March 21, 2010
A few months ago, I watched an episode of Hawaii Five-O, “The Second Shot,” which guest-starred a little-known actress named Charlene Polite. Who was this pretty redhead with the congenial name, I wondered, and whatever became of her?
She was born in Ohio, on June 30, 1943, and attended Youngstown University in the mid-sixties. There she met and married the writer Frank Polite, who was probably one of her instructors. Frank Polite, who died in 2005, became a poet of some renown and influence, especially in Ohio; of the many tributes to him that can be found on the internet, this is the best.
After graduating from Youngstown, Charlene Polite enjoyed some success in regional theater. She went to the Pittsburgh Playhouse on a post-grad scholarship and joined the American Conservatory Theater, a company formed by the controversial young Off-Broadway director William Ball. (Ball, a suicide in 1991, also passed briefly through television: He directed a couple of episodes of The Defenders.)
Polite made her film debut in 1968, in Bullitt; she had already done some stage roles on the West Coast, and may have followed the ACT when Ball moved it from Pittsburgh to San Francisco in 1967. By 1969, Polite had relocated to Los Angeles and was doing guest leads on shows like My Friend Tony, Mayberry R.F.D., Cannon, and The Doris Day Show. Like many actors, she is best known today for a single appearance on Star Trek.
“The Cloud Minders,” a late entry in the show’s third and final season, is one of those well-intentioned but clumsy political allegories for which Star Trek became famous. It’s the story of class warfare between a race of cave-dwelling miners and the privileged layabouts who oppress them from a cloud city floating far above the surface. Sparks fly between Captain Kirk and the sexy rebel leader played by Polite, while Mr. Spock explains his seven-year mating cycle to the cloud city princess (Diana Ewing, another ingenue who had a busy career in the late sixties and early seventies and then disappeared completely). As “Vanna,” Polite gets to grapple in the dirt with William Shatner (twice), show off a pair of Bill Theiss’s gravity-defying gowns, and shriek as she’s tortured in an alien ray machine.
Charlene Polite’s career in television lasted only a few years. A Mod Squad in 1972 and then a Blue Knight in 1976 were her last jobs. I couldn’t find much about what she did afterward; a second marriage, stepchildren, and possibly more work in local theater.
In the late nineties, Polite became ill and moved back to Youngstown to be close to her ex-husband.
“Charlene was like my Auntie Mame,” said Khepri Polite, a son of Frank Polite by his second wife. “She was beautiful, extravagant, and eccentric.”
Khepri added, in a note to me via Facebook, that
my favorite line from her was from Star Trek, “You sleep lightly, Captain!” I remember when she would come to visit. She would stay with my father and step-mother. My father would creep into her room in the morning and wake her up with that line. He’d have a cup of coffee instead of a dagger in his hand though. We’d laugh, she had a great sense of humor.
Charlene Polite died of cancer on June 21, 1999.
Above: Charlene Polite in Star Trek (“The Cloud Minders,” 1969). Top of post: Polite in Hawaii Five-O (“The Second Shot,” 1970).