I have been fascinated lately by the number of famous or formerly famous figures who have died and who we seem to forget were part of long-ago iconic productions, or who worked with long-dead icons. It is incredible to me, for example, that Cara Williams — who died at her Beverly Hills home Thursday at 96 — made her credited movie debut a full 80 years ago, and that she had a small part in the classic film Laura (1944). Who knew anyone from that 77-year-old masterpiece was, until last week, still with us?
Also amazing is that Williams, born Bernice Kamiat June 29, 1925, in Brooklyn, New York, was around so long ago she was told by Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957) that she had great timing.
As Bernice Kay (she settled on the more marquee-friendly Cara Williams soon enough), she also acted in the noir classics The Spider (1945). and Boomerang! (1947).
As her career took off , she acted with Bogie in Knock on Any Door (1949), in Monte Carlo Baby (1951), The Girl Next Door (1953), The Great Diamond Robbery (1954), Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956), and with Paul Newman (1925-2008) in The Helen Morgan Story (1957).
Williams surprised herself when she received an Oscar nomination for her unforgettable performance as a mom in The Defiant Ones (1958), the progressive drama starring Tony Curtis (1925-2010) and Sidney Poitier (b. 1927) as escaped convicts, shackled together, who must coordinate in order to survive.
She went on to appear in such films as Never Steal Anything Small (1959) and The Man from the Diner's Club (1963).
One funny story she has told Midnight Palace was regarding Never Steal Anything Small was kicked off by a memory of Jimmy Cagney (1899-1986) being scared of the director. She said of the writer-director Charles Lederer (1910-1976), "[He] had written this film, and you had to say every word of this dialogue. And I played a part called Winnipeg, and she was a little tough. And I had a wonderful dance scene with [Cagney] that's very memorable. I was really annoyed with this director ... He fell in love with his own lines. The first day of shooting, I have a line that says, 'Well, I think I'll go over and talk to Gwendolyn at the bar.' I said to myself, 'Gwendolyn? I think I'm kind of a little toughie, I would not say 'Gwendolyn,' I'd say 'Gwen.' So I said, 'I think I'll go over and talk to Gwen at the bar.' He said, 'The name is Gwendolyn.' I said, 'Wait a minute — is there somebody in the film called Gwendolyn?' He said, 'No.' I said, 'Is Gwendolyn a part of the plot?' He said, 'No ...' I said, 'Listen, if you're going to be this kind of a director, I think you should go get Sheree North, because I am not interested in working any further with you.'"
Television provided her with her best-known opportunities, if only for short spells.
"I thought television was like doing summer stock," she told Midnight Palace. "You were playing at lots of parts — you could do accent parts, you could do poor-girl parts or rich-girl parts ... It was fun. And it was live TV. And the excitement of live TV, when you're going coast-to-coast, is so exciting because you know you can't make a mistake. You can't shoot it over!"
She was on many early-TV dramas, and did four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1956-1960).
She starred with Harry Morgan (1915-2011) on the CBS comedy Pete and Gladys (1960-1962), picking up an Emmy nomination as scatterbrained Gladys, but the show ended after two seasons, something Williams suspected her new friend Lucille Ball (1911-1989) may have hastened when fellow redhead Ball decided to return to sitcoms. That was because Pete and Gladys may have seemed a bit too similar to Ball's upcoming The Lucy Show (1962-1968).
Williams later fronted her own sitcom, The Cara Williams Show, from 1964-1965.
Her '70s performances were fewer and further between, but included two appearances on the hit comedy Rhoda (1974) as the fondly remembered character Mae. Her last movie was 1978's The One Man Jury.
Williams was married three times — to Alan Gray, with whom she had a daughter, Justine Jagoda; actor John Drew Barrymore (1932-2004), who was Drew Barrymore's (b. 1975) father, with whom she had a son, John Blyth Barrymore; and her third husband, Asher Dann, who preceded her in death in 2018 after 54 years of marriage.
She is survived by both of her children.