Having Climbed Upstairs on TV's 9 to 5, Jean Marsh Finds Her Career Is Heating Up
Her English accent is impeccable, her manners beyond reproach, but beneath that finish, Jean Marsh feels a bit like Eliza Doolittle. No matter how well she fools others with her refined bearing, in her own eyes she will always be a Cockney. Sometimes that background is quite useful: She drew on her British working-class upbringing when she came up with the concept for Upstairs, Downstairs, the enormously successful PBS series in which she played the housemaid Rose. At other times, though, it's a drag. "I'm desperately shy in big groups," says Marsh, 48. "When I meet people who are fairly grand, I'm not quite myself. It's because of the class system in England. I don't think it ever leaves you."
Having traded her starched Edwardian maid's uniform for an equally severe business suit, and her London set for the Hollywood TV sound stage, Marsh is now playing Roz Keith, the insufferably overbearing office manager on the ABC comedy 9 to 5. "I don't like playing 100 percent goody-goodys," she says. "I think there are just as many evil and stupid women out there as men." At the office of American Household Products, Roz sidles up to the boss and pretentiously lords it over the secretaries. "Jean is bright, witty, wonderfully cheeky and deliciously salty," says co-star Rita Moreno. "She brings class and glamour to the show despite the role she's playing." Explains Marsh: "Roz is compulsive. That hides the fact that she can't do anything. She dresses neatly, she speaks crisply. I think she got hired because she has an English accent and that impresses people."
Marsh, on the other hand, impresses people as someone considerably more genuine. One of two daughters of a printer's assistant and a barmaid, she was raised in various unfashionable districts of London. She began taking dance classes when she was 7, and at 15, she appeared in her first movie, the ballet film Tales of Hoffmann. Determined to become an actress, she spent her earnings on voice lessons to shed her Cockney accent. Her extracurricular program also helped. "I never dated anyone in my own social class," she says. "I was flung overnight into going out with older men who were very rich and very posh. I don't know how I had the nerve." At 19, she married one of those men—comedian Jon Pertwee, who was 34—but they were divorced after two years.
Her career was more successful. In 1959 she got a part in a television play opposite Laurence Olivier and Geraldine Fitzgerald and appeared on Broadway with John Gielgud in Much Ado About Nothing. Still, her breakthrough came only after she and her best friend, actress Eileen Atkins, drew on their heritage to come up with the story idea for Upstairs, Downstairs. "Our backgrounds were very 'downstairs,' and we always thought, 'Why don't people write about servants?' " Marsh says. "I was bored with playing upper-middle-class women, and furious on behalf of my class that people cast me 'upstairs' because I have good bone structure. As if good bone structure was exclusive to upstairs people!"
Upstairs, Downstairs was a smash on both sides of the Atlantic. In this country, it ran for 55 episodes and became the most acclaimed offering on Masterpiece Theater. Marsh bloomed in the role of Rose, and won an Emmy. "It didn't give me a lot of money, but it gave me a lot of exposure," she says. "Although Rose had a sharp tongue, people felt for her and loved her. And once the public really likes you, they never stop." Success brought Marsh enough money to enable her to buy a three-bedroom gray clapboard house with a small fruit orchard near Oxford, England. Jean stays there between acting assignments, and her parents, now retired, live there year round. Jean also spends at least three months a year in New York City, where she has a one-bedroom apartment. Each winter she retreats to a small hotel in Switzerland, where she goes cross-country skiing.
After putting in a grueling 8-to-8 workday on 9 to 5, Marsh returns to the West Hollywood apartment that she occupies alone. In the 1970s she lived with director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, best known for his Broadway hits Whose Life Is It Anyway? and Agnes of God. But at the moment she has no amour. "I'm wandering all over the world," she says. "I don't have anybody who could tag along. Ideally I should be married to a writer or a painter, but I'm not." Uninterested in finding another live-in lover, Marsh says, "I believe in marriage. If I met Mr. Right, I'd want to marry him and make a real commitment"—not just from 9 to 5.
On Newsstands Now
- The Little Couple: A New Mom's Fight to Live
- Remembering Nelson Mandela
- Princess Kate's Style Secret!
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine