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Happy Birthday, Mercedes McCambridge!


Ninety-seven years ago today, the performer that would win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her very first feature film was born.  As Sadie Burke, the tough female assistant to ambitious politician Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) in the movie adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning All the King’s Men, Mercedes McCambridge was able to put years of experience performing on stage and radio to good use, ensuring a lengthy career of further film and television appearances.


mccambridge4Born Carlotta Mercedes McCambridge in Joliet, Illinois in 1916, a young Mercedes attended Mundelein College in Chicago on a drama scholarship.  A performance in a school production as a sophomore attracted the notice of NBC, who signed her to a five-year deal as a contract actress.  At that time, the city of Chicago was every bit as important a hub as New York and Hollywood in the radio industry, though the Windy City served primarily as the locus for radio drama and soap opera.  Mercedes displayed an amazing versatility, appearing on a variety of soap operas like The Guiding Light, Pretty Kitty Kelly and Big Sister…as well as This is Nora Drake and Perry Mason.


mccambridge5McCambridge was fortunate to have worked alongside many radio “mentors.”  She was oft-used by Arch Oboler, who would cast her in dramas featured on Lights Out, Arch Oboler’s Plays and Everything for the Boys.  Carlton E. Morse availed himself of her talents in memorable showcases on One Man’s Family and I Love a Mystery.  She was a favorite of Himan Brown’s, frequently appearing on Inner Sanctum…and during the period of radio drama revival in the 1970s, Mercedes did Brown’s The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre, too.  She also worked with Orson Welles (The Mercury Summer Theatre)—who once called her “the world’s greatest living radio actress.”  The “Canadian Orson Welles,” Fletcher Markle, cast her in roles on The Ford Theater and Studio One…and cast her as Mrs. Markle in 1950.  (Unfortunately, their marriage ended ended in divorce in 1962.)


Other programs on which McCambridge appeared include Abie’s Irish Rose, The Big Story, The Cavalcade of America, Gangbusters, The Mysterious Traveler, The Shadow, Suspense and The Whistler.  Her Oscar win in 1949 didn’t slow down her participation in the medium for a moment—Mercedes even starred in a 1951-52 series entitled Defense Attorney, on which she played a legal eagle named Martha Ellis Bryant.


mccambridge11The exposure from All the King’s Men soon led to more parts in films, which include Inside Straight (1951), The Scarf (1951) and Lightning Strikes Twice (1951).  Many of her best-known movie performances were from the 1950s.  In 1954, she played the scheming Emma Small in Nicholas Ray’s cult western Johnny Guitar, in which she squared off against Joan Crawford.  In 1956, she played Luz Benedict in Giant, in which she shot and killed a horse belonging to Elizabeth Taylor’s Leslie.  (McCambridge scored a second Oscar nomination for that one.)  Mercedes was also featured in another film starring Liz: 1959’s Suddenly, Last Summer.  She also made memorable impressions in A Farewell to Arms (1957), Touch of Evil (1958), Cimarron (1960) and Angel Baby (1961).


mccambridge6One of Mercedes’ most-popular film roles came about because of both her radio background and her lifelong battle with bronchitis.  It was McCambridge who provided the voice of the demonically-possessed Linda Blair in 1973’s The Exorcist.  Promised by director William Friedkin that she would receive credit for the performance, Mercedes later had to have the Screen Actors Guild intercede in a dispute with Warner Bros.—the result being that a new print was created to restore her credit.


mccambridge2Though McCambridge maintained a high profile with stage, films and television performances until her death in 2004, radio remained her first love.  “It’s the best.  It truly is the best,” she remarked to radio historian Chuck Schaden in a 1976 interview.  Radio Spirits has several collections spotlighting Mercedes’ classic radio work—in addition to Everything For the Boys (on Arch Oboler: Retrospective) and Inner Sanctum (Romance Gone Wrong, No Rest for the Dead), we also feature broadcasts from her 1950s series Defense Attorney (which includes the April 17, 1951 audition, entitled The Defense Rests).

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