Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Glamorous Strangers

Thanks to a recent comment on a post that contained info on Ava Gardner, I was inspired to come up with this one, all about how prime-time TV soap operas of the 1980s seemed to draw from Hollywood's collection of once-bright movie stars to fill out their cast & guest rosters. In 1987, I snapped up the book shown below, TV Sirens, because I couldn't get enough of Dynasty and The Colbys at the time (and was thrilled that 3 of the 4 gals adorning the cover came from those two shows.) The book featured practically all television actresses of note, but there was one chapter called "Glamorous Strangers," which focused on ladies who only came to TV every so often. I've pilfered that chapter title for this post.
To those in the know, these ladies who dotted the prime-time soap landscape weren't "strangers," many having once been considerable names in the cinema, but to youngsters (as I was way back then), they were indeed only vaguely known and, in fact, in several cases this was the first exposure some of us ever had to them. We had to backtrack with the help of UHF stations and VHS cassettes to discover these gals in their former glory.

Most soaps, prime-time or not, provided some sort of matriarchal anchor among the cast. Dallas, of course, had the estimable Barbara Bel Geddes as Miss Ellie. Bel Geddes radiated warmth and caring while not being above an occasional shut-down if the squabbling Ewings went too far. The short-lived Flamingo Road gave us Barbara Rush as a well-to-do, but suffering wife and mother. Knots Landing added Julie Harris to the mix, as the alternately troublesome and supportive mother of Joan Van Ark. The period-set Beacon Hill (which didn't make it past 13 episodes) featured Nancy Marchand and Beatrice Straight, in contrasting degrees of social standing. Then there's Oscar-winner Donna Reed, who took over for Bel Geddes on Dallas after illness had interfered with her work.

Reed was a still-lovely woman known not only for her Academy Award-winning role in From Here to Eternity, but also her long-running, which made her a favorite TV mom to many a viewer. However, she was altogether different (in elegant looks and lithe carriage) from the very down-to-earth Bel Geddes and it wasn't long before viewers were balking and the producers knew they'd made a fatal error in (re)casting. Reed was ousted (not before crafty efforts were made to make her quit), winning a $1 million settlement in the process (but reportedly at the cost of her health), and Bel Geddes suddenly found the will to work again, having watched her cherished role go up in flames from home!
Miss Donna Reed
Dynasty didn't really have a "matriarch" in that sense, but it did install 1950s movie actress Joan Collins as John Forsythe's formerly ostracized wife and the mother of his children who eventually rose to a position of considerable wealth and power (after marrying Forsythe's business rival on his deathbed and inheriting his legacy.) Collins' Alexis Colby was generally more of a front and center figure than a mother character. Diahann Carroll was another established stage and movie actress who joined the series and made a great adversary for her real-life friend Collins.
Miss Diahann Carroll (Carroll sought out Aaron Spelling, requesting to become TV first "black bitch," though she ultimately emerged as a warm and sympathetic character -- unless crossed by Collins!)
Of course, when it comes to matriarchs, it's tough to top Miss Jane Wyman as the steely Angela Channing of Falcon Crest. The powerful owner of a successful vineyard (among other enterprises), Channing tried to control her family and assortment of enemies while in real life Wyman ran herd on most of the rest of the cast and made things either comfortable or uncomfortable based upon her assessment of the coworker's talent and work ethic.
Miss Jane Wyman
Falcon Crest is one of the 1980s prime-time soaps that featured a bevy of guest stars who'd previously made his or her mark on the big screen. Among the ladies who stopped in for a visit were Eve Arden, Leslie Caron and Ursula Andress. Then there was Miss Kim Novak. Novak had heretofore only popped up sporadically on television in two TV-movies, a miniseries and the pilot of the revamped The New Alfred Hitchcock Presents. She played a mysterious woman masquerading as another, a nod to her Vertigo success, and whose name was "Kit Marlowe," the moniker that Columbia Studios chief Harry Cohn tried to saddle her with at the dawn of her career.
Miss Kim Novak
Crest's producers wanted Sophia Loren to come on board as Wyman's half-sister (!) and planned a dazzling wardrobe and a 13-episode story arc. Ultimately, negotiations fell apart and instead Loren's longtime cinematic rival Gina Lollobrigida was signed to the part. Lollo worked on only five episodes (but did score a Golden Globe nomination in the process! Faye Dunaway took the statuette for the miniseries Ellis Island.)
Miss Gina Lollobrigida
Another golden age star given a stint on the show was Oscar-winner Celeste Holm. Holm was given the meaty part of a vengeful widow who'd been sent to an asylum after trying to burn Wyman to death in a fire years before (for allegedly driving her husband to suicide.) For six episodes, she appeared as the mother of the also-calculating Anne Archer (herself a victim of 1980s boxy fashions.)
Miss Celeste Holm
Of course the ne plus ultra of Hollywood guest stars on Falcon Crest was Miss Lana Turner. Turner and Wyman, never particular friends even back in the 1940s, were playing bitter rivals on-screen and thanks to some wildly different personalities and backstage methods, soon became rather antagonistic with one another in real life, at least on Wyman's behalf. What might have emerged as a battle of the titans on the show was cut short when Turner was soon sent packing, reportedly with a firm nudge by Wyman who balked at the Tinseltown trappings that Turner encouraged during her stay.
Miss Lana Turner
Turner had once starred in her very own prime-time soap, an expensive failure (that is screaming for a DVD release thanks to its cast and fancy settings!) called Harold Robbins' The Survivors. It only lasted 15 episodes before being cancelled in mid-storyline.

Back to the matter at hand, Dallas didn't indulge too, too heavily in the exhumation of old Hollywood gals, but there was the participation of Martha Scott on ten occasions as the haughty, status-obsessed mother of Linda Gray. After a few initial appearances, she returned a few seasons later as the bee Bel Geddes' bonnet. Scott had played Charlton Heston's mother in two Biblical epics, The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur.
Miss Martha Scott
There was also the casting of former Warner Brothers leading lady Alexis Smith as the titled sister (Lady Jessica Montford) of Howard Keel. Her appearances on the show came in two sections, six years apart, and saw her swanky character come unhinged and become dangerous even!
Miss Alexis Smith
Dallas' successful spin-off Knots Landing provided safe haven for several Hollywood ladies of a certain age. One of these was Ruth Roman, of Strangers on a Train and Three Secrets to name just two. She clocked seventeen episodes as the (alleged) mother of Hunt Block (as Peter Hollister, one of the show's more memorably slimy bad guys.)
Miss Ruth Roman
Another vintage name to appear on the show (for close to 30 episodes) was Betsy Palmer.  Palmer had been a 1950s starlet in movies like Queen Bee (with Joan Crawford) and The Tin Star (with Anthony Perkins) and was a hit on the TV game show I've Got a Secret. Here she portrayed Joan Van Ark's aunt, on hand to help with Van Ark's twins (and to fill the void left when Julie Harris departed the series.)
Miss Betsy Palmer
The biggest name to guest star, though, and the one greeted with the greatest amount of press fanfare, was Miss Ava Gardner. Breezing in as the devious mother of William Devane, her stay was a mercilessly brief 7 episodes, but it did get plenty of attention. (Incidentally, she's shown in the inset with Doug Sheehan.)
Miss Ava Gardner
The writers put Gardner in cahoots with the show's resident villainess Donna Mills. It also had her working opposite Howard Duff as her husband. Though the two had never acted together, they had once been a splashy romantic item, so this served as a belated reunion for them.
A few other names to toss in the hat... The short-lived soap opera Berrenger's, all about a glitzy department store and the machinations behind it, starred Sam Wanamaker, Ben Murphy and Yvette Mimieux among several others. For a 4-episode period, 1950s actress Neva Patterson (who many may know from An Affair to Remember as Cary Grant's society squeeze) played a duplicitous, and a bit racist, employee who is involved in corporate espionage.
Miss Neva Patterson (and her eyebrows)
Then on another soap, The Yellow Rose, which only lasted one season, Jane Russell was brought back to on-screen acting after a fifteen-year hiatus.  She's seen here with one of the series' stars, Sam Elliott (along with Sam's horse and Sam's other horse - LOL!) Russell only wound up in three episodes before the show (which also featured Cybill Shepherd, David Soul and Edward Albert) met its demise.
Miss Jane Russell
Paper Dolls was yet another attempt at prime-time soap that wasn't able to cut it. It was cancelled after 13 gloss-filled episodes. Morgan Fairchild and Dack Rambo were among the stars, but the show also had Nancy Olson (of Sunset Boulevard and Battle Cry, among others) on board as Lloyd Bridges' wife.

Dynasty's spin-off The Colbys brought Barbara Stanwyck back regularly into TV viewer's living rooms for the first time since the late-1960s, though she found herself dissatisfied with the storylines (one of them being that she didn't retain a solid love interest!) and fled the show (and show business) after only 24 episodes. At least she got to dress in some lovely Nolan Miller clothes, reunite briefly with her old costar from The Big Valley Linda Evans (during a Dynasty cross-over) and create some utterly delicious verbal fireworks with Stephanie Beacham prior to exiting.
Miss Barbara Stanwyck (who truly was credited on The Big Valley as "Miss Barbara Stanwyck!")
Now, when Hotel (which, like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island and, later, Murder, She Wrote, provided loads of old-time guest stars) premiered, it was intended for Oscar-winner Bette Davis to be a regular character. She'd filmed the pilot with principles James Brolin and Connie Selleca and was heavily promoted in all the press materials. (Davis had tried a number of times to get a series off the ground, but never had.) Finally, we were due for a weekly dose of Davis when she was stricken not only with cancer, but four strokes as well! She was forced to drop the show (which she later, from her sickbed, watched on TV and declared that it should have been called "Brothel!")
Miss Bette Davis
Who better to step in for the sidelined Davis than her old All About Eve nemesis Anne Baxter?! Oscar-winning Baxter swiftly joined the series as Davis' sister-in-law and made the show her home until she herself passed away a few years in. At that point, the once contained program, with each hour remaining mostly unto itself story-wise, because a continuing drama (with the leads finally admitting their love for one another and bedding down.)
Miss Anne Baxter
This was also when our recently deceased Underworld favorite Dina Merrill came on board for two episodes as one of three members of Baxter's family (the other two being Efrem Zimbalist Jr and Ralph Bellamy) squabbling over who ought to run the hotel of the title. Naturally, Brolin emerged victorious in the end, though the series was only able to limp along in this new, soapy format for another season after this.
Miss Dina Merrill
As the '80s drew to a close, most of the once-hot prime-time soaps began to peel off the screen one at a time as well. There were still many attempts, some successful (Beverly Hills, 90210, which begat Melrose Place, which begat Models, Inc., the latter unable to last very long), but most not (2000 Malibu Road, Pacific Palisades.) One show that almost made it was Central Park West (later revamped to CPW.) In a last ditch effort to save the flagging show, 1960s icon Raquel Welch was brought on.
Miss Raquel Welch
Amid a flurry of publicity, she and Gerald McRaney came on board. She was pitted against series regular Lauren Hutton and the two even found themselves involved in a fountain-splashing catfight, much like the ones that were done on Dynasty in its hey-dey. (Don't miss the stunt doubles visible in these behind-the-scenes shots! Egads!) But apparently the animosity was only for the cameras and the flailing was all in fun, as I hope this post was for you!