Lee Purcell’s career in Hollywood began when she was personally selected and mentored by Steve McQueen to appear alongside a young Michael Douglas — an experience she continues to cherish decades later.
Purcell has kept busy over the years pursuing exactly what she wanted to do as an actress. The Emmy-nominated star is currently in the film “Carol of the Bells,” co-starring friends Donna Mills and Donna Pescow for director Joey Travolta and his Inclusion Films.
On-screen and well as off, 70 percent of the crew was comprised of people with developmental disabilities, giving opportunities to looking to make their mark on the big screen. “Carol of the Bells” is scheduled to appear on The Bentonville Film Festival, which officially kicks off on May 7.
Fox News spoke to Purcell about being mentored by McQueen, working with both Douglas and his father, Kirk Douglas, as well as what has kept her motivated in Hollywood since McQueen’s passing in 1980 at age 50.
Fox News: What was it like being selected by Steve McQueen to star in “Adam at 6 A.M.”?
Lee Purcell: You know how you have watershed moments that just alter the course of your life? That’s what it was like for me. I was just a young, struggling actress who hadn’t done much… Working with Steve? It’s just so hard to put into words… At the time, he was the biggest movie star in the world. There was nobody bigger than him. But because he was of my parents’ generation… I was not starstruck. I knew he was a big movie star, but I hadn’t seen a lot of his films. I think that was a really good thing because if I had, I probably would have been really nervous. He was so good to me.
He started working with me quickly because he had ideas on how the character should look. He was a detail-oriented person. I was really skinny at the time because I had been a model and he wanted me to gain weight in a proper way. So we started working out. He taught me a lot about exercise, some that I still do today… He told me that he learned all these exercises from his Chinese personal trainer. He never mentioned who it was… Well, it turned out to be Bruce Lee. So I was trained by Bruce Lee via Steve McQueen. I think that’s pretty good *laughs*. To have him mentor me for a few years after that was huge. Then I moved to London to study and he went on with his life. And within 10 years he was gone. It was horrible.
Fox News: Was there anything about him that surprised you?
Purcell: He loved the fact that I rode motorcycles as he did. He was also quite the prankster *laughs*. He loved to scare me at times and he did… We would talk in great depth about our lives and childhoods. Even though they were different in some aspects, they had a common thread… We were both very rebellious and wanted to go on our own ways. And we did. He would advise me about finances, saving your money and career longevity. I think that worked *laughs*. It was much more like a father and daughter relationship. And I needed somebody like him. It was really something.
Fox News: Did you ever go on a drive with him?
Purcell: Oh yes *laughs*. Many times. It was terrifying. But I couldn’t show it! Because I would always feel like he was testing me. And he had this funny laugh. I can’t even describe it. But as he was driving — and we were always in a Porsche — he would glance over at me. I just knew what was going to happen. So I would be very stoic like nothing was bothering me, even though I felt like I was about to have a heart attack. He drove brilliantly, but very fast. He didn’t drive recklessly, but he definitely drove like a race car driver. So I was sitting in the seat next to him sweating and hoping that he wouldn’t see I was hyperventilating.
Fox News: You worked with Michael and Kirk Douglas. What surprised you the most about them?
Purcell: With Michael, of course, we were kids… [“Adam at 6 A.M.”] was his third film and my first film. It was a very exciting time in both of our lives. We then toured all over the country for the film… We were treated like king and queen. It was fantastic for somebody like me who wasn’t raised in Hollywood royalty and who didn’t have much money to be thrust into that world and stay at the best hotels, eat the best foods, being driven around in limos — I mean, I had a car that barely ran. It was amazing. I don’t think it was quite as amazing for Michael, but he was very enthusiastic and thrilled. We had a wonderful time making this film.
With Kirk, that was much later in my career. Kirk is Kirk Douglas… He again was of my parents’ generation. I mean, there’s a reason he’s still alive at 102 — he’s just so full of life. When I first met Kirk, I was just so amazed. Here’s a guy who was so enthusiastic to be on set. He was like a young actor who had received his first break. He was so well-prepared and so welcoming. He knew he was Kirk Douglas, and yet he wanted to make sure people felt comfortable around him. He would always extend a helping hand to anyone. He was very kind and very professional. I cannot say enough good things about him. Kirk was and is the most gracious man who has ever lived.
Fox News: You had a funny incident with Kirk Douglas involving your parents. What happened?
Purcell: My mother and stepfather never visited me in my life at my work, and I wouldn’t have wanted to… But one day, we finished shooting and my parents appeared. They had flown in from a different state without telling me. I was just speechless. They never visited me. They had no interest in my work whatsoever. And suddenly, there they were. And then suddenly, a lightbulb lit up. Of course — Kirk Douglas. They came to see Kirk!
I remember I told Kirk, “Listen, my parents are here. I’m sorry. They just appeared and they only reason they’re here is to meet you.” This guy rolled out the red carpet for them. He was so amazing. He and I together got them to be extras in a scene. We got my mother’s makeup done by a fantastic makeup artist we had. They were wined, they were dined. He spent time with them. They had photos with him. My parents went away on cloud nine. They were so thrilled and I was so grateful to Kirk. And that’s who Kirk is.
Fox News: What’s one memory that still sticks out to you from filming “Valley Girl”?
Purcell: Boy, that’s tough because I have a lot of them. But probably when Nicolas Cage came on the set. Of course, he was trying very hard to not be Coppola’s nephew. It was very sweet. Everybody pretended like they didn’t know who he was related to. They treated him like everybody else. But of course, everybody knew his family.
Fox News: What compelled you to take on “Carol of the Bells”?
Purcell: Many things, actually. When I was sent the script, it was a wonderful script and it was a wonderful role. But they also sent me a video and it’s all about the program that Joey Travolta created and runs…. it trains disabled people who have an interest in being in the film industry on film crews. It’s very exciting because they are financially independent and develop careers. It changes their lives. … It was just so powerful to me.
Most of the people on the crew, you would not have known they were disabled in any way. A few yes, but it was just an eye-opener for me. It’s not something I know a lot about, at least not immersive like that. I sent the video to my agent and she said, “It’s a no-brainer. Of course, you’re going to do it.” … The main actress who plays Carole does have down syndrome, as her character has down syndrome. I love the authenticity of that and felt it was an important step forward. She was absolutely wonderful. She’s 56 even though she looks 26 *laughs*… She’s funny, warm, charming — I love her.
Fox News: What was it like working with this cast?
Purcell: It’s been inspirational really… I loved it and I love Joey Travolta. He’s a very special person who has dedicated his life since 2007 to this foundation that he has and now this film, which was a huge dream of his…. He was on cloud nine the whole time. It was a great experience.
Fox News: What has kept you going as an actress?
Purcell: Well, it is my lifelong obsession and purpose. It is my livelihood and career. You’re always reinventing yourself… I’ve wanted to do exactly what I’ve done, which is to play all kinds of different characters throughout my life. And I think it’s the characters who continue to inspire me. When I read a character I haven’t played before, it’s very inspiring because it’s a new box to open. And that’s exciting.