Hessler Credit

Gordon Hessler, the British-born director who was best known for his horror films but who had a longer career as a producer and director of American episodic television, died on January 19 at the age of 87.  Although mainstream outlets have yet to announce Hessler’s death, it has been confirmed by his wife Yvonne (via historian Tom Weaver) and a friend.

Hessler, with his sheepish grin and self-effacing air, was a genial and always accessible friend to film historians.  He came across as so quintessential an English gentleman to Americans that I fear Hessler’s quiet ambition, and his attitudinal kinship with the “angry young man” generation of his countrymen, have been overlooked in accounts of his career.

Hessler was born in Berlin, to an English mother and a Danish father, in 1926.  His father died when he was three and Hessler, whose first language was German (but only “kinderdeutsch,” he said), moved back to England with his mother as “things got a little steamy there” in Germany.  As a teenager he studied aeronautical engineering, and “at the tail end” of World War II he was conscripted into the British Army, although the war ended before Hessler saw combat.

At this point during our 1997 interview I started counting on my fingers, because every reference source gave Hessler’s date of birth as December 12, 1930.  Hessler conceded that, having sensed the film industry’s potential for ageism early on, he had subtracted four years from his age at the start of his career.

The end of the war meant that Hessler was entering the workforce just as thousands of servicemen came home to reclaim their old jobs.  While still in the Army, Hessler knocked on doors in the film industry, working as an extra (somewhere in the background of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Duvivier’s Anna Karenina, he lurks) and talking his way into a meeting with Alexander Korda’s right-hand man.  But he observed that “there was a depression in England in the film business.  It was pretty tough – you couldn’t get financing.”  Hessler opted to emigrate to the United States, figuring he’d have a better chance to break into filmmaking there.

In New York, he took a night shift job at an automat (possibly the famous Horn and Hardart) while looking for movie work during the day.  Warner-Pathe News hired him as a driver, “which was perfect for me,” Hessler said.  “I took the film to all the editors, and each editor I met, [I’d ask], ‘Could you hire me?’  Finally I got hired in the documentary business.”

Hessler worked as an editor first for a company called Films For Industry and then for Fordel Films, in the Bronx.  “I had no formal education on editing,” said Hessler, who scrambled to learn the trade from anyone who would show him.  The first film he was assigned was directed by Jack Arnold, who would soon go to Hollywood to make pictures like The Creature From the Black Lagoon.  “I couldn’t put the thing together!” Hessler remembered.  “The film looked awful.  I went to the optical lab and said, ‘You’ve got to help me.  It’s my first picture.’  They said, ‘Jack Arnold shot the whole thing incorrectly.  He didn’t know what he was doing.’  All the pieces were facing the wrong way.  All I could do to make it work was flip the film.”

Fordel Films employed some fellow English expatriates, and Hessler worked his way up to “running the company, [as] sort of a vice president of directing pictures,” Hessler said.  He made documentaries in Atlanta (about the school system) and Annapolis (about St. John’s College).  The TV listings of the May 20, 1956 edition of The New York Herald Tribune contain a photograph of Hessler with one of the subjects of “The Child Behind the Wall,” a documentary about emotionally disturbed children in a Philadelphia hospital, which was shown on NBC under the March of Medicine umbrella.

“I was making really a tremendous amount of money at that time for a young guy, and I gave it all up to come to Los Angeles,” Hessler recalled.  I’d had awards with my documentaries.  I thought, ‘God, this is going to be easy, taking these pictures and showing them to [executives].”  Nobody was slightest bit interested in even looking at them!  No matter what awards I’d won.”

Hessler was out of work for a year before MCA, which was expanding in conjunction with its acquisition of Universal Studios, hired him in June of 1958, initially as an assistant to story editor Mae Livingston.  He became one of four or five people who “floated around the lot,” assigned to various producers (including, in Hessler’s case, former Studio One impresario Felix Jackson, reduced to producing half-hour Westerns like Cimarron City and The Restless Gun) and tasked with coming up with ideas for series to pitch to the networks.

After a year or so, Hessler was assigned to the quaint Shamley Productions unit, a small and largely isolated unit that created Alfred Hitchcock Presents under the legendary director’s banner.  The hands-on producers were Joan Harrison, who was English, and New Jersey-born Norman Lloyd, whose erudition was so cultivated that he was often taken for an Englishman.  Hessler assumed that he got the job simply because his accent fit in. 

Most episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents were adaptations of short stories, and as “story editor” Hessler was essentially a glorified reader.  He did talk his way into directing a single Hitchcock episode in 1961, as well as actors’ screen tests for the studio.  (Hessler didn’t get a regular screen credit until 1962, when the series expanded into The Alfred Hitchcock Hour – which meant he had to binge-read novels instead of short stories.)  Hessler also directed theater productions in his spare time.  But at Universal, competent producers were in shorter supply than directors, and the studio consistently (and rather cruelly) blocked Hessler’s attempts to transition into directing, even though he made it clear to anyone who would listen that that was his goal.  Following Harrison’s departure in 1963, Hessler was promoted to producer, but even then he was seen as a junior staffer, subordinate not only to Lloyd (now the showrunner, and with whom Hessler had a good and lasting relationship; he cast Lloyd in his final film, Shogun Mayeda, twenty-some years later) but to various other producers who were assigned batches of Hitchcock episodes during the final two seasons.

“I was so arrogant in those days,” laughed Hessler, who felt keenly the generational divide between himself and the established producers and directors for whom he worked.  “I was assigned to Paul Henreid as sort of a gofer.  They’d say to look after him, so I would go over there, take him to lunch, and make sure he had everything.  I thought, ‘Oh, God, when can I get away from this old duffer?’  Now, if I knew the guy, I could talk to him about Casablanca!” 

When Hitchcock went off the air in 1965, Hessler was still under contract to Universal and left more or less to fend for himself in terms of attaching himself to existing shows or developing new properties and getting the studio to green-light them.  (Lloyd found himself in a similar limbo, and ended up producing a few early TV movies and some episodes of The Name of the Game – something of a comedown from the prestigious association with Hitchcock.)  Hessler worked on the first season of Run For Your Life, as a producer under Roy Huggins, and then on a few segments of The Chrysler Theater in its final (1966-1967) season, under executive producer Gordon Oliver.  At least two of those, “The Fatal Mistake” and “Blind Man’s Bluff,” were English-flavored suspense pieces that deliberately sought to recapture the Hitchcock flavor, and thus bore Hessler’s clear fingerprints.  He also got to direct “Blind Man’s Bluff” – six years later, it was his second episodic television credit as director. 

(In between them, during the penultimate season of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Hessler had taken a hiatus in England to direct a low-budget horror film, The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die, which also bore some DNA from his regular job: The film was based on a novel – Jay Bennett’s Catacombs – rejected for Hitchcock, and Hessler brought in Joel Murcott, one of the series’ regular writers, to do an uncredited rewrite of Daniel Mainwaring’s screenplay.)

“I hated the studio system,” Hessler told me flatly.  “I was not cut out for it.  I liked to freelance.”  Leaving Universal after his Chrysler Theater assignment, he picked up a directorial assignment from producer Steve Broidy, for a Western feature called God’s High Table, to star Clint Walker and Suzanne Pleshette.  That production was cancelled at the last minute and Hessler moved immediately to another indie, The Last Shot You Hear, an adaptation of a British play that was a more close continuation of his Hitchcock/Chrysler drawing-room suspense niche.  This, his second feature, was filmed at the end of 1967 but released two years later.  By that time, Hessler had taken a job at AIP, in what appeared to be another staff producing role; but it quickly evolved into an opportunity to direct a series of English horror pictures that starred the genre icons of the day (Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing).  Those four films became the works for which Hessler is best remembered: The Oblong Box, Scream and Scream Again, Cry of the Banshee, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

Although he directed clusters of little-known features in both the early seventies and late eighties, Hessler spent much of the time in between directing American movies of the week and series episodes.  Of the former, the best known fall, fittingly, into the horror genre: 1973’s Scream, Pretty Peggy (with Bette Davis, and co-written by Hammer Films veteran Jimmy Sangster, also self-exiled to US television by that time), 1977’s The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver (with Karen Black, and scripted by Richard Matheson), and the cross-over cult item KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978).  (Oddly, a Fangoria post with tributes to Hessler from two KISS members appeared ahead of any confirmation of his death.)  Of the episodic work, Hessler contributed to some good shows: Lucas Tanner, Hawaii Five-O, and a one-off for Kolchak: The Night Stalker (“The Spanish Moss Murders”) that is routinely cited as the best of its twenty episodes.  But he directed more for CHiPs than any other series, perhaps a definitive signal that Hessler’s enthusiasm and good taste didn’t align with first-rate opportunities as often as he, or his admirers, might have hoped.

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On a personal note, Hessler was one of the first people I interviewed at length when I was a film school undergraduate in Los Angeles.  He invited me up to his lovely home overlooking Sunset Boulevard not once, but twice, enduring many of the same questions a second time after I discovered that mysterious tape recorder malfunction wiped out most of the first go-round.  Gordon also generously brokered introductions to Norman Lloyd and Ray Bradbury, both of whom probably would have been otherwise inaccessible to me at that point.  How, I ask, can you not hold in special esteem the person who brings Ray Bradbury into your life?  

Milner LHO

My first piece for The AV Club ran last Friday.  It’s a look at the ritual of preempting or editing television shows in the aftermath of tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombing – a ritual that extends back at least as far as the murder of John F. Kennedy.  (That’s Martin Milner above, in the strange Route 66 episode “I’m Here to Kill a King,” which was meant to air on November 22, 1963, and bears some disturbing parallels to the assassination.)

As I was researching the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination, I noticed that the original broadcast dates for at least two of the preempted television episodes have been recorded incorrectly in nearly every reference source.  Presumably that’s because historians consulted newspapers’ TV listings without discovering that sudden changes were made after the listings were published.  As a sort of wonky footnote,  I thought I would untangle those errors here.

Channing, the one-season college drama with Jason Evers and Henry Jones,  had an episode entitled “A Window on the War” slated for November 27, five days after the president’s death.  An early work by the noted screenwriter David Rayfiel, who was adapting his play P.S. 193, “A Window on the War” involved an adult student’s plot to kill a professor (who is sort of a variation on the teacher character in All Quiet on the Western Front).  The subject matter led ABC to push the episode back two weeks, to December 11.  The episode that was substituted was Juarez Roberts‘s boxing story “Beyond His Reach,” which had evidently been penciled in for December 11.  Wikipedia supplies the correct dates but the Internet Movie Database and the Classic TV Archive still have it wrong.

The Alfred Hitchcock Hour had planned to show “The Cadaver,” a Michael Parks-starring episode about a practical joke involving medical students and a cadaver, as the first post-Kennedy episode, on November 29.  Instead, the episode that had been preempted on the night of the assassination, “Body in the Barn,” was shown on November 29, and “The Cadaver” (evidently because of its morbid subject matter) was pushed back until January 17.  Most references claim that “The Cadaver” aired as scheduled on November 29 and that “Body in the Barn” didn’t resurface until July 3, in the middle of summer reruns.  That’s wrong.

What’s interesting here is that, in their book The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion, Martin Grams Jr. and Patrick Wikstrom figured this out and printed the correct dates, with an explanation as to why they were given incorrectly elsewhere.  That book was published in 2000, and yet all of the data aggregation sites on the internet – the IMDb, Wikipedia, TV.com, Epguides, the Classic TV Archive – still reflect the incorrect dates.  It’s a good example of how sites like those tend to grab the low-hanging fruit and overlook more obscure sources.  Rely upon them at your own peril.

As documentation, I’ve reproduced some pages from some relevant TV listings below.  First, an early Los Angeles Times listing for Channing‘s “A Window on the War” on November 27:

Channing 11-27B

Then a New York Times listing for November 27, giving the evening’s episode correctly as “Beyond His Reach”:

Channing 11-27A

A Chicago Tribune listing for “A Window on the War” on its eventual broadcast date, December 11:

Channing 12-11

A Hartford Courant listing for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour‘s “Body in the Barn” on its original airdate, November 29 (no date is given on the clipping, but the episode titles for other series correspond to 11/29):AHH 11-29

“The Cadaver” debuting on January 17, 1964, per the Los Angeles Times:

AHH 1-17

This New York Times TV listing for July 3 is one of several that declares “Body in the Barn” a repeat:

AHH 7-3

Also in the AV Club article, I mentioned that Espionage switched around its schedule in order to delay an assassination-themed story.  That episode was “A Camel to Ride, a Sheep to Eat,” which was pushed back from November 27 to December 18.  “The Light of a Friendly Star,” originally scheduled for December 4, was moved up a week.  I’m not sure of the original sequence for the episodes in between, but the Classic TV Archive has the final airdates right.  (Apropos of nothing, can I tell you how annoyed I am that the British DVD release of Espionage went out of print before I snagged one?)

Janet MacLachlan (1933-2010)

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.”

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Even among movie buffs, Collin Wilcox is not as well known as she should be.  Maybe it’s because of her gender-neutral name (taken from a Canadian uncle; her parents were confident of a boy), or because from the very beginning of her career she disappeared into her characters with a lack of vanity rare for a young actress.

Collin had one famous film role, as Mayella Ewell, the redneck teenager who falsely accuses a black man of rape, in To Kill a Mockingbird; her stormy witness-stand breakdown provides the movie with its startling, sad climactic twist.  But her movie resume includes juicy roles that you’ve probably forgotten, even if you remember the films: two for her friend James Bridges (The Baby Maker and September 30, 1977, both criminally unavailable on DVD); one for Mike Nichols (lost amid the chaos as one of the nurses in Catch-22); the late sixties cult items The Name of the Game Is Kill and The Revolutionary; and finally on the losing side of science as the marine biologist in Jaws 2.  (“Sharks don’t take things personally, Mr. Brody.”)

Before she ever made a feature, though, Collin was a busy television actress, one of the pool of A-list guest stars who made the rounds of the major TV dramas.  Already a success on Broadway, she made her first splash on TV in a live adaptation (directed by Robert Mulligan, who would remember her for Mockingbird) of Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding.  Collin played Frankie, the twelve year-old southern tomboy, a role originated by Julie Harris in the stage and film versions of the novel.

Over the next two decades Collin appeared on The Defenders (three times), Dr. Kildare, Ben Casey, Judd For the Defense, The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie, and dozens more.  But she may be best known for a pair of genre classics that both aired in early 1964.  The first was one The Twilight Zone‘s ironic rants against conformity, “Number 12 Looks Like You,” which presciently envisioned a society where mandatory plastic surgery resculpts everyone to match a generic ideal of beauty.  (In case you haven’t been watching reality TV or the CW lately, we more or less have that now.)  “Number 12″ put Collin in the unflattering role of the plain girl surrounded by beautiful people (Suzy Parker, Pam Austin, Richard Long), although her own offbeat good looks offered a rebuke to the plasticized prettiness of the others; as one TV fan said to me, “What was wrong with her?  I liked her better the way she was!”

Three weeks after “Number 12,” Collin appeared as Pat Buttram’s jailbait, backwoods bride in “The Jar,” an Alfred Hitchcock Hour adaptation of Ray Bradbury so spooky that it still turns up regularly on TV aficionados’ lists of all-time favorite episodes (including mine).  Collin has a ball, drawing on all the tools she set aside for “Number 12″‘s Marilyn Cuberle, slinking around in skimpy outfits and suppressing every sign of her own sharp intellect.  The result is a frank sensuality that could only slip into sixties TV via performance; had it been scripted, it would have been censored.

Last year, Collin shared some remarkable stories surrounding her work in “The Benefactor,” a milestone Defenders episode about abortion.  Since then we’d remained in touch, and Collin has become one of my favorite people – not just for her courage in discussing a painful incident from her past, but also because she uses words like “peachy” and hails from my own home state of North Carolina (where she now lives).

When I decided to inaugurate a series of interviews with some of my favorite classic television actors for this blog, Collin was an obvious choice.  We spoke at length about the early years of her career last fall, after a delay necessitated by the presidential election: Collin had turned over her theater space to the local Obama campaign.  Only after spending some time celebrating the fact that (for the first time in my lifetime) North Carolina’s electoral votes had gone to a Democratic candidate did we turn our attention to Collin’s life and to some of her many television roles.

Tell me about your television debut. 

Brenner was the first thing that I ever did.  I was told to go in, and there was a doorman, of course, and he pointed upstairs, to a big, winding staircase.  So I bopped into the room that I was told was my dressing room, and I had my little box of stage makeup with me.  I started applying my makeup, and I heard a huge commotion several floors down, and there was the producer and the director and the AD and a whole bunch of people.  I heard my name several times and I went, “Hey, I’m up here!”

They thought I was late.  They were really furious, and the makeup artist came to my rescue.  She said, “If you don’t stop yelling at her, she won’t stop crying, and I’ll never get this makeup off and the other makeup on.”  So they did.  They didn’t know that I didn’t know that I wasn’t going to put on my own makeup.  They’d asked for an experienced ingenue.  There’s no such thing as an experienced ingenue!

Marty Balsam was playing my father, and we had the scene [with] the two of us on a settee.  They said, “Okay, Marty’s closeup next.”  They gave me a little box to sit on.  They started to shoot, and I went, oh, gosh, I’ve got to get in there, so I just jumped into his one-shot, on the sofa next to him.  I thought they’d made a mistake!

Was that the first time you’d ever been in front of a motion picture camera?

Yes, it had to have been, because those two scenes are so engraved in my memory.  It was so traumatic.

collin-brenner1
As mobster’s daughter Elizabeth Joplin on Brenner (“Family Man,” 1959)

Was The Member of the Wedding a breakthrough for you?

Well, it was huge for me, because of course I’d read Carson McCullers and absolutely adored her.  It’s any ingenue’s dream part, and I just loved everything about it.  And like every other young actress in New York, I was going to have that part.

I cut my hair really, really, really short – this was just for the first audition – and I got those long dish towels and I had my husband bind my breasts, which wasn’t very much to do, but at least then I was totally flat-chested.  Then the night before, I took iodine and I made freckles across my nose in different places, knowing it would fade the next morning and really look like freckles.  Oh, and I went to the audition barefooted.  I did the whole bit.

Robert Mulligan quite liked me, and he had me come back, and then I came back for the third time.  And Claudia McNeil did not take to me.  I don’t think she took to many people, but she certainly didn’t take to me.  I thought, “I’m going to lose this – no, no, I’m not going to lose it!”  She was in the room too, with Robert and maybe with someone else.  I was doing the “we of me” speech, and I leapt up on Robert’s desk and did it up there, and then I leapt into Claudia’s lap and hugged and kissed her.  I got the part.

Was The Member of the Wedding your first live TV role?

I think there was one before that, and I’m damned if I know what it was called ["Barefoot Soldier," for Kraft Theater].  Sal Mineo was the male lead.  He was a union soldier, and I was the southern girl.  It was live, a three camera thing.

I remember another faux pas I made.  We had a scene – it was a love interest thing, kind of cute – and we had a scene where we were supposed to be sitting around the pond.  It a big huge tub with plastic and water in it, and all landscaped around.  I was barefoot in a dress hiked up probably much higher than it should have been hiked up, and swishing my feet around in the water, and my toes caught on something.  I’m a country girl, so it was natural for me to feel things with my toes, and I started to worry with it.  I mean, just play with it and go on with the scene.  And behind camera, I felt this frantic movement around me.  I looked down and the water was going down at a huge rate.  I’d pulled the plug out!

That was the same fall, ’57, as when I had got married, which was a terrible mistake, and lived in New York, which wasn’t a terrible mistake.

When did you arrive in New York?

The late fall of 1957.  I started going on auditions, and in December I got a role in The Day the Money Stopped.  Harold Clurman was the director, and Brendan Gill had adapted from it Maxwell Anderson’s book.  Richard Basehart was in it, and Kevin McCarthy, and Mildred Natwick.  That was a great experience.

It was kind of like its title: The Day the Money Stopped.  It was in and it was out.  But that year George C. Scott and I won the male and female award – Clarence Derwent, I think it was called – as the best supporting actress and actor on or off Broadway.

Prior to that you had performed in Chicago, right?

Yeah, I went to school at the Goodwin Memorial School of Drama there, and then I went back to Chicago to become a member of Compass, the first improvisational group in this country, maybe anywhere, with Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Shelley Berman, the late Severn Darden, Barbara Harris.  Then I played the ingenue in Arthur Miller’s two-act version of A View From the Bridge, that starred Luther Adler.

The marriage that you mentioned, was that to  Geoffrey Horne?

No, I’m talking about the first one, Walter Beakel, who is deceased.  He was a director.  I met him in summer stock in Rhinelander, Wisconsin.  One of those things where you do about fourteen plays in one summer.  He was down from New York.  After that summer was over, he replaced a director at Compass, and Barbara Harris was going to leave in a few months, so he brought me in as Barbara’s replacement.  Then it folded, and people went their separate ways.

After the summer stock tour of A View From the Bridge on the straw hat circuit, I rushed home to do The Fourposter with my groom to be, and then went to New York.

Walter and I were getting married here in Highlands, and we were also in rehearsal for the two-character play The Fourposter, that Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy did on Broadway to great success.  We were doing it in my parents’ little theater here, the community theater where I started.  A reheasal was called, and I got to the theater and the theater doors were locked and there was no one there and I was sitting there fuming and calling everybody totally unprofessional, and my mother drove up and said, “Collin,  rehearsal’s at the church, dear.”

I had one thing on my mind – that play.  The only reason I married Walter was he said if I didn’t marry him, he’d leave and we wouldn’t do the play.  That’s why I married him!  I was very mature.  We were a couple of weeks away from opening, and he’d been pressing me to marry him, and I said, “Walter, I really respect you, you’re a terrific director and a really good teacher, but I don’t want to marry you.  I’m not in love with you.”  He said, “That’s okay.  Doesn’t matter.”  He’d made up his mind he was going to marry me.

Another of your early roles in New York was on Play of the Week, in “The Velvet Glove” with Helen Hayes.

Do you remember a character actor named Larry Gates?  He was in it also.  Larry Gates had worked down at my parents’ theater in the forties, and so I knew him from being very small.  I knew him, and here we are in New York and we’re both in the same TV show with the magnificent Helen Hayes, who had the oddest habit of looking at your forehead when she talked to you.  It was because she was so short she was afraid her eyes wouldn’t be seen.  It was a little disconcerting but one got around it.

What I remember most from that shoot is that Miss Hayes said something that absolutely tickled Larry so much that he peed in his pants, and he had to take his trenchcoat and tie it around himself and wear it that way for the rest of rehearsals.  Isn’t it weird the things you can remember?  I don’t remember anything else about that, except that I played some really kind of boring little scullery part.  I did it because Miss Helen Hayes was in it.

Even that early in your career, were you choosy about the parts you took?

Yep.  I was never interested in being a star.

You were a serious actress, instead?

Well, see, I was of the theatah, dear, and one took one’s acting very seriously.  You know, you’d think you were a rocket scientist or something.  Particularly back then, doing the work was very, very important, and of course that just got intensified when I became a member of the Actors Studio.

How did you get into the Actors Studio?

Walter was old friends with Geraldine Page, and she became sort of a mentor.  I guess she came with Walter to The Day the Money Stopped.  She said that I absolutely had to audition for the Actors Studio, and she was sure that I would get in.  And I wanted to study with someone, and why not the great Lee Strasberg?  Three auditions, and you’re in or not.  For life.

What did you learn from Strasberg?

He gave me the voice of my own intuition.  He taught you how to be emotionally available to yourself, if you were willing.  I already had the technique.  I’d been on stage for a long time.  It just deepened what I already have, which is basically being an intuitive actor.

Let me ask about some of your better known TV appearances from early on.  One was The Twilight Zone.

Oh, The Twilight Zone.  My own father was very much like what you hear about her father – the way Marilyn talks about her father.  One of his lines, that she quotes, was, “When everyone’s beautiful, no one will be beautiful.”  My father was an educated, compassionate man, and I thought about that when I was doing that role.  You know, I was totally on the side of Marilyn – thinking, this is awful, this could lead to 1984, with a stretch of the imagination.

What do you remember about the rest of the cast and crew of “Number 12 Looks Just Like You”?

Suzy Parker was such a great beauty.  I was just enamored of that kind of beauty, and she gave me all kinds of beauty tricks.  I mean, she was a model.  She said, “Now, keep a little pot of rouge by your bedside, and your brush, and just put some on your cheeks before your husband wakes up.”

The director was Abner Biberman.  Between playing the role and being chased around on the set by that man – and I had on some skimpy clothes, particularly that hospital thing.  Fortunately he was really heavy, and I could get into small places that he couldn’t!

Biberman was really that obvious about trying to grab you?

Oh, yes.  He had directed me in a play previous to casting me in this.  Oh, god, it is an awful play, called The Family Way.  Jack Kelly was my co-star.  That’s where Biberman knew anything about me, really.  I thought I was working with a man who was frothing at the mouth all the time – he had quite a temper – but he chewed Tums or something, so this frothy white stuff came out of the sides of his mouth when he was talking.

When you were a young actress, did men often chase you around sets like that?

Yes.  And there was no such [term] then as sexual harrassment, and you didn’t talk to anyone about it.  Because you probably felt, well, it’s my fault.  I must be flirting.  I don’t feel like I’m flirting, I don’t want to be flirting, I just want to act!  It was . . . annoying, to say the least.

I will not name this actor, but he was a really big star.  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.

collin-rfyl
As pushy reporter Lisa Rand on Run For Your Life (“The Treasure Seekers,” 1966)

The way you described yourself in relation to Suzy Parker highlights an interesting aspect of your career, in that even though you were attractive, you often found yourself playing characters like Marilyn Cuberle: the plain, girl-next-door type.

I know it.

How did you feel about that at the time?

Well, somehow I knew, from a very young age, that I was a character actress, and that I was just going to have to go through this ingenue stuff until I got to some juicy character parts.  Yeah, there were times when I thought, this is ridiculous.  But usually, you see, the parts were better than the bip-boppity-boo little cute sexy ones.

Also, I had a very flexible face.  Whatever the character was, I could look that way.  I wasn’t really interested in how the character looked.  I was interested in the character.

You did play a pretty unforgettable sexpot, albeit a sort of stereotypical backwoods one, in the famous Alfred Hitchcock Hour “The Jar.”

That was a wonderful, wonderful shoot.  Norman Lloyd put together this incredible cast.  I mean, it was just a wonderful cast of people, and the script was wonderful and just so Ray Bradbury.  Hitchcock was crazy about it.

It was [Norman's] pet project, it really was, and we were all very excited because we had a ten-day shoot, which was such a luxury.  Norman kept such a wonderful excitement on the set.  I just loved everybody, and we all loved the piece that we were doing.  Pat Buttram!  Waiting for setups I got to sit and listen to Gene Autry stories.  Now where else would I ever have heard Gene Autry stories?

Jim Bridges [who adapted Bradbury's story] and I became really close friends.  I was in a couple of movies that he did, and a play that he wrote, and that’s where we met, on the set of “The Jar.”  He was there most of the shooting time.

Your second Hitchcock Hour was a strange, modern-dress version of “The Monkey’s Paw.”

Oh, I hated that.  I think I didn’t like my part, and I certainly didn’t like my costumes.  And I was terrible!  We came across it quite a few years ago, and my husband, who didn’t know anything about theater when we were married almost thirty years ago, but I said, “You have to go into theater, darling, because otherwise you’ll bore me and then I’ll leave you, and I’d much rather stay with you.”  He went into theater; he’s a brilliant improvisationalist and now is a great film buff, and has an eye.  So we’re watching this, and he turned around and said, “Collin, you are awful in this.  What were you doing?”  I said, “I know.  It’s just terrible!”

You were on Dr. Kildare twice, both times playing unfit mothers.

Oh, and one of those unfit mothers [in "Sister Mike"], Mary Badham played my daughter.  Her parents really didn’t want her to go on with acting.  They wanted her to have a normal little life.  But this role came up and because we’d been in To Kill a Mockingbird together – we didn’t have any scenes together [in Mockingbird], but we saw each other on the set, and I had a nice relationship with the children.

There was a scene that I remember, on the bed.  I think I was a prostitute; anyway, I was a derelict mother, that’s for sure.  She was watching me put on makeup.  You know that old cake mascara?  You had a little cardboard box, and a strip of cake mascara and there was a little brush in the box, and you spit on the mascara and rubbed the brush and put it on your eyelashes.  In the scene, I got ready to do that, and I spit, and Mary Badham had never seen it, and she just totally broke up, and we just kept it in the scene.

You appeared opposite Robert Culp in a rival medical drama, Ben Casey.

Here’s what I truly remember.  It used to be fashionable, if you could get it just right, to just put a little bit of bella donna in your eye and then it’d make your pupils really big.  Very dangerous to be doing, of course.  I don’t know where I got bella donna – probably from my eye doctor – but I decided before my closeup I’d put some in my eyes.

Well, of course everything got really, really hazy.  I could remember my lines and everything, but I couldn’t see that well.  And then there was a script change – and I couldn’t read!  I faked my way through it.  I just had the script girl read it to me several times over, and made some excuse why I couldn’t read it myself.  Can you imagine being that ridiculous?

Do you remember your appearances on The Untouchables?

I remember the one with Luther Adler, because my character had to come up to her front door, and then there were people shooting at her.  What they did was wire the bannister, and they put too much juice in it, and I lost the hearing in my left ear for, I’d say, at least five months.  It came back.  Movie sets are dangerous!

On Gunsmoke, I was playing some prairie wife, and the locusts were coming.  Now that was bad enough, that you’re sitting in a buckboard, plowing through the fields at a great rate, and all these – I guess they were rubber [bugs] – but masses of them are being blown in your face by a wind machine.  But during this particular Gunsmoke, I had gotten a flu of some kind, and my fever was up to about 102.  I could not even stand, and the A.D. said, “You’ll understand, Collin, I have to ask you if we can get this one last shot.  We’ll lash you to the seat in the buckboard.”  I said, “Sure.”  They were going to kill me!  But I agreed.  I said, “Oh, sure.”  Always be a trouper.

You were on The Fugitive twice, with David Janssen.

Always with The Fugitive, we shot in the most ungodly, tacky locations, it seemed.  This one ["Approach With Care"] was around a rubber tire refuse place.  There were towers of ancient rubber tires everywhere.  I don’t know how five hundred people always found David Janssen, but they did, and they would arrive at the shoot.  He had his great big trailer, and he would never sign autographs.  They would even get to the point where they would start shaking the trailer.

During the mid-sixties you made several TV appearances together with your second husband, Geoffrey Horne.  One was a Route 66 where Horne has a really showy part, and you make a little cameo as a glamorous girl who jilted him years earlier.  Do you remember that?

I do.  “Is It True That There Are Poxies at the Bottom of Landfair Lake?”

That’s very good – how did you remember that title?

Because I was on that shoot when President Kennedy was assassinated. I was there as a cameo, because Geoffrey wanted me there and we traveled together, and I didn’t mind doing a cameo.  It was in Savannah.  The announcement [of the Kennedy shooting] was made on the set, so the set closed down for the rest of the day.  When we were in our hotel room that night, there was dancing and cheering like it was a Mardi Gras on the streets.

But worse than that was our experience when we all got back to the shoot the next morning.  Everyone was really, really very depressed, and moving slowly.  And the A.D. or the assistant A.D., who usually had a golf club with him – you know, taking swings at the [imaginary] turf – he said, and these are the exact words, “All right, everybody, back to work.  The assassination was yesterday.”

You must have felt really out of touch, being far from home and in the deep south when that happened.

Yeah, it was absolutely horrible.

You also did an episode of The F.B.I. with Geoffrey and with Colleen Dewhurst.

Oh, I forgot he was in that!  Working with Colleen was beautiful – what a great and fine and generous actress she was.

I’ve got the greatest story to tell you about that show.  Geoffrey and I adopted three children.  The mother had abandoned them and they’d been in McClaren Hall in California, where they put juvenile delinquents in the holding tank for kids whose parents had abandoned them, and then they went to a foster home.  They were having to remove them from the foster home because the foster parents had twelve kids in there, and that was too many.  So we adopted them, all in one fell swoop.  The eldest boy was eight and a half, the girl was four and a half, and the baby was eighteen months.

The social worker brought them to the house.  The baby was fine, but the two other kids looked as if they had seen the devil in front of them.  I was standing there with my arms open and smiling at them and welcoming them.  They had seen that episode, “The Baby Sitter,” and the big scene where Colleen snatches off my wig and I’m all bald and burned underneath!  Well, imagine you’re these little orphans coming to your new home, and here’s this [same woman]?  It took a little while to get over that.  “No, no, no, no, your new mommy was just acting.  It’s not me.”

collin-longstreet
As Verna the waitress (“She makes great pies”) on Longstreet (“Eye of the Storm,” 1972)

Did you like Los Angeles, and acting in Hollywood, after you moved west with Geoffrey?

You know, except for Rome, I really haven’t liked any place but here.  The mountains are just so much a part of me.  I loved Malibu and on the beach, but the L.A. kind of life, the show biz life, was never anything I wanted to be a part of.  I always knew I’d come back here.

When did you move back to North Carolina?

1978.  I left L.A. when those drive-by shootings were starting to happen.  The women, except for me, were either carrying brass knuckles, or they had a pistol stuck in their pack at their side, or some other form of protection against attacks.  And there was the cocaine rage during that time.  If you walked into an office, the people in power were practically all doing cocaine.  It was like you weren’t one of them if you weren’t doing that.

And then there was the other thing.  I was in my mid-forties, and I thought, my god, have they all discovered I really can’t act?  There weren’t many parts coming in.  Plus, my youngest child, Michael, was still at home, and we’d had an earthquake that just absolutely terrified him.  So I said, okay, let’s go home.

I met Scott several months after I’d been home, and we were married in August of ’79.  We have five dogs and one cat and two kittens and two horses and a pony.  We live in the log cabin I was raised in, and that I inherited.  I grew up on the side of a mountain, and Frank Lloyd Wright said that the side of a mountain was the sweetest place to be.

Collin Wilcox passed away on October 14, 2009.  More here.

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