Gigi Perreau at Cinecon 2019

October 18, 2019

This past September, Gigi Perreau was honored with the 2019 Cinecon Legacy Award along with Ann Robinson and Barbara Rush. The actress beamed with joy during her Q&A, proudly telling those of us in attendance that her whole family (four kids and five grandsons!), friends, neighbors, and former students from all over the country were in the audience. “At my age, after being in the business for 75 years, I’m really grateful to see all of you!” she exclaimed.

Cinecon programmed Perreau’s 1950 film For Heaven’s Sake to pay tribute to the actress, a quirky comedy I had never heard of before. (You can read my thoughts on it here.) Perreau remarked that the movie was funnier than she expected, and she remembered her two main co-stars, Edmund Gwenn and Clifton Webb, fondly, particularly the latter: “They were really wonderful to work with. Clifton Webb was very interesting, because he was a little nervous around kids, and I got the mumps halfway through filming, and he, oh, wanted nothing to do with what happened to a man who caught the mumps, so we had to close down shooting for about 10 days to 2 weeks, and as soon as I was well, Mr. Webb said, ‘Let’s get on with this!’”

Gigi Perreau with Edmund Gwenn and Clifton Webb in For Heaven's Sake.

Perreau made her film debut in 1943 at the tender age of two. Her mother had no desire for either Perreau or her brother Richard (who later went by Peter Miles) to act, but it was inevitable, given the fact that they frequented Warner Brothers so much. See, her mother had a good friend who worked at WB but didn’t drive, so she picked him up after work with the kids in tow. An agent on the lot kept bugging her to bring her son in for a screen test, and when she finally did they went to MGM, where Perreau, sitting in a waiting area, caught the attention of Mervyn LeRoy! The director was looking for a little girl who could play Margaret O’Brien’s younger sister in Madame Curie (1943). LeRoy asked her name and age—two and a quarter, she replied, “very important, that quarter!”—and waited for her mother to come back. “Your little girl is darling and she looks very French,” he told Perreau’s mom. (Perreau’s dad was French.)

He asked if her mother would bring the toddler in for an interview along with photos and a resume; Perreau had no resume at that point, and the photos she brought were of her with their family dog Sally! When they arrived, she waited alongside 4-5 other girls who had Shirley Temple curls and their 8x10 headshots in tow. When LeRoy asked who would be first, all the other girls seemed too intimidated, so little Perreau volunteered. She showed him her photos and she got the part! LeRoy asked MGM head Louis B. Mayer to put her under contract, but Mayer refused because of her age. If she was still in the business at five, he said he'd concede. Well, she was, and MGM became the first studio Perreau worked for as a contract player. She later signed with Samuel Goldwyn and then Universal International.

Cinecon’s Bryan Cooper casually rolled through some of the stars Perreau acted with during her career, including Greer Garson, Jimmy Durante, Irene Dunne, Fred MacMurray, Linda Darnell, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Barbara Stanwyck, Betty Hutton, Gloria Swanson, and Abbott and Costello. And that was a condensed version of the list!

Piper Laurie, Rock Hudson, Charles Coburn and Perreau in Has Anybody Seen My Gal?

Cooper asked about some individual actors and movies, including Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952) starring Rock Hudson and Piper Laurie, in which James Dean played a small role. All those stars certainly had an effect on 12-year old Perreau: “Rock Hudson was so handsome and James Dean was so handsome, and so, little girls get crushes, you know, and… I even got a crush on Piper Laurie, because she was so gorgeous and I’d look at her in her beautiful costumes... she was probably only about 20 or 21 and I thought I’ll never be that old—I’ll never be that beautiful!”

 

Perreau also shared a charming story about Fredric March, who played her father in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956). When she had to film a close-up, instead of a script supervisor off-screen reading March’s lines, the actor himself did it. “Fredric March was right there, every moment, right next to the camera, and he gave me everything that he gave for his own close-up,” she remembered. “He gave that to me so I could react and bounce off of that, and that’s really the sign of a very generous, very loving human being.”

 

To think of it, Perreau said she couldn’t recall anyone she worked with who wasn’t lovely. “I feel extremely blessed that I worked when I did and that I worked with the people I worked with and that I had a wonderful family, so supportive,” she said. Now, she’s observed, the industry is different; she felt camaraderie back then and had a lot of fun working, but she views the industry as being all about money today. (In truth, it’s always been about the business, but I’m guessing as a child she saw the entertainment world through different lenses.)

Perreau with Barry Williams in The Brady Bunch.

During the 1950s and into the 60s, Perreau found herself very busy in a new medium: television. She guest-starred on many major shows and had a recurring role on The Betty Hutton Show (1959-60), which she remembered fondly. She recalled that Hutton was so driven that she wanted to do it all: act, produce, direct, edit! But it was “too much Betty,” she said, referring to the fact that the show lasted only one season.

In the 1970s, Perreau took some well-deserved time off to focus on her family and raising her four children. She had wonderful parents who always kept things level for her (for instance, she attended regular schools when she wasn’t filming), and it seems like she wanted to provide the same stability for her family.

 

Perreau has enjoyed a lengthy career, boasting credits as recently as this year. “I hope to keep working if anybody has any connections,” she laughed. She quipped that people usually say they’ll go back to work when their children are grown, but now her grandchildren are adults! “I’m ready, I’m ready,” she declared. “I have a lot of experience!” Over 75 years’ worth of experience has to amount to something, right?

A recent photo of Perreau.

Aside from acting, Perreau is also a drama teacher at Immaculate Heart High School in LA, teaching not only acting but exposing students to different facets of entertainment. Perreau has former students working in all parts of the industry, including some familiar names in front of the cameras like Tyra Banks and Meghan Markle. As much as there is to learn from her, she assured us that she learns a lot from her students, too. I’m not even an actress, but I’d take a class with her any day!  

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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