This New Year the celebrity graveyard has commenced, taking away two classic movie/TV stars, Dorothy Malone, 92 and Bradford Dillman, 87. Although neither one has become an immortal screen icon, both had long and varied careers.
When Dorothy Malone changed her hair color, her screen roles transformed considerably. As a brunette in Warner Brothers and Universal pictures, Malone played the good girl. In those roles Malone always underplayed to good effect with a sensible, empathetic warmth. In her early career she’s probably best remembered for her brief, but excellent scene in The Big Sleep where she brought sauciness and smarts as a keen book store salesclerk who helped Bogie’s Marlowe uncover a major clue.
Perhaps her best role in this era was in Raoul Walsh’s stellar Western remake of High Sierra, Colorado Territory, about two sympathetic antiheroes against a bunch of fickle “respectable” people. Malone is well cast as the seemingly nice girl who callously betrays outlaw Joel McCrea in a swift second at the first whiff of adversity.
Regarding Malone’s screen roles, blondes didn’t have more fun. But blonde Malone found more acclaim with meatier roles as crazy, mixed-up, slightly mysterious women. Her most famous role is her Oscar-winning turn as an out-of-control alcoholic nymphomaniac socialite who wreaks havoc on Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall in Douglas Sirk’s opulent melodrama Written on the Wind. The most memorable sequence is when Malone’s character dances maniacally as her father dies of a heart attack.
Her film career was somewhat derailed by her first and only starring vehicle, Too Much, Too Soon, a melodrama based off of troubled actress Diana Barrymore, which was savaged by critics and box office returns, and featured a way past his prime Errol Flynn as her leading man.
In the early 60s she delivered poignant performances as enigmatic women whose pasts with dangerous men caught up with her in well-written bittersweet episodes of Route 66 and Checkmate. In 1964, she scored a major coup when she starred in the revolutionary and super popular soap opera Peyton Place. Initially it was an ideal setup as she was the Grande Dame and had clout to set normal working hours to spend time with her children. By the second year, younger actors Mia Farrow, Ryan O’Neal, and Barbara Parkins got more fanfare.
After the show ended in 1968, Malone acted here and there until 1992. Her final role in Basic instinct as a woman who got away with murdering her family was exciting on paper but translated as a random and skimpy cameo on screen.
Like so many of the male and female starlets groomed by the major studios in the late 50s, Bradford Dillman didn’t achieve major movie stardom like the actors under contract during the Hollywood Golden Era of 1930 to 1950 or the Hollywood New Wave of 1967 to 1975. Other than Compulsion, where he received good notices for playing a rich sociopathic murderer, Dillman’s early filmography at 20th Century Fox was forgettable.
Starting in the early 60s, Dillman maintained a prolific career guest starring on TV shows. His first set of guest appearances are his best because the 1960s was a prime time for well-written character-driven TV. He excelled at playing deviants and neurotics. He was uncompromisingly raw as a psycho in an uncharacteristically dark episode of Dr. Kildare who rapes Kildare’s (played by youth idol Richard Chamberlain) girlfriend in front of him and continues to taunt both of them before he is apprehended. He is equally unsettling in a shocking episode of Ben Casey where he is an intelligent, but devious patient who gaslights his dumb, but sweet roommate and tries to steal his sexy fiancée (MASH’s Sally Kellerman).
He also did his share of schlock because they helped put his five daughters through school. By this time his wife Suzy Parker had put her iconic modelling and brief critically panned acting career behind her. In between, he also did character work in movies he was proud of such as The Way We Were and The Iceman Cometh.
Regarding his career Dillman remarked “I’ve had a wonderful life. I married the most beautiful woman in the world. Together we raised six children, each remarkable in his or her own way and every one a responsible citizen. I was fortunate to work in a profession where I looked forward to going to work every day. I was rewarded with modest success. The work sent me to places all over the world I’d never been able to afford visiting otherwise.”