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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Being Julia

We moviegoers have a strange (and admittedly one-sided) relationship with the actors who perform on the screen for us. The vast majority of us rarely, if ever, meet any of the people with the recognizable faces that adorn our entertainment. And, if our path does cross with theirs, it’s likely to involve the briefest of exchanges.

Yet we persist in feeling as though we actually know many of these strangers. A single film or television show may be enough to make us feel as though we have a sense of who this person is. After seeing him or her play several different roles, we may feel quite intimate with them. And, if we have seen them interviewed on TV chat shows, well then, we are nearly bosom buddies.

It’s all a fantasy, of course. We don’t even know half the people we see everyday nearly as well as we think we do—let alone people with whom we have never been physically in the same room. Still, the illusion of intimacy with celebrities persists. I’m certainly not immune, and in some cases the sense of “knowing” actors on the big and small screens takes on a feeling approaching déjà vu—as though I have actually met the actor for real. Maybe years ago in some forgotten phase of my life or perhaps in a dream or maybe in a prior life. Heck, we’ve probably all met Shirley MacLaine a few times down through the centuries. And I wrote four years ago this week about having the nagging feeling of having met Peg Phillips and then realizing that I probably had.

I always had a similar feeling about the actor Grayson Hall. Something about her face and voice made me feel as though I actually knew her from somewhere. But there is virtually no chance that I ever did, at least in this life. Most likely I was focusing on the fact that she bore something of a resemblance to the mother of my childhood best friend Eric. Like Grayson Hall, Eric’s mom was a striking redhead with a commanding manner and an intellect that was an endless source of fascinating conversations. The two also shared a deep, somewhat raspy voice that bespoke years of cigarette smoking.

I always wished that I could learn more about Ms. Hall, but her acting career was not such that she would be the subject of many articles or books. But a couple of months ago, my wish was unexpectedly granted. I learned of a biography and immediately ordered it. Written by R.J. Jamison and published by iUniverse, it is called Grayson Hall: A Hard Act to Follow. The title refers, most obviously, to Hall’s unique personality and talent, but it is also a reference to the fact that a lot of details of the actor’s life were simply hard to locate for the biographer. This is the kind of book that might not have been published before a few years ago because it might not have had a sufficiently large potential audience. But just as satellite and cable have made TV narrowcasting possible, computers and the internet have made books like this, aimed at a niche audience, more possible. And I, for one, am grateful that books like this are possible and that people want to go to the trouble to research and write them.

Mind you, it’s not a perfect book. At the risk of damning it, I have to say that it is the sort of thing that I might have written myself. It’s as though the author had a higher priority of working in every quote or bit of a fact that was uncovered along the way than of making the narrative flow like a true work of literature. And, while the front and back cover design are quite nice, there are a distressing number of typographical errors in the text. But I really don’t want to quibble. I am quite grateful to the author for all the hard work that went into this book.

Now some of you may know who Grayson Hall was and so understand how I came to know her work. Most of you, however, are probably scratching your heads. She was a New York-based actor who worked on the stage, in movies and on television. The highlight of her stage career was a somewhat legendary 1960 off-Broadway production, directed by Jose Quintero, of Jean Genet’s The Balcony, in which she took over the role of Madam Irma from Nancy Marchand (later of Lou Grant and Sopranos fame). Her stage career spanned four decades and included plays by Maugham, Shaw, Pirandello, Kaufman & Hart, Chekov, Cocteau, Pinter, Brecht & Weill and Tennessee Williams. At the time of her death in 1985, she had performed in previews of Jean Giradoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot (with Geraldine Page, Carrie Nye and Madeleine Sherwood) but was too ill for the play’s opening.

Overall, Hall’s film career was not as illustrious—with one notable exception. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her supporting role as Judith Fellowes in John Huston’s 1964 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana. She played the head of a schoolteachers tour group in Mexico, unaware of her own latent attraction for Sue Lyon (following up her seductive nymphet turn in Lolita) who has her sights set on the tour guide, a defrocked alcoholic clergyman played by Richard Burton. Also in the distinguished cast were Ava Gardner, as the widow running the hotel where the group is staying, and Deborah Kerr, as a New England spinster. Hall got great notices for her role, and she seemed on the cusp of a promising film career.

But for luck (and perhaps her reluctance to relocate to Los Angeles from New York), it might have happened. According to Jamison, Mike Nichols promised her the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate but, as we know, that didn’t happen. Hall would have been a very different Mrs. Robinson than Anne Bancroft, and it is fascinating to speculate on what her subsequent career would have been like if she had played the role. Horror legend William Castle cast Hall as the star of his 1965 thriller I Saw What You Did, but Hall was paid off when Joan Crawford decided she wanted to do the movie. A role in Sidney Pollack’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s This Property Is Condemned (as Natalie Wood’s mother) also fell through. Hall’s follow-up to The Night of the Iguana turned out to be as a kidnapped bank teller in Disney’s That Darn Cat!. Otherwise, Grayson Hall’s film oeuvre consisted of forgettable or forgotten movies like Satan in High Heels, Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo?, End of the Road and Adam at 6 A.M. Oh yeah, and there were two other feature films, but more about them in a moment.

Like many New York-based actors, Hall helped pay the bills by playing roles on daytime TV dramas. She had roles on All My Children and One Life to Live. She also appeared in a few made-for-TV movies and had guest appearances on shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., Night Gallery and Kojak. But the fact that she has an enduring fan base is owed mostly to one daytime show on which she appeared over a four-year period ending in 1971. Some of you are way ahead me. That’s right, she was one of the most popular and visible actors on the classic gothic serial Dark Shadows.

Like most of the other actors involved in the series, she played a multitude of roles. She was the French aunt of Barnabas Collins’s doomed 18th-century love, Josette. She was a sinister housekeeper devoted to the memory of her late mistress, in a flagrant rip-off of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. In her favorite role on the show, she was the vengeful gypsy who cursed the thoughtless Quentin Collins with being a werewolf. But her first and most lasting role was that of Dr. Julia Hoffman, the brilliant, spinsterish psychiatrist/scientist, who suspects and then confirms that Barnabas is actually a vampire and then proceeds to attempt a cure for his vampirism. As time went on, it was clear that Julia was in love with the melancholy and frequently violent Barnabas. Her love was totally unrequited, as Barnabas pined unendingly for the lost Josette and, when it became clear that that wasn’t working out for him, he became mesmerized by other equally comely young women, always ignoring the steadfastly loyal and self-sacrificing Julia. As I explained four years ago, “In one of those story developments that always amused me, Dr. Hoffman came to Collinwood to investigate the mysterious vampire attacks but used the pretext of writing a history on the Collins family to explain her presence. The Collinses graciously offered her a room in the family mansion, and she stayed on literally for years. No one ever inquired as to how the book was coming or when she might be leaving.” Hall reprised the Julia Hoffman role (in a more tragic vein) in the big screen spin-off House of Dark Shadows and performed a variation on her wacko housekeeper character in Night of Dark Shadows. Those of us who look back happily and nostalgically on Dark Shadows during its original run on ABC tend to remember a series that evolved into the continuing adventures of Barnabas and Julia, stumbling onto one supernatural mystery after another—usually involving trips backward and forward in time or into parallel universes—and solving them all, kind of like precursors to Doctor Who and his various female companions.

Happily, Jamison’s book answers any and all questions we fans of Grayson Hall might have had about her—at least to the extent that answers are possible. We learn that she was the only child of a Jewish couple in Philadelphia. Her birth name was Shirley Grossman, but she adopted Shirley Grayson as her professional name. Somehow Grayson became the name that everyone, including her eventual husband, the writer Sam Hall, called her. Taking his surname resulted in her definitive moniker. By all accounts, the Halls were a popular couple in the New York arts scene, and their Manhattan apartment was a favorite visiting place for anyone and everyone. Her renowned intellect, charm and hospitality are yet more similarities that I find with my childhood friend’s mom. Jamison even answers the question of who was hired to work on Dark Shadows first, Grayson or Sam Hall? The answer: Grayson, who was called in suddenly to audition for the part of Julia Hoffman when another prominent actor (whose name has strangely been lost to history) bowed out at the last minute. Within hours of the call, she was taping her first episode. Sam Hall came on board as a writer afterward.

Thank you, R.J. Jamison, for allowing us diehard Dark Shadows and Grayson Hall fans a visit back to both. Another reason for thankfulness on the part of Dark Shadows fans is the production of a series of new Dark Shadows audio dramas on compact discs. Produced by Big Finish, two 70-minute dramas have been released with two more promised. They feature surviving members of the original cast, including David Selby, Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker and John Karlen. Sadly, many of the other actors are no longer with us, including Joan Bennett, Louis Edmonds, Thayer David and Grayson Hall.

By the way, if you are actually reading this today, on Thursday, please turn off your computer immediately and go spend time with your family or at least watch a football game on TV. To my fellow Americans, happy Thanksgiving. And to everyone else, I hope you have something to be thankful for as well.

-S.L., 23 November 2006

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