Barbara Bel Geddes

Barbara Bel Geddes

Barbara Bel Geddes as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1955
Born (1922-10-31)October 31, 1922
New York City, New York, U.S.
Died August 8, 2005(2005-08-08) (aged 82)
Northeast Harbor, Maine, U.S.
Cause of death Lung cancer
Occupation Actress
Years active 1947–1990
Spouse(s) Carl Sawyer (né Schreuer)
(m.1944–1951; divorced)
Windsor Lewis
(m.1951–1972; his death)
Children Susan Schreuer McLellan
Betsy Lewis

Barbara Bel Geddes (October 31, 1922 August 8, 2005) was an American actress, artist, and children's author, whose career spanned six decades. She was best known for her starring role in the television drama series Dallas as matriarch Miss Ellie Ewing. Bel Geddes also starred in the original Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the role of Maggie. Her notable films included Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) and I Remember Mama (1948). She was the recipient of several acting awards and nominations throughout her career.

Early and personal life

Bel Geddes was born on October 31, 1922, in New York City, the daughter of Helen Belle (née Schneider) and stage and industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes.[1] She married theatrical manager Carl Sawyer (né Schreuer) in 1944; they had one daughter, Susan. They divorced in 1951. Later that year, she married stage director Windsor Lewis, with whom she had a daughter, Betsy. When Lewis became ill in 1967, Bel Geddes suspended her career to care for him until his death in 1972.



Barbara Bel Geddes in 1952

Bel Geddes came to prominence in the 1946 Broadway production of Deep Are The Roots. The performance garnered her the Clarence Derwent Award, and the Donaldson Award (forerunner of the Tony Awards) presented to her by Laurette Taylor, for "Outstanding Achievement in The Theatre". From 1951 to 1953, Bel Geddes played 924 performances of the F. Hugh Herbert hit comedy The Moon Is Blue. In 1955, she created the role of Maggie "The Cat" in Elia Kazan's original Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and in 1961 created the title role in the Jean Kerr comedy Mary, Mary which became Broadway's longest-running show with over 1,500 performances. Both roles earned her Tony Award nominations. Other highlights include John Steinbeck's Burning Bright, Edward Albee's Everything in the Garden, and Silent Night, Lonely Night with Henry Fonda.

In 1952, she received the prestigious "Woman of the Year" Award from Harvard University's Hasty Pudding Theatricals, America's oldest theater company; In 1993, having appeared in 15 Broadway productions, she was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame (located in the Gershwin Theatre in New York City), a distinction she shared with her father, stage and industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes.


Bel Geddes began her film career starring with Henry Fonda in The Long Night (1947), a remake of the 1939 French film Le Jour Se Lève. "I went out to California awfully young," she remarked. "I remember Lillian Hellman and Elia Kazan telling me, 'Don't go, learn your craft.' But I loved films." The following year, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the George Stevens classic film I Remember Mama.[2]

Barbara Bel Geddes in Panic in the Streets (1950)

She played Richard Widmark's wife Nancy in Kazan's 1950 film noir Panic in the Streets.[2] In 1958, Alfred Hitchcock cast her with James Stewart in Vertigo as the long-suffering bohemian, Midge. Bel Geddes also starred with Danny Kaye and Louis Armstrong in the screen musical The Five Pennies.

When an investigation from the House Un-American Activities Committee saw Bel Geddes' name put on the Hollywood blacklist during the 1950s, it stalled her film career for a time, and she carried on with her acting on Broadway, and an occasional part on television. Bel Geddes found new opportunity in television when Alfred Hitchcock cast her in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Lamb to the Slaughter", in which she played a housewife who killed her husband by bludgeoning him to death with a frozen leg of lamb, cooking the murder weapon, and then serving it to the investigating police. She appeared in series such as Playhouse 90, CBS Playhouse, Riverboat, Dr. Kildare, and Death Valley Days. In 1977, she starred in the highly acclaimed production of the Thornton Wilder classic, Our Town with Hal Holbrook.


In 1978, Bel Geddes was the first artist signed to star in Dallas. The role of the family matriarch, Miss Ellie, brought her renewed international recognition. She appeared on the series from 1978 to 1990 (absent during the 1984–85 season) and remains the only cast member to win the Emmy Award (Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress - Drama Series) and the Golden Globe (List of Golden Globe Awards: Television, Best Actress, Drama).[2] In 1985, she also received Germany's Golden Camera Award.

Barbara Bel Geddes as Miss Ellie Ewing in Dallas

Larry Hagman, who played J. R. Ewing, told the Associated Press: "She was the rock of Dallas. She was just a really nice woman and a wonderful actress. She was kind of the glue that held the whole thing together." In a later interview for the website "Ultimate Dallas", Hagman said, "The reason I took the show, they said Barbara Bel Geddes is going to play your mother, and I said, 'Well, that's a touch of class, you know,' so of course I wanted to work with her."

In the early 1970s, Bel Geddes underwent a radical mastectomy, an experience she relived in the 1979–80 season of Dallas. The performance garnered her the Emmy Award. She was also honored by former First Lady, Betty Ford, for helping to raise breast cancer awareness.

On March 15, 1983, Bel Geddes narrowly avoided a heart attack when her doctor discovered a condition requiring emergency quadruple bypass surgery only days after filming was completed for the 1982–83 season. (News reports to the contrary, she did not have a heart attack.) As a result, she missed the first 11 episodes of the 1983–84 season[3] and was replaced with actress Donna Reed for the 1984–85 season. With her health improved, CBS-TV persuaded Lorimar Productions to return Bel Geddes to the role of Miss Ellie for the 1985–86 season.[4] She remained in the role until the later stages of the penultimate season of Dallas in 1990.

Life after Dallas

Bel Geddes retired from acting in 1990 and settled in her home in Northeast Harbor, Maine, where she continued to work as a fine artist. She was the author of two children's books, I Like to Be Me and So Do I, as well as the creator of a popular line of greeting cards. Looking back on her career, Bel Geddes told People: "They're always making me play well-bred ladies. I'm not very well bred, and I'm not much of a lady."[5]

Bel Geddes died on August 8, 2005, at her home in Northeast Harbor at the age of 82.[6] Upon her death, she was cremated, and her ashes were scattered from a simple wooden boat into the harbor waters bordering her estate in Northeast Harbor, Maine. At the revival of Dallas, Patrick Duffy, who played her youngest son, Bobby, in the original CBS Dallas series, said: "Barbara is a big piece of our history, and it's important to me to honor her. To come back with Linda Gray as Sue Ellen and Larry Hagman in his J.R. hat, and then see the words Ellie Southworth Ewing Farlow on the gravestone made me think, 'Oh, that's right -- she's gone." "Through the whole first season, I don't think an episode goes by that Mama is not mentioned in reference to Southfork and the land."[7]



Year Title Role Notes
Feb 11, 1941 – May 10, 1941 Out of the Frying Pan Dottie Coburn
Oct 27, 1942 – Nov 14, 1942 Little Darling Cynthia Brown
Jan 13, 1943 – Jan 16, 1943 Nine Girls Alice
Mar 31, 1944 – May 6, 1944 Mrs. January and Mr. X Wilhelmina
Sep 26, 1945 – Nov 16, 1946 Deep Are the Roots Genevra Langdon Winner — Donaldson Award, Theatre World Award, Clarence Derwent Award
Oct 18, 1950 – Oct 28, 1950 Burning Bright Mordeen
Mar 8, 1951 – May 30, 1953 The Moon Is Blue Patty O'Neill
Nov 17, 1954 – Dec 4, 1954 The Living Room Rose Pemberton
Mar 24, 1955 – Nov 17, 1956 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Maggie Nominated — Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play
Nov 1, 1956 – Dec 22, 1956 The Sleeping Prince Mary
Dec 3, 1959 – Mar 19, 1960 Silent Night, Lonely Night Katherine
Mar 8, 1961 – Dec 12, 1964 Mary, Mary Mary McKellaway Nominated — Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play
Nov 11, 1964 – Jan 7, 1967 Luv Ellen Manville
Nov 29, 1967 – Feb 10, 1968 Everything in the Garden Jenny
Feb 8, 1973 – Jun 30, 1973 Finishing Touches Katy Cooper


Year Title Role Notes
1947 The Long Night Jo Ann
1948 I Remember Mama Katrin Nominated — Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress
Blood on the Moon Amy Lufton
1949 Caught Leonora Eames
1950 Panic in the Streets Nancy Reed
1951 Fourteen Hours Virginia Foster
1958 Vertigo Midge Wood
1959 The Five Pennies Willa Stutsman
1960 Five Branded Women Marja
1961 By Love Possessed Clarissa Winner
1971 Summertree Ruth
The Todd Killings Mrs. Todd


Year Title Role Notes
1950 Robert Montgomery Presents Rebecca de Winter 2 episodes
The Nash Airflyte Theater Molly Morgan 1 episode
1954 The Campbell Playhouse 1 episode
1957 Schlitz Playhouse of Stars Marcia 2 episodes
1957–1958 Studio One Charlotte Lamb 2 episodes
1958 Playhouse 90 Sidney Cantrell 1 episode
Decision Marcia 1 episode
The United States Steel Hour Lily Barton 1 episode
1959 Riverboat Missy Belle 1 episode "Payment in Full" with Aldo Ray
1960 Dow Hour of Great Mysteries 1 episode
1958–1960 Alfred Hitchcock Presents Lucia Clay/Mary Maloney/Helen Brewster/Sybilla Meade 4 episodes
1962 Death Valley Days 1 episode
1965 Dr. Kildare Dr. Ruth Halliman 1 episode
1968 CBS Playhouse Doris Gray 1 episode
1969 Journey to the Unknown Inga Madison 1 episode
Daniel Boone Molly Malone 1 episode
1976 Spencer's Pilots Maggie 1 episode
1977 Our Town Mrs. Webb
1978–1990 Dallas Miss Ellie Ewing Farlow 299 episodes
Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (1980)
Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Television Series Drama (1982)
Goldene Kamera for Best actress on television (1985)
Soap Opera Digest Awards for Outstanding Actress in a Mature Role in a Prime Time Soap Opera (1984)
Nominated — Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (1979, 1981)
Nominated — Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Television Series Drama (1980,1981)
Nominated — Soap Opera Digest Awards for Outstanding Actress in a Mature Role on a Prime Time Serial (1986, 1988)


  1. The Midwestern Roots of Barbara Bel Geddes,; accessed January 27, 2014.
  2. 1 2 3 Barbara Bel Geddes- Biography Archived January 16, 2013, at the Wayback Machine., Yahoo!
  3. "Barbara Bel Geddes has open heart operation". Associated Press (AP), printed in The New York Times (.com). March 15, 1983. Retrieved March 16, 2016.
  4. "Donna Reed Loses Bid for 'Dallas' Role". The New York Times. 1985-06-19. Retrieved 2008-11-01
  5. Actress Barbara Bel Geddes has died, MSNBC, August 10, 2005.

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