Famously kind, Barbara Stanwyck could be as ruthless as her most dramatic characters
She was "indifferent" to Kirk Douglas, but Lee Grant was "wowed" by her fan letter.
Read to Me
"Is it wrong to want the decent life gold can give you?" Maud Frazer asks Flint McCullough in "The Maud Frazer Story" on Wagon Train.
The two have struck up a romance, and she's attempting to manipulate Flint, having just revealed that her former husband planned to abandon the wagon train that he was leading in order to hunt for gold in the hills. Now she's trying to convince Flint to do the same. She's essentially looking for her next sucker.
"There are other men who can scout," she insists, after she's kissed Flint under the moonlight, an attempt to place him under her spell.
The role of Maud Frazer went to Barbara Stanwyck, and it was her first appearance on Wagon Train. Since the 1930s, Stanwyck had been called upon to play this willful, sometimes ruthless brand of woman, willing to do whatever it took to get what she wanted, primarily because Stanwyck's just so riveting portraying complex characters.
In the biography A Life of Barbara Stanwyck, it's confirmed that Stanwyck was "delighted to move away from the motherly and farmer's wife roles."
Her fans would likely agree that leaving her in wholesome roles would've been a waste of her talents.
Behind the scenes of the movies and TV shows that Stanwyck graced, her reputation was glittering. "She was a very special, special lady," The Big Valley director Ralph Senensky told Emmy TV Legends.
On every film set, the casts and crews knew Stanwyck as "Missy," and her kindness was legendary. As one example, Senensky recalled a story from a night shoot after a long day of shooting The Big Valley.
He said Stanwyck asked about dinner, and when she found out the stars would be fed, but not the crew, she insisted they send out for food for everyone.
When the food arrived, Stanwyck stood behind the tables, handing out sandwiches and seeking to ensure everyone who was hungry got fed. That meant, Senensky said, she also gathered up a bunch of sandwiches in her arms and went out to where guys were unloading trucks.
She may not have wanted to play traditional motherly roles, but everyone who ever worked with her seems to remember how considerate she was of the entire production’s needs. "She was a great, great lady, just a total professional," Senensky said.
However, that doesn't mean she couldn’t occasionally be as cold and cutting as the characters we loved watching her portray onscreen. Kirk Douglas experienced this side of Stanwyck in his first role ever for the movie The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. "Everyone had told me how nice Barbara Stanwyck was," Douglas recalled in The Ragman's Son, his autobiography.
"The crew adored her," he wrote, but he didn't really feel the warmth, instead feeling that Stanwyck was "indifferent" to him. For the movie, they were playing husband and wife, so their chemistry was critical (and if you watch, you'll see, successful).
Day by day, Douglas started proving his acting chops to her, and he said he remembered the first time she actually made eye contact with him outside a scene.
"Hey, you're pretty good," she said.
"Too late," Douglas teased.
The ruthless side of Stanwyck came out when another castmate in the same movie, Van Heflin, threatened to take too much attention away from Stanwyck, who we all know deserved her share of the spotlight!
The tension started with a coin. To show Heflin was a longtime gambler, the director had asked him to learn a slick trick where he maneuvers a coin over his knuckles.
Stanwyck worried this would be distracting to the viewer, saying, "Van, that's a wonderful piece of business, but if you do that during my important lines, I have a bit of business that will draw away from yours."
"Any time you start twirling that coin, I'll be fixing my garter," Stanwyck cautioned him. "So be sure you don't do that when I have important lines to speak." If you watch the movie, Heflin only does it once. Nobody crosses Barbara Stanwyck, please note.
The Wagon Train episode "The Maud Frazer Story" aired four years before Stanwyck's Western series The Big Valley premiered. As Big Valley matriarch Victoria Barkley, Stanwyck looked just as convincing smiling sweetly under a straw hat, as stern-faced standing behind a shotgun.
For the dramatic role, Stanwyck won an Emmy and was nominated over and over for Emmys and Golden Globes. And while she might not have picked up as quick on Kirk Douglas' star rising, that doesn't mean the accomplished actor wasn’t an admiring fan of those lucky to share the screen with her. Just ask Oscar winner Lee Grant, who appeared on The Big Valley after she told Emmy TV Legends that Stanwyck sent her the first fan letter she ever received. Grant remembered it was written on "on blue stationery with purple ink."
"It wowed me," Grant said, echoing The Big Valley director Senensky when he described "that special look" Stanwyck had for the hardest working people on every production she joined. When Stanwyck noticed you, she really noticed you and she usually tried to help you.
She was a complicated, striking woman with high standards and a kind heart. Any time we see her onscreen, we’re overcome by fondness understanding that during Hollywood's golden age, she remained one of a kind, committed to excellence and dedicated to delivering ruthlessly compelling drama.
Check out 12 things you never knew about Barbara Stanwyck if this post, like her performances, has left you wanting more.