Monday, September 19, 2022

Poseidon Quickies: A Twist of Oliver

If you grew up in the 1960s & '70s and watched television at all, then the face of Susan Oliver should be a familiar one. Or if you have dabbled in classic TV either through the over-the-air channels, streaming or DVD, you ought to recognize her as well. The woman worked on just about every conceivable series imaginable and as a result there is hardly a known actor from that time period who didn't hold her in their arms for some sort of melodramatic clinch. It's also possible that you've seen her face other places, perhaps without even realizing that it was she, though somehow despite everything, one of her least immediately recognizable moments may be the one she's best remembered for! 

I have long known about Oliver and have seen her in many things, but I was more than startled to learn more about her in a 2014 documentary I stumbled upon by sheer luck. It provided a really captivating glimpse into her life and prolific career and featured some atypical interviews along the way. This affords me the chance to play a little game of "Guess Who" as we go along. Because even though these people we known to me, some of them are not called upon for their opinions very much in things like this, so that was an added treat. 


Oliver was a Broadway ingenue who found herself working busily on live New York television and was soon drawn to Hollywood and a Warner Brothers contract. My own first contact with her came when she guest-starred on one of my all-time favorite shows, The Big Valley. She played a prison inmate in one of those "Let's beat the hell out of Barbara Stanwyck" episodes that came along a few times per season.

By that time, however, she was already a longtime veteran of the small screen. She'd figured into episodes of Route 66, The Fugitive, Climax!, Suspicion, The Twilight Zone, The Naked City, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and many others.

Her eyes were marvelous. The were luminous and striking, whether in black & white or color. She most often had a slab of black, cat-eye liner across each one that set them off to perfection. 

During her hey-day as a valued guest star, westerns ruled the airwaves and she was on most of the best ones from the aforementioned The Big Valley to Bonanza, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Rawhide, The Virginian, Wagon Train and many more.

Crossing all genres, she also did many sitcoms, such as My Three Sons (seen here with humpy Don Grady!) And she did Father Knows Best, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and even The Andy Griffith Show. Her only real regular role, generally of her own choice, was on the hit show Peyton Place.

Lest we forget, she was also in quite a few movies, a personal favorite being 1963's The Caretakers (rubbing an imperious Joan Crawford the wrong way as a newbie nurse going against the established grain.) Other movies included The Gene Krupa Story (1959), Your Cheatin' Heart and The Disorderly Orderly (both 1964)

And we mustn't forget 1960's BUtterfield 8, in which she stood up to Elizabeth Taylor as the (Debbie Reynolds-ish?) girlfriend of Eddie Fisher. This rundown only scratches the surface of her very busy career.

In time, she also took a devoted interest in airplane piloting (as well as gliding), becoming a licensed commercial pilot, winning a Powder Puff Derby and even emerging as only the 4th woman to ever fly solo over the Atlantic Ocean! (Her sole Emmy nomination came for 1976's Amelia Earhart, in which she played a fellow flyer to the famed aviatrix. The award went posthumously to Diana Hyland for The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.) She even spent a year on Days of Our Lives in the key role of Laura Horton, but left to pursue other interests.

Amid all this and more, it's really one part on TV that stands out amongst the rest when it comes to a place in the cult fan firmament. And the project almost never saw the light of day until it was later dissected and reassembled!

She was selected to guest star opposite handsome Jeffrey Hunter in the first pilot for the legendary sci-fi series Star Trek. In it, she played a variety of roles, some of which were merely images from Hunter's imagination. The pilot had been deemed "too cerebral" by the network and was close to being put aside forever.

Her stunning looks and heartfelt performance in the piece might never have been seen again until the series later ran into production delays and emergency measures were called for. Writers penned a special two-part episode about Mr. Spock on trial and incorporated generous amounts of footage from the earlier pilot into the new story line.

One of the parts that she essayed in that pilot, and which was interspersed into the new ep, was an all-green dancing girl named Vina.

For whatever reason, this closeup image of her in emerald makeup was chosen as the background for some of the end credits during the series' run. So people saw this (when it aired and in the wildly popular syndicated reruns) for decades, perhaps not always realizing that it was she!

She-Hulk anyone? Actually, Ms. Oliver was quite petite and not a trained dancer. But she worked hard (as she did in every project she appeared in) and sold the sequence memorably.

It was memorable enough, in fact, to warrant a Hallmark holiday ornament being manufactured in order to pay tribute to the character! In that way, she will live on in sci-fi fandom indefinitely, even if some folks aren't all that familiar with the other remarkable work that she accomplished in her career before and after this.

I held off until now revealing the name of the documentary in case there might be readers out there who didn't know of this facet of Oliver's career. It's called The Green Girl, and can be viewed here (with occasional ads) for free. I can heartily recommend the program to anyone who likes Oliver or who just wants some more insight into the way TV worked in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Also, since Oliver was driven to direct, there is plenty of information on how difficult it was for her to attempt that in her day. (Oliver passed away of cancer in 1990 at only age 58.)

As you can see here, her half-brother happened to inherit the same big, crystalline-blue eyes that Oliver possessed.

Now I'm going to run down some of the folks who contributed to this documentary through candid, sometimes heartfelt, interviews. There were other friends and family members who participated, but these are the ones included in it who were names themselves in the network TV universe. Some you will know, some may seem familiar, some you may never have seen. But all had intriguing contributions to make to the doc. My one carp was that, in many cases, so little care was taken to properly set up the lighting, angle and decor to really help present (a word I sometimes use when older people are filmed is "protect") them in a way that is the most flattering. (Think TCM and the lengths they have gone to in their interviews to be certain that the stars look terrific while recollecting!)

This actor never worked with Oliver on-screen, but was active during her formative period, when studio-arranged dates put them together. They became good friends as a result.

Surely you recognize this former Miss America-turned-actress, who worked in an episode of The F.B.I. that costarred Oliver and then later had Oliver as a key guest on her own show.

This man was an actor in the late-1950s/early-'60s and worked with Oliver on a TV episode of The Lineup, but is best-known as an author of books about Hollywood personalities (a major one being James Dean) and true crime in Tinsel Town.

This actress worked with Oliver in episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and The Name of the Game. She's best known for a folksy sitcom which earned her an Emmy nomination.

Oliver worked with this prolific actor in episodes of four different television shows, including two of his own series.

Oliver was a guest on this man's popular detective show, on which he was a costar. He later had his own adventure series.

If you are a fan of The Golden Girls, then you've seen this man in his later career. He starred in a lesser-known feature film with Oliver as well as one episode of a short-lived TV show of his.

This model and commercial performer never worked on screen with Oliver, but had some jobs as an actress that were similar to those of Oliver. Like Oliver, she appeared on Star Trek and worked with Jerry Lewis.

Oliver appeared twice on this actor's sci-fi series in the mid-to-late 1960s.

A popular 1970s personality, this football player-turned-actor worked in a TV movie with Oliver (and even went out with her to dinner - and more? - during filming.)

This actress was very active on TV at the same time as Oliver and proceeded to a (rare for a woman at the time) successful television directing career.

This actor, known for playing a snarky physician on a hit show of the '80s, was directed by Oliver in one of only two prime-time assignments which she was granted.

I don't expect too many of you to recognize this gent, though someone might. He had a tendency to portray either authority figures or punks, depending on the situation, from the 1970s to the 1990s and appeared in some cult-classics. Oliver directed him in a short film that was well-received.

Were you able to name or recognize any or all of these thirteen interview subjects? I mean, I may not have been able to if they hadn't been labeled on-screen. In fact, I definitely wouldn't have known a few of them.  (Several of the participants have since gone on to the hereafter and so this represents their final time being interviewed!) Let's reveal them now, with photos of them during their more active periods of performing inset with their then-current appearance. 

David Hedison of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

Lee Meriwether of Barnaby Jones.

Jonathan Gilmore, who wrote about The Black Dahlia, Charles Manson and James Dean (with whom he reportedly fooled around as part of their escapades as young men.)

Kathleen Nolan, who played Wendy on Broadway to Mary Martin's Peter Pan and who costarred with Richard Crenna and Walter Brennan on The Real McCoys.

Peter Mark Richman, from Cain's Hundred, Longstreet and later of Dynasty, where he played Blake Carrington's trusted attorney.

Gary Conway, who costarred on Burke's Law and later starred on Land of the Giants. A former physique model, he did a semi-nude Playgirl spread in the early days of that magazine.

Monte Markham had short-lived shows such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and The New Perry Mason during his very busy career. He was the star of Ginger in the Morning (1974) and was Blanche's gay brother Clayton on The Golden Girls.

Celeste Yarnall appeared in an episode of Star Trek, was sung to by Elvis Presley in Live a Little, Love a Little (1968) and played the title character in The Velvet Vampire (1970.)

Roy Thinnes was the star of The Invaders. He also did plenty of other TV and occasional feature films including Airport 1975 (1974) and The Hindenburg (1975.)

Roosevelt (Rosey) Grier went from the L.A. Rams to a career on screen. After a stint on Daniel Boone, he made the TV-movie with Oliver, Carter's Army. Before dialing back his acting career in order to pursue ministry, he popped up in movies like Skyjacked and the hooty The Thing with Two Heads (both 1972.)

Nancy Malone costarred (with Roy Thinnes) on the TV series The Long Hot Summer. Her directing career included many hit series from Hotel to Dynasty to Melrose Place as well as Star Trek: Voyager and Diagnosis Murder.

Charles Siebert played eternal thorn-in-the-foot Dr. Stanley Riverside on Trapper John, M.D. Oliver directed an episode of this series (along with one installment of M*A*S*H.)

Biff Manard anyone? This rugged actor played tough guys, cowboys and police officers and was directed by Oliver in her short film Cowboysan (1978.) By that time Manard had already shucked his drawers for a Playgirl spread. Later, he'd work in films like Trancers (1984), Zone Troopers (1985) and Trancers II (1991) as well as playing a recurring role on The Flash (the John Wesley Shipp version) as a police officer.

::::BONUS PICS::::

Manard let it all hang out in his Man of the Month spread. I don't include frontal nudity at P.U., but the pics are out there for you to see if you should wish to.

Gary Conway (then Gary Carmody) in his figure-strap days. (In 1985, he and his Miss America wife, Marian McKnight, would form Carmody McKnight Estate Wines to some success, selling it in 2019.)

Here he's fiddling around in one of the shots from his Playgirl spread.

This was at the time of only partial nudity in the magazine (see also Lyle Waggoner.)

Cheers!