When the long-running sitcom Bewitched (1964-1972) segued into syndication the year after its cancellation, a whole new generation of fans began to discover it during the afternoon and early evening hours. However, since black & white was perceived to be passe and less desirable (except in cases such as I Love Lucy, Perry Mason and The Addams Family, to name a few), many TV stations chose to air mostly (or only) the color episodes of seasons three through eight. Due to this, a great many youngsters missed out on the chance to witness one of the most side-splitting creations ever to hit the tube: the role of Gladys Kravitz as portrayed by Alice Pearce. They tended to be far more familiar with the second Gladys, Sandra Gould.
Before we get to that, though, we're going to start at the beginning, when a little girl named Alicia Pearce was born (as an only child) to a bank vice president and his wife in New York City on October 16th, 1917. Her father's business occasioned the family to reside in various parts of Europe, where Pearce was educated. The sporadic movement from school to school (country to country!) created an ease with strangers while her solitude as the only youth at home sparked imagination.
Returning to “The Big Apple” as a teen, Pearce then attended Sarah Lawrence College where she studied until graduation in 1940. She (now going by the abbreviated Alice) next began to find work in summer stock theatre and parlayed a rubber face (unique and not conventionally attractive) into many well-received nightclub gigs. Eventually, her riotous comedic skills led her to a featured part in the Broadway revue New Faces of 1943. (Another face in this crowd belonged to John Lund, seen to her right in the front row, who went on to minor fame in Hollywood.)
Several months after the closure of New Faces, Pearce won a featured role in the 1944 Broadway production of On the Town, a Leonard Bernstein-Betty Comden-Adolph Green musical about three sailors on leave in New York, each finding love along the way. Pearce's comic role was of a sniffle-ridden blind date (not pictured) to one of the sailors who winds up landing a wealthy judge by the end. Though it was a non-singing part, it was memorable and would lead to considerable success for her in the not-too-distant future.
The show closed in 1946 and she proceeded to entertain in nightclubs, many engagements arranged by the new love in her life, songwriter John Rox. (Rox penned “It's a Big Wide Wonderful World” and “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.”) The two were married in 1948, a year in which she appeared twice more on Broadway in Look, Ma, I'm Dancin' and Small Wonder. Both On the Town and Look, Ma had starred the diminutive Nancy Walker and the two would work together again later.
In 1949, Pearce even hosted her own brief TV variety series, a fifteen-minute mix of comedy and music that aired on Friday nights for a couple of months. However, far bigger things were in store. That same year, MGM was putting together the movie version of On the Town, to be co-directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly. While studio chief Louis B. Mayer disliked the original play and had much of it reworked, Kelly was spellbound by Pearce and insisted on using her in the movie. As a result, she was the sole holdover from the Broadway production to be featured in On the Town (1949.)
The role of her character's ultimate beau, Judge Pitkin W. Bridgework (which I happened to have played myself on a local stage!) was eliminated in the movie, but Pearce was still given a fair amount of screen time and made a strong impression as the perennially-sniffling blind date.
Strangely, considering the popularity of On the Town and the effectiveness of her performance, it would be three years before her next movie. However, she was hardly idle. She was part of the original cast of Carol Channing's Broadway hit Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (she's seen here at a cast album recording session) and began to appear on more television such as Lux Video Theatre and Goodyear Playhouse.
1952 brought her second film, The Belle of New York, in which she played the friend of Vera-Ellen (an On the Town costar), who was the love interest of Fred Astaire, thus she wound up working alongside Gene Kelly in her first movie and Fred Astaire in her second, winning comic points both times.
Still a viable Broadway performer, she worked in The Grass Harp and then was a replacement cast member of John Murray Anderson's Almanac, a successful, star-studded revue. Among her TV work during this time was a recurring role on the live series Jamie (which starred young Brandon De Wilde), a guest spot on The Goldbergs as a guest at a weight loss farm (shown here) and various teleplays alongside actors such as Gene Lockhart, Estelle Winwood, Cedric Hardwicke and Basil Rathbone.
In 1955, she worked on Broadway once more in Tallulah Bankhead's Dear Charles, then appeared in another movie, How to be Very, Very Popular, a college-set musical starring Betty Grable and Sheree North as runaway showgirls, with Pearce as a kooky housemother (shown here with Tommy Noonan.) The film was not a success (Grable never made another one), but Pearce's career as a valued character actress continued.
In 1956, she won the role of an amusing maid in a Broadway revival of Noel Coward's Fallen Angels (again starring Nancy Walker.) She also appeared in The Opposite Sex, a musical remake of The Women (1939), in which she adeptly played the gossip-spreading manicurist Olga, who sets the main storyline of the movie in motion with her tales of adultery.
1957 brought a horrible shock when her beloved husband John died of a heart attack at only age fifty. She returned to the Broadway stage in Copper and Brass (a short-lived musical which, again, starred Nancy Walker! The two are seen together on stage in this photo at right.) and as a replacement in Bells Are Ringing, taking over Jean Stapleton's role in the Judy Holliday musical.
The stage manager of Bells Are Ringing was a man named Paul Davis, who became a close friend of the recently-widowed Pearce. Before long, a romance developed between them and eventually, several years later, they wed (in 1964.) In the meantime, she worked on an episode of The Twilight Zone (as seen here) with Dean Jagger as a fellow resident in a rooming house and appeared twice on Shirley Temple's Storybook (once as The Goblin Queen and costarring Mary Wickes), among other projects.
A close friendship with actor/dancer-turned-photographer Cris Alexander (who'd been in On the Town with her) led to her being part of the outre and amusing portraits he supplied for the showbiz parody book Little Me (later to be augmented into a Broadway musical starring Sid Caesar.) Alexander, by the way, was the longtime partner of ballet dancer Shaun O'Brien and their lives make for an interesting read. Together for over sixty years, they died within days of one another, yet lived to be made husbands under New York's same-sex marriage laws.
Also in 1961, Pearce worked once more with Talullah Bankhead on Broadway in Midgie Purvis, a short-lived play by Mary Chase (the author of Harvey) and then made her final appearance on The Great White Way in Sail Away, a Noel Coward shipboard musical starring Elaine Stritch, which underwent many changes along the way. In 1962, she played a nurse to wheelchair-bound Angela Cartwright in the movie Lad: A Dog.
1963 brought a spate of supporting film roles including My Six Loves (with Debbie Reynolds), Tammy and the Doctor (with Sandra Dee) and The Thrill of It All (with Doris Day.) These were interspersed with parts on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, The Donna Reed Show, Dennis the Menace (shown below with a myriad of expressions) and even The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
More film work was to come in 1964 with Dear Heart (starring Glenn Ford and Geraldine Page), Kiss Me, Stupid (with Dean Martin and Kim Novak) and the Jerry Lewis comedy The Disorderly Orderly. In the latter film, Pearce played a chatty patient who rattles on endlessly about the details of her ailments while Lewis, a hypochondriac, begins to experience each of them in turn!
1964 brought about a new opportunity for her when she was hired to play a semi-regular role on a new TV sitcom. Bewitched focused on the newlywed relationship between a bright, but harried advertising executive (played by Dick York) and his charming, beautiful bride (Elizabeth Montgomery) who also happens to be a witch! The unusual goings on at their suburban home wind up baffling and exasperating their across-the-street nosy-neighbor Gladys Kravitz, played of course by Alice Pearce.
Paired with George Tobias as Gladys' husband Abner, Pearce was able to conduct a little witchcraft of her own, summoning goggle-eyed reactions and uproarious takes as her character kept seeing things that no one else ever seemed to witness. A common occurance in early episodes was for one of her sightings to be followed by Tobias administering a dose or two of her medicine, a tablespoonful of prescription liquid.
Many an episode of Bewitched was enlivened by a bug-eyed, slack-jawed expression from Pearce, usually accompanied by an ear-splitting screech of “Abner!!” as she scrambled to find her disbelieving husband. Invariably, whatever madness it was that she'd come upon would be either fixed, reverted or utterly absent by the time she forced him to take a look for himself.
Formulaic as these events may have been, they were funny nonetheless (though perhaps I am not the best one to assess this since I have also always found the work of Patricia Routledge uproariously funny on Keeping Up Appearances, a show which was based on repetitive situations much to the dismay of some viewers.)
There were some episodes which featured Pearce and Tobias far more than usual and she gamely rose to the challenge. However, like many other peculiar funny folk (like that series' other recurring actor Paul Lynde and like countless other supporting players on classic sitcoms), less typically equalled more in her case.
Bewitched was an instant hit and catapulted its stars into the limelight, with Pearce at last getting some widespread recognition for her comic gifts and gleefully loony body language. She found herself profiled in the pages of TV Guide (as shown here) and poked fun at herself in advertisements (such as the one for Coty lipstick below, also featuring Joey Heatherton!)
More film work also came along, with small roles in Dear Brigitte (with James Stewart, 1965), Bus Riley's Back in Town (which starred Ann-Margret, 1965) and The Glass Bottom Boat (another film with Doris Day, shown at right, 1966.) This elastic-expressioned crank with the soft chin was at the peak of success as a character actress.
However, Alice Pearce had a secret. Prior to starting work on Bewitched, she had undergone exploratory surgery and been given a dire prognosis. She had terminal ovarian cancer. Never revealing this fact, she plodded onward, with the caring assistance of her husband Paul, and proceeded to bring rib-tickling joy to millions of TV viewers.
As the show continued into its second season, Pearce became noticeably thinner. Though she'd worn wigs throughout, their bouffant quality began to engulf her and her features became drawn. It's a sad thing to see, though she still gave every single moment of her screen time everything she had, pro that she was. Ultimately, she had to give up her work on the show and scripts were hastily rewritten to have Gladys out of town visiting while Tobias' sister (Mary Grace Canfield) filled in the blanks as his temporary housekeeper.
When the show appeared for its third season (now in color), Tobias was still Abner Kravitz, but Gladys was now played by Sandra Gould. Gould had her own set of skills and charms, but was quite a different type. (The series was punctuated by these types of changes, with York's boss' wife being played by two actresses, unannounced in the storyline, and eventually York himself being replaced without fanfare when his back injuries became too unbearable to endure.)
Elizabeth Montgomery and her then-husband William Asher (producer of the show, both seen at right) hired Paul Davis on to direct a couple of episodes of Bewitched in order to reignite the career he'd put on ice in order to take care of his wife and also to help keep him occupied in the lonely days that came after her passing. In one of those Underworld ironies, Davis later had a small part in that hooty, super-obscure movie we profiled once here, Dinah East (1970!)
Pearce's remarkable work on Bewitched was recognized when Emmy voters awarded her with a statuette as Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Comedy (her competition included Rose Marie of The Dick Van Dyke Show and her own Bewitched costar Agnes Moorehead.) In 1968, another Bewitched star, Marion Lorne who played Aunt Clara in the same number of episodes as Pearce played Gladys (27), won the same award... but died ten days prior to the ceremony!
Even more indicative of Pearce's enduring popularity, however, is the fact that between thirty-seven and forty-two years after her death, Alice Pearce was still winning awards! Shared with her successor Sandra Gould, she won the following TV Land awards: Nosiest Neighbor (2003), Favorite Nosy Neighbor (2005) and Neighbor You Try to Avoid (2008) for the role of hysterical Gladys Kravitz.
We applaud the comic gifts of Alice Pearce, but also salute her workmanlike professionalism under duress and her commitment to making audiences happy, even as she faced the fact that she was leaving this earth. A lesser mortal might have given up and taken to her bed at the very word “cancer” in 1964. She defined the word “trouper.”