February 2, 2006
My Friend, Shelley Winters
The movie house was dark. A beautiful blonde actress smiled at me from the screen in the small Duluth, Minn., theater.
"She's Jewish," my grandma Goldie whispered as we watched "Knickerbocker Holiday."
That was my introduction to Shelley Winters, a "Jewish movie star." The very concept was inconceivable to my 7-year-old mind. Not only was she Jewish, but she kept it no secret. That was very rare in the anti-Semitic years following World War II.
Fast forward to 1975, when I found myself newly relocated to Los Angeles and working as a theatrical agent. I had made friends with an up-and-coming actress named Sally Kirkland, who brought me with her to the Strasberg Actors Studio and introduced me to Lee Strasberg, the famous proponent of the "method" school of acting. Lee's wife, Anna, asked Sally if she would circulate a petition among her show biz friends, requesting support for Israel be to allowed to stay in the United Nations.
"Sorry Anna," Sally said, "but I'm starring in a film and I don't even have time to brush my teeth."
"I'll do it," I volunteered.
Anna looked at me: "You're new in town, you don't know anybody."
"Don't worry," I said.
That evening, a friend and I were having dinner at Dan Tana's restaurant in West Hollywood.
"That's Shelley Winters over there," I said, nudging my friend excitedly as I made my way over to her booth.
"Excuse me," I said, introducing myself and telling her about the petition. Her sharp blue eyes appraised me in a totally analytical manner. Then she smiled broadly: "Sit down, kid. Do you like chicken salad?"
"Yes," I managed to say.
She was writing something on a napkin.
"This is my address on Oakhurst. Blanca, my housekeeper, is making chicken salad tomorrow, be there at 12:30 sharp!"
She reached over and took the petition: "I'll get names on this for you by tomorrow."
The next day I ate chicken salad and I got to know Shelley, who proceeded to call me "kid" for the next 31 years. When I returned the petition to a shocked Anna Strasberg, she looked at the 37 names.
"How did you do this?" she asked.
"It was easy," I said with a laugh. "I met Shelley Winters."
Shelley was born Shirley Schrift, in St. Louis, Mo. After relocating to New York with her family, as a young woman Shelley moved to Los Angeles, hoping to get into films. She studied with Charles Laughton and later with Strasberg. Her wit, perception and uniqueness resulted in her performing in 130 movies in a 50-year span, winning two Oscars and numerous other awards. Most people know about her public accomplishments, but I want to tell you about Shelley Winters, the person.
Over our 31 years of friendship, we gathered not just for chicken salad, but vacations, Oscar parties, birthdays, lunches (West Hollywood's Silver Spoon was her favorite restaurant) and even a ladies night out to Chippendales in the 1980s.
Shelley was magnanimous when it came to dedicating her time and talent to worthwhile causes. My brother Louis was involved in putting the Chabad Telethon together and asked me if I could think of any big-name celebrities who would lend their support. My eye twinkled as I phoned her up: "Shelley ... have you heard of Chabad?"
"Of course," she said.
For the next two decades, Shelley became a regular participant in their program, the only two-time Oscar-winner to do so.
Shelley's generosity was also revealed to the world when she won the best supporting actress Oscar for her work in the film "The Diary of Anne Frank." While most actresses wait their whole life for such an honor and would never even think of parting with the ultimate validation of their life's work, Shelley donated her Oscar to the Anne Frank museum in Holland. And it sits there to this day. She did win another Oscar for her work in "A Patch of Blue," and that one she kept.
A lesser-known fact was that Shelley molded the careers of some now-famous actors, having taught at Strasberg's Actors Studio for more than 33 years.
"Developing young talent excites me," she confided. Her energy was boundless, as was her dedication to her students. She was responsible for starting numerous careers, including casting Robert De Niro alongside her in "Bloody Mama," his first major film role.
This past Aug. 18, Shelley celebrated her 85th birthday by entertaining 300 people, including many past acting colleagues and friends like Martin Landau, Jane Russell, Red Buttons and Elliott Gould, among others. The crowning event of the evening was when Shelley took the stage with a band, threw on a pair of dark sunglasses and sang a few jazz numbers -- Blues Brothers style!
Shelley and I attended many Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services over the past 25 years at Jerry Cutler's Creative Arts Temple. This past Yom Kippur, I called her at 10 a.m. to go to shul.
"I'm not feeling well, kid," she said.
She had her first heart attack later that afternoon.
She died on Jan. 14; on Jan. 16, in a private ceremony conducted at Hillside Memorial Park, a small group of family and friends said goodbye to Shelley. The theatre is dark.
So you loved the world Shelley ... and so loved by the world were you.
Sharon Kemp has run a successful talent agency in Beverly Hills for more than 30 years. Aaron Kemp is an attorney and business representative for the Screen Actors Guild. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.