Hope Lange

Sensitive actress nominated for an Oscar for her role in 'Peyton Place'
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The Independent Online

Hope Elisse Ross Lange, actress: born Redding Ridge, Connecticut 28 November 1931; married 1956 Don Murray (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1961), 1963 Alan J. Pakula (marriage dissolved 1969), 1986 Charles Hollerith; died Santa Monica, California 19 December 2003.

When the film version of Grace Metalious's sensational novel Peyton Place opened in 1957, a lot of attention was focused on the two newcomers who played the important roles of the small-town girl Alison MacKenzie and her friend Selena Cross.

Both actresses, Diane Varsi and Hope Lange (who had already made one film), were nominated for Academy Awards, though neither won. Neither also had quite the amount of success expected of them, though Lange's career was more fulfilling than that of the troubled Varsi. A sensitive and appealing actress, Lange was an attractive and reliable presence in her early starring roles. Later she won two Emmy awards for her television series The Ghost and Mrs Muir. Her three husbands included the actor Don Murray and the director Alan J. Pakula, and she had a highly publicised affair with the film star Glenn Ford.

Lange was born in Redding Ridge, Connecticut, in 1931, the daughter of a musician father and an actress mother. She was only 12 years old when she made her Broadway début as Anne Randolph in The Patriots (1943), Sidney Kingsley's Pulitzer prizewinning play about Thomas Jefferson. Lange gained most of her early experience acting in repertory and on television, including several appearances in the live drama anthology Playhouse 90. It was a Kraft Television Theatre production, Snap Finger Creek (1956), that brought her to the attention of the 20th Century-Fox producer Buddy Adler.

Signed to a contract, she made her screen début as the waitress Elma, who becomes a friend and confidante to a café singer (Marilyn Monroe) in Joshua Logan's Bus Stop (1956). Though Monroe's touching performance dominated the film, Lange impressed with her warmth and quiet conviction. She also married the film's leading man, the newcomer Don Murray, who described her as "a great beauty, who was also a serious and dedicated actress who didn't pay attention to being glamorous". According to Murray, Monroe was unhappy at sharing the screen with another blonde, and wanted the studio to dye Lange's hair light brown.

Lange then had her finest screen role, as Selena Cross, a girl from the poorer part of town who murders her alcoholic stepfather, the school caretaker, after he rapes her, in Mark Robson's Peyton Place. A superlative adaptation by John Michael Hayes of Grace Metalious's sensational best-seller, it was sensitively handled by Robson and proved an enormous critical and commercial hit. The film's nine Oscar nominations included four for supporting performances (a record at the time later equalled by The Godfather, Part 2). Lange, Diane Varsi, Arthur Kennedy (as the stepfather) and Russ Tamblyn were all nominated, but none of them won. "It was a great role and a great opportunity," said Lange in 1998, when she attended 40th-anniversary celebrations in the Maine town where Peyton Place was filmed.

Lange then played with two other young contract players, Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter, in Nicholas Ray's The True Story of Jesse James (1957), a more darkly complex recounting of the outlaws' lives than the studio's earlier 1939 film Jesse James. In Edward Dmytryk's Second World War drama The Young Lions (1959), which followed the lives of three soldiers (one a Nazi played by Marlon Brando) whose fates would converge on the battlefield, Lange played the wife of a Jewish infantryman (Montgomery Clift). In Love and War (1958), a similar but less prestigious movie, featured Lange as the sweetheart of a cowardly serviceman (Robert Wagner).

She was then given top billing in Jean Negulesco's The Best of Everything (1959), based on Rona Jaffe's best-seller about life in a publishing house. A glossy, but superficial attempt by the producer Jerry Wald to equal his Peyton Place, it came to life only when the domineering chief editor (Joan Crawford) was on screen, though her role was as tenuously developed as those of her co-stars. Lange played an aspiring editor whose youthful ambition is resented by the older woman.

Wald also produced Wild in the Country (1961), a vehicle for Elvis Presley scripted by Clifford Odets, that gave the singer a more dramatic role than usual. Lange played a psychiatrist who recognises the writing abilities of a young delinquent from the backwoods of Kentucky (Presley). Nurturing his talent, she slowly falls in love with her protégé.

In 1961 Lange divorced Don Murray, embarking on an affair with Glenn Ford. Ford was associate producer as well as the star of Frank Capra's final film, A Pocketful of Miracles (1961), based on a Damon Runyon story already filmed by Capra as Lady for a Day in 1933. Ford exercised his creative control on the film by casting Bette Davis (who had been kind to him when he returned to movies after his war service) as the street-hawker Apple Annie, and Hope Lange as a brassy showgirl and longtime fiancée of the gangster played by Ford. Both actresses were fundamentally miscast, Lang lacking the wisecracking élan for her role, which was similar to that played by Vivian Blaine in another Runyon-based project, Guys and Dolls. She was more happily cast, again opposite Ford, in the comedy Love is a Ball (called All This and Money Too in the UK), as an heiress who falls in love with her chauffeur (Ford).

In 1963 Lange married the director Alan J. Pakula and retired from the screen until 1966, when she returned to television to appear in an episode of The Fugitive. In 1968 she starred in the series The Ghost and Mrs Muir, based on the 1947 film about a widow who befriends the ghost of a sea captain (Edward Mulhare) who haunts her seaside cottage. The show was on the air for two seasons, and for both of them Lange won the Emmy as best actress in a comedy series.

Most of her subsequent work was on television, with over a dozen TV movies, plus the role of Jenny Preston, wife of a talk-show host (Dick Van Dyke) in The New Dick Van Dyke Show (1971), which ran for three years. A fourth season was cancelled when Lange declined to sign for another year after CBS refused to show an episode in which it was implied that she and Van Dyke were making love in their bedroom. "They won't air the best show we did all season," she complained. "If a happily married couple can't make love . . . they have three children, for Pete's sake! Was that by immaculate conception?"

Her sporadic big-screen appearances included the role of the hapless wife whose rape and murder sparks the vigilante crusade of Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) in Michael Winner's Death Wish (1974), a troubled parent in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 2: Freddy's revenge (1985), and the mother of Laura Dern in David Lynch's offbeat thriller Blue Velvet (1986). In 1987 she returned to Broadway after an absence of 34 years, to star in a revival of Same Time, Next Year, Bernard Slade's two-character play about an adulterous couple who share one weekend a year for 26 years.

In 1993 Lange took the small part of a college student's mother in the television mini-series Message from Nam. "If you blink, you missed me," she joked, adding,

Work is hard to find for a woman my age. You start to feel like a brontosaurus . . .You walk into meetings and all the producers and writers are in their twenties. Fortunately I don't feel validated just when I work. If I never worked again, it wouldn't matter all that much.

Her last film was Clear and Present Danger (1994).

Divorced from Pakula in 1969, she married the theatrical producer Charles Hollerith in 1986, and the couple divided their time between homes in California and New York.

Tom Vallance