Behind the Scenes: Shelley Winters in A Double Life
To today’s audiences, Shelley Winters may be the grandmother on the Roseanne Barr comedy show, or the zaftig swimming champion who valiantly perished in The Poseidon Adventure. But back in the day, she was a gorgeous blonde whose curvaceous figure was complemented by her considerable acting chops. Winters was also a fixture of the noir era, with appearances in Cry of the City (1948), He Ran All the Way (1951), The Big Knife (1955), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), and her noir debut, A Double Life (1947).
Playing her first big part in A Double Life, the 27-year-old actress was cast as a waitress opposite screen veteran Ronald Colman. But she was reportedly so flustered that she nearly lost the role on the first day.
According to The Hollywood Walk of Shame by Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo, when Winters was first introduced to Colman by director George Cukor, she was too awestruck to even speak. Rehearsals for Winters’s first scene with Colman went on for about an hour – in the scene, Colman was to enter the restaurant where Winters worked and she was to pour him a cup of coffee, hand him a menu, then pour him a glass of water and take out her pad and pencil. Winters recalled that they did 96 takes of the scene: “Everything that could go wrong went wrong.”
“I broke my pencil. I dropped my pad. I stumbled in. I poured coffee on Ronald Colman’s hands. I poured coffee on his lap. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I poured water in his glass and forgot to stop and it overflowed. Then I broke the glass. In the next take, I dropped the pitcher. It was a nightmare. I had the wardrobe department and four prop men cleaning up after me. After countless takes, I realized that I just could not function. Ronald Colman’s presence paralyzed me.”
When George Cukor called for a lunch break, Colman invited Winters to dine with him; during the meal, he asked her questions about her life and shared anecdotes with her about his. Slowly, Winters began to relax — by the time they returned to the set, she was no longer performing with Ronald Colman, FAMOUS ACTOR, but Ronald Colman, her new friend.
“We went back to work and I did the scene technically perfect,” Winters recalled. “I will always be grateful to Ronald Colman. He made me relax at lunch and by doing that, he saved my role – and perhaps even my career.”
In addition to her other noir features, Winters went on to appear in such classics as A Place in the Sun (1951), The Night of the Hunter (1955), The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) – for which she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress – Lolita (1962), and A Patch of Blue (1965), and Alfie (1966).
Thanks, Ronald Colman!