Wednesday, August 15, 2018

character counts: barbara nichols

Barbara Nichols (1929-1976) - Our all-time favorite brassy, sassy, big-mouthed '50s blonde, hands-down
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 freelance, were such names as Mamie Van Doren, Joi Lansing, Britain's Diana Dors and ...

Barbara Nichols.

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 bombshell 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," with Levene recreating his original movie role.

Barbara Nichols died young - at age 46 - in 1976 from an automobile accident that severely damaged her liver and ultimately put her in a coma.

character counts - This is a recurring feature devoted to those familiar faces - Hollywood's invaluable character actors -  addressing them,  finally, by their names.  Which too few of us know, even some dedicated cinéphiles.

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(from top)

~Barbara Nichols, off screen

~The usual "bombshell" studio publicity shot

~Nichols with Janet Leigh and Joi Lansing in "Who Was That Lady?"
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1960©


Richard said...

Mis Nichols was a wonderful actress. Currently I'm writing a book about her! Anyone who knew her or worked with her, please contact me at

Charlotte said...

I always love Nichols, as breezy as she is blowzy, and always a treat. Her perf in Sweet Smell of Success is the epitome of the smart/dumb blonde, I love it when, after Tony Curtis has asked her to sleep with another guy as a favor, and she snaps, "What am I, a bowl of fruit? A tangerine that peels in a minute?"

joe baltake said...

Charlottte- Love that line! Watched SSoS about a week ago, and that piece of dialogue jumped out at me. Nichols work in it also prompted me to write something about this most unheralded of actresses.

Mike Schlesinger said...

So when do we get a hat-tip to Lansing? Talk about someone who was never used to even close to her potential. I saw her last night on a Jack Benny rerun and she didn't have a single line!

Walt said...

I agree on how you described Barbara, she sure had somewhat of a short life, huh?


A.N. said...

I would not have known her name, but I recognized her face right away. Thanks for telling me about this performer, who somehow managed to be both emblematic and anonymous.