Someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Would you like to be an actress?’ I said okay.”
That’s how Millie Perkins, 40, describes her Cinderella selection for the title role in the 1959 film version of The Diary of Anne Frank. Perkins was a shy junior fashion model in Greenwich Village when director George Stevens, then casting the picture, was shown magazine photos of her. Seeing in Perkins’ innocent, waif-like beauty a haunting resemblance to the real Anne Frank (whose diary chronicled her family’s doomed effort to hide from the Nazis), Stevens summoned Perkins to Hollywood for a screen test. Though she had never acted before, she won the role over 10,000 others. Critics hailed her performance as “dazzling,” “glowing” and “sensitive.”
In 1960 Perkins, the daughter of a Fair Lawn, N.J. maritime officer, wed actor Dean Stockwell, her escort at Anne’s premiere. She studied acting under coaches like Robert (Baretta) Blake, Jeff Corey and Donna Drew. Her subsequent screen roles included Wild in the Country with Elvis Presley and Wild in the Streets by screenwriter Robert Thom, whom Perkins married in 1964 two years after divorcing Stock-well. She also made two Westerns with a then-unknown acting workshop pal, Jack Nicholson. But there was no role to match that of Anne Frank, and after a few TV parts Millie’s career faded.
When her marriage to Thom broke up after nine years, Perkins felt herself “an emotional misfit. I needed to leave L.A.,” she recalls, “to get away from that feeling of success and failure. I went to what turned out to be the most beautiful spot I’ve ever been in.”
In 1976 Perkins settled in Jacksonville, Oreg. (pop. 2,000) with her two daughters by Thom, Lillie, now 11, and Hedy, 8. “Raising my children is most important to me,” says Perkins. “I’d love to have given them one home like the old days, with grandma and sisters and relatives, and never left it. I’ve sort of made gypsies out of them.” Lillie and Hedy spent eight weeks with their father in New York and Europe this summer. Millie generously describes her ex-husband as “a very special man.”
She had a brief romantic fling last year with a local rancher. Now, knowing that “I’ll always have Jacksonville in my back pocket,” she has become interested in acting again—either in Hollywood or New York. Meanwhile she conducts a drama-therapy workshop every Tuesday night in her living room and often speaks to high school drama groups in the area.
Does she ever wonder what her life would have been like if she hadn’t played Anne? “You have to learn from the past, but you can’t wish ‘if only,’ ” she replies. “My agent says, ‘Don’t say you’re 40. Say you’re 36 or 38.’ ” But that’s not for Millie Perkins. “It’s taken me many, many years to feel a dedication to my craft—and many more years to grow up a little bit.”