October 21, 2010
Steve Ryfle has posted a thorough obituary at Bright Lights Film Journal for Janet MacLachlan, the African American leading lady who guest-starred in scores of television episodes from the late sixties up through the current decade. MacLachlan died on October 18 at the age of 77.
All I can add to Ryfle’s piece are a few quotes from a brief phone interview I did with MacLachlan in February 1996, in which she discussed the beginning of her television career. MacLachlan’s dog, Angus, was barking loudly enough in the background to interrupt us, and then another call on her end brought an end to a conversation that I wish I had continued in a second session.
By the early sixties, MacLachlan had been a working actor in New York for nearly a decade, with significant credits both Off- and on Broadway. But she had virtually no experience in front of a camera. “I had done commercials in New York and I had done an extra role in a soap a couple of times, which was on tape. That was ‘live tape’ at the time,” MacLachlan said. “And I had done a tiny role on one of the first series that came out of New York. But I had never done a sustained role.”
(I didn’t think to ask what programs MacLachlan was referring to, and now we may never know. “Live tape,” incidentally, referred to a program that was photographed on videotape but staged in a single unbroken performance, like a live broadcast. Because videotape was so difficult to edit in the early years of the format, retakes were done only in the case of a major gaffe.)
Rather than seek out roles in the few dramatic series that were shooting in Manhattan at the time, MacLachlan took the television plunge in a big way. She moved to Los Angeles in 1964, armed with a contract from Universal, which was so flush with television production that it had launched a program to recruit young actors a few years earlier. MacLachlan joined a stable of inexperienced contract players similar to those maintained by the major movie studios during the thirties and forties. Her first role at Universal was a bit part in a 1965 Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“Completely Foolproof”).
“The director who directed my screen test was directing that episode, Alf Kjellin. So Alf brought me in to play that secretary,” MacLachlan remembered. “It was just this tiny scene, and I rushed in to do that, because Alf and I became very good friends.” Kjellin, a handsome actor who had worked for Ingmar Bergman in his native Sweden, was by that time a mid-rank director of American episodic television.
Just a few weeks later, MacLachlan filmed a part in another Hitchcock Hour, this one a modern-dress version of a classic W.W. Jacobs horror story called “The Monkey’s Paw – A Retelling.” MacLachlan, in her first substantial supporting part, played a member of the entourage surrounding decadent jet-setter Collin Wilcox. The cast included two other future television stars, Stuart Margolin (Angel on The Rockford Files) and Lee Majors.
Majors, who remembered MacLachlan years later when she appeared on his series The Six Million Dollar Man, “was having a miserable time,” she recalled. “And apparently because I was having a miserable time, we found each other.”
MacLachlan was miserable because she hadn’t yet gotten used to acting on camera. “It was a major shift for me in terms of doing things out of continuity and keeping my energy up and understanding about close-ups. I was terrified,” she said. Margolin, who had a bit more experience, took MacLachlan under his wing and taught her some of the basics of film technique. MacLachlan, in turn, helped Majors with the Spanish he had to speak in the show.
MacLachlan told me that she had gotten the “Monkey’s Paw” role thanks to Monique James, a legendary agent and casting executive who had fostered the careers of Robert Redford and Richard Chamberlain. At Universal during the mid-sixties, Katharine Ross, James Farentino, James Brolin, Susan Clark, David Hartman, and Harrison Ford numbered among James’s discoveries.
“Monique James was the Executive in Charge of New Talent that I came in under, and she did go to bat get me a couple of pretty good roles, to get me into some roles in a non-traditional way,” MacLachlan said. “The Hitchcock Hour was one, and the other one was The Bob Hope Chrysler [Theater].”
Though she didn’t elaborate on what she meant by “non-traditional,” MacLachlan may have been referring to race. Neither of those roles was written for a black actress. And while it probably wasn’t a fight for James to cast a person of color – this was a moment in the Civil Rights Era where the networks were eager to fend off media criticism by pointing to positive depictions of African Americans in their shows – the parts probably would have gone to white actresses had MacLachlan been without a cheerleader. MacLachlan may have been the second leading lady on television (after East Side / West Side’s Cicely Tyson), and the first based in Los Angeles, to wear an afro most of the time.
As MacLachlan advanced to bigger parts, colorblind casting became less common. Because interracial romance was not yet permissible on television, MacLachlan came to occupy a niche as a one-off romantic partner for nearly all of the young African American leading men who emerged in the late sixties. She worked opposite Clarence Williams III (Mod Squad), Don Mitchell (pictured above in Ironside), Georg Stanford Brown (The F.B.I.), Raymond St. Jacques (The Invaders), Brock Peters (Longstreet), Sammy Davis, Jr. (The Name of the Game), and boxer Sugar Ray Robinson (Run For Your Life).
MacLachlan worked with Bill Cosby twice, on I Spy (as an African double agent, with a somewhat dubious accent) and then The Bill Cosby Show. The former was the only other television appearance we had time to discuss, and MacLachlan remembered it because she went on location to Europe. “There was easily two months wait between the time that I auditioned for the I Spy and the time that I was cast, because they were on location,” she told me. MacLachlan grew fond of the show’s producers, David Friedkin and Mort Fine. “They had a really wonderful sense of humor, and an interesting sense of story. Mort traveled in the group that I did, because they had been in the Middle East, in Turkey and [other] places, and I met them in Athens for that show.”
“Two beautiful black people, one from Africa, one from America, and here we sit with our own Grecian amphitheater.”