A Profile in Courage, Ingrid Bergman Plays Golda While Battling Cancer

updated 04/26/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/26/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

There is a type of woman who cannot remain at home. In spite of the place her children and family fill in her life, her nature demands something more; she cannot divorce herself from the larger social life. She cannot let her children narrow her horizon. For such a woman there is no rest.

These words came from the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, whose restlessness led her to become one of modern history's most powerful women. But the sentiments might as easily have come from Ingrid Bergman, 66, who this week stars as Meir in a syndicated four-hour TV biography, A Woman Called Golda. Bergman is the first to admit she wasn't typecast—"I'm tall, Swedish and Lutheran," she says with a laugh. But the actress, who has endured years of family and career turmoil, feels a kinship. "Getting to know Golda through films and books, I find that though we looked so very different, there are many things we have in common. To follow her career, she gave up her home life, and she felt guilty about neglecting her children. I can understand that very well because I have had to do the same things."

Sadly, the two share another bond: For the 12 years before her death in 1978, Meir suffered stoically with lymphoma; Bergman, who had a mastectomy in 1974 and another in 1979, continues to undergo treatment in London. "At the beginning I didn't want to discuss cancer—why bother other people with my personal problem?" says Bergman, who wrote about it in her 1980 autobiography, Ingrid Bergman: My Story. "But I talked about it because I wrote the book for my children and could not avoid one part of my life when writing for them."

Although her health recently caused her to cancel a trip to the U.S. for a Golda screening, it did not prevent her from putting in 12-and 15-hour days on the Golda set in Israel last fall. She devoured books, newsreels and Meir memorabilia. She learned Golda's knack of smoking most of a cigarette without flicking the ash. She made a point of eating with the cast and crew and showed up at 5 a.m. for a daily two-hour makeup session that included wigs, body padding and cardboard-stuffed stockings to fill out her slender legs. "I didn't find the physical transformation too difficult—I just didn't believe I could look like her," says Bergman. "But the strange thing is that many people say I do."

The metamorphosis is particularly satisfying to Bergman—and the main reason she broke a four-year retirement to play the part. "In all the films I've made, I always looked like me—no matter how hard I tried not to," says Bergman, who has appeared in 46 feature films in her 48-year career, including Casablanca, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Spellbound, Notorious and Indiscreet. She won three Oscars, for Gaslight (1944), Anastasia (1956) and Murder on the Orient Express (1974). She also scandalized Hollywood in 1949 when she abandoned her doctor husband, Petter Lindstrom, and daughter, Pia, for Italian film director Roberto Rossellini. Married in 1950, she and Rossellini had three children and a string of film flops before splitting in 1958. Ingrid and her Swedish third husband, producer Lars Schmidt, divorced in 1975 after 17 years of marriage. She currently lives alone in a triplex apartment in a London town house.

Nowadays Bergman is close to, and proud of, all her children. Pia, 43, the mother of two sons, is a newscaster in New York ("They always ask us for a mother-daughter interview," says Ingrid, "but of course we say no"). Isabella Rossellini, 29, is a model married to film director Martin (Raging Bull) Scorsese. "We see each other once every three weeks," says Isabella. "We always did, now it's just a little more intense. Much of the family is Italian, and we have a strong sense of family." Isabella's twin sister, Ingrid, has one son and is an assistant to journalist Oriana Fallaci, while her brother, Robertino Rossellini, 32, is Princess Caroline's frequent escort and "in real estate in Monte Carlo," according to Mom. Bergman admits that at the height of her career, movies sometimes came before mothering: "I felt guilty, but not guilty enough to stop working."

In Golda, the draw was a long-sought chance to play a character part. "I always played the same girl—same makeup, same hairstyle, just a different name," Ingrid says. "But I always wanted to be a character actress, to change, to play different roles. In Hollywood they type you the moment they see your first film, and mine was Intermezzo, in which I played an innocent girl who fell in love with a man who is married." One of the few times she broke the mold was playing a woman disfigured by burns in a 1938 Swedish film, A Woman's Face, "and I can't tell you how hard I fought to get that part," she says. To be offered a character actress's lead in Golda was a welcome gift. "I tried and tried unsuccessfully throughout my whole career," says Bergman, "and when I'd given up, at last I got what I wanted all the time."

And something else besides. "Work is wonderful when you are sick—it gives you strength, like with Golda," says Bergman. "For her, too, being a mother and a wife wasn't enough. She wanted more out of life—and work really is the best medicine."

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