Wednesday 23 January 2013

Alice Pearce

When Frank Sinatra called columnist Dorothy Kilgallen “the Chinless Wonder,” he wasn’t being complementary. But there was an actress who seems to have given it to herself and relished the title.

Anyone who watched sitcoms in the ‘60s—or reruns of them years later—will recognise the shrill cry “Abner! Abner!!!” Gladys Kravitz shouted it at her uninterested husband (who was usually reading a newspaper at the time) as she witnessed something unexplainable going on next door at Darren and Samatha Stephens’ home on “Bewitched.” The nosy neighbour role was originated by Alice Pearce, who credited her lack of chin with giving her plenty of work as a character actress. Considering she was dying of cancer at the time “Bewitched” debuted in 1964, her chin was the least of her worries.

Pearce hadn’t achieved notoriety as Mrs. Kravitz when Parade magazine profiled her in its issue of October 11, 1964; she had only appeared on two episodes at that point. But the article captures her positive attitude toward life.

Alice Pearce the Chinless Wonder

Most people who are born with or acquire a handicap let it get them down.
They waste years of their lives getting pickled in the vinegar of their own depression. They develop an introverted and sour personality. Disgruntled, irascible, disappointed, they become envious and irritable, constantly bemoan the unkind fate which made them too tall, too short, not pretty or handsome or rich enough.
There are some persons, however, who not only conquer their handicaps but turn them into assets.
Take the case of Alice Pearce, 46, formerly of New York City and now of Los Angeles. A receding chin has led Alice to Broadway, TV and film success as the bird-brain of all time. Thanks to her fadeaway chin, Alice earns from $20,000 to $30,000 a year playing lame-brain and idiot parts.
She has just finished working in five major films, the latest opposite Jimmy Stewart in Dear Brigitte, and has more TV character offers than she can handle. “Women with fadeaway chins who look weak and silly,” Alice says, “are apparently hard to come by.”
Alice Pearce was not born with the runaway chin-line which is today her stock in trade. She was born in New York City of a firm-chinned, wealthy and intelligent family. Her father was a foreign banking specialist, and when Alice was a child she was taken to Brussels, Belgium, where her dad represented the Chase National Bank.
“One afternoon when I was 9,” the actress recalls, “I was playing in a park in Brussels. 1 was showing off on a swing. I think I was trying to impress some boys. I went way up, lost my grip and slipped out of the swing.”
Alice landed on her chin with such impact that its growth was permanently retarded. All the dentists and bone specialists of Europe could do nothing for the girl. From that point on she was destined to go through life with an underdeveloped chin.
“Every girl wants to be beautiful," Alice Pearce declares, “especially in our society where we put such a tremendous emphasis on physical beauty. In our culture, according to the advertisements, to be beautiful is to be automatically happy.
Supposedly doors open for you everywhere, men swoon, beauty is the key to success.
“None of this is true, but like every other young girl, I was brainwashed by this concept, which, of course, made me unhappy. As a teenager I was sent off to boarding school, the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. At first I was self-conscious about my chin. Youngsters can be cruel, and I was afraid my classmates would make fun of me. They didn’t. They were very kind.
“As a result I didn’t develop any trauma. I was unhappy for a while, but I refused to let my chin or lack of one bring on an inferiority complex.
“When I got to Sarah Lawrence College, I looked in the mirror one day. I took inventory of myself. The most unusual thing about me was my chin. I decided to take advantage of it and become a comedienne, so I studied dramatics.
“While I was in college, I dated boys. Some of them actually phoned for a second or third date, and that was very reassuring to my ego. It proved that the boys were interested in me as a person, in me as a character, not because I had a pretty face.”
After graduation, Alice Pearce prepared herself for a theatrical career by a season of summer stock in Maine. Leonard Sillman, the producer, watched her work, and because comediennes are the rarest of breeds, signed her for her Broadway debut in New Faces of 1943.
“Luckily for me,” says Alice, “my weak chin caught on promptly, and I was signed for one bird-brain role after another.”
Alke was brought to Hollywood for a feature role opposite Fred Astaire in On the Town. After that she worked in Look, Ma, I'm Dancing, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Small Wonder, a flock of other Broadway and Hollywood hits. Returning to New York, she put together a one-gal night club comedy act. It played the Blue Angel in New York for 67 consecutive weeks.
Alice’s private life was equally fruitful. In 1948 she married John Rox, the composer (It’s a Big, Wide Wonderful World), and the marriage was a happy one, dissolved only when Rox died of a sudden heart attack in 1957.
Last month Alice Pearce got married again, this time to Paul Davis, a former Broadway director who now runs one of the leading art galleries in Los Angeles.
“I've never had any trouble with either men or women,” she says. “And frankly I think it's because of my chin. Everyone likes me to begin with because they feel sorry for me. When eventually they get to know me, they enjoy me for whatever good qualities I may have. I think this is particularly true of men. They say I’m fun to be with, that I'm not vain or self-centered. More important, I’m not competing against them.
“As for women, no woman has ever been jealous of me—not with my chin. Matter of fact, a physical handicap like mine makes me very, very popular with the girls. They take one look at me and say to themselves, ‘She’s no competition.’
“People with handicaps have an advantage in a competitive society. Unless they’re truculent or arrogant or just plain ornery, the first impression they make is a very sympathetic one. They arouse kindness and understanding and generosity. People want to lend them a helping hand.
“Look at me. As a chinless wonder, I've done very well. If I’d sustained no accident as a kid, if I had developed an ordinary chin, today I’d probably be just another starving, middle-aged character actress.
“Even if I had developed into a beauty—and I might have, because my mother was a beautiful woman—I’d be haunted by the fear of growing old. That’s the trouble with all beautiful actresses. Time eventually robs them of their beauty. They see it going, and they become desperate. They go in for plastic surgery, face-lifting, wrinkle-removing. How to stay young becomes their prime obsession.
"If a woman has never known great exterior beauty, she doesn't have to worry about its disappearance.
“Young girls won't believe this, hut many an intelligent man would rather marry a girl of charm, wit, character and achievement than a beauty contest winner who has none of these. Beauty is transient. Character is not. People who surmount handicaps generally develop character.
“If you were born with one, you should be grateful, not sorry. Take it from a chinless wonder who knows.”

Pearce died in 1966 and her part was taken by radio veteran Sandra Gould, who played the character a little more snarky than Pearce. In a way, there was a third Gladys Kravitz. In one episode, Endora (deliciously played by Agnes Moorehead) changes Gladys’ voice briefly to a little girl’s. That voice belongs to another wonderful actress named June Foray.

Pearce was voted a Best Supporting Actress Emmy posthumously for her work on “Bewitched.” Had she been around to accept it herself, she might have said she won it by a chin.


  1. Pearce died the same day as Willam Frawley of "I love Lucy", 3/3/66!! Steve C.

  2. I would recommend the episodes "Abner Kadabra" and "Prodigy" if you want to see Alice Pearce in a featured role in "Bewitched".

    Her work in both episodes (the latter directed by Howard Morris) is hysterical, and the latter episode was actually held back by Screen Gems and ABC to be a tribute to Pearce as the final episode of Season 2 following her death. And the B&W (now colorized) first two seasons of "Bewitched" with Peace really is quite a different, and less geared towards kids, show than the color seasons that would follow.

    1. Actually, according to a letter written by Harry Ackerman to me in 1988, "Prodigy" was not held back as a tribute to Miss Pearce. However, the network did announce her death on the evening of March 3 (a Thursday) just before the Bewitched episode "The Horse's Mouth."

  3. Alice Pearce was the best Gladys Kravitz, IMO. Sandra Gould was OK, but Pearce's Gladys was the definitive 'nosy neighbor' sitcom character.

  4. J.L., I think "Bewitched" ended up suffering from the same disease as the producers of "Batman" on the same network: Campitis. Both shows were a little more serious in tone at the beginning, but were overcome with a desire to ham it up. I think it helped "Bewitched" until they ran out of ideas and followed the well-worn "add a baby" gimmick ("Batman" tried the "add a woman in a tight outfit" gimmick which didn't work for the show's demographic).
    Pearce and Tobias had such great chemistry you'd swear they were married. The mark of fine character acting.

    1. ABC in the 1960s -- both in its TV and radio division -- was kind of like Fox a generation later, in that they seeded the older viewers to CBS and NBC and really went after the youth market. Since Liz Montgomery became pregnant in real life, that sort of forced the baby situation onto the show in Season 2, but when the series went to color in 1966, it also lost the last of team that had been the main writers and creative talent for the show in its initial seasons, in Danny Arnold, Jerry Davis and Bernard Slade.

      William Froug, fresh off producing "The Twilight Zone" and "Gilligan's Island" for CBS took over, and that's pretty much the way the show started heading -- more magic meets more 'wacky' story lines, which apparently is what ABC wanted. The cast attrition of losing first Pearce and then Marion Lorne to death and Dick York to his back problems and pill addictions didn't help, either (York becoming Columbia's television version of Curly Howard, in being worked right up to having his major medical crisis on-set, and then seeing the studio just write around his illness in that scene and then find a replacement as if nothing happened).

      I remember in the Batman pilot, they actually killed Jill St. John, which IIRC was the only character to actually die during the series' three-year run. The early episodes asked viewers to take the story lines at least a little seriously, but by the end of Season 1, the writers and producers weren't even trying to hide their inability to take the concept seriously. Which is why by the end of Season 2, even kids who were fans of the character found the show was insulting their intelligence.

    2. Thanks for this heartfelt tribute to Alice Pearce, a very brave lady. Her story still inspires almost fifty years later. As for BEWITCHED episodes featuring Alice, I think one of her best is "It's Magic."

  5. Does anyone know what exactly happened to her 2nd husband after her death? I mean: When did he die? Is he still alive? Did he remarry?

    1. He never remarried. Alice was his only spouse. He did direct a handful of TV episodes and even appeared in a campy film DINAH EAST in 1970 before dying of lung cancer in 1984 in Los Angeles.