Barbara Nichols (1929-1976) - Our all-time favorite brassy, sassy, big-mouthed '50s blonde, hands-down
character counts - This is a new recurring feature devoted to those familiar faces - Hollywood's invaluable character actors, addressing them by their names. Which too few of us know, even dedicated cinéphiles.
One of the fleeting pleasures of watching '50s movies is the occasional date with Barbara Nichols, not so much one of the many blonde bombshells (and Marilyn-wannabes) who drifted, rather languidly, throughout the decade but a first-rate supporting performer and team player. Fox had its CinemaScope trademark blonde, Monroe, in its stable (keeping Sheree North and Jayne Manfield on hold for whenever MM acted up) and Columbia had Judy Holliday and Kim Novak playing different degrees of blonde and dumb. But on the fringe, working free-lance, were such names as Mamie Van Doren, Joi Lansing, Britain's Diana Dors and ...
Of the bunch, Nichols came across as the toughest and most likable. She was the Damon Runyon blonde - brassy, sassy and resplendent with her Brooklyn accent - among the more machine-tooled bottle blondes.
Her big year was 1957 when she played the poignant role of Rita in Alexander Mackendrick's "Sweet Smell of Success," the wise-cracking Gladys Bump in George Sidney's "Pal Joey" and Poopsie in Stanley Donen and George Abbott's "The Pajama Game." Other roles came - Philip Dunne's "Ten North Frederick" (1958) with Gary Cooper; Raoul Walsh's "The Naked and the Dead" (also '58) with Aldo Ray; Sidney Lumet's "That Kind of Woman" (1959) with Sophia Loren and Tab Hunter, and Sidney's "Who Was That Lady?" (1960), with Dean Martin, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh and fellow bomshell Lansing (playing her sister, no less), along with bits with Robert Cummings (and Lansing again) on "The Bob Cummings Show"/"Love That Bob" sitcom.
Her scratchy, chalk-on-a-blackboard voice fueled these films and made most of them memorable, but sexpots, like dancers, usually don't age well. By the 1960s, Nichols was left with guest roles on TV series, although she had something of a personal triumph on Broadway in Ray Evans-Jay Livingston's "Let It Ride," starring George Gobel and Sam Levene - a 1961 musical version of Mervyn LeRoy's 1936 film, "Three Men on a Horse," in which Levene recreated his original role.
She died young - at age 46 - in 1976.