The Starry Hollywood Career of Barbara Rush
Join the actress at the Lark Theater on October 13 for an MVFF Award tribute and clips and conversation.
Barbara Rush doesn’t like to make a fuss when it comes to her career.
“I don’t really consider myself to be like all of those people on magazines and so forth,” the 92-year-old former Hollywood star explains from her home in Beverly Hills.
Humility is an admirable trait, but in Rush’s case, bragging is warranted. She’s been in the business nearly 70 years, and her filmography includes projects with the likes of Paul Newman, Marlon Brando and Kim Novak. That’s in addition to many television appearances and a stage career that included a solo starring role on Broadway.
Rush got her start in the theatrical program at UC Santa Barbara before joining the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse for two years. That’s when Milton Lewis, a talent scout for Paramount, asked her to take a screen test. Pleased with the results, he put her under contract.
Rush doesn’t recall the details of the test (“You’re talking to somebody with amnesia!”), but it wasn’t long before she made her movie debut in 1950’s The Goldbergs and went on to star in the 1953 sci-fi cult classic It Came from Outer Space. She was rewarded for the latter the following year with a Golden Globe for “Most Promising Newcomer – Female.” Only a few years later, she’d play opposite the imposing trio of Brando, Dean Martin and Montgomery Clift in 1958’s The Young Lions.
Martin and Clift became fast friends on the Lions set, she recalls. “Dean Martin was very funny. He never really tried to learn his lines. Montgomery Clift was unwell. He was very, very thin and kind of frail but he just loved Dean Martin. Dean called him Spider and he kept tossing him around. He’d just pick him up and run out to the car with him.”
Paul Newman likewise left a lasting impression. Besides co-starring in The Young Philadelphians in 1959, he and Rush were also paired for the 1967 western Hombre. They become quite close on Philadelphians, forming a friendship that endured until Newman’s death in 2008. Rush’s second husband, Warren Cowan, served for years as Newman’s publicist.
“I thought Paul was a wonderful actor, but he was also a wonderful person,” Rush says.
Many are likely to recognize Rush’s daughter, Sausalito resident Claudia Cowan, from her role as a West Coast senior correspondent for the Fox News Channel. Cowan recalls benefiting as a kid from some unique babysitting arrangements: “While my mom made movies with Paul Newman, I got to have playdates with his daughter,” she says.
By the middle of the 1960s, Rush had tired of Hollywood’s studio system, which had her bouncing between Paramount, Universal and 20th Century Fox, and set her sights on TV. Her credits are numerous, spread across several decades and highlighted by appearances on beloved series like Batman and Murder, She Wrote.
In both film and television, being choosy about roles was simply not an option, Rush recalls. “We didn’t even think about things like that. We had no opinion. We had a job.”
One of her proudest moments actually came on Broadway, when she starred in a one-woman play adapted by her friend Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, from Hailey’s novel A Woman of Independent Means. While it had only 13 performances at New York’s Biltmore Theatre in 1984, it found a second life as a touring production.
Cowan recalls being impressed with the long lines for the show when it debuted at the small Back Alley Theater in Los Angeles. She was also struck by her mother’s ability to take a character from childhood to death, acting alone on a stage. “She really was fantastic,” Cowan says.
Eventually Rush also traveled with the show to Canada, Chicago and San Francisco. “We had a really long run with that because it was an easy thing,” she posits. “It was just me onstage.”
Some would argue that starring solo in a show night after night is the antithesis of easy, but Rush doesn’t see it that way. Having long viewed acting as a career like any other, at 92 she continues to work. In part that’s thanks to her neighbor, commercial director Jamie Winterstern, who sometimes recruits her for roles.
“He got me to play this crazy lady who opens her handbag and coins come out,” she says with a laugh. “It went viral.” The 2017 ad for Wilshire Coin shows her exchanging an absurdly large amount of coinage for paper cash — and, while only a 30-second spot, shows she still has the effortless charisma that lit up her Paramount screen test all those years ago.
Rush says she’s currently more into TV from the other side of the screen — and not by watching herself on Turner Classic Movies. Nowadays, she keeps an eye out for another star: her daughter.
“She always calls me to tell me when she’s going to be on TV,” Rush says. “Claudia is so wonderful on television. I’m just very proud of her.”
Zack Ruskin writes on music, cannabis, and culture. His bylines include Vanity Fair, Billboard, Entertainment Weekly, Variety, Merry Jane, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, Danielle, and their cat, McCovey.