They 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.
When did you first know you wanted to be an actress?
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.
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.
You played Al Lettieri’s girlfriend/moll in the Charles Bronson vehicle “Mr. Majestyk”… How was it working on this film?
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!
How were you selected for the role of “Peggy Gordon”?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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?
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?
You played the late Bill Bixby’s girlfriend in “The Incredible Hulk Returns”… What are some key memories working with Bill on this project?
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”?
You appeared in “The Unknown” alongside your son, Dylan… How was it working on the same movie?
He’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.
You’re in an exciting new TV series that just sold to NBC… What’s this show called?
Who do you play on “Persons Unknown”?
What are some other memorable television roles?
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:
And what are some future projects and/or websites or charities you’re involved in?
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
Linda’s Yahoo Lee Purcell fan group (which provided some of the photos)