In 1949, budding actress, the former Rosetta Jacobs, signed a contract with Universal Pictures. Studio executives changes the seventeen-year old’s name to Piper Laurie, a name which she used for the rest of her life.
The young ingénue was cast opposite the top male leads of the day. She appeared in all genres — comedies with Donald O’Connor, dramas with Tonty Curtis and one-time beau Ronald Reagan, even musicals with Rory Calhoun. She took on Shakespeare and appeared in the original television production of Days of Wine and Roses with Cliff Robertson. In 1961, she was offered the role of Paul Newman’s girlfriend in The Hustler. She was nominated for her first Oscar for her portrayal.
Piper took to the Broadway stage, gaining critical acclaim in a revival of Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie.
After a 15-year absence from the big screen, Piper returned as unhinged religious zealot “Margaret White,” the title character’s mother in the Steven King horror film Carrie. Piper was nominated for her second Oscar for the role. Interestingly, Piper was convinced the film was a comedy after reading the script. (When I met her in 2014, she confirmed this, dismissively stating: “How could it have been anything else?”) Ten years later, she earned her third Academy Award nomination as Marlee Matlin’s mother in Children of a Lesser God.
Never afraid to take on a challenge, the versatile Piper appeared in David Lynch’s cult series Twin Peaks, as well as Italian horror impresario Dario Argento’s Trauma. She happily guest starred on several TV series including Frasier, Will & Grace, Matlock, Law & Order and as George Clooney’s mother in the medical drama ER.
Piper passed away in October 2023 at the age of 91. Her career spanned eight decades, but curiously she never achieved the notoriety she most definitely deserved.