Bonnie Bartlett Remembers Marilyn at the Actors Studio

Bonnie Bartlett is best known for her roles in long-running TV shows like Little House on the Prairie and St. Elsewhere (alongside husband William Daniels), and as the mother of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito in the big-screen comedy, Twins. More recently, she has appeared in Parks and Recreation and Better Call Saul.

Now, at 93, Bonnie has published her autobiography, Middle of the Rainbow, recalling the early days when she was acting in a TV soap opera, Love of Life, and taking classes at the Actors Studio. Like many other alumni from the late 1950s, Bonnie remembers meeting Marilyn there – and like Marilyn, she also took private classes with Lee Strasberg.

“When my role on the soap ended, I immediately went back to class and studied for an additional four years. It was during this second stretch with Lee, combined with psychoanalysis, that I really figured out what I was doing as an actress … Jane Fonda, a total beginner then, also chose to take the private classes, as did Lee’s daughter Susan. And it was through the private classes that I got to know Marilyn Monroe.

Lee treated Marilyn Monroe with respect and tried to convince her that she had potential as a serious actress. She would often sit in the front row, listening intently, absorbing a whole new kind of learning (for her). Marilyn was very attentive in class, especially when the actors gave an analysis of what they were working on, what specifically they were trying to accomplish in that moment, in that scene – and how they’d gone about it. Marilyn seldom looked or acted like ‘Marilyn.’ She had created this amazing creature for the movies, sexy and funny, and I think she felt stuck with it. Without makeup and needing a dye job, she was just another attractive actress with curves and maybe even a bit on the curvy side.

She had magnificent eyes, but none of that Hollywood blonde bombshell look. In fact, her hair was curly and reddish at the roots, and her cheeks were always ruddy. She was a great comedienne but also gave us a glimpse of her dramatic talents when she gave a poetic and moving performance in a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire. She did the scene where Blanche says to the delivery boy, ‘Young man! Young, young, young man! Has anyone ever told you that you look like a young Prince out of the Arabian Nights?’ Marilyn was sweating profusely from every part of her body – she must have been terrified.

Marilyn was always striving to better herself, both as an actress and as a person. Once in Strasberg’s kitchen, she walked up behind me as I was having an intense conversation about the art of theatre with director Walter Beakel and she said, ‘I want to feel what it’s like to be talked to like an intelligent person.’

Sometimes after class, a group of us would go out for lunch at Child’s. It was just a group of actors getting together, but occasionally Marilyn was recognised, even without the glamorous makeup and hair. Once, she went into the restroom and a couple of fans got down on the floor to see if we could see her on the toilet. We were horrified.

I think all of us loved Marilyn. We very much empathised with her. There was something very raw about Marilyn when she worked with us, a little bit of an open nerve and you just wanted to protect her. She had guarded herself for too long with sex, booze, pills and the rest. And the hard core of protection couldn’t be broken. I think we saw the best of her – just an ordinary girl wanting to learn to be a better actress. We didn’t suffer the notorious problems she had had working on films and with intimate relationships with her expectations crippled her.

I think Marilyn was most comfortable and felt most accepted with Strasberg. He gave her hope and respect and in the end, in her will, she left everything to him. That says something.”

Marilyn with Wally Cox, 1962 (photo by Lawrence Schiller)

Bonnie also shares an anecdote about Wally Cox, best known as TV’s Mr Peepers. They were working on an episode of another show, and when the lunch break came, he approached her, holding a large brown paper bag with sandwiches he had made at home. This struck her as unusual, because most actors went out for lunch.

“Maybe the sandwiches reminded him of his mother, because after we chatted for a few minutes, he said, ‘My mother always told me how important it is to please a woman, and make sure she is satisfied.’ He was about ten years older than me, and I think he was trying to tell me, in that lispy voice of his, that I was counting on him to be a good lover. I listened politely, but I did not engage. The hour sitting on that table, eating sandwiches and drinking juice, was non-threatening and sweet. We went back to rehearsal, still friendly, but clearly, there would be no more lunches.”

In 1962, Wally had a supporting role in Marilyn’s last, unfinished movie, Something’s Got to Give. Marilyn knew Wally through his best friend, Marlon Brando, and she had requested Wally to play the part of a timid shoe salesman whom she tries to pass off to husband Dean Martin as her former companion when she had been stranded on a desert island – but as Dean already knows, her real companion had been a musclebound lifeguard.

This amusing scene was shot on June 1st, which was Marilyn’s 36th birthday – and, sadly, it would also be her last day at the studio. After the day’s work ended, there was a small party until Marilyn left with Wally for dinner at Marlon’s house, and then she later went on to a public engagement alone (see here.) “I was told that Wally had been one of Marilyn’s last lovers,” Bonnie writes, but this seems extremely unlikely – and is probably just another example of how her friendships with men often led to unwarranted gossip.

Marilyn with Allan ‘Whitey’ Snyder, 1954

And finally, Bonnie met another man connected to Marilyn years later, while working on Little House on the Prairie.

“When I first went to the set in Simi Valley, California, I was introduced to Whitey (makeup) and Larry (hair.) This was the famous Whitey [aka Allan Snyder] who had been Marilyn Monroe’s makeup artist … Whitey was not talkative, so we briefly discussed Marilyn. I was disappointed that there was no magic makeup. He put on a little base and a couple of touches, and that was that. After all, Little House was set in 1880 …”

Incidentally, one of Bonnie’s co-stars on the show, Charlotte Stewart, recalled a rather different encounter with Whitey in her own memoir, Little House in the Hollywood Hills. “The guy was a legend,” she wrote. “It was Whitey who designed [Marilyn’s] bedroom eyes; it’s a very specific swoop of eyeliner that gives that look – what a virtuoso move. Whitey demonstrated it for me once for fun …”