Mother Dolores Hart Explains It All

ear-of-the-heart-bookWhen Dolores Hicks was seven years old, she had her first calling. It was to become a movie star.

She was born in Chicago, where her father, Bert Hicks, was an actor. Bert separated from his wife Harriet when Dolores was young, and moved to Los Angeles to get movie roles. He appeared in small parts in such films as The Razor’s Edge and Sweet Rosie O’Grady.  Harriet eventually landed in Los Angeles, where she worked as a restaurant greeter. Little Dolores, an only child, was taken in by the industry environment.    

By the age of 17, Dolores Hicks became Dolores Hart, and signed her first film contract with producer Hal Wallis.

While studying at Loyola-Marymount College in 1956, she got her first film assignment–playing opposite Elvis Presley in Loving You, in which she plays singer and love interest Susan Jessup.   “The young actress conveys a very pleasing personality and handles her chores with charm. She ought to be seen again,” wrote Variety.

The work kept coming, including another part with Elvis as romantic lead Nellie, a store clerk, in 1958’s King Creole, as well as key assignments in Wild is the Wind, Lonelyhearts, The Plunderers, the MGM hit Where the Boys Are, Lisa, and Francis of Assisi. Between film assignments, she worked on Broadway, garnering a Tony nomination for The Pleasure of His Company, and appeared on TV, including episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Playhouse 90.

In need of a break after filming 1963’s Come Fly with Me, Hart, who converted from the Baptist religion to Catholicism when she was 9 years old, visited the cloistered Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. It was there that she had her second calling.

Hart quit her burgeoning acting career to become a Roman Catholic nun, much to the amazement of friends, family, agent, and architect fiancé Donald Robinson.

For the last 50 years, Hart has remained at the abbey, where she worked in the laundry and the wood shop, and has served as Prioress since 2001.

She may sing Gregorian chants seven times a day –a medical condition now limits her physical activity–but the enthusiastic 74-year-old has managed to remain an active member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, serve as featured the subject of the 2012 Oscar-nominated short documentary God is the Bigger Elvis and, most recently, write her memoirs (with longtime friend Richard DeNuet)  “The Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows” (Ignatius Press).

It is the book—which chronicles her fascinating life with candor and insight—that brought her to Philadelphia as part of a cross-country press tour. MovieFanFare had an opportunity talk to Mother Dolores between stops at churches throughout the Philly area.     

MFF: Were you intimidated sharing the screen with Elvis Presley in your first movie role?  

DH: I had been in a play at Loyola (College). I got a call at the school and they asked if I wanted to do a screen test. Hal Kanter, the director, asked if I wanted to meet the other members of the cast, Liz Scott and Wendell Corey. Elvis was also there. He stood up and said, “How do you do, Miss Dolores?” I said, “Mr. Presley, how do you do?” I had no communication with him before that. I was in school and never had any idea who he was or what he was like. Later, I realized the boy I met was so kind, so affable.

When I got back to school I told all of the girls about this—they screamed and asked if I got a lock of his hair. They did want to know about him, like so many others. All of my young life I was so involved with him, acting in two films with him,  people were constantly asking me how did I feel, what was he like? I feel happy to make a statement that the person I met was really a good man who was congenial and very affectionate with his mother and friends. Whatever happened later, in the process of him going down, I didn’t know. It was sad because we lost somebody special.

MFF: Is there anything Elvis shared with you that surprised you?

DH: He told me he wanted to do a film like Jimmy Dean, a Giant, but he never got the role.

MFF: Any reason you got to act opposite Elvis in two films? 

DH: (Producer) Hal Wallis had me under contract and he had a deal with Col. Tom Parker (Elvis’s manager), and he thought we’d do well again and that was a good thing for me.

MFF: Have you kept up with movies over the years since you joined the sisterhood?

DH: When I entered the monastery, I was told I can keep my membership to the Academy (of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences). But the abbess said I couldn’t vote at that time. For my 25th anniversary at the abbey, Karl Malden, an old friend, said he wanted me to become an active member again. So he sent me the equipment and I get sent discs to watch.

MFF: What’s your opinion of today’s movies?

DH: Movies have grown with society–we are now a digital society. The aura of continuity is amazing. The way they are made is faster and more inclusive and everything is Technicolor. For the most part, movies themselves are good movies. They really go to the heart. Les Miserables was sensational. There are rotten things in many movies, but there were back then.

god-is-bigger-elvisMFF: You played Saint Claire in Francis of Assisi in 1959, and you met Pope John XXIII, who told you how much you reminded him of the character. Did that have any effect on you becoming a nun?

DH: I don’t think consciously I was moved to become a nun there. I think playing the part was to become involved with a particular way of religion. The Franciscans and the person she was—I could identify with her values. Where my heart was, really was on Benedictine soil. I came there initially to take a break.   A friend suggested I go to Connecticut to see the monastery for a few days rest (after a film shoot). I was so taken to being there. I talked to the abbess at that time. I asked if I would ever be a good member here. She said, “No, go do the movie thing.” But I was touched and very happy there.

MFF: Was it difficult to leave a successful and glamorous career, give up your fiancé Donald Robinson at the time, and join the monastery?   

DH: You keep asking yourself if this is the right thing to do. There comes a point where you have to face voids in your life, and you have to make a vow to God. I think the trauma to find my own center and to find my life was just.

MFF: You have some interesting ties to Philadelphia. You are related to Mario Lanza and worked with the great Ernie Kovacs on Sail a Crooked Ship.

DH: I babysat for Mario’s children. And I enjoyed working with Ernie very much. He tried to make every situation full of joy and fun. He was not an actor, so he was really that way. I felt when we lost him, it was cruel to the world, because he had so much energy and so much delight.

MFF: Have you kept in touch with your friends in the entertainment business over the years? 

DH: My friends have found such unhappiness. If they fell out of aura of their own capacity they should serve at that way. They come to the abbey (to see me) in hopes I could solve their problems. After a while, though, life shows you what is true.