Years ago, all the phones on the Columbia lot were the same as anywhere else, with one big difference: When you dialed zero, the voice you heard was not a polite operator’s but that of the studio‘s brutish ruler, Harry Cohn. A young contract player named Constance Towers had met the boss only once before, on the day he signed Towers, after she performed a scene in his office with Jack Lemmon. But a year later, she’d done exactly one film and had been kept on ice while Columbia promoted Kim Novak.

Which is why she dialed the big zero one day in 1957 and quickly found herself back in the high-desked office that had so famously been cloned from Mussolini‘s. ”Mr. Cohn sat with one hand holding a riding crop and the other making an aperture with his thumb and forefinger,“ Towers remembers. ”He only looked at me through his fingers, deciding how I would look through a camera.“

Today, most people know Towers, now 68, as General Hospital’s Helena Cassadine, or perhaps from her last film, A Perfect Murder, the 1998 remake of Dial M for Murder. Her striking, catalog-perfect appearance identifies her as the Hollywood pro she is, and perhaps it‘s no surprise that the Century City home she shares with actor-businessman husband John Gavin is located in a corner of a former 20th Century Fox back lot.

When Harry met Connie the second time, the mogul agreed not to renew his option on her contract, and she thanked him for a very important lesson.

”WHAT’S THAT?“ Cohn demanded.

”I know now that if you‘d had any plans for me you wouldn’t have let me go.“

Cohn learned something too that day — not only did Connie Towers have blond hair and hazel eyes, she still came wrapped in the rawhide toughness needed to grow up on the cold steppes of Montana, where her Irish-immigrant family had settled as workers on the Great Northern Railroad. As far back as she could remember, Towers had wanted to become a singer and actress, and by the time she was 16 had beaten polio and willed herself into New York‘s Juilliard School and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Her career on stage and screen has left her with a lifetime of Hollywood memories: The day stuntman Freddy Kennedy died in her arms after a bad fall from a horse . . . How John Ford and Woody Strode once snuck into her apartment and left her a parakeet named Lonesome because they thought Towers lonely and in need of a pet . . . The way Sam Fuller would fire off a pistol during the shooting of his movies — an unnerving habit that nevertheless forced her to focus on her roles.

Towers appeared in Fuller’s indelible Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss. She emerges in them as iconic outsiders to the American Dream — a stripper who saves money for a ”normal life“ and a reformed prostitute who‘s traded her tight skirt for a nurse’s uniform — who are, nevertheless, these films‘ sanest characters. No wonder, as Towers says, most writers interview her about these roles, and not her work in Ford’s The Horse Soldiers and Sergeant Rutledge.

Her opaque, high-plains hardness translated into a blond iceberg who easily melted into sentimental generosity, perfectly suiting Fuller‘s own ambivalent outlook on life. Forget her flat line readings and exaggerated gestures — like other Fuller actors, she was meant to portray an adult cartoon, not an intellectualized cipher. Strippers and prostitutes, after all, aren’t paid to make men fantasize about other women — they are their fantasies.

Towers remembers her work on Shock Corridor as ”three weeks of fast shooting — a lot of shooting.“ This independent movie, filmed at the old Goldwyn Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard, had a very low budget (one of Fuller‘s co-producers, Leon Fromkess, had also produced Edgar Ulmer’s quickie noir classic Detour), but she recalls Fuller as being an emotionally lavish director. ”He was totally accessible to you. He‘d find the right words to inspire you to go that step further — or to unlock one little thing that he wanted.“ Then again, the obsessive Fuller was never one to overlook details. ”He needed to have control,“ Towers says. ”It was one of his virtues and one of his devils. He felt so passionately about the material he had written. He had tremendous enthusiasm and was very childlike.“

Although Towers had no qualms about her risque roles, her devoutly Catholic father ”was upset with me for making the film and took a long time to see it. When he did finally see it, he wrote me a letter telling me how happy he was that he finally did.“ When she signed on for the two Fuller films, Towers and the rest of the cast never dreamed of their eventual cult status.

”I saw Gene Evans at Sammy’s funeral,“ she says of her Shock Corridor co-star. ”We said we both didn‘t realize at that time that we were doing a picture that would be that important in film history.“

Shock Corridor screens Tuesday, October 9, 7:30 p.m., at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater in Melnitz Hall.

LA Weekly