Monday, September 5, 2022

An Interview with Sunset Blvd's Nancy Olson Livingston

Actress Nancy Olson Livingston shot to fame at the age of 22 when she earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Sunset Blvd. (1950). She subsequently became one of the most in-demand actresses of the 1950s, starring alongside William Holden (Union Station, Force of Arms, etc.), John Wayne (Big Jim McLain), Jane Wyman (So Big), Bing Crosby (Mr. Music), and Van Heflin (Battle Cry). Nancy reduced her workload in the late 1950s to spend more time with her family. However, she made occasional guest appearances on TV series such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Big Valley. She also starred on Broadway in The Tunnel of Love, Send Me No Flowers, and Mary, Mary. Starting in 1960, Nancy Olson Livingtson appeared in five Walt Disney films over a 12-year period, including Pollyanna, The Absent-Minded Professor, and Snowball Express. Her autobiography A Front Row Seat: An Intimate Look at Broadway, Hollywood, and the Age of Glamour will be published this November.

Café:  How would you describe your experience of working with director Billy Wilder on Sunset Blvd.?

Nancy Olson in Canadian Pacific.
Nancy Olson Livingston:  It was a profound experience because I had only done one picture before Sunset Blvd. That was Canadian Pacific (1949) with Randolph Scott, who was old enough to be my father. At least, I had the experience of being in front of the camera and knowing what the set-up was and how it operated. I was also going to UCLA and majoring in theater arts. I was under contract to Paramount, which lent me to 20th Century-Fox to do Canadian Pacific. I was fascinated that I could walk around the Paramount lot and go to the commissary to have lunch. I did that to get acquainted with what the studio was all about. I certainly knew who Billy Wilder was. I had seen his films and I was a great admirer of his work. He would stop me on the lot and engage me in long conversations: “What was it like to be born and raised in the Midwest? Your father is a doctor, what was that like? Tell me about your college life at UCLA.” It was bizarre. Why in the world would Billy Wilder want to know all these things? When I was cast in Sunset Blvd. and read the script, I realized that my character, Betty Schaefer, was an aspiring writer. She had to innately have a way of speaking that would make you believe she was a writer. She had to be able to speak well, to use language well, to be confident. I eventually came to understand that’s why I was cast. I would visit the set before I started my scenes and was always warmly welcomed. I worked with Edith Head, who did the wardrobes, and I was wearing what she wanted me to wear. And Billy said: “I don’t like that. I like what she wore yesterday when she came to visit.” So, I wore my own clothes in Sunset Blvd. I had not been in California long enough to know where to shop. I did not have a great wardrobe. What was absolutely clear was that Billy Wilder wanted me to be me. Betty Schaefer was me.

Café:  What was your biggest challenge in Sunset Blvd.?

Nancy Olson Livingston:  The first day of work. It’s my first scene in the movie where Betty comes into the office of this producer and asks about the script that Joe Gillis (William Holden), who was sitting there, wrote. Betty didn’t know who Joe Gillis was, so she was very honest about what she thought about the script. We rehearsed that scene several times. When I said that we were ready, Billy said “Shoot!” and we started the scene. There was a moment where I kind of stuttered a little, but I kept going. When the scene was finished, I said: “Please, Mr. Wilder (eventually I called him Billy), could we please do it again?” I didn’t feel totally comfortable at that moment. But he said: “Nope. It was fine.” Now, this is something that Shirley MacLaine and I talked about years later. He never wanted to shoot a scene more than once. You often had the feeling that you could do it a little better, that you didn’t bring something into it that you wanted to. I was upset about that. But I learned that you better know what you’re doing from the beginning.

Café:  Why do you think Sunset Blvd. continues to resonate with film fans over 70 years after it was made?

Nancy Olson Livingston:  Sunset Blvd. resonates not only with film fans, but with the general public. I had an experience about a year ago when I went into Saks Fifth Avenue and I walked into the cosmetics department. This man, who was the general manager, suddenly came over to me and said: “I know who you are. I saw Sunset Blvd. three weeks ago. You’re Nancy Olson.” I was 91 or 92. When you watch Sunset Blvd., it’s old-fashioned—the clothes, the cars, everything is of a different era. And yet, it has an up-to-date understanding. It feels today. And that is because it reveals the truth. I wrote about that in my book: “Sunset Blvd. tells the brutal truth about a part of the motion picture business and how it can ruin one’s life. To be exploited for other people’s profit can be both painful and humiliating. Even though one is paid sometimes a great deal and receives tremendous ego-fulfilling rewards, to be portrayed as larger than life is distorting and destroys the delicate balance between reality and fantasy.” Everything about Sunset Blvd. tells the truth. Joe Gillis is a desperate man who is at the end of his rope. He can’t pay his car loan. He can’t pay his rent. And when he gets into Norma Desmond’s house, he decides to sell his soul for his survival. And Betty Schaefer, my character, falls in love with this man who has sold his soul. It’s about human nature. It’s about who we all are and how we conduct our lives. Movie stars were a commodity back then. Marilyn Monroe is a perfect example. She was so exaggerated, but she was also vulnerable. She was created bigger and bigger than she really was. Ultimately, movie stars are thrown away, like Norma Desmond and, to a great extent, Marilyn Monroe. So, Sunset Blvd. survives because it tells the truth about an aspect of life which is kind of generally true.

Café:  I also think Sunset Blvd. has one of the great openings in movie history, with Joe’s body floating in the swimming pool as he provides the voice-over narration.

Nancy Olson Livingston:  You want to know what the real beginning was? It was filmed with bodies in a morgue. Joe is under the sheets with all the other bodies and he starts to talk with them. When the studio showed the movie at a test showing, the audience laughed. People thought it was funny and kind of ridiculous. So, Billy went back and re-edited and started at the point where Joe’s body is floating in the pool.

Café:  You made four films with William Holden, whom you have described as a good friend. What do you think was the secret to the onscreen chemistry between the two of you?

Nancy Olson and William Holden in Sunset Blvd.
Nancy Olson Livingston:  We were very alike. He was from Pasadena. I was from Milwaukee. There was a common ground. We really began to love each other. I was married. He was married. He did make a slight pass at me during the shooting of Sunset Blvd., which I’ve written about. It became so clear to him that nothing was going to ever happen. That was the end of it and we became friends. We loved hugging and kissing (laughs). I don’t know why, but it felt wonderful and comforting to be held by him. We enjoyed each other and we liked each other. Years after Bill and I had stopped working together, I was at an airport with my husband Alan Livingston and, as we were walking to board a plane, I heard a voice from behind me: “Nancy!” I turned around and it was Bill. I cried out: “Bill!” And we spontaneously ran as fast as we could and went into an embrace. He gave me a kiss and said: “My God, how are you? I haven’t seen you for two years. I understand you’re remarried now. Are you happy?” It was one of those things. A man was walking by as we were talking and laughing and he taps us on the shoulder: “Excuse me, but this is better than watching an old movie.” 

Café:  You starred in five Walt Disney films over 12 years, starting with Pollyanna in 1960. What led to your Disney connection?

Nancy Olson in The Absent-Minded Professor.
Nancy Olson Livingston:  I had not done a movie for a long time and figured I wasn’t going to do another movie. I did not want to be a movie star. That was a lesson I learned in Sunset Blvd. Being a movie star was isolating and lonely and unreal. I was 32 and I thought it was over. So, I am in Majorca, picking up my children who were visiting their father and stepmother. And I got a phone call and it was Mr. Disney. He said: “Nancy, this is Walt Disney. We are working on a movie here and are spending a lot more money than we usually do. It’s an all-star cast. Every part has been cast with a star. We have John Mills’ daughter, Hayley, who is fantastic, to play Pollyanna. We have Jane Wyman, Richard Egan, Karl Malden, Adolphe Menjou, Agnes Moorehead…and we want you.” I thought that was interesting. He said they were shooting at the end of August. I was planning on going to California to visit my parents anyway. I was living in New York at the time. But I had to bring the children back to school. Walt said I’d be finished by the middle of September. I said I had a governess who could take the kids back to school. I told him: “You know something…I’ll do it.” And that began my work with Walt Disney. I enjoyed it. My children had fun coming and visiting me on the set. I finished Pollyanna and thought that was the end of it. I never even asked what he was going to pay me. That wasn’t an issue. About a year later, I get a call from my agent saying that Disney is doing The Absent-Minded Professor with Fred MacMurray and wanted me for Fred’s love interest. Fred was twenty years older than me. Casting at that time was really out of whack. I loved Fred MacMurray’s work. He was a brilliant actor. He just had a natural sense for it. I read The Absent-Minded Professor script and decided I'd do it. I made it and then went back to New York. The next year, they decided to do a sequel because The Absent-Minded Professor was a huge success. So, I did Son of Flubber. By the way, sequels are never as good as the original. At least, that’s my opinion. I felt very comfortable on the Disney lot. Walt Disney made everyone call him Walt—including the grips. There was a unique friendliness that pervaded the lot. It was interesting and different from any place I’d ever worked before. I think Walt Disney was from the Midwest, too, and a homespun, middle-class kind of background. He was a Republican. I’m a big Democrat. Fred MacMurray was a big Republican, so the two of them got along wonderfully. Fred grew up in Wisconsin so the two of us had a kind of bond and told stories to each other about our experiences growing up. Because I wanted to work every once in a while, the Disney folks would call me. I did Smith! (1969) with Glenn Ford and Snowball Express (1972) with Dean Jones, which was not a very good film. But if you ever see Snowball Express, that was the absolute best that I ever looked when I was photographed. I saw it the other day and I was amazed. 

Café:  I think the first half of Snowball Express was pretty good, but the second half just turns silly.

Nancy Olson Livingston:  But don’t you agree that I look very well photographed?

Café:  Well, you always looked good in your films. Now, you appeared with many of the biggest stars of the 1950s and 1960s: William Holden, Jane Wyman, Fred MacMurray, John Wayne, Bing Crosby, and Glenn Ford. Who were some of your favorite co-stars and why?

John Wayne and Nancy Olson in Big Jim McLain.
Nancy Olson Livingston: Making Big Jim McLain with John Wayne was an interesting experience. It was a terrible script. When I read it, I thought that nobody was going to see this film. It’ll come out, get terrible reviews, and get shown on Saturday nights with another big film. But I thought I should have the experience of working with a true icon like John Wayne and it was made in Honolulu, which I loved. I found John Wayne to be an amazing person and very mysterious as to who he really was. Everybody called him Duke; I called him John. He never corrected me. We became really wonderful friends. For years, whenever we saw each other, we embraced and were happy to see each other. He was not the least flirtatious. Now, Bing Crosby had cold blue eyes. He put himself at a distance from almost everyone. He had a group of cronies around all the time, buttering him up. However, he and I became friends. The whole cast, crew, and director (of Mr. Music) treated me like I was a kind of charming child and that was odd. I was beginning to date Alan Lerner, my first husband, so it didn’t much matter. But I realized I was much too young to play opposite Bing as his love interest. When I was in Battle Cry, my marriage to Alan Lerner was beginning to have terrible problems. He ultimately married eight times, so he was a man with problems. I was too young and naïve to understand them, because he was fascinating and brilliant and would be with the most interesting people. He knew the best writers and producers in New York and the theatre was extremely interesting at that time. I was very happy to marry him, but it eventually became obvious it was not going to end well. There was a point where Warner Bros. called and asked if I would do Battle Cry. I said yes. There were so many stars in Battle Cry that I had a limited story with Aldo Ray. Aldo, bless him, kind of fell in love with me. I needed that. Please understand that we never had an affair. But when we had a long scene, he would prolong it--and it felt good. 

Café:  Excluding Sunset Blvd., what was your favorite of your films and why?

Nancy Olson Livingston:  The first thing that pops in my head is The Absent-Minded Professor, because it was so much fun and such a wonderful script. Fred MacMurray was marvelous. But there were very few films that lived up to Sunset Blvd. That was just an amazing experience.

Café:  You played Lloyd Bridges’ wife in the 1984 TV series Paper Dolls, which revolved around the fashion industry. How would you describe that experience?

Nancy Olson Livingston:  I only worked one or two days a week and maybe not at all the next week. It was a great cast and we all became friends. It was a nice interruption and just fun to be on a set and act a little.

Café:  Were there any roles you turned down or wish you had pursued during your career?

Nancy Olson Livingston:  No. My acting career was only a third of my life and eventually an eighth of my life. It was interesting, but it was not my life. As I write about in my book, my experiences outside of films were just as interesting or more so. Life is a fascinating, extraordinary experience. I’ve lived a long time and I’ve been extremely lucky. I was lucky having the parents I did, growing up where I did, how I grew up. Even my first marriage, which ended so painfully, had its moments. My Fair Lady was dedicated to me. I sat there and watched it being created. I had the most amazing experiences with my second husband, Alan Livingston, the president of Capitol Records. He started at Capitol after he got out of the Army and college. He went to Paramount, where they wanted him to write children’s albums, which he had never even thought of doing. But he created Bozo the Clown and other albums that became bestsellers. Then, he put Frank Sinatra with the right conductor and changed his whole career. He made Nat Cole a soloist instead of a pianist. Then, he left Capitol and went to NBC television and created Bonanza. After several years, he went back to Capitol and signed The Beach Boys. I gave parties for The Beatles and The Band. Alan Livingston ended up with the first American company in China. So, my life was varied and anybody who lives this long will have success and failure, happiness and heartbreak, sadness and joy. You can’t live this long without having all of it.

Café:  Thank you so much for much for taking the time to talk with us today.

Nancy Olson Livingston:  I enjoyed it.

A Front Row Seat: An Intimate Look at Broadway, Hollywood, and the Age of Glamour by Nancy Olson Livingston will be published by the University of Kentucky Press on November 15, 2022. It's 408 pages and features 44 black & white photos.


  1. Very interesting, kudos to you for getting this interview.

  2. Great interview, Rick! And ironic, since she appears in the TV Guide I'm writing about for Saturday, in the TV version of the comedy "The Royal Family." Coincidence?

  3. Completely fascinating, Rick. Excellent questions and wonderful answers that provide intriguing glimpses into iconic films, actors and filmmakers. And Broadway, too, when it was still golden. Thanks! Looking forward to reading her book.

  4. She sounds so charming and gracious. I love that she became friends with all these co-stars. It says a lot about the kind of person she is.

    Another terrific interview, Rick.

  5. What a great interview. I just watched her movie, Union Station, with William Holden which I thoroughly enjoyed, so I looked up her bio and found your blog. This was fascinating, as I have been watching & studying film noir for the past year. She & Holden were fantastic in Sunset one of my all time favorite movies. TY for this special insight into a Hollywood actress.

  6. Thank you so much for the great interview! in fact I love it when you interview these stars and directors from Hollywood's golden age! Please do it more often!

  7. Ditto. A great, great interview. She sounds so grounded, so content, that I would not be surprised if she lives another 10 years. Like Marsha Hunt and others who didn't 'need' to be a star...

  8. How did you find her? Do you have any mail adress of her management? I'd like to interview her