Green and Yellow
August 26, 2014
Along with dubious social skills, there’s one thing that unites nearly every classic television buff I’ve ever encountered: a crush on Susan Oliver, the beautiful, sad-eyed blonde who remains best remembered for a one-off role as a scantily-clad, belly-dancing, green-hued alien in the 1965 pilot for Star Trek. Almost everyone I know who has seen a lot of the hundreds of television episodes Oliver guest starred in between the fifties and the eighties has fallen half in love with her.
The crotch-vote factor among pop culture enthusiasts is perilous territory. Denying it is a kind of intellectual dishonesty. But for every writer, like Pauline Kael or Manohla Dargis, who can articulate a carnal response to art within the context of serious criticism, there are a dozen essays or interviews or conversations where it just comes out sounding icky. (As one reader recently pointed out, this recent Paul Mavis review of The F.B.I. reads “like a list of ’70s actresses he wishes he could have banged.”)
So when I heard that a documentary was in the works about Susan Oliver, and that it was being made by a one-man band I’d never heard of named George Pappy, I envisioned a worst-case scenario in which the finished product turned out as creepy fan-bait for aging Comic Con pervs. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Green Girl, which as of now is being self-distributed on DVD via Pappy’s website, is a terrific movie. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen about sixties and seventies television – and unfortunately, I realized as I typed that sentence, one of the only documentaries about sixties and seventies television.
Although Pappy says in his DVD audio commentary that he knew next to nothing about Susan Oliver before he began, apart from her Star Trek and Twilight Zone credentials (Oliver also played a sexy Martian in one episode of the Rod Serling series), he correctly intuited that the actress’s mysterious on-screen mien hinted at a rich, troubled off-screen story. Pappy not only tells that story in considerable detail, but manages to use the ubiquitous Oliver as a sort of prism through which to examine an era of television – its content as well as some infrequently discussed realities of its production – in a broader context.
The Green Girl hits a few beats more than once – there are two or three points where Pappy’s talking heads (disclosure: I’m one of them) lapse into reveries about just how many television roles Oliver played. The film itself seems equally overwhelmed by them. But if The Green Girl is not quite as tight as it could be, that’s a minor flaw, because the excess consists of well-chosen clips, often from television episodes (and a few movies) that have never been commercially available. (Pappy had access to some first-rate private collections when assembling his Oliver archive.) Although there are promising samples here of her few forays into comedy, Oliver had an ineffable melancholy about her – a wistfulness in the eyes and a tamped-down voice that occasionally spiked, with Shatneresque unpredictability, in an optimistic high note, like sun peeking through clouds for just a moment. No wonder she worked so often, and remains so irresistible to the nerd herd half a century later; Oliver was custom-built to play wild-child and lost-girl archetypes, in need of saving by every show’s hero (and every spectator).
Pappy’s film hits its stride when it expands to explore Oliver’s private life. In the mid-sixties, Oliver began flying single-engine planes – a common hobby among successful Hollywood types, but usually just the male ones. Oliver not only took it up, but did so competitively, attempting a record-breaking Atlantic crossing in conditions that some of her fellow pilots considered irresponsibly dangerous. (It’s also clear that Oliver’s beauty and fame created opportunities for her that were denied to other women fliers.) Oliver never married or had children, which has led some fans to speculate that she was a lesbian. In fact her lovers were male, some were well-known and (by the seventies) younger than she was, and the transitory nature of her relationships was apparently Oliver’s preference. Two of her paramours – actor George Hamilton and baseball legend Sandy Koufax – are among the few holdouts in an otherwise exhaustive interrogation of Oliver’s surviving relatives and close friends, all of whom are guided by Pappy toward specific, no-bullshit recollections of the late actress. The most important of Oliver’s significant others was the Czech pilot Mira Slovak, a daredevil who defected from the Soviet Bloc by hijacking a commercial airliner. Slovak died a few weeks ago, making it all the more heartening that Pappy convinced him to speak frankly (and reluctantly, Pappy says in the audio commentary) about his brief but intense affair with Oliver, whose infatuations with flying and flyer were bound together in complex ways.
Oliver’s airborne adventuring (as well as the book she eventually wrote about it) and her unconventional romantic life are pillars of a compelling case for the actress as a significant pre-feminist figure, at least by Hollywood standards. The final element of that argument was an urge to move behind the camera that took hold as Oliver’s interest in flying waned. (Although she never transparently phoned it in, acting gradually became just a way to pay the bills for Oliver, probably starting when MGM blew its chance to make a star out of her during a multi-year contract in the mid-sixties.) Oliver joined the original class of the AFI Directing Workshop for Women in 1974, alongside the better-known Maya Angelou, Margot Kidder, and Ellen Burstyn. Along with the celebrities, the early AFI Workshops trained many of the more talented women directors of the seventies and eighties – Lynne Littman (Testament), Randa Haines (Children of a Lesser God), and actors of Oliver’s generation like Lee Grant, Karen Arthur, and Nancy Malone, all of whom transitioned full-time into directing episodic television or feature films.
Oliver makes for a less inspiring case than any of those contemporaries. After her AFI short (Cowboysan, starring the strapping trio of Woody Strode, Ted Cassidy, and Will Sampson, a few tantalizing clips from which appear in The Green Girl), Oliver notched exactly two television episodes, one each of M*A*S*H and Trapper John, M.D. Again, Pappy gets convincingly to the bottom of the minor mystery of why Oliver worked so little as a director. It’s a dispiriting answer. During its final moments, The Green Girl becomes almost an advocacy documentary, in which many interviewees – especially the blunt, articulate Malone, who also died earlier this year – unload on an industry that didn’t field even a single, token woman director during the decade or so after alcoholism brought a premature end to Ida Lupino’s days as an auteur.
Pappy amassed an eye-popping trove of family photos and behind-the-scenes footage to document Oliver’s life, not to mention a heartbreaking answering machine message recorded seven days prior to her death. But with a surprising dearth of substantial interviews to draw upon, Oliver’s voice is notably absent from the film. Pappy’s enterprising solution was to assemble a sort of Greek chorus of Oliver’s contemporaries, actors and actresses who like her were fixtures on television but never became household names. This group – which includes Lee Meriwether, Kathleen Nolan, Peter Mark Richman, Gary Conway, David Hedison, Roy Thinnes, Celeste Yarnall, and Monte Markham – don’t pay tribute to Oliver so much as convey by proxy what it was like to be a performer of her particular niche and stature, in her specific moment. It’s an often neglected topic and a fascinating one, particularly when it turns its attention to economic realities. In the decades before $1 million-per-episode contracts, TV stars in the sixties were paid well enough to live comfortably, but not enough to make them truly wealthy, or to guarantee a secure retirement. (Thinnes tells a funny story about a residual check for eight cents – which his bank wouldn’t even cash.) For Oliver, such a perilous freelance economy led to serious financial troubles – one of several unhappy episodes, all chronicled in respectful detail by Pappy, in a life that began with a weird, co-dependent relationship with a domineering mother (celebrity astrologer Ruth Hale Oliver, who deserves a documentary of her own) and ended in an early and probably avoidable death.
James Shigeta, an equally talented and similarly forgotten television actor of Oliver’s generation, died last month, during a week in which I happened to be on vacation and plowing through (among other things, fortunately) a DVD of the first season of Medical Center. That show is an insomnia repellant if ever television invented one. Shigeta has a recurring role in the first season, a truly thankless one as an initially unnamed doctor who tends to drop in for only a scene or two, in order to outline some medical crisis that swaggering, oh-so-boring Chad Everett will go on to solve. In search of the reasons behind Shigeta’s collapsed career, I watched another documentary, Jeff Adachi’s slim and superficial The Slanted Screen, even though the answer was obvious. The most vivid of the handful of soundbites that Shigeta offers in The Slanted Screen is a comment that producer Joe Pasternak made after watching him in Flower Drum Song: “If you were white, you’d be a hell of a star.”
In fact, Shigeta was a star, if only for a moment. In Sam Fuller’s amazing The Crimson Kimono, and a handful of other films in the early sixties, Shigeta was a romantic lead, sometimes opposite white actresses (Victoria Shaw in Kimono, Carroll Baker in Bridge to the Sun). The Slanted Screen characterizes Shigeta as the first Asian American leading man since Sessue Hayakawa’s run as a matinee idol during the teens; in between, Asian heroes like Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto were essayed by white actors in “yellowface” makeup. Like James Edwards, the African American star of 1949’s Home of the Brave, Shigeta’s conspicuous talent led a few independent filmmakers to ignore, or be inspired by, his race. But that couldn’t last, and Shigeta slid into the kind of bland supporting roles as professional types – doctors, judges, military officers, police detectives – that was the best work available for minority actors who read as upper-class. Early on, there were some challenging, atypical, specific parts: as the sardonic, arrogant Major Jong (a stand-in for writer Joseph Stefano, as one observer astutely suggested) in the brilliant Outer Limits episode “Nightmare,” and as a nisei doctor who’s horrified to learn that his bride (Miyoshi Umeki) is a Nagasaki survivor on Dr. Kildare. Shigeta had begun his career as a pop singer, and his marbly voice was his signature instrument; it was almost impossible for him to read a line without putting a few layers of ambiguous subtext into it.
Susan Oliver’s obituaries initially reported her age as 53; a week later, Variety ran a correction (the only such emendation I can recall ever seeing in its pages), which pointed out that the actress was in fact 58. Shigeta sometimes claimed a birth year of 1935, but usually admitted to 1933. His obituaries revealed he was born in 1929. Lies and omissions were part of the bargain for aspiring stars of their generation. Was Shigeta gay? He had no marriages or children (although, as we’ve seen, neither did Oliver). Before moving back to the States, the Hawaiian-born Shigeta enjoyed a stint as a singing and television star in Japan; later, he claimed the Japanese ingenue Kazuko Ichikawa as the one that got away, but Shigeta most often told reporters that he was waiting for the right girl – just like Liberace. A few years ago, I sent Shigeta a letter, asking for an interview; after Shigeta died, I learned that a colleague sent a similar request around the same time. Neither of us received a reply. This rare interview, conducted in the eighties, starts off by explaining how press-shy Shigeta was, and over the course of four pages it becomes excruciatingly clearas to why: although Shigeta is articulate and appealingly self-effacing, getting more than a surface answer out of him was like pulling teeth. If the riddle of Susan Oliver has been solved, as much as it can be, I’d love to see someone tackle Shigeta next.