As a soft-spoken, natural beauty, Hope Lange was the antithesis of many of her glamorous contemporaries, such as Marilyn Monroe, whom Lange supported in "Bus Stop" (1956). Her quiet, calm manner may not have inspired the same kind of lurid celebrity as Monroe, but Lange's assured performance in the racy, taboo-flaunting "Peyton Place" (1957) the following year earned her nominations for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. Paired with the hottest young stars on the Twentieth Century Fox lot, Lange spent a decade as the on-call ingénue before her affair with older actor Glenn Ford, who demanded that she be cast in his films, sidelined her career with two back-to-back disappointments. Lange found her way back to the top of her form on television, winning two Emmy Awards for her starring role on the romantic sitcom "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" (NBC, 1968-69 / ABC, 1969-1970). She would also play Dick van Dyke's wife in "The New Dick Van Dyke Show" (CBS, 1971-74) and star in a constant stream of made for television movies before poor health forced her into retirement in the late 1990s. Hope Lange's long and acclaimed career, which eschewed the shallow trappings of glamour and celebrity, was a testament to her quiet, subtle and assured talent.
Hope Elise Ross Lange was born on Nov. 28, 1931 in Redding, CT, the second of four children of John Lange, a cellist and composer, and his wife Minette (nee von Buddecke), an actress. When she was still just a toddler, Lange's father was hired as a music arranger and director for Florenz Zeigfeld's "Follies," and moved the family moved to New York's Greenwich Village. From that point, Lange grew up surrounded by actors, singers, dancers and musicians, and by the age of eight she was on Broadway herself, appearing in the children's chorus of "Life, Laughter and Tears" at the Booth Theater. In 1942, when Lange was 12 years old, her father died, leaving Lange's mother to care for the four children on her own. She did so by opening Minette's of Washington Square, a family-run restaurant that catered to the theatrical crowd, many of whom could eat for free in exchange for a performance. Lange waited tables along with her sisters and brother in between attending high school and dance classes - at one point training with Martha Graham - modeling, and performing in plays. She also earned money as a dog walker for Fala, a Scotch terrier belonging to former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who lived nearby. When a photo of her walking Roosevelt's dog appeared in a local newspaper, Lange was spotted and immediately signed by a modeling agency.
In 1956, Lange appeared in an episode of "Kraft Television Theater" (NBC, 1947-1958) that gained the attention of Hollywood producer Bud Adler, who cast Lange in his film adaptation of the William Inge play, "Bus Stop" (1956) starring Marilyn Monroe and Don Murray. Monroe was uncomfortable acting alongside the naturally beautiful younger actress, and demanded - unsuccessfully - that Lange dye her hair darker for the role. There may have been reason for Monroe's jealousy: that same year Lange married castmate Don Murray, Monroe's leading man. The reviews for Lange's subtle performance were overwhelmingly positive and on their strength alone, Lange was offered a contract with 20th Century Fox. The studio immediately cast in her a major role in the sudsy melodrama "Peyton Place" (1957), starring Lana Turner. Based on the novel by Grace Metalious, "Peyton Place" was considered scandalous at the time for touching on taboo subjects like rape and incest. For her convincing performance as Selena Cross, a young woman driven to kill the alcoholic step-father who raped her, Lange earned Best Supporting Actress Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. With just two feature film appearances on her resume, Lange had become a celebrated and much in demand ingénue.
In the years that followed, Fox paired Lange with many of the studio's leading men. She starred opposite Robert Wagner in "The True Story of Jesse James" (1957), Montgomery Clift in "The Young Lions" (1958) and Jeffrey Hunter in "In Love and War" (1958), eventually working her way through the thankless wife and girlfriend parts until she scored a leading role in "The Best of Everything" (1959), a drama about the relatively new phenomenon of young working women, taking top billing over the far better established Joan Crawford. Her career would stumble in 1961 when she failed to win the role of Maria in "Westside Story" and took the romantic lead in the Elvis Presley film, "Wild in the Country" (1961), which was every bit as lackluster as an Elvis vehicle could be. Lange's personal life would, likewise, come into crisis when Lange left husband Don Murray and her two small children to begin an affair with the older actor, Glenn Ford. Enamored of Lange, Ford pressured director Frank Capra to cast her in their next film, "A Pocket Full of Miracles" (1961), despite the fact that Shirley Jones had already been cast in the role. It was Capra's final film and he remained convinced that it was marred by his compromise. Lange, who had made her name with subtle, graceful performances, was utterly miscast as a brassy showgirl.
Lange starred as Roxanne opposite Christopher Plummer's Cyrano in a TV movie version of "Cyrano de Bergerac" (NBC, 1962) before appearing with Ford for a second and final time in "Love is a Ball" (1963), a mediocre melodrama set on the French Riviera for which the best critical praise was reserved for the locations and costumes. Lange's romance with Ford fizzled in the midst of production and she began dating director-producer Alan J. Pakula, whom she married later that same year. With her Fox contract at its end, Lange took a three-year break from acting. When she returned to work, it would primarily be in television, playing guest roles on such shows as "The Fugitive" (ABC, 1963-67) and "CBS Playhouse" (CBS, 1967-1972) before landing the role for which she would be best remembered, the charming Carolyn Muir on "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" (NBC, 1968-69 / ABC, 1969-1970). Lange won two Emmy Awards for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series and a Golden Globe nomination for Best TV Star - Female for her work on the series. Though she would appear in the occasional feature film, such as the divorce drama "I love You, Goodbye" (1974) and the seminal revenge thriller "Death Wish" (1974), in which she played Charles Bronson's coma-bound wife, Lange would work steadily in television for the next decade.
In 1971, as her marriage to Pakula was coming to an end, Lange was cast as Dick Van Dyke's wife in "The New Dick Van Dyke Show" (CBS, 1971-74), a role that she played for three seasons. Meanwhile, she starred in a series of TV movies, including "That Certain Summer" (CBS, 1972) playing the wife of Hal Holbrook, who asks for a divorce when he realizes that he is gay. Lange earned another Emmy nomination for the role. She returned to Broadway in 1975 to star in "Same Time Next Year" and would also appear in 1981's "The Supporting Cast," but television would remain her primary medium. During this time, Lange famously dated Frank Sinatra as well as had an affair with married author John Cheever. She returned to feature film in 1983 with the Christian-themed film "The Prodigal," and "I Am the Cheese," adapted from the Robert Cormiere novel. Easily the best film from this later era was David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" (1986), in which Lange played Mrs. Williams, the mother of Laura Dern's student/sleuth. Lange starred on one last television series, playing Mason Adams' wife on the short-lived comedy "Knight and Daye" (NBC, 1989), but her career was put on the backburner when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1991. The surgery to remove the tumor was a success, but Lange's health remained fragile for the rest of her life. In 1994, she appeared in small roles in the Harrison Ford thriller "Clear and Present Danger" as a senator, and the Sean Connery legal drama, "Just Cause," but by 1998, in failing health, she retired from acting. On Dec. 19, 2003, Hope Lange died of an intestinal infection while being treated at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, CA.
By John Crye