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By age 19, Jamie Lee Curtis was already questioning whether she’d made the right move by pursuing an acting career.
The younger daughter of Tony Curtis, star of classic films like Some Like It Hot (1959), and Janet Leigh, a leading lady best known for the shower scene of Psycho (1960), Jamie Lee Curtis dropped out of the University of the Pacific to make her mark on the industry.
A part in “Operation Petticoat” (1977-78), an episodic TV remake of her father’s 1959 movie, had turned out to be a false start. She barely got in one speaking line per episode before being dismissed, along with most of her castmates, at the end of its disappointing first season.
A lifeline emerged with the opportunity to audition for a film called Halloween in early 1978, though there was no guarantee that this would resuscitate her fledgling career. After all, this was a low-budget horror flick about a psychopath who stalks a group of babysitters, hardly the sort of production that caused critics to swoon. And its young director, who was scrambling to get his career off the ground, initially didn’t even want her for the role.
‘Halloween’ co-writer Debra Hill was impressed by Curtis
As she recalled in the behind-the-scenes documentary Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest, Curtis was initially drawn to the potential for major screen time suggested by the script: “All I kept seeing was my name–the character’s name–on every page, so I knew it was a big part.”
Here was the chance to bring to life the character of Laurie Strode, the mild-mannered 17-year-old who rises to the task of tangling with cold-blooded murderer Michael Myers, even if it posed a challenge to her still-developing acting skills.
“I was very much a smart aleck and was a cheerleader in high school,” she notes in the documentary. “So I felt very concerned that I was being considered for the really quiet, repressed young woman.”
According to the Halloween Unmasked podcast, Curtis first auditioned for Debra Hill, the film’s co-writer and producer. Hill had Curtis read a scene in which Laurie talks on the phone to gauge how she came across as the shy, girl-next-door type, a performance the young actress nailed.
“Jamie Lee Curtis was the perfect Laurie Strode,” Hill says in A Cut Above the Rest. “She had vulnerable qualities, and she just was wonderful in her audition.”
The problem now was getting Halloween co-writer and director, John Carpenter, to see things her way.
Director John Carpenter preferred another young actress
Heading into the project, Carpenter had his eye on Anne Lockhart for the role of Laurie.
Lockhart also had a famous actress mother–June Lockhart had starred in the TV shows “Lassie” and “Lost in Space”–and, unlike Curtis, she had already compiled a fairly sizeable list of screen credits.
Yet, whether due to alleged scheduling conflicts or another reason, Lockhart passed on the offer. Carpenter subsequently took a longer look at Curtis and agreed to take a chance on the unproven 19-year-old.
There was one other factor that tipped the scale in Curtis’ favor: With her familial ties to Leigh, producers saw an opportunity to connect their project, which could not reel in major stars due to a meager $300,000 budget, to the iconic imagery of Psycho.
“We hired Jamie Lee for that reason,” admits Executive Producer Irwin Yablans in A Cut Above the Rest, before adding that Curtis “would have been the best choice anyway; she turned out to be a fine actress.”
The star worried she would be fired after the first day
Even with the part in hand, it took some time for Curtis to get over the insecurity about headlining her first film.
Following a long first day of shooting, which ended with her somewhat awkward effort to improvise the lyrics to a fictional song, Curtis was back at her apartment when the phone rang. It was Carpenter, who wanted to talk to her.
Fearing she was about to be fired, Curtis reluctantly took the phone, only to be surprised by her director’s soothing words: “Hey, darling, I just want to tell you, you were fantastic today.”
Curtis not only survived the entirety of the harried shoot, but she ultimately vindicated the filmmakers’ choice to make her the unlikely star when Halloween went on to gross $47 million over the course of its initial theatrical run, making it one of the most profitable movies in history based on initial investment.
Curtis struggled with typecasting, but eventually embraced ‘scream queen’ status
Despite the success of her feature film debut, Curtis found herself back at square one, with few job offers, in its aftermath.
She wound up in Carpenter’s follow-up horror film The Fog (1980), leading to similar parts in similar scare flicks like Prom Night (1980), Terror Train (1980) and naturally, Halloween II (1982). She finally broke out of the “scream queen” mold with a high-profile role in the comedy Trading Places (1983), paving the way for recognition in mainstream fare like A Fish Called Wanda (1988) and True Lies (1994).
Meanwhile, a funny thing happened on the way to A-list stardom: Halloween became known as a defining entry in the horror genre, and Curtis returned to the franchise for Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998)–which included an appearance from her mother–and Halloween: Resurrection (2002).
The following decade, after a wink at her roots with her contributions to the TV slasher satire “Scream Queens” (2015-16), Curtis signed on for another extended turn in Strode’s shoes with Halloween (2018), Halloween Kills (2021) and Halloween Ends (2022).
Nearly a half-century after her big-screen introduction as a terrified babysitter, Curtis was still relishing the role of the ultimate Michael Myers foil, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, as she told Parade in 2018, “Every good thing that ever happened to me was because I was in horror films.”