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Silent Star: The Life and Career of Piper Laurie

When it comes to original Twin Peaks cast members, Piper Laurie was one of the biggest stars in the original run, and also the one that is the most seldom talked about. She has shied away from interviews and appearances, and, for all her awards and accolades, is little known among the younger generations. 

David Lynch chooses his actors carefully, and somehow has an instinctive knowledge of the depths within them and how to utilise that in his work. His and Piper’s connection is rarely discussed or photographed. In fact, they seem to barely know one another. Yet the personal and private life of this most humble of Hollywood stars led her perfectly to the two roles she would play within Twin Peaks. 

Piper, born Rosetta Jacobs, was a silent child. She rarely spoke, and only with people she knew well. She was much later diagnosed with Acute Anxiety Disorder, but as a child, she just knew she didn’t like to talk, and that set her apart from her peers in a very isolating way. 

She clung close to her Detroit home, and to her parents, until one day when she was six when she and her sister were inexplicably sent to live in a sanitarium in the Los Angeles mountains. This was a wrench that she never recovered from. 

Piper’s parents never discussed with her why this decision was made. Her sister Sherrye was sickly, suffering from asthma, but young Rosetta was perfectly healthy. The girls were essentially abandoned there, and had little to no contact with their family for several years. For a shy child with emotional issues, it was an unhappy situation that made young Piper retreat into her shell even more. 

Piper Laurie smiling wearing a white sweater and with red hair

There were few Jews in the mostly Christian facility, and the two girls were hurt to never receive cards or gifts as their friends did at Christmas. The girls were teased and seen as weird for their red hair and freckles, which were only exacerbated by the California sun. There was also the impending threat of war. It was the late 1930s and news was already beginning to reach the children of the terrible things happening to the Jewish people in Europe. 

While in the sanitarium Piper and her sister were made to learn piano and to perform for the others. Always too shy to speak and introduce the pieces, she enjoyed the performances and enjoyed expressing without words. She vowed to herself to find ways to speak through art and music.

‘My exile had cultivated an imagination that grew like a giant sheltering flower. It was a lifetime gift.’ 

The family was reunited finally when her father’s work brought her parents to Los Angeles, and the girls were brought home. 

Piper was a beautiful flame-haired teen living in the heart of the flourishing 1940s Hollywood film industry, and so it seems inevitable that her pursuit of art would lead her to the studio system. Elocution lessons to try to combat her shyness led to bit parts and an eventual contract at nearby Universal Studios.

‘I had the advantage because I didn’t like to talk, so listening became one of my prime activities in life, and I used it in acting as well.’

The starlet, newly named as Piper Laurie, was signed to Universal at the same time as such future Hollywood royalty as Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis. Her first film was with future President Ronald Reagan, to whom she claimed to have also lost her virginity. 

Piper quickly grew bored of the superficial Hollywood production line and wanted some more substantial roles. She would amuse herself by dressing up in disguise to hang around sets without being spoken to. Her autobiography tells of the young star being brought to the office of the reclusive Howard Hughes, and how the two introverts sat awkwardly in silence in the dark until she was collected again. 

Piper Laurie with Sissy Spacek in Carrie

She eventually got out of her contract and moved alone to New York, where she soon found work in the theatre. The big screen found her again, though, when she was noticed in a two-act play and offered the lead female role in The Hustler alongside Paul Newman. Many successful roles followed, and she was nominated for Academy Awards and Golden Globes for several of them. The quiet reluctant star felt that acting was her path and that she had no choice but to follow it. Even while ‘a housewife and mother, living in Woodstock’ she was offered the part of Margaret White in Carrie and again nominated for an Oscar. Success seemed to pursue her as much as she shied from it. 

In the late 80s, Piper agreed to film the Twin Peaks Pilot purely because she wanted to work with David Lynch. She had seen all of his films and thought it would be an interesting experience. There was no talk at that time of it going on to be a TV show so she thought it would be a fun one-off film to do. 

Piper Laurie as Catherine Martell in Twin Peaks

Piper liked the idea of playing a mean character, so different from her timid real-life self, and liked that in the script she ‘called someone a bitch.’

‘I play a conniving smart woman, who at the end of the first season looks like I might be burning up in the sawmill.’

Her performance earned her a Golden Globe win and 2 Emmy nominations, while the rest of the show was largely ignored in award circles. 

After Catherine was ostensibly killed off in the mill fire, Lynch called Piper and asked her to think about a disguise for the next season. He wanted Catherine to return to the town disguised as a man, ‘a Mexican or Frenchman or whatever.’ It seems an extremely brave move to ask a star of Piper’s calibre to hide her identity that way, but for the shy actress, it was a dream come true.

‘I was beside myself with the power of being able to pick my part like that.’

She decided it would be easier to hide as a Japanese person who didn’t speak much English. Her assistant on set was Derick Shimatsu, brother to Mark Frost’s assistant, Paula, and Lynch thought it would be fun to have him play her assistant in the show too to help keep her identity from the rest of the cast and crew. They would talk to each other in Japanese, Derick in real Japanese and Piper in fake Japanese, but no-one knew the difference. Piper said it ‘fulfilled my yearning to be Harpo Marx’.

Piper Laurie as Japanese businessman Mr Tojamura in Twin Peaks

Lynch had told the cast to be respectful of this esteemed Japanese actor and to keep a distance, but they could clearly see the heavy makeup that took four hours to do each day. There also wasn’t enough budget to cover her feminine hands, leading some of the cast to believe it was Isabella Rossellini under there. Just like when she dressed up on the Universal lot 30 years earlier, it enabled Piper to be present on set without the social anxiety of speaking with the rest of the cast and crew. 

All this time, her family and friends thought she had been written out of the show and had no idea where she was going every day. ‘My sister was so upset, she started having asthma attacks again!’

Catherine was a character that began so strongly, right at the heart of the Pilot, and was intrinsic in many of the sub-plots, but she seemed to be largely forgotten about by the end of Season 2.

Piper had written to David that she would love to be included in Season 3, but unfortunately, the Martell story was over and done with. It was clear that the starting point would be the darker themes of Fire Walk With Me and that the soap opera elements of Season 2 would be left far behind. Even though her story seemed to just fizzle out, Catherine remains a fan favourite.

Piper Laurie 2019

In choosing powerful female characters, Piper found a way to channel her inner strength, find her voice, and to learn to live out loud.

Learning To Live Out Loud: A Memoir by Piper Laurie is now available on Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Learning-Live-Out-Loud-Memoir/dp/082302668X


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Written by Cheryl Lee latter

Cheryl is a writer for 25YL, and a lifelong Twin Peaks obsessive, who joined the team in 2017 in order to share that passion through her articles. Most of her time is spent running social media fan groups and pages. She loves 90s music, horror fiction and true crime documentaries. In the real world, she lives on a tiny island, and loves going for long walks and brainstorming sessions with her equally creative daughter.

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