Editor’s note: The story was corrected to note that the event will take place at Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation, not at the Stroum Jewish Community Center.
Millie Perkins was on her way to becoming a successful model in Paris when history intervened.
“I had never decided to be an actress,” she said. “I was probably 18 or 19 years old. Little did I know I was going to be a movie star.”
Now 77, Perkins is best known for her role as Anne in the 1959 film production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Perkins will be interviewed by film buff Foster Hirsch at Herzl-Ner Tamid on Mercer Island on Oct. 27 as part of the Stroum Jewish Community Center’s Jewish Touch lecture series.
Hirsch, in addition to teaching and writing about film, handles celebrity interviews and has brought Perkins to Chicago and Israel.
“Foster’s one of my most favorite people around, so I said yes [to Seattle],” Perkins told JTNews from her home in Beverly Hills.
Born in Passaic, N.J. in 1938, Perkins’s face was gracing magazine covers around the world by 1958. Director George Stevens noticed her looks and invited her to read for the part of Anne. But acting had never occurred to Perkins, and she knew nothing of the story of the Dutch girl whose diary would come to impact Western civilization.
She had already been modeling in London and Paris when the opportunity arose to audition. “It’s kind of a fairytale story,” she said. “All my French friends said, ‘Oh Millie, you must go,’” Perkins said.
Perkins was one of 10,000 girls to audition for the part. The diary “hit me right in the heart,” she said.
After six months of shooting, Perkins could have returned to her Parisian fairy‑ tale, but it wasn’t meant to be.
“I met this actor, Dean Stockwell, who I married for like two minutes, and became a Hollywood person,” she said.
While “Anne Frank” went on to win three Academy Awards, Perkins’s acting career never exploded. In the late 1970s, a rumor spread that she had died. In fact, she had relocated to tiny Jacksonville, Ore. to raise the two daughters she had with her second, late husband Robert Thom.
“I moved to Oregon to get off the locomotive,” Perkins recalled. “I was raising my children. It was heaven to me.”
When Thom died in 1979, Perkins said she “had to get back to reality,” and in 1980 returned to Hollywood to support her family, where she acted mostly in television, B-movies, and cult films — especially in mother roles. She appeared as Sean Penn’s mother in “At Close Range” and as the mother of Charlie Sheen’s character in “Wall Street.”
Though Perkins sounds wistful as she reflects on the turns her life has taken, it has been an adventure.
“I went out into the world, and I think I really wanted to be my father,” a merchant marine, she said.
While shooting the 1985 miniseries “A.D.,” in which Perkins played Mary, mother of Jesus, in Tunisia, she was held at gunpoint by Yasser Arafat’s soldiers at the airport.
The guard “looked at my passport and my face and said, ‘No,’” she recounted. “He shoved me in the chest with his gun.”
Perkins’ escort pushed her into a crowd onto the tarmac. “It was scary.” Of the whole experience, she said, “It was quite wonderful and difficult. But it was fun.”
On another occasion, Perkins was seated next to former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak on a flight.
“He told me wonderful stories,” she said, like the time he came upon an Egyptian soldier alone during the Yom Kippur War. In a standoff, they held their guns on one another. Then, “they looked in each others’ eyes and they both put their guns down and shared their lunches. He never told anyone that story.”
Perkins’s talk comes at a significant time: This November marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles is currently holding an exhibit about Anne Frank.
“The film lay dormant for many years,” Perkins said. “Then about 10 years ago there was a new flurry of interest.”
She suggests the popularity of the story is related to the increased access to information — and with it, hate.
“I see terrible hate going on, and I see great strides going on to change that,” she said. “I think Pandora’s Box has been opened. Who knows how the human race will be in 10 or 20 years?”
To this day, Perkins says she receives “hordes” of fan mail from viewers touched by “Anne Frank.”
“Anne Frank is the reason they write the letter,” she said. “That’s a good thing.”