Piper Laurie, Golden Age Ingenue Turned Oscar-Nominated Actor, Dies @ 91

October 14, 2023

Piper Laurie, a rare surviving Golden Age performer who went on to become far better known for a mid-career renaissance, has died at 91.

Laurie as "the girl" — any girl — in her starlet days (Image via movie still)

ExtraTV confirms she died in L.A. Saturday, October 14, after a period of being unwell.

She was in good health and her mind was sharp as a tack as recently as last year, when she granted this compelling interview to TCM's Dave Karger:

Rosetta Jacobs was born on January 22, 1932, in Detroit. She spent time in a sanitarium as a kid, expected to provide company for her asthmatic sister, with whom she once had a WWII musical-comedy act.

Signed to Universal Studios the same day in 1949 when Rock Hudson signed his own deal, she was redubbed Piper Laurie and kept it.

Promoted heavily as a newcomer, she acted in fluff like Francis Goes to the Races (1951), Son of Ali Baba (1951), Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952) and Ain't Misbehavin' (1955).

Rockin' (GIF via GIPHY)

After co-starring with future president Ronald Reagan in 1950's Louisa as his teen daughter, she dated him, revealing in her frank 2011 memoir Living Out Loud that she lost her virginity to the 38-year-old. She was 17.

She rebelliously broke her contract in 1956 and moved to NYC, where she appeared in the TV production of Days of Wine and Roses in 1958, after which she dated its director, John Frankenheimer, for years.

Back in Hollywood, her work in The Hustler (1961), opposite Paul Newman, led to her first Oscar nomination. She wound up with three nominations and no wins.

In 2022, she told Karger she hated The Hustler when she first saw it. "I was stunned at how awful it was, how awful I was... I was so disappointed."

She changed her mind.

Going back to NYC, Laurie made her Broadway debut in the 1965 revival of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. Her only other Broadway performance came in 2002's Morning's at Seven.

Laurie made exactly zero films after her Oscar-nominated turn until Carrie came along in 1976. Playing the ultimate overprotective mom, whose daughter played by Sissy Spacek, was a telekinetic whiz on the verge of a meltdown, she gave one of the most memorable movie performances ever.

"I can see your dirty pillows... everyone will!" her character said of Spacek's character's breasts. "They're all gonna laugh at you!"

Laurie later said her young daughter's friends were scared of her in the wake of the film.

This time, Laurie lost the Oscar to Beatrice Straight.

Once she returned to regular screen acting, Laurie's films included Tim (1979), a May-December romance co-starring Mel Gibson (with whom she later confessed she'd had an affair in real life) as a mentally challenged young man; Children of a Lesser God (1986), for which she received her final Oscar nomination, losing to Dianne Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway; Wrestling with Hemingway (1993); The Crossing Guard (1995); The Grass Harp (1995); The Faculty (1998); and White Boy Rick (2018).

Among her many TV appearances, she was Emmy-nominated for the miniseries The Thorn Birds (1983). Guest spots ranged from anthology series to staples like St. Elsewhere (1983), Hotel (1985), Murder, She Wrote (1985), Matlock (1986) and Frasier (1999).

One of the performances for which Laurie is probably best-remembered by the widest range of fans is a dual role on Twin Peaks (1989-1991). Her character presumably died, then came back disguised as a Japanese businessman. She was Emmy-nominated twice for that one, but she won her only Emmy for her work in the TV movie Promise (1986), with James Woods and James Garner.

I was fortunate to meet Piper Laurie at this autograph show in 2012. (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)

Laurie was married just once, for 20 years to writer and film critic Joe Morgenstern. She described her pleasure at teaching him how to offer useful criticisms in his work instead of hurtful insults, and noted that when he reviewed her in something years after they split, he was "fair."

Laurie is survived by her daughter with Morgenstern, Anna.

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