Barbara Bel-Geddes (1900-1974)

Barbara Bel-Geddes
Barbara Bel-Geddes

Barbara Bel-Geddes was an American actress who became internationally famous as Miss Ellie in the Television series 'Dallas'. Her career spanned six decades and as well as television success she had many successes in her stage and movie career. In 1948 she was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in 'I Remember Mama' and in 1958 she played her best known movie role as James Stewart's ex-girlfriend in Vertigo'.

In 1993 Barbara was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame for her outstanding contribution to the American Theater. Interestingly, her father, Norman Bel Geddes had received the same honour in the 1930's.


Early Years

She was born on October 31, 1922, in New York City, the daughter of futuristic architect and stage designer Norman Bel Geddes who staged more than 200 plays. Her mother died when Barbara was only age 15, at which time she moved with her father and sister to Putney, Vermont. She attended Putney School, a private school, but at 16 she was expelled as being a "disturbing influence" - she had apparently kissed a boy. She then attended Andrewbrook, an all-girls French convent school in Tarrytown, New York, and graduated in 1940.


Her father's influence led Barbara to be fascinated with the stage and she decided at a young age to be an actress. Her father's contacts helped her to make an early impact in the theater and her first Broadway appearance was at the age of 18 in the comedy 'Out Of The Frying Pan'.

She quickly established a reputation for professionalism and performances of high quality. She married theatrical manager Carl Sawyer in 1944 when she was 21 and her first important and successful role was in 'Deep Are the Roots' on Broadway in 1945, directed by Elia Kazan, for which she won the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Actress.

Her stage successes continued and for 2 years from 1951 she appeared in over 900 performances of 'The Moon Is Blue', directed by Otto Preminger. She made a real impact on the acting community and in 1952, she received the "Woman of the Year" award from Harvard University's Hasty Pudding Theatricals, one of America's most prestigious theater companies. In 1955 she appeared as Maggie "The Cat" in the original Broadway production of 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof', again directed by Elia Kazan.

In 1961 Barbara created and appeared in the title role in the comedy 'Mary, Mary' which played over 1,500 performances and became became Broadway's longest-running show. Other successes of her theatrical career included 'Silent Night, Lonely Night' in 1959 with Henry Fonda and in 1967, Edward Albee's 'Everything in the Garden'.

Movie Career

Barbara's movie career started at almost the same time as her stage career and she was again almost immediately successful. She began as a contract player for RKO Pictures in 1946. The following year she appeared in her first movie starring role with Henry Fonda in 'The Long Night' ,and in 1948 she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the George Stevens film 'I Remember Mama.'

She was named 'Hollywood's Most Attractive New Star' in Life Magazine's April 12, 1948, issue. In the same year she co-starred with Robert Mitchum in the western, 'Blood On The Moon' which was well received, but when Howard Hughes purchased RKO later in the year he dropped her as he thought she lacked sex appeal.

She was naturally upset but resolutely continued her career, refocusing on the stage. She continued to appear on the big screen and in 1949 she starred in 'Caught', with James Mason, and the following year she played Richard Widmark's wife Nancy in the film noir 'Panic in the Streets', directed again by Elia Kazan.


In the late 1940s, Senator Joseph McCarthy led the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, investigating alleged Communist activity. In 1951 Barbara’s name appeared on the Hollywood Blacklist along with many other performers and directors. It caused her movie career to come to a temporary halt although unlike many of her contemporaries she was able to continue to work in the theater and on television.

In 1951 she appeared in the movie thriller 'Fourteen Hours', which was her last film role until 1958 when she was cast by Alfred Hitchcock in 'Vertigo' as James Stewart's former fiancée, Midge.. She also starred with Danny Kaye and Louis Armstrong in the screen musical 'The Five Pennies' in 1959.

Television Career

During the 1950s Barbara enthusiastically entered the new medium of television acting. Her first appearance was in 1950 in 'Robert Montgomery Presents' and she continued to appear regularly throughout the decade in such programmes as 'Schlitz Playhouse', 'The United States Steel Hour', 'Riverboat' and 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents'.

She suffered some health problems, including undergoing a mastectomy in 1971, and her output was considerably reduced, but she continued to appear occasionally on the small screen in '' and '' and in 1977 she was highly praised for her performance in the Thornton Wilder classic 'Our Town'.


In 1978 Barbara was cast in the prime time soap opera, 'Dallas' as Miss Ellie, mother to Larry Hagman's JR Ewing and general matriarch of the Southfork Ranch family. It was the role for which she is best remembered and she appeared in every episode until she retired in 1990, apart from a period in 1984 when she recovered from quadruple bypass surgery. During this period, Donna Reed took over the role.


Barbara married twice, firstly in 1944 to theatrical manager Carl Sawyer (né Schreuer). The couple had one daughter, Susan and divorced in 1951. Later in the same year she married stage director Windsor Lewis, with whom she had a daughter, Betsy. Barbara put her career on hold in 1967 when Lewis became ill and she cared for him until his death in 1972.

Barbara Bel Geddes died of lung cancer in 2005. She was cremated and her ashes were scattered from a simple wooden boat into the harbor waters bordering her home.

Barbara Bel-Geddes Academy Awards

No Wins:
One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Supporting Actress ... I Remember Mama(1948)

Barbara Bel-Geddes Filmography

The Long Night
I Remember Mama
Blood on the Moon
Wild Calendar
Panic in the Streets
Fourteen Hours
The Five Pennies
5 Branded Women
By Love Possessed
The Todd Killings