role as class clown and being one of the guys. A friend of mine once told me that he heard I was the most popular girl at Hollywood High. Excited, I told my mom. She simply said, “Dear, you don’t want to be popular. You want to be beloved.”

My grades were poor, but I did get As in choir and gym. I was always putting together trios with my best pals, especially my friend Barbara Black. Our accompanist was often our classmate Lincoln Majorga, a fabulous keyboardist who went on to play with Quincy Jones. We sang after school; we performed at school events. Anywhere and everywhere. In high school it was all about Nat King Cole, the Four Freshmen, and Shake, Rattle and Roll. My friend Dawn Adams’s family knew Norman Granz, the founder and head of Verve Records, and Dawn promised to help me get a demo to him. Lincoln and I would record it before graduation.

My friend Norma Jean Nielsen was the only person—besides the mirror—to whom I admitted my
big secret,
my performing secret: my desire to be up onstage. I was afraid to admit it out loud. Singing was one thing—it was about your voice. But saying out loud that I wanted to act felt different. I was afraid that people would think that I, the clown, suddenly believed that I was pretty enough to act. But by twelfth grade I was ready to dive in. With a little encouragement—and thanks to my imposing size—I got to play the mother in Hollywood High’s production of
Meet Me in St. Louis.
I even got to sing in the show.

Lavender blue . . . dilly dilly
. . . . .

My friend Hooper C. Dunbar III brought his mom to the play. Hooper really did look like a “Hooper C. Dunbar the Third.” He had big owl glasses, and though I can’t remember whether he wore a neat little sweater vest, I feel like maybe he should have. But he was spiritual and had an innate kindness that made me feel safe. Unbeknownst to me, his mother enjoyed my performance so much that she got hold of a copy of my high school picture and submitted me for a real movie audition.

“You’d be perfect for it!” she later enthused.

That’s how I found myself in the running to play Joan of Arc in Otto Preminger’s film adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw play
Saint Joan.
Soon I was standing in line with about three hundred other girls from all over the world at a big theater in Los Angeles. The way the auditions were set up, you could see the person in line ahead of you audition and hear a bit of the judges’ response. The girl who went right before me was very talented, or so I thought. I watched her closely and saw her raise her arms skyward to God. Such enthusiasm! The judges appeared to be very impressed, and she looked quite pleased with herself as she exited.
Wow. That was something,
I thought. I had to give it a go.

I walked in, introduced myself, flung my arms to the heavens, and exclaimed, “Oh God . . .”


Oh God, indeed.

Jean Seberg got the part, but I couldn’t be stopped. Once my desire to perform had transformed from lonely pep talks in front of the mirror into full-blown, on-stage singing in front of an audience, I knew my life was about to change, even if I couldn’t say how. That feeling of being up on a stage with other people, people like me who had something to say, something to share, was exhilarating. I loved being able to connect with them and with an audience, to belong. As high school drew to an end I began to explore Los Angeles, to soak up as much theater as I could.

the Cheviot Hills neighborhood. When we exited I saw a vision of 1950s cool: Eddie Byrnes, who would soon go on to play the comb-wielding valet sidekick on TV’s
77 Sunset Strip.
He was just standing there in a slick monogrammed shirt, leaning back against a powder-blue T-bird convertible. Dreamy.

Somebody introduced the two of us, and that was that: I had my first proper boyfriend.

It was right after high school, and I was living with my older sister Diana on Havenhurst, near the legendary Garden of Allah Hotel and bungalows and across from the Chateau Marmont, even then a place to be seen and a playground for movie stars. The Garden of Allah was party central for Hollywood’s Golden Age royalty—John Barrymore, Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, Dorothy Parker, Greta Garbo, and many more actors, writers, and so on. It was torn down not long after we lived there.

As I’d gotten a little older, Diana found me more interesting, so we grew closer. Sometime after we’d moved in together, she apologized for picking on me so much when we were little. By that time I couldn’t have cared less; it was all a memory and we were living a whole new life. Eddie used to come over to our apartment and play practical jokes on Diana and me, hiding under the covers in my bedroom, pretending he was dead. And we’d neck. I knew he wanted to sleep with me, but I was still a virgin. He would tease me about that fact and sometimes get angry with me, and that made me like him more—a relationship pattern that would later play itself out in a variety of ways with a variety of men.

“I don’t know what to do,” I told Diana one day. “I’d really like to sleep with Eddie. What do you think?”

“I wouldn’t know anyone who would do anything like that,” Diana said.

I listened to her. I still admired her and valued her opinion. And after all, this was the 1950s, the repressive postwar “wait until you’re married, no matter what” era, when the line between
“good” girls and “bad” was very clear and usually defined by your virginity. Eddie soon broke up with me and began dating my friend Asa Maynor. But I rebounded just fine. I already had a much more important man in my life. A man named Jeff Corey.

BOOK: Read My Lips
10.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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