October 22, 2009

Collin Compass

My friend Collin Wilcox, an actress best known for her showy role in To Kill a Mockingbird, died of brain cancer last week, on October 14.  The New York Times ran a medium-sized obituary this morning, a recognition that was well-deserved in light of Collin’s impressive New York theater resume.  Her husband of thirty years, Scott Paxton, tells me that Collin was diagnosed with multiple brain tumors on August 11, and declined treatment.  She died peacefully, in her home.  Collin was so youthful, strong, and down-to-earth that it seemed like she’d be around forever.

Regular readers of this blog will recall that Collin figured prominently in two pieces that appeared here: a biographical interview in which I solicited her memories of many of her early television appearances, and an earlier story about “The Benefactor,” the famous “abortion episode” of The Defenders.

When I was researching the latter, I put a call in to Collin, one of the four actresses who played young women who had undergone illegal abortions in that show.  I didn’t expect to get much from Collin, but when she casually mentioned that she had almost died after her own abortion as a teenager, I sat bolt upright in my chair.  I knew that I had a real story and not just a dry account of a TV episode’s production history.  Collin was smart enough to understand what she had just given me, too, and it didn’t bother her in the slightest to have some intimate details from her past repurposed into a human interest story about her work.  She was a courageous lady.

A few months later, I called Collin again and asked her to submit to a longer interview, because I knew her witty, straight-shooting way of talking would make for an entertaining piece that would all but write itself.  (My plan was for Collin’s interview to kick off a series of interviews with underappreciated early television actors, and the next one will appear soon.)

When Collin told me the following story in that interview, she insisted that I omit the name of the movie star she spoke about, because he was (and is) still living:

After Twilight Zone, I flew to Italy to join my fiance, Geoffrey Horne, who was shooting a film in Rome.  Then on the flight coming back, the stewardess, as we called them then, came up and said, “So-and-so would like you to come and join him in first class.”  I said, “Okay!” and flounced up there and sat down next to him.  I had on an angora, like a really nice little fuzzy sweater, and he reached over and cupped my breast and he said, “You don’t mind my doing this, do you?”  And I said, “I really do.”  He said, “Well, I respect you for that,” and went on cupping my breast.  And he was on the aisle seat!  It was like that then.

How did you get out of that?

I said, “I’ve got to go tinkle.”  It really embarrassed me.  Of course I never came back, and of course he wasn’t going to chase me all the way down there to second class.

Because I don’t think Collin would have objected, I’ll reveal that name now.  It was Kirk Douglas.  Because I had to redact that the first time around, I also had to omit the punchline of the anecdote, which Collin related with great relish.  When Douglas summoned her to sit next to him, she initially mistook him for one of his frequent co-stars, and addressed him as “Mr. Lancaster”!  That did not deter Douglas in his pursuit.

Late last year, the producer of the Mad Men Season 2 DVD set contacted me with the idea of essentially turning my piece on “The Benefactor” into a brief special feature on that DVD.  I phoned Collin and asked if I could recount the personal experience that informed her performance in that episode; and again, she gave me permission to discuss her abortion, this time on camera.  For a brief moment, it seemed possible that an interview with Collin could be included on the DVD along with mine.  Collin even offered to film herself answering the producer’s questions.  (Because she didn’t like to leave her hometown of Highlands, N.C., Collin had sent video greetings to several other film and TV events which had invited her as a guest.)  But this never happened, and it’s a shame.

This morning Scott Paxton sent me the photo of Collin that appears at the top of this post.  It’s from her period as a member the Compass Players – the Chicago theater troupe that was a precursor to Second City – which would date it around 1957-1958.