From the current SPRING 2024 Issue
Femme fatale on screen, family woman at home -- the marvelous, memorable MARIE WINDSOR
By Denise Noe
In the world of motion pictures, there’s always the risk that an actor will play their role so convincingly that audiences might fail to distinguish between the performer and the part.
Marie Windsor knew something about that particular dilemma. In the 1940s and ‘50s, she played a series of villainous vixens in films that often made up in atmosphere what they lacked in budget. In one such film — Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 masterpiece The Killing — Windsor plays an unfaithful spouse whom another character describes as “A 60-cent special... cheap, flashy, strictly poison under the gravy.”
As a result, Windsor became known as “The Queen of the Bs.” If she ever felt constrained by the villainous characters she played in films like The Killing, she also acknowledged that they were “the type... audiences never forget.” Still, she was taken aback when moviegoers who only knew of her through her screen credits began sending her Bibles — underlining the sins her characters had committed onscreen — accompanied by letters warning her to repent.
Is it possible to play a role too well?
As Marie’s son Rick Hupp notes, his mother was in fact “a very decent, ethical person,” one who donated freely to charitable causes. “She really believed in being respectful to people, and had sympathy for the underdog, probably due to her own rise to stardom from a small town. She never forgot her roots, and loved coming back to her hometown to visit her folks at least twice a year.”
Just as important, Hupp explains, she left her villainous screen roles behind once shooting was finished. “She loved being seen and praised for her talents,” he acknowledges, although “she never conspicuously acted out as a diva or acted entitled or grandiose — at least in real life.”
For Marie Windsor, “real life” began as Emily Marie Bertelsen, born in the small town of Marysville, UT on December 11, 1919. Blue-eyed and dark-haired, the outgoing child easily made friends and did well academically in all subjects (except for math, which she hated).
From an early age, she showed athletic, musical, and dramatic talent and captained her junior high school girls’ basketball team. (The naturally tall Marie eventually grew to 5’-9”.) She also showed a terrific intelligence, receiving her high school diploma in only three years; at her high school graduation, she demonstrated her stage talents with a musical performance.
Marie’s Hollywood career began indirectly in 1939, when she beat out 80 competitors to win the coveted title of Salt Lake City’s Covered Wagon Days Queen. The next year, the Marysville Chamber of Commerce unofficially made Marie their “Miss Utah.” From there, she entered — and won — a Gateway to Hollywood contest, which netted her a $100 prize.
From there, Marie began to study with renowned drama teacher Maria Ouspenskaya. She did some radio in Salt Lake City before heading to Hollywood in 1940, eventually moving into the Hollywood Studio Club that served as an early home to such future stars as Marilyn Monroe, Donna Reed and Ruth Roman.
During this period, she rechristened herself Marie Windsor — and like a lot of young actresses, took jobs both inside and outside the entertainment industry: telephone operator, nightclub cigarette girl, fashion modeling… and of course, radio and stage work. She was working when she began writing and submitting gags to radio comedian Jack Benny, using the name “M. E. Windsor.” (“I used my initials because I was afraid he might be prejudiced against a woman gag writer,” she explained later.)
Benny liked the gags so much he asked M. E. Windsor to join his show as a staff writer. When the two finally met, Benny was, according to one report, “stunned by her good looks”; after learning about her acting ambitions, he made sure she had a role in his next film, 1942’s George Washington Slept Here, where she played an uncredited part in a train station.
In 1943, Marie accepted an offer to tour with Henry Duffy’s Merry-Go-Rounders, in a show she later described as “a last stab at vaudeville.” The show played in Detroit, Buffalo and Washington, DC; when it closed, Marie went to New York, dividing her time between stage and radio work. The latter included a nine-month stint on the popular soap opera Our Gal Sunday and numerous appearances on the “true crime” series This Is Your FBI.
In 1946, Marie married for the first time, to bandleader Ted Steele; as she later noted, “he was still in love with his first wife” and their union ended with an annulment before the year was out. From there, Marie “decided to really concentrate on my work.”
So it was back to Hollywood, where the attractive and skilled Windsor landed a series of small, uncredited parts. Billing came for the first time with her memorable turn as the manipulative Edna Tucker in 1948’s Force of Evil. The film starred John Garfield and was Windsor’s entry into an emerging genre that would be known as film noir. “I didn’t know I was doing ‘film noir,’” she admitted later, “I thought they were detective stories with low lighting!”
Her strong performance in that film led to other major parts. She co-starred opposite George Raft in 1949’s Outpost in Morocco and appeared later that year in the western Hellfire; for the latter, she recalled, co-star Bill Elliott taught her how to twirl a gun. “I did a lot of stunt work in this western,” she recalled, “that normally an actress simply would not do.”
Of course, Marie Windsor could do one thing that most other Hollywood actresses couldn’t — stand 69 inches tall. As she recalled, her height sometimes caused problems with her shorter leading men. Raft and Garfield were apparently the only two who did not mind her standing tall — in both cases, standing a little taller than they did. “Raft told me how to walk with him in a scene,” she noted later. “We’d start off in a long shot normal, and about the time we got together in a close-up, I’d be bending my knees so I’d be shorter. I had to do a tango with Raft and I learned to dance in ballet shoes with my knees bent.”
Her striking presence (and Hollywood’s frequent need to pigeonhole talent) meant that she became especially well-known for playing diabolical dames. She was memorable as a grifter in 1951’s Two Dollar Bettor, a woman targeted by killers in The Narrow Margin (for which Look Magazine honored her as the year’s Best Supporting Actress), a greedy and conniving art dealer in 1955’s No Man’s Woman, and the tart, two-timing Sherry Peatty in The Killing.
Thankfully, Windsor could play sympathetic characters with the same skill she brought to her villainous roles, which allowed her to work in a variety of genres. She was a killer’s victim in the 1952 drama The Sniper, but also got to appear in lighter fare like the flamboyantly goofy Cat Women of the Moon and 1955’s equally wacky Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy.
In 1954, Windsor married for the second and final time, to realtor Jack Rodney Hupp, son of silent film actor Earl Rodney. Eight years after the wedding, the couple was blessed with their son Rick. (Windsor also became a stepmother to Hupp’s eight-year-old son Chris.) Acting kept her busy, of course, but she was equally interested in tennis and painting and spent 25 years as the director of the Screen Actors Guild.
“She wanted to do it all,” son Rick recalls, “actress, artist, mom.”
Windsor also began to devote more time to television, guesting on shows like Bat Masterson, Tales of Wells Fargo and Lassie, where she played a Gabor-like movie actress named Mimi Marlowe. She made numerous appearances on The Red Skelton Show, where her roles included Clara, the bossy wife of George Appleby; and Cactus Kate, owner of the saloon frequented by Red’s cowboy character Deadeye.
During the 1960s and ‘70s, Windsor guested on dozens on television series, including Perry Mason, Branded, Bonanza, Batman, Hawaii Five-O, Mannix, Charlie’s Angels and Lou Grant. Her final appearance was on a 1991 episode of Murder, She Wrote.
As subsequent generations came to appreciate her body of work (particularly in film noir), she noted the gap between her real-life personality and the characters she often played. With some amusement, she remarked that “a lot of people, on first meeting me, are surprised — if not disappointed — that I don’t come on like a bitch.” In fact, one reason for her success was her understanding, as she put it, that “being pleasant is so much more productive.”
Windsor retired from acting in the early 1990s and concentrated more on her artwork in the years before her death on December 10, 2000 — one day shy of her 81st birthday. She left behind a husband, a stepson, a son, a legion of fans, and a solid body of cinematic accomplishments that are still admired today.
Tune in to Radio's Golden Age on April 7 to hear Marie Windsor on a broadcast of Suspense.
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