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BARBARA BEL GEDDES: 1922-2005 // The rock of "Dallas'

Published Aug. 2, 2006

Barbara Bel Geddes, who rose to stage and movie stardom but reached her greatest fame as Miss Ellie Ewing in the long-running TV series Dallas, has died. She was 82.

The San Francisco Chronicle said Miss Bel Geddes, a longtime smoker, died Monday of lung cancer at her home in Northeast Harbor, Maine. Jordan-Fernald Funeral Home in Mount Desert, Maine, confirmed the death Wednesday.

Miss Bel Geddes, daughter of renowned industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes, was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress for the 1948 drama I Remember Mama and was the original Maggie the Cat on Broadway in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955.

Dallas came late in her career. She had retired to take care of her husband, Windsor Lewis, after he fell ill with cancer. He died in 1972.

Her earnings depleted by his long illness, she said she was "flat broke" in 1978 when she took the role as matriarch of a rambunctious Texas oil family.

Though castigated by critics, Dallas hurtled to the top of the audience ratings. Miss Bel Geddes won an Emmy in 1980 as best lead actress in a drama series and remains the only nighttime soap star to be so honored.

"She was the rock of Dallas," Larry Hagman, who played J.R. Ewing, told the Associated Press. "She was just a really nice woman and a wonderful actress. She was kind of the glue that held the whole thing together."

In March 1984, Miss Bel Geddes had a major heart attack. Miss Ellie was played by Donna Reed for six months, then Miss Bel Geddes returned until 1990, a year before CBS canceled the show.

In 1945, Miss Bel Geddes made a splash on Broadway at 23 with her first important role in Deep Are the Roots, winning the New York Drama Critics best actress award.

Hollywood was quick to notice. In 1946 she signed a contract with RKO that granted her unusual request to be committed to only one picture a year. In her first movie she co-starred with Henry Fonda in The Long Night.

Her second film was a hit playing a budding writer in George Stevens' I Remember Mama, the touching story of an immigrant family in San Francisco starring Irene Dunne as Mama.

"I went out to California awfully young," she remarked. "I remember Lillian Hellman and Elia Kazan telling me, "Don't go, learn your craft.' But I loved films." After four movies, Howard Hughes, who had bought control of RKO in 1948, dropped her contract because "she wasn't sexy enough."

Miss Bel Geddes was devastated. But it turned out to be a good happenstance. She had time to return to the stage, and she scored a triumph in Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Yet her biggest Broadway success was Mary, Mary, a frothy marital comedy by Jean Kerr, which opened in 1961 and ran for more than 1,500 performances.

In her film career, Miss Bel Geddes was able to work with great filmmakers such as Kazan (Panic in the Streets) and Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo).

She was born in New York City on Oct, 31, 1922. Her father, born Norman Geddes, and mother, maiden name Helen Belle Sneider, coined Bel-Geddes as the title for a magazine they were planning. He took the name without a hyphen as his name. The couple divorced when Barbara was 3.