Although today she is best remembered for her dramatic roles and character parts, Shelly Winters started her Hollywood career as a sex symbol.
After years as an uncredited extra she got her big break in 1947 and was signed by Universal which promoted her figure and not her acting.
Shelley certainly had an active love life offscreen. She lived up to her early billing.
There were Nelson Eddy, Ronald Coleman, Lawrence Tierney and Errol Flynn. Don’t forget Brando, William Holden and the inevitable Howard Hughes. And that’s just the prelude.
And let’s not forget a lengthy affair with Burt Lancaster.
Despite the shrill, overweight yenta image she projected late in her career, Winters was early on in her time sexual catnip drawing some of the most famous males cats in classic Hollywood.
We know this because Winters told us in her autobiography, Shelley Also Known As Shirley, published in 1980 and taking us from her St. Louis beginnings as Shirley Schrift through her disastrous second marriage to Italian actor Vittorio Gassman. (A third-marriage to actor Anthony Franciosa is not mentioned in this volume.)
Over the course of a very long career — comprising more than a 100 movie and TV titles (including a stint on tv’s Roseanne as “Nana Mary”) from the early Forties through 1999, seven years before she died at age 86 — she acquired four husbands. But, as noted, there were many lovers.
Not among them were two of her costars, Ernest Borgnine; and Michael Caine with whom Shelley costarred in 1966’s Alfie.
The two didn’t communicate especially well during shooting. Writes Caine: “Shelley Winters told me that she hadn’t understood a single thing I’d said to her … and had resorted to just watching my lips to know when to come in on cue.”
Borgnine, Winter’s costar in The Poseidon Adventure, was more critical: the damnedest woman you’ve ever seen in your life, the actor wrote in his autobiography.
After nights on the town, Winters would show up at the studio the next day insisting that Borgnine help her with her lines. Of course, (by the time they finally arrived at the set) the stuff was fresh in her memory and I’d forgotten my lines….I just couldn’t stomach her anymore.
Ok, that was Shelly in raucous middle age. Let’s retreat to 1943 at Columbia, where an unknown Winters was appearing in What A Woman!, a romantic comedy costarring Rosalind Russell and Brian Aherne, one of her first films. She was 23 at the time. A year later she was cast in the movie version of Knickerbocker Holiday starring Nelson Eddy.
One night after shooting stopped, Eddy “stumbled into my dressing room , quite drunk, still in costume, wrote Shelley. Suddenly he came out of the bathroom wearing long red underwear…”Hey, move over,” he barked at the napping Winters.
I was stunned. Up to that point in the filming he had been the very proper New England gentleman…Besides my mother loved his pictures with Jeanette MacDonald and used to drag me to them.
I jumped out of bed. Mr. Eddy, I yelled, think of your image! What would Jeanette MacDonald say?
“Who cares? She slides off her C’s.”
Winters staged a dressing room escape as Eddy lunged for me and fell on the sofa. It was not the first time Shelley would be the recipient of unwanted (and wanted) overtures from a big name star.