Former Child Star Edith Fellows High-Steps Back to Hollywood After a 21-Year Intermission

updated 12/10/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/10/1984 01:00AM

It was a real role, a touching role, the sort of television guest appearance aging stars take to remind the world they are still there. Riptide was doing an episode called Catch a Fallen Star about a former child actress who, in hard times, becomes a bag lady—and is saved from a series of cads and villains by the show's young heroes.

Debbie Reynolds, a former teen star, wanted the part. Instead, it went to a cheery, 4'10" strawberry blonde named Edith Fellows. Although Reynolds might have been able to imagine what a traumatic fall from the limelight would be like, Fellows, after all, had lived it. In fact, the actual story of her life would make good television—or, better yet, one of the old, pre-talkie melodramas that were playing around the country in 1923, the year she was born. Imagine, if you will, a flickering oldie featuring an appealing ingenue, a con man, a domineering grandmother, a tragically inept doctor, drink, drugs and, of course, redemption....

A Grandmother; a Sharper

Edith Fellows of Boston was 2 months old when her mother walked out on the family. Edith's father, a mechanic, put the infant in the charge of her grandmother and two years later moved the clan to South Carolina. Grandma was a bear for self-improvement. When Edith developed foot problems ("I was so pigeon-toed I couldn't walk right"), Grandma enrolled her in a dance class.

Surprisingly, little Edith excelled at dance as well as singing and recitation. This awoke an old ambition in Grandma. "As a child in England, she always wanted a stage career," says Edith. "Now, she could see my name in lights." One day, while watching the child give a dance recital, a "talent scout" convinced Grams that for $50 he could open doors in Hollywood. She paid up and some weeks later piled the girl onto a transcontinental train. Edith's last memory of the East was of her father, who pranced to the station on a white horse and promised to join her soon. Then the train pulled out, and Edith, age 4, was bound for Hollywood.

A surprise awaited grandmother and granddaughter when they arrived: The address the "talent scout" had given them turned out to be a vacant lot. "But Grandma was proud and strong," remembers Edith. "She said, 'I'm not going back and let them laugh at me. We will stay.' "

A Big Break

While Grandma took work cleaning houses, Edith stayed with the family of a boy who worked as a film extra. One day she tagged along to an audition. Suddenly, without being asked, the little girl was "dancing and singing and doing my thing" before the startled director. A few days later the boy came down with chicken pox. "Send the girl," said the studio.

High Times—Or So It Seemed

Edith was a hit. She rose rapidly from extra work to Our Gang comedies and then to larger parts—with Tom Mix in Rider of Death Valley (1932), W.C. Fields in Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934) and Jackie Cooper in Dinky (1935). One critic described her screen persona as that of "a wholesomely disagreeable sprite." By 1937, at age 14, she had won a seven-year contract with Columbia, the first such deal offered to a child.

On the outside Edith's life was a Hollywood dream. But in reality she was miserable. Much of it had to do with her grandmother. A strict disciplinarian, Grandma blithely told her ward that she would get pregnant if a boy kissed her on the mouth. She also required her to abstain from yelling, lest she lose her voice, and running, lest she bruise her legs. Edith became the target of her classmates' taunts when she wore her hair in curlers to prepare for after-school interviews.

In 1930, three years after he promised, Edith's father finally arrived in Hollywood. But before long, Grandma convinced him to go East again. "She did not want anyone around me," says Edith. "No one. Just the two of us." Then one day in 1935, when Fellows was 12, the doorbell rang. Edith answered. "There were two ladies standing there. Behind me I heard Grandma say, 'Oh, my God! Hattie!' "

An Unfortunate Reunion

It was Edith's long lost mother, with her mother. Soon, the younger Mrs. Fellows initiated one of the most celebrated court battles of 1936, a custody case in which she accused Grandma of kidnapping Edith and demanded, says Edith, "my money—past, present and future."

Edith had mixed emotions. If Grandma won, it would mean more misery. But Mother seemed "cold and a little tough." In the end, the older woman won a partial victory. She retained custody, but Edith's money was put in trust. Five years later, Grandma died.

Fellows eventually made 350 movies, then at 19 gradually switched to more mature—if less lucrative—roles in the theater. In 1946 she married Hollywood agent (now producer) Freddie Fields. The union resulted in one daughter (Kathy Fields, now married to comic David Lander) but ended in divorce nine years later. More bad luck would follow.

Turning Point

Whenever Edith got butterflies before going on stage, she would remember Bing Crosby. "He told me, 'If you don't get them, you're getting too big for your britches!' " Thus, when Fellows' legs stiffened oddly and the room whirled in 1958 during a benefit performance in New York, she made it through the show, had dinner and a few drinks and waited for the problem to go away.

It did not. Two weeks later she went to an audition, and "my legs wouldn't move." She received a call about doing a live TV show, and "the moment I heard that on the phone, my legs went rigid and I broke down. I knew I was in terrible trouble."

Just how terrible did not become clear until Fellows consulted a psychiatrist. "You have," he informed her, "incurable stage fright." What had caused it? Fellows mimics: "Who knows? Perhaps from your childhood you hated vhat you vere doing. You vere doing it for your grandmother, and then suddenly your grandmother dies. It takes time, but this is vhat happens. It's like a toilet backing up. If I vere you, I vould learn a new profession." "I don't know what the hell I'll do," replied the patient. "This is all I've known since I was 4 years old."

Her Darkest Hour

The last time Edith saw the psychiatrist, he told her he had "something new that just came out, that will help you get through this." It was Librium. For the next four years, Fellows interspersed pill taking with bouts of drinking. Then in 1962 she met and married a management consultant named Hal Lee. For several years "the marriage was fine." Then Lee brought up a subject that horrified her. He said, "You must go back into show business, my dear. I'll be your manager."

"It was like discovering another Grandma," Fellows remembers. Panicked, she fled to the West Coast, only to find that she needed immediate surgery on three stomach ulcers. But when she phoned Lee to tell him she was coming home for the operation, "he just dumped me," she says. When she called again to ask that he forward her possessions—including some 20 scrapbooks chronicling her career—he coolly informed her that he had auctioned them off.

Penniless, Fellows looked for a job. She worked several years as an operator for a series of answering services, sinking deeper into her dependency on drink and tranquilizers (she had switched to Valium). Of that time, she says, "It was very hard. Sometimes I'd come home from work and feel I didn't belong anywhere."

At one of her jobs Fellows befriended a young co-worker named Katha Novello. And in time she also met the girl's fiancé, Rudy Venz, a playwright and director at a Los Angeles community theater. Intrigued by her story, Venz based a play on it, Dreams Deferred. Would Edith like to star in it?

A New Beginning

At first she demurred. But Venz persisted. He said he would leave the backstage door open in case Fellows had to flee during the show. "My feelings were a jumble," says Fellows. "But dominating everything was the realization that this would be it. One way or another, I'd know for sure. After 21 years."

In September 1979 Edith Fellows made her second debut. "The moment I walked out, it was like going through a doorway," she says. "The adrenaline was flowing. I had no leg problems, no sweating from nerves. I just knew that I was home."

Back in Harness

It was only the first step in a long comeback: "I had to learn to crawl again," she explains. She went—where else?—to Schwab's Drug Store and hooked up with some character actors who remembered her, and by 1981 she had landed a role as a "nutty old lady" on the short-lived NBC series The Brady Brides. In 1982 she played opposite Merlin Olsen in Father Murphy. Roles on Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Cagney & Lacey, St. Elsewhere and Simon & Simon followed. And as the work came in, Fellows found her addictions fading away. "Cold turkey," she says with some wonderment. "It may have been because I replaced it all with something positive—trying again, and doing it."

Virtue Triumphs

These days Fellows lives in a courtyard apartment in Hollywood with her cats Mr. Peepers, Mrs. Wiggs and Miss Kitty. She has a circle of friends, old and new; but there are no sharpers, long lost relatives or fair-weather acquaintances among them. "I was teethed on phonies," she says. "And I don't miss them." Slowly the portraits in her past—mother, grandmother, a too-weak man on a white horse—have faded like pictures in a scrapbook, until even the image of herself as a child, preserved on 350 strips of celluloid, seems distant. "I was sitting watching TV late one night," says Edith Fellows, "and Black Fury came on. It starred Paul Muni, and I had a small part. I was about 12. And as I watched, I realized I didn't remember any of it. It was like watching someone else."

The present whirs by, frame by frame, no longer in the black and white of a past come back to haunt her but in glorious color. "Times change," she says, "And you have to be prepared to change with them."

The End

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