One of the treats about living where I have (and do) on the upper west side is that, walking my dog, I kept (and keep) running into Lee walking her dog. We always stop and swap stories. One time, I saw her on the street, we chatted, and then I sat down at our local diner to continue reading a biography of Paddy Chayefsky, and there she was in the chapter on Middle of the Night. I mentioned that the next time I saw her, and she spoke warmly of the experience of working with Kim Novak whom she admired greatly for diving into the challenge of working with a community of mostly New York actors (with their own Stanislavsky-based way of working) and being so game to learn. The result, Lee thought, was Novak giving a performance unlike any other in her career, and one Lee and the other actors in the cast admired.
I’ve always been fascinated by people who invent themselves, and she’s definitely one of those rare ones. She was born Lyova Haskell Rosenthal, and did the name change that was pretty much required in those days to work in Hollywood (Kaminsky became Kaye, Tuvim became Holliday, Papiprofsky became Papp), but the reinvention extended beyond the name change. Not many go from being an award-winning actor to a pioneering documentarian. Both Criterion and Mubi have been showcasing her documentaries, and I binged them. She was decades ahead in some of her subject matter.
Lee is less than comfortable with the swamp of the internet. She talked a bit about some work she did that she couldn’t find copies of, and I was able to find some of it through searches, including The Neon Ceiling, which was one of her favorite projects.
Oh, I found one TV production she was in that she had forgotten about — Three Plays by TennesseeWilliams, directed by Sidney Lumet. She and Ben Gazzara did a one act called “Mooney’s Kid Don’t Cry.” I gave her a DVD of the show, and when I ran into her next she laughed and said she realized WHY she had forgotten about it. She and Gazzara had rehearsed the play uneventfully with Lumet, but on live TV, something got into Gazzara and he started doing all sorts of things he had never done before — big Brandoish explosions. She said watching the DVD brought back the terror of being on live TV thinking, “What the fuck is he doing?” She remembered her panic and trying to cope and deal with the nonstop strangeness he was firing her way. “So,” she said to me dryly, “thank you for bringing that back.”