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An Interview with Actress Lee Grant

Lee Grant is in that rare class of actresses whose screen presence, whether in a supporting or leading role, is so magnetic that you can’t take your eyes off her. Sixty-plus years in show business has brought her Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes. With her high, Russian cheekbones setting off a face of feline intelligence, her chiselled beauty and upper-class Jewish New York accent cut like a scythe through the corn of 1950s-Hollywood. She was the anti-Doris Day. Casting directors turned to Lee when the script called for a darker, more dangerous element of urbane, female sexuality. 

Audiences immediately responded to her coiled power from her debut in the 1951’s Detective Story at age 24. But at age 30, right when her career should have been blooming, she was banned from working in Hollywood during the early days of the Cold War Communist paranoia. She was blacklisted for twelve years, a lifetime for an actor. Her stint in movie jail ended in 1962 and she was forced to rebuild her acting career in films and television. She starred in 71 episodes of Peyton Place (1965–1966), followed by roles in Valley of the Dolls (1967), In the Heat of the Night (1967), and Shampoo (1975). With over 100 acting credits, she’s also an Academy Award winning documentarian with her 1986 film Down And Out In America. Her autobiography I Said Yes To Everything details the ups and downs of her career  but surprisingly, some of her later titles are either glossed over or suspiciously absent. Namely, my generation’s genre credits…

Diabolique: I’m not sure if you’re aware, but there’s a generation of film lovers who could be called the “First Generation VHS Kids”, so to speak. Many are gay men who grew up in the 80’s and work in the film industry today as writers, directors and showrunners.  I’ve always wanted to meet you just to let you know that you kinda-sorta reached a gay diva/cult status because of your “lesser pictures.” 

Lee Grant: You’re talking about Valley Of The Dolls. I’ve heard that’s a gay favorite, but I really don’t do much in it. My scenes were with Sharon Tate, who was beautiful.

Diabolique: Actually, I’m not talking about Valley Of The Dolls. I’m referring to a couple of the disaster and horror movies you made. You’ve got a few cult classics on your resume.

LG: Classics? Really? Please continue. 

Diabolique: “Our” Lee was the 70’s and 80’s Lee.  You rocked that patented pageboy bob/ bowl cut hairstyle everyone loved and you were a familiar face in our homes on television. But I’ve read many of the movies I’m talking about are ones that you don’t like at all. You’ve been very dismissive of my some of our childhood favorites, Lee.

LG: Oh, come on! I’ve made some of the worst movies. (laughs). Ah, the ‘house payment’ movies I did. (Laughs). For an actor, you sometimes have to say yes to these type of jobs. Especially when you get older, and are a woman. When I was in my late forties, I realized I had run out of Hollywood time for the kind of good parts that they had given me in the past.

Diabolique: You know, my mother wouldn’t let me see an R-rated movie when I was 9, but because Lee Grant was is in it, then it was OK for us kids to see something gory like Damien: Omen II. We used you because our parents adored you.

LG: You’re kidding!. I’ve always said that Voyage Of The Damned was my last important picture and that was in 1976. I got an Oscar nomination for that and trying to stay afloat in this business as a woman my age was incredibly difficult. That’s why I titled my autobiography “I Said Yes To Everything”. From a financial standpoint, I needed to keep working.

Diabolique: Our parents loved you for the high-brow movies you made like In the Heat of the Night and the Oscar winning Shampoo, but us kids had stuff like that made for TV ‘Carrie’ rip-off The Spell and the oddball lesbian incest thriller The Mafu Cage. Did you know that Airport’77 has become something of a camp classic?

LG: Airport? That’s absolutely hilarious. There’s a point  in that movie when I go crazy and I try to open up the airplane door when we’re at the bottom of the ocean. And so Brenda Vaccaro comes over and she socks me! And we just fell to the floor laughing. I couldn’t get up, I was laughing so hard. Brenda is in New York now and I see her all he time…and we STILL crack up about that. Oh honey, we broke up and we fell down laughing so many times.  That poor young director was so nervous because it was taking forever to shoot without us ruining every take. And also I love that character! Christopher Lee played my husband. I had my friend Harvey Miller re-write my lines with the producer’s permission. My character is a spoiled rotten pain in the ass for everyone on that plane. If there ever was a character in a film that deserved to die, it was her! The tiny liquor bottles I walk around with were my idea.

Diabolique: The funniest thing in Airport 77 is when they need to show the audience that you’ve drowned, there’s a just close up of your heavily jewelled hand floating on the water. It gets applause because had you basically spent the whole movie wandering around the plane insulting people while you were drunk.

LG: But you know, from a career standpoint it was depressing. I had just been nominated for a fourth Oscar. I’m deathly afraid of water and I’m deathly afraid of flying and the only role I could get was an Airport sequel at the bottom of the ocean.  (Laughs). But it was a big budget picture and made a lot of money. Hey, how about “The bees are coming!”. What the hell was that movie called?

Diabolique: The Swarm. Did you know that got an Oscar nomination for Best Costumes?

LG: What? You’re fucking kidding me! (laughs). That was another huge movie with an amazing cast: Michael Caine, Olivia De Havilland, Henry Fonda and my old friend Darren McGavin… At least I was in good company!  There’s safety in numbers in a picture like that. I’ve acted in a few second-rate pictures that were filled with famous employable actors, whose money advisors told them to “take the money and run!” But it’s nice to hear someone appreciated them. I’ve always thought of them as second rate pictures.  But I always tried my best to do first rate work, and it’s possible. “Here come the bees!” is one of my only lines if I recall…

Diabolique: Absolutely! And Lee Grant fans all remember the name of your personal costume designer, Burton Miller. No matter what the movie, in the end credits it always was “Miss Grant’s costumes by…”

LG: I loved Burton. He was my best friend. I insisted on bringing him onto almost everything I did in the 70’s. He died so young. Did you know he shared an Oscar nomination with Edith Head for Airport 77? I loved that shimmery black pantsuit he did for me.

Diabolique: He even did your wardrobe in the 1982 slasher movie you starred in called Visiting Hours, which was basically a hospital gown, but fitted! Burton Miller couture.

LG: Oh God, Visiting Hours was a B-minus damsel in distress picture I did in Quebec that I had originally turned down but then did it for the money. I hated the way I looked in it. I went to the big Lowes on Sunset Boulevard with Waldo Salt on opening night. Looking up at that huge screen, I realized my age was showing. The kiss of death for an actress. The train was coming and I was on the tracks. Shampoo was over, and Visiting Hours was here. I realized my glory days in wonderland were numbered…

Diabolique:  But nobody ever looks good in Canadian movies from the 80’s! They never side-light anyone and they’re full of drab colors. You get a free pass on that.

LG:  Thank you for telling me that. I’ve always been a wreck when it comes to how I look on screen. I had my first face-lift when I was 30, I was that insecure, I regret being so difficult with Stuart Rosenberg on Voyage Of The Damned. Here he is directing this huge, complicated and important picture with dozens of big actors, and he’s got to deal with me sobbing in my cabin because I didn’t like how I looked in dailies.  

Diabolique: In Visiting Hours, you are “the final girl”, a stock character reserved for young actresses in horror movies who find their inner strength and battle the killer in the final reel. And here you are in your 50’s going head to head with hulking psycho Michael Ironside  who wants to kill you because you’re a feminist news anchor. There’s a chase scene where you make it to an elevator, and as the doors are closing, he rams his knife at you. Do you remember how you defend yourself?

LG: I do not recall but now I can’t wait to hear.

Diabolique: You take off your high heel shoe and start whacking his hand with it until he drops the knife and the doors close.. That’s a classic drag queen move from The Stonewall days.

LG: You’ve made my day by telling me that! (Laughs) It was a lead role which was nice. I did have a lovely time making it in Canada, where everything and everyone was charming and I got to use my high school French. And it was nice working with my old friend Bill Shatner. You know, I’ve done a few autograph conventions and been asked to sign a lot of posters for that movie. I guess it’s what you’re trying to tell me about that time in my career doing those B pictures. Who knew people liked them?

Diabolique: I know your appearance is always something you’ve stressed over, but I say you’ve never looked better than you did in 1978’s Damien: Omen II.  Lush Bill Butler photography and lavish hair, makeup and wardrobe. So many Burton Miller costume changes. I call it “Omen Chic.” And just when it couldn’t get any more fabulous, in walks Elizabeth Shepherd’s reporter character wearing a bright red trench coat with matching feather collar, only to have a raven peck her eyes out before she’s hit by a truck.

LG: (Laughs) You’re my guy.  You know, my birthday is on Halloween…maybe there’s a connection there with some of these scary movies.

Diabolique: When you cry out “DAMIEN!!!,” in Omen II’s finale, it’s like a gay siren song now. You’re wearing this expensive cream colored angora night cape and you burst into flames after we just found out that you are the reincarnate of the Whore Of Babylon! It’s so gloriously over the top, yet played completely straight and with integrity. It’s true diva’s demise back before that kind of scene would have been pandered, insincere and  manufactured for maximum “camp”. There’s just something comforting about the movies you did at that time, even if it was your Blue Period as an actress.

LG: Well then  (Wails) “Daaaaamiiiieeeennnnn!” to all of you.  It’s your cry now! (laughs). You were born in the right decade because you adore us older actresses and that’s what we need to hear. I’m in my 90s and it’s lovely to have any of my films appreciated. Even the ‘House Payments’.

Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years

About Bryan Norton

Bryan Norton has an M.F.A. degree in Film Production from New York University's Tisch School of The Arts Graduate Film Program, and a B.A. in Cinema Studies from Sarah Lawrence College. He wrote and directed the horror film Penny Dreadful for Showtime Networks with a generous grant from Warner Bros, starring Friday the 13th's Betsy Palmer as well as the recent horror hit ‘All Hallows Eve 2”. He recently signed with Eli Roth’s CRYPT TV as a writer/director of genre content for their new internet platform. Bryan teaches film directing and screenwriting throughout the United States since 2001 and served as the chairperson of The New York Film Academy for 14 years. He also has consulted on several documentaries, books and articles relating to the history and analysis of the horror genre, including Butcher Knives and Body Counts: Essays of the Formula, Frights and Fun of the Slasher Film, Going To Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel and the upcoming documentary “Scream, Queen! My Nightmare On Elm Street.” He has written articles for Fangoria Magazine, Delirium, Gorezone and other horror publications. His book ‘For God Sake’s Get Out! The Making of the Amityville Horror’ is due out next year from Bear Manor Media.

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