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Sunday, March 25, 2001

POLLY BERGEN'S LIFE-TESTED ROLE

by James Gavin

Photo by Sara Krulwich


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Polly Bergen as Carlotta Campion in "Follies."


"I KNOW
what you're thinking. You thought I was dead, right?"

That's how the 70-year-old singer and actress Polly Bergen greeted audiences at Feinstein's at the Regency, the Manhattan cabaret where she made a surprise comeback in October.

Ms. Bergen had hardly sung in more than 30 years, and her best acting credits — an Emmy Award for a 1957 television movie about the torch singer Helen Morgan, a co-starring role (with Robert Mitchum) in the movie thriller "Cape Fear" — were mostly in the past. By the 70's, Ms. Bergen was better known as a glamorous cosmetics tycoon than she was for any film, play or album. Then came her third marriage, in 1982, to a businessman, who left her in debt for millions of dollars. When last seen, the woman who had once made the cover of TV Guide was selling skin cream on the Home Shopping Network.

Polly Bergen has lived every cliché of a "down and out and up again" trouper. But it was still startling when she was cast, seemingly out of nowhere, to play Carlotta Campion, a character much like herself, in the current Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies," which formally opens on April 5 at the Belasco Theater. Joining a reunion of aging theater folk who are forced to confront their lost opportunities, Carlotta, an indomitable showgirl, sings the musical's sole anthem of triumph, "I'm Still Here." According to Mr. Sondheim, Ms. Bergen "treats it like it's entirely a song about her own life, not just about a star."

So it was at the Regency, where Ms. Bergen gave a performance that few people expected. The years had turned a good ballad singer into a ferocious interpreter who "put her life on the line with every song," as Stephen Holden wrote in his review in The New York Times. She roamed the stage with her feline blue eyes flashing, singing in a husky sweet- and-sour voice and sending herself up at every turn. Her show, Mr. Holden said, was, "in a word, great."

Earlier this month, after a long rehearsal day for "Follies," she was eager to talk. Bounding around the apartment in Midtown Manhattan where she is staying, Ms. Bergen broke out a bottle of red wine and a plate of cheese and crackers, all the while gushing about "Follies" and everyone in it. As she sat on the living room sofa, looking years younger than her age, work-related messages blared out of her answering machine. Though not entirely back on her feet financially, she seemed pleased to feel wanted again.

Her last acting of note took place in the '80s, when she won Emmy nominations for her performances in two television movies, "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance." By now, Ms. Bergen was the ex-wife of Freddie Fields, once the most powerful agent in Hollywood. With her son, daughter and step-daughter grown, she had married Jeffrey K. Endervelt, an entrepreneur who bought and sold companies. He needed financing, and Ms. Bergen gave him millions of dollars, she said, while co- signing his loans. "He would come and say, `Honey, sign this.' I wouldn't even look at it. Because you trust your husband."

In 1987 the stock market crashed, taking his entire business and, Ms. Bergen said, her money with it. After they divorced in 1990, Mr. Endervelt "vanished," Ms. Bergen said, leaving her to deal with the creditors. She had already begun to sell as many possessions as she could, including the Park Avenue apartment in which she and Mr. Endervelt had been living.

Homeless, she moved in with her manager, Jan McCormack, in Los Angeles. Ms. McCormack helped her scrounge up what jobs she could, including a sitcom, "Baby Talk," and a lot of television movies Ms. Bergen would rather forget.
Ms. McCormack recalled: "We said to her, `Look, there are easy ways to get out of this.' She said: `No. I don't want to owe anybody one dollar.' "

By 1993, Ms. Bergen had paid her debts and accumulated enough money to buy a couple of acres in Montana, far away from Hollywood. "I couldn't bear the humiliation of what I was doing," she said. "I thought, `I just can't stand in these lines with 35 actresses who've each got 63 million miles of film, waiting to audition for some idiot who's 12 years old, who wants to know what all of us have done.' Of course, as soon as I moved to Montana, I got four or five television movies in a row, because the minute you're not there they think you're not needy, so they want you."

Meanwhile, 50 years of chain-smoking, compounded by stress, took their toll. Ms. Bergen developed emphysema, pneumonia and near-crippling arterial blockages in her legs. Hospitalized for months, she felt old and frightened. "The truth is, I never wanted to quit smoking," she said, flicking her hand as if it still held a cigarette. "I loved smoking. The thing that made me stop was not the realization that I would die, but that I would live and be incapacitated."

Cigarettes had destroyed her singing voice, or so she thought. Watching a tape of herself performing a song on the old "Hollywood Palace" television show, she was surprised to realize: "I was just singing along with it like crazy. No problems." She found a voice coach and began practicing with a vengeance. Ms. McCormack booked her for a benefit performance of Mr. Sondheim's musical "Company" in Florida; the critic Rex Reed used her in a tribute to Betty Comden and Adolph Green at the 92nd Street Y, where Mr. Reed served as the host.

Word got out that Polly Bergen was back. But when "Follies" began casting, Ms. McCormack was unable to get Ms. Bergen an audition. "They wouldn't return phone calls," Mr. Reed said. "They thought she was a has-been." Jim Carnahan, the show's casting director, said auditions were "on hiatus" at the time.

Ms. Bergen wrote to Mr. Sondheim, enclosing a résumé. She got her appointment. "Listen, I want to make this very clear," she told Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Carnahan before singing for them. "This is the first show I have ever auditioned for. When I was young, they just gave me the lead. And when I got old, they wouldn't see me at all."

The former Nellie Paulina Burgin of Bluegrass, Tenn., had started out as a hillbilly singer on radio and with big bands, but she had only one goal in mind when she came to New York at 19. "I was fanatically ambitious," she said. "All I ever wanted was to be a star. I didn't want to be a singer. I didn't want to be an actress. I wanted to be a star."

Given one number in the 1953 Broadway revue "John Murray Anderson's Almanac," she pushed so hard that she developed nodes on her vocal chords and had to quit.

She was relentless not only toward herself but toward others as well. Placed under contract at Paramount and later MGM, she made several films she blasted as "totally hideous," her own performances included. She walked out on both contracts — a risky move under the studio- controlled Hollywood system. She berated her first husband, an actor, in the press as lazy and unambitious before divorcing him in 1955.

While singing at the Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel, Ms. Bergen met Lulu Morgan, the mother of the saloon singer Helen Morgan, who had died from the effects of alcoholism. Mrs. Morgan told Ms. Bergen, who was singing some of the Morgan songs, how much she reminded her of her daughter. Ms. Bergen and Freddie Fields, her second husband and agent, immediately bought the television rights to Morgan's story.

"Helen Morgan," a CBS drama starring Ms. Bergen, appeared on May 16, 1957. She scored an Emmy, a best-selling album ("Bergen Sings Morgan"), and the potential for a serious career in film. Why, then, did she keep her job as a panelist on the television quiz show "To Tell the Truth," continue singing in nightclubs and agree to be a last-minute replacement (for the singer Gisele MacKenzie) in the mediocre Broadway musical "First Impressions"?

"That was my choice," she said. "The day after `Morgan,' I was offered the lead in `How the West Was Won.' A week later, I was offered the lead in `On the Beach.' I lived in New York, had a new baby, and that was all more important than my career. And I said no."

In the early '60s, she moved to Los Angeles with Mr. Fields, who went there to found his own agency. Letting an unfocused career fade away, Ms. Bergen created the Polly Bergen Company, a cosmetics firm known for its "oil of the turtle" beauty products. "It was very difficult in the beginning," she said, "because most people considered me just another bubble-headed actress."

Running it hands-on and acting as her own spokeswoman, she amassed a fortune, while gleefully wheeling and dealing in everything from oil to real estate. Ms. Bergen said she had spent money like water, throwing star-studded parties and owning sumptuous homes in Beverly Hills and Malibu as well as the Park Avenue apartment in New York. She talked of making "huge donations" to charities that "I would like all of them to give me back right now!"

Then came the fall, the details of which she never wanted known. "People think I'm smart," she said. "I didn't want them to know how stupid I was."

Leaning forward on the sofa, she poured herself another glass of wine. With two grandchildren by her daughter Kathy, a family therapist, and another by her stepdaughter P. K., who designs Internet systems, Ms. Bergen is doing a lot of reflecting about time, which is going by, she said, "in a blur" these days. Sobering thoughts followed a night she played recently at the Coconut Club of the Beverly Hills Hilton. "There were a lot of o-o-o-old pals," she said. "The thing is, when you see your old friends, you come face to face with yourself. I run into someone I've known for 40 or 50 years, and they're old. And I suddenly realize I'm old. It comes as an enormous shock to me."


FOLLIES is full of such jolts, for viewers and cast alike. Ms. Bergen suddenly sat up straight: "I know there'll be a lot of people in the audience who'll say, `Oh, look at so-and-so, I didn't know she was still alive! Isn't that wonderful, she can walk and move and her mouth is going up and down!' That makes me angry, because I know that all the people on that stage have continued to work and strive to be the best they could, right up until today. And to a major part of the audience we're relics, or the thing I never wanted to be, a sacred cow."

Still, she believes she is on the right track again, as the show keeps reminding her. "'Follies' is supposed to say, `Can you live with the road you took?' " she explained. " `If not, why didn't you change it? Why don't you change it now?' It has so many levels that are fascinating to me, having made the decision to end my life the way I began it, doing that which gives me so much joy. And what's really fun is, so has Carlotta. She's the only one in the show who comes back to the reunion and has remained a star. Had her downs. Had her failures. But she is truly still here. And so am I."