Friday, June 11, 2010

Now You Hate 'Em, Now You Don't!

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that some of my tastes in food have changed. It’s been quite surprising, really. As a kid, every pie or cobbler had to be apple, but now I lean more towards cherry. I only wanted chicken noodle soup, but now I like beef vegetable. I find myself wanting cinnamon when I used to never care about it at all. Similarly, I have found that some performers I used to love, I am less enthusiastic about and some actresses I used to dislike to the point of avoidance are now ones that I am happy to see in things! (This first happened for me with Eleanor “Baroness Schraeder” Parker, who I despised as a kid, but now worship.) Today, I’m going to chit-chat a little about three women I never cared much for until I saw them in that one role that changed my opinion forever.

First up is Louise Latham. If you’re asking, “WHO??” I can sort of forgive you, but perhaps not entirely since she was a featured actress in one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most debated films. Latham was an almost constant presence on television in the 60s and 70s as well as a fair amount of work in the 80s and 90s. A plain looking woman, to be sure, with a soft chin (see below her high school yearbook photo), she evolved into an all purpose wife, meddling mother, put-upon farm woman, judgmental gossip or any number of other character roles.
Appearing on Broadway in the early 50s, she dabbled a tiny bit in anthology television before making her big screen debut in Hitchcock’s Marnie. Marnie was all about a lovely, but disturbed, young woman (Tippi Hedren) who keeps changing identities and embezzling funds from male employers, constantly moving on after each heist and beginning again somewhere else. She sends money back to her invalid mother (Latham) who believes that she has a consistent job with good pay.

Hedren returns home to visit her mother and finds herself an awkward outsider, having been replaced by a precocious neighbor girl who Latham dotes on far more than she ever did Hedren. No matter what Hedren says or does, it is never good enough and she can’t break through the wall of distance between them. (This is beginning to sound dangerously and sadly close to my own experiences with my mother when I was in my 30s! Ha!)

It’s quite a surprise to find out that Latham was, in fact, only eight years older than the glamorous Hedren in real life when she played her mother! A dejected and generally disagreeable presence in the film, I can’t exactly pinpoint when I went from disliking her to finding her quite fascinating. Every line she has is delivered in a country drawl with such authentic commonness and a lack of decent grammar that it’s almost shocking. My favorite line of hers, which I have used countless times in the presence of various little cousins or other ankle-biters (substituting their own name of course) is, “Mind mah leg, Marnie.”

Latham really had a unique voice, one that can be detected easily just by hearing it. Marnie was a failure at the box office and Latham didn’t make another film for four years (1968’s Firecreek, a western with James Stewart and Henry Fonda, where she was a strict mother to Brooke Bundy.) She did, however, keep very busy on series television, acting in shows such as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Perry Mason, The Fugitive and Family Affair. In the last show, she played the sister of Brian Keith who brings him the orphaned children to raise.

The next decade was equally busy as she worked on McCloud, Hawaii 5-O, Columbo, Gunsmoke, Medical Center and many other shows. She also appeared in the Burt Reynolds flick White Lightning and in the memorable TV movie Dying Room Only, which starred Cloris Leachman as a woman looking for her suddenly missing husband at a lonely gas station/café.

As shown at the right, she played the mother (with Howard Duff as the father) to Jaclyn Smith in the telefilm Settle the Score, a story that had policewoman Smith returning to her old hometown to investigate who it was that raped her two decades prior. Even in 1989, she was playing disapproving, mysterious mothers as she was estranged from Smith in this story and considered her "loose" (and whoever thought that Duff and Latham could conjoin and give birth to Smith deserves a gold star for creativity!)

Never becoming a “star,” she nevertheless worked consistently in a wide variety of projects. Like everyone else under the sun, she did a Murder, She Wrote and was a guest on Hotel. Her last credit was an episode of The X-Files. A closer look into her current status reveals that she is retired and living in an “upscale” retirement community in Santa Barbara, aged 88! Besides the fact that I love knowing that she’s in someplace upscale and not living like Marnie’s mom in a dingy row house, I find it funny that she’s 88 right now when she looked uncomfortably close to that in 1964! I love you, Louise, and you will always have a special place in The Underworld for your cranky, depressed work in Marnie!

Next up is Miss Joyce Van Patten. I used to see her quite frequently on TV as a child as well. Considering that her work in the medium spans fifty-seven years, that isn’t surprising! Joyce, the younger sister of Eight is Enough’s Dick Van Patten was a successful child actress and model. She and her brother had a driven stage mother who got them in the business with gusto. The children worked together in various TV and Broadway projects. Do you know that Joyce Van Patten has appeared in nineteen Broadway plays and worked there in every decade from the 40s to the 2000s?

Her film debut came with a non-speaking role in Fourteen Hours in 1951. Plenty of stage and TV work (including a year on As the World Turns) followed until her next film in 1958, The Goddess with Kim Stanley. Like the other ladies in this posting, she did work on many popular series from The Twilight Zone to Dr. Kildare to Perry Mason. Possessing a crooked grin, she could handle sarcasm exceedingly well, but also proved adept at dramatic parts.

1968 brought a featured role in the Peter Sellers comedy I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! In it, she was Sellers endearingly naggy girlfriend who has one thing on her mind… getting married. Sellers’ partner Herb Edelman would be more than happy to take up with her himself, but Sellers can’t quite let her go, even after he meets hippie Leigh Taylor-Young and goes off the deep end into pot brownies and love beads.
Directly after this, Van Patten appeared as Edelman’s wife in the middling sitcom The Good Guys, which also starred Gilligan’s Island’s Bob Denver. Edelman, you’ll recall, played Stanley Zbornak on quite a few episodes of The Golden Girls. Following the show’s cancellation, it was back to the TV treadmill of McCloud, Mannix, Hawaii 5-O, The Streets of San Francisco and many others.

1972 found Van Patten essaying the supporting role of a bitter, narrow-minded shrew who picks up two hippie hitchhikers and unloads her venom on them in Thumb Tripping. It turns out that her daughter ran off to become a hippie (no doubt to escape the stifling world her mother inhabits and propagates) and she takes out her frustration on the two she’s picked up, one of who was Meg Foster.

In 1974, Joyce landed the part that made me worship her forever after. In the big screen debacle Mame, in which Lucille Ball tortured and slaughtered the musical that had been an Angela Lansbury Broadway success, Van Patten played the small role of Sally Cato, Ball’s fiancé’s ex girlfriend. (The fiancé being Robert Preston.) Every single drop of dialogue that she has is deliciously delivered with a loud, overbearing, twangy, confident air that is hysterical.
This is my favorite part of the story to begin with, when Mame comes to The Deep South to meet her prospective in-laws, and is greeted with hostility for being a “Yankee.” Van Patten, knowing Ball’s utter lack of equestrian background, tries to rub it in saying that her fiancé could never love anyone who wasn’t “practically born on a horse,” then proceeds to arrange a fox hunt in which Ball will have to ride. Feeling she has the upper hand over Ball, and may even wind up maiming her, she announces that she’s just gonna hold her breath till mornin’ to which Ball replies, “You do that, honey…”

Mame may be a hot mess, but I do love almost every costume in it, including the elaborate lilac number Ball is wearing here. Joyce, understandably, was given less impressive things to wear, but looking at her now I think she comes off as strangely pretty, perhaps due to her boundless enthusiasm and personal sparkle. This comes off even more vividly when she’s with Lucy since Lucy can barely manage to eke out an expression, so tightly is her face pulled back and fastened!
Joyce could never have done another piece of acting and I would love her for her work in Mame, but she did work on so many other projects. She also did some memorable TV movies from the glory days of the genre including Barbara Eden’s The Stranger Within about the coming of a devil baby and Shirley Jones’ Winner Take All about a housewife who gambles away her husband’s savings. Married for a while to Martin Balsam, they had a daughter together who is an actress, Talia Balsam. Balsam, who seems to have inherited less than a milligram of her mother’s sense of humor and good nature is best known as the first and only wife of Mr. George Clooney. Yes, for a while Van Patten was George’s mother-in-law! After their divorce, Joyce and Martin were cast as husband and wife in the Brat Pack film St. Elmo’s Fire and worked amiably together.
Van Patten has continued to busily act in series as varied as Law and Order, Judging Amy and Oz (!) while also playing supporting roles in films like the unusual horror movie Monkey Shines, about a disable man tormented by his chimpanzee helper, and Marley & Me. Then there's the upcoming Grown Ups. Grown Ups, a comedy that puts Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, David Spade and Rob Schneider together, is directed by Joyce’s second (ex)husband Dennis Dugan. Once an actor, he now primarily directs (such projects as I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and You Don’t Mess with the Zohan) and is on good enough terms with Joyce to include her in a small role. Somehow, I don’t see George and Talia going down this same road!

Now 76 years of age, her career in show business has been just about that long as well! (Her first modeling assignment came at age 5 months.) Her ebullient presence has lifted many a project while her innate sensitivity has also lent depth to various plays, shows and movies. It’s always a pleasure, Joyce!
Third on my list is the haughty, sophisticated Miss Diana Muldaur. My first exposure to Muldaur was as a guest star on two different episodes of Star Trek, one as a doctor traveling with an extremely powerful and dangerous being and one as a Star Fleet officer (and doctor) whose body is overtaken by a creature who no longer has its own. I remember being struck as a child that her hair was pitch black in one episode and chestnut brown in another. Possibly because these episodes were rerun over and over and over and also due to the fanatical devotion that Trekkers have for the series, guests on Star Trek always seem to have a special distinction in the world of series television. I think it's the series in which I really began to take notice of who it was that was guest-starring and what else they appeared in.

Something about her self-important, regal, dismissive manner put me off of her when I would see her in things during my youth. Naturally, it’s this upper-crusty, “I suppose I’ll deign to speak to you” attitude that I now love about her!

After middling success on the Broadway stage (where, at least, she got to work with folks like Richard Dysart, Vincent Gardenia, Donald Pleasance, Ruth Gordon and Ethel Griffies), she began winning work on TV including a five-episode stint on Dr. Kildare. She also was granted a supporting part in the Burt Lancaster tour de force The Swimmer, in which a happy-on-the-surface man attempts to swim home via his neighbors’ pools.

The following year (1969) she was cast as one of Charlton Heston’s two love interests in the football-oriented drama Number One. Jessica Walter, as the other girlfriend, scored higher billing, but the film didn’t do much business in any case.
Also of interest during this time was her place in the cast of Harold Robbin’s The Survivors, an extraordinarily expensive (and short-lived) primetime drama/soap that starred Miss Lana Turner along with Kevin McCarthy, George Hamilton and Ralph Bellamy. The very troubled production underwent numerous changes and suffered incredible overages and waste, a lot of which was (according to who you believe) unfairly attributed to Turner. Muldaur spent much of her time working alongside Bellamy. This glossy, slick sort of project, featuring Diana’s hair in a severely starched flip, is exactly the type of entertainment I enjoy! I would have tuned in no matter how wretched it was.

Keeping busy always with many of guest spots on television, she would also land an occasional film. 1970 brought The Lawyer, a film inspired by the same real life case that launched The Fugitive with David Janssen and The Fugitive with Harrison Ford. Diana portrayed the helpful and supportive wife of the title character played by Barry Newman. The character was memorable enough to rate a series adaptation called Petrocelli, but in that instance the wife was portrayed by Susan Howard (later more famous for Dallas) instead.
Another movie of hers was One More Train to Rob, a western that had George Peppard and popular screen villain John Vernon squabbling over some gold as well as her, with Indians thrown in to boot. More lighthearted than it sounds, the film was, nonetheless, not a very successful or memorable one.

Her next feature film is one fondly remembered by a lot of mystery/suspense fans. The Other, in 1972, marked a rare onscreen appearance for legendary acting teacher and stage star Uta Hagen. Concerning a pair of twin boys, one of whom may be extraordinarily evil, it was an adaptation of a novel by former actor Tom Tryon. Muladur played the boys’ mother, a dazed and disturbed young woman who also has a newborn daughter.

Mostly for Muldaur, though, it was television, television, television with appearances on all the popular shows of the day such as Marcus Welby, M.D., Kung Fu, Mannix, S.W.A.T. and the pilot for Charlie’s Angels. The TV movie Ordeal had her selfishly leaving husband Arthur Hill to die so that she could cozy up with the younger, yummierJames Stacy. (This was just before he – in real life - lost both an arm and a leg in a horrible motorcycle crash.) She did have her own short-lived series playing Joy Adamson in a TV rendition of Born Free, filmed in Africa, but it didn’t catch on.

Following the success of Bullit and Dirty Harry (which he had turned down!), an aging John Wayne attempted a similar tough cop sort of role with McQ, in which he avenged his best friend’s death and drove a sports car. Diana played the wife of his slain pal, though a lot of the acting accolades went to Colleen Dewhurst, who had a showier part.

When Dennis Weaver had his hit series McCloud, Muldaur joined him for quite a few episodes as his sometime girlfriend. Her cosmopolitan manner was an enjoyable contrast to his Taos, New Mexico cowboy in the city persona. (She rejoined him in 1989 for a TV reunion movie.) She also played a recurring love interest to Tony Randall during his moderately successful courtroom-set comedy The Tony Randall Show (the title of which indicated nothing about its setting!)

Diana, who so often played doctors in her career (as well as other professionals), found herself taking part in the Star Trek world once again in 1988 when the actress playing the resident physician on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Gates McFadden, left after the first season because her storyline wasn’t proceeding as planned. Muldaur was signed to play Dr. Pulaski, a dry, no-nonsense lady who managed to draw frustration out of the android character Data (pronounced “Day-tuh”) by referring to him as “Dah-tuh.” Diana was not accepted by the rest of the cast and had trouble memorizing the techno-babble that proliferated on such a show and, thus, opted to leave after one season. McFadden was wooed back to the show, where she remained forever after.

Freedom from Trek allowed Muldaur to take the role for which I love her the most. Steven Bochco’s 1986 series L.A. Law was a revolutionary new take on the courtroom drama in that it tackled risky and provocative subject matter and focused on the sometimes-steamy private lives of its characters. It gave former teen queen Susan Dey a major shot in the arm as a fiercely passionate attorney and made household names out of Harry Hamlin and (for a while anyway) Corbin Bernson.

In 1989, Muldaur was added to the cast as the acidic, take-no-prisoners lawyer Rosalind Shays. Steamrolling her way through the firm and offending anyone handy, she was a memorable and unmitigated bitch. The character’s arrogance caused audiences to love to hate her and for her trouble, she was nominated two seasons in a row for the Emmy Award. In one of the most shocking events ever on the long-running series, she and her colleague Richard Dysart (who had already amazed everyone by burying the hatchet of their feud in a most arresting way) were waiting for an elevator when the door opened and Muldaur stepped in. Unfortunately, the building was being worked on and there was no elevator car there, but only a shaft!! The venomous lady lawyer was dispatched forever.

Following a few more TV gigs, Diana Muldaur retired to Martha’s Vineyard with her husband screenwriter Robert Dozier. Fittingly, her last credit (to date) was providing the voice of a doctor, Dr. Leslie Thompkins, on five episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. Interestingly, her husband had written one of the original Batman series episodes. Diana Muldaur emerged from the shadows in 2006 to attend a Star Trek convention and had many kind words for Gene Roddenberry, the man who helped get her TV career started with those two guest roles on the original series (but who was unable to make her fit into the second one.) At 72, she could still act, but chooses to do something now only if it captures her imagination and is appropriate for her.

There’s one more of these ladies - ladies who I used to avoid, but now look forward to seeing - but I decided she is so good and had such a strong career (and the flip for me was so momentous) that I will have to give her her own posting sometime in the near future.


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