Few actors could name Whitefish, Mont., as their show business origin, much less while attending First Grade. Constance Towers remembers the day, around 1940, when visitors arrived at her school in search of radio talent.
“They wanted someone to play a little boy for Northwest Theatre, so I raised my hand,” recalled Towers from her home in Los Angeles. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into and ended up working on radio for 3 years.”
It was the beginning of a long career that extended into stage, film, and television, including 13 years on the daytime soap, “General Hospital,” as the vengeful Helena Cassadine.
By 12, little Connie was singing, and later attended the Juilliard School of Music when her father, a pharmaceutical executive, moved the family to New York.
“I developed a love for opera and Broadway,” said Towers, who eventually appeared in several productions including “The King and I” alongside Yul Brynner in 1977.
“We gave over 1,000 performances, including several months before and after the Broadway production,” recalled Towers. “We would get to the theater at 5 pm and have a cup of tea in one of our dressing rooms before the show. ‘The King’ [Brynner] had a wonderful sense of humor and became ‘giggly’ if something struck him as funny, even on stage.”
Tower’s film career began two decades earlier as lead actress in two John “Pappy” Ford westerns, the first being 1959’s “The Horse Soldiers” shot in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Her co-stars were John Wayne and William Holden.
“Duke Wayne was delightful – to meet him was to know him,” said Towers. “He would return from a day’s shooting covered in dirt and stand for an hour talking to fans. I remember one kid asking his advice because his father wouldn’t let him use the car on Saturday nights. Duke told him ‘Well, do you ever thank your dad? Do you offer to wash the car? Tell him you love him!’ The kid was in awe.”
Holden was another story.
“He kept to himself and didn’t feel obliged to talk to fans when they came up for autographs,” recalled Towers. “He felt he was hired to do a job – act in a film – and that’s what he did to the best of his ability.”
However, Wayne and Holden seemed to get along well, says Towers.
“One day Duke feigned a toothache and told Pappy he had to go into Shreveport to see a dentist. Duke and Bill [Holden] disappeared for the night, having apparently found a couple of bars. When they returned next morning, Ford lined up all the stuntmen who had to smell their breath and report if the pair were sober. Of course, their loyalty was to Duke, so they passed the test!”
Despite his reputation for toughness – or perhaps because of it – Ford fostered a strong bond with his actors and crew. This was apparent when tragedy struck the set.
“Freddy Kennedy was one of two stuntmen assigned to take care of me,” recalled Towers. “It was the last shot of the picture and he was supposed to jump a fence, get shot, and fall off his horse. Duke decided to play a joke on him, and told me Freddy would lie still on the ground until someone said ‘cut’ and that I should run up and surprise him with a kiss. When I did, I lifted his head and it was just a bunch of bones cracking in my hands. He had broken his neck and died.”
The close-knit cast and crew were devastated, with Towers, Ford, Wayne, and Holden all retuning to Kennedy’s home to console his wife.
Tower’s second Ford film the following year was “Sergeant Rutledge.” It co-starred Woody Strode, one of the best African American actors of the period, who died in 1994. July 25 was the centenary of his birth.
“Pappy could be rough on actors,” said Towers. “He convinced Woody’s wife, Luana, to walk out on Woody the night before he had a big emotional courtroom scene. Woody arrived next day on the set absolutely distraught, but Pappy told him to complete the scene which he did, brilliantly. Woody adored Ford, but came very close to verbally abusing him that day.”
On television, Towers is best known for roles in several daytime soaps, including over 100 episodes of “General Hospital” since 2000.
“I really don’t think soap actors get enough credit,” she said. “It’s very challenging. Not only do you have to learn your lines – sometimes 10-20 pages a day – but it’s a constant challenge to bring your emotions up quickly.”
In the 1980s, while Towers was appearing in film and television projects such as the CBS drama “Capitol,” work was even more demanding since her husband – former actor John Gavin (“Psycho,” “Spartacus”) – was living out of the country.
“Both he and Ronald Reagan were presidents of the Screen Actors Guild and when Reagan became president, he asked him to be U.S. Ambassador to Mexico [1981-1986],” said Towers. “My husband’s mother was Mexican and he told her when he was just 7 years old that he wanted to be Ambassador to Mexico one day!”
Towers appeared in many classic TV series such as “The Outer Limits,” “The Rockford Files,” and “Perry Mason” and, at age 81, continues to act and work with numerous charitable groups. She will appear in Radick Cembrzynski’s upcoming independent film, “Aghape.”
“It’s so seductive,” she said about acting. “I can’t imagine giving it up and feel so lucky people still want me.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 400 magazines and newspapers.