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Emmy Award–nominated actress, producer, writer, and director Lee Purcell has starred in numerous films, television shows, and stage productions. At the beginning of her career, she was mentored by legendary movie star Steve McQueen, who said he chose her from about 500 actresses because she “seemed to jump right out of the screen.”
Lee Purcell was born Lee Jeune Williams at the Cherrypoint Marine Corps Air Station in North Carolina on June 15, 1947. Her father, Major Frank D. Williams Jr., was a highly decorated Marine Corps pilot who was killed while on active duty when she was a child. She was placed into the care of various relatives until her mother, Lee McKnight Williams, married again, this time to Don Purcell, a U.S. Navy doctor assigned to the Marine Corps. The family frequently moved to various military bases. At the end of Dr. Purcell’s military service, the family moved to Paragould (Greene County) due to a professional opportunity.
Lee Purcell began dance training at the age of three, and starting at age five, she made frequent television appearances for several years performing on a Memphis, Tennessee, talent show. She appeared in her first stage operetta at age seven and was performing as a dancer in a traveling troupe by the time she was thirteen, creating her own choreography and costume designs.
Purcell wanted to be a professional performer, despite family opposition. After graduating from Paragould High School at age seventeen, she left Arkansas and moved to Los Angeles, California, to seek her career. She was injured in a car accident, making her unable to dance for a living until she got acting work, as she had planned.
To support herself, she eventually found work in modeling and commercials. Her big break came when she was personally chosen by Steve McQueen for what would be her first feature film. McQueen selected her to star in his company’s production of Adam at Six A.M. (1970), with Michael Douglas. Purcell was told by McQueen that she had to gain twenty pounds to play the role, and he showed her exercises and gave her diet instructions so she could increase her weight.
She later lived in London, England, for several years, where she continued her drama education, studied French, and extensively traveled throughout Europe, while commuting to the United States for film and television work. She eventually moved back to Los Angeles and steadily worked all over the world.
After her movie debut in Adam at 6 A.M., she appeared in such films as Mr. Majestyk (1974), Big Wednesday (1978), Stir Crazy (1980), Eddie Macon’s Run (1983), and Valley Girl (1983), among others.
She has been nominated for two Emmy Awards for her television work in Long Road Home (1991) opposite Mark Harmon and Secret Sins of the Father (1994) opposite Beau Bridges. She portrayed the continuing character of Eleanor Sullivan in the NBC television series Persons Unknown (2010) and the continuing role of State’s Attorney Louise St. Laurent (originally written for a male character named Louis) in the internationally acclaimed CBS television series Due South (1995–1996). She has appeared on such other TV series as Murder, She Wrote, The Rockford Files, Hawaii Five-O, The Waltons, Streets of San Francisco, Magnum P.I., Matlock, Simon & Simon, Bonanza, and MacGyver.
She has starred in a number of other TV movies and mini-series, including Wes Craven’s Stranger in Our House (also known as Summer of Fear, 1978); Murder in Music City (1979) opposite Sonny Bono; The Gambler (1980) opposite Kenny Rogers; The Girl, the Gold Watch and Dynamite (1981); and Malaika (also known as Tons of Trouble, 1998), for which she was co-producer.
She is especially noted for portraying Hollywood legends Billie Dove and Olivia de Havilland in the TV movies/mini-series The Amazing Howard Hughes (1977) opposite Tommy Lee Jones and My Wicked, Wicked Ways: The Legend of Errol Flynn (1985), respectively.
Purcell has also been active as a director, producer, and writer, and she co-owned a niche video production company that won a silver medal at the New York Film and TV Festival. She also launched a style website called “BoomerBabes,” aimed at women of the baby-boomer generation.
Her son, Dylan, appeared with her in various projects, including Malaika. Purcell has been involved with many philanthropic groups and charities, including the Special Olympics, Big Brothers, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Heart of a Horse, and Veterans Entertainment Team.
For additional information:
Lee Purcell. http://www.leepurcell.com (accessed May 9, 2017).
“Lee Purcell.” Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0002517/?ref_=nv_sr_1 (accessed May 9, 2017).
Garland County Historical Society
Last Updated 9/7/2018
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