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Dina Merrill’s part in Desk Set came thanks, in part, to Marlon Brando.
When testing for a role in Sayonara, Brando was unfamiliar with the lines and wanted to improvise. Merrill, who was hoping to break into films, suggested practicing instead so she wouldn’t flub her audition. As it turned out, her test went well… except Brando thought she was “bossy.”
While she didn’t get the part, the audition put her in line for Desk Set.
In order to get the role, she had to interview with the great Kate. Thankfully, the film veteran approved, and Merrill secured her first ever film role.
Working with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn was quite the experience, especially given how they treated the other cast members.
“They were so nice to us on the set. They were both saying, ‘C’mon, let’s get the girls in the shot,’” remembered Merrill.
When an appropriate dress couldn’t be found for Sue Randall, Hepburn allowed the actress to pick from the wardrobe specifically created for her by Valentina.
“They were so generous and so kind to us,” Dina said, also recalling the orchid the pair gifted her.
Kate even imparted some wisdom to the actress. While waiting on set, Merrill was reading a magazine when Hepburn gently chided her to watch them perform, so as to learn from Spencer Tracy.
“It was the last time I brought a paper or magazine or anything. And she was right!”
The subtle style of Tracy and the meticulous nature of Hepburn were a master class.
“They were so comfortable with each other. They did all their own blocking and rehearsing before they came on the set. They knew exactly what they were going to do. All the director did was tell them where the camera was and work the other actors into the scene.”
That director being the well-established, Oscar-winning Walter Lang.
Above all, the lead’s relationship wasn’t something to miss.
She said, “He was a lovely, warm, friendly man. She looked after him like a mother would look after a child.”
Another time, Merrill remembered seeing Kate at the airport, readying to leave to make sure that arrangements were prepared for Spencer Tracy before he arrived to begin filming on Devil at 4 O’Clock.
“She wasn’t in the picture, but she just looked after him.”
After Desk Set, Tracy and Spencer both sought to work with Dina again. He tried to get her a role in Ten North Frederick, but when a producer wanted to cast Suzy Parker instead, Spencer walked away from the project, unsatisfied with the other actress’ ability. Kate suggested Dina for the part of Olivia in a production of Twelfth Night, though that too wasn’t meant to be.
Still, Merrill stayed in touch with the stars and even had impromptu meet-ups.
“[Hepburn] lived very near me in New York. Several times I’d be walking down the street and I’d hear ‘Dina! Come in and have coffee’ She’d be sitting in the kitchen, looking out the window, and see me walking by. So I’d go in and sit and chat with her,” Dina said
Below are Sue Randall, Joan Blondell, and Dina Merrill from Desk Set.