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October 30, 2011


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Mimsy Farmer: From Spencer’s Mountain to More

MFCult icon Mimsy Farmer was a pretty hazel-eyed blonde with the fragile features of a Mia Farrow or Yvette Mimieux and the independent streak of a Tuesday Weld. After playing the innocent virgin in a few movies and on TV, she essayed restless youth roles in a string of AIP drive-in exploitation movies in the late Sixties. Farmer then relocated to Europe, where with a whole new look, she became an international sensation in 1969 due to her mesmerizing performance as a heroin addict in More. Thereafter she remained in Italy in a series of popular European giallos and horror films between some acclaimed dramas that never found their way to the U.S.

Mimsy Farmer was born Merle Farmer in Chicago. Her parents, Arch and Suzette Farmer, were reporters for the Chicago Herald Tribune. Though named after her father’s favorite brother, she always went by the nickname Mimsy, which came from her mother who Mimsy suspects took it from the poem “The Jabberwocky” used in Alice in Wonderland. When their daughter was about four years old, the Farmers moved to Hollywood when Mimsy’s father took a job writing news for NBC-TV’s Los Angeles affiliate. While attending Hollywood High, the lovely teenager was discovered by an agent and almost immediately landed roles on TV’s My Three Sons and The Donna Reed Show.

MF2Mimsy came close to replacing Sandra Dee as Gidget in Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961), but the producers opted for Deborah Walley. As consolation, they gave her a bit uncredited role. Her official film debut was in the heartwarming or mawkish (depending on your taste—there is no in-between) family drama Spencer’s Mountain (1963). It was based on the novel by Earl Hamner, Jr., who later created the popular seventies television drama, The Waltons, and set in scenic Wyoming with the majestic mountain peaks of the Grand Teton Range as background. In the movie, Mimsy played Claris the girl friend of Clayboy (James MacArthur), the eldest son of hard drinkin’ and hard livin’ Clay Spencer (Henry Fonda) and his long-suffering formidable wife Olivia (Maureen O’Hara). Clay dreams of building a house for his wife big enough for their huge brood but when Clayboy has an opportunity to become the first Spencer to go to college, Clay has an important decision to make.

For the time, Farmer’s teenage Claris is surprisingly very amorous and sexually-charged (the character grew up outside the small mountain community so she thinks she is more worldly in regards to love and marriage) compared to the typical Tammy’s and Gidget’s that bounced across the silver screen at the time.

Extolling her indifference to movie premieres and determined to become an actress and not a teen idol ala Sandra Dee or Annette Funicello, Farmer commented to the Chicago Tribune, “I don’t want to appeal to the teen-aged mentality. The ones that do are only stars, not actors—and they’re good for only a few years. Teen stars can’t handle the fame.” This most likely disturbed Warner Bros. that wanted to groom her to be the next big thing and began by choosing her to be a 1963 Hollywood Deb Star.

Unhappy with her performance in Spencer’s Mountain, Mimsy began studying with esteemed acting coach Jeff Corey. Despite keeping busy on television including guest appearances on The Outer Limits and Perry Mason, Farmer kept her job selling candy at a local movie theater. She finally left it when she returned to the big screen in the soapy Bus Riley’s Back in Town (1965) directed by Harvey Hart from a screenplay by William Inge who had his name removed from the credits when Universal ordered a script re-write to make the film more of a vehicle for Ann-Margret.  Aping James Dean, the brooding Michael Parks played a disillusioned sailor returning home after three years at sea. He finds his sultry ex-girlfriend (Ann-Margret) unhappily married to a wealthy older man, his job prospects bleak, and his younger sister (Farmer) has become the town tart. The film was not well-received though Farmer does well with her role.

For drive-in movie fans, 1967 was a banner year for Mimsy Farmer who had three films in release. Despite her ambition not to become an idol for the young, she became very popular with teenage audiences for a short period of time and began her ascension to cult movie actress. First up was the explosive youth exploitation classic Hot Rods to Hell from quickie producer Sam Katzman for MGM and directed by John Brahm whom Mimsy liked a lot. She credited him for teaching her the trick to crying on screen with a little help from glycerin drops in the eye. Originally made for television as 52 Miles to Terror, it was deemed to violent and released to drive-ins throughout the country instead with a more exploitative title. This was Farmer’s first real bad girl role after playing mostly ingénues. The worried actress remarked that she was cast by her looks alone and hoped she wasn’t going to now be typecast.

Hot Rods to Hell is great camp fun. After almost dying in a car crash, traumatized Dana Andrews as Tom moves his wife (Jeanne Crain) and children, teenaged Tina (Laurie Mock) and Jamie (Tim Stafford), from New England to the California desert to take over a motel and roadhouse. Unbeknownst to them, the place is a hangout for underage troublemaking hot rodders and hoodlums (albeit the most clean-cut looking set of thugs to ever hit the silver screen). Mimsy Farmer played a wild reckless thrill seeker named Gloria first seen standing in the back of what looks like a souped-up dune buggy holding on to the roll bar yelling, “Run him off the road Duke! Run him off the road!” as she eggs on her drag racing boyfriend (Paul Bertoya). Their wild antics elicits from Andrews’ Tom, “What kind of animals are those?” They’re the kind that is out for kicks—racing, having sex, drinking beer, and harassing the townsfolk. Farmer is effective first educing sympathy as the easy lay who wants to find a better life, but then lets her inner bitch get the better of her tormenting good girl Tina whom she sees as her rival for self-centered Duke, no prize he. Since this was an MGM production, the film ends with the family triumphing and the teenagers repenting for their misguided ways.

Actor Christopher Riordan was one of the teenage hoodlums in Hot Rods to Hell and he was not impressed by Mimsy or her two male co-stars. He remarked, “Poor Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain were sort of rolling in their early graves. A couple of the actors were taking themselves so dreadfully serious it was really stupid and they wasted a lot of time in their so called preparation and their attitude. Whereas I am from the old school and thought, ‘Why don’t you just act?’ They were professional but everybody was wishing that they would calm down and do the part as written hoping it would work out.  Unfortunately it didn’t if you saw the movie.”

Mimsy Farmer and Laurie Mock were teamed again by producer Sam Katzman in her most notorious movie from this period, Riot on Sunset Strip. However, the roles were switched as Mock was cast as the out-for-kicks Liz-Ann friend of Farmer’s more conservative Andy who was described in the press book as “a real swinger, who took her first ‘trip’…all the way to Hell and back!” All the ingredients were present—hippies, LSD, protestors, free love, mod fashions, police brutality— to make Riot on Sunset Strip a camp classic of the alienated youth movie genre.

The movie opens with young people milling about on the Sunset Strip with deadly serious voiceover narration that describes the kids as, “Irresponsible, wild, beat, protest youths with nowhere to go, nothing to do, no goal in life.” Hanging out at a club called Pandora’s Box, underage high school kids Andy, Liz-Ann, and their boyfriends get involved in a brawl and are hauled off to jail for breaking curfew. Andy’s estranged police detective father (Aldo Ray), who hasn’t seen his daughter in four years, has been informed of her arrest. When Liz-Ann and the gang decide to return to the strip the following night, Andy declines but when she finds her mother in another alcoholic daze she changes her mind. There she hooks up again with the wild Liz-Ann and Schuyler Hayden as Herby, the bored son of a movie star. He gets a bunch of kids to break into an abandoned house on the Strip where drinking leads to marijuana then to LSD, which Herby spikes the unaware Andy’s coke with saying, “Grass is fast, but acid is like lightning, man.” Strung out, Andy begins to freak out and is then led upstairs to a bedroom by Herby where the poor thing gets gang raped. When the police raid the house, all the kids get out except Andy and Liz-Ann who fingers the guys who assaulted her friend. Andy’s father beats Herby to a pulp with cries of “police brutality” in his ears, but he is able to stave off the impending riot.

The movie’s standout scene is Farmer’s wild LSD freak out dance where she writhes around the floor in her mod mini-dress gazing in wonder at her hands and feet. She then begins dancing around shaking her wild mane of hair ala Ann-Margret (critic Clifford Terry described it as “a dry-land water ballet”). Whatever you label it, it has become a YouTube favorite much to Farmer’s bemusement.

The biker film Devil’s Angels (1967), AIP’s in-name only sequel to its mega hit The Wild Angels, was directed by Daniel Haller and featured Mimsy Farmer this time as the tormentee playing a bored small town girl who gets in over her head. The ad copy exclaimed, “Violence is their God…Lust the law they live by.  They hunt in a pack…Like Rabid Dogs.” John Cassavetes starred as Cody the leader of an outlaw biker gang called The Skulls, whose members included Beverly Adams, Russ Bender, Marc Cavell, Salli Sachse (a former Beach Party regular), Nai Bonet, Buck Kartalian, and Kipp Whitman. The gang is on their way to find an idyllic life in the “Hole-in-the-Wall” when they stop in the town of Brookville to attend a local carnival. Farmer’s Marianne is the only girl in the Kissing Booth who will smooch any of the bikers. Roy (Whitman) is the lucky winner. Flirty Marianne then gets him to take her on a joyride and he heads straight to his gang who are partying along the shore of a lake. After smoking pot and many beers (this is definitely not your typical Frankie and Annette beach party), things get out of hand as Roy fiercely kisses Marianne and begins to pass her around to his friends. The terrified disheveled girl flees into the night and the sheriff and mayor think she has been raped, which she denies. Her debauchery leads to an all out war between the townspeople and the bikers. The Skulls emerge victorious and take over the town putting Marianne, the sheriff and Mayor on trial leading to more violence.

 

Unhappy with her husband and her career in Hollywood, Mimsy headed for Vancouver on advice from actor Peter Brown who told her about HollywoodHospital where they experimented with LSD and psychotherapy. After her own session, she began working there but quit when she realized the hospital never followed up with their patients after their “treatment.” Still in Vancouver, she received a life changing phone call from director Daniel Haller (one of her favorite directors) who wanted her for the female lead in his new movie The Wild Racers (1968), which was going to be shot on location throughout Europe. Mimsy played Katherine the girlfriend of race car driver Joe Joe Quillico (Fabian) who progresses from U.S. stockcar racing to traveling the European Grand Prix circuit. The more successful he becomes, the more his relationship with Katherine crumbles. This was the only film the actress did for AIP that was not a hit with the drive-in crowd. In an interview with the Oakland Tribune, Haller opined that it was a picture “too esoteric in its treatment to make as much money as it should have.”

Deciding to remain in Europe, Farmer sought out work there and landed the female lead in More (1969), first time director Barbet Schroeder’s cautionary tale of drug taking with an original song score by Pink Floyd. The actress was introduced to Schroeder by The Wild Racers’ cinematographer Nestor Almendros and associate producer Pierre Cottrell. Though not completely happy with the script or things her character had to do in it, Farmer accepted the role in part because she would get to work with her two friends again. The movie was filmed on a shoestring budget, but you would never guess that when watching the movie.

With a stylish short haircut, Farmer gives an entrancing performance as Estelle an offbeat American expatriate living in Paris who meets German college graduate Stefan (Klaus Grunberg who spoke no English and had to learn his line phonetically) who has been warned to stay away from her (“She has already destroyed two men—do you want to be the third?”). Ignoring the advice, Stefan spends a few days with the girl smoking pot and making love. He then follows her to the sunny island of Ibiza where they live an idyllic life nude sunbathing and taking LSD. However, things begin to go awry when they graduate to shooting up heroin and become entangled with the island’s leading drug dealer an ex-Nazi whose mistress turns out to be Estelle. Stefan’s love for the secretive American becomes obsessive and abusive the more his addiction for heroin increases, which leads to tragedy. Grunberg’s character is sometimes unlikable while Farmer makes her Estelle sympathetic despite her cavalier treatment of Stefan.

In 1969 to help promote the release of More, an honest, outspoken Farmer opined in the New York Times, “I think the hip people will put the film down…the idea that smoking marijuana leads to heroin is ridiculous. A lot of people will just be bored by the whole thing.” She also went on to say that she wasn’t thrilled with director Barbet Schroeder regarding the scene where Grunberg runs his hand up her dress and remarked that he “misrepresented the way he was going to shoot it.”

More was an international sensation and really clicked with young people of the time. It helped to kick off Mimsy Farmer’s European career, which lasted for over 20 years. Her films included Dario Argento’s suspenseful psychological thriller Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) and Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat (1981). Her last acting credit is the Italian TV-movie Safari (1991) for director Roger Vadim. Today, Mimsy concentrates on her art (displayed on her web site www.mimsyfarmer.com) and sculpture work, which can be seen in such movies as Blueberry (2004), Troy (2004), Marie Antoinette (2006), The Golden Compass (2007), and Clash of the Titans (2010).

Your first big movie role was in Spencer’s Mountain. What was it like to work on this?

When we made Spencer’s Mountain I was fifteen and a half. I was accompanied by my mother and a teacher, and spent most of my time with them (or riding horseback) when I wasn’t working. I didn’t have many scenes with Henry Fonda who seemed pretty miserable and spent most of his time at the local café, or Maureen O’Hara who was also fairly distant. James MacArthur, who was quite a bit older than me, was nice but the person I felt most comfortable with was Wally Cox who seemed to take me more seriously and taught me some lovely Elizabethan songs, which I still remember. Delmer Daves [the director] was more concerned about my weight than about my acting, unfortunately, and kept telling me, ‘watch your bottom honey.’

 

What do you recall most about your second film Bus Riley’s Back in Town with Michael Parks and Ann-Margret?

I just remember being impressed by being on the same set with Jocelyn Brando [who played her mother], as much as if she’d been Marlon [her brother].

 

Hot Rods to Hell was your first real big screen bad girl role. What attracted you to the part?

I needed to work and couldn’t wait for a better offer. I also thought, ‘If Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crane had accepted who the hell was I to be finicky?’

 

Your next three movies were for American International Pictures. Did you sign a contract with them?

No, I had no contract with AIP but I was supporting my ‘cowboy’ husband [he was from Brooklyn and failing to get work as a stuntman in Hollywood] and a bunch of animals. The better directors were not lining up in front of my door pleading for me to be in their movies. They didn’t even know I existed.

 

You have a great LSD freak-out scene in Riot on Sunset Strip. Do you remember anything special about it or the movie itself?

That ‘great LSD freak-out scene,’ which I took very seriously at the time, has since become for me a source of amusement tinged with embarrassment. Somewhere on the internet someone said, ‘that scene is so bad, that it’s hilarious.’ I agree. I was pretty naive back then and so earnest!

 

In Devil’s Angels you played a local girl who makes trouble for the Hell’s Angels led by John Cassavetes. How was it to work with him?

I really liked Daniel Haller [the director], a very nice man, and admired John Cassevetes, also a very nice guy. All Casseavetes and I talked about was how much he missed his wife. Actually, I mostly listened. Anyway, doing a movie with him, even though he wasn’t directing it, was a step in the right direction.

 

Your last AIP movie was Wild Racers with Fabian and your second film directed by Daniel Haller. 

I’d left my ‘cowboy’ husband and was working in a hospital in Canada where they were using LSD as a tool for psycho-therapy. The experience was enlightening but disappointing. When Daniel Haller called me, I jumped at the chance to go to Europe and also to see my brother Philip, who was living in London at the time. It was the best move I’d made up to then and I loved traveling in France, Spain, and Holland.

 

After accepting the role in More did the nudity ever become a concern? A number of your ‘60s contemporaries would not take roles where they has to be naked.

No, not all. Nudity was an integral part of the movies in which I appeared naked. Being flat-chested and boyish helped a lot and, I hope, there was nothing vulgar or lewd about these scenes.

 

Do you consider More of your best or important movies? Back then you remarked that you thought the idea of marijuana leading to heroin addiction was not believable.

I don’t think it is my best movie, though the role was interesting and Nestor Almendros’ photography was gorgeous. It was, though, very important for my career, both in the positive and in the negative sense. Its success in France was huge and overnight I became a ‘star’ but, as is often the case, I became ‘type cast’ and most of the roles directors offered me subsequently were those of neurotic or outright mad young women. Well, I can’t complain.

 

It’s true that I said, and still believe, that smoking grass does not in itself lead to shooting heroin. I know many people who light up a joint from time to time who have never touched anything harder and never will, myself included (though now I prefer a good glass of wine).

 

How would you rate Barbet Schroeder as a director?  In an interview you gave to the New York Times you were unhappy with some of his directorial choices.

Well, I think now, that I was silly to berate Barbet and his movie at the time but I still think that it’s naive and moralistic and some of the scenes were an embarrassment to do, all the ‘Zen’ and ‘Lotus’ shots and the ‘unexplored brain’ nonsense. What I didn’t say though was that his movie was pretty daring and unconventional for those years, in Europe anyway, and that he was a better than average director.

 Did you find a big difference between working in Europe versus Hollywood?

In Europe, actors were not shuffled off to their trailers between shots and were invited to participate and collaborate with the director and other crew members. It was so different. Nobody was anxious about my ‘bottom’ (admittedly much diminished) and nobody was redesigning my eyebrows and curling my hair. I just had the feeling that nobody wanted me to act or look like anyone but myself—such a relief!

Were you surprised that More was such a hit especially in France?

Yes, More got its chance because it had been so successful at the Cannes film festival but was blasted by the critics in the U.S. Of me, Newsweek said, “She acts the range of emotions from A to B.”  Bette Davis once said, ‘Old age ain’t for sissies.’ I say, neither is being an actor!

 

You seem to have a healthy attitude about bad reviews.

For me, the movies I’ve done aren’t only about how they turned out but also, who was involved in them. Also, on the whole, when you’ve decided to live and work in a foreign country, you are the foreigner, and if you’re an actor there are limits to which and how many roles you’re going to be offered  and if you’re working to make a living you can’t be too choosey and you’re mostly grateful when you can work.

Look for my new book Pamela Tiffin: The Actress, the Icon, the Films in late 2014.

 

NEW BOOK

PTBlogJust signed and returned  contract with McFarland and Company for my new book Pamela Tiffin: The Actress, the Icon, the Films continueing with my series of books on Sixties Starlets.

Pamela Tiffin began her film career in 1961 as a scene-stealing comedienne in the classic Billy Wilder comedy One, Two, Three before she became the teen queen of teenage camp with State Fair, Come Fly with Me, For Those Who Think Young, and The Pleasure Seekers where TCM dubbed her “Hollywood’s favorite air-headed ingénue in the Sixties.” After landing a sexy adult role in Harper, she ran away to Italy to star in sex comedies including Kiss the Other Sheik and The Blonde in the Blue Movie; a giallo The Fifth Cord, and the western Deaf Smith & Johnny Ears. Her leading men ranged from James Darren and Bobby Darin, to James Cagney, Burt Lancaster, and Paul Newman, to Marcello Mastroianni, Franco Nero, and Vittorio Gassman. Tiffin’s beauty and comedic talent so evident in her Hollywood movies, coupled with her running off to Italy at the height of her fame, have made her a cult pop icon with fans of Sixties cinema to this day.

Not a biography, this book is a filmography though the first section “Pamela Tiffin: From Hollywood to Rome” traces Pamela Tiffin’s acting career in a chronological order including her time on the stage. The second section focuses on her movies and her U.S. TV shows. Each is divided into three sections—Backstory; Synopsis; and Reviews and Box Office. The last section is a list of appearances she made on film, radio, or television as herself. Excerpts from a variety of sources are incorporated including new interviews with film historians (Roberto Curti, Howard Hughes, Dean Brierly), and actors and crew members (including Hugh O’Brian, Larry Hankin, asst. director Tim Zinnemann) who worked with the actress. There are many publicity photos, on-set stills, and film posters.

 

 

SPRING BREAK WEEK

Click here to access Classic Film and TV Cafe’s week’s worth of blogs highlighting the 1960s beach movies. The most recent post is a very kind review of my book Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave, 1959-1969.

Below is one of my intros during Spring Break Week in 2012 on Turner Classic Movies.

 

Trippin’ with Gail Gerber: What I Think I Remember

My friend former actress Gail Gerber passed away on March 1, 2014 and I write this with a heavy heart, but wanted to share some of my fondest memories of her. Gail used to get the biggest kick when I would introduce her endearingly to friends and family as “my starlet.” She would tell me, “Oh, Tom, I was a starlet for less than two years after being a dancer for over ten years and a ballet teacher for 25 years.” True, but to me she would always be the shapely blonde twitching on the sands of Malibu or with Elvis in a handful of mid-Sixties teenage movies that I would watch as a kid on the 4:30 Movie.

I met Gail in 2002 at a Greenwich Village coffee shop when I interviewed her for my book Drive-in Dream Girls, a title she knew Terry Southern would have just loved. We stayed in touch and then she relocated to Chicago. I saw her on her infrequent trips back here, but it wasn’t until she moved back to the city permanently in 2006 that we started seeing more of each other. Gail had such a vitality and grand sense of humor. I so enjoyed being around her. But I couldn’t believe I was hanging out with an almost 70 year old. Egad, she was a year older than my mother! But Gail was not like any woman I ever met at that age. Free-spirited, she smoked pot; loved New York City; bashed all Republicans; told stories of her life in Hollywood (my favorite is how she “accidentally” dropped a dog in a mailbox to get some publicity and got her face splashed across newspapers throughout the country) and her life with Terry Southern getting high with the Rolling Stones or hanging with the likes of Rip Torn, David Amram, William Burroughs, Larry Rivers, Lenny Bruce, George Segal, Geraldine Page, Roger Vadim, and, I quote, “those fuckers” Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda.

Gail had been putting her memories down on paper and I helped her write her memoir Trippin’ with Terry Southern: What I Think I Remember. Ernie was now living nearby Gail in Upstate Manhattan. Almost every Saturday for over a year, Gail would come by and we would work on her book. I would send her off with a homework assignment for the next time. Trooper that she was, Gail would take a yellow legal pad, just like Terry would do, and hightail it every Wednesday to the New Leaf, a quaint restaurant situated in the middle of FortTryonPark. With a glass of wine accompanying her meal, she would crank out anything she could remember about a point in her life. When the book was finally published, Gail told me laughing, “My brain is empty of all my memories.. I’m going to have to read my own book to remember.”

Gail just loved the New Leaf. We would go with her or meet her there on Friday nights for the live jazz. Petite Gail did not like to eat dinner at the bar not so much because of her size but as she’d say, “Nice girls from her time did not sit alone at a bar,” so she would get a table for herself always in the section of her favorite server Holly, a fellow dancer. It was always so reassuring to turn and see Gail at the table grooving to the different jazz groups. Eventually, she would join us at the bar for dessert. In Gail’s case it was a glass of Limoncello. Ernie would yell at our friend David the bartender to cut Gail or me off if we had too much to drink. He yelled often. All three of us would then stumble down the hill and walk Gail home. She so enjoyed her Friday nights there and would say to us “What fun!” as we said our goodbyes.

Sometimes at my house I would surprise Gail with one of her movies or a TV show she never saw. She would moan, “Oh, Tom!” Ernie would scold me for torturing poor Gail. But she never saw her screen work and I wanted to prove that she was a much better actress than she ever gave herself credit for. She had such a vivacious personality and comedic timing. Hell, she made 6 movies in 2 years! She stole The Girls on the Beach from the other bikini-clad gals and she was the only one brought back by producers Roger & Gene Corman for their second beach movie, Beach Ball. Once I made her watch her lead guest spot on a Peyton Place wannabe soap The Long Hot Summer with Roy Thinnes. She was amazed how good she was. She was not as shocked on how good she looked, especially when she climbed through a window in one scene, because she remembered the lighting guy and cameraman took a shine to her. “That what happens if you are friendly to the crew,” she said.

I think deep down Gail liked that she was a Hollywood actress and I am proud that I helped her appreciate that part of her life even to the point of answering her fan mail. One Friday night at the New Leaf, a young guy from Australia sat down next to me at the bar and began chatting. He had just moved to Upstate Manhattan and it was his first time at there. He only had been to another bar/restaurant nearby called Next Door. “The one with the TVs,” he said. I told him I have been there a number of times and they always have on Turner Classic Movies. He said he sat there watching Elvis dancing with some Arab gypsy girls. I laughed and said, “that is Harum Scarum—meet Sapphire” and motioned to Gail. She smiled, nonchanlantly picked up her drink and raised her glass to him. He couldn’t believe it and almost fell off his bar stool. It was such a crazy only-in-New-York moment.

Gail really became family to Ernie and me. If we were having dinner home on a Saturday, Gail was always invited. It didn’t matter how much food we had because, as we would joke, “she eats like a bird and drinks like a fish.” Gail was infamous for always being early. The door would buzz at say 2:15 and Ernie would yell at me. I’d say, “I swear I told her to come at 3!.” She and I sould sit at our kitchen bar sipping Prosecco while watching Ernie cook. They would share recipes or talk about Mark Bittman the food guy’s latest column in the New York Times. Gail and I would chat about her friends—what play she saw with her best gal pal Katie Meister this week; or what director Amy Wright was up to: or what city actress Angelica Page was in on tour; or how longtime friends Priscilla and David Bowen were coming along with their Berkshires house renovations; or how she chatted recently with John Kim, Terry’s former student. She loved meeting new people and recently made a special friend in Lucas Natali who she told me about for months until we finally met. It is these simple moments that I will miss and treasure most.

Here’s to you Gail Gerber! It was one helleva trip!

New year 12

 

 

Actress/Dancer Gail Gerber Dead at Age 76

Actress/dancer Gail Gerber passed away on Saturday, March 1, 2014 due to complications from lung cancer. A petite, blonde beauty with a shapely figure, she is best remembered by movie fans as a starlet with a vivacious personality that brightened up several beach cult films as well as two Elvis features during the mid-Sixties.

Gail4Gerber was born on October 4, 1937 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and began studying ballet at age seven. Her talent was evident even as a young girl and at fifteen she became the youngest member of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal. She grew up touring with the ballet troupe and eventually married a jazz musician. But in the late 1950s, she abandoned the unsuccessful marriage and moved to Toronto to work as an actress. She appeared on stage and in many live CBC television dramas. Gerber also had a flair for comedy, and was one of the last to perform in TV sketches with the legendary vaudeville duo Smith and Dale (who inspired the film The Sunshine Boys) on both The Wayne and Schuster Show and The Ed Sullivan Show.

Moving to Hollywood in 1963, the talented blonde quickly snagged the lead role in the play Under the Yum Yum Tree and made guest appearances on such popular TV series as My Three Sons, Perry Mason, and Wagon Train.  In 1965, she made her film debut in The Girls on the Beach, co-starring The Beach Boys, before her agent suggested she change her name and, as Gail Gilmore, she went on to have principle roles opposite Elvis Presley in Girl Happy (1965) and Harum Scarum (1965). She then returned to the sands of Malibu to co-star with Edd “Kookie” Byrnes in Beach Ball (1965) before growing to gigantic proportions along with five other delinquent teenagers (including Beau Bridges and Tisha Sterling), who terrorize a town in Village of the Giants (1965).

Gerber had a minor role as a cosmetician in The Loved One (1965), directed by Academy Award winner Tony Richardson. It was on the set of that movie where she met its screenwriter Terry Southern, who was riding high due to the success of his satirical novels Candy and The Magic Christian, as well as the smash movie Dr. Strangelove, which he co-wrote. The two hit it off immediately and, despite their marriages to others, became inseparable. Gerber even abandoned her acting career in 1966 to live with Southern in New York, then in Connecticut, where she taught ballet for over twenty-five years and tended to their 200-year-old farmhouse, the chickens and pigs. Gerber remained Southern’s steadfast companion and muse until his death thirty years later in 1995.

After Southern’s death, Gerber spent most of her time living in New   York City. During the last twenty years of her life, she was the secretary of the Terry Southern Trust. She also returned to acting – playing a dotty old woman in Lucky Days (2008) an independent film written/directed by and starring her friend Angelica Page. Next she played a Wake Guest in avant-garde filmmaker Matthew Barney’s just completed film River of Fundament (2014).

IMG_2193_1She also wrote her colorful memoir (with Tom Lisanti) Trippin’ with Terry Southern: What I Think I Remember (published in 2010 by McFarland and Company, Inc.)  The book details what life was like with “the hippest guy on the planet” as Gerber and Southern traveled from LA to New York to Europe and back again. Gerber reveals what went on behind the scenes of her movies as well as Southern’s, including The Cincinnati Kid, End of the Road, and, most infamously, Easy Rider.  The book recounts the “highs” with Terry—hanging out with The Rolling Stones, Peter Sellers, Lenny Bruce, Roger Vadim and Jane Fonda, William Burroughs, Rip Torn and Geraldine Page, David Amram, George Segal, and Ringo Starr—as well as the “lows” in the 1970s & 1980s, when they were barely scraping by on their Berkshires farm. The book received an Independent Publishers Book Award Silver Medal for Best Autobiography/Memoir of 2011.

Gail Gerber is survived by her stepfather Karl Dudda and will be remembered by her many fans and loving friends.

 

 

My Fascination with Carol Lynley

CLToday is actress Carol Lynley’s 72nd birthday and I realized it has been 40 years since I became obsessed with this gorgeous angelic-looking blonde actress with the bluest eyes and porcelain doll skin. Most people think it was due to The Poseidon Adventure that made me flip my lid but in actuality it was a Glen Campbell/Joe Namath comedy called Norwood.

Every pubescent boy in 1973 wanted to see The Poseidon Adventure and I was no different. I was mesmerized by the TV commercials and desperately wanted to see the movie. My family rarely took us to indoor movies but we frequented the drive-in during the Spring and Summer months often. My birthday rolled around on May 11 and The Poseidon Adventure was still playing in theaters across the country five months after it premiered. Needless to say, guess what I wanted for a present? So on a warm Saturday night, off to the drive-in we went.

I was too excited for words and got to sit in the front seat between my mom and dad while my three siblings settled down in back. The sun went down and the movie began. I was fascinated as it began to unspool introducing the passengers and crew hours before the New Year’s Eve countdown. Of course, I knew what was in store for all and sat there waiting anxiously for the big moment. Then it came. As the ocean liner began to roll over after being hit by a 90-foot tidal wave, I was mesmerized. I had never seen anything like it. My heart was racing as the people in the ballroom began to reach out desperately for anything to grab on to, as the ship began to tilt. “Hold on Linda,” Mike Rogo yelled to his wife. It was to no avail as they, Belle, Nonnie, Manny, Reverend Scott, Susan, Robin, and the rest all began tumbling down as the ocean liner began to capsize. It is the best piece of trick photography, stunt work, and special effects for me to this day.

After that capsizing scene, I sat there mouth agape for the rest of the movie as the passengers and crew made their way up to the bottom of the boat–climbing, swimming, crawling their way to try to escape. The movie was tense, exciting, shocking (they killed off major characters in horrific ways!), tender, and funny. I loved all the characters but the one that fascinated me the most was the hippie singer Nonnie clad in hot pants and go-go boots. She was the lone character who expressed sheer terror regarding their predicament. I could relate, as I was petrified just watching in a parked car.

When the movie ended, it was like I just awoke from a dream. First thing I asked my mother was “who was the pretty blond playing Nonnie?” She said, “Carol Lynley. She was in that vampire movie [The Night Stalker] that I told you not to watch last year.”

CL2I put this “Carol Lynley” out of my mind. Then one Saturday night the following year NBC-TV was broadcasting a Glen Campbell comedy called Norwood from 1970. He played a returning G.I. who wanted to get out of his sleepy hometown and make it as a vocalist on some hayseed radio show. At a local roller rink he meets up with shady Grady (Pat Hingle) who tells the naïve boy that he has connections to the show and all Norwood needs to do is drive one of his cars to New   York City unaware they are hot. When Norwood shows up the next day, he finds there are actually two cars and a passenger sitting in it named, “Yvonne Phillips and she is a dandy.” Grady tells Norwood that Yvonne has her own spending money, but whatever arrangements they make between them is Norwood and Yvonne’s business. Norwood says he doesn’t think she wants to. Funny, she hasn’t said a word so why we would he automatically assume that I thought. Years later I discovered that censors cut the prior scene when Yvonne gets out of the car and cusses out Grady and Norwood.

(Carol is featured in below video at the 8:13 mark)

Calling Yvonne Philips a dandy was an under statement. A pretty sun-drenched blond with short hair in an orange mini-dress CL3Yvonne was a ball of energy eating her can of peaches as the duo began arguing their way across the country. Norwood keeps calling his passenger Laverne  and she exclaims, “My name is not Laverne it’s Yvonne! But I don’t want you calling me nuthin’” Unfortunately, after Norwood runs a stop sign and the duo are chased by an inept deputy and his sheriff, he gives the stolen car to Yvonne who drives off to find her “cannonball” Sammy Ortega in Illinois and disappears from the movie. I watched until the end to see who the actress was and I was stunned to see it was Carol Lynley! The same Carol Lynley who has long hair and a hippieish look in The Night Stalker and The Poseidon Adventure? It couldn’t be. She had a totally different look and played such an animated role. But it was.

From that moment on I tried to catch every movie and TV show she appeared in. I would buy the TV Guide a week early to plan my watching. If Carol turned up during the daytime on The Hollywood Squares or Dinah’s Place I would plan to be sick that day to stay home from school. It only worked a few times as my mom began to catch on. If one of Carol’s movies appeared on the Late Late Show (as Harlow often did) I would try to keep myself awake or set my alarm to get up (remember this was pre-VCR days). Luckily, a number of her films (particularly The Pleasure Seekers and The Shuttered Room) were regular features on the ABC-TV 4:30 Movie and that Carol was a frequent guest on The Mike Douglas Show. Both programs aired after school was out.

I began a scrapbook of clippings on Carol tearing out her picture or magazine/newspaper articles on her wherever I saw them including a few library books I am sorry to admit. Hell, I was desperate. Due to her romances with David Frost, Jack Haley, Jr. (later whom Carol confessed was just a friendship since he was gay) and others she popped up in the Enquirer, the Star, and Rona Barrett’s Gossip and Hollywood magazines frequently. I wrote in to Newsday’s TV column with questions I already knew the answers to such as “Was there a movie sequel to Peyton Place and, if so, who played Alison?” and “Did Carol Lynley sing ‘The Morning After’ in The Poseidon Adventure?” only to get her picture in the paper. It worked both times. My fascination became so acute and my family so aware that I overheard my mom tell her friend, “Tom stays up to all hours to watch Carol Lynley movies and pro wrestling.” The latter is for another discussion.

Some Carol experiences stand out for me. In 1975, our junior high school English class went to see the musical Raisin in NYC. It was my first Broadway show. But I was more interested in seeing the marquee for Absurd Person Singular “the longest running comedy on Broadway starring Geraldine Page, Carol Lynley and Fritz Weaver” as the TV commercial would blare. My nose was pressed to our bus’ window as we rode by since the theaters for the two shows were near each other. At this time Carol was the very fit spokeswoman for New York Health & Raquet Club and I always would run to the TV when her commercial aired. But I was most excited when I read that Carol was going to be a presenter on the 1979 Academy Awards most likely due to Jack Haley, Jr. who was directing. Carol looked simply stunning in a aqua blue evening gown that brought her eyes out even more and a blown back hairdo. She and co-presenter Robby Benson made a nice pairing and thankfully did not make fools of themselves as celebrities often do at these things.

I am the first to admit that Carol Lynley is not the greatest actress. There are no Oscars or Emmys on her mantle. And in her later years she could be guilty of delivering a bland and lazy performance. But for me she had that certain something that makes you stand up and take notice. Perhaps it is the cool elegance that she exudes. She had the guts to take on varied roles and fought typecasting.  As she once said, “I’ve played murderesses, nuns, whores and neurotics.” 40 years later I am still taking notice.

Happy Birthday Carol Lynley!

Below are 2 of my books Carol is featured in and hopefully one more to come in the near future.

 

 

All About “Eve”: Celeste Yarnall Remembers Her Jungle Goddess

In 1967, former model and Miss Rheingold Celeste Yarnall risked her life savings to travel to the Cannes Film Festival in hopes of being “discovered” even though she was acting in television and films (The Nutty Professor, Around the World Under the Sea, among others) since 1963.  Discouraged that her career hadn’t taken off, she and her husband Sheldon Silverstein headed to that international city hoping Celeste would wow some producers. And wow them she did!  Producer Harry Alan Towers, who was looking for a girl to play a female Tarzan in Eve, spotted her strolling down the street. According to Yarnall, he yelled and pointed, ‘Stop that girl!  That’s my Eve!’ Yarnall made a breathtaking jungle goddess in Eve, but the film wasn’t a success though a cult favorite today.

Eve CelesteThe jungle adventure Eve (1968) starring Celeste Yarnall was reminiscent of One Million Years B.C. with Raquel Welch and She with Ursula Andress. It was the story of an alluring half-savage jungle woman named Eve living in the wilds of Brazil where the natives worship her as a goddess. Trouble begins for Eve when she rescues a downed pilot (Robert Walker Jr.) who brings back news of this female Tarzan. A smalltime showman (Fred Clark) wants to capture her to put her on display while villainous Diego (Herbert Lom) wants her dead because he has been passing of his mistress (Rosenda Monteros) as the long-lost Eve, heir to her grandfather’s (Christopher Lee) fortune. To make matters worse, the natives want to kill Eve for helping a white man and there is Incan treasure wanted by all. In the end the villains get their due and Eve is reunited with her grandfather on his deathbed. However, she rejects the noise and confusion of the civilized world only to return to the jungle, despite her love for the pilot who vows to find her. The ending left it open for an intended sequel, which was never made to the relief of Yarnall who called Eve “one of the worst movies of all time.”

When Harry Alan Towers discovered Yarnall walking down the promenade in Cannes he offered her the lead in Eve on the spot. “I don’t know why Towers thought I was right for this part,” speculated Celeste. “I was never a tomboy and hadn’t climbed a tree in my life. I was more the sedate type. I even had to take some Judo classes to train for the role.”  When the start date of the film was postponed, Celeste returned to Los Angeles and was signed by Columbia to play one of the glamorous showgirls in Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand. She had to back out because “the start date for Eve was at the same time.” Threatened by Towers with a lawsuit, Yarnall had no choice but to turn down the acclaimed musical.

This was only the first of many problems Celeste encountered with her producer. “If you notice there is a whole section in the middle of Eve that has to do with Rosenda Monteros pretending to be me,” said Yarnall. “I am missing from the film for a long stretch because Towers stopped paying me. My husband wouldn’t let me show up on the set until I was paid. They re-wrote the whole middle of the script so that they could keep shooting. The movie’s called Eve and you’re wondering, ‘Where in God’s earth is Eve?’ My husband showed up at Towers’ office with a water pistol pretending it was a gun and said, ‘If you don’t pay Celeste, she’s not going to show up.’ Towers was a notorious schemer. I ran into him years later and he was like a normal person, but back then he was absolutely wild! He had a little German girlfriend named Schnitzel and he worked in a small part for her.”

Despite his shadiness, producer/screenwriter Harry Alan Towers had a knack for getting high caliber actors to appear in his foreign productions. Here was no exception, as he assembled such stalwarts as Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom, and Fred Clark to support Celeste and her leading man Robert Walker, Jr. “Herbert Lom was an amazing gentlemen—just a very elegant, intelligent man,” said Celeste fondly. “Christopher Lee was totally bent out of shape that he was playing my grandfather because he felt he would have been a much better leading man for me than Robert Walker was! And he just hated being made up to look old.”

As for her leading man, per Celeste he was truly an actor of the Sixties. “Robert was very far out.  He was into psychedelia and meditation. I know for awhile that he and his family lived off of nature somewhere in the canyons of Malibu. They bathed in a creek!  He is a very interesting man, but at that time he was too way out there for me. In retrospect, I liked him and I still like him.”

One of the film’s pluses was that it was filmed on location in Spain and Brazil. However, shooting amongst the gorgeous scenery came with a price. “I got very sick in Spain,” recalled Celeste. “They put rancid oil all over their vegetables and I got food poisoning. Then I got injured while filming in Brazil.  A stuntman had taught me some moves for my fight scene with Rosenda Monteros. It was carefully choreographed because we were high up on a bluff. Rosenda was supposed to put the sole of her right boot into my stomach and I would fall into the stuntman’s arms. But she used her left foot and pushed me the wrong way and I almost went over the cliff. The stuntman did one of those flying leaps and caught the back of my head in the palm of his hand. We both fell into this bush—I was all cut up—but he saved me from a two hundred foot drop.”

eve posterOnce the film was completed, Celeste saw a preview and was horrified. “I was incensed because I think I’m dubbed in this —it doesn’t sound like my voice,” she exclaimed. “I remember that they didn’t want to fly me back to do the looping.” Despite that fact, the actress agreed to help promote the movie in the U.S. “I remember climbing up on a drive-in movie theater marquee and having my picture taken. I did a small tour promoting the film because I was voted one of the Most Promising New Stars of 1968 by the National Association of Theatre Owners [for this and her performance in Live a Little, Love a Little opposite Elvis Presley].”

Any film that has Christopher Lee and the stunning Celeste Yarnall in a loin cloth is worth seeing and here you will not be disappointed. The story keeps your interest; the scenery is picturesque; and the actors, though not at their best, all play their roles competently.

You can read more about Celeste Yarnall in my books Fantasy Femmes of Sixties Cinema and Film Fatales (co-written with Louis Paul).

 

Jill Haworth: The Reluctant Seventies Scream Queen

JWWhen one thinks of heroines of British horror films of the seventies, actresses Veronica Carlson, Ingrid Pitt, and Caroline Munro quickly come to mind.  But another English lass named Jill Haworth also made her mark in the genre with her appearances in It!; The Haunted House of Horror/Horror House; Tower of Evil/Horror on Snape Island; Home for the Holidays (TV), and The Mutations.  A saucy petite blonde with a wonderfully throaty voice and just a trace of an English accent, Haworth had the qualities to expertly play the damsel in distress.  Though she appeared in the horror genre begrudgingly, you would never guess it from watching her performances.

Jill was discovered in 1959 by producer/director Otto Preminger (or as he was referred to, “Otto the Ogre”) and appeared in his films Exodus as an ill-fated young Jewish girl settling in the new Israel (earning a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Newcomer – Female); The Cardinal wasted playing a novitiate nun who spends most of limited time on screen washing the feet of dying priest Burgess Meredith; and In Harm’s Way as an army nurse who survives the bombing of Pearl Harbor only to be raped by Col. Kirk Douglas. “When you make three films with Otto Preminger, you’ve made three films with Otto Preminger and no one dicks around with you after that,” said Jill with a laugh.

After filming In Harm’s Way, Haworth’s contract with Otto Preminger was terminated since he had no roles in the pipeline suitable for her. She then returned to her native England in 1966 to co-star opposite Roddy McDowall in It!—her first excursion into the realm of horror. She plays the innocent young girl lusted after by disturbed museum curator Roddy McDowall who (ala Norman Bates) keeps his mummified mommy around the house. If that’s not bad enough, he brings to life a Hebrew statue called the Golem and uses it to do away with his enemies. Despite the premise, director Herbert J. Leder did a decent job in creating suspense. “I only did this film because I needed the money,” divulged Jill. “I hated everything about this movie—particularly what they did to my hair. They gave me an atrocious hairstyle for it. But I did like Roddy McDowall. He was very nice to work with. And with Roddy, what you see is what you get. He even brought me the poster for It! on the opening night of Cabaret. I couldn’t believe they were going to release it. He signed it and put an S-h before the It!  This film really was a piece of shit.”

It! did have an upside. During filming Jill was introduced to director Hal Prince who was on his way to Germany to do research for his new show Cabaret, the musical version of Charles Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin stories. “Hal Prince asked if I could sing,” recalled Jill, “and I responded, ‘louder than Merman.’” She flew to New York to audition and director Hal Prince cast her over Liza Minnelli and countless other actresses in the coveted role of Sally Bowles. The musical was a smash hit. Unfortunately, one terrible mean-spirited review by New York Times critic Walter Kerr dogged Haworth’s time in the show despite overall positive reviews from the other critics and receiving a New York Drama Desk Award nomination for her performance. She stayed with the show for two and a half years “to spite Kerr,” as she joked.

After leaving Cabaret, Jill returned to England to do her second thriller called The Haunted House of Horror aka Horror House (1970) or as the critics nicknamed it “Haunted House a-Go-Go”. (“My agents at ICM thought this would be a good career move.  It wasn’t!”) Mini-skirted Jill (who unbeknownst to her stepped in after Carol Lynley and Sue Lyon turned it down) and perennial teenager Frankie Avalon are part of a bunch of young swingers who hold a séance in a supposedly haunted house. One of them turns up murdered and the survivors begin suspecting each other. When Scotland Yard begins snooping, the teens return to the scene of the crime to flush out the killer. “Frankie didn’t want to do this film either but he was under contract to the studio [AIP]. But we just made the best of the situation and had a fabulous time working together. He has a great sense of humor. And you needed one doing this film. They housed us with the crew in this old, supposedly haunted hotel in Southport, England. The conditions were horrible. There weren’t any private bathrooms and you even had to take your own toilet paper to use the john! Frankie and I just kept laughing. Sometimes you need to laugh to get through unpleasant things.”

Speaking of unpleasant things, Jill’s characters faced a number of disturbing situations in her horror films to come.  She is terrorized by a maniac in Tower of Evil (1972); pitch forked to death in the ABC Movie of the Week, Home for the Holidays (1972); and after being accosted by her mutated boyfriend goes into a catatonic state of shock in The Mutations (1973), directed by Jack Cardiff. “I never wanted to do horror movies,” admitted Jill. “But when acting is your livelihood you sometimes have to accept unwanted roles just to survive. The only film I really like and remember much about is Home for the Holidays.”

Home for the Holidays was directed John Llewllyn Moxey who achieves suspense with this made-for-TV film, but not as much as he did with The Night Stalker. The film (from a script by Joseph Stefano) doesn’t hold up too well. It stars Walter Brennan as a cantankerous dying old man who summons his four estranged daughters back home for the Christmas holidays after he begins to suspect that his second wife (Julie Harris) is poisoning him and wants them to off her first before she does him in. The reunited siblings—the oft married party girl (Haworth); the innocent college coed (doe-eyed Sally Field); the stalwart eldest sister (Eleanor Parker); and the pill popping mess (Jessica Walter)—are doubtful but then two are brutally butchered. “We were the most disparate group of sisters ever to hit the screen,” laughed Jill. “None of us looked anything alike. Sally Field and I had star billing and we got along famously. She is a serious actress and was taking classes at the Actor’s Studio. She also had a great sense of humor and a mouth worse than mine. Julie Harris is a great actress and it was an honor to work with her. Eleanor Parker always had to make a grand entrance onto the set.” Jill adored Jessica Walter too, but Parker ranked right up there with John Wayne on In Harm’s Way as her two most disliked co-stars.

The entertaining Tower of Evil was directed by Jim O’Connelly and produced by prolific horror movie producer Richard Gordon. It was released in the United States as Horror on Snape Island and re-released to theaters here in 1981 as Beyond the Fog to trick young naïve moviegoers to think it was a sequel to John Carpenter’s hit movie The Fog. The movie was an ahead of its time slasher film with a madman running around an island killing off promiscuous teenagers. And it is notorious for its abundant male and female nudity.

Three American teenage tourists (including the hunky John Hamill not shy about revealing his hot naked body and British sex comedy fan fave Robin Askwith wasted in a small role) are discovered gruesomely murdered on SnapeIsland and the lone survivor Penny, lingering in a catatonic state, is wrongly suspected of being the killer. Coincidentally a Phoenician artifact is found on the island and a team archeologists is sent to excavate. Their private lives however on more akin to All My Children than a horror movie. Haughty Rose (Jill Haworth) is the ex-fiancée of Adam (Mark Edwards) and is having an affair with meek Dan (Derek Fowlds) whose pot smoking promiscuous wife Nora (Anna Palk) had a one night stand with Adam and still won’t give Dan a divorce. Also along for the ride is Evan Brent (Bryant Haliday) a detective hired by Penny’s family to unearth the truth; boatman Hamp who has a family connection to the island; and his horny hip long-haired tight-pants wearing nephew Brom (Gary Hamilton) who scores with Nora. Back in London, as Penny remembers what happened on Snape Island, the body counts begins to pile up after their boat is blown to bits and the castaways begin to realize Hamp’s mad brother Saul, who resided here with his wife Martha and supposed dead infant son Michael, is the culprit…or is he?

In the book The Horror Hits of Richard Gordon by Tom Weaver, the producer mentioned that he had seen Jill in Cabaret and was “grateful” she agreed to be in the movie. He commented, “She was absolutely cooperative  in any and every respect. I was shocked and saddened when I heard that she had passed away…” He also revealed that 99% of the movie was shot at Shepperton Studios and just one scene on location. Kudos to the cinematographer, set designers, and special effects team for making it look quite realistic.

After a few intermittent film and theatre roles in the late seventies and eighties (she received rave reviews for the national tours of Bedroom Farce and Butterflies Are Free), Jill quietly dropped from the limelight.  Her last screen credit was the independent movie Mergers & Acquisitions in 2001. Sadly, Jill Haworth passed away on January 3, 2011.

 

 

Deanna Lund: Tiny Beauty in the LAND OF THE GIANTS

DLIn 1969, adolescent boys could be found sitting in front of the television on Sunday nights enthralled by the sci-fi series LAND OF THE GIANTS.  Created by Irwin Allen, the show focused on seven people stranded on a planet identical to Earth except everything is twelve times bigger.  Though the special effects were impressive, most boys were captivated by the antics of red-haired, mini-skirted actress Deanna Lund as intergalactic castaway Valerie Scott.  During the course of the series, Deanna’s character is menaced by cats; imprisoned in a dollhouse; cloned; prodded by scientists; carried off by an ape; and even used as a human pawn on a giant’s chessboard.  Of all the actresses who toiled in sixties sci-fi television Lund was arguably the only one who portrayed more than a one-dimensional character.  She was able to bring real strength to her role, as Valerie evolved from selfish party gal to likeable team player.  Lund made the transition beautifully, giving skilled performances.  With a mane of red hair and clad in the shortest of mini-skirts, Lund was perhaps every young teenage boy’s first crush at that time—me included!

LAND OF THE GIANTS was the fourth series from Irwin Allen whose name became synonymous with TV fantasy and science fiction.  After scoring on the big screen with such fantasy epics as THE LOST WORLD (1960) and VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (1961), Allen turned his attention to the small screen.  20th Century-fox asked him to create a weekly series based on VOYAGE.  Starring Richard Basehart and David Hedison, it premiered to mixed reviews and high ratings.  Allen then went on to create LOST IN SPACE (sort of a Swiss Family Robinson in outer space) and TIME TUNNEL (a hit with the critics, but not the public) before LAND OF THE GIANTS, whose story idea supposedly came to him in a dream.  After seeing Lund in an episode of BATMAN and the rushes of Frank Sinatra’s new movie TONY ROME, Allen offered the role of spoiled jet setter Valerie to a skeptical Deanna without even meeting her.  “I just signed with a new agent named Maury Calder and didn’t believe him when he told me I had this part,” says Deanna.  “Being in Hollywood for awhile, I knew you had to audition and screen test before you get a role.  Maury said, ‘Deanna, I swear it’s true.’  I replied, ‘Don’t jive me, Maury!’  I finally believed him but everybody told me not to do television—especially science fiction.  When I was offered the series I had to do it for financial reasons.  I had two little children to raise.”

Co-starring with Deanna Lund on LAND OF THE GIANTS were Gary Conway (as Captain Steve Burton), Don Matheson (as tycoon Mark Wilson), Don Marshall (as co-pilot Dan Erickson), Heather Young (as stewardess Betty Hamilton), Stefan Arngrim (as orphan Barry Lockridge), and Kurt Kaszner (as resident schemer Col. Alexander Fitzhugh).  Though the series premiered in the fall of 1969, the pilot was produced almost a year before.  ABC was so impressed that instead of using it as a mid-season replacement, they decided to wait for the new fall season.  The first episode titled “The Crash”, which premiered on 9/22/68, set the story of how three crew members and four passengers on a suborbital flight from New York to London in 1983 pass through an electrical storm and crash on a planet of giants.  Amid the gargantuan flora and fauna, the “little people” (as they were referred to) are menaced by a cat, a giant spider, and a scientist who captures Steve and Valerie.  The pilot received Emmy nominations for photography and special effects.  It garnered huge ratings—especially among younger audiences.  And at $250,000 per episode, LAND OF THE GIANTS was the most costly series on the air.  Giant props such as a slice of bread made from foam rubber, a six-foot pencil, gigantic leaves, and a nine-foot revolver were expertly but expensively created.

DL Cast

LAND OF THE GIANTS was not an actor’s show,” remarks Deanna.  “We were always being upstaged by the visual effects.  At the time I was embarrassed by the series because it wasn’t Chekov, it was LAND OF THE GIANTS!  I thought then, ‘My God, is this what I studied acting for?’  But I recently have seen some episodes that I haven’t seen in thirty years.  I’m impressed with how good they are.  The effects are so well done.  And imagine none of this is computer generated!  It amazes me how fantastic the show is but I did wish that the character relationships were developed more fully.”  The critics agreed.  Variety commented that “the series’ strong suit is its special effects.”  Newsday said, “Visually, this science fiction series is a gas.”  And Cleveland Amory in TV Guide wrote, “If you’re under 11, you’re bound to enjoy this show.”  And did they ever as a young audience (mostly boys) propelled the series into the top twenty-five.  Soon there were LAND OF THE GIANTS lunchboxes, board games, model kits, and coloring forms (I still have mine,)

DL CF

The premise of each episode of LAND OF THE GIANTS had the Earthlings trying in some way to find a way to return home while being hunted by the giants.  It was reminiscent of the old Saturday morning serials.  “LAND OF THE GIANTS was a sort of child-like fantasy—even working on it,” says Lund.  “Not that it wasn’t hard work—it was long hours and it wasn’t all fun and games.  It was actually pretty intense with a lot of stunt work and a lot of repeating the same thing.  We would shoot some scenes three times and everything had to be exactly the same for each.  Not only did I have to worry about learning the dialog but my costumes and hair had to match perfectly.  Irwin Allen hated that we changed clothes.  It was much more economical if we wore the same thing because he could intercut any of the shows if he was short screen time and not worry about matching up the wardrobe.  Paul Zastupnevich was the costume designer and he was great!  His costumes were a bit futuristic yet not too outlandish to be contemporary.  He’d get these boots and paint them to match the plaid skirts we were wearing.  Of course Paul couldn’t do just a few.  He had to do tons of them because they were trashed so quickly.”

As for Irwin Allen, who was known for being a taskmaster, Deanna says, “Irwin was a larger than life character.  He directed the pilot and was very meticulous with details.  Later he kept a very close tab on all the show’s directors.  I respected that.  LAND OF THE GIANTS was his baby.  He created it.  I think any kind of a good manager is going to see the ship is running his way.  I didn’t find fault with it—I didn’t always like it—but as an actress and a professional I had to respect his input and caring.   I’d rather have someone who cares than didn’t care but sometimes it was a pain in the butt.  I’m a natural blonde and every time we had a hiatus I would add a little blonde streak to my hair.  I would casually go back to work and Irwin would nail me every time.  He’d yell, ‘I bought Rita Hayworth red and Rita Hayworth red you’re going to be!’”

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During the run of the show, the Earthlings found themselves in some bizarre situations.  Deanna was featured prominently in a number of them.  Unlike his former series LOST IN SPACE, which became the Will and Dr. Smith show, Irwin wanted the cast of LAND OF THE GIANTS to be featured evenly throughout.  In “Deadly Pawn” Lund is a human pawn on a giant’s chessboard.   She is fancily dressed and placed in a giant music box in “Collector’s Item” and is duplicated and sent back to the spaceship to capture the others in “The Clones.”  “I was exhausted doing this episode because I had to run around this drain so many times chasing the other Valerie,” says Deanna with a laugh.  “I lost so much weight doing this.”  In “Chamber of Fear” Deanna and co-star Don Matheson were almost seriously hurt when Deanna got stuck in the gears of this giant robot.  When Matheson fell trying to free her, Lund wasn’t able to reach the lever to stop the grinding gears.  When the crew realized they weren’t acting but in trouble, they came to their rescue.

As the series progressed, Deanna’s haughty rich girl softened much to her chagrin “because it was more interesting if I stayed kind of witchy.  But Irwin wanted me more likable.  Heather Young’s character of Betty was gone a lot because Heather was pregnant a lot.”  Despite Lund’s disappointment, the writers were able to make the progression of her character believable, which was no doubt helped by the acting skills of Lund.  And her character was constantly tempted by the rascal Fitzhugh to join him in his duplicitous schemes.  “Kurt Kaszner and I had a great rapport, on screen and off,” says Deanna.  “We really liked each other.  He was so hilarious.  The funniest stuff was never on camera.  We’d just be laughing hysterically.  In “The Graveyard of Fools” episode our characters were trapped in quicksand and Kurt was goosing me under this guck we were in.  I remember yelling, ‘Who do you have to fuck to get out of this show?!!’  The two of us would tease the rest of the cast unmercifully.  They were good sports and fun to work with.’

Regarding her other co-stars, Deanna comments,  “Gary Conway was a perfectionist.  He would always stand up to Irwin Allen if he felt something wasn’t being done right.  Don Marshall was very solemn and intense.  He was one of the first black actors to be a regular on a primetime series and took his position seriously.  Heather Young was wonderful and we are still in contact to this day.  And Don Matheson was a good friend to me on the show.  Everybody adored him.  He was just so nice to everyone.  We became romantically involved and were married after the series was cancelled.”  What is interesting to note is that though a number of well-known actors (including Warren Oates, Jack Albertson, Yvonne Craig, Bruce Dern, Diane McBain, Francine York, etc.) guest starred as giants, the regular cast never got to work with them.  Usually when the little people interacted with them they would be talking up to the klieg lights while the actors portraying giants would be talking down to some object on a table or the floor.  The scenes were then edited together.  “The actors playing giants usually worked on different days and on a different sound stage,” recalls Deanna.  “But I do remember some of the ones that played little people.  Zalman King [from “The Lost Ones”] was very interesting.  He played a juvenile delinquent and was a very dynamic actor.  It doesn’t surprise me that he is so successful as a director and producer.  And Celeste Yarnall was very pretty and seemed to be very effective in the episode “The Golden Cage.”  [Celeste plays a Lorelei-like girl who has been brainwashed by the giants to entrap the Earthlings.]  I thought it was an intriguing situation and it would have been interesting if they would have added her to the cast.  Instead you never hear of her again.”

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After the end of the second season, Deanna and Don Matheson announced their engagement.  Ever the publicity mongrel, Irwin wanted their characters to be married on the show as well.  “He said if we agreed he’d pay for our honeymoon anywhere we wanted to go,” remembers Deanna.  “So we said, ‘Hmmm!’  But we were cancelled because the show was too expensive to mount.  It was too bad because I think another season would have been really fun and interesting.  If our characters had a relationship it would have been a first for an Irwin Allen series.  It might have taken it into a whole different direction and brought in more of an audience.  I probably would have also fought to make my character go the other way some more and be witchier.”

With LAND OF THE GIANTS being my favorite TV show as a kid I was devastated when it got cancelled. Deanna Lund was my favorite back then of course (though now I favor me some Gary Conway) so I would scour the TV Guide to see if she was going to be on any other shows. She was a regular on the syndicated TV celebrity game show STUMP THE STARS and remember catching her on LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE. Thankfully, the entire series was released a 2 years ago in a great box set. Mine is proudly sitting in my livingroom.

 

 

 

SUSAN HART: STARLET FROM THE SURF

susanhart5Dark haired and sultry, Susan Hart displayed her shapely body as bikini-clad beach girls or monster movie heroines in a string of popular ‘60s B-movies.  It is no wonder considering her measurements were usually touted as 37-23-36 as she was being groomed to become Hollywood’s newest sex symbol.  After fleeing from The Slime People (1963) in her film debut, Hart frolicked on the sand as a hula swaying, half-Hawaiian in Ride the Wild Surf (1964).  She snagged a contract at American International Pictures and soon after married the boss, James H. Nicholson, the studio’s co-founder.  The curvaceous starlet thought better roles were ahead for her but she was back in a bikini as a hip-shaking beach girl in Pajama Party (1964) and back to being chased by monsters—this time gill-men—in War-Gods of the Deep (1965).  Donning a bikini yet again, she played a robot programmed to seduce, marry and kill a bungling playboy millionaire in the spy spoof Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965).  Most famously, Hart stepped in to save the last official Beach Party film, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966) as (what else?) the title bikini-clad character, before hanging up her swimsuit to raise her son.

Susan Hart was born in Wenatchaee, Washington—the apple capital of the world.  When she was in the second grade her family began spending the winters in Palm Springs, California and the summers in Washington because her mother had contracted Tuberculosis. She went to high school in Palm Springs where she began acting in school plays and after graduating moved to Hawaii for a short period where she worked in a dress shop. She recalled, “I was working at the International Market Place when a fellow named Morton Smith came in one day and handed me his card.  “He was an agent and also a photographer on assignment for Playboy Magazine.  I didn’t pay too much attention to him but he came back and took some snap shots of me at the counter and on a surfboard.  He told me that I should me in movies and to look him up if I ever got to Hollywood.   It was rather exciting to have somebody praise you like that.  Being a young girl, I thought, ‘It would be really nice to be in the movies.”

Susan Hart returned to Palm   Springs and got a job managing a dress shop.  With Smith’s words of encouragement and praise still in her head, she decided to take him up on his offer.  “I went to his office and said, ‘Here I am!  What am I supposed to do now?’  Within a month he sent me out on an interview for The Joey Bishop Show and I got it.  I had about four or five lines.”

Hart landed an agent named Bill Schuyler who kept her busy playing small parts on TV.  (“He was probably the best agent I ever had because he got me a lot of work.”) One of her roles was as a biker chick on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.  “I worked with Billy Mumy [of Lost in Space] who was only about ten years old but he was such a flirt,” remembers Susan with a laugh.  “He was a darling little kid with a charming personality and he was an absolute lady-killer for that age.”

Though she only played minor roles on TV, Hart was honing her craft to make the leap to features.  She screen tested at MGM but did not land a contract.  However, photos of her turned up in the film Boys Night Out (1962).  “They shot pictures of me to be the centerfold in a magazine that Tony Randall and James Garner open up,” reveals Hart.  “This really was my first part in a motion picture.  I have a towel wrapped around me and I am answering a telephone.”

In Hart’s next feature, she is not only seen but heard as well as she was cast as Robert Hutton’s leading lady in the grade-B horror film, The Slime People (1963).  When asked how she landed this role, Hart answers facetiously, “Just luck, I guess.”  Actually, Robert Hutton who also produced and directed The Slime People went to Hart’s agent and several other agents and asked if they had anybody on their rosters suitable for the role of Gwen.  “All Bill Schuyler told me about it was that it was a reading for lead in a motion picture.  At that point I still did not know the title of the film.  But I did know it was going to star Robert Hutton, whom I remember my sister Helen thought was just a fabulously handsome man.  I read for the role in the morning.  I went to lunch with a friend and when I arrived home around four o’clock I got a call from my agent telling me that I got the part.  Not only did I get a role but also my roommate, Judee Morton, was cast as my little sister.  It was incredible!  Even after I found out the title I thought this was still a pretty good opportunity.”

The Slime People was shot at KTLA Studios.  After about nine days of filming, the cast stopped getting paid and the make-up man left.  However, Hart proved to be a trouper and continued with the production.  She even did her own make-up.  Despite these working conditions, Susan does not look back on this film with any bad memories.  “Everybody connected to this was really nice.  Don Hansen was the name of the man who financed the film.  As I recall, he always wore a Fedora and owned a lot of dry cleaners.  Robert Hutton knew I didn’t have any experience doing films and he couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful.  He practically told me every move to make and taught me about hitting your mark.”

In The Slime People, nuclear testing decimates Los Angeles leaving the city enshrouded in a blanket of fog.  A small group of survivors try to make it out of the deserted metropolis while battling subterranean creatures roused from hibernation.  Robert Hutton starred as a hotshot pilot with Robert Burton as a professor and Susan Hart and Judee Morton as his daughters.  One of the films many unintentional laughs is that despite the fact that she is being terrorized and chased by the Slime People, Hart’s character Gwen keeps on her four-inch high heel shoes and never lets go of her oversize black pocketbook. “Isn’t that funny,” laughs Susan.  “I think I still have that purse around my home somewhere.  We were given something like eighteen dollars to select our own wardrobe. Judee and I went to Orbach’s and it was my decision to buy those shoes and purse.  Those heels killed my feet, which were never the same again.

“A man named Tracey Putnam played the doctor in this,” continues Hart.  “He was an actual doctor and had discovered a drug which keeps Epileptics from going into seizures.  He was a brilliant man.  His stepson, Jock Putnam, played one of the Slime People and talked his stepfather into playing one of these roles.  It was a riot to see Jock and the other actor who played the Slime People sitting on the set smoking a cigarette.  You’d see smoke pouring out of all of the orifices of these gigantic costumes.”

The ad copy for The Slime People proclaimed, “Up from the Bowels of the Earth Come …The Slime People.”  Needless to say, the film did not receive rave reviews.  It is no wonder then Hart tried to distance herself from this as much as she could.  “Now talking about The Slime People is fun,” admits Hart.  “But a few years after making it I kept thinking that The Slime People was a terrible movie to be associated with.  It was a mediocre movie and didn’t play in many theatres.  The reviews weren’t very good if it even got reviewed at all.”  To keep journalists from asking about the film, when Hart landed one of the lead roles in her fourth movie, Ride the Wild Surf (1964) it was touted as her first starring role.

On the big screen if you blinked you missed Hart’s bit in her next movie, the Bob Hope comedy A Global Affair (1964). The audience would have seen more of her in a locker room scene but she balked at doing it.  “I remember working with Barbara Bouchet and Brenda Benet on this,” says Susan.  “Brenda was a very moral girl.  When the director told us we had to strip down to our bras we both called our agents and screamed, ‘You didn’t tell us we had to take off our blouses!’  We both got dismissed from the film.  I didn’t feel that they were paying me enough money to do that.”  That same year, Hart turned up along with Nancy Sinatra and Claudia Martin as one of Pamela Tiffin’s sorority sisters in the beach film For Those Who Think Young (1964).

The movie though that put Susan Hart in the spotlight was another beach film, Ride the Wild Surf (1964), which was Columbia Pictures answer to AIP’s Beach Party.  Aficionados consider Ride the Wild Surf one of the best from the genre because of the awesome surfing footage.  Three California surfers travel to Hawaii during Christmas vacation for the yearly surfing event at WaimeaBay.  Recent college dropout Jody Wallis (Fabian) debates the life of a surf bum versus returning to school and falls for Brie, a vacationing coed (Shelley Fabares, sporting bitchin’ blonde hair) not impressed with his quitter’s attitude.  Reliable, down-to-earth Steamer (Tab Hunter) falls in love with a beautiful island girl named Lily, sweetly played by Susan Hart (“I didn’t quite look the part but I guess it worked out all right”), to the consternation of her stern and disapproving mother (Catherine McLeod).  Staid law student Chase Colton (Peter Brown) is attracted to the playful, athletic Augie Pool (Barbara Eden) who teaches him to loosen up.

Before filming officially began, Susan Hart, Peter Brown, and Jim Mitchum (who played rival surfer Eskimo) went over to Hawaii three to six weeks before the rest of the cast and crew.  Hart recalls, “The producers sent me to Hawaii to learn to ride a horse.  First they put me on a pony and then I worked my way up to a decent-size horse.  Everyday they had me out in the cane fields learning to ride.  I got pretty good.  When we finally got to film my one scene where I come riding down the beach they brought in this huge horse that Charlton Heston rode in the film Diamond Head.  They dressed me in white shark-skinned pants and they oiled the horse down pretty good to make him look beautiful.  But there was no way I could stay on the horse.  I kept sliding right off.  They ended up double space taping me on to the horse.  To get me off they actually had to peel me off of it.”

Though Ride the Wild Surf did not prove as popular as Beach Party, it was still a hit.  And with the good notices received by the cast Columbia took action. According to Hart, “I think everybody in Ride the Wild Surf was put on a six-month option.  Mike Frankovitch, who was the head of the studio at that time, always had great faith in me.  About the fifth month of my term with Columbia I went over to AIP and that is when I met Jim Nicholson.” Unbeknownst to her, Nicholson had access to the dailies of Ride the Wild Surf and that is the first time he saw Susan Hart.  “After we met that ended any pursuit I had to sign a contract with Columbia because not only was I offered a contract with AIP through Jim, but there was a bit of chemistry between the two of us.”

After signing with American International Pictures, Hart was cast in the small role of Jilda in Pajama Party (1964), starring Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello.  This was a bit of a comedown from her much bigger role in Ride the Wild Surf.  “Once you go under contract they can put you in anything they want,” sighs Susan.  “I don’t know whose idea it was to put me in Pajama Party but I never questioned it.  I never questioned a lot of things.”  Hart doesn’t have many lines in the film but she is a standout nevertheless wiggling her curvaceous bikini-clad body, which obviously got the motors running of the surfer dudes in the movie and the teenage boys watching in drive-ins across the nation.

Also in 1964, AIP chose Susan Hart as their Hollywood Deb Star.  Interestingly, of all the Hollywood Debs that year, including Mary Ann Mobley, Brenda Benet and Claudia Martin, only Raquel Welch clawed her way to super stardom.  Hart opines, “For an actress to become a star in the sixties you had to have great determination.  However, everybody has a different story.  You may have the determination but it may not have been a lasting determination.  Or you may have had the determination but it is too difficult to follow through.  You have to give up an awful lot because something will suffer along the way.  You pick which part of your life is going to suffer.  I think Raquel Welch did have that boundless resolve and I imagine that she wanted stardom more than anything—and she got it.”

Susan Hart also with great fanfare became part of AIP’s Starburst of Youth program.  When asked to explain exactly what that was, Harts says with a laugh, “I suppose it was a great title—another Jim Nicholson creation—but I think it was primarily for the exhibitors.  I remember at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles one weekend it was filled with theatre owners from all over the nation.  It was called Starburst of Youth.  We put on a show for them.  Several of the girls were in bikinis.  We mingled and had our pictures taken with them.  It was more of a promotional gimmick than a real program.”

Back on the big screen, Hart starred in her next two features for AIP.  The fantasy film War-Gods of the Deep (1965) reunited her with her Ride the Wild Surf co-star, Tab Hunter.  (“I was so happy when I was told Tab Hunter was going to play my leading man,” exclaims Hart.)  The film was inspired by the poems “City Under the Sea” and “A Descent into the Maelstrom” by Edgar Allan Poe.  Set in the turn-of-the-century, Hart played Jill Tregellis, a young American lass who owns a converted manor house hotel on the Cornish coast of England.  In the middle of the night, she is dragged off by ancient gill-men to an underwater city called Lyonesse complete with a tyrannical ruler called The Captain (Vincent Price), his cadre of thieves and a threatening volcano.  Life in Lyonesse is eternal except for people who commit a crime and then are thrown to the gill-men.  The Captain thinks Jill is his reincarnated wife as her daffy artist friend (David Tomlinson) with his chicken Herbert and a hunky American guest at the hotel (Tab Hunter) go to her rescue.

Recalling Vincent Price, Hart remarks, “He was quiet and pretty much stayed to himself.  In private, he was pretty much as he appeared on screen in terms of his delivery and attitude.  He and Jim Nicholson got along really, really well.  We had dinner on several occasions with him.  Vincent was the consummate gentleman.”

The reviews in 1965 for War-Gods of the Deep were mixed.  Though most critics at the time found it entertaining and thought Vincent Price was excellent, the film was hampered by a weak script, unfunny comic relief by Tomlinson and that annoying chicken, and less-than-convincing performances by Hart and Hunter.

Susan rebounded from the water-logged Jules Verne-ish tale to give an amusing, well-received performance as a bikini-clad robot in Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965), a goofy take-off on the James Bond film Goldfinger co-starring Frankie Avalon and Dwayne Hickman. (“Both of them were charming and pleasant to work with.”)  Surprisingly, this spy spoof was quite entertaining and grossed $2.5 million, a smash hit for AIP standards.

Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965) was filmed on location in San   Francisco by director Norman Taurog.  The script was by Elwood Ullman and Robert Kaufman, based on a story by James Hartford.  The film stars Vincent Price as mad scientist Dr. Goldfoot (named for his wearing of gold slippers) who plans on capturing the fortunes of the world’s richest men with the aid of his invention.  As lights blink, dials wiggle, horns blow, and the machine vibrates manufactured bikini-clad robots (Patti Chandler, Salli Sachse, Deanna Lund, Luree Holmes and Marianne Gaba, among them) are produced one by one.  Hart played Goldfoot’s most prized robot, No. 11 named Diane, who is sent out to entrap playboy millionaire Todd Armstrong (Hickman) but is hampered by the bumbling of inept Secret Agent 00.5 Craig Gamble (Avalon).

Budgeted at $1.4 million dollars, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine is quite elaborate for an American International production.  According to the press notes more than $150,000 was spent on creating “a haunted palace, a pit and a pendulum, and an electronic device that manufactures a dozen beauties in bikinis.”  And if you watch closely you can spot cameos from AIP stars Annette Funicello, Deborah Walley, Harvey Lembeck, and Aron Kincaid.

The film also has an interesting pre-release history.  It was to be originally titled Dr. Goldfoot and the Sex Machine and was conceived as a musical along the lines of the Beach Party movies.  The first to go was the title, which was a bit too risqué for 1965.  The film was shot with only one musical number in place but it was excised prior to the film’s release. “That musical number was left on the cutting room floor because Sam Arkoff thought Vincent Price was too fey in it,” discloses a disappointed Hart.  “It was a fabulous production number with Price singing and dancing around the bikini machine.  The lyrics went something like ‘I have a machine.  I have a bikini machine—a most marvelous invention.’  I would love to see that footage because Vincent Price had never done anything like that before.  The whole point was that he played it campy because Dr. Goldfoot was a silly doctor.  Vincent Price just acted the role to the hilt and he was quite wonderful.”

Hart proved to be a talented comedienne and handled the pratfalls in the movie excellently.  As Diane is programmed to speak many different languages, Hart used an array of accents (including Southern, French, British, etc.). “Nobody helped me with most of these dialects,” states Susan proudly.  “I simply mimicked and learned it all on my own except for one.  AIP hired a coach for one day to help me master the Japanese dialect.  A Japanese girl went over and over the lines with me until I got the dialect down pat.”

The extra coaching paid off and Susan Hart received very good notices for her performance.  Variety, in particular, raved, “Susan Hart is very good in a role which demands several dialects, human warmth, and robot inanimity, often in rapid sequence.”  Hart credits her well-received performance to director Norman Taurog. “He had so much faith in me and he thought I was terrific,” says Hart fondly.  “Norman Taurog boosted my ego.  I don’t know if he did that with other actors but it was a great ploy.  I had so much confidence in myself because of him.  He was the type of director really made you feel that whatever you were doing, it was right.  I do not think I had anybody speak to me and assure me the way he did to make me feel completely at ease.  I was never nervous before a shot, which I usually had the tendency to be.  Norman Taurog completely calmed me down because he would say if it was not right the first time we’d just do it over again until we got it right.  Therefore, it was generally one take because he instilled a confidence in me.  I will always be grateful for that because it crossed over into many things.”

To promote the film, an hour special entitled The Wild, Weird World of Dr. Goldfoot was produced and aired in place of Shindig.  It featured Price, Hart, Tommy Kirk, Aron Kincaid as a last minute replacement for Frankie Avalon (“He backed out because his contract with AIP did not require him to do TV”) and some of the bikini girls. “They needed a half-hour fill-in for Shindig and I think Deke Hayward came up with this special on his own,” recalls Hart.  “He wrote it and it was not the same music that was cut from Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.  It was different songs written by Guy Hemric.  I sang in it with Aron Kincaid.”  The duo performs “What’s a Boy/Girl Supposed to Do” and “Lower, Lower.”  Their duets are not half bad considering the short amount of time they had to prepare for it.

After garnering much praise for Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, the red hot Hart was much in demand.  But her pregnancy and marriage to Jim Nicholson sidelined her. After the birth of her son, there was much talk of Susan Hart appearing in the Italian production Planet of the Vampires and a proposed sequel to Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine to be titled Dr. Goldfoot and the S Bombs.  For reasons she can not remember, she didn’t do the former film and the latter was re-titled Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966) and filmed in Italy by director Mario Bava with only Price reprising his role.

Very rare clip of Susan Hart on Australian Bandstand promoting Dr. Goldfoot. She comes on around the 7:30 mark.

For her next film, Susan Hart deserved better than yet another bikini role as she was cast as The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966).  Asked if she felt that the studio exploited her body, Hart responds, “When you are living something, you don’t question it.  It’s only when you look back in retrospect that maybe you think, ‘Oh gee, I should have done this.’  All I knew was that I was working as an actress—which was my intention.  When I was in my twenties I was not very introspective so I didn’t question what I was doing very much.  I was the type of person who had to be active all the time. All the roles I was offered were body-type roles.  I didn’t know how I could ever get out of that.  That always plagued my career.  I didn’t know how to get what I called a real part.  And maybe I never would have.  I was only offered roles that exploited my body.  Unfortunately, that’s only how people saw me.  I suppose that is what I projected.

“Hugh Hefner wrote me to pose for Playboy,” continues Hart.  “He was very flattering and mentioned that Stella Stevens was a Playmate and she went on to do great things.  I turned him down but at one point was I actually entertaining the thought of doing it.  But then I got a good part in something and changed my mind.  I recently read one of the letters he sent me and there is a line in there that says ‘If you ever change your mind, please let me know.’  I wonder if it is too late?”

The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini was originally titled Bikini Party in a Haunted House and was not supposed to feature Suan Hart.  Tommy Kirk and Deborah Walley topped a cast that included Aron Kincaid, Quinn O’Hara, Nancy Sinatra, Claudia Martin, Piccola Pupa, Bobbi Shaw, Ed Garner, Luree Holmes and veterans Basil Rathbone, Patsy Kelly and Jesse White.  Kirk and Walley must spend the night in a haunted house in order to collect their inheritance, hidden somewhere in the creepy mansion complete with a chamber of horrors, an escaped gorilla, surfer boys and bikini girls and Eric Von Zipper with his biker gang.  The weak film was deemed unreleaseable by AIP and a quick fix was needed.   “Jim came up with the idea of having a ghost in the invisible bikini,” reveals Susan.  “I got the part about three days before they began shooting it.  I was a very quick study.”

Boris Karloff and Hart were added to the cast to play, respectively, millionaire Hiram Stokely and his sexy blonde wife Cecily.  The recently deceased Hiram must perform a good deed to get into heaven and as a bonus is promised eternal youth.  Cecily, who died as a young woman, is sent down to Earth to make sure Hiram’s rightful heirs inherit his money.  Their scenes together were tacked on to the beginning and the end of the film.

Hart was wasted in The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini and unfortunately this was her last feature.  A number of things contributed to that including the caring of her son and the problems that arose between Jim Nicholson and Sam Arkoff. “At first, Sam Arkoff was great fun to be around because he had a wonderful sense of humor.  We ended up traveling to foreign countries quite a bit together.  AIP always had co-productions filming in Germany, Spain and especially England.  We spent a lot of time abroad with him and his wife, Hilda.  Of course, he and Jim were equal partners at that point so it was a very good time. When Jim had to give up shares of his stock [to his wife in a divorce settlement] Sam became the majority stockholder and that’s when things began to become strained.

“It was so difficult to continue acting under those circumstances,” continues Susan.  “It was too complicated for me to work.  I was happily married and I had had my son Jimmy. I thought that when Jimmy got a little bit older I’d go back to acting.  That was always in the back of my mind.  I’d say, ‘Once Jimmy is in the first grade I’ll go back to work.’ But between caring for him and trying to move on—I always wanted to be a singer—I thought I’d try focusing on that instead of acting.  I did cut several songs for MGM and went on the road to promote them.”

Hart ‘s final acting role was in “The Night of the Fugitives” (11/8/68) on TV’s The Wild Wild West.  Hart (resembling and sounding a lot like actress Yvonne Craig) played Rhoda the glamorous double-crossing owner of the Diamond Horseshoe Saloon (“When a girl, um, does a favor she should get a favor–like they always say quid pro quo.”) who is searching along with everybody else for bookkeeper Norbert Plank’s syndicate records.  But this episode is more notorious for the almost fatal head injury suffered by series star Robert Conrad while doing one of his own stunts on a landing above a saloon.

Though Susan Hart left AIP, Jim Nicholson continued with the company until 1972 when he signed a deal with 20th Century-Fox.  He was the executive producer of The Legend of Hell House (1973) and was readying Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974) for production when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  He passed away on December 10, 1972 before The Legend of Hell House was released.

As for her feelings regarding Jim Nicholson’s contribution to AIP, Hart proudly comments, “He was the creative genius and essence behind American International Pictures.  Jim was the show and Sam was the business.  Jim started every trend AIP ever had from the biker pictures to the Poe pictures to the beach pictures to the blaxpoitation pictures.”

Sam Arkoff held on to the company until 1979.  He sold it to Filmways, which was bought by Orion.  Today MGM-UA holds the rights to all of the AIP movies except the forty-two films in the limited partnership that Nicholson and Arkoff formed during the fifties.  These films were divided up between Arkoff, Susan Hart and Nicholson’s daughters.  Through a court decision, Hart won the rights to some of the more popular titles including I Was a Teenage Werewolf, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, Invasion of the Saucer Men and It Conquered the World.

Today, the still beautiful Susan Hart resides year-round in Palm Springs and was just awarded a “Star” on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars.  It is a fitting tribute to this talented and popular actress who never got the chance to progress beyond her bikini roles.