Sunday, September 21, 2014

Godspeed Polly Bergen

Singer and actress Polly Bergen died yesterday at the age of 84.

Polly Bergen was born Nellie Paulina Burgin in Knoxville, Tennessee on 14 July 1930. Her father William Burgin was a construction engineer who also had musical talent (he would later perform under the name "Bill Bergen"). She grew up in Ohio and Indiana. As a child she was a fan of the musicals of Deanna Durbin and Shirley Temple. She was also a fan of Sarah Vaughn and learned to sing by listening to Miss Vaughn's records. Miss Bergen began her career by winning a talent show for teenagers and at only 15 she had her own show on radio station WKBV in Richmond, Indiana. Eventually she began performing nightclubs and would go on to regularly perform in  Las Vegas.

Polly Bergen's voice was heard in the film Champion (1949) as a radio and jukebox singer, and she made her proper film debut the same year in the film Across the Rio Grande (1949) as a cantina  singer. In 1950 she appeared in the Martin and Lewis movie At War with the Army (1950). Miss Bergen made her television debut on an episode of The Alan Young Show in 1950.

During the Fifties Polly Bergen appeared in such films as That's My Boy (1951), Warpath (1951), The Stooge (1952), Cry of the Hunted (1953), Fast Company (1953), Arena (1953), and Escape from Fort Bravo (1953). She made her debut on Broadway in 1953 in John Murray Anderson's Almanac. During the decade she appeared on Broadway in the productions Champagne Complex and First Impressions.

On television in the Fifties she was the host of The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse, which ran from 1954-1955, and The Polly Bergen Show, which ran from 1957 to 1958. She appeared on a number of variety shows including The Colgate Comedy Hour, Cavalcade of Stars, Your Hit Parade, The Dick Clark Show, and The Garry Moore Show. She also guest starred on such shows as Studio One, General Electric Theatre, Playhouse 90, The George Burns Show, and The United States Steel Hour.  Miss Bergen won an Emmy for Best Single Performance - Lead or Support for her appearance on Playhouse 90 in "The Helen Morgan Story".

Arguably the Sixties might have been the height of Polly Bergen's career. She appeared in the classic thriller Cape Fear (1952) as well as the Doris Day film Move Over, Darling (1953). She also appeared in the films The Caretakers (1963), Kisses for My President (1964), and A Guide for the Married Man (1967). On television she was a regular panellist on To Tell the Truth. She appeared on such variety shows, game shows, and talk shows as The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, Password, What's My Line?, The Andy Williams Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Dean Martin Comedy Hour, and The Joey Bishop Show. She guest starred on such shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Wagon Train, Dr. Kildare, The Dick Powel Theatre, and The Red Skelton Hour.

In 1971 Polly Bergen had her own television special, The Polly Bergen Special. In the Seventies she appeared on the shows The Wide World of Mystery, Thriller, and Ellery Queen, the mini-series Harold Robbins' 79 Park Avenue, and the TV movies Death Cruise, Murder on Flight 502, and How to Pick Up Girls!.

In the Eighties Polly Bergen appeared in the TV mini-series The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. She guest starred on the shows The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Hotel, Murder She Wrote, My Two Dads, and Jake and the Fatman. She appeared in the films Making Mr. Right (1987), Mother, Mother (1989), and Cry-Baby (1990). She appeared on Broadway in Love Letters.

In the Nineties Miss Bergen was a regular on the TV show Baby Talk. She guest starred on Burke's Law, Touched by Angel, and Twice in a Lifetime. She appeared in the film Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde (1995).  From the Naughts into the Teens she had recurring roles on the TV shows Commander in Chief and Desperate Housewives. She guest starred on The Sopranos and appeared in the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation "Candles on Bay Street". She appeared in the films Paradise, Texas (2005), A Very Serious Person (2006), and Struck by Lightning (2012).

 In addition to her singing and acting careers, Polly Bergen also had her own cosmetics, jewellery, and show lines. 

Polly Bergen was an incredible singer. She was gifted with a wonderful voice that was warm and sexy all at the same time. In many respects she was the very definition of a torch singer, capable of relaying sorrow or sensuality (and often both) simply by the tone of her voice.

Of course, today Miss Bergen may be best known as an actress. Her most famous part may be that of Gregory Peck's wife (terrorised by Robert Mitchum) in Cape Fear (1962). She also played a psychiatric patient in group therapy in the film The Caretakers (1963), for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe. As great as Miss Bergen's performances in her dramas were, however, I think that she might have been better at comedy. Indeed, she seemed to have a gift for it. She was great fun as the "other wife" in the Doris Day movie Move Over, Darling (1963). And while she wasn't on screen for long, she was very funny as the "technical advisor" Clara Brown in A Guide for the Married Man. Very few were gifted with the talents that Polly Bergen had. She was a first rate actress and singer who could perform both drama and comedy equally well. 

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