To jump off the cliff into an abyss: A life’s work with Emmy nominee Lee Purcell
“Ohhh, I can do this!” Flapping makeshift chicken feather wings in a school operetta version of Peter and the Wolf, precocious seven-year-old Lee Purcell knew she was destined for a career in the limelight as she experienced wave upon wave of spontaneous clapping from an appreciative audience.
As evidenced by perhaps her most wide-ranging interview unleashed exclusively today, Purcell has encountered a richly rewarding career in television, motion pictures, and theatre.
None other than the King of Cool himself, Steve McQueen, personally selected and ultimately mentored the consummate actress for her first major role in Adam at 6 A.M., costarring a wet-behind-the-ears Michael Douglas. Since Purcell’s scene-stealing performance as small town girl “Jerri Jo Hopper” in the 1970 coming of age drama, the auburn-haired beauty has worked in westerns, dramas, comedies, murder mysteries, horror — virtually the whole gamut [“Mentored by the Biggest Star in the World: Inside Steve McQueen’s ‘Adam at 6 A.M.’” encompasses the entire McQueen angle].
Purcell describes a behind the scenes journey that will make most folks envious. She shared screen time with some of the most iconic stars of the 20th century, namely James Garner’s oft-imitated Rockford Files, Charles Bronson’s tough-as-nails portrayal of Mr. Majestyk, cult surfing drama Big Wednesday with Gary Busey, Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor’s outrageously funny Stir Crazy, Kirk Douglas’s action-drenched Eddie Macon’s Run, Nicolas Cage’s definitive romantic comedy Valley Girl, and Andy Griffith’s courtroom caper Matlock.
Emmy nominations further enhanced Purcell’s credentials on the television movie front — i.e. The Long Road Home and Secret Sins of the Father. But her illustrious career wasn’t handed to her on a silver platter.
Opening a secret savings account when she was only 13 years old, Purcell brazenly departed for the Golden State several years later. Traveling alone, she faced death’s doorway in a freeway automobile crash. Taking up temporary residence in a squalid, junkie-dotted apartment complex, the determined young adult worked nights in a disco while taking acting classes.
In Purcell’s inimitable estimation, “It would be so uncomfortable to never spread your wings, to never take a chance, to live your life in a bubble, in the safe zone, never taking that leap of faith or never relying solely on your wits and courage.” A firm believer in the pursuit of one’s dreams, stick around as the talented leading lady presents a refreshing slice of wit and wisdom.
The Lee Purcell Interview [Part One]
Growing up, who were your favorite actors?
I can’t say that I had any, as I had very little opportunity to go to the movies and was only allowed to watch television one hour a day, if I had finished my homework, my piano and dance practice, and any rehearsals I had. So, I wasn’t that familiar with other performers.
As a child, I was already very busy performing in school and amateur productions. Some people grow up saying “I want to be like so-and-so,” but that didn’t enter my thought process. I didn’t even have a thought process — I simply started performing at three years old, and I was off to the races.
Can you pinpoint the moment where you knew that you wanted to become an actress?
As I was already performing from the age of three, in amateur and school productions, it was just a natural evolution. My first performances were in dance; I did my first TV show at five (a television program in Memphis, Tenn.), and my first school operetta (Peter and the Wolf) at seven, so performing was always there for me, like breathing.
The only moment I remember which crystallized my already existing goals was in Peter and the Wolf. I played a bird, complete with head, beak, and footed pajamas. I was on the stage, flapping my chicken feather wings, and the audience began enthusiastically clapping in the middle of my performance.
I liked that, and remember thinking, “Ohhh, I can do this!” So, the more they clapped, the more I flapped. That moment of realization that I could create an effect on an audience was exhilarating and addictive. The stage manager practically had to drag me off that stage so the show could continue.
My maternal grandmother, Shellie McKnight, who was my role model, always said that I told her at the age of 2½ years old that I was going to be an actress and buy her a big car. No, I didn’t buy her that car, but I did take her to Europe for the trip of a lifetime when I finally had money. She preferred that over the car!
She set a good example for me as she was a working woman long before it was common for all women to work. She was a professional nurse, and was also bi-coastal at a time when that was rare. I was fortunate in that I had also had several wonderful aunts who had excellent careers in the corporate world, government, nursing, etc. So, I knew what it was to work by observing the examples of my grandmother and aunts, all fiercely independent women.
No one in my family was a professional in any creative profession, so my natural tendency to be an artist certainly wasn’t inherited, encouraged, or nurtured. I was a “Stranger in a Strange Land” (Robert A. Heinlein). So, there was no “moment”, no epiphany, when I “decided” to be a performer. I was born with the creative drive.
At the same time that I was constantly performing while growing up, I was also writing, painting, drawing, playing musical instruments, being in a band, doing photography, and dying my hair purple. I’m still a writer, still love photography and plink on my piano now and then.
Were your parents supportive?
No. My parents were only supportive of my performing in local amateur or school productions. But, they were not at all supportive when I announced one day, while still in my teens, that I was leaving alone for California to be a professional actress. They were horrified. However, my grandmother was emotionally very supportive. After all, she had already left home to pursue a career!
I never discussed my acting aspirations with my parents, until the day I left for California. It would have been like announcing I was flying to Mars on the wings of an eagle. So, I just quietly kept my dreams of being a professional actress to myself and privately made my own plans.
When I was 13 years old, I already recognized that my thinking process was “outside the box” and that I would never be able to submit to the status quo that was expected of me. To do so would have destroyed my spirit.
I knew that someday I would need my own money to finance my future, as I surmised I wouldn’t be receiving any financial help from any one to do what I wanted to do in life. So, I walked a very long distance to a bank, opened a secret savings account (you could do that as a minor in those days) and saved every penny I received and earned for the next several years. I still have that little bank savings book, just in case I need a tangible reminder to have courage. It’s my talisman.
When I left for California, my mother gave me $85.00. My parents made a private bet that I would be back in a week (my late mother confessed this to me many years later). My grandmother knew better. So, I simply drove away alone to make my life into what I wanted it to be.
It would be so crushing for me to have never spread my wings, to have never taken a chance, to have lived my life in a pre-determined bubble, in the safe zone, never having taken that leap of faith or never having relied solely on my wits and courage.
I know people who have denied their true self, and it is tragic. Your true self can be anything you can dream up, that you feel in your heart of hearts. It can be a dream of owning a hardware store (what my grandfather did) because you love working with your hands, fixing things, helping people fix their homes, but if you deny that, and do something else, you will always have that twinge of regret.
That’s a hard life, to be trapped in your own fear, or lack of imagination. It’s easier to jump off the cliff without a parachute, metaphorically speaking, than it is to spend your life peeking over the edge.
Did your California arrival occur without incident?
I got lost on the freeway looking for the place I was going to stay, was hit by another driver, my car was totaled and everything I owned was strewn for a mile down the freeway as my car had rolled over and over. That was my grand entrance to my new life in California!
Miraculously, I was not seriously hurt, even though my plan of supporting myself by being a professional dancer was put on hold due to a knee injury from the accident. But, I then had no car and very few possessions left.
A kindly African-American cab driver, who witnessed the crash, had then driven up and down the freeway, picking up what remained of my things for me and followed the police and me to the hospital. I will never forget him.
This total stranger looked after me at the hospital, took me where I would be staying, made sure I was as settled as I could be, made me tea, and wouldn’t take a dime. He knew I was young and poor and terribly naïve.
I have always loved that line of Blanche Dubois’ in A Streetcar named Desire: “Whoever you are — I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” That was the story of my life at that time. My grandmother, who was out of California at the time, immediately flew back and said that my car, when we went to see it in the car graveyard, looked like it had been through the crusher!
How did you support yourself financially?
Of course, the money I had saved wasn’t enough, California was expensive, even then, and so were all the necessary classes in which I enrolled once I arrived; acting, singing, dance, accent reduction, etc.
I worked all night, every night, in a disco to pay for it all, and lived in an awful, scary place and only had enough money left for one meal a day. As I didn’t know how to shop for food or how to cook, my one meal was usually a box of cookies and a carton of milk from the local deli.
The place I lived was in a derelict apartment building in a bad neighborhood. It was condemned and torn down shortly after I moved out. The fine residents there were very pre-occupied shooting themselves up with drugs in the front hallway, so I didn’t use the front door to the building.
My squalid little apartment (called a “studio” apartment) was on the ground floor with windows onto the parking lot, so I used the window like my own personal front door and would just climb in and out to enter and exit.
That way I could avoid the drug addicts at the front entrance. They still broke into my apartment and stole my little bit of hard-earned money. I had no car, so I learned to hitchhike, and there was also a bus stop a few blocks from my apartment, which I could take when I could afford the fare, which was not often.
The location where this awful building stood has been a parking lot ever since the building was torn down. Ironically, whenever I go to the annual American Film Market, I have to walk right by the location of my former apartment, as the area has been somewhat “gentrified” in recent years.
My parents never saw how I lived during those early days, but my grandmother did, and she was justifiably horrified. I think experiences like these give you strength of character — if you survive them!
In my opinion, if you don’t follow your dreams, you’re spiritually and emotionally dead. It’s better to have tried and failed, rather than to have never tried. I would hate to live with that feeling of never having tried. That’s a soul-killer.
A couple of years later, I took another grand leap of faith and moved to England and also studied acting there, so I have a good, international grounding in my craft.
That’s a very sage quote: “If you don’t follow your dreams, you’re dead.”
Thank you. We need to have dreams; they define us and make us what we are. No matter how young or how old we are, dreams are what feed us emotionally and spiritually. Dreams are what keep us going in spite of the barriers life may throw at us, and there will always be barriers.
I was with David Carradine at one of his last public events where we were both presenting awards. I will always remember David saying, “There are no failures in Hollywood, just people who quit too early” [Carradine passed away on June 3, 2009].
Why did you decide to study acting in England?
As I finally had earned enough money from my film roles, I took my maternal grandmother to Europe for a month-long trip. Upon arriving in England that first time, I had a most interesting experience as my feet touched British soil: I felt like I was finally home. I actually kissed the ground, I was so happy!
I turned to my grandmother and actually said, “I’m home.” She and I had a very close relationship, and she understood exactly what I meant. To this day, I have very strong ties to England and a deep emotional bond.
When I returned to California, I decided to act upon my desire to live in England and to study acting there, so I packed up and went.
While there, I studied acting in the British style and theory, which was the polar-opposite of the American method. That difference has evolved and blended a bit now, but then, it was very distinct.
I also went to the theatre constantly and saw many legendary actors perform for the student ticket rate. Those performances were like an entire education to me!
I studied French and traveled a great deal to all the nearby countries for the years I lived in London. To support myself, I kept commuting and working in films in the U.S. and modeled in London. It was, artistically, a great experience. I have many friends there, and always enjoy returning to the U.K.
What was your first television role?
After having already appeared in Adam at 6 A.M., I decided to also do television (not including my earlier one-line-role when I was in the Screen Gems New Talent program), a risky move in those days. With few exceptions, there was very little cross-over between film and television then. I guess I was ahead of my time.
I was lucky as my first guest-star role was on the number-one television show in the country, Marcus Welby, M.D., in an episode titled “A Very Special Sailfish” [broadcast on Sept. 22, 1970]. It was the first time I had the privilege of working with director Leo Penn, who also directed me in several subsequent other shows.
Leo was Sean Penn’s father. I always remember how kind Leo was to my maternal grandmother, whom he invited to the set whenever I worked with him. I think she had a secret crush on him.
Leo was a great man, and it was my honor to work with him. He had been a black-listed actor during the horrendous McCarthy era, and he had turned to directing to make a living. Leo became a very in-demand director.
Another interesting note is that Cloris Leachman played my mother, and James Brolin was one of the stars of the series. And, of course, the legendary Robert Young was Dr. Welby.
And, as it seemed to be my destiny in those early days, I played the first of many of my troubled teen roles in that show.
In fact, a documentary was crafted from that episode and was shown in schools across the country for years. The documentary was about teen promiscuity and the resulting sexually transmitted diseases. Lucky me!
[Author’s Note: Purcell guest-starred one more time on Marcus Welby at the conclusion of its third season in 1972. The “Solomon’s Choice” episode featured Jack Kelly, aka Bart Maverick on the influential Maverick western series, in a small role. Purcell portrayed a young pregnant girl who had to face a difficult decision with her boyfriend].
One of your most notable films during the early ’70s was the gritty Charles Bronson action flick, Mr. Majestyk. How did you land the role of mobster Al Lettieri’s girlfriend?
The wonderful, legendary producer Walter Mirisch offered it to me in 1974. I saw him at an awards ceremony recently, and we had a nice chat about that film. I became great friends with Al, and his widow, Becky, is still a dear friend.
Al was a lot of fun, larger than life, and everyone adored him. After the film, Becky, Al and I remained friends until his untimely death. He treated me like a little sister [Author’s Note: Adept at portraying menacing, unhinged villains, Lettieri’s penchant for stealing scenes from more famous costars is on consummate display in The Getaway with Steve McQueen, McQ starring John Wayne, and The Godfather. Lettieri passed away unexpectedly in October 1975 of a heart attack at age 47].
I enjoyed working on Mr. Majestyk. It was fun to play a gun moll in a script by the great Elmore Leonard, and I had a lot of freedom to put in my own bits of “actor’s business,” such as how my character was always reading the Bible when terrible things were taking place around her.
I imagined she had a moral core, and that she read the Bible as a sort of penance for the bad things to which she was witness.
We were in Colorado for months on the shoot, which was great. I love Colorado, and I always enjoy traveling and being on location for work. It’s easier to be on location when on a film, as you can just focus on the work, and not the many things that draw your attention when you’re at home while shooting.
Charlie was a real gentleman, a devoted family man who played Frisbee with his kids between takes, very polite, soft-spoken and extremely shy. He was very different from his screen persona. I liked him, and we worked well together, as he was so easy-going.
But, when a certain individual who was visiting the set insulted me, he really stepped up and defended me. You can bet that rude individual developed some manners real fast! Hmmm, both Ben and Charlie defended me. Lucky me!
Was Bronson a great actor?
He was very different on-screen than in person. That takes a certain kind of talent. He was loaded with charisma and knew exactly what worked best for him on camera and utilized that to great success. I enjoyed working with him. We had a nice rhythm on the set.
Fans fondly remember your work in the acclaimed Big Wednesday with Jan-Michael Vincent.
Jan was, and is, a sweet, vulnerable man. He is retired now and he and his wife live in another state. He and I worked very well together, as I think you can tell from our on-screen chemistry. As the film spans 13 years in screen time, there were several children of different ages who played our daughter, and Jan’s real-life daughter played one of those children.
Did the cast of Big Wednesday participate in the Hollywood Don’t Surf! documentary?
We were all interviewed, and several other people not directly involved with the film were interviewed as well, such as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. An early edit debuted at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival to rave reviews. Incidentally, I previously granted an interview for a French documentary about Big Wednesday entitled Surf Now, Apocalypse Later . I have done many interviews about Big Wednesday.
Big Wednesday has become a cult film like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and has taken on a life of its own worldwide. Wherever I go, someone comes up to me and raves about my role as “Peggy Gordon” in it. They even quote dialogue to me. Often, these are fans that weren’t even born when the film debuted and have never been on a beach or surfed!
What are your memories of working on Eddie Macon’s Run  with the legendary Kirk Douglas?
Kirk was like an enthusiastic kid to work with, and he came to work each day with more energy than many of the younger actors. He’s always been very forward-thinking, and it doesn’t surprise me a bit that he’s on social media.
I am possibly the only actress who starred with Michael in one film (Adam at 6 A.M.) and Kirk in another. How lucky can you get? I liked Kirk a lot. He was, and is, a mensch!
You worked with Andy Griffith on a 1987 episode of Matlock entitled “The Convict.” How did Griffith approach a role?
Andy was a Southern gentleman with a very witty, sly sense of humor. He approached a role with authenticity, honesty and commitment.
He had an impressive body of work, including two hit series (both still in syndication), and one of the best movies (A Face in the Crowd) of all time for a legendary director, Elia Kazan. Andy Griffith will always remain an icon. It was a pleasure to work with him.
Let me ask you about some of your favorite parts in your distinguished career, including some that may not be so well known.
- “Berle” in Dirty Little Billy …I loved the role, the director (Stan Dragoti), and the authentic Old West era of the real Billy the Kid. My character was a 13 year-old orphan turned prostitute out of desperation. Our makeup was the dirt that the makeup department put on us each morning.
- “Molly” in Kid Blue …Our cast included Dennis Hopper, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Ralph Waite, and Howard Hesseman. Need I say more?
- “Bobby, The Wing-Walker” in The Waltons [a 1975 episode]…I loved the cast, that plane, and walking on that wing (a few feet above the ground)!
- “Julia/Witch” in Stranger In Our House [aka Summer of Fear: a 1978 television movie]…A really fun role where I got to fulfill all my witch fantasies, wear creepy red contact lenses, and be directed by Wes Craven!
- “Peggy” in Big Wednesday …Well, I loved the story, of course, and the director, John Milius. Several of us are still friends from the film, as it had such an emotional impact. We are always amazed at each new generation that embraces the film.
- “Beth, The Seductive Step-Mom” in Valley Girl …Just a whole lot of fun! A little film made for practically nothing with a bunch of friends that became a huge hit and made my role of “Beth” memorable to so many people.
- “Bessie” in The Long Road Home [1991 television movie]…An amazing role, an amazing cast, the fabulous Mark Harmon, and a wonderful director, John Korty. Also, my first Emmy nomination.
- “Louise St. Laurent” from Due South [six episodes from 1995–1996]…Paul Haggis’ creation, which was full of wit and humor. My role was written for a man, but he cast me instead.
Was it a conscious decision on your part to accept fewer screen roles in the late ’90s and ‘00s?
Yes, it was. After receiving two Emmy nominations in the ’90s and doing my delicious role as Louise St. Laurent in the globally popular TV series Due South, which we filmed in Canada, I wanted to be able to raise my son, as I was a single mother, in a stable environment.
He had traveled a great deal with me, but it is best for a child to have an established circle of friends and to be in a consistent school, even more so when there is no father involved nor contributing in any way.
So, I looked for other ways to be able to stay in the states by expanding my professional horizons to creating projects and pursuing other interests. Fortunately, I have always had a lot of different interests. I had a very successful award winning video company, have been involved in the production and financing of independent films, created and written projects and directed and performed in theatre.
What compelled you to join the cast of short-lived NBC thriller Persons Unknown in 2010?
I was drawn to the role of “Eleanor Sullivan” (mother of “Janet Sullivan Cooper,” grandmother of “Megan Cooper”) in Persons Unknown because she was not what she seemed to be, she was an enigma, and the character had an arc throughout the series that I found interesting and not typical.
I commuted to Mexico during the year and a half we did the series. There were wonderful writers, producers, directors, actors and crew on Persons Unknown. The cast was a mix of international and American actors.
Were any of your scenes cut from Persons Unknown?
Oh, sure, that happens to everyone.
After the last episode of Persons Unknown, was Eleanor still an enigma? Was there originally going to be a second season?
That would be up to the viewer to decide if Eleanor were still an enigma. Our understanding, as we shot the show, was that this was the first season of a potential ongoing series. As the show was shot without US distribution or a network in place, that made it a new business model, and FOX TVS partnered with RAI and TELEVISA in the production of it.
But, when NBC TV purchased the already completed 13 episode season, the network apparently decided to market it as a mini-series or summer series, and certain edits were made to attempt to accomplish that end.
All of this is simply my own understanding of what occurred, and as I was solely an actress in the show, not a producer, writer or executive, I am not an authority on what happened.
Has there been a part you have passed on that in hindsight you regretted doing so?
Yes, but I will keep that to myself! And of course, there are roles I wanted, but didn’t get. But, since I got other roles that other actresses wanted, I guess it all evens out!
What is your criteria for accepting or rejecting a role?
At this point in my life and career, the role has to be something different from what I’ve played before, or it has to be something I want to play again that I have not finished exploring. It can’t be a role I have no interest in playing, as acting is just too much work to play a role I don’t like. I like a challenge.
Do you prefer playing good characters or one with a shade of ambiguity?
Ambiguous characters are so much more fun for me to play, totally bad people are even more so. Characters completely different from who I am and my life are great to work on.
I had the pleasure of working with Malcolm McDowell, Armand Assante, and other wonderful actors in Kids vs Monsters . I played “Francine Gingerfield,” one of the sixth wealthiest people in the world, and the only political leader in the world. So, she ran the world. She was not a nice person, but was great fun to play!
Do you enjoy working in theatre more than television or film?
The medium doesn’t matter to me — the role does.
Generally, have you had good experiences with directors?
I have nothing but the utmost respect and tremendous affinity for directors. It is a tough job. They have to have an overview of the entire process and must have knowledge in so many different areas and have to juggle so much and so many people.
I have had the pleasure of working with many fine directors such as Stan Dragoti (Dirty Little Billy), John Milius (Big Wednesday), Wes Craven (Stranger In Our House aka Summer of Fear), John Korty (Long Road Home), Beau Bridges (Secret Sins of the Father), Paul Haggis (Due South), and so many more.
What type of individual do you most admire?
Artists of any kind. People who pursue their dreams, whatever they are, in whatever field they choose. People who take chances.
I admire my fellow travelers upon this journey I chose; all of the people I have worked with, whether they are stars or grips, cast or crew, directors, writers, producers, etc. As I did, almost everyone came from other places with nothing but their courage, their creativity and their dreams.
We all have a special, common bond in that we “jumped off the cliff into the abyss” having no parachute, not knowing where we would land, but having blind faith that we would land somewhere.
Per your request, some of the well-known, living actresses whom I respect include: Angela Lansbury (I’ve worked with her at least five times and adore her. I’m told I hold the record for the most number of guest-star roles playing different characters in Murder She Wrote. I don’t know if that’s true.), Gena Rowlands, Helen Mirren, Catherine Deneuve, Judi Dench, Jodie Foster, Drew Barrymore, Liv Tyler, Natalie Portman, Anne Hathaway, and more.
Well-known, living actors I like include Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Jon Voight, Anthony Hopkins, Viggo Mortenson, Robert Downey, Jr., Ben Stiller, and more.
Of course, there are others who are not household names, but whose work I admire and respect, and those are too many to list here. And then, there are the ones who have already left us, such as Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Anna Magnani, Ben Johnson, Dennis Hopper, Warren Oates, and above all, Steve McQueen.
Even though this may sound like a cliché, I admire most those people who are selfless and strive for the common good of all, not for an agenda of personal greed or political gain.
And of course, I admire and respect tremendously those who answer their inner call to serve our country and who protect the rest of us from harm.
Your charity efforts are very dear to your heart.
Yes, they are. Anything to do with helping animals and assisting our veterans is dear to my heart. I am on the board of Heart of a Horse, an organization that saves abused and neglected horses. Horses have always had a huge emotional impact on me.
What’s on your to-do list?
Reading scripts and looking for another role I like. And writing, directing and producing.
What do you enjoy doing when not working?
My fun “down-time” is when I’m writing or creating something new, decorating, traveling, entertaining, seeing movies or plays, playing piano, spending time with family, friends and my dogs, taking photos, and having adventures. I also enjoy performing at my home theatre company, Theatre West.
I like creating something or other all the time. That is my life’s work, whether being paid or not. I can’t imagine any other life.
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