As Dallas’ Miss Ellie, she’s the epitome of sagebrush elegance, a saintly matriarch who never touches anything wilder than her conniving offspring, J.R. Ewing. Off the set, however, Barbara Bel Geddes, 59, lives on a wooded New York farm inhabited by ducks, geese, an occasional deer and other wildlife. And while Miss Ellie was no doubt the model of probity at some prim-and-proper young ladies’ academy, Bel Geddes was kicked out of New England’s tony Putney School at 16 for being a “disturbing influence”—i.e., for kissing boys. No wonder Barbara finds it amusing that in her 41-year acting career “they’re always making me play well-bred ladies.” In fact, claims Bel Geddes, “I’m not very well-bred and I’m not much of a lady.”
That may be debatable, but what Bel Geddes does share with Miss Ellie is a heart as soft as son J.R.’s is stony. This year, for instance, she is serving as honorary chairperson and enthusiastic supporter of Lifeline for Wildlife, Inc., a nonprofit organization founded four years ago by her 29-year-old daughter, Betsy Lewis. Lifeline rescues injured and orphaned animals in New York State—raccoons, muskrats, foxes, snapping turtles, deer, opossums and squirrels—heals them and then releases them into the wild. “There were no professional facilities doing it,” explains Betsy, an animal lover since childhood. “The need was so enormous I didn’t think it could be ignored.” With Mom’s support, Betsy has built Lifeline from a one-woman operation into a service that now handles as many as 300 animals at a time in two separate facilities, a hospital complete with incubators and surgical equipment, plus a 10-acre farm containing outdoor animal compounds in Ellenville, N.Y. “We must not ignore the wild animals,” says Barbara. “I’ll do anything I can to help.” Betsy, in turn, credits her mother with fostering her commitment. “I grew up in a very animal-oriented household,” she says. “Mother’s concern was very powerful and very consistent.”
Barbara traces that trait to her father, influential theatrical designer and director Norman Bel Geddes, even though he and her mother, a former English teacher, separated when Barbara was 5. “I didn’t see much of my father,” says Bel Geddes, “but I absolutely adored him. He was a man who loved animals and who should have been a naturalist.” She recalls a formative walk in the woods with him. “He lifted up a stone and there was this tiny salamander with black button eyes and orange spots. It was absolutely magical.” Her father also encouraged her desire to act. When she was 16, he got her a summer stock job in Connecticut, which led to her first Broadway role in the 1941 comedy Out of the Frying Pan. As her theater career picked up, she married electrical engineer Carl Schreuer in 1944 and the next year gave birth to her first daughter, Susan, now an aspiring singer. Not long after that, Barbara left for Hollywood with an RKO contract and equal billing with the likes of Henry Fonda and Irene Dunne.
“I went out to California awfully young,” she says. “I remember Lillian Hellman and Elia Kazan told me, ‘Don’t go, learn your craft.’ But I loved films.” Hollywood, unfortunately, didn’t reciprocate. After two and a half years and four pictures, RKO boss Howard Hughes had her fired for not being sexy enough. “I was crushed,” says Barbara. “But thank God he did that, because it meant I went back to the theater.” Her first marriage ended in 1951 and she soon married director Windsor Lewis. A string of Broadway hits followed, including 1955’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (she was the original Maggie) and Jean Kerr’s Mary, Mary in 1961.
In 1966 her career was cut short by personal tragedy. Second husband Lewis discovered he had cancer, and Barbara left the stage to be with him until his death in 1972. The expenses of Wind’s long illness wiped out Barbara’s savings, and she admits she took the Dallas part in 1978 because she was “flat broke.” Ironically, three years after her Hollywood comeback, her TV husband, Jim Davis, died suddenly. “It was like losing her own husband again,” says Dallas producer Leonard Katzman. “It was terribly difficult and an emotional time for Barbara.”
Despite this setback, Barbara now calls Dallas “great fun,” though she admits to a “real kind of love/hate about acting. When I’m not acting, I like to get as far away from it as I possibly can.” During filming she rents an apartment in L.A.’s Marina Del Rey, but come vacation she returns to the more-than-200-year-old, white clapboard farmhouse on 55 acres in upstate New York, which she and Wind shared for 20 years. “He always said I married him for the farm,” she recalls with a laugh. A spare-time artist who has illustrated two children’s books and had several drawings published in the New Yorker, Barbara relishes the rural solitude. “I come here and open the windows, listen to the birds and watch my geese, and it’s a great comfort to me,” she says. After Dallas, Barbara confides, “I really want to quit and just play, which I have never been able to do my whole life. I’ve just worked. Now I want to read and bird-watch and do my drawing.”