By Elizabeth McLeod
Often a supporting player, rarely a star — and yet she won an Oscar for her first movie role and was called the most gifted radio actress of all by no less an authority than Orson Welles. That’s how it worked out for one of the most talented women ever to stand behind a microphone. Even without flashy big-name roles, Mercedes McCambridge had plenty of opportunities to shine. Then, toward the close of the radio era, she finally got her big moment in the broadcast spotlight, as radio’s fearless Defense Attorney.
It was a long path to the top. Mercedes McCambridge was born a farm girl in Joliet, Illinois in 1916 as Carlotta Mercedes Agnes McCambridge. A bright, energetic child, young “Mercy” grew up to attend Mundelein College near Chicago, where she was a force in campus theatricals. NBC Chicago program director Sidney Strotz happened to attend one of her performances, and was impressed. When she graduated in 1937, he recruited her for the Merchandise Mart acting company. Chicago was then the place to be for soap opera production, and Mercedes McCambridge, with her distinctive, gritty voice was born to play juicy character roles. Strotz took a personal interest in the ambitious young actress, mentoring her in the techniques of radio acting and guiding her carefully from role to role. Her versatility flourished under Strotz’s guidance, and she soon acquired a reputation as an actress who could fill any role required in a drama, comedy, or historical piece.
McCambridge pursued a romantic relationship with her mentor, but when that ended, she married fellow Merchandise Mart staff actor William Fifield. Together, the couple migrated to Hollywood in 1939, and the roles came even thicker and faster than they had in Chicago. McCambridge frequently appeared in the plays of Arch Oboler, who had known and appreciated her work in the Windy City. She became a special favorite of writer/producer Carlton E. Morse, who used her again and again in his legendary adventure serial I Love A Mystery. Finally, in 1942, she got a starring role in a short-lived sitcom adaptation of the 1920’s Broadway chestnut Abie’s Irish Rose. This role brought her east to New York, where her life took a sharp twist. Her marriage to Fifield fell apart, she befriended and worked regularly for Orson Welles, and she met a dashing Canadian writer/director named Fletcher Markle, who would become her second husband. McCambridge began a sporadic career on Broadway that would bring her to the attention of movie talent scouts who, ironically, had given her no notice at all during her prior residence in Hollywood.
Mercedes McCambridge did not have “movie star” looks or a “movie star” attitude — she had piercing eyes set in a stern, rather pinched face, and didn’t think much of the whole glamour-girl/cheesecake mentality required for up-and-coming starlets. But, she could act, and was fully equipped to handle the most demanding character parts. She was tapped to play the role of Governor Willie Stark’s bitter, manipulative campaign manager in the searing 1949 political drama All The King’s Men, and astounded the movie establishment by walking away with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Suddenly the unsung radio actress was a name star, and the time was right for a broadcast vehicle of her own.
It took some time to find just the right format for her. McCambridge’s persona was not such that it lent itself to situation comedy, romance, or soapy drama, and the Lady Private Eye bit was already becoming a bit trite. Instead, McCambridge’s no-nonsense manner seemed to carry a firm sort of authority, just the thing for a courtroom drama. In early 1951, writer Cameron Blake came up with The Defense Rests, with McCambridge featured as Martha Ellis “Marty” Bryant, a crusading criminal lawyer who took the cases no one else could handle, seeking justice for those unjustly accused, and giving no quarter as a strong, intelligent woman in what some still quaintly considered “a man’s world.” The audition recording made the rounds during the summer, and by the fall of 1951 it had landed a spot on the ABC schedule.
The program surrounded McCambridge with a first-rate supporting cast. Marty’s romantic interest was investigative reporter Jud Barnes, played with suitable heroic style by Howard Culver, best known for his turns as intellectual sleuth Ellery Queen and the juvenile action hero Straight Arrow. The obligatory friendly-enemy police presence was furnished by Tony Barrett as Lieutenant Ed Ledes. The rest of the cast was filled out by the usual fine repertory company of actors who populated so many Hollywood radio dramas of the day, including Parley Baer, Paul Frees, Harry Bartell, Larry Dobkin, Irene Tedrow and others. Other than the novelty of a female lead, the format wasn’t so different from other crusading-lawyer shows of the time, right down to the stirring Mr. District Attorney-like epigraph that opened each episode. McCambridge’s distinctive voice and intense manner, however, gave the program a flavor all its own.
The series, like so many radio and television dramas about the legal profession, spent much of its time outside the courtroom. Marty Bryant was as interested in solving crimes and bringing the true perpetrators to justice as she was in securing acquittals for her clients. With Jud Barnes doing much of the legwork, she acted as much as a private eye as she did a lawyer. The scripts were briskly written, the direction was punchy, even the musical settings contributed to the crisp flavor of the drama, which stands out as one of the better programs of the 1951-52 season, network radio’s last real stand before the explosion of television in 1953.
This was a challenging time for McCambridge. She was pregnant that summer and fall, and found it necessary to maneuver her schedule around medical appointments and other family preparations. Fortunately, Defense Attorney was pre-recorded, allowing the episodes to be prepared well in advance of broadcast time, and allowing the cast great flexibility in scheduling. The pregnancy ended tragically, the infant was stillborn, and McCambridge found herself facing increasing personal tension in her marriage to Fletcher Markle. She kept on working, but life was closing in on her.
Defense Attorney ended its run in December 1952, and McCambridge returned to movies. At first, she seemed poised to reach even greater heights. She made a strong impression as a hard-riding vigilante in the bizarre Joan Crawford western Johnny Guitar in 1954, earned a second Oscar nomination in George Stevens’ Giant in 1956, and made a showy cameo appearance in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil in 1959, but these roles failed to keep her on top.
As the 50s turned into the 60s, the Markle-McCambridge marriage continued to deteriorate, became acrimonious, and finally fell completely apart. A family curse began to bear down on Mercedes — the curse of alcoholism. She had always been a drinker, but after her divorce and the gradual dissolution of her career, she began to drink heavily…and word got around. Her roles became less challenging, less interesting, and less frequent. What could have been a triumphant comeback ended abruptly when studio executives considered, and then rejected her, as the possible lead in the Western TV series The Big Valley. Due to her alcoholism, she was replaced by Barbara Stanwyck. Life was fast approaching rock bottom.
In 1969, Mercedes McCambridge pulled her life back together. She tamed her demons and became a leading advocate for alcoholic treatment programs, speaking across the country about her own ordeal. Ironically, she played what may be her best known role in 1973, as the voice of an actual demon in the horror thriller The Exorcist. Her voice was still as powerful and versatile as ever, and she gladly grabbed the opportunity to return to radio in the late 1970’s in episodes of Himan Brown’s CBS Radio Mystery Theatre. She also returned to Broadway in outstanding character roles through the 1970’s, 1980’s, and even the 1990’s. Despite a final wrenching tragedy, the suicide of her only son in 1987, McCambridge maintained her talent, her ability, and her dignity until the very end. She died in 2004, one of the true legends of radio drama.
This slightly revised article was first published March 2012 in the Radio Spirits Email Newsletter.
Copyright 2015 Elizabeth McLeod and RSPT LLC. All rights reserved.