Joyce Meadows: She Battled the Brain from Planet Arous and Monster Joan Crawford
Actress Joyce Meadows first came to drive-in movie prominence in the film The Brain from Planet Arous (1958) co-starring John Agar. Though a number of actresses are known for shrieking their way through a gaggle of fifties sci-fi horror films, Meadow’s character was no shrinking violet as she helped destroy the alien during the film’s climax. Her sixties screen heroines did not fare as well. As the title character in the exploitation rebel youth flick The Girl in Lovers Lane (1960), Meadows meets a horrific end at the hands of a psycho and in William Castle’s I Saw What You Did (1965) her philandering husband stabs her to death in the shower. If that was not bad enough, behind-the-scenes the pretty actress had to suffer the ire of monstrous co-star Joan Crawford. At least producer Ivan Tors liked Meadows. Due to her talent and professionalism, he cast her in a number of his television series and on the big screen in his Disney-like film Zebra in the Kitchen (1965).
Joyce Meadows was born Joyce Burger in a prairie town in a providence of Alberta, Canada. She grew up on a farm near the Black Foot Indian Reservation. “The first school I ever went to was in a little town named Dorothy,” recalled Joyce. “The teacher there taught from the first to the twelfth grade. Our school bell was a cowbell. And I wasn’t born in 1812 either! It was very simple living out there on the prairie. It was not modern at all.”
When Joyce was eleven years old her family moved to Louistown, Montana and then to Sacramento, California where Joyce attended high school. She appeared in a number of school plays and sang in her church. “My mother’s side of the family is Russian and Romanian and my relatives were quite talented—everybody sang and danced. I had an uncle who yodeled. So I grew up performing, but acting didn’t dawn on me that it was a separate thing that you could call a profession until I got into high school. It was then that I learned that acting could become a way of life.” During her senior year, Joyce began singing professionally in Lake Tahoe as part of a program with Burl Ives. It was her first paying job in show business. After graduating high school, she joined The Little Eaglet Theatre in Sacramento. She appeared in Romeo and Juliet as Juliet, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and How Deep Are the Roots, among others. It was about this time when Joyce’s manager changed her last name from Berger to Meadows because “that was the era when people changed their names. They don’t do that so much anymore. And Meadows was sort of a popular name—I don’t know why he picked it. I just accepted it.”
Joyce arrived in Hollywood during the late fifties and was discovered by agent Allen Connor while appearing in the play What Doth It Profit at the Glendale Center Theatre. She made her film debut in the western Flesh and the Spur (1957) with John Agar and then played a harem girl in Omar Khayyam (1957). But it was the low-budget sci-fi cheapie The Brain from Planet Arous that brought her recognition.
The Brain from Planet Arous was produced and photographed by Jacques Marquette, directed by Nathan H. Juran, and released by Howco International in 1958. Meadows co-starred with John Agar and Robert Fuller. “I was still very new to the business at that time when I got this film,” remarked Joyce. “I hadn’t done a whole lot of film. I had worked with Jacques Marquette previously on a number of TV shows. He told me about it and encouraged me to come and read for the part.”
Though B-movie vet Nathan Juran (a.k.a. Hertz) is credited as director of The Brain from Planet Arous, Joyce remembers Jacques Marquette doing a lot of the directing. “This was a very technical movie,” explained Joyce. “Jacques was a very talented cameraman and he’d have camera moves where people would move in and out—the camera keeps moving and the scene keeps going as people walk into a close-up or a two-shot and walk back away and it becomes a long-shot. Today people are fascinated by this camerawork. They did this in The Brain from Planet Arous and other films from that era because they didn’t have the money to do many takes. So with all these camera techniques Jacques was always coming up to me and giving me direction. He’d say things like, ‘It is very crucial that you hit your mark here’ or something to that effect. He was always whispering suggestions into my ear. So at the time I felt he did more of the directing than Nathan because he was helping me a great deal with the technical aspect of the film. But Nathan did help me with my performance. I remember that he kept most of the choices I made in regards to my acting in the film. He’d guide us but he listened to the input from John Agar and me.”
With little money to do multiple takes, it is not surprising that the film’s special effects were also done on the cheap. According to Joyce, “seeing the brain for the first time made me laugh. Part of it was made from paper-mache and some other materials. It was hooked up with this very fine invisible wire to make it look like it was floating in thin air. Of course everybody claims to see the wire in the film. But I don’t know if you can see it or not. There are not many photos of the brain, incidentally. I don’t know why the still photographers who were on the set didn’t take more pictures of it.”
The Brain from Planet Arous was Joyce Meadow’s second film opposite John Agar. She would go on to make Frontier Gun with him a year later and has nothing but praise for this prolific actor. “Most of the people who have worked with John adored him because he is professional and has a wonderful personality,” remarked Joyce. “It’s interesting because he was not a theater person and he used to tease me because I was one—he’d call me ‘the theatre buff.’ John Agar was certainly no fine stage actor but he was always in there doing a good job. He was from the tail end of the big star era and felt that he learned his craft from being around and working with John Wayne all the time. John always gave it his all, which made it a joy to work with because you were able to get in there and do your part. There were some actors where that did not happen. It was sort of like acting opposite a broom. During the scene where John’s character roughs me up he was being very careful but that bugged me. I kept telling him, ‘Go for it. I’m strong enough.’ I wanted the scene to look real.”
“Robert Fuller was also great to work with,” continued Joyce. “This was one of his first roles and he was just starting out. He went on to star in several Western series. He was just a big kid. Even though I was younger than he was, we treated him like the baby of the bunch, but he always had that great voice with the edge on it.”
The film’s plot centers on an evil scientifically advanced floating brain from another planet that comes to Earth and hides in the barren caverns of Southern California. Nuclear scientist Steve March (John Agar) and his assistant Dan Murohy (Robert Fuller) go to investigate when they pick up weird signals emanating from that vicinity. They discover the brain (named Gor) which kills Murohy and enters March’s body to enact its plan to conquer the universe. Agar’s girlfriend Sally Fallon (Meadows) immediately notices his strange behavior especially when he gets physically aggressive with her. When the brain takes control of his actions, his eyes bulge big and black. He destroys a plane in mid-air with his mind. Another brain (named Vol) from the planet Arous arrives on Earth and takes over the body of March’s dog. He informs Sally about the evil brain and how it can be overpowered and killed with a blow to a certain part of its anatomy. When the brain temporarily leaves March’s mind, he and Sally together destroy it with an axe.
When The Brain from Planet Arous was first released in 1958, most of the major newspapers failed to review it. One that did was the Los Angeles Times whose reviewer quipped, “Having investigated The Brain from Planet Arous we are left wondering about the brain from Howco International, its producers.. The film…has been launched with such heart-warming modesty (‘most astounding story…unequaled!’) that we rather regret to report it to be pure hash from the cutting-room floor.” Despite the pan, Joyce Meadows received almost a rave in comparison when described as a “competent performer.” Today the film has developed a cult following and is a guilty pleasure. On the Internet, the film is said to be “very hard to dislike, despite the relentless goofiness of the story,” “unbelievably cheap and stupid, it’s still incredibly entertaining,” and “a raggedly vivid saga of a manipulative space brain that is indeed wildly entertaining.” When asked why she felt The Brain from Planet Arous has developed this following, Joyce quips, “Why don’t you tell me! I really don’t know.”
The Brain from Planet Arous led Meadows to a recurring role as astronaut Lynn Allen on the TV series The Man and the Challenge, which was the beginning of her long professional involvement with producer Ivan Tors. “Ivan just liked me as an actor,” said Joyce, matter-of-factly. “He used me in his productions a lot. He was just a very down-to-earth, business-like, honest man— very sweet but very quiet. Our working together seemed to work out well.” Meadows went on to work on such Ivan Tors’ TV programs as Sea Hunt, The Aquanauts, and Malibu Run.
In 1959, Joyce made her first of three appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. She played a socialite loved by a man (Robert Horton) engaged to another in “The Last Dark Step.” Later she played a newlywed whose husband (John Smith) loses his pay check in a poker game in “A Night with the Boys” and a fickle young woman who dumps her older boyfriend (Murray Matheson) for a younger man (Scott Marlowe) in “The Throwback.” It was during the filming of the latter episode that Meadows got a glimpse of the master, Alfred Hitchcock whom she never met. “Hitchcock had his own set where he’d film the introductions to each week’s episode,” said Joyce. ‘So while no one was around, I sneaked onto the stage. I then very quietly took off my shoes and hid behind one of the flats. I saw the film lights way over in a corner—these soundstages were huge and they only needed a small portion of it to film this sequence. I then got closer and when all their backs were turned to watch Alfred Hitchcock I peered around the corner and watched him shoot one of the intros. It was a closed set because Hitchcock was very much a star and he didn’t want anybody on the set. I thought, ‘If I get caught it is going to be my neck.’ I had to open one of the stage doors to leave. I knew it was going to make a loud noise so I ran like crazy into the ladies room and into a stall. I didn’t get caught and I got to see Alfred Hitchcock!”
Meadows also got to work with up-and-coming superstar Steve McQueen on his western series Wanted: Dead or Alive. In their episode, Joyce played a widow who, afraid that she will lose custody of her son, proposes to Steve McQueen’s bounty hunter Josh. “When I worked with Steve McQueen his wife Neile Adams was very pregnant,’ remembered Joyce. “She was about to have her baby in about two or three months. And here is this young guy—he was a typical macho male—flirting and carrying on with every female that walked through the door. And we thought, ‘when is that woman going to have her baby!’ I never met a more ambitious man than Steve McQueen. I felt that he may have been too ambitious—not in a bad way but he really pushed himself. I thought when he died so young that he never took time to smell the roses, so to speak. He was such an interesting talent.”
Back on the big screen, Joyce continued in the western genre in with the low-budget oater Walk Tall (1960) with Willard Parker. More memorable was her appearance in the low-budget youth-oriented melodrama The Girl in Lovers Lane (1960) directed by Charles R. Rondeau and co-starring Brett Halsey, Lowell Brown, and Jack Elam. Shortly after two young drifters hit town, a young girl turns up dead.
Top-billed Brett Halsey was emerging as a popular leading man for the teenybopper set after appearing in a number of juvenile delinquent-type movies including Hot Rod Rumble; High School Hellcats; and Speed Crazy. This was not only his favorite from that bunch, but from all his movies ever made. He remarked about The Girl in Lovers Lane in the biography Brett Halsey: Art or Instinct in the Movies, “I liked that. It was a quickie. We worked hard on that. [It] was a very small production that we were barely able to finish because of financial problems…Charles R. Rondeau was a good director. He did a lot of TV. I chastised him, he should have made more features.”
Joyce Meadows found Halsey to be “very good-looking,” but it was character actor Jack Elam who made the impression on her. “Everybody adored Elam,” said Joyce fondly. “With his one eye going one way and the other eye the other way he was usually cast as these bad people, but he was such a gentle soul and an extremely intelligent man with this crazy sense of humor. We were supposed to be doing the scene where he beats me. I forget what he said but I was lying on the ground and they said cut because there was a sound problem. Jack kept me in stitches by repeating to me, ‘You must not laugh. You must not laugh.’ I couldn’t get over the giggles by the time they were ready to go again. When the director yelled, ‘action’ I saw Elam looking at me and remembering what he said before that and I just burst out laughing. After I ruined a few takes, I said to the director, ‘I have to get up from this ground and walk away. I have to calm myself down.’ So that’s what I did. Elam was such fun to work with.”
Producer Roger Corman’s company Filmgroup released The Girl in Lovers Lane with a tag line describing Meadows’ character as being “Too young to know … too reckless too care.” She played Carrie Anders the local “nice” girl who gets involved with drifter Bix Dugan (Brett Halsey). One of the best dressed vagrants to ever ride the rails, the sports-jacket clad young man arrives in the small town of Sherman via freight train with lonely rich runaway Danny Winslow (Lowell Brown) who he just saved from some thugs. Bix takes the teen under his wing and their friendship begins. Carrie is first seen working at her father’s café. She confides in her man hungry friend Peggy (Selette Cole) that roustabout Jesse (Jack Elam) gives her the creeps the way he looks at her and is afraid to be alone with him. Peggy assures Carrie that he is harmless and suggests she get a man in her life. Who should come walking through the door soon after but strangers Bix and Danny. While Sadie the town trollop sets her sights on Danny, Bix has eyes for Carrie who shyly returns the interest and accepts his offer to go to the movies after she gets off work. Later her father is hesitant to allow Carrie to date Bix, but when she pleads that he is the first boy she has liked in awhile, he relents.
While getting ready to meet Carrie, Bix says her shyness was just a routine, but Danny thinks not. With an hour to kill, they go to a pool hall and wind up in a brawl. Danny is hurt and Bix brings him back to the hotel and cleans him up. Danny confides in Bix that he ran away because his parents are getting a divorce. Bix is so into Danny he forgets about Carrie and stands her up. The next day Bix apologizes using the injured Danny as his excuse. Seeing the bruises on the teenager’s face, she agrees to go out with Bix again. That night they take a walk in the woods. Sitting near a pond, they talk and then slow dance. Bix realizes that Carrie is a good and decent girl. Feeling guilty regarding his original intentions in taking her to such a deserted part of the park, he takes her back to her father’s cafe. There he learns from Pete the counterman that Danny went off with Sadie. Peeved, he rushes out of there to the local whorehouse to save his friend from the clutches of that vixen. After being distracted by a blonde in a bathtub, Bix sneaks into Sadie’s room just as the whore is about to steal Danny’s money after getting him drunk. Bix then helps his buddy back to the hotel.
The next morning, with prodding from Carrie, her father offers Bix a job since he fired Pete. He accepts and saves her from waiting on the creepy Jesse who leaves vowing to return. Bix walks Carrie home and they stop to talk in the park, which leads to them kissing while secretly spied on by Jesse. Bix spends more time with Carrie who admits to Peggy that she has fallen in love with him. Bix won’t commit and announces he is leaving town. Heartbroken, Carrie runs off to their spot in the woods to cry and is attacked by Jesse. She is found brutally beaten by Bix and after letting out a blood curdling scream, she dies in his arms. Found holding her dead body, Bix is nearly lynched by a mob of town vigilantes when Danny proves that creepy Jesse stalked and murdered the girl. Danny decides to go home to his parents and Bix agrees to go with his buddy,
The Girl in Lovers Lane surprised many young moviegoers by killing off its likable heroine who doesn’t get saved in the nick of time as is usually the case. “I don’t think anyone was expecting that,” remarked Joyce. “It was kind of shocking.” Though the film was a bit more intelligent than the typical JD films of the time and buoyed by believable performances and a wonderful jazzy bongo-laced musical score by American International Pictures music director Ronald Stein, the mainstream press still did not like it. It was barely reviewed and most notices were similar to Boxoffice Magazine whose critic commented, “Only the unimaginative and naïve of audiences are going to swallow all that transpires on the screen.” Nowadays, one can’t help but notice the homoerotic undertones between Bix and Danny throughout even though they are interested in Carrie and Peggy. Bix stands up Carrie to nurse Danny’s wounds and makes a beeline to the whorehouse to save the teen from Sadie. Even the ending had Bix losing the girl, but winding up with Danny as he agrees to go live with him at his parent’s home. No doubt, this all went over the heads of the early sixties drive-in crowd.
Meadows next had small roles in two A-list films in 1961—Stolen Hours starring Susan Hayward (whom Joyce describes as being “kind and pleasant.”) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In the latter, Joyce is in the big party scene but the majority of her shots landed on the cutting room floor. Regarding the film’s star Audrey Hepburn, Joyce said enthusiastically, “Audrey Hepburn was not to be believed—talk about a superstar! She was up on a ladder watching a particular scene. And I remember the second assistant director yelling, ‘Audrey will you get your butt down off that ladder! You’re in the next scene.’ She said, ‘All right.’ That’s the kind of attitude she demanded on the set with no superiority or inferiority stuff going on—just people working together. She was amazing and so confident as a person that she didn’t have to act the superstar.”
In 1961, Joyce Meadows also modeled costumes designed by Howard Shoup for the Oscar-nominated film The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond on the Academy Awards telecast that April. When presenters Barbara Rush and Robert Stack opened up the envelope, the winner for Best Costume Design – Black-and-White was Edith Head and Edward Stevenson for The Facts of Life.
Television kept Meadows busy for the next few years until she returned to the big screen in two 1965 movies. Though Joyce has pleasant memories of Susan Hayward and Audrey Hepburn, she did not fare so well with mega-witch Joan Crawford on the film I Saw What You Did (1965). At that time, the fifty-ish Crawford would not allow any younger actresses on the set while she was shooting her scenes. Joyce knew this but her curiosity got the best of her and she sneaked back onto the set. However, unlike the incident with Hitchcock, this time she was caught. Crawford noticed Joyce from the corner of her eye and stopped the cameras from rolling. According to Meadows, she then yelled, “You get your ass off this set!”
“My experience with Joan Crawford was very strange,” commented Joyce. “I finished my scene and I wanted to see her act. I knew I shouldn’t have been there but that was no reason for her horrible behavior. I could have complained to the Screen Actors Guild but I didn’t.” When told that other actresses (including Diane McBain on The Caretakers and Anne Helm on Strait-Jacket before being fired and replaced with the icily bland Diane Baker) also had problems with Crawford during that period of time, Meadows responded, “I would think that you would if you had a scene with her. But she wasn’t in my scene. My experience with her only happened because she would not appear on the set unless I was gone.”
Produced and directed by William Castle, I Saw What You Did is a tense thriller starring Sara Lane and Andi Garrett as two bored high school babysitters who prank phone call a number of people by saying, “I saw what you did. I know who you are.” Unfortunately, one of them is a philandering businessman played by John Ireland who is having an affair with neighbor Joan Crawford. She describes his wife (Joyce Meadows) as a “childish, empty-headed, little tramp.” Tired of his nagging bride, he offs in the shower Psycho-style to be with Crawford who comes off more of a harridan than Meadows. Unfortunately for the teenagers, they call him just after he has disposed of the body. He then takes off to find the girls and shut them up permanently.
To promote the film, Castle, known for his wild gimmicks to attract the audience, warned in the ad that the film was about uxoricide. He also had theatres install seat belts to keep the viewers from jumping out of their seats in fright. “I did not have much rapport with William Castle,” admitted Joyce. “I think he was more concerned with Joan Crawford. When you get a very tough star you have to figure out how you are going to get through the picture and work with that star. You really don’t have much time for anyone else. But I do remember that Castle said some very nice compliment about how I came through for him in the shower scene because I had a theatre background. It was a load off his mind because this scene was very technical and hard to shoot. I was able to maintain, pick up, and repeat whatever he wanted. He was grateful for that.” That scene was reminiscent of the famous shower scene in Psycho and, like Hitchcock, Castle filmed his murder sequence from a variety of angles.
I Saw What You Did was late in the cycle of the horror movies starring older actresses begun with Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962. Some critics felt the portion of the movie involving Crawford was, as Philip Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times called it “little more than a write-in” and unnecessary (could you really believe any man would cheat on sexy Joyce Meadows no matter how shrewish she is with a hag like Crawford?). Castle should have stuck to the suspenseful scenes with the teenage girls and creepy Ireland. Despite mixed reviews, the film earned $1 million at the box office.
Meadows last sixties film Zebra in the Kitchen (1965) was much more lightweight than her previous one. In this Ivan Tors color production, she played Isabel Moon the assistant to veterinarian Dr. Del Hartwood (Martin Milner) at a rundown zoo. When young Chris Carlyle (Jay North of TV’s Dennis the Menace) and his family move from a ranch to the town, Chris must give up his pet puma named Sunshine to the zoo. However, not liking the conditions there, he purposely lifts the key from Branch Hawksbill (Andy Devine) and sets the puma and all the other animals free. While the vet and Branch try to round up the animals, Isabel mans the switchboard giving instructions to the terrified towns people. In a change of pace, there is no romance between Del and Isabel and their relationship is strictly professional. Though this role was not much of an acting stretch for Meadows, she looks beautiful in Metrocolor and is totally fetching as the assistant.
Zebra in the Kitchen was shot on and near Ivan Tors’ animal preserve located near Death Valley. “All of his animals used in the movie were trained with kindness and were not abused,” stated Joyce. “Ivan Tors was very innovative proving that it could be done but back in the sixties there was a lot of cruelty to animals. As time has gone on many animals that are being used in films today are trained by that same method.
“We had to deal an awful lot with a puma,” she added. “We never had any problems because they had three of them that looked exactly like each other, which was good because their endurance for being bossed around was about twenty minutes. Whenever we had to use the puma in a scene, the trainer would rotate them in.”
Zebra in the Kitchen opens with a kitschy title tune sung by garage rock band The Standells who had a big hit with the single “Dirty Water.” The movie is lightweight fun and all the principals do quite well in their roles. Most critics found it to be above-average fare for the kiddy set for which it was intended. The reviewer in the Boston Globe hailed it as “a summer treat for the children.” However, some took the movie to task for making a hero out of the disobedient boy who is old enough to know releasing wild animals into the public is dangerous.
Joyce went on the road doing regional theatre during the late sixties. In 1970, she had a featured role in the bio-pic The Christine Jorgensen Story, directed by Irving Rapper, about a man who goes to Denmark to have a sex change. Exploitative to the max, the film’s tag line read, “I Couldn’t Live in a Man’s Body. Did the Surgeon’s Knife Make Me a Woman or a Freak?”
Soon after, Joyce left Hollywood again, this time to tour as a vocalist with The New Ideas, a nightclub act. She also appeared in regional productions of The Rainmaker, The Marriage-Go-Round, and The Moon Is Blue. Meadows returned to Hollywood in the eighties. She called an old friend who was now a casting director for the soaps and played small roles on Days of Our Lives and Santa Barbara, which led to bigger roles in a couple of films and made-for-TV movies. She also became one of the founding members of the Meridian Theatre Company where she appeared on stage in Hamlet, The Glass Menagerie, and The Subject Was Roses.
Meadows’ most memorable film from her second go-around in Hollywood was Bad Influence (1990) starring Rob Lowe as a mysterious drifter who begins negatively influencing the life of a successful marketing analyst played by James Spader. Joyce played the mother of Spader’s fiancée, whose engagement party is ruined by Lowe when he slips a videocassette of Spader having sex with another woman into their VCR. “I almost turned down this role,” revealed the actress. “I was debating if I wanted to do it or not because I was just getting acquainted with the types of movies that were now being made. I didn’t believe in the whole psychological aspect of Bad Influence. I took the part because I felt I could contribute what a real person would do in that situation. During that infamous scene, I just stand there flabbergasted and fumble with the controls for the VCR while my husband chases Spader around the room. I thought my character should have gone after him too and slugged him—that’s me and of course that was not the character. But I really got into the part.”
As for the two young stars, Joyce commented, “James Spader is a very dedicated actor and very humble about it. I felt that Rob Lowe was a just bad boy who everybody loved but who got into trouble all of the time. He is an absolute darling and such a charmer. He is a type of guy that once you meet him you like immediately. I didn’t know about his background but learned about his antics and problems while working on the movie.”
Considering that she studied with such esteemed drama teachers as Stella Adler and Jeff Corey, it is not surprising that Joyce Meadows opined, “I never really had what I consider a strong movie career. I was the type who came down to Los Angeles on my way to New York before making my way to England to work in the theatre. There was always that pull for me. Theatre will always be my first love.”
It is no surprise then that when she returned to Hollywood, she did not want to delve on her earlier career. She said laughing, “However, a guy invited me to participate in a memorabilia show in the Beverly Garland Hotel. I called this place in New York to get photos after I agreed to attend. The guy told me he also had the lobby poster for The Brain from Planet Arous. I said, ‘That would be nice. How much is it?’ He said, ‘$650 dollars.’ I replied, ‘My God! The picture didn’t even cost that much!’”