Friday, October 8, 2010

Evans to Betsy!

These days we’re exposed to a less-than-wonderful version of Linda Evans, thanks to some really, REALLY bad cosmetic surgeries and a tendency to set herself up for ridicule whether it be making her stage debut in an ill-advised production or promoting a product whose value is in serious question. However, back in her day, Miss Evans was a spectacular looking beauty with an amiable, approachable personality that won her legions of fans and made her a household name.

The child of two professional dancers, she was born Linda Evenstad in Hartford, Connecticut in 1942. Her father’s father had come to the US as a child in 1884 with his mother, a Norwegian, and those genes passed on to Linda who grew up tall, blue-eyed and possessed strong cheekbones. (Though she would be known throughout all of her late teen and adult life as a blonde, she is a natural brunette.)

Not long after her birth, her parents moved to North Hollywood where career opportunities were greater. An attendee at the famous Hollywood High School, she was painfully shy and her parents encouraged her to take acting lessons in order to help overcome this. Already a cute young lady, she soon took an interest in the craft and began to land roles on TV series and in movies.

Her very first professional TV gig, in 1960, was on a series called Bachelor Father, a vehicle for film actor John Forsythe who starred as a man raising his teenaged niece. Evenstad (which was soon changed to Evans) played one of the niece’s friends and Forsythe took care to help the fledgling actress get through her first big job. She then played bit parts on five different episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
More TV guest work followed until she landed a small role in the 1963 feature film Twilight of Honor, which starred Richard Chamberlain. Next, she had a more significant role in the Disney film Those Calloways, an outdoorsy family drama that starred Brian Keith, Vera Miles and Brandon de Wilde.

Beach Blanket Bingo, one of the many, many Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello sand, sun and surf confections, came out in 1965. Evans was cast as teen singing sensation Sugar Kane, who is managed by Paul Lynde, but kidnapped by the villainous Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck.) Her singing in the film was (quite obviously) dubbed. (This shot to the right is actually from a TV appearance on The Eleventh Hour, but is a lot how she looked in Bingo.)

On the heels of this came the opportunity to costar on a new western TV series called The Big Valley, a program that took the concept of Bonanza (which featured a widower with three sons) and gave it an injection of estrogen. The legendary Miss Barbara Stanwyck was the special-billed star of the show, playing a widow with four children and (from the first episode on) an honorary son (one sired by her now-dead husband with another woman.)

As Audra Barkley, Evans was intended to be a fiery, independent colt who slapped first and asked questions later. That worked for a little while, but it soon became clear that Evans toughness and vitality paled when compared to Stanwyck. (In her defense, Broderick Crawford’s toughness would have paled beside the throaty, rifle-cocked Stanwyck, who performed virtually all of her own stunts while in her late 50s!) One time, in the wings of the set, Evans asked Stanwyck how to enter a scene with presence. Stanwyck told Evans she’d show her how and just as the cameras rolled, she gave Evans a kick in the pants and a bit of a shove! Evans then burst into the scene with all the oomph required. The two, however, did form a very solid bond and several episodes of the series focused on their mother-daughter relationship.

Evans also shared chemistry with her TV half-brother Lee Majors, a slight flicker of incest threatening some of their earliest moments together on the show. Later, they forged a visible friendship and caring relationship, something all the actors/characters were to do with each other except for Charles Briles, as youngest brother Eugene, who was called away to Vietnam soon into the series and written out. The Barkleys were always presented as morally responsible citizens, occasionally causing detriment to themselves because of their nobility in the face of more opportunistic or evil people.

At first, attempts were made to give Evans something of a period look, with long dresses and wavy hair, little makeup and an earthier look in general. Eventually, this was practically abandoned and Evans wore sleek, tailored riding gauchos, trim, satin blouses (ones designed by Nolan Miller and which would be virtually duplicated years later on Dynasty where he was the chief designer), black false eyelashes and her hair was a luminous, platinum, free-flowing mane. She basically became Barbie Goes West and looked unbelievably stunning.

This change (including a little nose work) was also the result of the influence of her husband, John Derek, who she married in 1968. He was known, then and later, for making over his women into what he considered the ideal. He also didn’t want her to work and she acquiesced rather willingly, cutting back her appearances on the series in the last year and a half. Their marriage would last until 1974 when he pushed her aside for a new muse, Bo Derek, though they would remain friends until his death.

Apart from a film Derek co-directed called Childish Things (and known also as Confessions of Tom Harris and Tale of the Cock!) in 1969, which co-starred Don Murray, Evans didn’t act at all until 1973 when the wheels were coming off the marriage. Derek, in 1971, took seminude photos of Evans and they were published in Playboy (and later unearthed, as they tended to do, in 1982 when she was starring on Dynasty.)

Evans found, in the here-today-gone-tomorrow world of Tinseltown, that jobs for a thirtysomething TV actress weren’t exactly pouring in. Still, time was that a person could land decent paying guest roles on dramatic series to make ends meet and she worked on McCloud, Banacek, Mannix, Nakia, Harry-O, McMillan & Wife and The Rockford Files, all series starring men of a certain age that she could complement nicely.

In 1974, she got a part as a rape victim in a trashy and exploitive racial drama called The Klansman. The cast of names involved included Richard Burton, Lee Marvin, Cameron Mitchell, O.J. Simpson, Lola Falana and Luciana Paluzzi, so it’s not like she went down alone, but it was close to a low point on her resume.

1975 brought another lousy movie, one that gained new attention with the folks at Mystery Science Theater 3000 when they unearthed it for the sole purpose of making fun of it. Mitchell starred Joe Don Baker and had Linda as a prostitute who winds up falling for the husky leading man. Cheap, violent and tacky, it was another low-rung project. This year she married her second husband, Beverly Hills Realtor Stan Herman, though they were divorced just about the time Dynasty first aired.

A regular role in a series followed, though it only lasted thirteen episodes. Hunter (not the one starring Fred Dryer) had her costarring with James Franciscus and concerned tales of espionage. His cover was as a bookstore proprietor and she posed as a model. She then worked on a couple of TV films, Nowhere to Run with David Janssen (who had become a friend) and Stefanie Powers (who had been a classmate at Hollywood High) as well as Standing Tall, a western in which she was Robert Forster’s wife.

In 1979, she teamed up with Lee Marvin again, though the end result wasn’t much better than The Klansman. Avalanche Express was an adventure film that also featured Robert Shaw, Maximilian Schell, Mike Conners, Horst Bucholtz and Joe Namath. Shaw was so ill during the filming (and, in fact, died before it was over) that his voice was deemed unusable and an unbilled Rich Little redid practically all of his dialogue in post-production. (He certainly doesn't look too hot in the photo below. And Linda is not the first person you'd expect to see in an action yarn like this either!)
Steve McQueen’s late-career western Tom Horn came in 1980 and she was cast as his love interest. By this time, westerns didn’t have a fraction of the popularity that they had enjoyed previously (and would again later), but Evans had spent four years on The Big Valley and in other western projects to where she was comfortable in the genre. In fact, the TV series Dallas, which had a touch of western flair, had gone through all of its early stages as “The Linda Evans Project!” She was to be Pamela Barnes Ewing (a role eventually taken by Victoria Principal.) That didn’t pan out, but better things were on the horizon.
Aaron Spelling and Richard and Esther Shapiro were planning an ABC nighttime soap to capitalize on the very successful Dallas and decided to outdo the first show by going for more glamour and money onscreen. The result was Oil, a three-hour movie pilot that would kick off a series. They cast Linda as Krystle, the heroine, and George Peppard as Blake Carrington, a ruthless and controlling, but ultimately fair-minded, tycoon. When Peppard and the producers fell out over his interpretation of the part, he was fired and Spelling brought in John Forsythe, who had been working for him on Charlie’s Angels as the voice of Charles Townsend, to reshoot. The show was then retitled Dynasty.

Evans was thrilled to be reunited with Forsythe, the star of her very first TV show appearance and the two clicked instantly. In Blake and Krystle, they created an idealized couple who went through every conceivable bit of turmoil, but always made their way back together. (The actors, early on, decided that one character should never cheat on the other and, despite much pressure from the top brass, they never did.) It wasn’t always sweetness and light at first, however. Many fans forget that Blake raped Krystle during the first season, a time when marital rape was just beginning to be recognized as a crime.

Ratings were so-so that first year, so Spelling brought on a pot-stirring vixen, a female J.R. Ewing, in order to spice up the drama. Joan Collins as Alexis was an immediate smash and she and Evans’ characters were pitted against each other from the start. (Likewise, the press tended to play up friction between the actresses, which they denied repeatedly, despite never growing particularly close.) Their onscreen catfights became legendary, with the tomboyish Evans always enjoying them while the more brittle Collins dreaded them with a passion. Once, in 1986, Evans ended up fighting herself! (She had been playing an ill-advised dual role on the show.)
From that point, the show became a jaw-dropping fashion fest, with costumer Nolan Miller doing back flips in order to come up with showy ensembles for both Joan (who wore most of them like a classic icon) and Linda (who was more limited in her ability to show off a multitude of looks. She suited certain things far more than others.) Dynasty mania swept the nation and Evans was a household name, with women copying her distinctive hairstyle and padding their shoulders to the max. Incidentally, they are funny now, but, at the time, Linda carried off the shoulder pads beautifully and the look went well with her statuesque figure.

In 1982, she was teamed with Donna Mills, Genie Francis and other stars for the miniseries Bare Essence, all about the perfume industry, which eventually had life as a short-lived primetime soap. Jennifer O’Neill took over her role in the series since she was already very busy with Dynasty. She also appeared on a two-hour episode of The Love Boat. The strange thing was, it marked a reunion between her and her Big Valley costar Lee Majors, and they played lovers, but viewers had always seen them on the old series as siblings! I remember feeling just a tad of unease during that one. Evans was also briefly reunited with Barbara Stanwyck when she came onto Dynasty in order to introduce its spinoff, The Colbys, on which Stanwyck appeared for one season.

On the other occasions that she worked in other projects in the midst of Dynasty, Evans, an admitted tomboy and a horse-lover, tended to revisit her more rustic roots. She did Kenny Rogers as The Gambler: The Adventure Continues, North and South, Book II and The Last Frontier, a two-part movie filmed on location in which she played a woman having to forge a new life for herself in the Australian Outback.

She became the commercial spokeswoman for Crystal Light and for Clairol hair coloring (announcing that “forty isn’t fatal” in a popular series of ads.) She published a beauty book as many of her primetime soap actress peers had done as well. Look at the hooty expression on pal David Hasselhoff’s face in this shot of them in their exercise gear! She and Collins lent their personas to a series of sewing patterns modeled after the outfits they wore on Dynasty. There were dolls made of Blake, Krystle and Alexis. A near riot occurred at a department store at which some of the Dynasty stars were appearing and they had to be escorted out. Then there were the fragrances, Forever Krystle and Carrington. They lasted remarkably long for stunt colognes, but when the series died, they died soon after (despite attempts to keep the brand going.) FK can still be found on eBay and snarkier fans sometimes joke about it smelling like cat pee by now!
A scandal broke out in 1985 when Evans was paired with a potential new love interest on the show. Rock Hudson was cast as Daniel Reece, the ex-lover of Krystle’s now-dead sister, and he sought to win her away from Blake, who was shutting her out of his business dealings at the time. The two shared a kiss during one scene and then not long after it was discovered that Hudson had been infected with AIDS at the time. A media firestorm erupted about whether Evans was safe from the disease or not (and this was at a stage when little was known about it.) Whatever she felt inside, to her credit she did not display any hysteria about it to the world. Incidentally, as a child, Evans had had two pinups on her bedroom wall. One was of John Derek, who she later married, and one was of Hudson.

Some viewers complained that Krystle’s hair never changed over the course of the near decade-long show (and thank Jesus she never wore it the way it looks in this portrait on the left!) It did, in fact, change subtly from year to year, but any time she tried any sort of significant departure, it was instantly shot down as looking foolish. (And, yes, some of the looks were definitely not the greatest!) Years of teasing and bleaching her hair in the 60s had left it very fine by the early 80s and she soon began wearing “secret hair,” thick strands of extra hair clipped into her own, as well as pieces (such as the twisty, thick braid/knot that could sometimes be found at the back of her neck.)
During her tenure on the show, Evans had been nominated for five Golden Globe Awards, winning once, and an Emmy. By the time the series ended, though (she actually departed halfway through that season, citing fatigue with the hours and the role), her hair was a brassy blonde and sometimes was a wig entirely. Somehow, over the course of the series, Evans had gone from a vital, strikingly beautiful woman to a gaunt, breathy, truly rather annoying presence with a whispery voice that sounded like there was ground glass in her throat. She developed a method of acting with her eyes darting and a way of gasping for air before each line that really wore thin. It was time to check out.

She had love waiting for her anyway. By then, she had become acquainted with New Age singer/composer Yanni and the couple became inseparable, with her often being found in the audience of his concerts and the two traveling frequently all over. She also developed an association with a controversial mystic and spiritual channeler named JZ Knight who took to advising her on matters of life and career (and for a time adopted a hairstyle similar to Evans!) Evans eventually tried a new look with her hair that was patently bizarre. A wall of bangs hung over half her face, giving her the look of one of those people who are dressed up as half man and half woman or something!

Dynasty had been left, literally for some characters, in midair when it was canceled in 1989, so in 1991 a four-hour reunion movie was made. It was not very good thanks to a shoddy script and a stubborn decision to basically ignore much of the developments of the final season of the series, but at least it tied up Blake and Krystle’s storyline and had them living, as ever, happily in the end.

Evans all but disappeared for a time after this, eager to break away from Hollywood and its pressures. She made a couple of TV movies, sometimes playing a villain (as in The Stepmother, above) in order to change the pace, though she was beginning to show the effects of aging and the sun she always enjoyed so much on her ranch. (Check out the unretouched hand in this shot from Dazzle! Egads!) In 1998, she and Yanni parted ways.

Then she started having cosmetic surgeries and hawking this bizarre product called Rejuvenique, which purported to revive the facial muscles and tone the skin, lessening wrinkles. To use it, you basically strapped on a Friday the 13th hockey mask with little metal nodules inside it and it allegedly vibrated years off your face… Anyone who thinks that this device is what caused her face to change that much needs to get this in a helmet form to stimulate his or her brain! She started looking like fourth runner up in a Loretta Swit look-alike contest. Not a good thing. (And still worse was to come in that arena!)
By the time of the reunion special Dynasty: Catfights and Caviar, Linda barely resembled herself anymore. Soon after, it was announced that Joan and Linda were going to tour the country in a play called Legends (one that had a spotty history dating back to 1986 when it was done by Carol Channing and Mary Martin and Martin departed the production, allegedly over a script cut.) Joan had been on and off the stage ever since her days at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (not that she was Helen Hayes or anything), but Linda had never really done any legitimate stage work.

The two styles clashed, the allegedly untrue rumors of a feud began to look rather as if there was something to them and, by the time the eight-month sojourn was over, the ladies had pretty much had enough of each other. Beyond that, the show just wasn’t considered very funny or very good, especially a quarter of a century after it had been penned.

After that, Evans went to England and entered a celebrity edition of Hell’s Kitchen and won! It’s tough to age gracefully in these years of Botox, collagen, silicon and a hundred other things including an obsession with youth and, sadly, Miss Evans made a few missteps when it came to her face (and she knows it.) We don’t seem to allow anyone to become little old ladies anymore. Who knows what the future holds for her and if she may be able to let up on the procedures and segue into seniorhood. She is, after all, pushing 70.

Her legacy as a TV icon is firmly in place, however. Few people have been the subject of a phenomenon as massive as Dynasty was. Recently, she received (along with Collins) the distinction of having a Barbie Doll modeled after her famous character. I’m wondering how many queens out there are buying these two collector’s items and engaging them in a hair-pulling, lily pond-splashing catfight! (Sadly, by now, I'm also wondering which has more plastic in it, the doll or Miss Evans.)


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