Polly Bergen: Long Road, Few Regrets

Polly Bergen in 1997

During her nightclub act, Polly Bergen sometimes tells her audience: "I know what you’re thinking. You thought I was dead, right?"

Not by a long shot, reports CBS News Sunday Morning Anchor Charles Osgood. Polly Bergen is very much alive. She's just been away for a while.

Quite a while.

After not singing for 35 years, she opened a sold-out nightclub act in New York last fall.

"It suddenly struck me," she recalls. "I'm 70 years old. I wonder if I could possibly end my life the way I started it: doing the most joyful thing I ever did, which is to sing."

After Bergen found out that she could sing, so did Broadway. Following her club act, Bergen landed a plum role in the current revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies." She received rave reviews and tonight, she could win a Tony Award for her performance.

"If someone said to me last July that I was gonna be in 'Follies,' and I was gonna be nominated for a Drama Desk and a Tony Award, I would have said they were out of their mind," she comments.

In "Follies," Bergen gives it all she's got with her version of "I'm Still Here," an anthem to surviving whatever life brings, good and bad.

She says, "I don’t think there’s anybody in that audience that doesn’t believe I am actually singing the story of my life… A great deal of what I sing about, almost everything that I sing about, I either have lived, or know someone who has lived through all of those moments. And I’m also telling them the truth about myself in another way, and that is that in 70 years all of us -- not just me, but all of us -- who have been in show business have gone through a lot of things. And we all go through a lot of ups and downs."

In the '50s and '60s, Bergen was a big star. She recorded best-selling albums and won an Emmy for her searing portrayal of Helen Morgan, the torch singer who died an alcoholic in her early 40s. Bergen proved herself to be a serious actress. She went on to make high-profile movies such as "Cape Fear." She became a household name on television quiz shows, leaving her singing career behind.

She recalls, "I started having a lot of problems with my voice in my mid-30s. And I was a very heavy smoker. I mean, a very heavy smoker, since I was a child. It was a way to look older and sophisticated… I got very badly addicted to it and didn’t want to quit really. And, it just became …I remember a really stupid quote of mine that people come back at me all the time with And that is: 'I had a choice of quitting smoking or singing another chorus of "Night and Day," and I chose to continue smoking. And I quit singing.' And it was a decision that I regretted from that day forward."

Bergen still acted from time to time. She starred in the miniseries "Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance." But, still, no singing.

She says, "Every time I saw another singer on stage, I’d sit there and I’d…I’d want it to be me. Bt I just couldn’t do it because I couldn’t give up smoking."

Eventually, Bergen developed serious health problems and had surgeries to correct severe circulation problems in her legs. She began to develop emphysema.

Finally, enough was enough. Two years ago, she quit smoking and went to expert vocal coach Trish McCaffrey to see if she could make a comeback.

Says McCaffrey, "It took five or six lessons for her to start hearing herself the way she used to sound, and then I could tell that she started getting excited… She wants to give it all all the time, so we had to find a way to bring all this energy in…learning to work with that energy to make it appropriate for that voice. Once her emotions got back in contact with her voice, then it really took off."

For her club act, Bergen carefully chose her material. She looked for songs that showcased her vocal and acting talents.

Bergen has been married three times, including 20 years to top Hollywood agent Freddie Fields. Bergen became a very successful businesswoman in the cosmetics industry. She made a fortune…and lost one.

"I went from being an extremely wealthy woman—living in a 4,000-square-foot apartment on Park Avenue, and suddenly found myself at one point with $35 in the bank," she says.

The 1980s were not good years for Bergen. Her troubled third marriage ended in divorce. The stock market crash of 1987 hit her hard. She was not aware of how badly her money was being handled.

"The interesting thing about me," she observes, "is that I was born poor, and I’ve lived rich and I’ve lived poor, and I know how to do both. People think rich is better. I don't know."

For now, Bergen is comfortable. She says she’s thrilled by her success and enjoys nights on the town with her "Follies" co-stars Blythe Danner and Judith Ivey. They all play women who face the inevitability of age and the changes it brings.

"You look at the road you could have taken, you know, I just think that’s interesting… I’ve been on a lot of roads and I had to hitchhike on a couple of 'em… I have to be very honest: There’s not an awful lot of regret in my life. I think that, you know, you learn from everything," adding with a laugh, "and then, sometimes, you don’t. You know, I mean, sometimes, you don’t.

Polly Bergen's story is, in many ways, like the song she sings in "Follies," a song audiences will find hard to forget.

"Maybe a lot of the people sitting in the audience are going through the same thing that the people in 'Follies' are going through," Bergen muses. "'Maybe I took the wrong road, and is it too late for me to change roads?' Well, I am here as living proof that at 70 you can change roads all you want."

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