THE JOAN WHO GOT AWAY

Joan Freeman is one of my favorite starlets from the 60s. I was forever trying to track her down to interview. Out of the blue I got an email from her a few years ago where she told me a friend said I was looking for her. When I replied about interviewing her for my Drive-in Dream Girls book I never heard from her again! LOL

Below is my profile on Joan from the book and it includes at the end a clip of her deleted scenes from Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter.

Winsome Joan Freeman was one of four Joan’s—the others being Joan O’Brien, Joan Blackman, and Joan Staley—who graced movie drive-in screens during the ‘60s. Producers deemed these gals interchangeable as all four Joan’s worked with Elvis Presley, two of them with Jerry Lewis, and two with Don Knotts. How to tell Joan Freeman apart from her counterparts? She is the blue-eyed, honey blonde who was usually cast as the sweet girl-next-door rather than the bikini-clad swinger in such films as Panic in Year Zero! (1962), Roustabout (1964) with Elvis, The Reluctant Astronaut (1967) with Knotts, and The Fastest Guitar Alive (1967) with Roy Orbison.

Joan Leslie Freeman, a purported descendant of Daniel Freeman the state of Nebraska’s first homesteader, was born on January 8, 1942 in Council Bluffs, Iowa though she spent most of her childhood in California when her family moved to Burbank when she was two years old. Her father was a railway postal clerk and her mother a housewife. When Joan was three she began taking dancing lessons and by nine she was a regular on a local Saturday morning children’s program called Fantastic Studios Ink in 1951 along with youngsters Jill St. John and Richard Beymer. That same year Freeman made her film debut playing Joan Leslie as a young girl in Pistol Harvest.

During the remainder of the fifties, Freeman continued appearing on live TV along with the occasional film appearance while attending public school and graduating from John Burrough High School in 1959. She then enrolled at San Fernando Valley College to study accounting but her parents encouraged her not to give up on an acting career. Freeman commented in TV Guide, “I loved to dance and Mother had no objection to my being in these [TV] shows. But she certainly didn’t push me. I wasn’t really what you’d call a dedicated actress. I’m still not for that matter. There were long, long periods of time between each show I did. It was more just for fun than anything else. I would have hated working all the time and going to those studio schools.”

Things began picking up for Freeman in 1959. She played one of Clifton Webb’s many children in The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker (1959) and one of the college students along with Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin who crash at an Italian villa owned by Rock Hudson in Come September (1961). Joan confessed in Show Business International to having a crush on Hudson. “Once I saw him in a white dinner jacket and black pants and I just stood there with my mouth hanging down to my shoe tops. He probably felt very self-conscious.”

After transferring to UCLA, Freeman became a member of its famous Javanese Gamelin Orchestra where she sang and played the xylophone-like stenten. She still continued pursuing acting parts and after losing out to Carole Wells for a continuing role on the TV series National Velvet, Joan was cast as waitress Elma Gahringer in the anthology series Bus Stop loosely based on the 1956 movie. The TV show debuted in September of 1961 and focused on big name guest stars playing characters that stop by the Sherwood Bus Depot and Diner while passing through sleepy Sunrise, Colorado. Bus Stop only lasted a season but is remembered for a violent episode starring Fabian as a wild-eyed youth on a murder spree, which caused one of the earliest public outcries against violence on television.

After Bus Stop was cancelled, Joan guest starred on all the top dramatic series particularly westerns and also began landing leading roles in movies. She was out of her depth though playing Lady Margaret to Vincent Price’s ruthless Richard of Glouchester in the Roger Corman directed film Tower of London (1962). As the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, the deranged Richard holds Margaret hostage in the tower as he begins a rampage killing everybody standing between him and the throne. Panic in Year Zero! (1962) directed by and starring Ray Milland is “a skillfully made exploitation picture” featuring Joan Freeman as Marilyn Hayes, one of the survivors of a nuclear blast that has destroyed Los Angeles. She is discovered hiding in a farmhouse on the outskirts of the city where a trio of toughs has murdered her parents. Harry Baldwin and his son Rick played, respectively, by Milland and Frankie Avalon rescue her from the hoodlums and take her back to the cave where they’ve been hiding with the rest of the Baldwin family. Several days later the lone surviving gang member (Richard Bakalyan) returns to extract his revenge. Rick disarms the youth but a furious Marilyn picks up the rifle and shoots him dead. The film concludes “with the feeling that, as the Baldwins and other good people have survived the atomic attack, civilization will be renewed again soon, perhaps for the better this time.” After making this film, Freeman bemoaned in Life magazine, “For sexy parts it’s blondes. If you’re a blonde you don’t get the stable part.”

In 1962 Freeman received a Photoplay Gold Medal Award nomination for Most Promising New Star (Female) and in 1963 she was voted a Hollywood Deb Star. The pretty blonde landed her first “stable part” in The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze (1963). She played Amelia Carter an American tourist who is rescued from a pair of thugs in Calcutta by Phileas Fogg III (Jay Sheffield) and his servants (The Three Stooges). Fogg has made the same bet his grandfather did with the Reform Club members when one of them makes an accusation that the elder Fogg cheated in his global journey. The following year Freeman followed in the footsteps of Joan Blackman and Joan O’Brien by being romanced by Elvis Presley on drive-in screens across the country. In Roustabout (1964) Joan was the good girl vying for the King’s affections with vixen Sue Ane Langdon as Madame Mijanou amidst a traveling carnival setting. Freeman fretts throughout the movie, as she is either catching Presley’s Danny in a clinch with Mijanou or arguing with her bitter father (Leif Erickson), a drunken carnie. The reviewer in Variety remarked, “Miss Freeman hasn’t much to do except wring her hands…but does it prettily.” Freeman was nominated that year for the Photoplay Gold Medal Award for Best Female Star [Ann-Margret won].

In her next film The Rounders (1965) starring James Stewart, Glenn Ford, and Sue Ane Langdon, Freeman was reduced to a supporting role as a farm girl who pursues a reluctant Ford throughout the movie. Could the fall from lead to support be because early in her career Joan had let it be known that she was not going to play by the rules? “The last thing in the world I want to be is a glamour girl. I just had a fit when they wanted to take pictures in a bathing suit. That’s so Hollywood. I hate to think of myself as a starlet,” remarked the “starlet” in Show Business Illustrated.

Freeman did progress back to leading roles in two more films that were hits on the drive-in movie circuit. Who better to pack the cars in than Don Knotts in the comedy The Reluctant Astronaut (1966) where he played a timid fellow with a fear of heights who gets accepted into the space program? Freeman was cast as his childhood sweetheart. According to the film’s press book, Joan tested for the female lead in Knotts’ previous movie The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) and lost out on the role to Joan Staley. Director Edward Montagne remembered her from it and offered her this role without even an audition. In the western The Fastest Guitar Alive (1967) Freeman was finally able to let loose on the big screen playing Sue Chestnut, a dancing barmaid with a fondness towards “scanty undies and silk tights” who travels across the US with her sister Flo (Maggie Pierce) and their beaus as part of a medicine wagon. What Sue doesn’t know is that her guitar-playing boyfriend (Roy Orbison) is really a Confederate spy planning to rob the government mint. The Variety critic panned the movie but praised Freeman and wrote that of all the cast members she was “most at ease and competent, showing ability far beyond this script.” Roy Orbison was smitten with his lovely co-star too and remarked in the film’s press book, “I ought to be paying the studio for the chance to do love scenes with Joan.”



The Fastest Guitar Alive
was Freeman’s last ‘60s movie. As with most of Elvis Presley’s early sixties co-stars such as Juliet Prowse, Anne Helm, and Laurel Goodwin, Joan Freeman too fell out of favor with teenage drive-in movie fans during the late sixties. But Joan had the talent and perseverance to continued working well after other drive-in movie starlets had long retired from the big screen. She finally began to out grow the sweet ingenue roles as exemplified playing the wife of drug addict on Insight and a grasping cold-hearted spouse who browbeats her husband to commit a crime on Land of the Giants.

In the eighties Joan Freeman must have surprised her old fans when she turned up playing the mother of terrified teens Kimberly Beck and Corey Feldman in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984). Freeman continued working playing matrons and snooty rich ladies roles well into the nineties. Joan Freeman is alive and well in 2002 and reportedly she is sailing the East Coast with her husband, former director Bruce Kessler.

 

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