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Dramatic discovery

By WILMA NORTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 13, 2000


SEMINOLE -- He takes no credit for her success, saying he just happened to cross her path.

Now 89, he needs coaxing to talk about how he launched the career of a future Oscar and Emmy winner.

She's the one, he says, who had the drive to make it on Broadway, in television and in the movies. All the credit, he says, certainly goes to her.

Nevertheless, when people ask her to tick off the people who shaped her career, Eva Marie Saint puts Elden T. Smith -- the humble professor who cast her in her first play -- at the top of her list.

"How did I get started?" she says. "It starts with Elden."

* * *

In the fall of 1943, Smith was teaching speech and drama courses at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. He had a dilemma. He was casting a campus play called Personal Attraction and needed someone to play the role of a female movie star.

"I didn't have anyone show up for tryouts that even resembled a movie star," he said in a soft voice while sitting in a rocking chair inside his neat Seminole apartment.

He told his wife, Betty, house mother to the Delta Gamma sorority, about his problem.

"She said, "What about Eva Marie Saint? She is attractive.' I said, "Can she act?' "

His wife didn't know.

From her office in Los Angeles, Saint, 75, remembered the moment well. She didn't think herself attractive, but she auditioned and got the part.

It was the beginning of a career that would lead her to roles on 1940s and 1950s radio. That led her to 1950s television, opposite stars such as Paul Newman, Frank Sinatra and E.G. Marshall.

That led her to Broadway, where she worked with greats such as Lillian Gish and Henry Fonda.

And that led her to movies where she starred opposite Cary Grant in North by Northwest and where she won an Oscar for her first movie role, playing Edie Doyle in On The Waterfront opposite Marlon Brando.

After her successful acting debut in 1943, Saint was torn. She was studying to become an elementary school teacher, just as her mother had been. Even now, she says she thinks she would have been a happy teacher.

But the idea of a career in show business filled her thoughts.

That next summer, she returned home to Long Island and began contemplating changing her major. She wrote Smith for advice.

His three-page, single-spaced answer -- dated Aug. 9, 1944 -- still sits in the top drawer of her desk.

He skillfully debated the pros and cons of acting and teaching. Though he admitted he was "secretly delighted" she was considering a change of major, he never came right out and said she should do it.

"He's not saying, "Get thee to Broadway,"' Saint said.

She declined to provide a copy of the letter, saying it is one of her prized possessions, something she has never published. Though she recently turned over most of the papers from her long career to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Margaret Herrick Library, her file of correspondence from Smith, with more than 30 letters, was something she kept private.

"These are very special," she said.

She shared a few passages from the letter. "You have some talent as an actress," he wrote. "More important . . . you know how to work hard."

He noted her "low-pitched and pleasant voice" and that her upbringing obviously gave her "a good sense of values and control of emotions."

Strong support from family would be important if she chose a career with "all the abnormality" of acting.

"Look how smart he was at such a young age," Saint said, sounding amused. "He must have been, what, 34?"

Smith told her how television was in its infancy, but he expected the medium to take off in the next 10 years. Network executives would be looking for people like her, he said.

He also told her there would be a growing demand for teachers, but warned that some people felt trapped in the profession.

"It was important for him to write what he felt and what he thought," Saint said.

Saint's father worked in the rubber industry. Her mother had been a teacher, and her sister was a chemist.

After reading Smith's letter, Saint sat down and discussed becoming a drama major with her parents.

"My mother said, "Well, honey, whatever you want to do, just do your best.' Can you imagine that, in 1944, they weren't saying get your teaching credentials so you have something to fall back on? Between Elden, my mom and my dad, I had a lot going for me."

If any one of them had said, "What are you thinking of? That is so impractical," she said, she probably would have become a teacher.

Smith, who originally wanted to be a lawyer, said he was never interested in a stage career himself, despite spending six years in the 1930s as a puppeteer who performed at the New York and Chicago Worlds Fairs.

"I wanted marriage and I wanted a family. It was the ideal thing for me to become a teacher of theater," he said. "I never encouraged (students to pursue theater) unless they were convinced it was the only way, that it was the only life for them."

Smith, who has lived in Freedom Square in Seminole for 16 years, had a distinguished academic career. He spent 21 years at Bowling Green as a teacher and dean of students before returning to his alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan University, to become its 11th president. He later was an executive at the Association of American Colleges.

He still serves on the Ohio Wesleyan board.

A residence hall at the school is named for Smith and his wife, who died in 1987 shortly before their 50th anniversary.

He is more inclined to talk about the lives of his children and grandchildren than about his accomplishments. His apartment is decorated with pictures of his son, daughter, three grandsons and three granddaughters.

Likewise, when he talks about Saint, he talks as much about her family life as about her career. He is proud that she has been married since 1951 to director Jeffrey Hayden.

He talks about how she took a break from her film career because she didn't want to disrupt the lives of her two children.

"That's the kind of girl she is," he said. "She is a wonderful girl."

Saint and Hayden are going to be in Sarasota in April for the Jewish Film Festival, which will feature Otto Preminger's 1960 movie Exodus. Saint was one of the stars.

She said she hopes the trip gives her a chance to see her old mentor.

"It seems that, besides our parents, in all our lives there's someone," she said, "and, in my case, it's Elden."

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