Obituary: Piper Laurie

Defiant independent actress who challenged Hollywood’s simple, sexual roles


Actress Piper Laurie arrives at the premiere of Lions Gates Films' "Eulogy" on October 13, 2004 (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

She was a strong-willed, free-spirited American actress who won acclaim for her roles in film, theatre and television. During her lengthy career, Piper Laurie, who has died aged 91, was best known for her performances in the films The Hustler (1961), Carrie (1976), and Children of a Lesser God (1986), as well as the television series The Thorn Birds (1983) and Twin Peaks (1990-1991).

Laurie was still a teenager when she was awarded a seven-year contract with Universal International Pictures (UIP) in 1949. It was a time when the major studios, which were run like factories by Jewish moguls, did not want to hurt their profits by featuring stars with immigrant names. So they changed her name to Piper because it sounded less Jewish and more American than her birth name Rosetta. It was also a way of avoiding antisemitism.

Laurie clearly had mixed feelings about the change, but went along with it as something an aspiring star had to accept in 1950s Hollywood. “Besides, I never really liked Rosetta,” she told the JC. “I thought it was very old-fashioned. Today it seems ridiculous that I changed my name to Piper Laurie, but in those days it didn’t.”

UIP created a media image for Laurie as the girl who ate flowers — orchids, rose petals, marigolds – which she did, on command, for publicity photographs and interviews. “They didn’t taste so bad,” she told a United Press International reporter in 1991.

Over the next four years she appeared in some 16 films opposite Jewish actor Tony Curtis as well as Rock Hudson and Ronald Reagan. They included The Prince Who Was a Thief (1951), Son of Ali Baba (1952), The Mississippi Gambler (1953) and Francis Goes to the Races (1951).

But on discovering that the roles she was offered were flimsy and shallow, after six years into her contract she broke it. It was a way of signalling her defiant independence. The final straw came in 1956 when she played a supporting role to a performing dog in Kelly and Me and was sent the screenplay for a Western starring World War II hero Audie Murphy. The female role in that film was a — “prop and barely that, possibly the worst part they had ever handed me”, she recalled. She made Until They Sail (1957) for MGM. A Second World War melodrama, it gave Laurie her first substantial role as a New Zealand woman who has an affair while her husband is away at war.

The following year Laurie moved to New York in the hope of working on stage and performing in meatier material. Laurie was honest about her experiences, telling one reporter, “If I’d continued in Hollywood, doing those old, insipid parts, I think by now I would have killed myself.”

And it was the same story she told The New York Times in 1977: “Every role I played was the same girl, no matter whether my co-star was Rock Hudson or Tony Curtis or Rory Calhoun,” she explained, referring to the movies she had made while under contract with Universal. “She was innocent, sexual, simple — the less intelligent, the better, and complexity was forbidden.”

Laurie began appearing on live television shows and off-Broadway stage productions. Eventually she landed a role as a lonely alcoholic opposite Jewish actor Paul Newman in The Hustler, which earned her an Oscar nomination as Best Actress. But she felt it was “meaningless” and missed the ceremony because — “I was angry at the whole system.” She debuted on Broadway in 1965 as the fragile teenage heroine, Laura, in a revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.

Still dissatisfied with her choice of roles, she quit acting and moved to Woodstock in upstate New York where she became an accomplished sculptor, after studying at the Art Students League in New York. It helped her to find her voice, she told an interviewer. But a serious back operation caused her to re-evaluate her life, so when director Brian De Palma offered her a role as the deranged religious mother of a telekinetic teenager (Sissy Spacek) in Carrie (1976) she decided to give acting a try again. It earned her another Oscar nomination. She received her third nomination for her role as the estranged mother of a young deaf woman (Marlee Matlin) in Children of a Lesser God. A raft of appearances followed in such TV shows as Twin Peaks, Frasier and ER, garnering nine Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe as Catherine Martell in Twin Peaks. In 2010, she starred opposite Jewish actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Natalie Portman in the indie film, Hesher.

Rosetta Jacobs was born in Detroit, Michigan, the younger daughter of Alfred, a furniture dealer whose parents had immigrated from Poland, and Charlotte Sadie (née Alperin), of Russian-Jewish heritage. She grew up in a traditional Jewish home, attending synagogue and taking Hebrew lessons. She was bat mitzvah at the Magen David synagogue. But a large portion of her early childhood was spent in a California sanitorium with her older sister, who was suffering with health problems.

In 1938 the family moved to Los Angeles,where she sang and danced at Los Angeles Jewish Home, (formerly the Jewish Home for the Aging). “I’m observant in my own way at home; sometimes I light candles on Friday night,” she recalled later. She was also a lifelong devotee of traditional Jewish cuisine.

Anxious about public speaking, Laurie received elocution lessons which helped her land small acting roles and comedy sketches. As a nine year old, she won a talent contest: the prize was a screen test for Warner Bros. It didn’t go well, but when she was 15 she lied about her age to get into an acting class in Hollywood and find an agent, which led to her UIP contract.

As a callow 17 year-old, she was cast as Ronald Reagan’s daughter in the romantic comedy Louisa (1950). After being courted by Tony Curtis, in an ill-fated attempt to appear experienced and worldly, she agreed to a date with her co-star, Reagan (then 39) which did not go well. During 1957 and 1958, she was involved with director John Frankenheimer, who had directed her in the original live TV version of Days of Wine and Roses in New York. She also had a relationship with G. David Schine, the Jewish consultant to Senator Joseph McCarthy.

While living in New York she became pregnant. Terrified, she had an illegal abortion which traumatised her. In 1961 she met reporter Joe Morgenstern, who was assigned to interview her. They married in January 1962 and they adopted a daughter, Anna Grace. While still married, she had a one-night stand with a very young Mel Gibson after appearing in his first movie,Tim. In 1982 Laurie and Morgenstern divorced and she relocated to Los Angeles, much of which she described in her 2011 memoir, Learning to Live Out Loud.

Piper Laurie died at a nursing home in Los Angeles. She is survived by Anna Grace Morgenstern.

​Piper Laurie: born January 22,1932. Died October 14,2023

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