Wednesday, October 14, 2009

No McBain, No Gain!

First enjoying a career as a teen model, 1960s starlet Diane McBain was later picked up by Warner Brothers who, at that time, employed a passel of young actors and actresses who were shuffled from episodes of Warner’s TV series to feature films of varying importance and back again. Troy Donahue, Clint Walker, Connie Stevens, Van Williams and others were part of this “club” and so was McBain.

McBain was tried out on a couple of episodes of Maverick before being given a featured role in the epic 1960 film Ice Palace. Concerning the industrialization of Alaska and starring Richard Burton, Robert Ryan and Carolyn Jones (among many others), McBain came into the film towards the end, breathing zestful life into the proceedings as the star trio had by then been aged with prosthetics and grayed to within and inch of their life.

She continued to work away on various WB shows until being given a role in the lavish big screen soap opera Parrish. Parrish was about Troy Donahue and his efforts to grow into manhood amid his stepfather’s tobacco plantation. It also marked a return to the big screen for Claudette Colbert who played Troy’s mother. Troy romanced Connie Stevens and Sharon Hugueny in the film as well as Diane and she clearly had the showiest role of the three as she pouted and schemed to get her way. (This film was a major league collector’s item on VHS until it was finally made available on DVD not long ago.)

From this, Diane got her own starring role in the black & white melodrama Claudelle Inglish in which she got to canoodle with several yum-yums including Robert Logan, Will Hutchins (pictured with her here) and Chad Everett. Afterwards, she began a two-year run on the show Surfside 6, which starred Donahue and Williams, where she played a charming and engaging socialite who occasionally pitched in on cases.

Warner Brothers kept her (and all of their contract players) busy, but she was frequently wasted. McBain exuded sophistication, style, brains and beauty, but she seemed stuck on a treadmill of either lightweight parts or villainesses. One of the most egregious roles was the one she was given as a nurse in The Caretakers. The landscape was so crowded in that film that, in spite of her third billing (as Robert Stack’s girlfriend), she had practically nothing to do and all the meaty scenes went to others.

Though it was another bitchy part, she did have a nice change of pace in A Distant Trumpet, a Donahue western based on a very thick novel all about the cavalry and Donahue’s feelings being torn between the sly McBain and the sweet Suzanne Pleshette.

By 1966, Diane was getting fewer decent roles. She kept working on TV, but her big screen status had been reduced to playing opposite Elvis Presley in another one of the assembly line musicals he was being coerced into, Spinout. Still, even work like that was better than the things that came afterwards. Dreck such as I Sailed to Tahiti with an All Girl Crew (which, at least, had dreamy Gardner McKay as the lead) and exploitive fare such as Maryjane, The Mini-Skirt Mob, Wicked, Wicked and The Deathhead Virgin signaled the end of any chance for significant fame at the box office. Uncharacteristically, somewhere along the line she posed for some nude photos in an attempt to jumpstart things, but it didn’t really work.

It’s good that the delightful and lovely Ms. McBain could keep getting jobs, including guest shots on such popular TV shows as Marcus Welby, M.D., Charlie’s Angels, Eight is Enough and Dallas, but such a shame that the full extent of her talent was never, or at least, rarely utilized. Once you’ve seen her looking her best and speaking lines in that distinctively classy and seductive way, it’s not easy to see her bumped off as a murder victim, without anything to say, in an episode of Matt Houston.

In 1982, in a truly horrifying chapter of her life, Ms. McBain was raped by two men in West Hollywood. Turning lemons into lemonade, she became a rape counselor. Such caring and concerned behavior in the face of her own tragedy surprised no one who knew her.

Now pushing 70, she hasn’t done much film or television work lately, but she did turn up on Sabrina, The Teenage Witch and on Strong Medicine as well as in some films as recently as 2001. Most people who were watching TV in the mid-1960s have very fond remembrances of her and she certainly won me over through her charm and style. Keep an eye out for her when viewing reruns or DVDs of the films and shows mentioned above and see if she doesn’t cast a spell over you!


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