By John C. Alsedek:
“When casting people have a call for a woman
who looks like the wrath of God, I’m notified.”
It’s a fact of the entertainment business that actors can get typecast. Sometimes, that can be to the detriment of their careers, as they’re never offered any sort of roles outside the narrow range that’s been foisted upon them; I’ll be doing a column on a prime example of this in the next couple of months: Al Hodge of Captain Video fame.
But for a lot of others, typecasting has ensured a career’s worth of satisfying work in show business. Virginia Gregg was one of the greatest examples of the latter, spending five decades in radio, TV, and film because she didn’t let a fear of being pigeonholed keep her from turning in one outstanding performance after another.
Virginia Gregg was born on March 6, 1916, in Harrisburg, Illinois. The child of businessman Edward William Gregg and musician Dewey Alphaleta, she and her family would move to Pasadena in 1921. Following in the footsteps of her mother, Gregg had an interest in both acting and music from a young age. After attending the Pacific Academy of Dramatic Art, Gregg pursued a music career in her late teens and into her twenties, playing the double bass (also known as the upright bass) with the Pasadena Symphony and Pops; she was also a member of The Singing Strings ensemble that performed on CBS Radio and Mutual Broadcasting in the late 1930s and into the 1940s.
However, by the back half of the '40s, Gregg had transitioned to acting full-time, becoming one of the most in-demand voices on radio. She was a regular on Richard Diamond, Private Detective with Dick Powell, where she played Diamond’s girlfriend, Helen Asher, from 1949 until 1953. Gregg was also a favorite of Jack Webb, who cast her regularly (and in a wide variety of roles) on his radio version of Dragnet, which aired on NBC Radio from 1949 until 1957. Besides those programs, she was frequently heard on Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (more than a dozen times each), as well as Have Gun-Will Travel (where she played Hey Boy’s girlfriend, Miss Wong), The Jack Benny Program, Lux Radio Theatre, and many others. She’d make a return to radio in the 1970s during the period’s brief resurgence of radio drama, appearing on The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre, The Zero Hour, and Mutual Radio Theater.
Concurrently with her radio work, Gregg began a career in film and television. Starting with 1947’s Body and Soul, she would appear in over 45 movies, including I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955), Portland Exposé (1957), and Operation Petticoat (1959). But perhaps her most memorable big-screen role was one for which she wasn’t even credited originally! She provided the voice for Norman Bates’ mother in the Alfred Hitchcock classic Psycho, later reprising the role in two sequels made in the '80s.
And then there’s her TV work . . . oh boy, did Virginia Gregg have a lot of TV work on her resume. That quote from the beginning where she describes herself as "looking like the wrath of God," it’s her television work that inspired that. Gregg was cast in dozens upon dozens of TV shows (generally westerns and detective shows), very often as angry, spiteful characters out for revenge; the list includes series such as Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, 77 Sunset Strip, Wanted: Dead or Alive, and Wagon Train. However, she did get the opportunity to mix it up on occasion, using her excellent comedic skills in situation comedies such as Make Room for Daddy, Bewitched, and My Favorite Martian. And she even did some voiceover work, voicing Tarra on the cartoon series The Herculoids and the unsettling ventriloquist doll in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode "And So Died Riabouchinska."
Over the years, I’ve seen Virginia Gregg in dozens of TV shows and films, but the role I always think of first is the Season 5 Twilight Zone episode "The Masks." Set in New Orleans at Mardi Gras, it concerns Jason Foster (as played by Robert Keith), an elderly millionaire who summons his family to his bedside as he’s just days—perhaps even hours—from death. His family comes, ostensibly out of deep affection for the plainspoken old man, but beneath their paper-thin veneer of concern, they have the same motivation as a "wake" of vultures (and yes, that’s the actual term for a group of vultures that are in the process of feeding on a carcass!). They want Foster’s fortune, and the sooner the better. But before they inherit everything, Jason has one request: that they wear custom-made masks until the stroke of midnight.
It’s an outstanding episode—one of the very best of the series—and the four members of the attending family are wonderfully awful human beings. Foster’s son-in-law, Wilfred (played by Milton Selzer), is a shallow miser, who judges all things in life by their monetary value. His son, Wilfred Jr. (played by Alan Sues), is a dull, sadistic clown; his daughter, Paula (played by Brooke Hayward), is supremely self-absorbed and vain. And then there’s Gregg’s role: that of Foster’s only child, Emily. Emily is a cowardly hypochondriac, too engrossed in her own nonexistent maladies to care about anyone else—including her dying father. When the quartet get their just desserts at the end, the viewer doesn’t feel at all sorry for any of them . . . with perhaps the sole exception of Emily, as Gregg manages to invoke just the slightest bit of pathos with her performance.
Gregg continued working through the 1960s and 1970s, appearing in films such as Madigan (1968), No Way Back (1976), and Blake Edwards’ 1981 comedy S.O.B. (Gregg and Edwards had a long-standing friendship back to their days working on Richard Diamond, Private Detective). She also did plenty of television, including programs produced by Jack Webb’s Mark VII Limited production company, such as Adam-12 and Emergency! But the role she might be best remembered for in the later portion of her career is on the fondly remembered family series The Waltons; Gregg played herbal healer Ada Corley in a two-part episode entitled "The Ordeal." This role was a bit of a homecoming for Gregg, as she had been in the 1963 film Spencer’s Mountain with Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara; Spencer’s Mountain was adapted from the same stories by Earl Hamner, Jr. that inspired The Waltons.
Gregg’s last role came in the 1986 film Psycho III, where she once again supplied the voice of Norman Bates’ mother. Gregg passed on in September of that same year in Encino, California, from lung cancer. Gregg left behind an outstanding legacy of radio, TV, and film work, as well as decades of volunteer service for Recording for the Blind (known today as Learning Ally).
Virginia Gregg hailed from Harrisburg, Illinois, but the subject of our next column is a woman who grew up in my own hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania—and who wrote the story that was turned into one of my favorite childhood films. We’ll be talking about Amelia Reynolds Long and Fiend Without a Face next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.