There have been (as of this writing) 87 Miss Americas (not all of who have been crowned in my lifetime! I only checked in on this planet forty-six years ago.) Of those ladies, I have four personal favorites and have miraculously had the good fortune to meet two of them! (Lee Meriwether, 1955, and Heather French Henry, 2000.) The remaining two remain elusive and I suspect they will stay that way! One is Miss Vanessa Williams, 1984, and the other is today's featured celebrity, Mary Ann Mobley, Miss America 1959. (Stand back and take a look at this cape, bitches!)
Born February 17th, 1939 in Biloxi, Mississippi, Mobley was the first contestant from her state to win the title (in a pageant that had first begun back in 1921.) The Miss America pageant was first broadcast on TV in 1954, the year Meriwether won, and so was still finding its way through the medium in 1958 when the pert nineteen year-old Mobley put in her bid for the crown.
With every contestant engulfed in frothy antebellum gowns and in highly-similar one-piece swimsuits, it came down to two segments in which a gal could make enough impact to separate herself from the pack, the talent contest and the interview. As the string of finalists danced, sang cheery songs or enacted dramatic readings, the pert, petite Mobley stepped onto the stage to perform an operatic selection, “Un Bel Di,” garbed in a full-length skirt. Midway through the song, she suddenly stopped, jarring the audience in its tracks, and then segued into a belty rendition of “There'll Be Some Changes Made,” removing the bottom half of her gown to reveal a slim, pencil skirt! Then, she continued by removing that and dancing around in abbreviated shorts! She blew the lid off the place.
When the interviews began, each gal stepped up to meet host Bert Parks and selected her random question by reaching into a large fish bowl. Every lady looked at the bowl to see where her hand would go, but Mobley looked dead ahead and effortlessly reached in to grab her question, which she answered deftly, articulately and passionately (in an era when girls sought to be polite and demure to the point of near - or complete - dullness.) Again, she wowed the audience and the judges.
When the pageant was over, the stunned and elated Mary Ann Mobley was crowned by her predecessor Marilyn Van Derbur (and caressingly kissed with the most lesbonic smooth probably ever seen on TV to that date and for a decade after at least!) Mobley was presented with her sceptre, cape and bouquet of roses to the delight of her parents and little sister Sandra. It should be noted that in her successful quest for the crown, she beat down Miss Oklahoma (shown above left), otherwise known as Anita Bryant, who thought she had it all tied up. For this alone, the gays of the world should pay tribute to spry little Mary Ann! Bryant wound up as second runner-up. It should also be noted that while Mobley broke no rules with her bump-'n-grindy pseudo-striptease, pageant rules were changed thereafter to avoid having any further ladies remove part of their clothing during the competition.
Next it was back to the University of Mississippi where she finished her studies before darting off to The Big Apple to try her hand at the Broadway stage. She was cast in the Prohibition-era musical Nowhere to Go But Up alongside Martin Balsam, Tom Bosley (both shown with her here backstage), Bert Convy, Dorothy Loudon, Marty Allen and Frank Campanella, but the ill-fated show closed after only nine performances, living up to its name in spades. This despite direction by Sidney Lumet (and a book and lyrics by James Lipton.)
A role in Guys and Dolls with Hugh O'Brian and Betty Grable followed, along with appearances on Burke's Law, leading to her winning a contract at MGM. Her first movie came with 1964's Get Yourself a College Girl, a fluffy teen comedy-musical at about the same level of mentality as all those beach party flicks. Nonetheless, she was the star (along with Joan O'Brien, Chris Noel, Nancy Sinatra and, as her love interest, the hunky Chad Everett!) Not too a bad way to start.
She proceeded to make two of the increasingly formulaic and feather-brained (but still wildly popular) Elvis Presley movies. There was Girl Happy (1965), set in Ft. Lauderdale during spring break, in which she played second fiddle to Shelley Fabares, yet still got a few chances to canoodle with The King.
Then there was Harem Scarum (1965), a decidedly cheesy Arabian-themed flick in which she played “Princess Shalimar.” She did, however, look incredible with the midriff-baring costumes, piles of hair and chiffon dripping from everything. She and Elvis, both being Mississippians, shared common ground at least, though they would not work together again after this.
She claims that they never dated and that he was a perfect gentleman, dividing women into two types, those he deeply respected and "the other kind."
Her other film of 1965 was of an entirely different type. In Young Dillinger, she was the calculating love interest of the title character, played by Nick Adams. The movie costarred Robert Conrad as Pretty Boy Floyd and John Ashley as Baby Face Nelson and while it would appear to be nothing but a bubble gum account of these real-life bad guys, it contained enough violence in it that CBS almost didn't air it later in 1968. A feisty Mobley was one of the few cast members to get any sort of positive notice from it.
1966 brought the first of two near-misses when it comes to cult roles among classic TV fans. In the episode “The Moonglow Affair” of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Mobley played a secret agent named April Dancer, who worked in accord with an older sidekick (Norman Fell.)
This was a back-door pilot for a proposed spin-off series to be called The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., but in the end it wound up starring Stefanie Powers and a sidekick (Noel Harrison) of a similar age range. Powers was far more mod and kooky in the part than the more silken and serious Mobley had played it. The series only lasted one season, being pulled off the air by 1967, but retains a fan following.
Mobley proceeded to another movie, this time Three on a Couch (1966), which was a Jerry Lewis comedy. In it, he wants his psychiatrist fiancee (Janet Leigh)to come to Paris with him, but she feels beholden to the ladies of the title, a trio of lovelies who have given up on men. In order to cure them of their malady and free up his own lady love Leigh, Lewis masquerades as three different male personas, each one designed to appeal one of the gals. (The other two girls were played by Gila Golan and Leslie Parrish.)
Her other near-miss came when producers of the smash TV hit Batman had her in mind to essay their new addition to the series, Batgirl. However, Mobley proved unavailable and the role ultimately went to fellow Elvis costar Yvonne Craig (who proceeded to a build a legion of fans out of the deal.)
Mobley was fast becoming a familiar, lively face to TV viewers, though, with guest roles on Perry Mason, Run for Your Life (with Ben Gazzara, pictured above), The Virginian, Custer and, notably, six installments of Love, American Style (shown below with David Hedison.) Later came the obligatory parts on The Love Boat and Fantasy Island.
Without any hesitation, my own favorite guest appearance of hers on a TV show was when she filmed a two-part episode of Mission: Impossible. Cast as a trapeze artist with a prior relationship with the IMF leader (then played by Steven Hill), she was brought in to help with a mission involving the escape of a prisoner from a heavily guarded fortress. She and the other team members would serve as a distraction with their touring carnival act. (Years later she would do several aerialist stunts for real on Circus of the Stars!) LOOK at her hair, her body, her outifit!
Impossible nearly always included a set-up sequence in a sleek black and white apartment in which all of the people wore black, white, grey or some combination thereof. Just look at her!
Part of the plan was for aerialist Mobley and mentalist Barbara Bain to establish jealousy over one of the guards, plying him with attention and sniping at one another over him. I ask you again... look at her hair and outfit!!
At the right moment, they would continue the bad blood established earlier by engaging in a knock-down, drag-out catfight. Bain and Mobley kept the guard (played by Monte Markham) preoccupied with their endless clawing, tussling and howling at one another.
The scenario resulted in some hilarious expressions and passionate delivery from the two ladies. (Bain, in particular, rarely lost her composure this way on the show as a rule.) This was quite a potent image of Mobley and Greg Morris, too, for 1966 as CBS was prompting the producers to keep Morris away from Bain in scenes because of any hint of interracial attraction. Mary Ann Mobley could have done nothing else in her career and I would still be agog over her eye-popping looks in this piece of television. It's criminal that she never came back once Bain exited after season three (though Lee Meriwether did make a series of appearances that year.)
A far more important, personally anyway, TV appearance came in late-1966 when she worked on The Iron Horse, a western concerning the building of a railroad line. The star was Dale Robertson, but he had a nice-looking blond costar named Gary Collins.
We hold him somewhat dear as one of the stars of the treasured Airport (1970.) Collins was a married father of two (a boy and a girl) whose marriage of about two years was faltering. The episode aired in January of 1967 and Collins wed Mobley later that same year. See photo below:
What followed was a four-plus decade-long relationship in which Collins and Mobley seemed to represent the perfect couple. They worked on TV shows together (including his series The Sixth Sense), traveled the world together, hosted events together and frequently paired up on game shows, always with a smile and a sense of cozy togetherness.
When it came to game shows, Mary Ann was a formidable player. Always in it for the win (sometimes the kill), she would work hard to win money for her fellow contestants. She appeared on Match Game, Super Password (with her old Broadway co-star Bert Convy), To Tell the Truth and many others.
Then there was the super-ultra-cheesy Beat the Clock revival in which she and her husband went up against John and Patty Duke Astin. (The show had begun with everyday people as contestants, but soon switched to an all-star edition with the players trying to earn money for their half of the audience.) No matter the show, when Mobley came forth, it was with winning in mind!
1968 brought two opportunities to work with John Saxon. There was the obscure made-for-TV movie Istanbul Express, an espionage drama that starred Gene Barry along with Saxon, Mobley and the always stunning Senta Berger. Then Mobley and Saxon starred in the faux-racy For Singles Only, about an apartment building run by Milton Berle in which only singles are permitted to rent. Few gals (or certain guys for that matter!) would have balked at the working conditions such as cavorting with Saxon in the pool!
Some of the other castmates included Lana Wood, Peter Mark Richman, Chris Noel, Ann Elder and Marty Ingels. Looking at these photos of Mississippian Mary Ann Mobley, I am now wondering if perhaps the character and casting of Mary Ann on Gilligan's Island was inspired by her in any way. The similarities are considerable between Dawn Wells and her.
Sometime in the early-1970s, Collins and Mobley welcomed their daughter Clancy, who grew up to become a television executive at Paramount and her mother's old stomping ground MGM.
Much more television followed including episodes of Ironside, To Rome with Love and even The Partridge Family. She was able to navigate easily from comedy to romance to drama, ensuring that she could work whenever she pleased. A key guest appearance came in 1974 when she joined her husband Collins (and costar Diana Muldaur) on his series Born Free, which was based on the 1966 movie and was being filmed in Africa.
While there, she caught a glimpse of the living conditions of many of the local inhabitants and resolved that she was going to begin doing something to alleviate as much of the squalor and devastation due to war as she could. Thus, in the years since this, in addition to Kenya she has been to Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Ethiopia, the Sudan, Somalia and Cambodia (as the sole female and part of the first American TV crew to enter the communist country.) During her trip to Mozambique where she was filming one of several documentaries she's done, she was shot at!
This series of efforts to raise awareness and help the underprivileged of the world is only a small part of the charity work that she and Collins took part in over the years. There was also a twenty-five year (and counting) association with the March of Dimes, work for research into birth defects, breast cancer, Crohn's disease, mental illness and many other charities. Having used her very first earnings as a singer and actress to provide chimes for the church in her hometown, she later had the pediatric wing of a hospital named in her honor there as well.
Her association with the Miss America organization continued as well, of course, and she has made frequent appearances there (seen here with Lee Meriwether), including stints as a co-host. When longtime emcee Bert Parks was unceremoniously dumped in 1979 in an effort to attract younger viewers to the pageant, Ron Ely was hired for two years.
In 1982, however, her husband Gary Collins was appointed as host and he held that spot for a decade. She co-hosted with him on several occasions, but after the 1988 pageant (in which she and Collins had to fill air time for twelve feverish minutes while the judges debated who should win the crown!), she limited her contributions to simpler visits, mostly involving waves from the crowd or briefly on stage.
Collins, of course, was the master of ceremonies on hand in 1983 when Vanessa Williams was crowned Miss America 1984. At that time, the pageants were deliciously preposterous wagon trains filled to the brim with songs, dances and production numbers. Collins had charisma as a host (he adeptly handled Hour Magazine from 1980-1988), but as a singer, he sometimes delivered numbers that would make a baby seal crawl out of the safety of its warm nest and slink off in search of a club-wielding hunter to end the pain! Anyway, Williams was the first black winner and he posed with her for the commemorative portrait. Look at Miss W. above and note how many different procedures our dear girl has had since then!
Since her reign was prematurely ended in the scandal of some nude photographs coming to light (a situation you can read more about here), the runner-up Suzette Charles, seen here with a decidedly forced smile just after the pageant, was appointed to the position.
Charles was Miss America 1984b and only had seven weeks in which to serve before the next year's pageant! Still, Collins was called upon to pose with her, too, for a commemorative portrait, even though he had been far afield from all the drama when Williams exited and Charles ascended to the crown.
Mobley began to make recurring appearances on the sitcom Diff'rent Strokes in 1985 (replacing a fired Dixie Carter in the role, who would soon go on to great success on Designing Women, a series Mobley later appeared on as a guest in 1990.)
That series was, however, on its last legs (and, in fact, had been canceled by NBC only to be picked up for one last, brief season by ABC.) Mobley played the leading actor Conrad Bain's wife, which made her the mother of his adopted son, the diminutive Gary Coleman, who was eighteen at the time of this photo!
In 1988, Mobley made several appearances on the prime-time soap Falcon Crest, playing Susan Sullivan's psychiatrist (ironically as we will see later, with an emphasis on alcohol treatment) and then began to recede from acting roles by the mid-1990s. Her last credited part was on the 1994 baseball-set comedy series Hardball, which starred Bruce Greenwood and Alexandra Wentworth.
For his part, Collins popped up opposite Christopher Plummer and the ever-glamorous Stephanie Beacham in the 1992 Danielle Steel miniseries Secrets.
Mobley busied herself with a raft of charitable causes, often in the company of her husband. Collins' own acting career extended a tad longer than hers, working regularly up until 2000 followed by one final guest part on the short-lived show Dirty Sexy Money in 2009. The still glowing couple could be spotted at numerous events together, always with big smiles. (Check out the hair on Miss Donna Mills in the shot below!)
But things were not all peaches and cream. Along the way, Collins had developed something of a problem with alcohol, namely becoming reliant upon it and, more critically, driving while under the influence of it. Between 2007 and 2009, he was arrested three times for DUI, resulting in everything from fines to brief jail time to home arrest. His troubles far from over, in 2010 there was an accident that he left the scene of illegally and in 2011 a dust-up with a restaurant owner. In 2011, the previously happy and “perfect” couple did the unthinkable and split up!
In the wake of all this, Mobley was afflicted with breast cancer and had been living in her beloved Mississippi. Collins returned to her during her considerable struggle with the disease and they were reconciled again. Sadly, Collins' own health had deteriorated from his bout with alcoholism and encroaching age. He died in 2012, reportedly of natural causes.
Now a widow, a cancer survivor and seventy-five years of age, Miss Mobley still makes personal appearances and continues to work tirelessly for her various causes and charities, always garbed in flattering, tasteful, contemporary clothing and flashing that (by now surgically-augmented) Miss America smile. But for a few significant hurdles over the past decade, hers would seem to have been quite a charmed life with much happiness and success.
For the sunny, sexy, animated, attractive, vivacious performances she has given over the four decades of her career along with her staggering contributions toward making the world a better place for others, we salute her in The Underworld.