Happy 83rd Birthday to Liv Ullmann!
Imagine this: Liv Ullmann getting stabbed to death in the elevator in Brian De Palma’s DRESSED TO KILL. Huh?!
Little known factoid: Liv Ullmann, the brilliant muse of Ingmar Bergman in CRIES AND WHISPERS, PERSONA and FACE TO FACE, was Brian De Palma’s first choice to play the role of “Kate Miller” in DRESSED TO KILL — the role that ended up being played so iconically by Angie Dickinson.
The character gets shockingly stabbed to death in an elevator — an homage to Janet Leigh’s character “Marion Crane” getting stabbed to death in the shower in Hitchcock’s PSYCHO.
In both movies, it was essential to cast big-name stars in these parts to make it all the more shocking when they are unexpectedly bumped off early in their respective scenarios.
In the summer of 1979, when DRESSED TO KILL was in preproduction, I was working as Brian De Palma’s assistant. I was 23 — and a very big fan of Liv Ullmann — who had won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in THE EMIGRANTS (1971) and nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Actress in THE EMIGRANTS and FACE TO FACE (1976). So, you can imagine my excitement when Brian handed me a copy of the DRESSED TO KILL script and said, “I want you to hand-deliver this to Liv Ullmann at the Majestic Theater. She is expecting you in her dressing room.”
Liv was currently starring on Broadway in Richard Rodgers newly-musicalized version of I REMEMBER MAMA. I would be going to drop off the script between a matinee and evening performance.
I arrived at the stage door with a large envelope in my hand. I knocked and after a few seconds, the door cautiously cracked open as though it were a speakeasy. A crusty old doorman peered out from the shadows and said, “Yeah?”
“I’m here to see Ms. Ullmann,” I explained in my best business-like voice.
The doorman gave me the once-over, spotted Ullmann’s name written on the envelope, concluded I was just a messenger boy — which, admittedly, was pretty much what I was. He sneered, “A delivery? I can take it to her.”
He creaked the door open a little further and held out his gnarly hand, expecting me to give him the package.
As if. I wasn’t going to give up the chance of meeting Liv Ullmann when I’d already come within breathing distance. I gulped and stood my ground. “I have been instructed to deliver this to Ms. Ullmann personally. She is expecting me. My name is Sam Irvin. From Brian De Palma’s office.”
Poker-faced, the doorman said nothing for what seemed like an eternity.
Finally, he withdrew his empty claw and shut the door in my face.
Had I been summarily rejected? Should I knock again and demand to speak to someone higher up the food chain? My job was on the line! With all sorts of desperate thoughts running around in my brain, the door suddenly popped back open.
“Ms. Ullmann will see you now,” the doorman grunted, annoyed that he’d been out-maneuvered.
I stepped inside and followed him to her dressing room. He knocked and walked away. The door swung open with a breeze of perfume to reveal the resplendent, welcoming smile of Liv Ullmann attached to her entire being. In person. Yep. I was starstruck.
She graciously greeted me. We exchanged small talk. I gave her the script and she said, “Tell Brian I am looking forward to reading it. Thank you for bringing it to me.”
I departed on Cloud 9 and floated back to Brian’s office. Mission: Accomplished.
Sadly, Liv eventually passed on the project.
Nancy Allen, who played “Liz” in DRESSED TO KILL, recalled, “Liv was Brian’s first choice. He wanted it to be out of character for the actress who played the part to be having the sexual encounter with the stranger in the museum. Someone you might think of as sexually repressed. I suggested he send her flowers and take her to lunch. Ultimately she declined the role because she didn’t want her children to see her in that way.”
Then Brian had me deliver a script to the wonderful Jill Clayburgh, hot off her Oscar nomination for AN UNMARRIED WOMAN (1978). A long-time friend of De Palma’s, Jill had made her movie debut in his early feature film THE WEDDING PARTY (1969) opposite the young Robert De Niro. My encounter was brief and similar — but equally cherished and memorable. Unfortunately, she also ended up passing due to scheduling conflicts.
Ultimately, Angie Dickinson ended up with the role and knocked it out of the park.
Nevertheless, it is intriguing to imagine what the movie would have been like with Liv Ullmann in the role.
You MUST read my first-hand inside chronicle on the making of DRESSED TO KILL on which I worked as director Brian De Palma’s assistant! The recent issue of BOOBS AND BLOOD No. 4 is entirely devoted to my memoir of DRESSED TO KILL! 56 pages! 13,000 words! 175 photos!
And it’s for a great cause, too! All profits from the sale of the magazine go to the breast cancer charity Keep a Breast Foundation.
The DRESSED TO KILL Special Edition of BOOBS AND BLOOD No. 4 is available to order here:
Thank you to editor-publisher Miles Flanagan!