Monday, May 3, 2010
Reachin' for Beacham
Anyone who knows me knows that I grew up with the TV as my closest friend and idolized all the stars of my favorite shows. The Battle of the Network Stars specials were something I looked forward to more than Christmas. Over the years, I had more than a few favorite female TV characters from Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) of Star Trek to Victoria Barkley (Barbara Stanwyck) of The Big Valley to Lynda Carter of Wonder Woman. As I entered my teen years, Alexis Colby (Joan Collins) of Dynasty took over the top spot. I thought I’d never adore anyone more than her, but, to my great surprise, I did! The character of Sable Colby (of both Dynasty and The Colbys), played by today’s featured actress Stephanie Beacham, was and is my all time favorite TV persona. Ms. Beacham was born in Barnet, England in 1947 to devoted parents whose successful marriage lasted more than fifty years. (Later, in some of her early interviews, she would give Casablanca as a birthplace, thinking Barnet too nondescript.) Sadly, during her mother’s pregnancy with her, she developed chicken pox and it is believed that this condition is what led to Stephanie being born completely deaf in one ear and with only 75% hearing in the other. Beacham dreamed of becoming a dancer while her older sister Di-Di was the one who coveted a career in acting. Stephanie especially considered teaching dancing to the deaf, knowing that they could “hear” music due to the vibrations of it. Eventually, however, she drifted into modeling and then acting, drifting being the key word as she was always encouraged to do what she wished and to take chances. She has amusingly referred to herself as a Mrs. Magoo many times because of her tendency to wind up in a play or movie with little or no intention of doing so! Once hired, however, Beacham always gave (and still gives) every conceivable amount of attention to her roles, often repeating lines out loud or to herself over and over and over until she has selected exactly the emphasis and enunciation she feels is right. Her first TV role was no walk in the park. She was cast as Mary Queen of Scots in a British special about the clash between Mary and Elizabeth I. Following this, she appeared on many popular British television series including The Saint (which starred a pre-James Bond Roger Moore) and UFO. She also won her first role in a feature film, playing a small part in The Games, a multi-character study of Olympic running with Michael Crawford and Ryan O’Neal among its stars. Soon after, a chance meeting in a restaurant where Roddy McDowall was dining led to her appearance in his first directing effort Tam Lin (released in the US as The Devil’s Widow.) Beacham played many of her scenes with Ian McShane (and a young Joanna Lumley was in the film as well), but the real star of the picture was Ava Gardner. The film was marketed as a horror film and was not a success, though a later re-cut brought it closer to the film McDowall had intended. With the benefit of a strong agent, she was suggested to play opposite Marlon Brando in a film called The Nightcomers. It was a prequel to Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, featuring the provocative relationship between a gamekeeper and a governess. Her agent had submitted two photos of potential leading ladies to Brando. One was a rather plain actress, the other a beautiful and glamorous one. Thing is, they were both shots of Beacham, which, understandably gave her an edge! This being 1971, the somewhat sadomasochistic relationship between the leading characters opened (and often disgusted) many an eye. There was little shying away from it either, especially in Europe where Stephanie’s bare breast was shown right on the lobby cards! Brando was in a career valley at the time, having starred in the unsuccessful string of films Candy, The Night of the Following Day and Burn!, but the career-resuscitating The Godfather was his very next movie after this one. He played several pranks on her during filming including leaving her tied up all through one lunch break, but was considerate enough to ensure that she was never filmed naked below the waist (by wearing undergarments and boots himself during their sex scenes.) Now considered a sexy and hot property, Beacham was given a featured role in Dracula A.D. 1972, one of Christopher Lee’s many flicks as the vampire count, this one set in the present day and peppered with all sorts of hip, mod characters. Now almost four decades old, the then-up-to-the-minute styling is hysterical and some of the dialogue very hooty, but the film retains a certain amount of respect from genre fans. During this period of standing on the threshold of film stardom, she posed nude for Playboy magazine. Years later, when she had her success on TV, the magazine dragged the photos out and published them again. She told Johnny Carson at the time that the only thing she regretted was the horrible wig she’d worn during the shoot and that she’d have posed again right then with some better shots had they asked her. Johnny impishly asked her what her real hair color was and she self-deprecatingly replied, “sort of mousy brown.” Amicus Studio, a less-famous competitor of Hammer Films who had made Dracula, utilized Beacham in the gothic chiller …And Now the Screaming Starts. This time, Stephanie was done up in ornate (and cleavage-baring) period costumes and given a mane of full, curly hair. She not only looked stunning, but turned in a solid performance full of radiance and terror. Her character’s new marriage is spoiled by the presence of a dismembered and deadly hand! Her seasoned costars in the now-campy film included Peter Cushing, Herbert Lom and Patrick Magee. Amidst other TV work, Beacham took a leading role in a British daytime soap opera called Marked Personal, all about the machinations of a human resources department in a sizeable firm. Soon after her work on this program, she married John McEnery and retreated somewhat from her acting career. The couple had two children together (following a miscarriage early on) and Stephanie began to lose the career momentum she had been enjoying previously. When her marriage began to falter and she found herself working to support her two girls (who she treasures deeply), it was most often in trifling supporting roles in horror movies such as The Confessional, Schizo and Horror Planet. Always, despite the less important roles and the sometimes-shoddy budgets, she gave everything she could to the projects. In 1981, a wonderful opportunity came her way. She was granted the role of Rose Millar in the British series Tenko, a gritty drama concerning a variety of European women being held in a Singapore prison camp following the Japanese invasion during WWII. Prior to filming, Stephanie deliberately packed on eight pounds of weight so that she could then lose it, giving her character the progressive deterioration she felt was needed. Eventually, she became close to emaciated, alarming her costars and her family. The effect, however, was powerful. In one of those Ripley’s Believe it or Not situations that can only happen in TV Land, her story the first season concerned the potential escape exploits of her character Rose, along with Blanche and Dorothy! Following her work on Tenko, she was enlisted to headline a limited series called Connie, in which she played a scheming, determined woman in the cutthroat fashion industry. Filmed in 1984, she suggested that the producers try to pattern the look of the show after the then-wildly popular American series Dynasty. Without a Nolan Miller on board to dress everyone (not to mention without Dynasty’s budget or overall sense of taste, even bad 80s taste), the clothes weren’t quite in the same league, but the series was a big hit and it gained her a significant amount of attention. Not long after, when Aaron Spelling and Richard and Esther Shapiro were putting together a spin-off of Dynasty (called, at first, Dynasty II: The Colbys, but soon just The Colbys), they needed a strong, glamorous, provocative woman to play Charton Heston’s wife Sable. Faye Dunaway wouldn’t budge on her requested salary and Angie Dickinson and other names didn’t work out. They finally got around to Beacham, but, out of town at the time, she wasn’t interested in it. In a completely bizarre twist, she only auditioned for the part because her maid locked herself out of the house and Stephanie didn’t want her goldfish to starve, so she drove back home to London and decided since she was going to be there after all, she might as well audition! She knocked her screen test out of the park and the search for Sabella “Sable” Colby was over. Now the only trouble is that she was a virtual unknown in the US and was working on a TV series with a landmark cast that included former screen heavyweight Heston, Katharine Ross, Ricardo Montalban and the legendary Barbara Stanwyck, among others. Buried in the credit sequence behind the nominal stars of the show John James and Emma Samms and other American performers, it seemed a risky movie to have gone with her. No one needed to worry. Her first appearance as the character was emerging, nude, tan and voluptuous, from a bubble bath into the waiting arms of Heston and from that moment on she not only held her own with the rest of the cast, but also frequently was the only aspect of the show worth tuning in for! She was almost immediately set up as the adversary of Heston, Ross, James and Stanwyck and was given deliciously nasty lines, which she imbued with great dramatic fervor and excess flavor. (Her habit of studying and repeating all of her lines until they were perfect served her especially well here.) As the wildly overprotective mother of fraternal twins Tracy Scoggins and Maxwell Caulfield and younger daughter Claire Yarlett, she did everything she could think of to benefit them, especially Caulfield who she thought was being usurped by the arrival of James into their household. Some people were startled that Beacham was playing the mother of Caulfield, who was only twelve years her junior, but no one seemed to realize that Scoggins was only SIX years younger than Beacham! No matter, because Beacham made it work. Initially, Caulfield scoffed at the idea of her playing his mom, but her supreme dedication to the task soon convinced him otherwise. Beacham endeared herself to the rest of the (often more famous) cast by never having an unkind word to say about any of them and frequently praising them to the rafters. She was good to fans as well. I wrote to her that first year and received a personally autographed photo. Storylines of the series were frequently tiresome and preposterous, though there was always a stunning look of luxury and an influx of glamorous and beautiful people. (The budget of @ $1,000,000/episode was a landmark at the time.) Beacham, however, never faltered in her amazing portrayal. She had a tear-filled breakdown scene with Heston in season two that put her forever in the Underworld Hall of Fame and, while it may not have the same impact to see it out of context, to those who had stuck with her character all along, it was shattering. Stephanie Beacham could have never set foot in front of a camera before or after and I would still worship her for her work as Sable. The series was not a successful one and barely lasted two seasons. The creators thought they would pull a fast one and end it with a major cliffhanger, thinking that would be enough to get it renewed, but it wasn’t. They had Samms step into a flying saucer and be taken away!! This most bizarre of all primetime soap cliffhangers was later addressed back on the mother show Dynasty, where James and Samms returned the next fall. In a stroke of genius, the producers brought Beacham to Dynasty again as well the season after that! She had flown to Paris to take on a supporting role in Armand Assante and Jacqueline Bisset’s miniseries, Napoleon and Josephine: A Love Story, in which she portrayed the sexy Therese (a woman who, in real life, had ten children by many different men) when she was approached about coming back to help smooth the upcoming departure of Linda Evans’ Krystle and give Joan Collins’ Alexis a dazzling new adversary. That last season of the show (for it was cancelled the same one she arrived) suffered from some pedestrian storylines and from the limited appearance of Collins, who was contracted for only half the season episodes, but Beacham made it all worthwhile. Many fans still feel it was the best one ever. I can’t go that far, but it was the best in years and Beacham and Collins had some rare repartee with some unforgettable enmity between their characters. When the show was over for good (not counting the horrendous reunion movie in which Beacham was unceremoniously omitted!), she made a children’s movie called The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, based on a well-regarded book. Playing an evil woman named Letitia Slighcarp, she enjoyed campy villainy of both a glamorous and a horrid-looking type. She shaved her hairline somewhat to elongate the face and appeared in a variety of ways from dirty and tangled to altogether bald! She also squeezed in a minor role in Troop Beverly Hills as a Jackie Collins-esque novelist. Then, in a complete departure from her usual type of role, she was cast as Sister Kate, a sitcom about a nun who teaches and mentors a collection of children. This sort of had “misfire” written all over it from the start, but perhaps the creators thought that a no-nonsense, mouthy sister taking on “cute” kids with attitudes could draw in viewers. Certainly, there have been many successful series over the years with even lower appeal than this! Early publicity emphasized her nun’s habit, but that was soon tapered off as she began appearing more and more in the liberated blue sweater and skirt. In an effort to cover all the bases, they had smart aleck black children, another kid in a wheelchair and even a cute hunky one played by a newcomer named Jason Priestly! Canned after nineteen episodes, at least Steph was granted a Golden Globe Nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy Series. Next up was a string of miniseries. This time period, being 1990-92, was not the heyday of the miniseries, but they were still quite a popular method of programming. She was part of the Jackie Collins’-based Lucky Chances (which costarred fellow Dynasty alumni Michael Nader, Richard Anderson and Leann Hunley along with a little someone named Sandra Bullock!) She also supported Lindsay Wagner in To Be the Best (which also had ex-Dynasty star Christopher Cazenove.) The one that really starred her, though, was called Secrets. Based on a Danielle Steel novel, the story was about several folks in and around the production of a big, new TV show. In a massive stretch, Beacham played a character named Sabina, a glamorous primetime TV star working on a major new program. Her scenes were played mostly with Christopher Plummer (who seems to be enjoying himself. Look where his hand is!), but the cast also included Gary Collins (!), Linda Purl and Josie Bissett. Note Josie’s big hair in the shot below and also note the incredible thinness of Purl’s waistline! Episodic TV and films made for television kept her occupied for a while until another regular series came her way. During this period, she also made sporadic appearances on Aaron Spelling’s hit teen soap Beverly Hills 90210 (which starred her old pal Priestley) in the unlikely role of Luke Perry’s estranged mother! She was then cast in the Steven Spielberg-produced Seaquest DSV, a sci-fi show set in the near future. Roy Scheider was the nominal star of the series as Captain Nathan Bridger, but Beacham was marine biologist Kristin Westphalen, a sounding board for him, and had prestige billing at the end of the opening credits. (The credits, by the way, featured a terrific, sweeping theme song.) The decidedly unglamorous role may have made her happy (as she claims to not enjoy wearing makeup and also, despite the roles she has played, dressing up!), but the series was not catching fire as the makers had hoped. The next season, the series began ramping up the fantasy elements and the cast was heavily retooled (including bringing on Peter DeLuise as a sort of amphibious person…) She was out of the line-up and free to pursue other projects. A return to England saw her appearing in limited run series there along with occasional film bits. (She had a nothing role in Julie Andrews’ Relative Values.) In 2003, she joined the very popular British prison series Bad Girls. She remained there until 2006. (Incidentally, this is in the process of being redone as an American show for the F/X network.) Next up, shaking off those prison blues, she took part in Strictly Come Dancing, the UK program that was eventually retooled into Dancing With the Stars for the US. She was the first celebrity voted off, which couldn’t have felt good, though by all accounts, she was pretty weak on the show. (This is surprising given her early life interest in dance!) In 2009, Stephanie temporarily joined the legendary (and longest-running) British soap opera Coronation Street. Then in 2010, she took part in the UK Celebrity Big Brother. Her commentary for the British coverage of the 2009 Oscar ceremony ruffled some feathers for those not attuned to her sometimes snarky personality. Because she strives always to play all sorts of different people (and the stage, where she’s had much success as well, has afforded her even more opportunities with this), Stephanie Beacham is likely to continue working on an on, eventually taking on elderly character parts, though she still looks too dazzling to do so right now. In any case, for her work as Sable Colby, she has a permanent ten-foot tall statue in the wing of The Underworld that is devoted to that character.