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Barbara Pepper

1915 - 1969

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03 Life Stories

Barbara Pepper
1915 - 1969

You know her face. If you’ve regularly watched either I Love Lucy or Green Acres, then you know who she was. Barbara Pepper, distinctive character actress, had her own individual – as do all great supporting players – and her individuality both advanced and stunted her career growth.

She was born Marion Pepper on May 31, 1915, in New York City. She matured into a shapely blonde with expressive wide-set eyes and defined cheek bones. At the age of 16, she became a showgirl in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931-32 (against her parents’ wishes). At this time she befriended one of the other Ziegfeld girls, young Lucille Ball of Jamestown, New York. The two became great pals and, throughout their careers and lives, never lost touch. After their initial foray into film together, among the nubile slaves garbed only in floor-length blonde wigs, in Roman Scandals (1932), Ball and Pepper would work together again, but not for close to two decades.

Perhaps Pepper’s biggest chance at stardom came with a role in King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread (1934), in which she played Sally, the sluttish vamp who led hero Tom Keene astray; unfortunately, the film was not successful enough, nor her performance sufficiently convincing, to lead to larger parts. She would spend the next 30 years in supporting roles and bit parts, often playing brassy “goodtime” girls.

In 1943, Pepper married actor Craig Reynolds (whose real name was Harold Enfield), and the couple had two sons, Dennis and John. Tragically, Reynolds died in a motorcycle accident on October 22, 1949; the stun of losing her husband, and being left the monumental task of raising their two sons alone, is said to have led to her weight gain, change in looks, and rough voice. Her screen image changed; she quickly became adept at playing middle-aged women, frequently playing snoopy next-door neighbors, belligerent landladies, and similar character types. She also began a drinking problem, causing challenges in her career. For instance, in the early 1950s, Lucille Ball wanted Barbara Pepper to play Ethel Mertz on her upcoming program I Love Lucy. However, Ball’s husband, executive producer Desi Arnaz, nixed that idea instantly, reasoning that Pepper’s drinking problem would cause him the same worry as did the drinking problem of the man he just hired to play Fred Mertz, actor William Frawley. Arnaz chose not to risk both of his costars showing up inebriated on the set; thus, Vivian Vance was hired. Pepper, however, did guest star in numerous episodes of I Love Lucy - most notably, as a nurse in the episode in which Lucy had her baby, and as a customer in the butcher shop in the episode in which Lucy and Ethel bought a home freezer. She also appeared in the famed episode in which Lucy and Ricky performed, in their apartment, the anti-Mertz theme, “El Breako the Leaso.”

Barbara Pepper’s film career spanned 1932-1964; in that time, she appeared in some important films, albeit in supporting (and, often uncredited) roles: Dante’s Inferno with Spencer Tracy (1935); Of Mice and Men (1939); The Women (1939); Foreign Correspondent as Dorene (1940); My Favorite Spy with Bob Hope (1942), Once Upon a Time with Cary Grant (1944); The Snake Pit as a mental patient, opposite Olivia de Havilland (1948); Auntie Mame (1958); The Music Man as Feril Hawkes (1962); My Fair Lady as Doolittle’s dancing partner (1964), and her final film role, as Big Bertha, in Kiss Me, Stupid (1964). She might have been finished with film, but her career was far from over.

Barbara Pepper gained a whole new legion of fans – not for who she supported, but finally, for her own accomplishments – with her role as Doris Ziffel on the television series Green Acres, costarring Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor. Pepper had a delightful time in this repertoire, even enjoying her on-screen “son,” Arnold the Pig; her porcine costar often knocked her down, and was said to have bitten her a few times. However fun this series was (for participants and viewers), the original cast would lose one of its members four years into its run – Pepper was, actually, the only cast member not to complete the entire run of Green Acres.

Barbara Pepper died on July 18, 1969, in Panorama City, California, of a coronary thrombosis, at age 54. She was laid to rest in Hollywood Memorial Park (now Hollywood Forever Cemetery), in a grave marked Barbara P. Enfield, making it hard to find if you don’t know her husband’s real name.

So, you see, you did know Barbara Pepper – you know her work, you feel the joy she exuded on the big and small screens, and you relate to her long friendship with one of television’s legends. Sometimes the name might not jog the memory, but the images live on, and conjure the fondest of memories and recollections, and will continue to … forever.