Polly Bergen, versatile actress, singer dies at 84
New York — Emmy-winning actress and singer Polly Bergen, who in a long career played the terrorized wife in the original “Cape Fear” and the first woman president in “Kisses for My President,” died Saturday, according to her publicist. She was 84.
Bergen died at her home in Southbury, Connecticut, surrounded by family and close friends, publicist Judy Katz said. She had battled emphysema and other ailments in the late 1990s, a result of 50 years of smoking.
A brunette beauty with a warm, sultry singing voice, Bergen was a household name from her 20s onward. She made albums and played leading roles in films, stage musicals and TV dramas. She also hosted her own variety series, was a popular game show panelist, and founded a thriving beauty products company that bore her name.
In recent years, she played Felicity Huffman’s mother on “Desperate Housewives” and the past mistress of Tony Soprano’s late father on “The Sopranos.”
Bergen won an Emmy in 1958 portraying the tragic singer Helen Morgan on the famed anthology series “Playhouse 90.” She was nominated for another Emmy in 1989 for best supporting actress in a miniseries or special for “War and Remembrance.”
Talking to a women in business group in 1968, she said her definition of success was “when you feel what you’ve done fulfills yourself, makes you happy and makes people around you happy.”
Bergen was 20 and already an established singer when she starred with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in her first movie, “At War With the Army.” She joined them in two more comedies, “That’s My Boy” and “The Stooge.”
In 1953, she made her Broadway debut with Harry Belafonte in the revue “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.” In 1957-58 she starred on the musical-variety “The Polly Bergen Show” on NBC, closing every broadcast with her theme song, “The Party’s Over.”
Also during the 1950s, she became a regular on the popular game show “To Tell the Truth.”
Bergen published the first of her three advice books, “The Polly Bergen Book of Beauty, Fashion and Charm” in 1962. That led to her own cosmetics company, which earned her millions.
Bergen became a regular in TV movies and miniseries, most importantly in the 1983 epic “The Winds of War” and the 1988 sequel, “War and Remembrance.” She appeared as the troubled wife of high-ranking Navy officer Pug Henry, played by Robert Mitchum.
Mitchum also had the key role in the landmark 1962 suspense film, “Cape Fear,” as the sadistic ex-convict who terrorizes a lawyer (Gregory Peck) and his wife (Bergen) and daughter because he blames Peck for sending him to prison. The film was remade in 1991 by Martin Scorsese.
In 1964’s “Kisses for My President,” Bergen was cast as the first female U.S. president, with Fred MacMurray as First Gentleman. (In the end, the president quits when she gets pregnant.) When Geena Davis portrayed a first woman president in the 2005 TV drama “Commander in Chief,” Bergen was cast as her mother.
Among her other films was “Move Over, Darling” (1963) with Doris Day and James Garner, Susan Seidelman’s 1987 “Making Mr. Right,” and John Waters’ 1990 “Cry-Baby,” with Johnny Depp.
A fierce ambition prevailed throughout Bergen’s entertainment career and in her business life. She walked out of early contracts with Paramount and MGM because she thought her film roles were inadequate.
As the president of the Polly Bergen Co., founded in 1966, she arrived at her office at 9 a.m. and worked a full day. “It was very difficult at the beginning,” she said in 2001, “because everybody considered me just another bubble-headed actress.”
She sold the company in 1973 to Faberge, staying on for a couple of years afterward to run it as a Faberge subsidiary.
Bergen employed the same zeal in reviving her performing career after a series of personal setbacks of the 1990s. She played successful dates at cabarets in New York and Beverly Hills.
When she was refused an audition for the 2001 Broadway revival of “Follies,” she contacted composer Stephen Sondheim. He auditioned her and gave her the role of a faded star who sings of her ups and downs in show business. The show-stopping song, “I’m Still Here,” was reminiscent of Bergen’s own saga. She was nominated for a Tony award for her role.
In 2002 she played a secondary role in the revival of “Cabaret” and the following year she was back on Broadway with the comedy “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks.”
Nellie Paulina Burgin was born in 1930 in Knoxville, Tennessee, into a family that at times relied on welfare to survive. They family eventually moved to California, and Polly, as she was called, began her career singing on radio in her teens.
“I was fanatically ambitious,” she recalled in 2001. “All I ever wanted to be was a star. I didn’t want to be a singer. I didn’t want to be an actress. I wanted to be a star.”
But over the years, Bergen’s personal life was not as smooth as her career. Her four-year marriage to actor Jerome Courtland ended in an acrimonious divorce in 1955. Her second marriage to super-agent and producer Freddie Fields. The couple divorced in 1975 after 18 years.
In 1982 she married entrepreneur Jeff Endervelt. She co-signed his loans and gave him millions to invest from her beauty company profits. She said in a 2001 New York Times interview: “He would come home and say, ‘Honey, sign this.’ I wouldn’t even look at it. Because you trust your husband.”
The stock market crash of the 1980s wiped out the investments. She divorced him in 1991, and she said he left her with so many debts she had to sell her New York apartment and other belongings to avoid bankruptcy.
Biographical material in this story was written by The Associated Press’ late Hollywood correspondent Bob Thomas.