Friday, April 2, 2021

Lee Grant’s Great Comeback: 'Peyton Place'

Lee Grant's Stella Chernak won her an Emmy two years after she got off the blacklist.

Lee Grant's future got even brighter with movies like '67's "In the Heat of the Night."

Lee Grant’s 1965 Emmy-winning turn as Stella Chernak on Peyton Place, TV’s then-phenomenon, was her big comeback after a dozen years on Hollywood’s blacklist. This was a bittersweet victory for Grant, who had made an equally big splash recreating her Broadway role in 1951's Detective Story. Lee nabbed a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her first movie and won a Golden Globe. A year later, Lee Grant found herself in Red Channels’ blacklist after speaking at a “communist” actor's funeral.

"Just don't ask my age!" Lee Grant's debut in "Detective Story."

Grant got by as an acting teacher, grabbing roles in NYC-made TV shows, for whoever was brave enough to hire her. Once the blacklist was lifted, Lee Grant was determined to make up for lost time. A dozen years older than she started—and Lee says they were hard years—Grant first got a face lift and then got busy. PS—Lee Grant has the most variable birth date since Joan Crawford, but let’s just agree with Lee that she went from promising starlet to early middle age, losing prime acting years in between. She made guest appearances on top dramatic TV shows and also a feature film, The Balcony.

Lee Grant as Stella Chernak in TV's smash hit "Peyton Place."

Then Grant landed a recurring guest role on TV's first night time soap, Peyton Place. A runaway hit, with its youthful cast, Lee was 40ish and playing 30ish as Stella Chernak, a bitter woman who returns home. Grant later said in interviews that she put all her frustration and fears from getting branded by the blacklist into the role of this woman from the wrong side of the tracks.

As hard-bitten Stella, Lee is fierce as the biochemist that’s learned more from the school of hard knocks than college. Her alcoholic father Gus toils at the Peyton Mill while nursing the bottle and a large chip on his shoulder from working for “the man.” When Gus wasn't knocking around or mocking his children, Stella and her little brother Joe, he instilled in them his dysfunctional attitude. 

Stella and her little brother Joey ponder the screwed-up Chernak family.

Stella Chernak is a fascinating character, especially for a 1965 TV show. While considered a soap opera, Peyton Place had surprisingly strong writing and characters. Though the show had a number of great villains, what Lee Grant brought to the role of Stella was not just a memorable bad girl, but a complicated woman. This dynamic duality made Lee Grant Peyton Place’s only Emmy-winning performer. Lee’s performance reminds me much of Bette Davis’ star-making turn as Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage. After several years of getting stuck in junk roles, Davis begged to play the role of the bitter waitress, and gave it her all—knowing she had nothing to lose. Lee took the same tact with Stella and gives the same type of startling, powerful performance. In fact Stella and Mildred have a few similarities: both are working class and are prickly about their class status; both women are courted by kindly men in the medical field; and both respond to kindness with mistrust. I can’t imagine how 1965 TV audiences took to Stella Chernak. Even today, with YouTube’s uploads of the show, in the comment sections, Peyton Place fans are often taken aback by surly Stella. However, it’s not the ingénue or leading lady that gets all the kudos or awards. Aside from Lee Grant’s win, the only other acting nominations Peyton Place got were for Barbara Parkins as snippy, ambitious Betty Anderson and Ruth Warrick, brilliant as the show’s own Mrs. Danvers, Hannah Cord.

Lee Grant looks more like her unglamorous ‘50s self when she first shows up in Peyton Place as Stella. Grant said she had to put her foot down to get time and care from the camera man, like the younger stars. I’m not sure why Grant's sporting what looks like a helmet-like black wig, but by the time she leaves Peyton Place a year later, she looks closer to the auburn beauty who looked the same from the late '60s through the '70s.

Stella comes to the forefront when her younger brother Joe is accidentally killed in a fight with local golden boy Rodney Harrington (Ryan O' Neal). Though a part of Stella has a very blunt and clear-eyed view of her family's problems, the dysfunctional side of Stella falls into the blame game trap and misguided family loyalty. Officially, she claims Rodney called on her, and said he would kill Joe. This lie is a major obstacle when Rodney goes on trial for murder.

Stella Chernak body slams Rodney Harrington on the witness stand, "Peyton Place."

Meanwhile, Stella has started to fall for nice guy doc, Michael Rossi, played by Ed Nelson. But her prickly personality makes it hard to break through. Nelson, a solid and warm actor, is a great balm to Stella’s often brusque personality. To see Stella occasionally warm to Rossi also shows Nelson and Grant’s rapport.

It’s amusing to also see Grant’s Stella rubbing elbows with the locals, who are curious about the working class girl who made good as biochemist. However, Stella seems to prefer throwing elbows, with snarky replies to the townspeople’s questions.

The creators of the Peyton Place series deserve credit for creating not just a scandalous soap, but a show with complex characters, and issues that are still problems today: dysfunctional families, alcoholism, drug theft, gangs, sexual abuse of young women, etc. Then there are Grant’s great scenes as Stella: the ferocious showdowns with her deadbeat brother Joey and drunken dad Gus. Yet, Stella gets to show affection and frustration with her onscreen little brother. When “Papa” goes too far with his excuses, Lee’s Stella tears into him and his self-deceptions. And Lee is just as convincing when Stella spouts the family’s official line, when she reacts to her dad's death with denial at Martin Peyton's house, who sets her straight. Grant knocks all these big scenes right out of the ball park.

Stella with "Papa" Gus Chernak in "Peyton Place." At times, pre-glam Lee Grant
 looks like "Dark Shadows" Grayson Hall!

Lee Grant’s working class grrrl has some lovely smaller scenes, too. My favorite is when bar keep Ada Jacks calls Stella to say papa Gus has ordered a drink and is spoiling for trouble. Lee’s Stella walks in—sooo over it—and treats Gus like a kid caught skipping school. After the usual Chernak family bickering, Stella tells him to make up his mind about the drink. Gus knocks the shot glass over, instead. With weary humor, Stella says, “Beautiful. Now you just made a lot of work for Ada. All you had to do was leave it alone.” Stella gets ready to go. Come on, Papa!” Stella slaps her purse like a tambourine. “Let's go home! So long, Ada. Sorry about the mess.” Stella even gets her own Butterfield 8-esque jazzy theme, which cues up every time Chernak is saunters into a scene or makes a memorable exit! Even in this quieter encounter, Grant’s line readings are so versatile and authentic, that she’s riveting.

Michael Rossi has the thankless task of consoling Lee Grant's Stella in "Peyton Place."

Grant is intense and powerful as Stella, but also shows warmth and vulnerability beneath the tough cookie façade—she’s no ingénue, but she’s a sexy, sharp woman. The strong script is already there, but Lee takes it to the next level and plays some clichéd moments in a striking departure from the usual soap suds.

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Lee Grant won an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in ‘66, just two years after she got off the blacklist. The acting roles, which had just started to roll in, really kicked in after the Emmy win. Grant next made the most of roles in two film hits, Valley of the Dolls and In the Heat of the Night. From then on, Grant alternated between TV, film, and theatre as an actress and director the next couple of decades. While the journey wasn’t always easy, Lee Grant proved that there was life after 40 for women in show business.

Here's my look at Lee's '67 classic, In the Heat of the Night

Lee Grant with her much-deserved Emmy for her role as Stella in "Peyton Place."


  1. Such a GREAT Actress! Her autobiography is a really good read. I remember she had a television series in the 1970s called ‘Fay’. I loved it but it sadly cancelled after 10 episodes. Lee was furious and famously nicknamed an NBC Executive’The Mad Programmer’ for not giving the show a chance. Love this woman!!

    1. Lee is such a multi-talented woman who is also such a fun, strong personality!
      And her "Stella!" rocks!
      Cheers, Rick

  2. PP was past our bedtime but we were allowed to stay up and see Mia's haircut.