“Lee Seemed to Jump Right out of the Screen”: A Conversation with Lee Purcell

Actress Lee Purcell has been a mainstay in film and television since she was discovered by Steve McQueen in 1970. Of Lee, McQueen stated ” Lee seemed to jump right out of the screen.”

In 1970 Lee Purcell was amongst five hundred hopeful unknown actresses auditioning for the chance to star in the film Adam At 6 A.M., the first film project to be produced by Hollywood heavy hitter Steve McQueen.  Although she had been acting since she was a child, professionally Lee had done very little – a bit of modelling and a few commercials, as well as a walk-on on a TV show a year earlier.  But out of all the hopeful actresses, McQueen noticed Lee Purcell and not only picked her for the female lead, but took an interest in the young actress and became her personal mentor, thus helping her launch a successful career in film and television.  When asked how he picked Lee out of the five hundred hopefuls, McQueen was quoted as saying “It wasn’t easy. We kept narrowing down the field over a period of weeks until it came to giving screen tests to six of them. All of them were good, but Lee seemed to jump right out of the screen.”

One of the most versatile actresses of our time, Lee has the ability to fit herself into any type of production and cross multiple genres – from comedies to dramas, to episodic television and thrillers.  Not only does the camera love her, but she has a way about her that is continuously interesting to watch.  Not surprisingly, many of the films she has appeared in, such as Big Wednesday, Valley Girl, Mr. Majestyk and Airplane II, have become favorites for film buffs.

It wasn’t easy. We kept narrowing down the field over a period of weeks until it came to giving screen tests to six of them. All of them were good, but Lee seemed to jump right out of the screen.” – Steve McQueen on Lee Purcell

Most recently Lee appeared in the ground-breaking holiday film Carol of the Bells.  Directed by Joey Travolta and featuring Donna Mills, Donna Pescow and Geri Jewell, Carol of the Bells was a sweet holiday film which 70% of the production team were made up of people with disabilities.  According to Lee, not only was the production company both professional and hard working, but the film wrapped up ahead of schedule and under budget!

When I settled in to talk with Lee for this interview, it wasn’t my first opportunity to speak with her and, hopefully, not my last.  Lee is a gifted storyteller, who seems to be connected to everyone and has a interesting story about everything.  And, with me being the type of film fan I am, I sort of went off the beaten path a bit by asking Lee about some of the films I’ve been watching her in, which might have not been the most obvious ones.

But little did I expect that we’d find a common ground in geeking out over one of the most famous radio broadcasts of all time.  What I didn’t know at the time of our interview is that Lee Purcell is currently directing her own recreation of Orson Welles’ historical broadcast of The War of the Worlds as part of SAG-AFTRA’s radio play series.  Set to be released in the months to come, this is the first time War of the Worlds has been done as a Zoom production, and has become a passion project of Lee’s, who has immersed herself in the world of HG Welle’s horrific narrative of aliens and the threat of humanity’s destruction.

Lee Purell with film legend Orson Welles in the 1972 horror film “Necromancy”: “Anything Orson did there were always moments of brilliance…Even in his airline commercials and his wine commercials. He’s Orson Welles. That’s it.

Sam Tweedle: So, in the last while I have seen a lot of films that you’ve been in. Sometimes on purpose, but sometimes you’re just showing up in things that I am just watching – especially episodic television. But one film that I was surprised I had never seen until recently was Necromancy with Orson Welles.

Lee Purcell: It’s so weird you’d bring that one up.

Sam: Why is that?

Lee: It’s kind of a strange because right now I’m directing the first Zoom professional performance of Orson Welles’ version of The War of the Worlds. It’s very interesting, fascinating and difficult to do. We have a big cast, and we are using Orson’s original 1938 script. I did a huge amount of research on The War of the Worlds and found out a whole bunch of things that I never knew. It’s kind of dispelled things I thought I knew. I talk about that in the introduction, and then I dedicate it to Orson. The movie I did with him was horrible, but I really liked him, and he was good to me. So, it’s very interesting that you should bring up Necromancy right away.

Sam: I remember discovering his version of War of the Worlds around the age of eight or nine.

Lee: Me too.

Sam: And it had such a huge impact on me at the time. It really helped define my interest in horror, and narrative and entertainment history.

Lee: Well, that’s what he wanted. The broadcast is over eighty years old but there is all this contradictory information. I really could bore you to death because now I’m a real War of the Worlds nerd. I know all this information. It was incredibly clever of Orson, and he was only twenty-three years old when he did it.

Sam: Yeah. I think about what I was doing at twenty-three and it wasn’t genius by any means. I think most of us can say that.

Lee: Well, he also, in that same year, had four hit Broadway shows. He was one of those people who peaked early, and by the time he worked with me it was something else. It was really fascinating because there is something that really echoes today. So, if you know anything about War of the Worlds, what you heard about that original broadcast was that millions of people went running from their house because the Martians were coming to get them.

Sam: Sure, and that people committed suicide, women had miscarriages and that the cops had to shut it down.

Lee: Well, it was all a lie.

Sam: Really?

Lee Purcell’s current project is directing a Zoom based production of Orson Welles’ ‘War of the Worlds’ as part of the SAG_ACTRA radio play series, which will be used as a fundraiser at a yet to be announced date: ” I really could bore you to death because now I’m a real War of the Worlds nerd. “

Lee: Yeah, and its all proven, yet you have this other side that insists that this happened. In reality, about fifty people ran from their houses all over the country. It’s all tracked by police reports. They had a radio version of the Nielsen’s ratings, and they knew who was listening to what and how many people were listening. Opposite of Mercury Theatre was Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and more people were listening to that. But, at that time newspapers were incredibly powerful, and their only competition was radio. So, they did anything they could to besmirch radio and all these great big headlines read “Orson Welles Gets People to Kill Themselves” and “Mercury Theatre are Criminals.” We’re talking about headlines that were three or four inches tall. The newspaper people wanted to discredit the radio people because radio people were becoming more popular.

Sam: Do you wonder if this was the reason that Orson Welles went after William Hearst with Citizen Kane? I know via some of my research on different topics that this kind of sensationalist besmirching was a real Hearst tactic, and he’d create myths via his paper that are still believed today.

Lee: I suspect it was, because why would Orson go after Hearst later? There’s also this interesting little line in the show where there is a speech done by the VP of CBS, which was the radio station the show was broadcast on, where they say “The national guard needs the recording facilities to report on the Martians progress.” So, they ask CBS if they can take over and the VP says, “Believing that radio has a responsibility to serve in the public interest at all times, we are turning over our facilities to the state militia.” It was really a stab in the eye to newspapers. Before I did my research, I didn’t realize that particular speech had such a meaning, but it did. I think that was Orson’s way of saying “Radio is good, newspapers are bad” and I think he went even further when he did Citizen Kane. Of course, you know that War of the Worlds was an adaptation of H.G. Welles book, and that Orson changed it a lot. Since then, there has been seven films, and TV shows, and stage adaptations but I believe this is the first podcast to do it. It’s very elaborate with a large cast and full costumes, and special effects and sound effects and music. Its very elaborate, but a lot of fun.

Sam: Back to when you worked with Orson. Now I’ve seen Necromancy

Lee: I apologize.

Sam: No no. I wouldn’t say its necessarily a bad film. I’d call it an unfortunate film. It has so many good qualities. I mean, wow, you’ve got a good cast. You have Orson Welles, yourself, Pamela Franklin, Michael Ontkean, Susan Bernard, Harvey Jason. It was a very good cast.

Lee: Yes, the cast was fantastic.

Sam: It also has an interesting concept and some creepy moments, and the final scenes in the cemetery are amazing.

Lee: That’s interesting. I don’t even remember. I don’t know what version you saw. This movie has been chopped and butchered and edited and reedited that I don’t have any idea. I don’t even think the original film exists.

Sam: I think where it suffers is the script. It needed a massive rewrite, and its painful to watch such good actors to have to read those lines. But when you were working with Orson, even on a film such as Necromancy, did you see those moments of brilliance from yesteryear?

Lee: I would say that anything Orson did there were always moments of brilliance. If he had had a good script and a good director, it could have possibly been different. I just always admire him even in the worst of his things. Even in his airline commercials and his wine commercials. He’s Orson Welles. That’s it.

Lee Purcell with Bruno Kirby in the 1978 film “Almost Summer.”: “It was a sweet coming of age movie. Everybody had a really nice time making it.”

Sam: You recently posted a photo on social media of you and Bruno Kirby in Almost Summer. I just love Bruno Kirby. He’s a favorite of mine, so I sought this one out. I had a difficult time finding a copy initially but found it on YouTube in its entirety. I had never heard of it. It seems like an obscure film.

Lee: Well, it was a big deal for Universal at the time.

Sam: I felt it was ahead of its time in a way because it captured the same themes and feelings of John Hughes films before John Hughes films even existed.

Lee: Kind of. But Necromancy, for sure, is an obscure film. Almost Summer was not. It was meant to be a big film. It had a fabulous cast and a big budget. The director had come off of co-directing Lords of Flatbush. The Beach Boys did the music. We weren’t talking about some tiny little film like Necromancy was. You had to be there, I guess. It wasn’t an obscure movie. It just wasn’t a hit. But Universal had high hopes for it. I think it did well, but it wasn’t a hit.

Sam: I didn’t know how I was going to feel about it going in, but by the end of the film the movie gave me all the feels. A lot of films of that type goes into the realm of trash, but Almost Summer is a very sweet movie.

Lee: It was a sweet coming of age movie. Everybody had a really nice time making it. Then Universal, in their eternal wisdom, thought it’d be a good idea if Tim Matheson and I went on tour with the Beach Boys to promote the film, which we did. Tim and I always laugh about this because it was so bizarre. We did twenty-one cities in twenty-three days. I’m talking abut stadiums. Twenty to thirty thousand people. Tim and I were the opening act. We had a routine which we’ll never forget, because when you do that kind of tour that intense it becomes engrained in you. We travelled with the Beach Boys in their private plane, and Universal did my wardrobe, which was gorgeous, and then we would go out before the Beach Boys in each new city, and we’d tell a few jokes and then we’d find out who the sports team was and make comments about them. We would show a little clip of the movie, and then we’d introduce the Beach Boys. The Beach Boys would come out and play a few songs from the movie, and then go into their regular set. I still have the vinyl album from the movie. The music was really good. After the concert we’d fly into the next city, we’d go to sleep, and they’d put us up in beautiful hotels. Then we would get ready, have our press conference in the morning, and then we’d go to dinner and go do the next concert and then get back on the plane and to the next city. This went on for about twenty-one days, and by the middle of the tour we went out on stage and Tim and I looked at each other and we didn’t know where we were. We were burnt out. We didn’t know if we were in Philadelphia or Miami. We just didn’t know. We were just looking at each other, while twenty thousand people were looking at us. So, I turned around and I can see Mike Love just down the steps. So, I say “Mike! What city is this?” He told me, and I turned around and told Tim and we did our little bit. So that’s what I remember most. I don’t’ remember the movie at all because I haven’t seen it since we did the tour.

Sam: Another weird movie I saw this year, which I didn’t realize you were in when I started it, was Mr. Majestyk.

Lee; Okay.

Sam: You know, the one where Charles Bronson is the melon farmer?

Lee: Yeah, yeah. I know the one.

Sam: Just in case you forgot about making that one.

Lee: No, you never forget working with Charles Bronson.

Sam: The premise is a weird one. Charles Bronson is trying to save his melon farm. I’m not sure if I even remember how your character showed up.

Lee: I do because I was forced to watch it fairly recently. This was a very big movie of the time. My character is basically a gun moll. It’s a typical ‘girl role.’ I’d drive Al Letteri around, and meanwhile try to do all this acting business, like trying to make something out of it. I’d be reading the Bible in the car while they go in and kill someone, and I was doing my nails all the time. I was trying to do something all the time, because I was basically “the pretty girl.” I was trying to make the character more than that. I think I succeeded.

Sam: Okay, this makes me think of something I saw one time. I remember watching a documentary on The Magnificent Seven, and they illustrated how Steve McQueen would always be doing stuff physically when he was not the focus, to bring focus back on him. He’d playing with his hat or be rubbing his neck. Is what you are describing here the same method that Steve used? Did you learn that from him?

Lee: Yes, I did. Well, that is a common thing that is taught in acting school, but a lot of people don’t pick up on it or are interested in it. But Steve did, and so I did. If you look at Steve in films, you’ll see him fiddling with things, and if you watch me, you’ll see me fiddling with things too. I did learn a lot from him.

Sam: How involved was Steve with you in the early part of your career?

Lee Purcell with Steve McQueen: “He was my mentor, so that’s pretty involved. He wasn’t on location, but he made me work really hard. ”

Lee: Well, he was my mentor, so that’s pretty involved. He wasn’t on location, but he made me work really hard. I used to work out with him, because I was pretty skinny, and he wanted me to gain weight but not in a way that you weren’t toned. We’d also talk a lot. We’d talk a lot about acting. Remember, I never had done a film before meeting him. I had one line in a TV show. I was pretty well trained, but I never had done much. I was just another struggling starving actress at that time. Steve knew that, and I knew a lot about life, but I didn’t know about being on a film set. I didn’t know about the protocols. He taught me all about that. I still use the exercise program he taught me. He learnt it from his personal Chinese trainer, who I found out thirty years later was Bruce Lee. I’d go to Steve’s office a couple times a week and we’d work out. It was nothing torrid about it. People were coming and going, and we’d do some exercises, but I said to him one day “Every time I come over here you seem to know a new exercise. How did you do that?” He said, “I have this physical fitness teacher, and each time he comes over he teaches me, and then I teach you.” I said, “That’s really something” and he said “Yeah. He’s this martial arts guy. He’s Chinese.” But nobody knew who Bruce Lee was at the time. He hadn’t become “Bruce Lee” yet. He was just a guy trying to make a living by training a movie star. So, I was trained by Bruce Lee, two time removed. Steve would also lecture me on money. I don’t think I listened to well, but he’d tell me how to save and how to be smart with money. Some of the lessons I took, and some of them took a little longer to get. Steve had come from not much money, so he understood that and was smart with money.

Sam: I want to ask you about another favorite of mine. I’m a huge fan of Kenny Rogers and I own probably all of his albums on vinyl. You played opposite of him in his film debut, and probably his most famous acting role, The Gambler.

Lee: Let me tell you a little story about Kenny. I got the job offer, and I really wanted to do it because I love westerns. I met Kenny before the shoot, because he wanted to have me and my then husband or boyfriend (I don’t remember) over for dinner. Coincidentally, I had known Kenny’s then wife, Marianne, prior to her knowing Kenny. I think it was through modelling. I used to see her around though. So, he said, “Come to the house and let’s have dinner.” He had told me before “The house is under a lot of construction, but we’ll do this, and it’ll be fine.” Well, we go over and under construction was certainly an understatement. The house was gutted, because Kenny was really good at building and renovating. He had many talents. So, he’s touring us through the skeleton of the house and showing us where things will go, and he was very excited about it. But then I realize that he’s shown us the dining room and the kitchen, which is all torn up, and I’m starting to wonder where we’ll be eating. But Kenny says, “Let’s go upstairs and we’re going to eat in the master bedroom/master bathroom area”. So, we go through piles of rubble and we’re stepping over scaffolding, and then Kenny says, “Here we are.” Now we are in the largest bathroom I’ve ever seen to this day, and there was a beautiful table set up with crystal and China and we were going to eat here. So, we sat down and there was this fabulous dinner tucked away somewhere, and Kenny was serving us dinner. That was kind of how we kicked off getting to know each other. Then we went out to Arizona to make the film, and when we were there Kenny asked, “Can you meet me, and we can talk about the script?” I said “Sure.” So, we met up and he said “Listen. Can you tell me what I say?” I said, “I don’t know what you mean.” He opens the script and says “All these words. Which ones do I say?” He didn’t know how to read a script. He never read a script because he wasn’t an actor. I said “You see where it says ‘Brady.’ Everything written under there you say.” He said, “Do I say this part?” He points out the words ‘walks out the door.’ I say “No. You don’t say that. You do that, but only if the director wants you.” We went through the whole script, and he was marking it up. So, I told him how to read a script.

Lee Purcell with music legend Kenny Rogerrs in his 1980 acting debut, “The Gambler.” It was Lee who helped Rogers help navigate a script for the first time.: “There was no egos involved. Not on either of our parts. It was one artist helping another artist with an art form he was not familiar with. I remember saying to him ‘This will be a piece of cake for you, because you know hundreds of songs.‘”

Sam: That’s actually a pretty sweet story. It’s so pure, isn’t it?

Lee: Yes, very pure. There was no egos involved. Not on either of our parts. It was one artist helping another artist with an art form he was not familiar with. I remember saying to him “This will be a piece of cake for you, because you know hundreds of songs.”

Sam: I’ve picked up on something interesting as we’ve been going through these films and that is that you have said multiple times that you don’t look at your films. Is that true?

Lee: That’s completely true, unless I am forced to.

Sam: Why is that?

Lee: I don’t know. I’ve already did it. I don’t have to see it, because I’ve already made it. So, I don’t willingly sit down and watch my work. I actually get painfully bored.

Sam: It’s weird for me to think that I may have seen Big Wednesday more times than you have.

Lee: Probably. I’ve seen it once at the premier, and once more at a reunion. Maybe that’s it.

Sam: I’ve seen it probably twenty times because its something I rewatch every summer.

Lee: Well, it is a very good movie, I think.

Sam: It’s a brilliant film.

Lee Purcell with Jan-Michael Vincent in 1978’s “Big Wednesday.” A summer time favorite for film buffs, Lee states she has only seen the film twice.: ” Lee: When we did the memorial for Jan-Michael Vincent, we didn’t play it. We talked about Jan and reminisced and people stood up and said nice things. It was at a really nice place on the beach. Kind of where we shot the movie, but at a nice private venue. It was really good.”

Lee: When we did the memorial for Jan-Michael Vincent, we didn’t play it. We talked about Jan and reminisced and people stood up and said nice things. It was at a really nice place on the beach. Kind of where we shot the movie, but at a nice private venue. It was really good.

Sam: Not long ago I also managed to track down your most recent film, Carol of the Bells.

Lee: That’s great.

Sam: It’s a nice little film, and I think its astonishing the way the film was made.

Lee: Well, it is. That was the whole draw for me, to work with Joey Travolta and that seventy precent of the crew had disabilities. Andrea, who played Carol, actually has downs syndrome, and RJ actually has cerebral palsy. For me it was a real ground-breaking film. When they offered it to me my agent said to me “It’s a small film, but its great people.” I read it and said, “This Is what it is” and she said, “It’s a no brainer.” So, I did it.

Sam: You also have a few projects on the imdb.

Lee: I do?

Sam: Yeah. You have a pilot called Sick.

Lee; Yes. I did that. Its really a good pilot. I really like it. I don’t mind doing pilots. It hasn’t found its home yet, but I think it’s a really good story. I play kind of a Nurse Ratchet character, but it’s set in a very luxurious mental institution for young Hollywood performers that are having breakdowns. But I don’t know where its going to go.

Sam: The other film you have online is called Is Sex Better Than Chocolate?

“Some people will try to trick you by saying “Hey, this is a great opportunity if you go to my hotel room’ and, no, those are never great opportunities. Those are dangerous. So, you have to also learn to recognize that if you are a young actress.”

Lee: Oh yes. That’s a comedy. It has nothing to do with sex, but its funny. I don’t know when it comes out. I just do the movies and then I just move on.

Sam: Is that how you stay busy? You always seem to be working. If you were talking to young actors getting into television and film today, what would your advice to them be to maintain a career in the business like you have?.

Lee: Well, I was taught how to maintain by Steve. He would have kept going if he had not died. But there is no one size fits all to that question, because everybody is different, and everybody has to make their own path. I’m sad sometimes today because its not about the work all the time. It becomes about fame, money and number of followers. I’m really glad I didn’t grow up in that. I think that’s something that sucks you in. It has its place, but I don’t think it’s healthy and I don’t think it works if you want to be a real actor. Now if you just want to get in, and get your 30 million dollars and get out, then okay. To each their own. But it’s not a one size fits all question. It also changes as you get opportunities, and when you don’t get the opportunities that you thought you’d get or that you wanted to get. You need to recognize the opportunities you do get.

Sam: That’s interesting.

Lee: Yes. I sometimes had a hard time with that because I would want ‘Box A’ but I couldn’t get ‘Box A.’ Then someone would offer me ‘Box C’, but I didn’t want that. I wanted ‘Box A.’ So, I made mistakes like that. The only guidance I ever had was Steve, and he was gone. So, I think actors need to learn to take opportunities that we might not think are opportunities, but in the end they are. It’s really a tricky thing, and some people will try to fool you. Some people will try to trick you by saying ‘Hey, this is a great opportunity if you go to my hotel room’ and, no, those are never great opportunities. Those are dangerous. So, you have to also learn to recognize that if you are a young actress. Even though things are better today, because of the #metoo movement and so forth, its still there.

Sam: But isn’t there an element that you shouldn’t say yes to everything?

Lee: Well, you need to be able to filter and to recognize, and it’s hard to do when you’re young because you don’t have the life experience. Unless you have mentors or family who understand the business, it’s very difficult. I didn’t have any family who could do anything for me advice wise. All they ever did was give me very bad advice, even though they thought it was good advice. I think people who come from a show business family, in some ways, have it easier because they can go to Mom or Dad or an Aunt or Uncle and say, “How about this” and they have someone who experienced that can talk to them. But on the other hand, I think they have it harder because they have to be compared to someone who is already successful, and I think that’s hard. But for myself, I wish I had a family member who knew more about the business or have had Steve live longer. So, when you are young you should read as much as you can. Read people’s autobiographies because you’ll learn a lot from doing that. If they are honest biographies, you can take those lessons away. I’m not talking about the internet. I’m taking about a book that has a cover or get it on your kindle. Read as many autobiographies as you can in the field you want to go into. If you want to be a costumer, read those. If you want to be an actor, read those. If you want to be a director, read those. I think that autobiographies are informative.

If ever was there an actress whose autobiography I’d want to read it’d be Lee Purcell.  Lee is a wonderful storyteller and a woman who has walked amongst some of Hollywood’s biggest stars and have leant from the best.  The wisdom she has to offer is potentially invaluable.  But what I love about talking to Lee is that she is not only a great conversationist, but she has a realistic candor that is both frank and refreshing.  Not only has Lee Purcell become one of my favorite actresses to watch, but also to talk to.  We’ve barely scratched the surface with the lifetime of stories she has to tell.

For more information on the SAG-AFTA radio play series, which will be presenting Lee’s production of War of the Worlds visit https://www.sagaftra.org/los-angeles/local-programs/sag-aftra-radio-plays#:~:text=The%20Radio%20Plays%20Committee%20(SARP,supportive%2C%20entertaining%20and%20educational%20environment and visit her web-site at https://leepurcell.com/test/.

About the author

Since 2013, Sam Tweedle has been writing as an arts and culture journalist for kawarthaNOW, with special attention to Peterborough's theatrical community. However, his career as an arts writer goes back further via his website Confessions of a Pop Culture Addict where Sam has interviewed some of the entertainment world's most notable and beloved entertainers. Sam's pop culture writing has been featured in The New York Times, Newsweek, The National Post, CNN.com, Filmfax Magazine and The New Yorker. You can follow Sam on Instagram at sam_tweedle_z where he posts about his four greatest loves: cats, comic books, movies, and records. Sam no longer uses Twitter because, as far as he's concerned, it's no longer a thing.