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In the 1950s you could count on Nancy Olson to be the sweetest and nicest person in every movie in which she appeared. I had a chance to interview her over the phone in 1963 shortly after she had been featured in a television show that cast her against image. Despite my hints to the contrary in the following story, Olson reverted to type for the rest of her career. I suspect she was, in real life, one of the sweetest people anyone ever met, and probably one of the classiest.

When this was written (July 1, 2019), Nancy Olson was still with us, a few days from her 91st birthday. Her last screen credit was in a 2014 film called "Dumbbells," in which she played Carl Reiner's wife. She also made a token appearance in the late Robin Williams' film, "Flubber," because she had played Fred MacMurray's wife in the original, "The Absent-Minded Professor) and in the sequel, "Son of Flubber."

Olson's career began with the promise she'd be a big screen superstar, but she stepped aside, as she explained to me during this interview:

Akron Beacon Journal, December 8, 1963
When television captured the United States a few years ago and gave us a reason not to leave our homes to see movies, the film industry fought back the only way it could — by presenting things on the big screen that couldn’t be shown on TV.

Thus movies gave us cinerama, cinemascope, Todd A-O, colorscope, technirama, pan-a-vision and vista-vision. One produced even tries smell-a-vision. Besides the film processes, the productions them selves began to change — spectaculars became more spectacular, drab, dark dramas became drabber and darker, sexy films became sexier, and dirty movies dirtier.

Television, in turn, has been forced to retaliate. For one thing, TV appears to have loosened its stand on sex and four-letter words. For another, TV shows are going in for some off-beat casting, making it possible for us to see familiar performers appear in unfamiliar roles, doing things they were never allowed to do in movies. In effect, television producers are taking images created by movies and warping them to their advantage.

It’s the kind of twist that might allow Peter Lorre to get the girl,, or worse, where Frankie Avalon might play a murderer. You also can picture a story in which Wally Cox steals the girl from Rock Hudson. (“Sorry, Rock,” the girl will say, “but Wally taught me how to get my clothes whiter and brighter. What have you ever done for me?”)

THIS TREND may be why ABC’s “Channing” recently presented an episode in which chubby-cheeked Nancy Olson, whose name has long been synonymous with apple pie. was cast as a promiscuous woman.

“Television is using shock as a gimmick this year,” she said in a phone interview last week. “I don’t know how long this will continue, but, as a performer, I don’t mind it at all. It gives me a change to play one kind of role this week, another kind of role next week.”

Ms. Olson is known for sugary roles in films such as “Pollyanna,” which will continue its three-part showing tonight on NBC’s “World of Color,” known to some of us as “Sunday Night at Walt Disney’s Old Movies.”

“Pollyanna,” a 1960 Disney release, had a theatrical running time of 134 minutes, which made it a perfect film for a three-part presentation — leaving the network with 46 minutes to fill with commercials.

GENERATING publicity for the film was the reason for Miss Olson’s call, but we soon strayed into the subject of television in general, and how a nice girl like Nancy Olson is receiving naughty roles.

But she felt it her duty to talk first about the Disney show.

“ ‘Pollyanna’ make a good three-part subject for TV,” she said. “You can watch one part and enjoy it without seeing the other two.”

Hayley Mills is the real star of the film; she received a special Academy Award for her performance.

As far as Nancy Olson is concerned, “Pollyanna” is history. Her role on “Channing” accounts for the present. The future? She’s hoping for a variety of roles in movies as well as television, though she prefers television because that medium doesn’t demand as much time from its guest stars.

MISS OLSON admitted she isn’t the most ambitious actress in the world. She has her reasons, of course, and her career is far from the most important thing in her life.

She broke into movies on a sort of fluke, anyway. A talent scout spotted her during a production at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and signed her to a contract. the scout had gone to the play to watch another actress.

After appearing in small roles in two films — “Portrait of Jennie” (1948) and “Canadian Pacific” (1949), she was cast in 1950’s “Sunset Boulevard” with William Holden, Gloria Swanson and Jack Webb. She was nominated for Academy Award as best supporting actress. She followed that with “Union Station” (1950), again with William Holden; “Mr. Music” (1950), with Bing Crosby; “Force of Arms” (1951), Holden again, and “Submarine Command” (1951), which paired her with Holden for the fourth time.

IN 1950, she married composer Alan “My Fair Lady” Lerner, and late the next year had her first child, which prompted her to tell her studio bosses she was willing to drop from star to featured player status if that’s what it took to keep working in films while she started and maintained her family.

“It isn’t necessary for my ego to be a star,” she said at the time, “but it is necessary for my happiness to have children.”

Her outlook hasn’t changed since then. Her children — daughters Liza, 12, and Jennifer, 10, come first.

She was divorced from Lerner in 1957, and last year married Alan Livingston, a jack of all trades who writes, composes, produces, plays the piano and has had his own orchestra. He’s also president of Capital Records.

WHILE MARRIED to Lerner, she lived in New York, and made films only when her husband’s business took him to California. She did land one role that was considered plum — in the war film, “Battle Cry” (1955). But the film didn’t live up to its hype, and Ms. Olson didn’t appear on the big screen again until “Pollyanna.”

“Walt Disney offered me a part in the movie,” she recalled, “and the shooting schedule began the same day my children started summer vacation.”

Next came a role in Disney’s “The Absent-Minded Professor” and “Son of Flubber.” It was while working on the latter that she met Livingston, and their marriage took her back to California to live.

I ASKED if she had any plans for other TV appearances this season.

“Talk to me after Christmas,” she answered. “I might know by then. But for the next few weeks I’ll be much too busy to take time out for work.”

Before realizing what a stupid question it was, I asked why the Christmas season was so hectic.

She laughed. “Wait until you have children. Then you’ll find out.”

Olson was certainly right about children and Christmas, and I found out a few years later.

Funniest thing I learned about Nancy Olson when I went checking up on her recently was something that happened in 1949 when she was 21 years old and just beginning her professional acting career. She addressed it in this quote I found in her biogrpaphy on the International Movie Database website, imdb.com:

"I'll tell you a funny story. Cecil B. DeMille — I'm laughing when I'm saying this — considered me to play Delilah in 'Samson and Delilah', and thank God he made the right choice and he put Hedy Lamarr in that role."

Perhaps DeMile briefly thought a virtual unknown should play one of the most history's most notorious women. At that stage of her career, Nancy Olson might have accepted the role, even knowing she might have been the worst possible choice.

 
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