“I can make as crappy a television show as can be, and that’s okay—it stops me from being anointed.” Actress Lee Grant was talking about Peyton Place, her soapy TV series of the 1960s, and about the tendency of people in the business to lay on oily praise because she so often fetches up on the right side of causes before they become fashionable. Grant was blacklisted a dozen years (for refusing to testify against her husband in the witch-hunt of the 1950s). She hosted a stunning documentary on breast cancer several seasons ago that only this fall will hit a network—PBS. She is one of Hollywood’s first aspiring women directors, and was among the earliest in town to adopt an Asian refugee child.
And now, lest anyone think of canonizing her again, Grant is back in another so far crappy TV show—NBC’s Fay. Quality aside, to Lee, at least, this sitcom represents a consequential breakthrough. The heroine she plays is admittedly 43, adamantly and happily divorced. Says Grant, herself turning 45 this month and well into her second marriage, “It’s very important to me that girls don’t have to be 39 for the rest of their lives anymore—and I believe in divorce. I’d like to reflect on TV the large segment of the female population who realize that.” She adds, though: “I know what sitcom is—I didn’t expect art.” Worse for Fay, the “sit” is bowdlerized because of its early evening “family hour” time slot (NBC doesn’t allow her men friends to spend the night), and its “com,” crafted by Danny Thomas Productions, seems toothless compared, say, to the M-T-M and Norman Lear competition.
The Nielsen vultures are already circling, but Lee wishfully thinks NBC will reschedule the show. But Grant is not into self-delusion or self-righteousness. Her causes are personal and she works at them privately, shunning pre-staged rallies, telethons and do-gooders’ letterheads.
She grew up in New York, the only child of an experimental-school teacher, Abe Rosenthal, and a model-actress mother, who urged her onto the boards early. At age 3, Lee appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in L’Oracolo. Her mom, says Lee, “always pushed me in the direction of the arts or marrying somebody fantastically rich. From 11 to 15, with the approval of my mother, aunt and grandmother, all I cared about were boys. I’d be out all night at the Pierre Hotel and fall asleep in class. My career as a femme fatale was over when I was 15. I’d done everything and been everywhere.” Even today, she says, “if a guy comes up to me and says ‘I know you,’ the first thing I think is ‘did he and I make it once?’ ”
By 18, Grant (as she called herself) was a star. As the teenage shoplifter in Detective Story on Broadway and its follow-up on film, she copped a New York Drama Critics’ Award, a laurel at the Cannes Film Festival and an Oscar nomination. At 20, she married playwright Arnold Manoff, 15 years older than she. Ironically, he, as a blacklisted writer, could work under a pseudonym, but she, as a performer, was non grata in Hollywood. She says, “I make no judgments on anyone from that period.” And not until 1965, when Manoff died, was Lee, by then divorced from him, absolved. Starting over again in her 30s, Lee says, “the odds were too long on me to make it,” but it was a challenge she took on and in the process met Joseph Feury, who was dancing in a road show of Silk Stockings. His profession “bored” her until she discovered he was once a construction worker. “It’s that in him I relate to,” and they married in 1967.
The Feurys rent a $500,000 ranch house overlooking Zuma Beach, west of Malibu, with their 4¼-year-old Thai daughter, Belinda. Lee’s prior marriage produced another daughter, Dinah, 17, who is apprenticing as a TV actress-director and living with her boyfriend. Lee and her husband, now a producer whose credits include a Clio-winning commercial for Diet Pepsi, want to make movies together.
Lee’s pals number some of the more vital, idiosyncratic people in Hollywood—Brenda Vaccaro, Susan Strasberg, Sarah Miles—and for business counsel, she turns to Warren Beatty, the creator and co-star of her last movie, Shampoo. Says Lee, “I like to get down to things that are real—food, children, money—and not deal in fantasies.” Possibly, she should concentrate on films and directing, and blacklist herself from TV.