Cara Williams, the perky redhead who received an Oscar nomination for her performance in The Defiant Ones before starring in a pair of CBS sitcoms in the 1960s, has died. She was 96.
Williams died Thursday of a heart attack at her home in Beverly Hills, her daughter, Justine Jagoda, told The Hollywood Reporter. “My mom was a loving soul, she would take you in her arms and always help you,” she said.
A native of Brooklyn, Williams also worked alongside Audrey Hepburn in her first feature, We Go to Monte Carlo (1951), shared a dance with James Cagney as a character named Winnipeg in Never Steal Anything Small (1959) and played a moll in the Danny Kaye comedy The Man From the Diners’ Club (1963).
She was married to actor John Drew Barrymore, the son of movie legend John Barrymore and the father of actress Drew Barrymore, from 1953-59.
In the memorable Stanley Kramer drama The Defiant Ones (1958), starring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier as escaped convicts who spend much of the movie being chained together, Williams portrayed the lonely mother of a young son who falls for Curtis’ character.
Williams worked on the film for just two weeks “for very little money,” she said in an interview for The Midnight Palace. “I was shocked when I was nominated for an Academy Award because I really walked through that movie. I never really studied my lines, I practically studied them on the set.”
Curtis once told TV Guide that Williams “is a complete original. There’s nobody like her. She’s a very sexy girl, but she’s also like a man. I’ll tell you what she’s like: She’s like having a best friend you’d like to kiss.”
Williams starred as the TV wife of future M*A*S*H great Harry Morgan on Pete and Gladys, which debuted in September 1960. A scatterbrained woman who often found herself in hot water, her character resembled that of another famous redhead, Lucille Ball.
The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour had aired its final episode five months earlier. Williams’ new show aired on Monday nights too, and many of Pete and Gladys‘ writers and producers had collaborated with Ball.
“When I was playing Gladys, people would say, ‘That’s not a character part for her, that’s her [in real life],’ ” she said. “I’m a little ditzy.”
Morgan had starred on the popular 1954-59 CBS comedy December Bride as insurance agent and next-door neighbor Pete Porter, who was always complaining about his wife. Gladys, though, was never seen during the show’s five seasons.
In 1962, Williams received an Emmy nomination for her work, but Pete and Gladys was canceled after its second season.
After the show aired in reruns on daytime TV for two years, Williams returned to primetime with The Cara Williams Show, playing a file clerk who marries the company office-efficiency expert (Frank Aletter). However, they have to keep that a secret because their firm prohibits couples from working together.
That show was gone after one season.
Williams later appeared on three first-season episodes of CBS’ Rhoda as a work associate of David Groh’s character but rarely appeared on the screen after that.
Born Bernice Kamiat on June 29, 1925, she was driven into show business by her mother, who brought her out to California when she was a teenager. At age 13, Williams did voices for Porky Pig cartoons.
She signed a contract with 20th Century Fox and had a small part as a secretary in Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), then had bit parts in two movies adored by film noir aficionados, The Spider (1945) and Elia Kazan’s Boomerang! (1947).
After playing opposite Humphrey Bogart in Nicholas Ray’s Knock on Any Door (1949), Williams spent the next several years working in TV on such shows as Suspense and The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse. She later appeared on four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Williams’ body of work also included a pair of movies starring Dan Dailey — The Girl Next Door (1953) and Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956) — The Great Diamond Robbery (1954), Michael Curtiz’s The Helen Morgan Story (1957) and Doctors’ Wives (1971).
She is also survived by her son, John Blyth Barrymore, who played David Carradine’s nephew, Zeke, on the 1970s ABC series Kung Fu.
A funeral will take place Wednesday at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary in Culver City.