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Carroll Baker.CARROLL BAKER

Carroll Baker was born May 28, 1931, in Johnstown, PA, the daughter of a traveling washing machine salesman. Baker’s big break came when she was cast in George Stevens’ “Giant”. “On a TV show, ‘The Web,’ Jack Lord was cast opposite me. The night it aired, George Stevens caught the show, and asked to screen test me for the part of Luz in ‘Giant’. This resulted in a seven year contract, and I couldn’t wait until I flew to Marfa, TX, to begin shooting my scenes! I knew James Dean very well in New York, and the first day I arrived at the studio, he played a little prank—pretending to be the studio guard at the gate. On location, we were made to stay at the set all day, even if we wouldn’t be needed. After three days, Jimmy got quite annoyed and refused to go to work that fourth day. Stevens, an ex-Army officer who was straightforward and a no-nonsense kind of guy, reprimanded him for his actions—it happened in front of the entire cast and crew! Elizabeth Taylor also incurred his wrath, when she’d do something stupid and unthinking, like leaving to change her stockings just when they were ready for her close-up. (Laughs)”

The shooting on location was a treat. “They had catered lunches on picnic tables, all kinds of potatoes, breads, deserts! Yum! Lots of meats, Texas T-bones, cheeses. And all buffet. Days when I didn’t work (and there were quite a few of them), I’d play cards with Earl Holliman or I encouraged the cowboys to let me practice riding a horse. It was a fabulous paid vacation on a modern dude ranch. In the evenings, the cliques set in. Rock Hudson always ate with Elizabeth Taylor, and Jimmy and I had a table by ourselves—our main fun was ridiculing Rock and Elizabeth—on their clothes or their acting or something!” (Laughs)

The cast of "Giant" relaxes between takes in Marfa, TX. (L-R) three unknowns, Elizabeth Taylor, Carroll Baker, Rock Hudson.

By the time of its release—in fact, before shooting had completed, James Dean had been killed in a car accident. “A weird cult who worshipped him and believed he was still alive were camped outside the Roxy Theater, fully expecting to see him at the premiere. As we started to enter, the howling maniacs trampled each other—rushing for us actors—tearing our gowns, our jewelry, our hair. Jane Withers fell to her knees and she seemed to get the worst of it. Skinned knees, and Rock—minus some cuff links—went to her rescue.”

Carroll was in her second marriage when she landed her plumb roles, in “Giant” and “Baby Doll” (both released in ‘56). “Then, I made terrible choices in my career.”

Her first western was “The Big Country”. “Greg Peck and William Wyler were co-producing the picture through United Artists. Wyler wrote me about this all-star western, with my character being a complete turnaround from the thumb-sucking Baby Doll. This girl was the spoiled little rich girl and rancher’s daughter, engaged to the handsome Gregory Peck, who she met while in school back east. I just had to get Warners to loan me. There were weeks of negotiations—I had to place half my salary in escrow, until I fulfilled my contractual obligations to them. But, by the time this was all worked out, I found out I was pregnant again. My second baby in 13 months. I couldn’t do anything over the phone, so I flew to the coast to meet with both Wyler and Peck, to explain the situation in person.” The script didn’t require any physical demands she couldn’t meet. “I was very impressed with Wyler, but it was Peck who got my attention—he was so handsome, so tall, so impeccably dressed; such a charmer and a gentleman. I told both that my pregnancy wouldn’t show for four more months, and if they would allow me to do the film, I’d be thrilled to play the part! They thanked me for being honest with them. I was their first choice, and if U.A. (they were putting up the money) agreed, I had the part. I was certainly relieved to hear, the next day, that it was okayed! There was location shooting for over two weeks, near Stockton, CA, but most of it was shot in the Mojave Desert. There was only one motel, but thank God a modern, comfortable one. It had a restaurant with delicious food, but being in the boondocks, there was no post office, laundry or even a newsstand. Blanche was five months old—so I had a nanny. It was easier entertaining my
Rancher's daughter Carroll Baker breakfasts with her intended, easterner Gregory Peck in "The Big Country". daughter than the nanny—we worked until 5 on Saturdays, so she could only have Saturday evening and Sundays off!” Jean Simmons was the other female lead and “Charlton Heston, who came on after me, received fourth billing. Almost all the stars flew home on Saturday evening, including my ‘star’ nanny, and this cost me quite a bit of money. If they didn’t go home, their families were up there visiting. Jean was married to Stewart Granger—he never visited and she never went home. Jean had the suite next to mine, and we often ate together, although Jean didn’t like eating as early as we did.”

Both leading ladies are considered reasonably tall. “Yes, were are both around 5'5" but with people like Chuck Connors, Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston around, we both looked like midgets. (Laughs) The top of my head reached Peck’s chest, Heston’s stomach and Connors’ belt buckle! (Laughs) Peck had to double over from the waist to kiss me; Heston had to place me in a back-bend.  Thank God I didn’t have to kiss Chuck Connors! (Laughs) Neither of us is a contortionist! (Laughs)”

Speaking of the cast members, Carroll found Connors “to be a big tease, always playful. We didn’t have scenes together, but we would often talk, and he’d grab me up and put me on some big crate, to talk to me!”

There’s a scene where Heston and Carroll have a fight. “The director was not pleased. I told him, ‘Willy, I just don’t have the strength—he is too strong and powerful for me!” The scene was changed around. “I had to hit Heston hard—but he kept saying I wasn’t doing it hard enough. Willy said I was screwing my face and not hitting hard enough, so this went on and on until Willy took the riding crop and hit Chuck, who said he barely felt it. Finally, Willy told Chuck to try acting the scene, and not waiting to feel the pain! (Laughs)”

The film naturally, went over schedule. “So I began to show, and they had to hide it by redesigning some dresses, or putting me where the bulge wouldn’t show! (Laughs)” There was another hazard to going over schedule. “The movie was excellent, but we began filming without knowing the end of its story! I was finally released from the picture, before they decided on an ending. I was six months along! Of course, this is the reason all loose ends weren’t ‘tied up’ and why my character disappears! (Laughs). But, it is an all-time classic with a musical score so beautiful that it’s still played often, and even copied!”

Further career choices were disastrous, and the star was back in New York when offered the role in what would become “How the West Was Won”. “This is really bizarre, but I promise you, it happened just this way. I had accepted all these turkey pictures, when I heard from my agent, who was vague about the project. It was to be a big budget movie for MGM—but it didn’t have a title, and I would have to accept without reading a script or knowing a thing about my part. It would be one of those all-star things, with billing given alphabetical—that part I liked. So far, no one was signed, and I was to commit myself on blind trust, with an answer expected the next morning. My husband and I were at a Chinese restaurant. At the end of the meal, I reached for the closest fortune cookie—broke it and looked inside. Again, you are not going to believe this, but that cookie’s message was, ‘Go to Hollywood!’ So, I went straight to the phone and called my agent and accepted. I told my agent if this proved to be yet another mistake, that I wouldn’t blame him—I’d blame the fortune cookie! (Laughs)”

The fortune cookie did good! “It was one of the best career decisions I ever made. It was in that Cinerama process—and had one of the greatest all-star casts there ever was! The critics raved and the box office was tremendous! We had three of the greatest western directors, Henry Hathaway, John Ford, and George Marshall—and with such stars as John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark and Robert Preston. And Spencer Tracy did the narrating! Who could ask for anything more?”

This massive production also required location shooting. “First we went to Paducah, KY, near where the Kentucky river merges with the Clark and Ohio rivers. That Panorama camera encompassed 165 degrees, and in this area, there wasn’t the danger of seeing modern buildings, highways or electric or telephone wires. Debbie Reynolds also starred, and she also had two children, around the ages of my two. This pleased me—our children could play together and the nannies could keep each other company.”

Carroll’s first director was Henry Hathaway. “He was a gruff, no nonsense director, and nobody—especially not the extras or the crew—wanted to incur his wrath! Jimmy Stewart was the regular guy he is always pictured as, and Debbie Reynolds turned out to be perky and friendly as could be. I was so in awe of Stewart that I couldn’t think of a thing to say. In his longed-out drawl, he asked, ‘Carroll, have you ever played a game called—count the cows?’ Admitting I hadn’t, he explained the rules. (Laughs) He’d take one side of the road, and I’d take the other—while driving to location, whichever side had the most cows, wins! (Laughs)”

The locations were really in the wilderness. “12 men with shotguns went in first, to kill all the snakes!” There were many perils that followed. “A bunch of extras were in the river, in a boat that was slowly descending. The river was covering their ankles and no one let out a yelp, for fear of spoiling ‘the shot.’ It was both terrifying and funny—I pointed to the river and let out a scream. Seems Henry had forgotten to yell ‘Cut.’ A rescue boat soon saved them all.”

Working with Cinerama must have been difficult. “There were three lens and the camera cost more than 12 regular ones. On the fire sequence, Hathaway grew angry and yelled at special effects to give him a fire worthy of Cinerama. On the fifth take, too much oil was used! Debbie and I jumped in the river, as did Agnes Moorehead and Karl Malden. One boy couldn’t move because of a splint, and a LIFE magazine photographer got himself caught in the middle branches of a tree—which was burning toward him. He and the boy were screaming ‘Help’ while Hathaway was screaming ‘Save the camera! Save the camera!’ (Laughs)”

Between numerous other accidents, there were the natural health problems. “I thought I had the flu, but it turned out to be appendicitis! I had to be operated on in the small local clinic. Then, it turned out it was only an intestinal virus—a statement was signed, admitting that fact, and the next day, I was back at work!”

Cinerama's "How the West Was Won" with James Stewart and Carroll Baker.Despite location hazards, nothing came near to the horrors of finishing the picture back at MGM. “There was the big swimming pool used in ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ and all those Esther Williams movies. They made the raft with slippery logs, and you didn’t have anything to hang on to. Us women were most afraid of being dragged underwater with our long skirts hung in the contraption. When the camera rolled, we were blasted with 40 mile per hour winds, and freezing cold water thrown on us. No acting needed here!”

The middle section of “How the West Was Won” was directed by John Ford. “I adored and admired ‘Pappy,’ and have been grateful forever to have been able to work with him—twice, the second time on ‘Cheyenne Autumn’. Elia Kazan was, without a doubt, the best actor’s director, but John Ford put ‘motion’ in motion pictures. I learned more about the visual side of pictures from him—a very unique experience. No amount of time spent at the Actors Studio could have taught me nearly as much!”

Also in the cast of “How the West was Won” was George Peppard. “George played my son in that, and a couple of years later, we were teamed again, in ‘The Carpetbaggers’.” Loosely based on Howard Hughes and Jean Harlow, the duo went from mother and son to man and lover. “As I understand it, George Peppard later became a nice guy, a gentleman, but when we worked together back then, he was pretentious, egotistical, a brat, and an asshole—and that’s just for starters! He pretended he was seven years younger than he was; he even claimed to be a bachelor and denied he was married—in front of me (I knew better), he denied their existence. The role of Jonas Cord in ‘The Carpetbaggers’ really went to his big head. He acquired delusions of grandeur—thought he was God’s gift to women and the movies! His attitude towards me was very bizarre—he acted as though we’d never met! Or that I had a husband! George asked not ‘if’ but ‘when’ we could be intimate together! He came to my house uninvited with an ultimatum—if I don’t have an affair with him, he’ll have an affair with Elizabeth Ashley! Can you believe this guy? He was totally jealous of any and all attention I received!”

Alan Ladd made his final screen appearance in "The Carpetbaggers" ('64) opposite Carroll Baker.Alan Ladd made his final screen appearance in “The Carpetbaggers”. “Alan had lots of problems, and underwent horrible times recently in his life. He was trying to get it together, but he would shake so badly the drink he was holding would spill over. One day he got so angry that, while he was still holding a drink, he took his hand and punched the door of the set so hard that he cut himself badly. There was a tattletale—also known as the assistant director—who kept tabs on mistakes and who made them. Alan was terrified his name would appear on the snitch list. The director, Edward Dmytryk, would see that Alan was about to go up in his scene, and he’d yell ‘Cut! My fault. Let’s try it again.’ That was so very nice of him to do.”

Carroll added a footnote about Peppard, “The cast party was sponsored by Alan Ladd, and George Peppard! George wouldn’t permit Eddie Dmytryk, Bob Cummings, Martha Hyer or me to contribute to the cost—he wanted to be the big wig with Alan Ladd, who of course made so many more important pictures than George ever would.”

John Ford wanted Carroll Baker to play the Quaker schoolteacher in “Cheyenne Autumn”. “Yes, and Richard Widmark played the cavalry officer, while Jimmy Stewart was Wyatt Earp. Pappy Ford expected me to become an expert horsewoman, because I have to protect a bunch of children riding in my buckboard. I wanted to learn, because in ‘The Big Country’, horses had run away with Greg Peck and me in a buckboard. So, I went into Bakersfield every day and took lessons from that famous wrangler, Montie Montana. I was put through all kinds of obstacle courses until it became second nature for me. Before a month was out, Montie had me driving a stagecoach. (Laughs)”

Quaker schoolteacher Carroll Baker gives her support tot he Indians in "Cheyenne Autumn".“We were filming in Colorado and Utah, and it was slow going. Finally one day, I got to use my new talents. I was taking a buckboard full of children across a river, when suddenly, a strong undercurrent came along. I steered wide, towards the opposite bank, trying to keep equilibrium. I was veering out of camera range, so two stuntmen, dressed as Indians, rode to the front of my horses and grabbed their harnesses. I screamed at them, telling them to let go, but with all the noise, they couldn’t hear me. I knew the children and I were going to capsize, and I couldn’t let that happen, so I stood up and started beating those stuntmen with my long horsewhip. Just in the nick of time, those horses got back in line with the buckboard!” Down the hilltop came Ford’s car. “I wondered if he understood what I had to do. He came close to me very slowly, very deliberately. I couldn’t read his expression. He was chomping on his unlit cigar. He finally said, ‘Well, that’s wonderful! So in keeping with this film. I have a marvelous shot of two Indians being horsewhipped by a Quaker girl!’ He flipped that cigar back in his mouth and continued to glare at me with his good eye. I decided to say nothing back. (Laughs) Pappy was half-deaf and half-blind, but I was afraid there was nothing he couldn’t hear or see. I know he knew I was right, and without turning his head or taking his eye off me, he yelled to the assistant, ‘Anybody hurt when that second buckboard in line overturned?’ ‘No, Mr. Ford’ was the answer. The scene, of course, had to be cut—Quakers are peaceful, non violent people—and would never whip an Indian! (Laughs)”

John Ford was particularly fond of Carroll. “I was treated like his daughter as well as like an equal to the guys. He didn’t like to be stern to me, but we always ate together, and I was never allowed to have dessert or bread and butter, or even potatoes. But on this day, my reward was a big hug—and permission to eat mashed potatoes and a piece of apple pie—but just this once!”

"Captain Apache" ('71) was Carroll Baker's final western. It starred Lee Van Cleef.In the late ‘60s, Carroll Baker’s life—both personal and professional, was in turmoil. “I was going through a messy divorce, and I decided if I were to salvage anything of my career, then I would move to Europe and do movies over there. These weren’t the best pictures ever made (laughs), with shoe-string budgets. Actually, I made more of those things than I did the ones over here. I had to have an interpreter—to deal with the director and everything else, since I couldn’t speak the languages! I considered myself lucky if I got to do the English dubbing of my role!” One of these was a spaghetti western, “Captain Apache”. “That one was filmed in Spain, not Italy, and was memorable because my two co-stars Lee Van Cleef and Stuart Whitman were Americans. Lee Van Cleef somehow became a star by making this stuff. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way with me! (Laughs)”

Carroll’s Western Filmography


MOVIES : Giant (‘56 Warner Bros.)—Rock Hudson; The Big Country (‘58 U.A.)—Gregory Peck; How the West Was Won (‘62 MGM)—Ensemble Cast; Cheyenne Autumn (‘64 Warner Bros.)—Richard Widmark/James Stewart; Captain Apache  (‘71 Scotia International)—Lee Van Cleef.

 

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