Kathy Kersh: She Beat Up Napoleon Solo, Connived with the Joker, and Then Married Robin
Former Miss Rheingold of 1962, pretty Film Fatale Kathy Kersh was destined for stardom. She had talent but like a number of her Sixties contemporaries was typecast by her looks. Being blonde, gray-blue-eyed and perky, the aspiring starlet developed a rather frothy image limiting her to “girlfriend” roles on television. When she was able to play the vixen she excelled exemplified with her TV appearances on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and most memorably as the narcissistic Cornelia on Batman. Movies didn’t beckon much for Kersh, but she co-starred in the infamous Lesbian drama The Gemini Affair in 1974.
Kathy Kersh, an only child, was born in Los Angeleson December 15, 1942 and grew up in Pasadena, California where her father was a successful grocery store proprietor. She began working as a model for print ads at the age of eight and progressed to commercials four years later. Modeling led to the local beauty pageant circuit where the curvaceous young girl walked away with ten crowns including “Miss Junior Rose Bowl,” “Miss Los Angeles County,” “Miss Southern California Boat Show,” and “Miss Boysenberry.”
Kersh parlayed her string of pageant wins to become a local Los Angeles TV weather girl before accepting acting roles including her first as a hairdresser on 77 Sunset Strip. “I only had a few lines but this was a big deal for me,” says Kersh. “I was very young and since that show was so popular I was in awe of everyone on it. I can’t recall which of the regulars I worked with, but I do remember Louis Nye. He literally took me by the hand because I hadn’t a clue of what to do and he was a big help.”
In 1962, a dark-haired Kathy entered and won the Miss Rheingold contest getting twice as many votes as the runner-up. At the time this contest was almost as prestigious as being named MissAmerica. Six finalists from thousands of entrants were selected by a panel of celebrity judges and the public would vote for the winner. This contest sponsored by the beer company started in 1942 and became so huge that by 1952 it drew 24 million votes exceeded only by that year’s presidential election. Each year’s winner saw her face splashed across print ads, promotional material, and billboards while making personal appearances on television, radio, and throughout the states where Rheingold Beer was sold.
After her reign as Miss Rheingold came to an end, Kathy returned to Hollywood. Now a blonde, she quickly landed a regular role on My Favorite Martian in 1963 playing Bill Bixby’s neighbor and steady girlfriend. But the producers decided they wanted his character to be more of a playboy bachelor so Kersh was sent packing after filming only one episode.
Producer Martin Ransohoff took notice of Kersh and signed her to a contract with his company Filmways. He immediately put her in his hugely popular TV sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies as Marion a caterer and love interest for Max Baer, Jr.’s naively dumb Jethro Bodine.
“Working on The Beverly Hillbillies was great fun,” exclaims Kersh. “The cast was just wonderful. Some people are just incredible to work with and Irene Ryan and Buddy Ebsen were two of those people. Max Baer, Jr. was fine too. I dated him for awhile. Donna Douglas in reality was exactly like her character. There was no line in between. Marty Ransohoff used to say, ‘I can’t believe it. She really does have critters.’ She always did and he just couldn’t understand that.”
Kersh made her film debut with much fanfare playing one of the “Nameless Broads” in the underrated service comedy The Americanization of Emily (1964) starring James Garner, Julie Andrews, and James Coburn. Most of the publicity regarding the film was centered on Coburn and the three sexy actresses (Kersh, Judy Carne, and Janine Gray) that he beds in the movie. Brits Carne and Gray were asked to do their scenes topless, but a thankful Kersh was not. Despite the notoriety it brought her, The Americanization of Emily did nothing for Kersh’s career as all her dialog was cut from the final print and she just reacts to Garner and Coburn’s interaction. “I spent the whole day in bed with James Coburn,” says Kersh with a laugh. “Nothing lewd—I was wearing undergarments. Coburn was very nice and it was just hysterical to spend that much time with him in bed.”
More movie roles should have come Kersh’s way but two events unfolded. Another beautiful blonde named Sharon Tate was signed by Filmways and Martin Ransohoff was determined to make her a star. “I adored Sharon,” exclaims Kersh. “We were rivals in a way but it didn’t matter—we were both nice people. Physically, Sharon was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen in my life. And in that business you see everyone without make-up. She was a gorgeous, stunning woman. She was not a great actress but she didn’t have to be. We stayed good friends and she even fixed me up with Jay Sebring [the hair stylist who was murdered along with Tate and others by the Manson family].”
Another reason Kersh didn’t feel slighted by Ransohoff’s fawning attention on Tate was because she was being wooed by handsome actor Vince Edwards of Ben Casey fame. The pair met at a dinner party thrown by actor George Hamilton in his Beverly Hills estate. Kersh was fresh from her third broken engagement and Edwards had just ended his affair with actress Sharon Farrell. The two lovelorn souls hit it off and soon after Kathy appeared on his show playing a nurse named Tina. In Photoplay, Edwards raved that Kathy gave “an excellent performance.” He also added, “I got one of the best pieces of film she’s ever made. She has a very pert charm, and I think I captured it on film.”
Recalling being directed by Vince Edwards on Ben Casey, Kathy remarks, “I’ve always said that it was the only time we really got along because I had to do what Vince told me to do. I found him to be quite good as a director. He really understood actors’ problems and he did his homework. Vince was volatile but when it came to directing he quieted right down and got to work. And he worked hard at it. He was also a talented actor especially in some of his earlier work where he played a lot of character and bad guy roles rather than as Dr. Ben Casey, but that was the hottest show going at that time.”
In 1965, Kersh was juggling her romance with Edwards, a budding nightclub singing career, and acting. On the latter front she appeared in a memorable episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. where she and Sharon Tate played luscious but deadly THRUSH agents in “The Girls from Nazarone Affair.” In this episode set on the Riviera, Solo and Illya tangle with a bevy of superwomen, led by Danica d’Hondt as Lucia Nazarone, who have in their possession a serum that provides great strength. A schoolteacher (Kipp Hamilton) on vacation abroad helps them defeat the nefarious THRUSH girls. A fetishist’s delight, the episode is infamous for the number of times Robert Vaughn’s Napoleon Solo gets beat up by beautiful blonde women. First d’Hondt manhandles Solo then her buxom flaxen-haired helpers Kersh and Tate take turns throttling the U.N.C.L.E. agent. This was a very good change of pace role for Kathy who was usually cast as the girl-next-door due to her blonde All-American good looks.
“I had so much fun playing a bad girl,” remarks Kersh. “I hardly ever got to play anyone mean. When you are blonde and you are pretty you get typecast. They didn’t write intelligent pretty blondes at the time. They were often stupid and I think I had a mental block against that. Nobody wanted to take a chance. It’s as if people were so afraid of losing their jobs that they would only cast actors in roles similar to what they just were cast in and played successfully. It was awful. I was continuously called in for the ‘stupid broad’ roles, but I was terrible at them.It was great to play a bad guy and I remember thinking at the time that I didn’t have to smile through that whole show! And I got to beat up people [including Robert Vaughn's Napoleon Solo]—that was a first for me.”
Kathy next turned up on Shindig where she surprised her fans by belting out a few songs. She did a duet with teen heart throb Bobby Sherman singing “You Can’t Sit Down” and soloed on the number “You Better Come Home.” Critics and fans were impressed, but her singing career was fleeting.
After a very brief courtship, Kathy Kersh and Vince Edwards were wed on June 13, 1965 in a secret ceremony at the home of Vince’s business manager, Bill Hayes. The fan magazines had a field day speculating why the handsome couple rushed into marriage. It was a stormy relationship to say the least and after less than two months of marriage they separated. Four days later Kersh announced that she was pregnant and accused Edwards of “willful neglect” and “mental cruelty.” What should have been a private affair was played out in Photoplay, Modern Screen, and other publications as the Edwards reconciled, separated a second time, and finally divorced with Kathy reportedly receiving no alimony and only $400 a month in child support.
Now with a baby girl named Devera to support, Kathy returned to work. Most memorably she was cast as the glamorous Cornelia the Joker’s narcissistic girlfriend in the Batman episodes “The Impractical Joker” and “The Joker’s Provokers” Clad in a skintight shiny purple cat suit, the gorgeously coiffure Kersh was one of the sexiest and spirited molls of the series. “Working on Batman was so much fun,” says Kathy. “I loved my costume! It was so wild—that purple! Even though the costume was skintight, it was very comfortable. They were so creative on Batman with costuming and hairstyles. Of course, the series was populated with these outrageous characters, so the costume department was always busy.”
The audience first is introduced to Cornelia primping in front of a mirror as the Joker works on a box that will hypnotize the Dynamic Duo. He steals a valuable jeweled key as the crime fighters are rendered motionless. He then provides a clue to his next heist. At a fur salon, Cornelia is in heaven posing in a fur coat. “I know diamonds are supposed to be a girl’s best friend, but I could get real chummy with some mink or ermine,” she says. “I’ll take three or four of these—and a couple of gorillas.” To which the Joker replies, “I think you mean chinchillas, Cornelia.” Batman and Robin then arrive immune to Joker’s hypnotic box, but after a skirmish he escapes with Cornelia.
The next trap involves Cornelia pretending to be the niece of a man the Dynamic Duo is looking for courtesy of Joker’s clues. Once again she is admiring herself in the mirror. Joker scoffs telling her that vanity is a waste of time and he that never looks at himself. The bubble-headed blonde retorts, “I’m younger Joker and a girl.” When the Dynamic Duo shows up Cornelia does her part and releases a trap door sending the crime fighters into the clutches of the Joker where Batman is put into a gigantic key duplicator.
In the second half of the two-part episode, Cornelia has much less to do. While the Joker espouses on his new time travel machine claiming he can send anyone either backward or forward in time, Cornelia is pouting about a wrinkle she just discovered. When she hears that Joker plans to blackmailGothamCityfor $10 million or he will make time standstill, the vain beauty perks up. To reach his goal, Joker needs to contaminate the city’s water supply but Batman is on to him and has Alfred positioned as a sleepy guard. He gets the time travel box away from the Joker and when Cornelia tries to seductively retrieve it, he sends her back in time to when she was a little girl. He quickly adjusts it to get her back to her shapely adult persona. Soon Batman and Robin are on the scene and after the obligatory melee, Joker and his crew are sent up the river.
“Adam West was very nice, but Cesar Romero’s reputation preceded him,” exclaims Kersh. “He was funny, classy, and such a gentleman. He was also gay, but that was always kept quiet, and it didn’t matter. To know Cesar was to love him. I don’t think there was anyone who didn’t adore him. When you have close ups, the other actor should be off camera feeding you your lines. Some of them were either too lazy or so rude that they didn’t even bother. They would just leave and let one of the crewmembers or assistant directors do it. That makes it harder and some actors do it on purpose hoping your performance won’t be so good and their close up will be used and not yours. I worked with some actors who stayed to give me lines but they just recited them. Cesar was the ultimate actor in that he made it a point to always be there even if he was released for the day. Not only would he stay, he acted his lines while they were filming my close ups so I could act mine properly. He was such a doll! He did this with everyone. How could you not like someone like that?”
Besides the good notices she received for Batman, Kathy also gained a new romance. She and the Boy Wonder, Burt Ward, hit it off immediately. Soon after, Ward obtained a quickie Mexican divorce from his wife. He and Kathy were married on Feb. 25, 1967 in Las Vegas because she was performing at the Tropicana Hotel. This proved to be another short-lived marriage and the couple divorced two years later. Though her face was not be seen much on either the small or big screen at that time, Kersh’s beautiful visage was splattered across all the popular rags including Photoplay, Modern Screen, Motion Picture, TV Movie Screen, Movieland, and Movie Tattler due to her romantic exploits keeping her very much in the public eye.
Years later Ward wrote his autobiography entitled Boy Wonder: My Life in Tights where he expounded on his sexual conquests and big organ, but not much on his acting career. Commenting on the book, Kersh said, “Under the circumstances it wasn’t too bad. I don’t expect an ex-husband to be nice. I wouldn’t agree with everything he put in there, but some of it was true. We met on the set and got along great obviously. He was fun. It was strange he had not acted before. If Batman was not his first interview, it was real close to it. To get a series so early in your career is so unusual. He didn’t have any great pretensions about being a great actor. We had a good time and he told me so many great stories. There were so many in-things in Batman. The writers would slip in—particularly in the later episodes—in-jokes about the cast or crew. After Burt told me, it made the show so funny for me. I began watching it—I hadn’t watched it very much before.”
With the business changing in the late Sixties, Kersh knew she needed to get serious and “grow up” in order to give her daughter a proper upbringing and because “my child support from Vince was minimal.” Fed up with auditioning and being typecast, Kersh quit acting. Her last TV appearance was in a 1969 episode of Love, American Style with Van Johnson, Sue Ane Langdon, and Paul Lynde.
Thinking she was through with show business, Kathy Kersh enrolled in college to study business administration. Surprisingly, she was coaxed out of retirement by director Matt Cimber to star opposite Marta Kristen (most remembered as Judy Robinson on TV’s Lost in Space) in A Gemini Affair (1974) a romantic tale with Lesbian overtones, whose tag line proclaimed, “A different kind of love story.” Though she didn’t think the screenplay was that good and there was a nude scene, Kersh decided to accept the part. She explains, “Since I had been so typecast and was so frustrated that I could not get better roles—not that I am the best actress in the world—I decided it would be fun to get the chance to do some real acting. I thought I could finally show everybody what I was capable of. My character cries, gets drunk and has a few other emotional displays that I wanted to see if I could even do. As for the nude scene, I thought, ‘I’m a big girl—I could live through it.’”
Kathy Kersh was cast in the part of the desperate, overwrought Jessica who works as a high-class hooker while trying to land acting jobs while Kristen played Julie, fresh-faced and naïve, and right off the bus from Indiana. After only finding rejection in big bad Hollywood they turn to each other for comfort, which leads to a brief love affair.
Kersh’s first challenge before she had to disrobe for the cameras was her crying scene. “I was not a crier, but Marta Kristen could turn it on and off like a faucet,” reveals Kersh. “Crying is very hard for me. When we did the scene, I pulled it out from within. I took enough acting classes to know what I had to do. It was difficult but I did it.” Seeing the scene, you would never imagine that the actress had such a hard time with it as it looks so natural.
As for filming her nude scene, Kathy recalls, “It was shot in the dark and was very shadowy. It wasn’t very graphic, but it was very tough for me to do it—even with only a skeleton crew present. Marta felt about the same way I did about doing the nude scene. They showed more of her than they did of me. During the shoot Marta had an affair with the cinematographer. I knew they were seeing each other. I only saw a rough cut of A Gemini Affair at that time and was surprised that the light during our love scene was always on Marta keeping me in the dark—what a crummy thing to do! I couldn’t believe it!”
A Gemini Affair should have been groundbreaking, but hardly anyone saw the movie as it could not find a national distributor and received very limited release. The movie was Kathy Kersh’s swan song. After receiving a BA in Business, graduating Magna cum Laude, she took a job in commercial real estate and was very successful. Though the glamour girl’s name is part of the Sixties past, younger audiences were introduced to her in 2003 when actress Amy Acker portrayed her in the high-rated TV-movie Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam and Burt.