Settled on a flowered sofa in her art-filled Santa Monica apartment, Piper Laurie is examining the invitation to an upcoming reunion of the Los Angeles High School class of 1950. “I’ve never been to one of these before,” she says, apprehensively. “What are they like?” As her black-and-white cat, Peppermint, stretches his paws on the coffee table, the actress mulls various scenarios. On the one hand, it would be fun to go and maybe bump into her old crush, Rick, who’s a lawyer now. On the other hand, she’s afraid she will seem as “shy and awkward” as she was 40 years ago, when—still named Rosetta Jacobs—she was rejected for the drama class. “I really don’t want to go alone,” she says, sighing.
Laurie’s sheepishness on this matter comes as a surprise. After all, it was young Rosetta who managed to land a glamorous contract with Universal Studios at age 17, then metamorphosed into the sultry Piper, eventually tempting such hunks as Paul Newman and Mel Gibson onscreen. And now, three Academy Award nominations and seven Emmy bids later, Laurie, 58, is anything but bashful as the kinky, conniving Catherine Martell in David Lynch’s acclaimed new ABC series, Twin Peaks. “There’s a mystique about her,” says director Lynch. “She has kind of a wild streak that’s interesting because it could become dangerous.”
Indeed, in the second episode, Laurie—bare white shoulders gleaming, red hair aglow—seduces the owner of the local inn, played by Richard (West Side Story) Beymer, with talk of arson. As he caresses her toes with his lips, she is suffused with ruthless fulfillment. Of her character’s audacity, Laurie says, “I think it’s right on the edge.”
The daughter of an immigrant Polish furniture dealer and his Russian-American wife, Detroit-born Laurie (she was 6 when the family moved to L.A.) has conducted her entire career on the brink. For her 1949 Universal audition, she had prepared the beginning of Tennessee Williams’s one-act play This Property Is Condemned. Told she had only three minutes to perform, she nevertheless “did the whole play. They didn’t stop me. And then I was called in again to do the whole play for their class of contract players.” The studio signed her, and Rosetta Jacobs was rechristened.
In her debut film, Louisa, she played the daughter of a “very charming” Ronald Reagan, who took her on her first Hollywood date: dinner at the star-studded Brown Derby. “During that period,” says Laurie, coyly, “he was a very special friend.” After Louisa, the studio cast her in a string of frothy romances and enhanced her cute ingenue image by telling the press that she took milk baths and ate gardenia petals for lunch. Though she was earning $2,000 a week, this nonsense made her miserable. She demanded that the studio bosses give her better parts, “but they didn’t know what I was talking about. They didn’t even have decent parts, anywhere.” Fed up, she says she told her agent, “They can throw me in jail, sue me, I don’t care what it is. I’m never working again until I can do something that I have some respect for.” That early experience left her forever frugal: “I’ve been very careful about budgeting so that I have some freedom to pick and choose [to] work—or not to work.”
Soon after walking out on her contract in 1955, she abandoned Hollywood for New York City, where she filmed The Hustler, with Paul Newman, in 1961. For her role as a prostitute and Newman’s disabled girlfriend, Laurie won her first Academy Award nomination. A more personal award was also in the offing. While doing publicity for The Hustler, she was interviewed by a New York Herald Tribune writer named Joseph Morgenstern. The reporter got a story—and nine months later, a wife. “I liked the fact that he had a dirty, beat-up little car, and his trousers were baggy,” Laurie reminisces.
After The Hustler, Laurie accepted only occasional TV and theater projects, and took no film roles for 15 years. “I gradually gave up acting,” she says, “because after The Hustler, the offers that I was getting were very similar to the part I’d just played. I started to lose interest. Lots of things were happening in the world, [such as] the Vietnam War. I just thought it was a really silly way for a grown-up to spend [her] time, acting.”
She and Morgenstern retreated to Woodstock, N.Y., where Laurie concentrated on such domestic pursuits as raising their daughter, Anne, 19, and baking, her grandfather’s trade (“It’s something I think I was born with”). Though her 1987 Emmy for the CBS TV movie Promise sits prominently on a living-room credenza, Laurie appears proudest of her nondramatic accomplishments. “One of my greatest achievements,” she says, “was when the New York Times did a page on my baking—recipes and stuff.”
Her two-bedroom apartment is filled with the pottery, paintings and sculptures turned out during her acting hiatus. She shows off a white marble representation of a fetus (“I thought I was pregnant,” she explains) and an alabaster abstract of her daughter’s face. “It was actually through the sculpture that I began to feel that I could get pleasure out of acting again,” she says. “It gave me somehow a creative freedom. And I wanted more.”
In 1976, she made a triumphant Hollywood comeback, scoring a second Oscar nomination as the religious-fanatic mother in Carrie, which she declares “a hoot. I’d do these grotesque, horrible things, and in between takes I’d laugh. It was wonderful to get all that stuff out, like childhood playacting.” She racked up a third Oscar nomination in Children of a Lesser God and Emmy nominations for such shows as The Thorn Birds and St. Elsewhere. In between film and TV projects, she has been touring for the past 2½ years in her one-woman stage show, The Last Flapper, which holds that Zelda Fitzgerald’s literary talents were obscured by her famous writer husband, F. Scott. Zelda, says Laurie, “has had a bum rap.”
With her acting career in high gear, Laurie hopes she can also get her personal life back into peak form. Divorced from Morgenstern in 1981 (“It just seemed the right thing for both of us,” she says), she would love a companion for “wrapping a blanket around us and cuddling,” but “most of the interesting men I meet are taken, by one thing or another.”
Still, she doesn’t lack for company. She and Morgenstern talk nearly every day, and she frequently gets together with her daughter, now a freshman at Santa Monica College. “She’s a really fun person,” says Anne of her mom. “I had this love triangle that I got caught up in. We talked about it for about 2½ hours, and she told me stories of similar situations she was in when she was younger, and what she did.”
Reflecting on the myriad roles—mother, baker, sculptor, actress—she has played in her variegated life, Laurie says, “I’ve come a long way, I think, from being ‘Miss Firecracker’ and ‘Miss Milk Bath,’ and all that sort of thing.” Now, what about that high school reunion? “Yes,” she says. “I think I might go.”
—Jeannie Park, Nancy Matsumoto in Los Angeles