Barbara Bel Geddes

Broadway and film actress who found fame as Miss Ellie in the soap opera 'Dallas'
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The Independent Online

Barbara Bel Geddes, actress: born New York 31 October 1922; married 1944 Carl Schreuer (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1951), 1951 Windsor Lewis (died 1972; one daughter); died Northeast Harbor, Maine 8 August 2005.

After a successful acting career on Broadway and in films such as Hitchcock's Vertigo, Barbara Bel Geddes won her greatest fame in her fifties as Miss Ellie Ewing, the matriarch of the Ewing family of Southfork Ranch, in Dallas, the glossy American soap opera about a rich and powerful Texas oil family who would do anything to seize money and power. She was, said Larry Hagman, who played her unscrupulous, womanising son J.R., "the rock of Dallas . . . the glue that held the whole thing together".

It was Miss Ellie, with her wistful smiles, who was always there with a shoulder to cry on ("Marry a good man and wait for the bells to ring later," she told Jenna Wade when Ray Krebbs proposed) as the stories became increasingly outlandish. J.R. was shot - twice - and his youngest brother, Bobby (Patrick Duffy), was shot, too, before apparently being killed in the shower, only to resurface a year later when it emerged that the death was simply a very long nightmare endured by his wife, Pam (Victoria Principal).

Miss Ellie was well qualified to give advice after a lifetime of her own traumas. Willard "Digger" Barnes was the sworn enemy of her husband, Jock Ewing, who had won her away from him. She and Jock brought up their middle son Gary's daughter, Lucy, after his marriage broke up, and she was later devastated to hear that Ray Krebbs, the Ewing ranch manager, was Jock's illegitimate son from a secret affair, before her husband's death in a helicopter crash in South America left her on the verge of insanity. Some happiness finally came with her marriage to the billionaire oil magnate Clayton Farlow.

But her greatest fight came with the realisation that she had breast cancer and needed a mastectomy - in a rare case of Dallas echoing real life. Bel Geddes had herself previously been diagnosed with the disease, needing a lump removed.

Then, in 1984, in the middle of her 12-year run in the successful soap, the actress suffered a heart attack, which resulted in her undergoing a quadruple-bypass operation. Donna Reed stepped in to take over as Miss Ellie, but viewers failed to take to her and, a year later, Bel Geddes was asked to return to Dallas. She continued in the role until 1990, a year before the programme finally ended.

Born in New York City in 1922, Barbara Bel Geddes was the daughter of a stage designer, Norman Bel Geddes, and was educated at private schools until she was expelled at the age of 16 for kissing a boy. Keen to act, she made her début in 1940 with a summer theatre company in The School for Scandal and followed it with her first Broadway appearance, as Dottie Coburn in Out of the Frying Pan (Windsor Theatre, 1941).

She continued to act on the New York stage during the Second World War and toured US Army camps as Judy in Junior Miss (1942), before returning to Broadway and gaining wide acclaim as Genevra Langdon, a white girl who falls in love with a black soldier, in the celebrated director Elia Kazan's production of Deep Are the Roots (Fulton Theatre, 1945-46), winning her both the first Clarence Derwent Award, for outstanding young performers, and the New York Drama Critics' Best Actress Award.

But Bel Geddes longed to act in films, and announced: "My ambition is to be a good screen actress. I think it would be much more exciting to work for Frank Capra, George Cukor, Alfred Hitchcock or Elia Kazan than to stay on Broadway."

After signing a seven-year contract with RKO in 1946, she made her film début in The Long Night (1947), as the girlfriend of a GI returning from war (Henry Fonda) who shoots his rival in love (Vincent Price), and was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her performance in I Remember Mama (1948) as the daughter- narrator telling the touching story of a Norwegian immigrant family in San Francisco.

Then, after starring with Robert Mitchum in the Western Blood on the Moon (1948), she was dropped from her RKO contract. The studio's new boss, Howard Hughes, said she was not sexy enough, but some believed he had hated Deep Are the Roots.

Although she landed roles in Caught (as a young woman marrying a millionaire for his riches but regretting her shallow existence, alongside James Mason, 1949) and Panic in the Streets (the director Elia Kazan's film noir about the rush to prevent a plague, 1950), Bel Geddes's unwillingness to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Communist witch-hunt years further jeopardised her film career.

She returned to Broadway, finding her greatest successes as the original Maggie, the sex-starved wife in Elia Kazan's production of the Tennessee Williams play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Morosco Theatre, 1955-56) and the title character in more than 1,500 performances of Jean Kerr's long-running marital comedy Mary, Mary (Helen Hayes Theatre, 1961-64, Morosco Theatre, 1964). Both resulted in nominations for Tony Best Actress awards.

After returning to the screen as James Stewart's well adjusted but drab girlfriend in the legendary thriller Vertigo (directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1958), Bel Geddes appeared in a handful of films, including The Five Pennies (1959), a biopic starring Danny Kaye as the cornet player "Red" Nichols, and alongside Jeanne Moreau in the war drama 5 Branded Women (1960).

She also went against type to play a woman who kills her unfaithful husband with a frozen leg of lamb and serves the evidence, roasted, to the investigating detective in Lamb To the Slaughter (1958), one of four roles she took in the "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" television series.

Bel Geddes retired from acting in 1966 to take care of her second husband, the Broadway director Windsor Lewis, who was suffering from cancer and died in 1972. She was penniless by the time she was offered the part of Miss Ellie in Dallas in 1978; two years later, she won an Emmy Best Lead Actress award.

Anthony Hayward