Thursday, May 25, 2017

Fond Farewell: Merrill-y Rolling Along

When a person passes away at age ninety-three, one can hardly claim shock or tragedy, but it's nonetheless affecting to see yet another of one's treasured stars leave the earth. Miss Dina Merrill, who has her very own tribute here (from nearly eight years ago!), was an unspeakably elegant, tirelessly giving and surprisingly capable actress whose passing on May 22nd we mark with this additional little photo essay.
Nedenia Hutton, as a daughter of wealthy parents, could have spent her life lunching and hobnobbing with other socialites, but instead she craved work as an actress. After attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts - and adopting the stage name Dina Merrill - she debuted on Broadway in 1945.
Marriage to a fellow heir the following year led to many years as a wife and mother of three, her stage career abandoned. Still, the embers burned and in 1955 she began to get her feet wet again in television productions. By 1957, she was working in The Desk Set opposite Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn and being touted as the next Grace Kelly.
Many movie roles, opposite stars such as Jerry Lewis, Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Mitchum, Deborah Kerr, Burt Lancaster and Glenn Ford (with whom, as seen above, she went brunette in The Courtship of Eddie's Father, 1963) followed.
The mid-'60s brought multiple appearances on the stalwart, elegant games shows of the era like To Tell the Truth, What's My Line? and Password. The glittering, but sharp, Merrill added beauty and sparkle to many a celebrity panel.
If we're being honest, the harshness of early black & white was a bit of an enemy to Merrill's tan complexion and blonde hair, bringing out a severity in her looks, but that was offset by her enthusiastic smile and array of terrific gowns and jewels. (Check that necklace in the upper right corner!)
Though she was rich enough to burn through several outfits a day and dispose of them immediately after, she was not above wearing a gown more than once, as evidenced by this purple number, which she wore on TV, but also appeared in during a public appearance on a different night.
What's My Line? and To Tell the Truth, favorites of mine and many others, did have the unfortunate aspect of pitting the celebrities against the players, making them fight to earn a quick $50.00 or so. Conversely, Password showed the celebs working hard for a contestant, striving to get them as much money for themselves as possible.
One could do much worse in the way of entertainment than watching the ebullient and sparkling Merrill play Password with a handsome man in uniform!
And every once in a while, as in this What's My Line? appearance, she went all out, ramping up the glitz to the nth degree in a way that knocks us out even now.
By this time, Merrill's twenty-year marriage was faltering. She also strove to break away from the serene, inert socialite roles that were so often handed her, yet it was always difficult for anyone to believe that she was anything but a refined woman of means.
During an episode of Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theatre, Merrill met Cliff Robertson and the two swiftly fell in love. They wed the day after her divorce was final (and with it went her standing in the "high society" she'd been born into.)
The Robertsons seemed like a match made in heaven and worked together frequently. Merrill relished the chance to play cornpone henchwoman Calamity Jane opposite her husband as Shame as guest villains on Batman. Together, they had one child and by 1968 Robertson was an Oscar-winning actor for Charly.
Merrill stayed busy on practically every TV series, even filling in for the departed Barbara Bain in a two-part episode of Mission: Impossible. She also returned to Broadway with shows in both the 1970s and the 1980s.
Merrill was never able to call a TV series her own, despite working on countless others. In 1984, she was thrilled to be playing a ruthless bitch in the on-the-run drama Hot Pursuit (with Kerrie Keane and Eric Pierpoint as her targets), but the show was cancelled after only a few airings.
She'd continued to film the occasional movie as well, including Robert Altman's A Wedding (1978), Sidney Lumet's Just Tell Me What You Want (1980), Anna to the Infinite Power (1983) and even the corny Caddyshack II (1988) as Robert Stack's country club wife. In 1986, a shock came when her twenty year union to Robertson came to an end.
Robert Altman utilized her again in his 1992 film The Player, as the knowing executive secretary at a movie studio, elegance still dripping from her every pore.
In 1989, she married for the third and final time to former actor Ted Hartley and the two became a glittering couple, arm-in-arm at many social and charity events. In addition to her acting work, Merrill and her husband took over RKO Studios and worked to make it a viable film-making company once more. She also served on several business and organizational boards.
When Miss Merrill died at ninety-three, her net worth was reported in some circles in excess of $5 billion. She never rested on that, forever donating time and money to various social and medical charities (while occasionally popping up in various film projects as late as 2009.) She also suffered the horror of burying two of her four children. A son died in a boating accident prior to his twenty-fourth birthday and her daughter with Robertson perished of ovarian cancer at age thirty-eight. Merrill's own demise came courtesy of dementia.
Merrill was one of the few socialites to really sustain a long-term, successful acting career.  Now fame comes to the rich when they merely play their own tacky selves to an adoring (and misguided) public. They don't make 'em like this anymore.
We will sorely miss the beguiling, tasteful and refined Miss Dina Merrill, but have countless hours of her work available to us to keep her memory with us!

9 comments:

Michael Conklin said...

Thanks for this tribute to a truly elegant woman! She was a class act!

EricSwede said...

Such a beautiful tribute. I always enjoyed her work. Her style and class are in short supply these days.

Narciso Duran said...

I have to say, because the comparison was made, I have always preferred Merrill to Grace Kelly. I cannot imagine as warm a smile from Kelly as we see in these photos of the smiling Merrill.

GlenH said...

A possibly apocryphal story- the then Miss Hutton was told in no uncertain terms that if her family's name was associated with acting she would be disowned for bringing dishonour to their business.
She changed he name to Dina Merrill.
E.F. Hutton's principle business competition at the time was Merrill-Lynch....
Dina Merrill was smart as hell.

Rick Gould said...

Poseidon--
Thank you for the great recap of this woman's well-lived life! Dina Merrill sounded like a helluva woman.

Your tribute confirmed my suspicions that Dina was one of those actresses whose off-screen strengths and charms were seldom utilized on-screen.

Those game show clips look fun, will check them out!

Thanks again,
Rick

Poseidon3 said...

Hello, everyone, and thanks for taking time to leave a comment on this tribute to Ms. Merrill.

Michael and EricSwede, I'm glad you liked this! Our world needs more elegance and class. Not sure where it's going to spring from....

Narciso, Merrill was startlingly down to earth and grounded for someone born with a silver spoon in her mouth. I read that she didn't expect her family to support her in her acting endeavors so she worked as a model for $10/hour to make money on her own (of course that was nothing to sneeze at in the 1940s!!) rather than let them foot all the bills.

GlenH, there's really no question that she chose the name Merrill from the stock market and her father's milieu, so your story could very well be accurate! The only downside being that if she did indeed make it and become a success, then her papa's competitor's name would be spread across marquees and lighted signs!! LOL

Rick, sort of in line with what Narciso mentioned above, Merrill was willing to let her guard down on these shows and laugh, grimace, etc... without fear of looking a certain way. I'm still goggle-eyed over that ornate up-do she sported...! :-)

Gingerguy said...

Bless you for this fitting tribute Poseidon. I loved her and these photos really do her justice. The hair in the Mission Impossible TV cover is divine. I thought she was a good actress too, and what an interesting life she had. I am glad to hear she ended life with a few bucks. I know she and relatives got taken to the cleaners on the sale of Mar A Lago, through some savvy dealing on the part of our new President. She really brought something special to even the smallest type casted role. I actually crossed paths with her in the early 90's through a class in college. We had to assist at fashion events for credit to learn how they were produced. I was a dresser at a charity fashion show and she was one of the models. I almost died from disappointment though, times had changed and her hair with it. I expected that Palm Beach helmet that I live for. But alas it was stylish and short. Thanks so much for this!

PDJ said...

Beautiful tribute, befitting the lady herself.
Thoroughly enjoyed reading.

Poseidon3 said...

Thanks, PDJ!

Gingerguy, not sure how I missed out on replying to your comment. I think I too would have felt a tad deflated to see Merrill without her standard crown of hair, but what a thrill to have been in her presence like that! Wow...!