Polly Bergen

Active - 1949 - 2016  |   Born - Jul 14, 1930 in Knoxville, Tennessee, United States  |   Died - Sep 20, 2014   |   Genres - Drama, Comedy, War, Action

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Biography by Hal Erickson

A radio performer from the age of 14, Polly Bergen went the summer stock-nightclub route before heading for Hollywood in 1949. During her first months in the entertainment capitol, Bergen married actor Jerome Courtland, a union that was over virtually before it began; her later marriage to agent Freddie Fields endured for nearly 20 years. Though she could take some pride in having survived three Martin and Lewis films (At War With the Army, That's My Boy and The Stooge), Bergen chafed at the nondescript movie parts being offered her, and in 1953 walked out of a very lucrative studio contract. She headed for New York, where, while headlining in the Broadway revue John Murray Anderson's Almanac, she strained her voice and was forced to undergo a painful throat operation. Another serious career set-back occurred in 1959 when, while starring in the musical First Impressions, she nearly lost her life during a difficult pregnancy.

Gamely surviving these and other personal travails, Bergen rose to stardom via her stage performance, her one-woman cabaret act, and her many TV appearances, notably her Emmy-winning turn in The Helen Morgan Story (1957). In 1962, she gave films a second chance when she played a North Carolina housewife threatened with rape by rampaging ex-con Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear (1962) (over 20 years later, she and Mitchum played husband and wife in the popular TV miniseries The Winds of War and War and Remembrance). Her bravura portrayal of a mental patient in The Caretakers (1963) was quite an eye-opener for those familiar with Bergen only through her appearances on TV's To Tell the Truth. Less aesthetically successful was Kisses for My President (1964), in which Bergen starred as the first female Chief Executive.

Though busy with her show-business activities into the 1990s (she co-starred in the network sitcom Baby Talk), it is interesting to note that, in her Who's Who entry, Bergen listed herself as a business executive first, an actress second. There is certainly plenty of justification for this; for over 40 years, she maintained successful business ventures as Polly Bergen Cosmetics, Polly Bergen Jewelry, and Polly Bergen Shoes; she was also active as part-owner of and pitch person for Oil-of-the-Turtle cosmetics. Equally busy in nonprofit organizations, she served with such concerns as the National Business Council and Freedom of Choice. She also authored three books: Fashion and Charm (1960), Polly's Principles (1974), and I'd Love to, but What'll I Wear? (1977).

In later years, Bergen had recurring roles on Commander in Chief and Desperate Housewives, and was nominated for an Emmy for Guest Actress in a Comedy Series in 2008. Bergen died in 2014 at age 84.

Movie Highlights

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  • Played her first professional gig at age 14 with her father.
  • Starred in her first movie, At War With the Army, when she was 20.
  • Made her Broadway debut in 1953 in John Murray Anderson's Almanac.
  • Published her first advice book, titled The Polly Bergen Book of Beauty, Fashion and Charm in 1963.
  • Began her own cosmetics line in the 1960s, which led to a jewelry line and shoe line as well.