Maria Riva

Actress


The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents

02:26

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About
About this interview

In her two-and-a-half-hour Archive interview, Maria Riva speaks of the power of television, made apparent to her when she and her mother, famed screen star Marlene Dietrich, were once approached by a fan: "I was walking down the street with my mother.  And a woman comes up and practically falls on her knees and looks up at my mother as though she were in a church, kind of genuflecting in the middle of Times Square.  And then she turned, got up, and looked at me and said, 'Oh Maria!  I saw you last night on TV, you were terrific!  I loved it!  I watched with my husband and my kids.  When are you going to do your next Suspense ?'  And that's the great difference, and the power of television.  The motion picture star is far away.  That's why it's known as a star. You look up at that big screen.  And you pay homage.  Television comes to you."  Maria Riva was one of a group of actors who served as a contract player for the CBS network in the early 1950s, appearing on such classic anthology series as Studio One, Lux Video Theatre, and Suspense.

Riva talks about her work in the theater, and how she became an acting teacher at the Max Reinhardt Academy. She describes her early interest in TV, and how she came to make her first appearance in 1951 on the anthology series Sure as Fate. She speaks frankly about the kind of work that was expected from actors on television in the early days of the medium: "There was a saying.  You played to Mrs. Glutz in the Bronx.  That sounds, you know, rather insulting, to say it.  But that's how they thought of it.  People who knew nothing about acting, about the profession, so-called, who would now get it for free in their home, they should be glad whatever they got.  So you played to a very low standard."

She discusses extensively the experience of appearing on "live" television, and enumerates many memorable mishaps that occurred during broadcast.  For CBS' prestige dramatic anthology Studio One, on which she appeared frequently, she describes the kinds of roles she played and the actors and directors that she worked with.  She also talks about individual roles on other programs, including appearances she made on NBC following the end of her CBS contract, such as: The Buick-Berle Show; Kukla, Fran, & Ollie; and Hallmark Hall of Fame.  She then comments on her decision to quit acting at the height of her career, when TV production moved to the west coast.

Additionally, Riva talks about appearing on a series of cerebral palsy telethons, being a spokesperson for Alcoa—appearing in live commercials, and her second career as a writer.  B-roll consisted of several photos from her television career in the 1950s. 

Gary Rutkowski conducted the interview in North Hollywoood, CA on March 17, 2009.

"I love doing this interview with you because there's a whole generation of young people who think that television started with 'I Love Lucy.'  They only see what was put on film.  And we, in New York, never had film.  It was all live. You did it once and when it was finished, it was gone."

Highlights
Actress Maria Riva on a terrible mishap on live TV when an actor was injured and she discovered him unconscious and bleeding during the show (possibly on Lux Video Theatre: Cafe Ami)
03:37
Actress Maria Riva on guesting on Your Show of Shows (when Imogene Coca was out sick)
01:31
Actress Maria Riva on being the spokesperson (and learning how to demonstrate the use of aluminum foil on live TV) for Alcoa on The Alcoa Hour
00:59
Actress Maria Riva on how she became a contract player for CBS in the early 1950s, along with actress Mary Sinclair, John Newland, and (possibly) John Forsythe all of whom then worked on such CBS series of the day as Studio One and Danger
01:43
Actress Maria Riva on helping her mother Marlene Dietrich in her later career
01:11
Full Interview

Chapter 1

On her childhood, growing up as the daughter of famed screen star Marlene Dietrich; on her father Rudolf Sieber and his work for Paramount studios; on appearing as a child in the feature film The Scarlet Empress (1934) and the seriousness of filmmaking in those days; on getting her first TV set in the late '40s, and taking an interest in television production; on her husband, set designer William Riva; on working in "live" television during the 1950s in New York
On how she became a contract player for CBS; on establishing herself as a TV star in the 1950s, and how little TV demanded of acting "talent" in the early days of the medium; on the difference to the public between a movie star and a television actor, as she noted when approached by a fan while accompanying her mother; 
On the enthusiasm director Sidney Lumet instilled in his actors; on being the spokesperson (and learning how to demonstrate the use of aluminum foil on "live" TV) for Alcoa on The Alcoa Hour; on a gaffe on "live" TV when fellow actor Rod Steiger's prop gun failed to work
On how she didn't feel she was up to the challenge of the accent required for the Studio One show "The Education of Hyman Kaplan"; on director Paul Nickell, for whom she worked with several times on Studio One
On how she came to give up acting when she realized production was moving to Hollywood— having commuted for a time from New York to appear on such shows as The 20th Century Fox Hour: "Operation Cicero" in the mid-1950s

Chapter 2

On the founding of the Max Reinhardt Academy and studying and teaching there (as well as how it changed hands and became more of a "factory" for making money); on how she was often cast as a "poor man's Dietrich" not only because of her association to her mother but also because she could also provide her own costuming
On appearing on the cover of Life magazine with her mother, at a time when Maria was potentially the bigger star; on screen testing poorly in Hollywood; on helping Charles Laughton once on radio, when he fell one page behind, having discarded the page by accident; on the relationship she had with her mother's friends/suitors
On helping her mother in her later career; on appearing on an array of comedic shows including Your Show of Shows and The Martha Raye Show; on working on Easter Sunday and having to celebrate the holiday with her family on Monday; on rehearsals in live TV
On two mishaps in TV that involved injuries on the set— once where she herself was hurt during dress rehearsal and yet went on with the show; on "proposing" to her husband
On her children: J. Michael, Peter, Paul, and David; on her second career as a writer; on the feature film Scrooged; on the Golden Age of Television; on the star system in Hollywood

Chapter 3

On donating her mother Marlene Dietrich's memorabilia to the Filmmuseum Berlin; on writing a biography of her mother Marlene Dietrich; on an untrue story about her mother Marlene Dietrich and John Kennedy
B-roll: Riva offers descriptions off-screen of several photos from her television career in the 1950s
Shows

20th Century-Fox Hour, The

View Show Page
Actress Maria Riva on how she came to give up acting when she realized production was moving to Hollywood— having commuted for a time from New York to appear on such shows as The 20th Century Fox Hour: "Operation Cicero" in the mid-1950s
02:37

Alcoa Hour, The

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Actress Maria Riva on being the spokesperson (and learning how to demonstrate the use of aluminum foil on "live" TV) for Alcoa on The Alcoa Hour  
00:59

Buick-Berle Show, The

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Actress Maria Riva on playing a "poor man's Dietrich" on The Buick (Milton) Berle Show
00:40

Danger

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Actress Maria Riva on how she became a contract player for CBS in the early 1950s, along with actress Mary Sinclair, John Newland, and (possibly) John Forsythe all of whom then worked on such CBS series of the day as Studio One and Danger
01:43
Actress Maria Riva on the enthusiasm for the work that director Sidney Lumet had when she worked with him on such TV series as Danger and You Are There in the 1950s
01:01
Actress Maria Riva on an injury she sustained during dress rehearsal on Danger, and how she went on to do the live show immediately thereafter, (likely the episode "Operation Murder" [airdate: 6/12/51], her only confirmed credit with actor Jerome Thor)
04:49

Emmy Awards, The (Primetime and Daytime)

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Actress Maria Riva briefly on being nominated for an Emmy Award as Best Actress in 1951 and 1952 and how little recollection she has of the nominations
00:21

Hallmark Hall of Fame

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Actress Maria Riva on appearing in Hallmark Hall of Fame: "The Story of Ruth," on Easter Sunday 1954 (April 18) after appearing with Walter Matthau on Broadway in "The Burning Glass" [she misidentifies it as Omnibus  segment "The Abracadabra Kid" which she did with Matthau the previous year]
00:36

Kukla, Fran & Ollie

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Actress Maria Riva on filling in for Fran Allison once on Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, when Allison was out sick 
00:53

Let's Take Sides

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Actress Maria Riva on appearing in the debate/contest show Let's Take Sides
02:23

Lux Video Theatre

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Actress Maria Riva on a gaffe that happened on "live" TV in the 1950s when the prop gun that actor Rod Steiger was using didn't fire— prompting him to instead say "bang" (possibly on Lux Video Theater: "Cafe Ami" [their only confirmed co-starring TV show])
01:26
Actress Maria Riva on a terrible mishap on live TV when an actor was injured and she discovered him unconscious and bleeding during the show (possibly on Lux Video Theatre: "Cafe Ami")
03:37

Martha Raye Show, The

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Actress Maria Riva on getting a "laugh" on The Martha Raye Show (to Raye's chagrin)
00:22

Studio One

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Actress Maria Riva on the Golden Age of "live" TV in New York in the 1950s, exemplified by such classic anthology series as Studio One
01:04
Actress Maria Riva on making costume changes in "live" TV in the 1950s
01:14
Actress Maria Riva on how she became a contract player for CBS in the early 1950s, along with actress Mary Sinclair, John Newland, and (possibly) John Forsythe all of whom then worked on such CBS series of the day as Studio One and Danger
01:43
Actress Maria Riva briefly on Studio One producer-director Worthington Miner
00:19
Actress Maria Riva on how she didn't feel she was up to the challenge of the accent required for the Studio One show "The Education of Hyman Kaplan"
00:33
Actress Maria Riva on how she worked for director Paul Nickell rather than Franklin Schaffner on Studio One
00:22
Actress Maria Riva on director Paul Nickell, for whom she worked with several times on Studio One
00:37
Actress Maria Riva on how she was often cast as a "poor man's Dietrich" not only because of her association to her mother but also because she could also provide her own costuming
01:16
Actress Maria Riva on keeping a supply of safety pins while working in "live" TV in case there were problems with a costume
00:34
Actress Maria Riva on her experience playing a scene from Jane Eyre with Charlton Heston on a publicity stint for Westinghouse
01:40
Actress Maria Riva offers off-screen descriptions of a few stills from her work on Studio One
02:23

Sure As Fate

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Actress Maria Riva on how she became interested in television production leading to her debut on the anthology series Sure As Fate
00:57
Actress Maria Riva on getting her first acting job in TV on the anthology series Sure As Fate
00:45

Tales of Tomorrow

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Actress Maria Riva relates the famed story that she'd heard (secondhand) regarding Lon Chaney's appearance on ABC's Tales of Tomorrow ("Frankenstein"), in which he thought the actual show was mearly the dress rehearsal 
01:19

You Are There

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Actress Maria Riva on the enthusiasm for the work that director Sidney Lumet had when she worked with him on such TV series as Danger and You Are There in the 1950s
01:01

Your Show of Shows

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Actress Maria Riva on guesting on Your Show of Shows (when Imogene Coca was out sick)
01:31
Topics

Anthology Drama

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Maria Riva on the Golden Age of "live" TV in New York in the 1950s, exemplified by such classic anthology series as Studio One
01:04

Fame and Celebrity

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Maria Riva on the difference to the public between a movie star and a television actor as she noted when approached by a fan while accompanying her mother Marlene Dietrich in the 1950s
01:33

Health and Medicine

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Maria Riva on appearing on a series of cerebral palsy telethons in the 1950s at the request of Yul Brynner (the airtime donated by ABC President Leonard Goldenson), and trying to dispel the stigma of the disease
01:26

Historic Events and Social Change

View Topic
Maria Riva on appearing on a series of cerebral palsy telethons in the 1950s at the request of Yul Brynner (the airtime donated by ABC President Leonard Goldenson), and trying to dispel the stigma of the disease
01:26

Pop Culture

View Topic
Maria Riva on the difference to the public between a movie star and a television actor as she noted when approached by a fan while accompanying her mother Marlene Dietrich in the 1950s
01:33

TV's Golden Age (1940s & '50s)

View Topic
Actress Maria Riva on making costume changes in "live" TV in the 1950s
01:14
Maria Riva on how she became a contract player for CBS in the early 1950s, along with actress Mary Sinclair, John Newland, and (possibly) John Forsythe all of whom then worked on such CBS series of the day as Studio One and Danger
01:43
Maria Riva on establishing herself as a TV star in the 1950s, and how little TV demanded of acting "talent" in the early days of the medium
01:28
Maria Riva on a gaffe that happened on "live" TV in the 1950s when the prop gun that actor Rod Steiger was using didn't fire— prompting him to instead say "bang" (possibly on Lux Video Theater: "Cafe Ami" [their only confirmed co-starring TV show])
01:26
Maria Riva on the Golden Age of "live" TV in New York in the 1950s, exemplified by such classic anthology series as Studio One
01:04
Professions

Actress

View Profession
Maria Riva on establishing herself as a TV star in the 1950s, and how little TV demanded of acting "talent" in the early days of the medium
01:28
Actress Maria Riva on the difference to the public between a movie star and a television actor as she noted when approached by a fan while accompanying her mother Marlene Dietrich in the 1950s
01:33
Genres

Classic Anthology Series

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Actress Maria Riva on the Golden Age of "live" TV in New York in the 1950s, exemplified by such classic anthology series as Studio One
01:04

Commercials

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Actress Maria Riva on being the spokesperson for Alcoa (and learning how to demonstrate the use of aluminum foil on "live" TV) on The Alcoa Hour in the 1950s
00:59
People

Yul Brynner

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Actress Maria Riva on appearing on a series of cerebral palsy telethons in the 1950s at the request of Yul Brynner (the airtime donated by ABC President Leonard Goldenson), and trying to dispel the stigma of the disease
04:31

Marlene Dietrich

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Actress Maria Riva on how her mother Marlene Dietrich's fame factored into her household
00:21
Actress Maria Riva on how she believes the seriousness of filmmaking in the 1930s at Paramount suited her mother Marlene Dietrich's demeanor
01:33
Actress Maria Riva on the difference to the public between a movie star and a television actor as she noted when approached by a fan while accompanying her mother Marlene Dietrich in the 1950s
00:33
Actress Maria Riva on appearing on the cover of Life magazine with her mother Marlene Dietrich, at a time when Maria was potentially the bigger star
00:42
Actress Maria Riva on the relationship she had with her mother Marlene Dietrich's friends/suitors
00:44
Actress Maria Riva on helping her mother Marlene Dietrich in her later career
01:11
Actress Maria Riva on donating her mother Marlene Dietrich's memorabilia to the Filmmuseum Berlin
02:22
Actress Maria Riva on writing a biography of her mother Marlene Dietrich
03:14
Actress Maria Riva on an untrue story about her mother Marlene Dietrich and John Kennedy
02:02

Richard Donner

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Actress Maria Riva on being cast in the feature film Scrooged by old friend, director Richard Donner
01:17

John Forsythe

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Actress Maria Riva on how she became a contract player for CBS in the early 1950s, along with actress Mary Sinclair, John Newland, and (possibly) John Forsythe all of whom then worked on such CBS series of the day as Studio One and Danger
01:43

Clark Gable

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Actress Maria Riva on helping Charles Laughton once on radio, when he fell one page behind, having discarded the page by accident (and a similar situation regarding Clark Gable)
01:31

Leonard H. Goldenson

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Actress Maria Riva on appearing on a series of cerebral palsy telethons in the 1950s at the request of Yul Brynner (the airtime donated by ABC President Leonard Goldenson), and trying to dispel the stigma of the disease
04:31

Charlton Heston

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Actress Maria Riva on her experience playing a scene from Jane Eyre with Charlton Heston on a publicity stint for Westinghouse
01:40

Grace Kelly

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Actress Maria Riva on encouraging Grace Kelly in her movie career (after seeing it wasn't right for herself)
01:16

Charles Laughton

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Actress Maria Riva on helping Charles Laughton once on radio, when he fell one page behind, having discarded the page by accident
01:31

Sidney Lumet

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Actress Maria Riva on the enthusiasm for the work that director Sidney Lumet had when she worked with him on such TV series as Danger and You Are There in the 1950s
01:46

Worthington Miner

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Actress Maria Riva briefly on Studio One producer-director Worthington Miner
00:19

John Newland

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Actress Maria Riva on how she became a contract player for CBS in the early 1950s, along with actress Mary Sinclair, John Newland, and (possibly) John Forsythe all of whom then worked on such CBS series of the day as Studio One and Danger
01:43

Paul Nickell

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Actress Maria Riva on how she worked for director Paul Nickell rather than Franklin Schaffner on Studio One
00:22
Actress Maria Riva on director Paul Nickell, for whom she worked with several times on Studio One
00:37

Max Reinhardt

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Actress Maria Riva on the founding of the Max Reinhardt Academy, studying and teaching there (as well as how it changed hands and became more of a "factory" for making money)
01:31

William Riva

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Actress Maria Riva on her husband, set designer William Riva (and crediting him as the person who first used shiny floors for car commercials)
00:45

Franklin J. Schaffner

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Actress Maria Riva on how she worked for director Paul Nickell rather than Franklin Schaffner on Studio One
00:22

Mary Sinclair

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Actress Maria Riva on how she became a contract player for CBS in the early 1950s, along with actress Mary Sinclair, John Newland, and (possibly) John Forsythe all of whom then worked on such CBS series of the day as Studio One and Danger
01:43

Rod Steiger

View Person Page
Actress Maria Riva on a gaffe that happened on "live" TV in the 1950s when the prop gun that actor Rod Steiger was using didn't fire— prompting him to instead say "bang" (possibly on Lux Video Theater: "Cafe Ami" [their only confirmed co-starring TV show])
01:26

Orson Welles

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Actress Maria Riva briefly on working with Orson Welles in radio
00:28

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