Polly Bergen: 'Cape Fear' actress who ran a successful beauty firm then made a triumphant showbiz return in Sondheim's 'Follies'

 

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When Polly Bergen took to the stage in Stephen Sondheim's Follies on Broadway in 2000, her voice was ravaged by 50 years of heavy smoking and she was a forgotten figure in the entertainment world. But she belted out the showstopping "I'm Still Here", which could have been written for her, and was back in triumph.

The Emmy-winning actress and singer was best known for playing the terrorised wife in the original Cape Fear and the first female president of the US in Kisses for My President. A brunette beauty with a warm, sultry singing voice, she was a household name in the US from her twenties. She made albums and played leading roles in films, stage musicals and television dramas. She also founded a thriving beauty products company.

She was born Nellie Paulina Burgin in 1930 in Knoxville, Tennessee, into a family that at times relied on welfare to survive. They eventually moved to California, and Polly, as she was called, began her career singing on radio in her teens. "I was fanatically ambitious," she recalled. "All I ever wanted to be was a star. I didn't want to be a singer. I didn't want to be an actress. I wanted to be a star."

At 20, Bergen was an established singer when she starred with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in her first film, At War With the Army. She joined them in two more comedies, That's My Boy and The Stooge. In 1953 she made her Broadway debut with Harry Belafonte in the revue John Murray Anderson's Almanac. In 1957-58 she hosted The Polly Bergen Show on NBC, closing every broadcast with her theme song, "The Party's Over." She was also a regular, quick-witted guest on the game show To Tell the Truth.

She won an Emmy in 1958 portraying the tragic singer Helen Morgan on the US TV anthology series Playhouse 90. Addressing a women in business group in 1968, she said her definition of success was "when you feel what you've done fulfils yourself, makes you happy and makes people around you happy." Bergen became a regular in TV films and miniseries, most notably in the 1983 epic The Winds of War and its 1988 sequel War and Remembrance. (for which was nominated for another Emmy).

She appeared in that as the troubled wife of high-ranking Navy officer Pug Henry, played by Robert Mitchum – who also had the key role in the landmark 1962 suspense film Cape Fear as the sadistic ex-convict who terrorises a lawyer (Gregory Peck), his wife (Bergen) and his daughter (Lori Martin) because he blames Peck for sending him to prison. While it was deftly remade in 1991 by Martin Scorsese, with Robert de Niro, Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange in the three principal roles, and with cameos for Bergen, Peck and Mitchum, the original can hardly be bettered in its air of growing menace.

Two years later came Kisses for My President, with Bergen was cast as the first female US president and Fred MacMurray as First Gentleman (the President resigns when she becomes pregnant). When Geena Davis portrayed a first woman president in the 2005 TV drama Commander in Chief, Bergen was cast as her mother. Among her other films was Move Over, Darling (1963) with Doris Day and James Garner and John Waters' 1990 film Cry-Baby, which featured a young Johnny Depp.

Bergen published the first of her three advice books, The Polly Bergen Book of Beauty, Fashion and Charm in 1962. That led to her founding a cosmetics firm in 1966. As the president of the Polly Bergen Company she arrived at her office at 9am and worked a full day. "It was very difficult at the beginning," she recalled in 2001, "because everybody considered me just another bubble-headed actress."

She sold the company in 1973 to Fabergé, staying on for a couple of years afterward to run it as a Fabergé subsidiary. But in 1982 she married her third husband, the entrepreneur Jeff Endervelt. She co-signed his loans and gave him millions to invest from her beauty profits. "He would come home and say, 'Honey, sign this.' I wouldn't even look at it. Because you trust your husband."

The stock market crash of the 1980s wiped out the investments; she divorced Endervelt in 1991, and said he left her with so many debts she had to sell her New York apartment and other belongings to avoid bankruptcy.

The zeal she had displayed in business she then applied to reviving her performing career. She played successful cabaret dates in New York and Beverly Hills, and when she was turned down for an audition for the 2001 Broadway revival of Follies, she got in touch with Sondheim, who auditioned her and gave her the role of Carlotta Campion, the faded star who sings of her ups and downs in showbusiness.

Her show-stopper "I'm Still Here" was reminiscent of Bergen's own colourful saga, and she was nominated for a Tony. In 2002 she was in a revival of Cabaret and the following year she was back on Broadway with the comedy Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks.

Throughout her adult life she was a feminist and campaigner for women's rights. She was a leading supporter of the successful campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972 and worked hard for the Roe vs Wade ruling in the Supreme Court, which effectively legalised abortion in the US in 1973. She had had a backstreet abortion herself at 17, which left her unable to have children.

Before she wed disastrously for the third time, her four-year marriage to the actor Jerome Courtland ended in an acrimonious divorce in 1955. He was followed by the super-agent and producer Freddie Fields; the couple divorced in 1975 after 18 years. Bergen suffered emphysema and other ailments in the late 1990s, a result of her half-century of smoking. Her triumphant return in Follies opened doors, however, and she went on to play Felicity Huffman's mother in Desperate Housewives and the past mistress of Tony Soprano's late father in The Sopranos.

Nellie Paulina Burgin (Polly Bergen), actress, singer and businesswoman: born Knoxville, Tennessee 14 July 1930; married 1950 Jerome Courtland (divorced 1955), 1956 Freddie Fields (divorced 1975; (one adopted daughter, one adopted son), 1982 Jeffrey Endervelt (divorced 1991); (one adopted daughter); died 20 September 2014.

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