Lee Purcell Interview

Lee Purcell: Class Actress

Lee Purcell picThey don’t get much classier, more versatile or as genuinely talented as Lee Purcell, whose impressive list of classic film roles include “Mr. Majestyk”, “Big Wednesday” and “Valley Girl”.

Among other projects, the two-time Emmy nominated actress (for “Long Road Home” and “Secret Sins of the Father”) has a terrific role in NBC’s upcoming new 2009 TV-series titled “Persons Unknown” created by Oscar winner Christopher McQuarrie.


lee purcell actressWhen did you first know you wanted to be an actress?
My grandmother always said that when I was 2 ½ years old I told her I would be an actress and buy her a big car. I never bought her that car, as it wasn’t what she wanted, but with my first substantial earnings I did take her on a fabulous month-long trip to Europe for her first and only visit there. I did my first TV show when I was five years old, and my first play at seven. I began studying dance at three, and was taking speech lessons at around 6 to fruitlessly try to get rid of a terrible stutter (oddly, never present when I was acting), which I finally conquered later.

I studied most of the arts and danced all my life. I left home alone with $75.00 in my pocket, wrecked my car literally upon arrival in California, with everything I owned strewn all over the freeway. I then had to hitchhike or take buses to auditions and to acting classes. I naively thought an actor found work in the classified ads (no Craigslist in those days!), just like other professions, so I looked in the ads first thing. Except I ran into two pimps from the ad who were posing as agents to lure naive girls like me. A long story, but needless to say, I ran in the other direction as fast as I could!

My first big break was when the legendary Steve McQueen personally chose me out of hundreds of girls for his company’s film ADAM AT 6 A.M. to star opposite Michael Douglas. Steve became my mentor in those early days, and I was fortunate to spend a lot of time with him. We used to race up and down the streets in his Porsche. He loved that I rode a big motorcycle and told the press that I was a rebel like him, since I liked fast cars and bikes and had been on my own from an early age.

As soon as I could afford it, I moved to Europe and studied Shakespeare and acting. I commuted to Hollywood and was able to keep working there while actually living and studying in London.

How was it working on the horror film “Necromancy” (aka “The Witching”) with Orson Welles?
NECROMANCY aka several other titles was an odd little low-budget movie. I think it was only my second film. As a very young actress I got to work with another legend – Orson Welles. Since I played Orson’s warlock character’s young witch protégé, I had several scenes with him. His voice was such a thrill to hear. I also made some lifelong friends, Lisa James and Susan Bernard. We were later bridesmaids in Pamela Franklin’s real-life wedding to Harvey Jason.

I remember that Orson had a personal chef on the film set and we, the starving young things, would have to smell the delicious aromas of the fabulous meals he would cook for Orson while we ate our awful brown bag lunches of soggy tuna sandwiches and watched Orson being served Cordon Bleu dishes and fine wines! I also remember suffering a lot from having to “drown” in a polluted pond-over and over. No stunt doubles, just me and the pond scum. I wondered if I would catch a rare disease.

A bit of trivia is that Michael Ontkean, the hunky guy in NECROMANCY, and dear Sam Melville (Bear in BIG WEDNESDAY) were both in the TV series THE ROOKIES together and I had the pleasure of working with them both. What a small town Hollywood is.


Mr. MajestykYou played Al Lettieri’s girlfriend/moll in the Charles Bronson vehicle “Mr. Majestyk”… How was it working on this film?
Al was a great guy and left us way too soon, as did Sam [Melville] and Steve [McQueen]. Al was always a hard-working actor and very good to me and to his wife, Becky Lettieri. We all remained friends after the film until his untimely death. Becky and I are still good friends.

It’s funny the little things that you remember from a film. I remember having to constantly have to change my nail polish between scenes in MR. MAJESTYK. As I was extremely well-dressed in the film, I had to also have different nail polish to match each outfit, so as we flipped around from one scene to another, I was constantly and frantically using an awful solvent to remove my polish which really stank up the place, and then would have to paint my own nails very fast the new color, and then do it all over for the next scene. I did many scenes in that film with wet nail polish scared I would get it on someone or myself. Too bad there wasn’t a manicurist or fake nails available!

I also remember creating a character trait for my role, as a contrast to her gun moll aspect, that she carried a Bible and read it everywhere. If you look in the car scene, I’m reading the Bible. When you aren’t given much in the script for your character, you get real creative and just invent things. Like nail polish and being a Bible-reading gun moll!


Peggy GordonHow were you selected for the role of “Peggy Gordon”?
There is a funny story about my audition. I was given the script and invited to audition for the role Patti (d’Arbanville) ended up playing, but I had already recently played similar characters, so I asked if I could instead audition for the role of Peggy. John (Milius) said yes, but that I had to come into Warner Brothers Studio and show them how I looked in a bikini.

I was appalled since I was a “serious” actress, trained in London, etc. But, I wasn’t going to get the role if I didn’t, so I showed up in a trench coat with a bikini underneath. I told them to watch me carefully and not blink, and “flashed” everyone in the room then quickly closed the coat. They all laughed and I had the role then and there.

Was there any preparation for the actors/actresses in pre-production?
The only group preparation that I remember was one table-read at Warner Bros. After that, we were on our own creating our respective characters’ universes, until being on set and hearing Action. I became good friends with John and Billy Katt.

There seems to be such a unique and genuine closeness of the central characters in this film… Was there a family-like feeling on set?
I don’t think anyone was actually close – it was just good acting, good direction, good writing. And the natural evolution of being with a group of strangers over a period of months day after day in isolated conditions. A certain dynamic develops that translates to the screen. It happens on many sets. Each actor has their own style of preparation, and whatever that was, perhaps helped create the on-camera illusion of closeness. 

It seems more pronounced in this film because that is what was on the written page. The film was about universal themes of friendship, loyalty and love. It happened to be set against a surfing background with that as the metaphor, because surfing and the BW story were autobiographical for John and Denny (Aaberg). But, it could have been football, or a factory, or anything else.

Of course, the three guys, Jan (Jan-Michael Vincent), Billy (Katt) and Gary (Busey) spent more time together to learn, and/or improve, how to surf (someone of them had never surfed, I don’t remember who) and they got to travel to distant locations together and they just had more time on the film than Patti and I had, so there would be more of that natural evolution that I spoke of above for them.  

Patti and I were ordered by John to get tan for the film, since we were both naturally pale-skinned. I didn’t want to tan my face, as it is so bad for the skin, so Patti and I sunned ourselves on my little patio at my little Laurel Canyon house day after day, getting tan. Except, I kept a towel over my face to protect my skin, so I was tan from the neck down, but very pale from the neck up. John was very puzzled and kept trying to figure out why the skin on my face wouldn’t tan, but my body did, and I never said anything until now. I knew that makeup could easily give me a fake tan on my face, so I never let my face tan. If John reads this, he’ll laugh.

A thought: Many people say how much like our characters we BW actors are in life or that we grew to be like them in real life. I always found that particular concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy odd and not true. I just think it was great casting by Karen Rea. We, as actors, could hardly be like each character we play, as they are so varied! I am certainly not like Peggy in real life. But, I really enjoyed creating and playing her.

More trivia: the adorable little blonde girl who played Jan’s (Matt) and my (Peggy) daughter is Jan’s actual real-life daughter…There was quite a bit of that type of down-home casting in the film, i.e. John’s wife playing the bride, etc. I also remember Jake Busey, a toddler at the time, being around, but I don’t remember if he was actually filmed.

Memories of the Mexico bar-fight scene?
I was avoiding getting actually injured in the fight scene since it was pretty wild. There is one point in that scene where I had to repeatedly duck to the floor after the camera panned away from me to not get punched – take after take.

There’s another scene where we’re all walking down a dark Tijuana street and we’re approached by a creepy drug dealer played by John Milius! And he was very good. He made me laugh and laugh; I could hardly breathe from trying not to laugh in the scene and would burst out laughing when he yelled Cut. It still makes me laugh when he says that line to me when I see him.

How about the “keg party” scene?
The best part for me was in the “bathroom” when I tell a girl she should wear a padded bra and she responds that she already is! Very funny and very realistic female dialogue! And also, when Jan (Matt) and I were on the couch towards the end, and my character is so drunk that I fall over sideways. That was my improv and John loved it and kept it in. Of course, then I had to fall over and over, from different angles, for many takes. I also loved working with Billy’s mother, Barbara Hale – she is a great woman, a real trouper and very funny.

The water hose scene was a very fast, one-take scene, for obvious reasons. I was so nervous I wouldn’t get it right and knew the consequences if I didn’t, so I did get it right! I was so relieved.

Bear’s wedding?
I loved working with Sam Melville (Bear); he was a wonderful person and terrific actor. That scene has a wonderful bittersweet quality to it that is so true of time passing, people growing up and the inevitable changes of life. Also, the “bride” in that sequence was John Milius’ actual wife, Celia Kaye, at the time.

“Peggy” has quite a story arc… How did you prepare for a character that goes through so many changes?
Because of the chronology in the story, and also because we were shooting in a bit later era from the film’s story era, I created a written timeline for myself that I could refer to as needed. Since we were, of course, also shooting out of sequence, within the span of a day’s shooting, I could be the beach girl, then the mom, then back to the beach girl, etc. So, the timeline was a great help to me.

Then also, because we were portraying an earlier era, there was research involved in that to be authentic to the time. I also created a biography for my character that I could refer to. Plus, since I was playing a person loosely based on a real-life girl John and Denny had known, I interviewed them both about her. Her name was changed in the script. I wanted Peggy to “grow up” on camera, and I think that worked out.


In “Valley Girl” you played the ultimate hot mom who seduces her daughter’s “crush”… Was this a fun part to play?
It was fun – it was just a little, low-budget film made with friends that turned into a blockbuster, which shocked us all. Then, we had to sue to try to get our percentages, which we never got, after a seven-year lawsuit. They declared bankruptcy to keep from paying us for the back-end points that we had all taken in lieu of our normal salaries. 

I was secretly pregnant when I shot the famous scene by the pool, so instead of wearing a bikini as requested, I wore a big shirt, shorts and heels. Eventually, everyone figured out why. My son and I always joke that it was his pre-natal film debut. I also liked the homage to The Graduate, “…plastics…” 

You have a brief but memorable part in “Stir Crazy” alongside Gene Wilder… How was it working with Gene in this?
The way that I ended up doing that role is unusual: I had auditioned for the role that Jo Beth Williams got. Sidney called me at home and told me that I wasn’t right for that role, but that he wanted me in the film, so he offered me the Susan role. I really didn’t want to do it, as it was so small, but they made me an offer I could not refuse (check out the billing sometime in the film, no, not on the notoriously inaccurate, overrated imdb, but in the actual film’s opening credits) (what I got was way over the top for the size of the role) and I got to say some funny swear words and work with Sidney and Gene Wilder, so need I say more?

You played the late Bill Bixby’s girlfriend in “The Incredible Hulk Returns”… What are some key memories working with Bill on this project?
One of the nicest guys who ever lived. As a director, he was meticulous. Bill paid attention to every detail, large and small. He decided what I would wear and the length of my skirts! He loved that I had dancer’s legs, and wanted to make sure they were shown! As an actor, he was wonderful. We thought alike on the art of acting, so we were really in a natural sync that was smooth as silk. I respected him greatly on all counts.

I am surprised that he lived as long as he did, with the burden of his life’s tragedies that he endured. Imdb, as usual, has it wrong; Bill directed it, not Nick. But, I would like to also say something about the late Nick Corea, the writer and producer of the show. He was a great talent, and a Vietnam vet, an enigma, whom I adored as I did Bill. They were a great team… I also am still very fond of Lou Ferrigno, whom I run into now and then and keep up with on Facebook.

Any memorable moments working on “Eddie Macon’s Run”?
Mostly, what we did on our days off! Target shooting with the cast and the producers. The Tex-Mex food.  Shopping. I really enjoyed working with John Schneider and the producers, and of course, the legendary Kirk Douglas. My parents surprised me with a visit to that film (the only one ever, I finally figured out they wanted to meet Kirk!) and he treated them like royalty! They have never forgotten it, and I was very grateful to Kirk… I did a lot of my own stunt driving and stunts, and that was fun.

You appeared in “The Unknown” alongside your son, Dylan… How was it working on the same movie?
It was our “second” project “together” (remember his “debut” in Valley Girl!). Except for in this one, he was a full-grown young man starring in his first film! It was something I’ll always treasure, acting with my only child on the very first take, the very first scene, the very first day of his very first film. It just doesn’t get any better than that.

Dylan PurcellHe’s a wonderful actor. I was so proud of him. The producers had asked me if I wanted to play Dylan’s mom just for fun. I only had two small scenes, but I jumped at the once-in-a-lifetime chance. I believe one of my two little scenes was cut out in editing, but that wasn’t important to me.

Persons UnknownYou’re in an exciting new TV series that just sold to NBC… What’s this show called?
A wonderful project: PERSONS UNKNOWN. It was created by Oscar winner Christopher McQuarrie, produced by Fox TV Studios/Televisa/RAI and has a fabulous international cast and a team of international first-rate directors and fabulous writers. We have completed shooting the first season in Mexico City. Note for sci-fi fans: the pilot episode and the season finale episode were directed by Michael Rymer (currently Emmy nominated for Battlestar Galactica). There are also several other well-known sci-fi actors, directors, and writers involved, such as Jonathan Frakes (Star Trek, but directing in Persons.).The premiere and airdates will be announced shortly by NBC.

Who do you play on “Persons Unknown”?
My character, Eleanor Sullivan, is a very wealthy, very mysterious woman who may, or may not be, evil.

Long Road HomeWhat are some other memorable television roles?
In looking over past television projects, my favorite TV role was LONG ROAD HOME, for which I received my first EMMY nomination. Mark Harmon and I starred as husband and wife migrant workers in the Great Depression. It was a very challenging, emotional role and is one of my favorite roles of all time in TV or film. It was the kind of role for which I became an actress to play. They don’t come along very often. 

Another favorite is the TV movie SECRET SINS OF THE FATHER, for which I received my second EMMY nomination. I loved that as well since it was directed by Beau Bridges – who also played my husband – and many of the wonderful Bridges clan were in it.


A few words about the following:

CHARLES BRONSON: I really liked Charlie. He was a stand-up guy who defended me when a particular person was very rude to me. Otherwise, he was very quiet and rather shy. He brought his whole family on location and was always playing catch with his kids when not filming.
JAN-MICHAEL VINCENT: Very good-looking as a young man, a gifted actor and a tragic figure. I hope he has found his way back. I wish him the best.
WILLIAM KATT: A wonderful actor, a terrific hard-working family man, an authentic person. I can’t say enough nice things about him. We are still in touch.
GARY BUSEY: I had worked with Gary before as he had a small part in a wonderful film I was in titled DIRTY LITTLE BILLY. It was about Billy the Kid played by Michael J. Pollard. Another bit of trivia is that the legendary, and very elderly, Jack Warner (Warner Bros) came out of a long retirement to produce DIRTY LITTLE BILLY, so once again, I got to work with a legend! It was Mr. Warner’s last project.
JOHN MILIUS: One of my favorite people, a brilliant raconteur, larger than life, Wagnerian, a genius and a friend.
RICHARD FLEISCHER: Oscar-nominated Richard Fleischer was the son of Max Fleischer – the creator of Betty Boop. Dick would entertain me by telling me true stories of Max, Betty and the censors of that era. Great stuff.
GENE WILDER: Gene was very shy and quiet, as a lot of funny people are when off-camera. But when the cameras rolled, he was pure comedic genius. A side-note is that, once again, I had to flash people just like I had in John Milius’ office a couple of years before. Yes, I was wearing something underneath.
NICOLAS CAGE: Nicolas Cage was a real sweetheart. We (VALLEY GIRL) all knew he was Coppola’s nephew and had changed his name to make his own way (he certainly did!), but we never let on that we knew.
KIRK DOUGLAS: A giant of a talent, an icon, and he was so kind to my parents! Kirk is the father of my first co-star, Michael Douglas (ADAM AT 6 AM), so it was sweet to have first worked with the son, then later the father.

And what are some future projects and/or websites or charities you’re involved in?
As a writer, I have several projects I’m working on. One is an internet series I am particularly excited about. I’m very interested in webisodes as they are cheaper and easier to get on and there is more freedom. I am also going back to Europe for my annual trip to direct, perform, write and teach.

There is a wonderful charity, Heart of a Horse, which I have recently become involved with. They rescue horses from the slaughterhouse and from other terrible circumstances. They exist on donations and are currently feeding and housing 400 horses. They need money, publicity and homes for the horses. They are online at www.heartofahorse.com. As a former rodeo competitor, horses are near and dear to my heart… I am also finally getting a website done. It’s (surprise!) www.leepurcell.com and should be up in a couple of months. Plus, my Facebook fan page is newly up, and I would love to hear from fans there.

Something else that I think will interest people is a documentary on Big Wednesday is being done as of this writing. Greg MacGillivray (Oscar winner for EVEREST) is doing it. He worked on Big Wednesday. I have already been interviewed for it at my house, and I know they also interviewed John, Jan, Billy, Denny, Gary and Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Quentin Tarantino, among others. I have a terrific photo of John, Steven, George Lucas and me taken outside the soundstage at Warner Bros that they are using in the documentary. There is such an amazing after-life to Big Wednesday, which continues to gratify and astonish all of us who worked on it.

So, life is good. Enjoy it. Every day is a gift.

Interview by James M. Tate

JMT’s Facebook fan page for MR. MAJESTYK

JMT’s Facebook BIG WEDNESDAY fan group

Official Lee Purcell Facebook fanpage

Linda’s Yahoo Lee Purcell fan group (which provided some of the photos)

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