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Piper Laurie: From Reagan to 'Carrie'

Monday, July 14, 2014 - 6:27 pm

When Piper Laurie published her 2011 candid memoir, “Learning to Live Out Loud,” some readers probably turned straight to either chapter 4, to learn of her brief relationship with a former president, or chapter 14 to discover how she created cinema’s worst mother in a hit horror film.

Laurie’s 60 year acting career netted her three Oscar nominations, as well as Emmy and Golden Globe wins – remarkable achievements considering she suffered from acute anxiety disorder as a child.

“For someone who was extremely timid growing up, it may seem strange to choose a profession like acting, but it was the perfect way to escape from whoever you think you are,” said Laurie. “It provided a mask that enabled me to transform into somebody else and I got courage from that.”

Laurie was just 17 when she began working on her first movie, “Louisa,” released in 1950. It starred Ronald Reagan who, at the time, was a veteran of almost 50 films including “Knute Rockne, All American” which led to his nickname as “The Gipper.”

“We went on tour to promote the movie and had autograph parties at places like department stores,” said Laurie. “He was president of the Screen Actors Guild at the time and would jump up on counters and give speeches defending Hollywood. You could tell he loved talking to the public.”

Although Laurie says no one seriously considered he might have political ambitions, she recalls a press agent jokingly remarking he looked “like he’s running for president!”

According to Laurie, it was during this time that she and Reagan went on a date that ended up as a one-night-stand, after which their paths didn’t cross again for five years.

“We later met on the set of ‘General Electric Theater,’ a TV show he introduced each week,” recalled Laurie. “The episode was ‘The Road That Led Afar’ with Dan Duryea. I fought to get the part because it was a beautiful script. But I was so focused on the role that I actually forgot Reagan was the show’s host. We were both startled to see each other again.”

Another memorable co-star from “Louisa” was popular character actor Charles Coburn, with whom Laurie worked again two years later in “Has Anybody Seen My Gal.”

“He was a wonderful, warm, and charming person, but a natural flirt,” said Laurie. “He loved girls and pinching their bottoms. In those days, and at his age, he could get away with it! I remember him sitting in his chair, rather than a dressing room, and taking naps while the cast and crew walked around. He also owned sulky horses and invited me over to ride them.”

After co-starring with Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason in “The Hustler” (1961), for which she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination, Laurie abandoned Hollywood for 15 years.

“I was unhappy with the roles I was being offered,” she said. “I had a family, was concentrating on sculpturing and had a full life. The world was also changing with civil rights and the war in Vietnam, so being an actor just seemed rather insignificant then.”

But she returned to the big screen in 1976 in a most memorable role as Sissy Spacek’s deranged mother in “Carrie.”

“I thought the mother’s role was supposed to be a satire. At the rehearsal with director Brian De Palma, I added some funny lines to the script. But Brian soon stopped me and I realized I had to be serious.”

Laurie says she first saw the final version during a midnight screening on Halloween Eve with her husband and friends, after a Japanese dinner.

“I wasn’t a drinking person, but that night had quite a few cups of sake,” she said. “Honestly, I don’t remember a thing about watching the movie!”

Now 82, Laurie continues to work, the most recent chapter on her life being on stage in the musical, “A Little Night Music.” As for the chapters in her book detailing with her earlier career, the work received praise for its candor, although Laurie says she almost omitted many of the intimate details.

“Only some of my family and close friends knew about the relationship with Reagan,” she noted. “My publisher did ask at the last minute if I wanted to include all the personal stuff. What I wrote is the truth, so I don’t have any regrets.”

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 400 magazines and newspapers.