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CRITIC AT LARGE

Remick Endures Despite Personal Ordeal : Profile: Actress waged a 'drastic and horrible and successful' fight against kidney cancer. Now, she prepares for a role in the miniseries 'The Young Catherine.'

March 06, 1990|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | TIMES ARTS EDITOR

Lee Remick made an unforgettable film debut as the sexy drum majorette who marries the power-corrupted Andy Griffith in Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd" in 1957. Her lithe, blue-eyed beauty and her disturbing blend of youthful innocence and grown-up sensuality raised the movie's temperature several degrees.

She was 22 and, as history was to show, launching an impressive acting career that next saw her as Anthony Franciosa's wife in "The Long Hot Summer," based on some William Faulkner stories. There was an Oscar nomination for "Days of Wine and Roses," opposite Jack Lemmon, with whom she co-starred again in "Tribute" in 1980. She was a Henry James heroine in "The Europeans" and Winston Churchill's mother in television's "Jenny."

Remick has done stage, screen and television, her presence a kind of seal of quality, and she's rarely been idle, here or in England where she lived for many years with her second husband, Kip Gowans. He was a first assistant director when they married in 1970. He is now a producer in Hollywood, and they divide their time between Los Angeles and a home on Cape Cod. (Remick was born in nearby Quincy, Mass.)

Then, eight months ago, Remick was found to have kidney cancer. The treatments, mostly at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, were "drastic and horrible and successful," she says, "and now I'm back." She shows no signs of the ordeal.

"I learned a lot. I learned what matters, and what doesn't. I learned it doesn't make sense to let little things get you down. Or to choose the little things that you want to matter to you."

She is about to go back to work, having signed to play the mother of the teen-age German princess who married the Grand Duke Peter and in time became Catherine the Great of Russia. A miniseries for Ted Turner, "The Young Catherine," will commence shooting in Leningrad in mid-April.

"I'm very manipulative, something of a stage mother," Remick says. Vanessa Redgrave will play the Empress, Maximilian Schell Frederick the Great in the four-hour, two-part series written by Chris Bryant and to be directed by Michael Anderson.

Remick was almost inevitably a performer. Her mother, Patricia, was an actress. Possibly more important, her great-grandmother, Eliza Duffield, was an English-born preacher who had a congregation in Round Hill, N.Y. Remick recalls being taken as a very small child to see and hear her great-grandmother.

"She was 4-feet-nothing but she had a huge, booming voice and a British accent and she sang hymns while she accompanied herself. She ruled her family and everybody around her with an iron hand. People quaked in her presence."

Remick set out to be a dancer, is glad for the training and glad she didn't make it as a dancer. "I wouldn't have been that good, and what's the sense of trying to do something you're not good enough at. Things work out the way they're supposed to, and they did for me. But the training was wonderful and the discipline you have to have as a dancer has been of endless value throughout my life--to say nothing of being able to work through pain, and, boy, do you work through pain as a dancer."

She was 16 and attending the fashionable Miss Hewitt's School in Manhattan when someone saw her and cast her in a Broadway play called "Act Your Age." It bombed out quickly but not before she knew that she'd found her calling.

She did summer stock, toured with Rudy Vallee in "Jenny Kissed Me" and began to appear in live television dramas. In 1964 she was cast, along with Angela Lansbury, in Stephen Sondheim's first musical, "Anyone Can Whistle."

"It was magical because of Stephen's score," she says, "but even those who loved it agreed it was ahead of its time." It had a short life, but it continues to resonate in the memories of those who know the music.

"I did a couple of Playhouse 90s," Remick says, "and Robert Montgomerys and Krafts and Armstrongs" (a litany of the hour and the 90-minute dramas that were the glory of television before it learned to tape). Kazan saw her in one of the dramas; Remick is not sure which one.

The day after it aired, "I was out and about and I called my answering service. No machines in those days, at least I didn't have one. There was a slew of messages and I didn't have anything to write with. So I could only remember the last number and call it.

"It turned out to be Kazan's assistant, wanting me to come in." It was to read for "A Face in the Crowd," which Budd Schulberg scripted from one of his own stories. The film was shot entirely in Pickett, Ark., and New York, but Hollywood was the next step.

Remick has two children by her first marriage to television producer Bill Colleran, a daughter 31, who has just been married, and a son, 28. Neither wants to act. Her daughter writes, the son is in post-production sound. Remick is not sorry.

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