A confession: I’m such a Dallas fan that I still watch the reruns on Soap Net. It takes me back to my childhood, when my family would watch the Ewing family on Friday nights. Part of what I enjoyed about the show (and still do) was its twisted definition of family; here were characters who would stab each other in the back repeatedly but rationalize that they were doing it in the name of family honor. Still, the family had one rock of stability and decency, and that was matriarch Miss Ellie. It’s no wonder that the surviving Dallas cast members are mourning the death Monday of Barbara Bel Geddes at age 82 as if their own mother had passed away.
Bel Geddes always seemed wise, mature, and matronly, even when she was young. (It’s hard to believe she originated the role of the sexually voracious Maggie the Cat in the 1955 Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.) Back then, she was a favorite of Elia Kazan (who cast her in Cat over Tennessee Williams’ objection) and Alfred Hitchcock, who used her memorably in Vertigo (as the dowdy galpal whom Jimmy Stewart ignores in favor of exotic, self-destructive Kim Novak) and on his TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents (in such episodes as ”Lamb to the Slaughter,” where she kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooks and serves the murder weapon to the police).
She started on Dallas when she was just 55, only nine years older than Larry Hagman, who played her son. She did subtle but serious work on the show, becoming the only nighttime soap star ever to win a primetime Emmy. How good was she? Remember the season where she was replaced by the lacquered Donna Reed? Awful. Bel Geddes’ earthbound plainness and plainspokenness was sorely missed and eagerly welcomed upon her return. It’s fun to read, in the reminiscences of her Dallas family, that she was just as earthy off-camera, too.