Sondra Farrell was surrounded by stars from an early age. Her father was a pharmacist at the legendary Schwab’s Drugstore in L.A. She was influenced early on by the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Jack Nicholson, to name just a few. She gained notice as an actress herself while still in high school for her appearance on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life, where she recited lines from Romeo and Juliet.
That appearance led to a contract with 20th Century Fox. She went on to appear in the movie Monkey Business in which she shared a scene with Marilyn Monroe and Cary Grant. She later appeared in Meet Danny Wilson with Frank Sinatra, released by Universal, and The Ring, which was Rita Moreno’s first picture. As sometimes happens in Hollywood, Monkey Business was too long and the Director Howard Hawks had to take an hour out of the film. Sondra’s scene may not have made the final cut but she appears in photos with Marilyn Monroe and Cary Grant as proof.
Sondra gave up acting at the age of 19 to marry, then resumed her career a decade later when she was divorced. While visiting her father at Schwab’s, she was asked by Blake Edwards — whom she had never met — before to appear as a Sicilian prostitute in Edwards’ What Did You Do In The War Daddy? which featured James Coburn and Carroll O’Connor. She went on to appear in a TV series with Red Buttons in which she played his girlfriend. Farrell went on to perform in several plays and television shows before becoming a writer in 1980.
After working for KFI Radio in L.A for 7 years, and an extensive stint at L.A Times and other publications as a free lance author, she’s resumed her one true passion: acting. Her YouTube series The Nurse Exorcist features Sondra as the lead character who works to solve some rather unconventional problems. (The current episode concerns a housewife who believes her dogs have been communicating with aliens).
What was it like moving from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles? Did you experience any culture shock?
My father had always wanted to move to Los Angeles and we did so because of my mother’s health, but the year before I had visited my Mother’s brother and sister in Los Angeles with my mother, so I knew about the city which I loved from the first moment I visited there. I just love being at the beach and looking at the ocean, even when I’m not in it.
What were you like as a child? How do you think you have changed most since then?
I’m an only child and was never considered spoiled but my parents and even grandparents encouraged me when I played the piano, created paintings and appeared in school plays. My mother became a paraplegic after surgery to remove a blood clot in her spinal cord and was in a wheelchair the rest of her life, so by the age of ten I could do a lot of things on my own and, if necessary, have always been able to take care of matters myself.
As a child I would make up stories before I fell asleep and pretend I was one of the characters, so that was the beginning of acting for me.
What was it like growing up surrounded by movie stars? Can you tell us a little about some of your fondest memories from that time?
I always wanted to be like Ava Gardner who I thought was very beautiful and, like most of the stars, would go into the prescription department at the back of the drugstore to talk with my father whom so many stars would confide in. Late at night Al Jolson would sing to my father while he filled prescriptions. While I was at home doing my homework my father would call me and put Jolson on the phone to sing the Anniversary song to me because the movie The Jolson Story was very popular at the time, and made Jolson famous again. There was a very popular radio program called Sam Spade Detective played by Howard Duff whom all the girls at school had a crush on, so my father would also have him call me when Duff was in the store at night and I was the envy of all my friends at school.
Of course, when I was in the drugstore during the day I saw many actors and actresses who were already famous and some just starting out. Susan Hayward was beautiful and already famous, as was Shelley Winters with whom I had been in the Frank Sinatra movie, Meet Danny Wilson, when I was 16. However, through all the years I saw Shelley in the drugstore, even when I was much older than 16, she would always say, “Oh my goodness, you’ve grown up!” And I would answer, “I grew up a long time ago and have 2 children.” She would say, “Well, I still think of you as a teenager in Meet Danny Wilson.” In addition to movie stars, there were famous directors, cameramen, and writers in the drugstore every day. I met James Wong Howe, one of the most famous cameramen in the history of Hollywood and, when I was a teenager, he said, “You will be the next Hedy Lamarr and you have the perfect face for the camera.” I was very happy to hear that.
I’ve heard a brief story of an encounter with Jack Nicholson at Schwab’s. Can you recount that story for our readers?
Actually this is from one of the wonderful and funny waitresses at the drugstore, named Loma, whom everyone loved. When the drugstore was remodeled around 1956 there was a coffee shop with booths as part of the store. In the old store there was just the fountain where everyone sat. When Jack Nicholson was not yet famous he would spend time in the coffee shop with his friends, one of whom was Robert Towne who later wrote the film China Town which starred Jack. People would be lined up waiting for a booth so Loma had to ask Jack to leave. He then put his arms around her and said, “You mark my words, Loma. I’m going to be a star, and no one will ever ask me to leave again.” Loma also taught Dennis Hopper to dance.
Is it true your father was one of Marilyn Monroe’s favorite pharmacists? What was he like?
It is true that Marilyn liked my father very much and, before she was a star and so famous, she would come into the drugstore and talk with him and ask him questions about drugs and his recommendations about vitamins. Eventually she would have her prescriptions delivered but still talked with my father on the phone. My father was very handsome and had a very good personality and many other stars and regular people confided in him, because they knew he would not repeat what they told him.
My father also had many inventions and products like an excellent face cream that some stars such as Ida Lupino loved. When he was young he developed a clock that could talk and tell the time. This was long before such things were created. He also developed a wafer that stopped people from smoking after they ate it and it worked very well but was not able to be marketed because of all the testing needed to get it approved by the FDA. He also developed a spray that would make adhesive tape come right off without hurting the skin. He sent this to a major company that made pharmaceutical products, hoping they would produce the product with him, but they stole his idea.
Is it true he declined a contract offered you by Howard Hughes? Do you feel lucky to have had such a protective father?
This is true. Howard Hughes’ assistant Walter Kane was always in the drugstore and very friendly with my father and often confided in him. I had met Walter several times and one day he asked my father if I could go to the photographer Howard Hughes liked and have pictures taken that Howard could see because he thought Howard would put me in some of the films he produced at RKO. My father said okay. Then later Walter said Howard Hughes liked the pictures and would like to put me under contract and I could come over to RKO, where they had an office, without my father bringing me there. I did not yet have a driver’s license. Well, my father did not like that idea at all and that was the end of my contract with Mr. Hughes. Of course, my father knew of all the women Hughes had in apartments around the drugstore, including some famous actresses as well as some unknowns. I am lucky to have had such a protective father, which I’m sure many women who did, and did not have a career, wished they had.
What about your mother? How did she encourage you to become who you are today?
My mother was a wonderful dancer and pianist. She won many contests related to dance and music. She also made up wonderful stories that she would tell me when I was a child, so she was certainly a person involved with the arts. I took piano lessons and was able to play very well.
I continued to play the piano until the last few years. My mother always encouraged my interest in art, music and acting because she had talent for the arts. As I mentioned, it was a tragedy that my mother was in a wheelchair from the time she was 32 until she died at 72. She could play the piano, even though in a wheelchair.
Do you think you would have developed such a love of acting if not for your early experiences at Schwab’s?
I had already developed a love for acting before we ever reached Los Angeles. Most actors know that’s the only thing they want to do from an early age but some don’t get a chance to pursue it. I wasn’t going to tell anyone about my plans to be an actress until I was discovered because there were so many people in the drugstore talking about their plans and hopes and dreams to make it in the business. Lucky for me, I was discovered — twice, but walked away from it twice. A dear friend of mine from the drugstore, Dick Crokett, a famous movie stuntman and Blake Edwards’s best friend, used to say to me, “How could you grow up in Schwab’s drugstore and not want to be an actress?” Dick died during the making of the movie Ten and Blake Edwards dedicated it to him.
What do you think made it such an iconic hangout in those days?
In the early days the drugstore was the only place on the sunset strip open for breakfast at 7 a.m. Many actors, writers and directors lived in the neighborhood and came in for breakfast. Then a newspaper and magazine columnist named Sidney Skolsky became a regular customer and, because he couldn’t drive, he would ask some customers to drive him to the various studios and then mention them in his columns. He then began calling his columns “From a Stool at Schwab’s” and a legend was born.
Do you think Hollywood will ever be able to reclaim some of the glory of times past?
No. Television changed everything and big companies bought the studios and their executives knew nothing about the business. Now everything is on the internet and actors are not treated as they were in the past.
Were you nervous when you had to recite lines from Romeo and Juliet for Groucho Marx?
No, because Groucho was so charming, funny, and friendly and I had already been in plays.
What was it like to share a scene with Marilyn Monroe and Cary Grant?
Marilyn seemed somewhat shy and didn’t talk much during the breaks during shooting and in the scene we were in with Cary Grant which was inside a record store she spent a long time running her hands up and down a window of a door that was part of the inside of the record store. Cary Grant was charming and played a piano that was nearby and sang and danced for us. He started his career in England as a song and dance man.
What was Marilyn like as a person? How do you think Marilyn the person differed most from Marilyn the star? What do you think she would think of the Hollywood scene of today?
Unless Marilyn knew the people she was with very well she did seem shy but really very sweet. However, she was certainly able to perform when necessary. I think Marilyn would not have liked anything about the Hollywood scene of today. She would have been hounded every minute by the paparazzi.
You worked with Ian Ayres on an upcoming documentary about her. What was it like working on that particular project?
It was wonderful to work with Ian on the documentary. He is so talented and can do everything. He is a writer, director and even cameraman. He is so enthusiastic about his project and I’m so happy he found me and his questions are so interesting. He has encouraged me to work on one of my own projects that I have not spent enough time on. I’m sure he could direct a feature film very well if he wanted to. As you can tell, I am an Ian fan.
What was it like to be in films with Frank Sinatra and Rita Moreno?
Frank Sinatra was wonderful. I was a bobbysoxer who chased him around with an autograph book but in the main scene he is singing the song, “All of me, why not take all of me?” And I’m sitting in the audience of what is a theatre and there’s a nice closeup of me as I swoon, saying, “Anytime, Danny. Anytime at all.” He would sing for us between takes.
In the movie, The Ring, which was Rita Moreno’s first starring role, she was very nice and friendly. She played the girlfriend of the main character who was a young Mexican-American who became a fighter so he could make money for his family. I was the girlfriend of the fighter’s best friend and, in the film, we were at a party where we were dancing and having a good time.
What moments from your career stand out most in your mind?
Probably the screen test I had at 20the Century Fox. The makeup man was Allan “Whitey” Snyder who was always Marilyn’s makeup man. He told me he was sure I would make it as an actress and gave me pointers on makeup. Then the cameraman was also very encouraging and said what Whitey had said. When I was in What Did You Do In The War Daddy? Whitey was the makeup man and was very happy to see me but wondered what happened that I had stopped working. I told him. He then encouraged me to be sure to continue acting.
Did you ever regret giving up acting for the married life?
I did get the chance to appear in a number of plays while I was married and I was very happy to have my wonderful children. I always thought I would have the chance to do more work as an actress someday but I, of course, didn’t expect to become divorced.
What advice would you offer the women of tomorrow?
You must find a way to pursue your dream. If you don’t have a dream, then find one. Find something that you feel you must do.
What was it like filming What Did You Do In The War Daddy? Had you planned on resuming your acting career after your divorce?
It was wonderful because there was a set built that looked like Sicily in 1943. Going to work every day was like being in another world. I was there for over eight weeks, every day and often some nights. Many of the actors were Italian and in the film I only spoke in Sicilian dialect — which I used after that in Italian restaurants! And I did plan to resume my acting career after my divorce.
Is there any one role you enjoyed more than all others?
I enjoyed my role in What Did You Do In The War Daddy? But I also enjoyed certain roles plays, like Elvira the wife (who is a ghost) in Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward.
What led to you working as a freelance writer for L.A Times? Do you still enjoy writing?
After I was on radio, giving out information of all kinds to help people solve problems, I decided to write an article about it for Los Angeles Magazine and they had me do it. Then I found that the LA Times was starting a section called YOU with all kinds of articles, so I went to see the editor and he hired me to write diverse articles. One about funny groups that people can join was used by Johnny Carson for 20 minutes on his show. I have also written a screenplay and am finishing a play for the stage. That’s what I like to write. But acting is my main passion.
Does it feel good to return to acting? Why do you think you love it so much?
It is wonderful to return to acting. When I became a Theatre Arts Major at UCLA we had to write a long paper telling why we wanted to become an actor and my main reason, which is probably one of all actors, is that as long as you live you can only be one person but as an actor you can be many, many other people!
How did you come up with the idea of The Nurse Exorcist? How has the response to it been so far?
The response seems to be very good and people who have seen it have referred it to their friends. Working as a segment producer for George Schlatter on Real People, which was a huge hit on NBC from 1979 to 1984, I found and put on TV over 300 charming eccentric people and also heroic people. That’s how I came to know someone like the person with the dogs. The idea of The Nurse Exorcist came to me one day as I was driving, so I never wrote it down but then performed it as a monologue in the acting group I take part in. Then Leif Gantvoort, who is a member of the group and a master of sketch comedy, in addition to being a brilliant actor, suggested we do The Nurse Exorcist as a series for YouTube — which is what many actors are now doing so they can be seen performing. Leif directed The Nurse Exorcist, added dialogue, special effects and music and did an outstanding job of editing. I am so lucky that he became interested in this project. He has appeared in a variety of television shows and played a significant role in the Spider Man film that was out some months ago. I must give a thank you to Leif for making The Nurse Exorcist happen!
In a recent episode a woman believes aliens are communicating with her dogs. Do you like working with such outlandish story lines? What can viewers expect from future episodes?
I love to work with the charming eccentrics of life-type stories and future episodes will have more of them. I don’t want to say much yet but I do think people will enjoy them and they will be different from what they have seen before in films or TV.
Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to share?
I hope that everyone who reads this and has a dream will make every effort to make it come true. One of the directors of a play I was in said, “If you can conceive of it, you can achieve it.” He said this had been said by someone else, originally, but he believes it and so do I. I appreciate this opportunity to tell about my parents and my current projects and I do hope you will experience The Nurse Exorcist and share it with your friends.