Detroit native, Oscar nominee Piper Laurie returns
You don’t forget a bathroom visit from Tony Curtis. Detroit-born actress Piper Laurie hasn’t — not even 60 years after the Hollywood heartthrob relieved himself at a relative’s modest home in the Motor City, turning her aunt’s lavatory into “a celebrated place,” Laurie says.
Curtis’ potty break was in 1951 at a private party held after Laurie and Curtis joyfully danced as they partook in the world premiere of their film “The Prince Who Was a Thief” at the now-defunct Michigan Theatre in Detroit, which closed in 1967. Laurie’s homecoming, which also served as a celebration of Detroit’s 250th anniversary, was met with a throng of guests, many of them local relatives: aunts, uncles, grandparents.
“Tony and I had a little thing we did between the movies — a little skit — and at one point he asked my family to all stand up and to my shock the whole balcony stood up,” Laurie, 84, remembers, tickled by the memory.
Laurie, a three-time Oscar-nominated actress, will share more of those memories today during “An Evening with Piper Laurie” at the DIA’s Detroit Film Theatre. The event is the actress’ first proper homecoming in 65 years.
Born in 1932, Laurie and her family left Detroit for California when she was 5 years old. That move had nothing to do with any aspirations of an acting career, though young Laurie had already proven her chops at stealing scenes. She recalls how at age 2, while living in a one-bedroom walk-up on Tyler Street, she was one of several children coaxed up to the Fox Theatre stage during a skit by vaudeville star Ted Lewis in which he uses a peanut stand and promises all-you-can-grab nuts.
“I vaguely recall walking down the aisle onto the stage and holding out my skirt so I could collect more peanuts,” Laurie remembers, cracking up. “The audience thought that was terrifically funny, but afterwards my sister was just furious with me for revealing my underpants.”
In California, where she now resides, Laurie performed lines for her parents and their friends during card nights. Then, in fifth grade, she read a comedy monologue in front of her classmates.
“It was shocking,” she recalls. “It changed my life, the response from the children, who didn’t even know I existed. Suddenly, they were stomping their feet and laughing and cheering. I felt that was a good place to be, in front of people — as long as I knew what I was going to say.”
Weekly elocution and acting lessons eventually led to minor roles for Universal Studios. Laurie’s big break came with 1950’s “Louisa,” a comedy co-starring Ronald Reagan.
“I considered myself terrifically lucky to be under contract and put to work immediately,” she says, “but then they put me in some silly things. I was excited and thrilled, and it all felt very unreal — all these movie stars around me that dealt with me so sweetly. They were like my family. They took me under their arms and encouraged me.”
For her DIA talk, Laurie said she’ll reflect on her life and times with Old Hollywood icons including Gregory Peck, Paul Newman and Rock Hudson.
“I’m always happy to share almost everything,” she says, emphasizing “almost.”
Now, Laurie knows better to keep some aspects of her life private. After dishing on her relations with her famous co-stars, including Reagan, in her 2011 book “Learning to Live Out Loud: A Memoir” (the audiobook was released in May), the actress says she’s second guessing her candid comments regarding losing her virginity to the former U.S. president.
“When I was writing the book, I never dreamed it would ever actually be published,” she says. “I had no idea. I was afraid to really think that thought because then I’d become really self conscious about writing. So, I wrote fully and I didn’t censor myself.”
Laurie ignored her publisher’s suggestion to keep some details private because, she says, “I was used to the idea of being brave.
While recalling the book, Laurie said she was forced to look back on the beginning of her career, which “was not pleasant for me because I was so unhappy during that period.”
“I felt I wasn’t doing the work I should’ve been doing,” she says, “and I was inarticulate. I couldn’t take care of myself in any way. But I knew that I had to write about it, so I forced myself. Then, a period of life would pop up when I’d had a great time.”
And not just as a Hollywood starlet.
“I had a whole other life for 15 years,” says Laurie, who fled Tinseltown after scoring an Oscar nomination for her performance alongside Newman in 1961’s “The Hustler.” “I had a wonderful life in the country, became a mother and a sculptor and a baker. I had a happy life and never imagined I’d be working again, and yet somehow I knew that I might.”
In 1976, she received the role of a lifetime: Margaret White, the monstrous, God-fearing mother who goes berserk on her telekinetic daughter, played by Sissy Spacek, in the horror classic “Carrie.”
“When people come up to me and say, ‘You scared me so much,’ it’s just incredible to me that people were frightened of me,” she says, howling with laughter.
Though “Carrie” revived Laurie’s interest in acting, she reveals her hiatus from the hubbub of Hollywood, to live in upstate New York, had a profound effect on her.
“I wasn’t so afraid this time,” she says about filming “Carrie.” “It was the first time I had worked without being frightened.”
Chris Azzopardi is a Canton-based freelance writer.
An Evening with Piper Laurie
7:30 p.m. Thurs.
Detroit Film Theatre
5200 Woodward, Detroit
NOTABLE ONSCREEN ROLES
Piper Laurie signed a contract with Universal Studios in 1950. Here are some of the films and roles she’s had in a six-decade career:
In her movie debut, she played Cathy Norton, the 16-year-old daughter of Hal Norton (Ronald Reagan). “I really didn’t understand the part (of Louisa) — she was sort of a cartoon, and I had no experience playing cartoons,” Laurie admits.
The Prince Who Was a Thief (1951)
Laurie earned her first Academy Award nomination for her part as Tina, a contortionist. Starring alongside Tony Curtis, the pair premiered the film at Detroit’s Michigan Theatre before it closed in 1967.
The Hustler (1961)
Adapted from Walter Tevis’ 1959 novel of the same name, “The Hustler” starred Paul Newman as “Fast” Eddie Felson, a pool hustler. She was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role as Sarah Packard, Newman’s alcoholic girlfriend.
Director Brian De Palma cast her after a 15-year absence from films as the mother of a bullied prom queen in the film adaptation of Stephen King's “Carrie.” She read for the horror film as a comedy.
Twin Peaks (1990-1991)
She starred as a Japanese businessman in David Lynch’s acclaimed early ’90s TV drama. “No one knew who I was,” she hoots. Audiences are more likely to remember Laurie as the sulky Catherine Martell, a role that won her a Golden Globe in 1991.
Other TV shows: “The Thorn Birds,” “St. Elsewhere,” “Playhouse 90,” “Skag,” “Traps” and “Partners”
Birthname: Rosetta Jacobs
Birthday: Jan. 22, 1932
Hometown: Detroit, where she grew up in one-bedroom walk-up on Tyler Street
Marital Status: Divorced from Joe Morgenstern after 20-year marriage (Jan. 21, 1962 - Nov. 24, 1982)
Parents: Charlotte Sadie and Alfred Jacobs
Children: Anne Grace Morgenstern
Memorable moment: After a 15-year break from acting, Laurie scored an Oscar nomination for her role in the horror classic “Carrie”
Fun fact: At age 2, she flashed a Fox Theatre audience when she lifted her skirt to fill it with peanuts while onstage during a performance by vaudeville performer Ted Lewis