Reclusive Film Legend Kim Novak Opens Up About Life, Regrets and Her TCM Tribute

Kim Novak | Photo Credits: TCM

She was the accidental superstar. Fifties and Sixties film icon Kim Novak rarely grants interviews these days but she gave a doozy to Turner Classic Movies' Robert Osborne for Kim Novak: Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival. The hour-long chat, filmed before a live audience, will air Wednesday at 8/7c, followed by four of the star's top films: Picnic (1955), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Bell, Book and Candle (1958) and Of Human Bondage (1964). Novak, still fantastically gorgeous at 80, had a meteoric rise in the business: She went from being a Chicago refrigerator model known as "Miss Deepfreeze" in 1953 to major film star in two short years. By 1956, she was considered the top box-office star in the world. Novak gave it all up just as quickly, moving from Hollywood to Oregon where she now paints up a storm — she works mostly in watercolors — and lives with her husband of 37 years, veterinarian Robert Malloy. Though Osborne is, as always, the consummate gentleman, no topic is off limits in his gab session with Novak — not even her alleged affair with Sammy Davis, Jr. that scandalized Hollywood — and the result is one of the most poignant, cathartic, tearful confessionals ever. TV Guide Magazine had a follow-up talk with Novak to find out what triggered the waterworks.

TV Guide Magazine: We've watched a million stars be interviewed on TV but don't recall any becoming as emotional as you did during your talk with Osborne. At one point you almost have a mini-breakdown. What brought that on?
I'm an emotional person. I haven't done that many interviews over the years and, I figure, if I'm going to do it, I better give it my all — or don't do it at all. I guess I broke down a bit when we touched on something that feels rather incomplete in my life. Unfinished business, perhaps.

TV Guide Magazine: You admit to having regrets about the way you retreated from Hollywood, that maybe you should have stayed and battled for quality roles the way other stars did. Are those regrets occasional and fleeting, or do they really haunt you?
I feel my life is complete because of my art, my painting. But, by the same token, I think I owed my fans more than I gave them. Perhaps I cheated the people who appreciated me and supported me by not sharing more of myself. But what can I say? I took the path that was before me. I'm not the type to clear the trees to make a path. [Laughs] I'm a tree lover! I guess the sad part for me is that the longer I've been out of the business, the better prepared I am to be an actress. I have been so fully living my life, learning the lessons of life, and growing so much as a person and as an artist, that I would be a much better actress now. But I did what I did. I thought I was doing it the right way.

TV Guide Magazine: Yet you left your fans with so many terrific films. Do you find some consolation in that?
I do. Still, I don't feel I ever reached my potential as an actress. I certainly didn't try to promote myself. I'm not a pushy person so there's always that turmoil for me — do you wait for something to happen or do you make something happen? I've always believed that if something is meant to be, it just works out. Yet I would see other actors fighting for themselves, fighting for the great roles. Which is right? Are you supposed to push the door open or do you wait for an open door? My choice was to move away from Hollywood but I always thought that if a role was really right for me, it would somehow come to me wherever I was.

TV Guide Magazine: Would you do it differently if you could go back in a time machine?
[Laughs] Probably not! I never intended to be an actress. I never dreamed of it, never even thought about it. I became one because I was discovered. It literally just happened, as if by magic. I was still in junior college when I visited a movie studio in Hollywood with a friend — we'd both been in San Francisco on a summer modeling job — and I was asked to do a walk-on in the Jane Russell movie The French Line. Soon after, I was placed under contract at Columbia and given starring roles. So it all seemed like destiny, but then my destiny changed when [Columbia chief] Harry Cohn died and the roles coming to me were no longer good ones. They were silly roles in stupid scripts of no value. Beach movies! Or the same-old-same-old glamour parts that offered little that was interesting in the way of character. I left and went into the real world to paint characters that were far more fascinating and satisfying than the ones I was being asked to play.

TV Guide Magazine: Which of your films do you think shows your greatest potential?
The early ones with the great scripts. Harry Cohn knew how to buy the most wonderful material. Perhaps Picnic is the one. The work of [playwright] William Inge brought out the best in me. The problem was, Harry Cohn was a dictator. He did everything at that studio! And when he died, it was like the head was cut off. The people who were left behind didn't know how to find a good script. I didn't want to go down the drain, so I ventured out on my own. And, after a while, I had to physically remove myself from town. Nowadays, you can live out of town — anywhere in the world, really — and your team will keep you in the game and make sure you survive. That wasn't the case back then.

TV Guide Magazine: What were your thoughts when you heard your movie Vertigo was picked as the greatest film of all time in Sight & Sound's poll of international film critics? It dethroned Citizen Kane!
[Laughs] I was just so grateful to be alive to witness it! And, of course, I was wishing Jimmy Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock could have been around, as well. They were both such magnificent men. How much that would have meant to both of them! Back when we made the film, none of us could have imagined it would have such longevity or acclaim. For all my misgivings about my life and choices in Hollywood, seeing Vertigo voted No. 1 made me think that maybe my trip was really worth it. Maybe I did have a certain amount of value.

TV Guide Magazine: Seriously? You really needed convincing?
Oh, sometimes I do. Sure. Sometimes I'll catch a movie on TV — something that's beautifully acted and directed — and I'll cry my eyes out thinking, "I wish I'd done that one!" But then it passes. The next day I'll go out in nature and paint a picture and be truly excited.

TV Guide Magazine: What's the perfect day for Kim Novak?
It would include painting, of course, and riding my horse and being with animals. I would be outdoors exploring new territory, experiencing the camaraderie of creatures that know you, that let you in and share their appreciation of life. Then there's more joy in taking all that and expressing it in imagery on canvas. I'm lucky enough to live on a river, where there's always something wonderful and new coming along with the flow. Sure, I have my regrets sometimes, but when I look at life, and the river flowing, I feel nothing but joy in knowing that I've chosen the right path — and I didn't need to cut down any trees to do it

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