At age 55, Lee Poll became single and without money or job. However, within six months of her divorce from Producer Martin Poll (LION IN WINTER), she sold her house for a tidy sum, opened an antiques boutique and launched a career as a set decorator. More than twenty-five years later, her credits include Emmy nominations for episodes of MURDER SHE WROTE and the films SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY, SOAPDISH and PLACES IN THE HEART.
Lee’s first set job was actually pre-divorce. Her soon to be ex-husband was raising money for THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM GRACE WITH THE SEA in the States while production was assembling for the shoot in Dartmouth, England. Lee was costume designing for leads Sara Miles and Kris Kristofferson. This meant fittings stateside, then going with the stars to England. When she arrived, Production Designer Ted Haworth pulled her aside and told her that she had to stay to help decorate the sets. Haworth was having trouble conveying ideas about the characters to the art department. Lee had been working with the script for costume design, so she already understood the characterizations that the director wanted. As Lee recalls she replied, “Well, you’ll have to check with my husband because I’m sure he’s bringing his lady friend. We’re still friendly, but it could be embarrassing. If he says it’s okay, I’ll stay.” She stayed, and the set décor was considerably revised.
Unlike many in the business who start with low-budget independents, Lee’s career began at the top and stayed there. Lee comments, “I always worked on really good films with really good production designers and really good managers. There was never a problem because we were always prepared.” Post-divorce her first set decorating job was through Oscar winning Production Designer Gene Callahan. As Lee describes, “I didn’t have a penny, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. Then Gene Callahan called me.” BLOODBROTHERS was the first of eleven projects Callahan and she would work on together. Lee says of Callahan, “The way Gene does sets, you can look through and see the entire thing. You know just where the action is, and you are never held off by anything. It’s never fake. It’s always real. It’s always big.“
One of their collaborations, PLACES IN THE HEART, has a special place in Lee’s heart. On this film, she also worked with fellow Set Decorator Derek R Hill, who shared, “It was wonderful working with Lee. We had a true partnership.” Lee particularly admired Director Robert Benton’s technique. She remembers, “I thought how clever he was because he had his editor standing next to him every day at the shooting. That film was made better by the editor’s presence. It had so many stories in it that it could have been very confusing.”
Lee shares set decorating credit with Garrett Lewis SDSA on another of her favorite films, STEEL MAGNOLIAS. During her location work, Lee recalls, “I met all the people who were the real people from the story. One was the lady with the beauty shop, a lovely lady. It was a funny little old beauty shop with everything exactly as I needed it. I said to her, ‘Would you like all new equipment?’ She said, ‘Oh, would I?’ So I took her whole shop for our set and bought her all new equipment to replace it.” Her all-time favorite film project is SOAPDISH. She remembers: “I thought that set was probably the best that I have ever seen. It was two floors. The downstairs was the soap opera set, and the upstairs held all the sets for the offices, dressing rooms and hallways.” The production designer was Eugenio Zanetti, who Lee says was “absolutely a wild man, but brilliantly, brilliantly talented.” Lee continues, “He was so funny. He’d say, ‘Tomato! Tomato!’ Everything had to be red.”
Lee’s process begins with research. With period projects, research is imperative, but from Lee’s point of view it is primary with any production. She emphatically states, “There is no other way. And it begins with the script and the character.” Asked if she has a particular style, Lee smiles as she says, “There was a time when people teased me about all the beauty parlors I did. There was one in PLACES IN THE HEART, in THE MORNING AFTER and in STEEL MAGNOLIAS. I’ve also heard production designers say, ‘Oh, you know Lee Poll does great living rooms.’ And I want to say, ‘But have you seen my caves?’ I think that I am true to the character. The character is what the style is about.” Nowhere is character more evident in Lee’s work than in SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY. Julia Roberts’ character inhabits a house that reflects her wife-beating husband’s controlling cruelty. It is a gray environment of stark, harshly modern angles, a sterile house bereft of hominess. The heroine escapes to a house of gentle charm with softly patterned fabrics in an array of colors and turn-of-the-century furnishings. Here Lee graphically juxtaposes the husband’s cold milieu with surroundings in which the heroine can thrive.
Lee’s four seasons working with Angela Lansbury on MURDER SHE WROTE were her favorite television projects and brought her two Emmy nominations.The Executive Producer/Star was interviewing set decorators for the crew slot with the series. After her meeting with Lee, Lansbury saw no need for further interviews. Lee was the set decorator she wanted. It was mutual admiration: “I loved Angela. She knows about everything. She knows script. She knows lighting. She knows acting. She knows decorating. She knows costume. The woman, believe me, knows everything.”
Retired for over five years, Lee confides, “I didn’t think I was going to like retirement, but I have rather enjoyed it.” She still does some “civilian decorating,” as she calls designing for private homes. Lee is a staunch union advocate, member of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a longtime member of the SDSA. She mentors others in the profession just as Gene Callahan once served as mentor to her. —by Susan Ory Powers for Set Decor Magazine
1992-1996: Murder She Wrote
1989: I Know my First Name is Steven (2 episodes)
1988: The Secret Life of Kathy McCormick (TV movie)
1985: Me and Mom (1 episode)
1983: Princess Daisy (Mini Series)
1983: Scarecrow and Mrs. King
1983: Mr. Smith
1981: Splendor in the Grass (TV movie)
1991: Sleeping With the Enemy
1989: Steel Magnolias
1988: Arthur 2: On the Rocks
1988: Little Nikita
1986: The Morning After
1986: The Karate Kid Part II
1986: Big Trouble
1984: Places in the Heart
1982: Grease 2
1980: Seems Like Old Times
1980: The Formula
1980: The Last Married Couple in America
1979: Chapter Two
1979: When a Stranger Calls
1979: Breaking Away
1978: A Different Story
1969: The Lion in Winter (uncredited)
Wedding scene from the 1989 TriStar Pictures film "Steel Magnolias".
Beauty shop scene from the 1989 TriStar Pictures film "Steel Magnolias".
From the long-running CBS television series "Murder, She Wrote".
From the long-running CBS television series "Murder, She Wrote".