D I A N E V A R S I

It was anything but a typical route
to Hollywood stardom.


She was born Diane Marie Antonia Varsi in San Francisco on February 23, 1938, the daughter of Russell Varsi, a florist, and Beatrice DeMerchant Varsi. Another daughter, Gail, was born later. The Varsi family moved a lot, eventually settling in San Mateo, California. Diane's childhood was troubled, confused. She attended different schools, had trouble fitting in. Schoolmates thought of her as an "oddball"; teachers thought of her as a "rebel." Diane didn't finish high school, but she craved knowledge and understanding. She went through a variety of jobs, working as a waitress, a dress shop model, fruit picker, candle dipper. And she thought about leaving home.

In the mid-1950s Diane Varsi decided to make a pilgrimmage to Mexico to meet the spiritual leader Krishnamurti. She talked a friend into making the trek with her with the condition that they might not return to their homes. With only about $50 between them, the girls left their homes in San Mateo, hitchhiked south, slept on beaches and wound up in Los Angeles a couple of days later. The Mexico trip was abandoned.

In Los Angeles Diane became interested in the performing arts: singing and dancing, playing drums, writing poetry, writing and performing folk songs. She enrolled in Jeff Corey's acting classes and appeared in a community theater production of "Gigi."

Diane married a young boy and not long after gave birth to a son, Shawn Michael, but the marriage was annulled. In later interviews, she refused to discuss the marriage and would not mention her first husband's name.

She married again. Her second husband was producer James Dickson. He became Diane's manager. Then the Cinderella story really began.

20th Century-Fox was preparing a film version of the notorious bestselling novel Peyton Place. Because of her association with acting coach Jeff Corey, Diane was able to audition for director Mark Robson. Against studio objections, Robson chose Diane for one of the most coveted roles in Hollywood. With little acting experience and no film experience, Diane Varsi was signed to portray Allison MacKenzie of Peyton Place.

 

To prepare for Peyton Place
she read the book six times and
the
screenplay 30 times.

 

 

Peyton Place was released at the end of 1957 and became a smash hit. The night of the premiere, producer Jerry Wald predicted that Diane Varsi would be a big star with a great future in films. Diane said "I don't know about that. . . . This is just another experiment for me."


"Diane was different. She was fresh and original. She didn't act like anyone else or think like anyone else. That's what comes across on the screen. -- Jerry Wald



Oddball, unglamorous Diane Varsi became an overnight star. For her work in Peyton Place she received an Oscar nomination and 20th Century-Fox planned to groom her for major stardom.

"The strangest and most exciting actress in Hollywood today...the Marlon Brando of actresses." -- Columnist Joe Hyams



DIANE VARSI-- Hollywood's "Female Brando"
Headline of article by Louella Parsons in Pictorial TView, June 8, 1958.


Diane was also compared to Ingrid Bergman and James Dean.


 

HOLLYWOOD REBEL

HOLLYWOOD: It wasn't easy, but Hollywood appears to have produced a feminine James Dean. She's 20-year-old Diane Varsi, shown above talking on the phone. Diane admits to being a rebel and a non-conformist and her appearance and behavior confirm it. Like the late James Dean, she's also a full-fledged star after only two pictures.

(UPI TELEPHOTO) 10/29/58


"No single acting experience has taught me more than any other experience. Rather, all of it has taught me there is so very much more to know. We know so little, if anything at all."

"I'm not reconciled to being in movies. I'm only reconciled to being a mother. Shawn, my son, is the real thing in my life."

Diane Varsi



After Peyton Place, Diane appeared in three more important 20th Century-Fox productions. In From Hell to Texas, a western directed by Henry Hathaway, she played the tomboy daughter of Chill Wills. Her leading man was Don Murray. Next was a film adaptation of John O'Hara's Ten North Frederick, with Diane playing the daughter of Gary Cooper's character. During filming Diane was hospitalized with "nervous exhaustion." Her final 20th Century-Fox film was Compulsion, based on Meyer Levin's play about the Leopold-Loeb murder case, Diane shared the screen with Orson Welles, Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman. For television she starred in a Playhouse 90 production called "The Ding-A-Ling Girl." The studio had big plans for the new star, but Diane was unhappy.

"Go away and don't bother me;
Can't you see I'm lonesome?"

-- Poem by Diane Varsi

She started to turn down scripts. 20th had planned to star her in The Philadelphians with Paul Newman. She was set for important roles in Holiday For Lovers and The Best of Everything. She rejected these and other opportunities and went on suspension.


Say goodbye to Hollywood...

In 1959 Diane Varsi announced she was leaving films, leaving Hollywood. She was taking her son Shawn to Bennington, Vermont, where she planned to attend classes at Bennington College. She left Los Angeles on March 20, 1959.

"Acting is destructive to me.
I don't see any reason to be made
miserable just because other people
say I should go on with my career."

Diane Varsi



At the Academy Awards ceremony in March 1959, Bob Hope closed the show with:

"Goodnight Diane Varsi...wherever you are."


For a while the press wouldn't let go of her. They ran articles about the mysterious young girl who seemed to have such a bright future in movies, only to toss it all away.

DIANE VARSI: RUNAWAY STAR
The American Weekly (1959)

I DON'T BELONG Says Diane Varsi
National Enquirer (1959)

THE SECRET WORLD OF DIANE VARSI
Louella Parsons, Pictorial TView (1960)

Please Diane, Don't Come Back to Hollywood
Headline of article by actor and friend Mark Damon, Motion Picture (March 1960)

WILL THE BEATNIK BABE RETURN
TO THE HOLLYWOOD JUNGLE?
HUSH-HUSH (September 1961)

 

In Bennington Diane Varsi found a house and spent a part of her days looking for signs to guide her way. She audited classes in poetry and was happy for a while, although too many people knew she was there.

 

Return...

Eventually she wound up back in California, living in near squalor with her son in San Mateo, California, broke but still not seeking employment in films. When Fox offered her a bonus to portray Allison MacKenzie in Return to Peyton Place, she turned them down again. Because she had walked out on her contract, she was barred from working for any other studio. In the early 1960s fan magazines occasionally ran photos of a long-haired, bohemian-looking Diane Varsi, who in no way resembled the sensitive young starlet of the late 1950s.

 


CHOW TIME

SAN MATEO, CALIF: A confirmed vegetarian, Diane Varsi serves a simple meal of bread and vegetables to son, Shawn, 4, at their tiny San Mateo, Calif., apartment. Youngster wears a battered play hat while putting on the feed bag. Shelves at right serve as an open pantry. Diane was a movie star two years ago, but gave Hollywood up to live a simple life. According to an article in the April issue of Redbook Magazine, Miss Varsi devotes herself to Shawn, writing poetry and studies.

UPI PHOTO       3-24-61

 

"Diane . . . we're sorry..."
Headline in Motion Picture (July 1961)


"I left Hollywood, because in order to remain in
a state of faith, one must act in a state of faith."

Diane to writer Joe Hyams in 1962

Hollywood lost interest in Diane Varsi. She became a minor footnote to Hollywood history of the late 1950s.

Diane married a third time. With artist Michael Hausman she had a second child, a daughter named Willo. (IMDb has screen credits for Willo Hausman aka Willo Varsi Hausman.)

In the mid-60s, after her 20th Century-Fox contract expired on November 11, 1964, Diane ended her self-imposed exile and made herself available once again for acting work. She was given a role in the low-budget independent film Sweet Love Bitter, which re-united her with Don Murray, her co-star from her second film, From Hell to Texas.

Diane accepted a featured guest-star role in a two-part segment of Dr. Kildare for MGM television. The press said Diane was "back." Diane responded "There isn't any back. No one goes back in time or space or anyway except in one of those H.G. Wells machines. There is nothing in my mind of coming back or being back."

"I don't understand the term 'movie star.'
It doesn't mean much to me."

Diane Varsi

In 1967 she had a supporting role in a Swedish film called Roseanna.

Diane's marriage to Michael Hausman ended. She then married Russell Parker.

Diane Varsi as Sally Leroy
in AIP's Wild in the Streets

 

In 1968 Diane Varsi began an association with American International Pictures, where she would have roles in three films she later described as "cheap films of little merit." In the first of these, the cult film Wild in the Streets, she was third-billed after Shelley Winters and Christopher Jones. Diane played Sally Leroy, a former child star turned acid-head Congresswoman. Later in 1968 she appeared with Dick Clark and Robert Walker Jr. in a Bonnie and Clyde rip-off called Killers Three. In 1969 she portrayed Mona the prostitute in Bloody Mama, co-starring once again with Shelley Winters, who played the notorious Ma Barker in this Roger Corman-directed film. The cast also featured Robert DeNiro, Bruce Dern, and Don Stroud.

In 1969 she took another TV role, guest-starring in the now-forgotten detective series My Friend Tony.

After her association with AIP ended, Diane Varsi turned up in only two more feature films and a couple of TV roles.

In 1971 she appeared in Dalton Trumbo's film adaptation of his anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun. For TV she guest-starred in another detective series, the popular Cannon, in an episode called "Country Blues." Early in 1972 she appeared with William Shatner in the made-for-TV sci-fi film The People.

Diane Varsi Drops Back In
New York Times headline

The Stroll: Diane Varsi and Timothy Bottoms at Cannes.

In 1977, Diane Varsi appeared as a mental patient in the film version of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. Diane, overweight and barely recognizable, had only a few words of dialogue.

And then we just didn't see her again.

On November 19, 1991, Diane Varsi died in Los Angeles at age 54, from respiratory problems, complications of lyme disease.

We have almost no information on Diane Varsi from the time of her last film in 1977 until her death in 1991.

What we do know is that Diane Varsi never had a burning desire to make it big as a movie star or achieve the kind of success that attracted other people to the entertainment industry. She was a deeply spiritual person who followed her own path to God and probably never regretted the so-called missed opportunities of show business success. She continued to be interested in the arts and continued to express herself in her own way. It is said that she became an accomplished photographer and wrote good poetry.

As an actress Diane Varsi didn't leave behind a major "body of work." She appeared in only 12 films and a handful of TV shows. Some of her performances are much better than others, and some not very good at all.

But with her portrayal of Allison MacKenzie in 1957's Peyton Place, she gave us one of the finest performances of the 1950s, maybe one of the most memorable performances ever. Her sensitive narration gives the film its particular character, distinguishing it from other soap opera cinema of the era. It's easy to confuse the dreamy, soft-spoken Allison with the troubled, poetic Diane. Some movie fans will remember Diane Varsi for Peyton Place; others will remember her for her rebellion against the studio star system.

And some of us will remember her for the courage she displayed at a time when she could have become an important star, but chose a different path.

We will remember her because she was unlike anybody else on screen or off.

Maybe she made us think a little bit about our own choices.


 
For further study outside this site:
Diane Varsi directed a play by
Ruth Weiss
 
Although I have been lucky enough to speak to a few people who knew Diane Varsi, I mostly had to rely on secondary sources, some of them rather questionable (old movie magazines etc.) for the information on this page. Anybody with better information is welcome to contribute to this short biography and correct any errors I've made. --Jack Stalnaker

©2002 The Meeker Museum Collection
Jack Stalnaker
meeker@neosoft.com.