Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Clucking over Hensley

Today, we look at an actress whose career in TV and movies lasted almost precisely fifteen years, apparently of her own choosing, and so she is barely known, if at all, by most younger people today, having vanished from our screens completely a quarter of a century ago. True, by then she no longer needed to work, but she also apparently never wanted to again! The lady in question is Miss Pamela Hensley.

Hensley was born under that name in 1950 in Glendale, California. The grandchild (on her mother’s side) of an Austrian Jewish woman who left her homeland when Anti-Semitism began to grow, she was actually raised without that faith as her grandma married an American and the family eventually broke with tradition. Hensley’s parents were a veterinarian and an actress and Pamela grew up in the California sunshine, attending Burbank High School. A natural beauty mark dotted her left cheek above her upper lip.

A stint at The Argyle Academy led to an audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. She was accepted and was soon on her way to London, where she spent three years training. Back in the States, she continued under the tutelage of famed coaches Lee Strasberg and Jeff Corey. Hensley developed a voice that was amazingly distinctive. It might not have sounded altogether natural, but the diction, resonance and clarity of it was perfect for projecting dialogue so that everything could be understood.

In 1970, she won her first film role, a small part in Kirk Douglas’s film There Was a Crooked Man. She was paired with then-popular blonde actor Michael Blodgett. This was followed by a small role as a barmaid in the film Making It, starring a sex-obsessed Kristoffer Tabori. Despite some good notices for him in the now-obscure film, it was allegedly given the shortest movie review ever in the The New Yorker: “Making It was based on the novel 'What Can You Do?' What you can do is not see it."

In 1973, she was given a contract to Universal Studios. This meant steady work in a plethora of TV series. Her striking good looks made her an ideal guest star/love interest on many of the hot series of the day including Banacek, Emergency!, Kojak, Adam 12, McMillan & Wife, Ironside and The Rockford Files. Director John Badham used her in his realistic and high-caliber television movie The Law, which, for its time, turned the melodramatic theatrics of previous series like Perry Mason on their ear.

Other TV films followed such as Death Among Friends, an attempt to create a sort of American Miss Marple with Kate Reid in the role. (It wouldn’t be until Murder, She Wrote that American audiences really embraced a female crime solver of a certain age.)

Another feature film came in 1975 when Pamela was chosen to play James Caan’s live-in girlfriend in the brutal Rollerball, all about a future that contains the title game as a major spectator sport. She was primarily being utilized for her looks and her body, but what a body!

Directly after, she worked for legendary stop-motion director George Pal who was doing a satiric take on a once-popular comic character. Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze was an adventure yarn starring Ron Ely, all blonde and painted tan, as the title figure. Hensley appeared as a South American beauty who manages to come to his rescue. This was intended to be the first in a series of films about the hero, but the film’s dismal failure at the box office kicked the legs out from under it before the series could proceed. (Rumor has it that a sequel was already partially filmed along with the original, much the way they do things now, but it has never seen the light of day.)

Ely might have seemed a good choice at the time (he had been Tarzan on TV) for an action hero, but his draw for movie audiences was questionable. I do always appreciate when action stars have their shirts torn, to reveal a nipple, however. Ha ha! Anyway, Hensley could hardly be blamed for the project’s failure, her part being a small one, but it was back to television for her after this, at least for a while.

The good news is that she was given a decent role on a popular series, Marcus Welby, M.D. Welby, starring Robert Young as the title character, had been a stunning success since its 1969 debut (it was the first ABC show to be #1 in the ratings for the whole season), though it was now in its seventh season. Stalwart secondary doctor Steven Kiley (played by James Brolin) was given a fiancée, ultimately a wife, and she was played by Pamela Hensley. Her addition to the show was heralded in the media, giving her some much-needed press attention.

The character of Janet Blake was not just pretty, though. She was brainy and insightful and Welby relied on her for various things. The show featured its fair share of philosophical discussions. Hensley was continuing to project an attractive, feminine persona, but one that was clearly intelligent, sensible and thoughtful. The bad news is that, by 1976, medical shows on TV were waning. Both Welby and its competitor Medical Center went off the air that year, having run the same amount of seasons.

Not idle for long, she was cast in another show the following season. Raymond Burr was the star of Kingston: Confidential, about a media tycoon who sends a couple of undercover agents out on assignment to get the real story behind the various happenings of the world. Paired with (the decidedly un-electric) Art Hindle, she was one of the agents who found herself knee-deep in all sorts of scenarios. Sadly, the show was canned after just thirteen episodes.

Hensley continued to appear on television, sometimes in special two part episodes of series such as The Six Million Dollar Man and Switch. She also did Vega$ and the dire B.J. and the Bear. There was another project on the horizon, though, that would grant her a new and appreciative audience. Glen Larson was putting together a remake of one of the old comic book and movie serial characters that had been popular in the 1930s. The result was the elaborate TV-movie Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, starring Gil Gerard as the hero.
Pamela was selected to play the evil and seductive Princess Ardala. The part gave her a chance to provide campy villainy while cavorting around in hilarious Jean-Pierre Dorleac costumes, most of which took pains to show off her nubile figure. (One of her contenders for the part had been Catherine Bach, who was then cast as Daisy Duke on The Dukes of Hazzard.) Gerard’s chief ally and quasi-love interest was Erin Gray, but he was still occasionally tempted by the far more blatant and sultry Hensley. The TV movie was not picked up by any of the three networks, so it was released to movie theaters as a feature.
Shortly thereafter, the concept was sold to NBC as a TV series and Hensley made several guest appearances on the show. It’s telling that she is highly remembered for this character and her association with the series when, apart from the pilot film, she was only on the program four times out of thirty-five episodes!! Even on the boxed set DVD of the pilot and both seasons, her visage looms on the packaging, despite her limited contribution to the show. After the series was hideously retooled for the second season, she was never once called upon to appear, a major mistake. Buck Rogers was canceled after only eleven of those episodes.

The late 70s was a time for sweeping miniseries and Hensley found herself in one with The Rebels, part of John Jakes’ Kent Family Chronicles (The Bastard had aired previously and The Seekers came after this one.) Andrew Stevens was the star of the story, set in Revolutionary War era New England. Don Johnson led a supporting cast that included Doug McClure, Richard Basehart, Joan Blondell, Anne Francis and Peter Graves. Hensley was paired with Johnson as the beauteous Charlotte Waverly. (In the still photo below, that's prolific bad guy William Smith.) In 1978 and 1980, she was part of the NBC team of Battle of the Network Stars. She also was married from 1978 –1981 to noted 60s and 70s songwriter Wes Farrell. (He had been married to Tina Sinatra beforehand and scored the Oscar-winning film Midnight Cowboy.)
Another movie opportunity came her way in 1980 when a couple of the writers of Get Smart decided to make a feature film continuing the exploits of secret agent Maxwell Smart (Don Adams.) The result, after a lot of re-imagining and in-fighting, was The Nude Bomb, all about a villain threatening to rid the world of all its clothing unless it does his bidding.

Adams reprised his famous role, but Barbara Feldon was not asked to come back as his sidekick Agent 99. Instead, three women (Agents 36 –22 –34, get it?) took her place and Hensley was one of them. The primary one was softcore porn actress Sylvia Kristel (the other being Andrea Howard), so Hensley didn’t gather a ton of attention for the ultimately unsuccessful movie, though she did have a comedic scene in a shower with Adams that some fans remember fondly.
Few casting directors ever seemed to know just what to do with this striking brunette who actually had a brain. She was back to the miniseries format with Condominium, a 1980 all-star extravaganza that featured Barbara Eden, Dan Haggerty, Steve Forrest, Ana Alicia, Ralph Bellamy, Arte Johnson, Jack Jones, Dorothy Malone, Stuart Whitman and others. Based on a novel, it concerned a glamorous ocean-side high-rise of questionable strength that is eventually hit by a devastating hurricane. (Now I ask you… WHY can we not see this cheesetastic projects anywhere?! Another question is, why didn’t Forrest hold his stomach in, in this scene?)
A recurring part on the rescue drama 240-Robert followed along with guest spots on the requisite series Fantasy Island, Hotel and The Love Boat. There was also a seedy little film called Double Exposure about a men’s magazine photographer (Michael Callan) who may be killing off his models in a vicious fashion. Surprisingly, Hensley did not play one of the models, but rather a dogged police detective attempting to solve the case. The rather interesting cast included Joanna Pettet, James Stacey, Cleavon Little, Sally Kirkland and Hee Haw’s Misty Rowe.

In 1982, Hensley had auditioned for a role on a new crime-solving series called Matt Houston. Combining the elements of many of the then-hot trends such as people from Texas, hunks with thick moustaches, fast sports cars and over-the-top (though not by today’s standards!) action sequences, it starred relative newcomer Lee Horsley (Horsely and Hensley?!) who had spent a short while as a sidekick on the mystery series Nero Wolfe.

Search high and wide, far and near, and you are not likely to find a more charming and devilishly handsome man than Horsley was during the first season of Matt Houston (and thereafter for some time.) His character was a wealthy Texan living in L.A. and solving crimes with the aid of a computer, a helicopter and a girl Friday who blended sensibility, professionalism and resourcefulness with beauty and charisma. This part of C.J. Parsons was played, of course, by Pamela Hensley.

She and Horsley enjoyed incredible chemistry together and their characters, deliberately written to bounce remarks off one another due to their differences in attitude, made a terrific combination. It goes without saying that they were also easy on the eyes, though Hensley left the swimsuit and other slinky attire to the other gals this time, for the most part, and was often dressed in business wear. Initially, there was an extended supporting cast, most of who didn’t work well within the series’ structure with the possible exception of John Aprea as a police detective. Eventually, these others were pruned away and the prime players consisted of Horsley, Hensley and a new police lieutenant played by Michael Hoyt.
The series was retooled as the end of the first season neared and a lot of the distinctiveness of the concept (cowboy in the big city as a fish out of water) drizzled away. It also had begun as a mind-boggling showcase for multitudinous campy guest stars, but this also dwindled in time when a new, tougher image for the show and its star was sought. (By the way, if you think I’m overestimating the guest star aspect of this show, think again. One ep featured Sonny Bono as Zsa Zsa Gabor’s karate-expert bodyguard. One had former teen idol Troy Donahue sharing a scene with later former teen idol David Cassidy. Another had Fred Grandy as a serial killer. The list of stars appearing on season one looks like Aaron Spelling’s Christmas card list!)
The series was semi-hot for a while, but eventually petered out. The producers tried to spark interest by unsealing the coffin and dragging out an eighty-plus year-old Buddy Ebson as Matt’s uncle for the last twenty-two episodes, but it was all for naught. Still, Hensley was in every episode and the show scored a rare coup when all sixty-seven eps were picked up for syndication one year after its cancellation. (At the time, it was rare for a show to win rerun syndication when less than one hundred episodes were produced and also rare for a show to have that quick a turnaround. This has greatly changed now, of course.)
Matt Houston was produced by busy TV executive E. Duke Vincent, who had worked on many shows before and continues to do so now. When Hensley auditioned for him, she was struck by his Italian looks and small details such as the way he wore his sleeve cuffs. Though she had appeared once on Vega$, it was not in one of the episodes he'd produced. In time, the couple fell in love and eventually married. By the time Matt Houston was canceled, they were husband and wife and, for whatever reason, Hensley never again set foot before the camera again.

She effectively disappeared from public view in 1985. E. Duke Vincent was a producer for Dynasty, The Colbys, Hotel, Beverly Hills, 90210, Melrose Place and other shorter-lived soapy dramas like 2000 Malibu Road and Models, Inc. He also produced the daytime soap Sunset Beach and the successful shows 7th Heaven and Charmed. There is no question that roles could have been found for Hensley to play on every single one of these shows or any of his many others, even as just a one time guest. Lord knows the world has been beset for decades by producers’ wives demanding and getting parts on TV and in film based mostly on their relationships. Hensley apparently wanted none of it and was content to stay completely out of the limelight.

Sharing the good life with her successful husband, Hensley began to recall her Jewish grandmother’s succulent cooking. The woman had lived across the hall from an Italian woman who shared many of her culinary secrets with her. The result was a Jewish grandmother with a tremendous skill for cooking Italian food. Now married to Vincent, whose own family was Italian and loved such meals (relegating every Thursday night and Sunday night to creating their aromatic feasts), she enjoyed preparing the food she’d loved so much as a youth.

Finally, she was cajoled into writing a cookbook that put over sixty of these recipes out there for others to enjoy. Initially stupefied that anyone would want to work with the simple ingredients she typically used, she was reluctant, but eventually set about writing the book, which also includes anecdotes, photos and so forth. The Jewish-Sicilian Cookbook by Pamela Hensley Vincent was published in 2004. Italian (and perhaps some Jewish) purists vilified it for its use of non-traditional ingredients and methods, as if she was supposed to present something archaic instead of something simple for today’s active woman. Others took pot shots at her decision to include old publicity photos within it. However, many people enjoyed reading her meal-oriented, enthusiastic family anecdotes and took pleasure in creating the foods she listed within.

It was a rare public turn from a former actress who had charm and beauty to spare and decided to withhold it, rather than continue the grind of performing in things that didn’t interest her. She found that her favorite role was that of a real Hollywood wife and never looked back. It’s a shame that, at least, she hasn’t participated (or been asked to?) in special features for her series Buck Rogers and Matt Houston on DVD, for she has a fan base clamoring to hear from her. Only time will tell if their wishes will come true and she’ll reemerge sometime (what? At age eighty on a future cable channel TCTV – Turner Classic Television, hosted by a middle-aged Kirk Cameron?)


Topaz said...

Omigod! Like you couldn't have found one shirtless picture of Gil Gerard from Buck Rogers? Never mind, I was over him a long time ago.

Yeah, I could never understand Buck's interest in Erin Gray when Ardala was around. Hensley was beautiful and exotic-looking. I didn't even know she was on Matt Houston; we somehow never got around to watching that show. And whatever happened to Lee Horsley?

Poseidon3 said...

If you click on Gil's name in the column on the right, it will bring up two posts that have shirtless or practically shirtless pics of him. I didn't want to overkill it, especially in someone else's tribute! LOL

Poor Lee started looking rough after a while. Hair issues and more. I haven't looked at him lately. I'll have to dig him out and see what the story is. Maybe he's come around and is a handsome s & p daddy now?

normadesmond said...

as always, quite impressive.

as for the subject, i never gave this woman a moment's thought. loved the tabori mention...adored him.

Poseidon3 said...

Norma, have I ever mentioned how much I love your blase, blunt assessment of things? Ha! If I haven't, let me do so now. Hey, at least I can rest assured that you occasionally give ME a moment's thought! ;-P

Topaz said...

All right, I forgive you.

So based on your comment, I went looking for Lee Horsley. First of all, according to imdb, he is five years YOUNGER than Pamela Hensley. Didn't see that coming. Second, google images led to his picture on what appeared to be a modeling agency roster, and he didn't look bad at all!

His acting work has been very sporadic since Matt Houston went off the air. I wonder if that was his choice...or Hollywood's.

As always, thanks for your interesting posts.

thunder said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
thunder said...

WOW! What a great story.
Pamela Hensley is a beautiful and remarkable woman. No mater what choices she made in her career I'm sure she had her reasons.. I also wanted to comment on Pamela's High School Photo, look at that smile, That is definitely a girl to succeed.

footy2rock said...

Great story mate I always wondered what happened to Pamela Hensley she was one sexy lady.I really missed her in the late 80s I loved her in Rollerball & Buck Rogers I only recently bought Matt Houston only to see Pamela

Poseidon3 said...

Thank you for dropping in! I'm glad you enjoyed this post about the lovely Miss H.!