Billy Wilder chose Pamela over Tuesday Weld to play ditzy Scarlett Hazeltine in his classic political satire One, Two, Three (1961) opposite James Cagney.
To my friend and former 1960s starlet Gail Gerber (1937-2014). Gail lives on her in beach and Elvis movies and her award-winning memoir Trippin’ with Terry Southern: What I Think I Remember. We miss you Gail!
Pamela Tiffin: Hollywood to Rome, 1961-1974 pays tribute to the stunning beauty that is Pamela Tiffin. Critics adored her. James Cagney hailed her “remarkable flair for comedy.” Turner Classic Movies dubbed her “Hollywood’s favorite air-headed ingénue in the Sixties.” Yet super stardom evaded her due to contractual obligations and self-imposed exiles in New York and then Rome, though she remains a cult Sixties icon to this day.
Dark-haired Pamela Tiffin debuted in 1961’s Summer and Smoke adapted from the Tennessee Williams play. She then emerged as a scene-stealing comedienne in Billy Wilder’s classic satire One, Two, Three with Cagney, before she became the teen queen of teenage camp in State Fair; Come Fly with Me; two with James Darren – For Those Who Think Young & The Lively Set; and The Pleasure Seekers. After landing a sexy adult role opposite Paul Newman in Harper where the bikini-cad Tiffin jiggled the diving board into Sixties cinema infamy, she went blonde and ran away to Italy. There she starred in sex comedies including Kiss the Other Sheik; The Blonde in the Blue Movie; and The Archangel; a giallo The Fifth Cord, and the western Deaf Smith & Johnny Ears. During her career, her leading men also included Laurence Harvey, Bobby Darin,Tony Franciosa, Burt Lancaster, Marcello Mastroianni, Nino Manfredi, Vittorio Gassman, Peter Ustinov, Franco Nero, and Anthony Quinn.
Not a biography, this book is a career retrospective of Pamela Tiffin’s movies plus TV and stage appearances. Interviewees (including Hugh O’Brian, Lada Edmund, Jr., Carole Wells, Tim Zinnemann, Martin West, Jed Curtis, Eldon Quick, Peter Gonzales, and Larry Hankin) provide a behind-the-scenes look of some of her most popular movies listed above and The Hallelujah Trail; Straziami, ma di baci saziami; and Viva Max. Plus noted film historians Dean Brierly, Roberto Curti, Howard Hughes, and Paolo Mereghetti weigh in on Pamela Tiffin’s place in cinematic history.
Overshadowed by the sad loss of Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall, 1960s starlet Arlene Martel also passed away this week from a heart attack. I had the pleasure to interview Arlene for my book Drive-in Dream Girls. Below is an excerpt from it including some of her quotes. She will be missed.
Arlene Martel was one of the many talented Hollywood actors whose face fans recognize but whose name may elude them. In her case it’s even more so since she started out in Hollywood using her real name of Arline Sax. On the big screen Martel had the female lead in the cult film noir The Glass Cage (1964) and played a biker chick in the popular film Angels From Hell (1968), the follow-up to Hell’s Angels on Wheels (1968). But it was on TV where Martel excelled essaying a variety of roles usually hidden under different hair colors and gobs of make-up or speaking in a foreign dialect in such series as Route 66, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Hogans Heroes, Star Trek, The Monkees and Bewitched. The exotic, shapely beauty played so many varied roles that she was dubbed “the Chameleon” by honchos at Universal Studios. “I think this was a hindrance because no one knew it was the same actress from week to week,” commented Arlene. “In fact, in one week I was on three different shows. And nobody knew it was the same person. I think it is very good to have that versatility when you are established as a star. They say, ‘Look she can do this and do this.’ But if the audience doesn’t know it’s you, it is not to your advantage.”
Her comments on some of her most memorable 1960s TV appearances.
Route 66 “A Legacy for Lucia”
“This was written by Stirling Silliphant so you can imagine the quality of the writing. I played a young Italian girl who meets this American soldier in Italy. Trying to impress her, he tells her that he owns the state of Oregon and if anything happened to him he’d leave it to her. He dies and she comes to America to claim her property. It was a very touching and beautiful experience. We actually shot it in a lumber camp in Oregon. I still feel the air on my face and I still feel the passion that surrounded this character. Both George Maharis and Martin Milner were just lovely to work with.”
The Outer Limits “Demon with a Glass Hand”
“When I first read Harlan Ellison’s script I felt inspired by it. I felt I could do a lot in the role of Consuela. This part had a lovely substance that I connected with. Byron Haskin was our director and he was wonderful! He was the reason I got this role. When they replaced me with Christiane Martel [in the 1959 movie The Little Savage], Byron told me, ‘One day I will make it up to you and find something else for you.’ And sure enough he did.”
“I believe Harlan Ellison was on the set during filming but to tell you the truth my concentration was so much on my part that other than Robert Culp I don’t think I was aware of anyone else. I was very focused on what was happening between our characters. I found Culp to be very attractive in many ways. I got a very beautiful feeling about him. I thought that as a person he projected a lovely sanity. I enjoyed working with him. He remains a favorite.”
“I also had an operation and had just been released from the hospital the day before. If you watch the episode you’ll notice that as I am being pulled by Robert Culp I am running very stiffly with my arm at my side because I was nervous that the stitches would open. I was running in so much pain—up the stairs, down the stairs—but I was afraid to tell them that I just got out of the hospital because I thought that they would replace me. I kept that to myself and just prayed, ‘Oh dear God please don’t let me start bleeding all over the place.’”
The Monkees “The Spy Who Came in from the Cool”
“The guys were having a ball doing this series. I had an especially good rapport with Peter Tork and Davy Jones. There was a great deal of joviality on the set. I hung out with them one day and it was the first and only instance where I wasn’t on time getting back to a set. The air was thick with smoke and I guess I innocently inhaled. I was twenty minutes late and the director berated me mercilessly in front of the cast and crew.”
Star Trek “Amok Time”
“[Director Joseph] Pevney kept guiding me towards doing less and less and less [playing a Vulcan betrothed to Spock]. Finally he said, ‘Do even less than what you’re doing.’ I said, ‘But I wouldn’t be doing anything at that point.’ He replied, ‘That’s exactly what I want. It will come through.’ So this very dry, icy, intellectual quality came forth and that is exactly what he was after. But it was very different from everything else I had done.”
“Every time Celia Lovsky pronounced one of the Vulcan words Bill Shatner would whisper something funny about it and get me to laugh, which was terrible to do. It was just terrible of him! Of course Ms. Lovsky wasn’t aware of this. But she had difficulty pronouncing the Vulcan words. Bill was like a naughty schoolboy and suddenly I became five years old too. At one point, the director threatened to throw us both off the set. I have very good concentration but Bill just broke me up.”
“Leonard Nimoy was rather removed. Maybe he was maintaining his character—I don’t know. Or maybe he genuinely didn’t like me! I have no idea to this day. We were cast together in three different shows. Before Star Trek we played a mountain couple in the western The Rebel with Nick Adams and I also worked with him later on Mission: Impossible. I thought I was very good to work with and that I gave a great deal in my work. For some reason, he remained very aloof.”
If I thought Diane McBain had a harrowing life that she wrote about in Famous Enough, it does not compare to what her 1960s contemporary Sharon Farrell revealed that she went through in her fascinating memoir Sharon Farrell “Hollywood Princess” From Sioux City, Iowa: The “Bad Girl’s” Story. First the simularities: both are pretty blondes who were two of the most promising starlets of the 1960s; both had one son from short-lived marriages; both saw their chances for super stardom fade away; both did drugs; and both were rape victims. But for every horrible incident that befell Diane McBain, Sharon Farrell’s was even worse.
As someone who loves reading (and writing) about the back stories in making movies or TV shows, Sharon does not disappoint with her career highlights such as Marlowe with Bruce Lee; The Reivers with Steve McQueen; The Last Ride of the Dalton Gang with Jack Palance; Out of the Blue with Dennis Hopper; The Stunt Man with Peter O’Toole; and her stint as a regular on Hawaii Five-0 during its last season. However, most are unhappy experiences and depressing to read as she is used and degraded (physically and/or psychologically) by practically every leading man and then tossed away once filming stops. She gets credit for not holding back and depicting herself in a very unflattering manner, but as you keep turning the pages you just hope she finds happiness. Instead the drug taking and sexual abuse by many hideous men continues and also because she foolishly binds herself to a man who took so much advantage of her stealing her money and forcing her to relocate to Fiji. Finally free of him and back in the States, Sharon finds herself committed to a psycho ward in California, which is really hard to read considering what she was put through.
What is most amazing to me despite the living hell she was going through in the 1970s and 1980s, is that she worked pretty consistently and got some really good parts well into her forties doing better than her more stable 1960s contemporaries for sure. This was due to her acting talent and her professionalism on the set despite what was happening to her off-camera.
Though Sharon highlights her major films/TV shows, her body of work is tremendous and I would have liked to have read more about them and less of the sex/drug tales she shares. Being self-published, the book is at times a bit disjointed and contains misspelling and such. Even so, I still recommend the book to fans of Sixties actresses and the New Hollywood of the late 1960s (let’s hope actresses in the Golden Age of Hollywood weren’t treated this shabbily). The fact that Sharon Farrell survived all she did and is still alive to tell about it is a testament to her strength and courage. Kudos to Sharon for persevering.
When I began interviewing 1960s starlets in the late nineties I always asked them about working on TV’s Batman, if they had on their list of credits. It was one of my favorite TV shows as a kid. Though the villains stole the show, I always took a special liking to the dastardly dames by their sides. Some of the most beautiful starlets of the day donned miniskirts to catsuits to fabulous furs to help their man defeat the Caped Crusader. Some repented for their greedy ways while others went down swinging. My next couple of Blogs will pay tribute to some of them in honor of the upcoming DVD/Blu-Ray release FINALLY of Batman this Fall.
First up sultry brunette Eileen O’Neill as the Clock King’s cleverly named moll Millie Second who was one of Batman’s most eager crooked gals who seemed to just revel in her boss’ sinister schemes. Awed by his cleverness, she even calls him Your Highness, but her character, who had a lot of potential, is wasted and not given much to do.
In “The Clock King’s Crazy Crimes” and “The Clock King Gets Crowned,” which originally aired on October 12 & 13, 1966, viewers are introduced to Gotham City’s newest multi-wrist watch wearing villain as he and his moll Millie Second watch the goings-on at a high-end jewelry store through a hidden camera planted in an antique clock. The Clock King then releases knockout gas as his thugs nicknamed the Second Hands race in and make off with diamond bracelets and necklaces. When Millie Second, clad in a mod striped green and blue mini-dress and always holding a feather duster, gets a peak at all the jewels she coos, “Just look at all these goodies! They’re marvelous Clock King.” Unfortunately, Millie Second is AWOL for the rest of the episode (guess someone had to stay behind and dust all those clocks). She doesn’t even show up after Clock King captures the Dynamic Duo and puts them in a giant hourglass complete with the sands of time pouring in on them.
With time ticking away, Batman and Robin are able to knock over the hour glass and then like squirrels in a cage roll it out onto the street where they are freed. Unaware that his arch enemies are alive, Clock King boasts of their death at his hands as an enamored Millie and his Second Hands clap in approval. The egotistical thief then makes his final plans to crash Wayne manor to steal the millionaire’s collection of antique pocket watches. “This sure is tingly,” exclaims an excited Millie as they view the goings-on at the mansion through a clock Aunt Harriet bought as a birthday gift for Bruce. Frustratingly, Millie stays behind again to do her housework as the men folk go on their crime spree. She finally does go along for the big score when The Clock King plans to gas the entire city while he hijacks an incoming helicopter transporting a cesium clock. This was the time Millie should have stayed back as the Dynamic Duo ruin his plans. The only time left for Clock King, Millie Second, and the Second Hands is the time they are going to serve in the Big House.
Given more screen time, Millie Second could have been one of the series’ most memorable molls instead of just pretty decoration. Eileen O’Neill definitely had the acting talent to do more as shown by her numerous TV and movie appearances during the sixties. To read more about her, catch my book Fantasy Femmes of Sixties Cinemanow available in revised soft cover edition. Below are Eileen O’Neill’s remarks about working on Batman from it:
“Walter Slezak [the Clock King] was another kind man. We spent so much time talking. I sensed an effort on his part to share his richness and experience in the theatre with me. We had extensive conversations on acting. Again, I appreciated the knowledge you can incur like a sponge when you have an opportunity to talk to people who are so good at what they do.”
“Burt [Ward] and Adam [West] were professional and so much fun to work with. They both jumped into the zany spirit of their roles. They played their parts to the hilt and that is why Batman was so successful in its day.”
Next Bat Time, Next Bat Channel: Tisha Sterling as Legs Parker
Fans of the now departed soap One Life to Live remember the character Karen Wolek (the doctor’s wife-turned-prostitute-turned-baby switcher) from 1976-1983 played most famously by 2 time Emmy winner Judith Light. However, when the soap premiered there was another character named Karen that snagged Dr. Larry Wolek first. Theater actress Niki Flacks had just co-starred on Broadway with Walter Pidgeon, Arlene Francis, June Havoc, and Pamela Tiffin in the Broadway revival of Dinner at Eight. [You can read her recollections of this show in my upcoming book Pamela Tiffin: The Films from Hollywood to Rome, 1961-1974.]. Soon after, she was cast as grasping nurse Karen Martin in a new ABC-TV daytime soap called One Life to Live created by Agnes Nixon.
When not caring for patients, Karen Martin had her sights set on handsome young doctor Larry Wolek (Paul Tully briefly followed by James Storm). He however was in love with fragile rich girl Meredith Lord (Trish Van Devere followed by Lynn Benesch), whose father Victor disapproved of the relationship and was pushing his daughter to marry Dr. Ted Hale. Larry discovered that Meredith was suffering from a dangerous blood disease, but kept it secret from her. When Ted found out, he and Larry argued. Hale took a tumble down the stairs and died. Karen heard the argument and being spiteful testified against Larry. He was eventually cleared and Meredith learned the truth about her illness. She ran off to California leaving Larry in the hands of manipulative Karen who professed her sorrow through crocodile tears in regards to her testimony. This did not bring Larry and Karen together, but when she risked her life to safe him after he was caught in a fire the two drew closer. After his bandages were removed (and new actor Michael Storm took over), the couple drew closer and made love. Karen thought it was now smooth sailing to the altar, but sad sack Meredith Lord returned to town. With her health improving, she declared her love for Larry and the two reconciled–for a moment anyway. Karen discovered she was with child and threatened to end the pregnancy if the good doctor did not to right and make her his wife. Trapped, he agreed. Shortly after tying the knot, Karen miscarried and Larry sprinted to the nearest judge to end the marriage. Not wanting to work at the hospital with Larry knowing he was with Meredith, Karen chose to leave town never to be heard from again.
What do you recall about the early days on One Life to Live?
I was one of the original actors on the show. Agnes Nixon was brilliant. She is a genius. It was beautifully produced by Doris Quinlan. She was just so top notched. She hired wonderful directors and was very closely involved. Evertything was done on a really high level.
Was the show shot live when it began?
We did not shoot live, but on tape. However, editing tape in those days was expensive so you had a lot of pressure to do it as if it was live.
One Life to Live came right at of the gate breaking new ground with its controversial storyline about light skinned African American Carla Gray (Ellen Holly) who passed herself off as white.
We were all very aware that we were breaking new ground with the diversity and were very proud of it. Ellen Holly had established herself as one of the best stage actresses of her generation. She broke ground constantly, doing Shakespeare and other classics as a Black actress. I adored her! I know that ultimately she felt ill-used by the show and story lines. But those first years were very exciting for all of us, including her. I also became very close to the actress playing her mother [Lillian Hayman]–a wonderful character actress. Seeing the Black faces as we would sit around the table doing our first read-through of a script certainly gave me a thrill. Remember, this was the 60’s. We had protested during college and supported the sit-in’s happening in the south. And during my years on the soap I remember wearing a black arm band in protest of the Vietnam war. Much to the horror of many of the ‘grips’ (stage hands) who were quite right wing in their politics.
You went through 3 leading men playing Larry Wolek in the almost three years you were on the show.
Paul Tully [Larry #1] was just not strong enough. After James Storm [Larry #2], his brother Michael took over the role and stayed with the show for a long time. He was delightful to work with. All the women drooled over him–the fan mail was incredible. And in real life he was happily married–a very solid guy.
Any other actors stand out for you?
Gillian Spencer was also very easy to work with although my character didn’t really interact with hers very much, but we were often at the studio at the same time. Trish Van Devere was the first Meredith Lord. She was sooooooo difficult to work with. She decided she was a big movie star ordering people around. She was so awful and was fired. We all breathed a sigh of relief. Lynn Benesch took over and she was just lovely–an incredibly generous, beautiful person. The cast, after the first shake up was thoroughly professional and everyone seemed very well cast in their roles.
You were the bad girl the audience loved to hate.
Yes, especially after Karen got Larry drunk and seduced him. They were prudish in those days so one episode ended with the big kiss and the next episode had me in bed yawning and purring like Scarlett O’Hara. And of course from that one night of bliss Karen got pregnant. Even though Karen knew Larry loved another, she said, ‘I’m having your baby.’ Though she threatened abortion, it was illegal and actually we couldn’t even say the word ‘abortion.’ Larry was a Polish Catholic and the implication was that he would marry Karen and he did.
Why did you leave?
I left because I wanted to return to more theater. They said we are not going to kill you because we would like you to come back. For about a month Karen apologized to everyone for being so horrible and did a lot of weeping, which they knew I was good at. Karen was going back to her home town to try to find herself. I left and a few years later I was married and pregnant. They called my agent and wanted to bring back Karen. He said, ‘Darling, do you want to go back to One Life to Live?’ I said, ‘Do they want me seven months pregnant?’ He laughed and replied, ‘I don’t think that is in the storyline.’
Niki Flacks went on to have a distinguished career in the theater. She is currently teaching and writing on acting technique.
Just finished reading Famous Enough: A Hollywood Memoir by Diane McBain and Michael Gregg Michaud. It has to be one of the most brutally honest memoirs I have ever read. It is a harrowing tale of what happened to Diane (and probably a lot of other 1960s female contract players) once the studios tossed them out without fanfare during the mid-1960s when the studio system was collasping. Surprisingly, Diane did not make a lot of money while working for Warner Bros. despite starring in a TV show (Surfside 6) and getting leads in motion pictures (Parrish; Claudelle Inglish; The Caretakers; A Distant Trumpet; etc.). Today, actors doing the same are millionaires 3 times over.
Grass is always greener on the other side, so when Diane refuses to play a small role in a Natalie Wood comedy she knew she would get the boot, but thought life as a freelancer would be better. She soon learned the harsh realities of going it alone in mid-sixties Hollywood. Always one of my favorite blondes of all-time (along with Carol Lynley and Yvette Mimieux), I found it mind boggling on why she did not do better. Though I love Diane in the Elvis musical Spinout and her AIP exploitation movies like The Mini-Skirt Mob, she should have still been getting studio A picture offers. Soon Diane would be joined by Sandra Dee and Connie Stevens who when their studios set them free in 1966 or so, they too could not land any more major motion pictures. The times they were a’changin’ and these gals were just not hip to the Free Love crowd.
Diane does not hold back in her book slamming actors she disliked (hear that Edd Byrnes); her sexual exploits (she had an itchin’ for unattainable men); her drug taking; and her brutal rape in the early 1980s. She also must be one of the unluckiest actresses in Hollywood in regards to roles that might have been and the number of times she was a victim of a crime. One of the book’s highlights is her documenting her two trips to Vietnam in 1966 and 1967 to entertain the troops.
Once the book passes 1970, my minor quibble is that though she mentions all the low-budget movies (Savage Season, Deathhead Virgin, etc.) and TV shows she appeared in they get short shrift. I really like hearing the back stories in depth. Instead, Diane concentrates on her life outside of acting as she needed to support herself and a child. While her contemporaries like Carol Lynley, Connie Stevens, Anjanette Comer, Sue Lyon and even Sandra Dee were landing leads in TV movies, Diane for some reason was barely getting supporting parts in episodic TV. For me Diane always had an air of glamour and sophistication. She was the Dina Merrill for the 1960s teenage set though most of her big screen charactes were usually icy and bitchy. Diane Baker had the same effect, but she came off like that even while trying to play the sweet ingenue. If she was able to get steady work through the 1970s, I have no idea why McBain was not as she had the ability to play sweet and not so sweet believably. In the book, Diane attributes her fading movie career to the New Hollywood of the independent filmmaker who shunned glamour for more real looking actors.
Diane McBain’s memoir was an eye opener for me and is truly recommended. And despite her struggles, it does have a well-deserved happy ending for the still gorgeous actress.
With last week’s marathon of Beach Party movies on TCM and the warmer weather finally prevailing, I thought I would share my Top 5 Beach Party musical moments (from what I can find on YouTube) to get us all in the mood for beach season.
#1 “Beach Blanket Bingo” from Beach Blanket Bingo
Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello at their best in my favorite Beach Party movie singing this title tune that excellently showcases what made the Beach Party movies so darn fun from the dancing shirtless surfers and their bikini-clad girls to the beautiful Malibu coastline to the background surfing. As a teen this movie made me want to move to California desperately. Today the catchy ditty always makes me jump to my feet and dance along. I also love when the unsung beach boys and girls get featured and here getting their do are sassy lassie Mary Hughes and the ice cream clad Mike Nader; and surfboard dancing Johnny Fain and Linda Opie plus Playboy Playmate of the Year 1964 Donna Michelle as Animal and Jody McCrea as Bonehead.
#2 “How About Us?” from How to Stuff a Wild Bikini
Sticking with my love of the unsung beach girls, this camp classic number has ad man Mickey Rooney sticking to his guns on hiring a reluctant Beverly Adams (in a hideous long red wig) despite the beach girls best efforts to change his mind. Granted it is not even close to a surf song, but I am a sucker for Marianne Gaba (taking over from Donna Michelle as Animal) leading the beach babes including Patti Chandler (orange bikini), Mary Hughes (lime bikini), Sue Hamilton (tiny blonde in yellow bikini), Salli Sachse (hair in bun in green bikini), Linda Opie (pink bikini), and Luree Holmes (white bikini with matching headband) to prove why “we’re the chicks who know all the tricks…” They sure do.
#3 “Swingin’ and A-Surfin'” from Beach Party
The King of the Surf Guitar Dick Dale with his Del-Tones really rock on this surf song classic while the kids groove to it below. Beach Party really tried to capture the surfer’s lifestyle as much as they could. That is why Dick Dale was hired to bring authentic surf music to the movie and if you notice carefully the surfers and their chicks are smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. These were no-nos for future Beach Party movies. That is Morey Amsterdam underneath the mask roaming the dance floor; Candy Johnson shimmying in the blue-tassled dress; a very young Mike Nader all in gray shaking his cute butt; and Yvette Vickers as the blonde yoga girl.
#4 “Among the Young” from Pajama Party
Pretty Donna Loren proves here why she was one of the 1960s most underated vocalists. She had such screen presence and a strong beautiful voice with a range that could easily go from singing love ballads (ala “It Only Hurts When I Cry” in Beach Blanket Bingo) to a catchy pop song like this. Here she is backed by the Nooney Rickett Four and they get the beach boys and their girls off their feet especially the stunning Susan Hart mesmorizing the boys with her sexy dance moves and shimmying blonde bouffanted Candy Johnson. My one minor complaint is that old-fashioned bathing suit Donna sports. Girl it was 1964, not 1924. Show some skin!
#5 “Don’t Stop Now” from Beach Party
Frankie Avalon really gets to cut loose on this hard rocking number backed by Dick Dale, on bongos, and His Del-Tones. Free from Annette (who sits their fuming) in this part of the movie, he gets to cozy up to a number of sexy dancing babes including Eva Six (a Zsa Zsa Gabor wannabe who opens the number) followed by 2 anonymous, even for me, blonde beach girls and then the perpetual motion machine Candy Johnson. A nice rocking treat from the usual pop ballads Frankie normally sings in the Beach Party movies. In the background you can spot Bob Cummings under the whiskers; and John Ashley and Valora Noland sitting in front.
Cult 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.
Mimsy 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.