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Dorothy Malone recalls her days in 'Peyton Place'

May 23, 2009|Donald Liebenson

What happened in Peyton Place did not stay in Peyton Place.

The fictional Massachusetts burg became synonymous with American small-town secrets and scandal, first in Grace Metalious' sensational 1956 novel, followed by the Oscar-nominated 1957 film, the 1959 sequel novel, the 1961 sequel film and, then, in 1964, as American television's first prime-time serialized drama -- initially airing twice a week.

Fans of the '60s series can now relive "the continuing story of Peyton Place" from the beginning with the DVD release of "Peyton Place: Part One" from Shout! Factory. This five-disc set contains the series' first 31 episodes (only 483 to go!).

Described at the time by executive producer Paul Monash as "a television novel," "Peyton Place" paved the way for such series as "Dallas," "Dynasty" and "Desperate Housewives." But while these increasingly outrageous programs make Peyton Place look like Mayberry, this '60s drama's place in television history is secure as the show that brought Oscar winner Dorothy Malone to series TV and put costars Mia Farrow and Ryan O'Neal on the map.

Malone starred as Constance MacKenzie, a bookstore owner and overprotective single mother with a devastating family secret. A 19-year-old Farrow costarred as Allison, Constance's prim and innocent daughter. O'Neal portrayed brooding golden boy Rodney Harrington.

Malone's stardom came at the end of Hollywood's golden era. Her first notable role was as the bookstore clerk who closed the shop early to put the make on Humphrey Bogart's Philip Marlowe in "The Big Sleep." She won the 1956 Academy Award for supporting actress as the promiscuous and alcoholic oil baron's daughter in "Written on the Wind."

Malone, 85, lives in Dallas, where her family moved from Chicago when she was a child. In a phone interview, Malone is gracious and good spirited, and her affection for the series and its cast undimmed. When asked if she was hesitant about doing a television series, she replied, "Dear, I didn't even give it a thought. I just enjoyed the acting."

She called Farrow "delightful, very fresh, and sweet," and O'Neal "adorable. He had a lot of sex appeal. And I was always crazy about Ed [Nelson, who portrayed Peyton Place's new doctor, Michael Rossi]," she said.

The feeling is mutual. In a phone interview, Nelson, 80, who has just published his autobiography, "Beyond Peyton Place: My Fifty Years on Stage, Screen and Television," said fondly, "She was always a joy. When I had a scene with her, I knew it was going to be a good one. Dorothy had one quality that they never captured, and that was her marvelous sense of humor. We used to laugh around the set all the time."

Malone, observed her daughter, Mimi Vanderstraaten, 49, was ahead of her time. While Oscar winners did not ordinarily choose series television as a career move, "she just knew the series was going to be successful," she said.

Malone's life was also rife with drama. In 1965, she underwent life-saving surgery after more than 30 blood clots were found in her lungs. Medical updates, Vanderstraaten recalled, were flashed on the electronic ticker tape in New York's Times Square. (Lola Albright portrayed Constance on the show in her absence.) "But she has a very strong faith, and that has sustained her," Vanderstraaten said. "She is a survivor."

Malone departed "Peyton Place" before the series ended, in part because, in a bid to attract young viewers, the writers were focusing on the series' younger characters.

Malone continued to divide her time between movies and television. She appeared in one of American television's first miniseries, "Rich Man, Poor Man" (1976), and reprised her role as Constance in the made-for-TV movies "Murder in Peyton Place" (1977) and "Peyton Place: The Next Generation" (1985). Her last feature film was "Basic Instinct," in which she appeared fleetingly, but indelibly, in the role of a woman who had killed her children.

Malone's favorite role, however, has always been that of being a mother. Living in Hollywood, she made an extra effort to ensure that her two daughters were grounded. "When we lived in Beverly Hills, we would go out in the backyard and sing these songs at night, just like she did when she was a little girl in Texas," Vanderstraaten said. "Our neighbors must have thought we were so funny."

She moved the family back to Dallas in the late '60s. "She wanted to get us out of the crazy [Southern California scene] and grow up where she grew up," Vanderstraaten said. Malone's daughters still live there.

These days, she enjoys being with family and her six grandchildren. She also likes watching "Dancing With the Stars" and receiving fan mail, which continues to arrive from all over the world, Vanderstraaten marveled. "It just brightens her day," she said.

Malone's approachable, down-to-earth quality would "play well right now," Vanderstraaten said. "It's not something you can be taught. She was always down-home and caring about her family, but when she would turn it on [for the camera], it was like magic to watch."

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