Thursday, March 29, 2012

You are Now Entering Carter Country!

For boys (and girls, too, I suppose) of a certain age, there really can only be one Wonder Woman. Sure, the character was created in 1941 for Sensation Comics and morphed many times over the years in looks and style and of course we also had the animated version from The Super Friends. However, when it came to the human embodiment of the female superhero, Lynda Carter was – and is – Wonder Woman. More on that whole subject later. First, we will take a peek into the early years of Miss Carter, the life path that eventually led to her emerging as the star of a TV series that still has a special place in the heart of many fans.

Linda Jean Cardova Carter came into this world in Phoenix, Arizona on July 24th, 1951. She was the youngest of three children born to Colby (an Irish-American) and Jean (of Spanish-Mexican descent) Carter. She had an older brother Vince and an older sister Pamela. She wasn't even in kindergarten before she discovered that she wanted to be an entertainer. Her own idol was Miss Dinah Shore, then a major TV star through her hit variety show, and with the significant encouragement of her mother, Linda began to take dance classes and even appeared on a local talent series.

Her parents' divorce when she was ten made things difficult, both emotionally and financially, for her and she found release in singing and dancing. A tall, lean girl with sizable feet, she took part in her school's theatrical productions, and her talent was noted, but she was generally unpopular and even picked on for her gangly physique. It was around this time that she changed the spelling of her first name to Lynda. At age fourteen, she joined a local band and later at seventeen another one (one that contained another future TV star, Gary Burghoff!), which landed gigs in Las Vegas and other cities. Later, she moved on to a third band and had featured billing. A stunted attempt for the band to release a record resulted in her return home in 1970. By now, she was no longer a gawky string bean, but a statuesque, stunning beauty with curves in all the right places and a staggering mane of thick brown hair.

Recognizing her potential, her mother encouraged her to try out for the upcoming Miss Phoenix beauty pageant, which she handily won. She proceeded to win the title of Miss Arizona and then Miss World-USA (crowned by Mr. Bob Hope) before competing for the ultimate title in the pageant, Miss World. Here, she fell short, becoming a finalist, but losing the title to Miss World-Australia. Still, the next year of her life was spent making public appearances as Miss World-USA. Upon the completion of her pageant duties, she sought to jump-start an acting career, but found the competition in L.A. formidable.
She landed a guest role on the Robert Forster series Nakia in 1974, but it was 1975 before she got another one, this time on Tony Franciosa's spy series Matt Helm, wearing a bikini in one of her scenes. She was pounding the pavement, auditioning constantly, but to no real avail. She had even auditioned for a TV-movie pilot called Wonder Woman in 1974, but wasn't chosen. Instead, tennis pro-turned actress Cathy Lee Crosby was selected to play the part (and an incarnation further from the established persona in people's minds was not possible!)

Now, in 1969, the comic book character Wonder Woman had, in a major league shift, given up her powers and continued life as a practically costume-free, martial arts-wielding ass kicker known by her former alter ego name, Diana Prince. This was not only a nod to the women's movement, but also to the popularity of The Avengers' Diana Rigg, a mod and leather-clad secret agent in high heel boots and with long, dark hair. When, in 1973, the character returned to her familiar red, blue and gold costume, the Wonder Woman project was left in something of a quandary. The heroine was no longer just a plainclothes agent, yet the star, blonde (!) Crosby, didn't resemble the traditional costumed heroine at all! So, she was put in an amalgam of a uniform that used the colors of Wonder Woman, but not the style. It was, for most audiences, a confusing and unappealing mess (though there are folks out there who appreciate it. Not me. I had no clue who this skinny blonde woman in a track suit was!)

The producer wasn't ready to give up hope on the project yet, though, and eventually planned a more traditional version of the famed heroine. The New, Original Wonder Woman was born and this time she would be the familiar character, complete with the iconic costume and the secret identity of Diana Prince. The story would be set during WWII, when the character had first been introduced, and embrace its comic book roots rather than attempt to distance itself from them. An Amazon by birth, she came to the U.S. in order to help out in the fight against Hitler.
Handsome, square-jawed, comic actor Lyle Waggoner (previously of The Carol Burnett Show) was signed on as the chief male costar (an army colonel named Steve Trevor.) He had some degree of say in who was cast as Wonder Woman, but once the decision was made to go with the traditional, there could be little doubt that this towering (even though she was only really just over 5'9”) beauty was the right choice. A two-hour special was made, introducing the world to Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman and giving the character's story the right treatment. Early tests of Carter in WW mode reveal the need for some more hair (and, perhaps, some more confidence), but she truly inhabited the part.
After a promising debut, another two specials were done with the same basic cast, making a decent dent in the ratings. Still, there was no guarantee of the project going to series. Freed from the wristbands of the part, she was still at this stage a struggling, fledgling actress with little money in the bank. She accepted a role in a low-budget, crime spree movie called Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw. Costarring with the intense (and sometimes intensely bizarre) child-minister-turned-actor Marjoe Gortner, she played a good girl who winds up tagging along with a bad boy.
The outdoorsy flick contained plenty of denim, long hair, bared male chests, drugs and loads of dust and Carter was talked into filming a topless scene, which (being her only one ever) has made the movie a cult collector's classic. Here, the several of the principal cast take a semi-nude dip in a lake. Gortner (whose first name is a combination of Mary and Joseph!) and costar Jesse Vint had worked together two years prior as antagonists in the blockbuster Earthquake.
ABC decided to proceed with The New Original Wonder Woman as a regular series, though they were aghast that in between the time of the airing of the specials and the decision to forge ahead with the show, their star, someone playing the ideal good girl, had taken a role in a tawdry drive-in level movie and gone briefly topless! Still, once she was in that remarkable costume (and more so when she was in the dowdy guise of Yeoman Diana Prince), the memory of Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw would soon become faded.

One of the things that really helped the series along was the fact that The Bionic Woman (starring Lindsay Wagner) had become a hit and when Wagner was injured in a real-life car accident (one which lightly scarred her upper lip for all time), that series production was forced to halt. Wonder Woman was aired in the wake and won the same audience for itself. As the series gained popularity, so did its star. She appeared on Battle of the Network Stars (boggling the minds of many slack-jawed fans with her heaving chest in a wet, practically see-through bathing suit!) and Circus of the Stars and was an awards presenter at the Emmys and Golden Globes.

A method of getting Diana Prince changed into Wonder Woman was needed and it was Carter who suggested spinning in circles, with her hair bun coming undone the military clothing gradually falling away to reveal the costume. In the pilot and in the first two specials, she spun around and her clothing was seen to fall away. In time, this was deemed cost prohibitive and so Prince would begin spinning and a flash of light would occur, with Wonder Woman, shown in full regalia, the result.

In three episodes (one a two-parter), a sister to Wonder Woman was introduced who turned into Wonder Girl. Played by a neophyte actress and with an eye towards a spin-off series, the concept was abandoned when the actress opted to buy herself out of the contract and pursue other acting avenues. The actress was Debra Winger, who would score a hit in 1980 opposite John Travolta (Urban Cowboy) and later soar to stardom in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and Terms of Endearment (1983) clashing severely, by the way, with her costars in the latter films.

Even though Wonder Woman was a wholesome, heroic champion and an icon of all that is good in the world, it wasn't enough for one guest star who showed up that first season. Roy Rogers, the legendary cowboy star of the late 1930s on, appeared as a cattle rancher fighting the Nazis. Rogers, who had been one heavy-duty ladies man in his early years as a country singer, was now a devout Christian along with his wife since 1944, Dale Evans. He objected to Carter's costume, referring to it as a bathing suit, and insisted that she cover up during his episode. Remarkably, the producers did as he wished and for that episode, Wonder Woman was in a long-sleeved red top (still with a plunging neckline) and white gauchos!
As it turned out, later in the run of the show this early example of costume re-configuration would serve as inspiration for the character donning a few other variations, such as a special suit for swimming, motorcycle-riding and even skateboarding! My sister and I would always howl with laughter anything Diana Prince spun around and emerged in one of these get-ups. Speaking of, there were probably many, many a gayboy (I know I was one!) who glanced side-to-side and then surreptitiously found a secluded section of the backyard or an alleyway and spun his little heart out, trying to twirl around the way Carter did!
Though Wonder Woman was popular, it's 1940s setting made it expensive to produce and ABC decided not to renew it for a second season. By this time, Carter had met a dynamic, handsome talent agent and producer named Ron Samuels (shown with her above and at left) who took a significant interest in her career and in herself. They were married in 1977 and he began to work magic when it came to her recognizability and career footing. She had a stunning poster than sold over a million copies (though she reportedly wasn't fond of the pose or the styling of it, not to mention the fact that it hung in many a boy's bedroom where it inspired all sorts of naughty thoughts! I had one in my bedroom, but I wanted to be her more than do her, I'm afraid!)
CBS decided to try its hand at airing the series, but there were to be some changes made. Instead of being set in the 1940s, the show would now be present day. Thus, Wonder Woman, who was immortal, could remain unaffected, but how to explain Waggoner? He was cast as Steve Trevor JUNIOR, the son of the man he played in the period run of the show. The first episode of the The New Adventures of Wonder Woman had Carter back on Paradise Island alongside her mother (played over the course of the show by three Oscar-caliber actresses: Beatrice Straight, Cloris Leachman and, as shown here, Carolyn Jones.) Few things on the crust of planet Earth were as lovely as Carter in her lavender, chiffon Amazon toga. She was just simply a to-die-for beauty with gorgeous features, not the least of which were two sparkling blue eyes. (According to her, her eyes were never as much of a standout in real life, but something about the Panavision cameras made them far more blue and prominent on the show. I don't know about that. They look pretty amazing whenever I see them!)

When the decision was made to continue the series at CBS, Carter's husband, who had previously secured a tremendous $1 million dollar deal for client Lindsay Wagner in The Bionic Woman, managed to do the same for Carter. This new salary made her not only a much higher paid performer in general, but it leapfrogged right over the salary of her costar, the far more experienced Waggoner.

The theme song was augmented slightly (dropping lyrics that referred to the WWII era), Prince now became an agent with a U.S. organization called IDAC along with Steve Trevor Jr, and she was able to dress in stylish, 1977 fashions. She still wore glasses in her alter ego (for a while, anyway), but this was not the same dowdy, uniformed yeoman who had appeared in the first season. Likewise, her hair as Wonder Woman became longer, lighter and less bouffant. Her costume also underwent a minor change or two with the eagles wings now made up of a few separate slivers against the red below instead of full, gold coverage across her breasts and with a more "French-cut" bottom.

Before the end of the second season, she was given one of those pesky robot aides (seen on the left here) so common in virtually every 1970s sci-fi series (Star Wars had seen to that with the popularity of R2-D2 and C-3PO.) Carter was working 14 to 15 hour days and in danger of burning out. She also pursued a singing career, with the release of a 1978 album, but it failed to gain much attention (she also sang two songs on one episode of the show while posing undercover.) As she managed to whittle her workload down to the still-heavy 10 hour day, Waggoner was beginning to chafe at being both underpaid and under-utilized. It had ultimately been determined that there be no sign of romance between his and Carter's characters and so he eventually became just a supporting flunky on the show, often phoning in his scenes. Things got so bad in the third season and towards the end that their storylines barely crossed and he was given another agent to play most of his scenes with. By the time the show had come to a close, he was written out and had their been a fourth season he wouldn't have been in it.
When the show was finally behind her, she wanted to concentrate more on her music career. In 1980, she starred in her own TV special with guests Kenny Rogers and Leo Sayer, singing and dancing her li'l heart out. Several more such specials were to come including one in which she sang the numbers of Tina Turner, Kiss and Bette Midler complete with costumes (her Kiss-inspired get-up is shown here, a combination spider and Las Vegas showgirl worn while belting "I Was Made for Lovin' You!") There was also the TV-movie The Last Song, about a vocalist whose husband is murdered with her next in line. That same year, she had the pleasure of appearing for the second and third time on the variety show of her childhood inspiration Dinah Shore, who by then was hosting Dinah! In the next couple of years she made many variety show appearances, singing on most of them, but really the public wanted to look at her more than anything.
The early 1980s were an era when TV producers seemed to endlessly mount telefilms about once-great movie stars, always played by hot TV actresses. 1980 brought Loni Anderson in The Jayne Mansfield Story. 1982 boasted Ann Jillian as Mae West. 1983 gave us Cheryl Ladd as Grace Kelly. That was also the year that Lynda Carter played the title role in Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess. Her hair was tinted red and she wore brown contact lenses in order to try to embody the fabled actress. Moroccan actor Aharon Ipale, who had once guest-starred on Wonder Woman, played Hayworth's husband Aly Khan, shown here. These projects were almost universally pale, tepid accounts of the lives of the celebrities in question. At least Carter was partly Hispanic and possessed some dance experience, but a realistic portrayal this was not. This was an unhappy time for Carter as her marriage to Samuels was over. She had begun to feel that his interests lied more in the manipulation of her career than in her personally.

Speaking of Loni Anderson, she and Carter teamed up in 1984 for what seemed like it would be a no-brainer considering that Charlie's Angels, about three pretty private eyes, had been such a hit and each lady, different as they were, had a decent fan following. They signed on for the series Partners in Crime, about the ex-wives of a private investigator who inherit his business when he is murdered. First, they solve the crime that killed him, then go on to accept further cases. The ladies claimed to be friendly with one another, but rumors spread like wildfire to the contrary. Also, there was much tampering with the concept and the feel of the show, almost from the start. The network even aired the episodes out of order meaning that the pilot was the fourth show broadcast! Continuing with the then-hot nostalgia for classic actresses, Carter's character was called Carole Stanwyck (after Carole Lombard and Barbara Stanwyck) while Anderson's last name was Kovak (a compressed version of Kim Novak.) No matter what the ladies were called, the middling series was canned after thirteen episodes. For my own part, I've never been able to generate much interest in Anderson who, to me, always resembled a younger, more tan, less interesting vision of Wayland Flowers' Madame, shown below with Underworld fave Donna Mills.
Carter had been the commercial spokesperson for Maybelline cosmetics for several years and figured prominently in their television and print ads. (In fact, one Wonder Woman storyline about deadly face powder was jettisoned due to her association with the cosmetic brand.) Surprisingly, for a lipstick spokesmodel, she did not possess extremely full or large lips, the top one being particularly thin. Thank Jesus, though, she did not seek any augmentation for this then or now. True, the horrendous craze for trout lips came much later, but even now she hasn't succumbed to this disturbing trend and rocks a normal mouth.

It was at a business meeting for Maybelline that she met dynamic finance executive Robert Altman (not to be confused by the filmmaker of the same name.) Despite her resolve to be single for a while, they fell for each other right away and were married by 1984. As his career began to soar, she backed away from the workload she'd been enduring previously and immersed herself in charitable causes. It was 1987 before she set foot in front of the camera again, this time in the TV-movie Stillwatch. She played a journalist sent to interview a female Vice-Presidential candidate who is haunted by memories of a childhood crime in which her father murdered her mother and tried to do the same to her. Don Murray, Stuart Whitman and Miss Louise Latham costarred (and this really needs to be unearthed!)

Two years later, in 1989, she did a guest role in one of Stacy Keach's Mike Hammer mysteries. Two years after that, she came back for two more television movies, Posing: Inspired by Three Real Stories (about Michelle Greene, Amanda Peterson and her, a married mother and bowling alley owner, deliberating the pros and cons of posing for Playboy magazine!) and Daddy, a Danielle Steel drama which put her into the life and arms of single pop Patrick Duffy, who is raising three children (one of whom was Ben Affleck!) in the wake of his wife Kate Mulgrew's desertion.

About this time, an utter nightmare came about in Carter's life than not even her experience as Wonder Woman could help. Her husband was caught up in a banking fraud conflagration that had his elderly partner and him accused of several financial crimes. By now, the Altman's had become a popular and prominent Washington, D.C. couple and, though he strenuously protested his innocence, it was a social and financial disaster for them. Months of litigation would follow, with Lynda trying to support her husband in spirit, but also going to work to help allay some of the costs of the trial. She also began to develop an alcohol problem during this period, one that would get progressively worse in the coming years. Altman was eventually (and swiftly) declared not guilty and the elated couple rejoiced in this, but the damage to his reputation and her health was still felt to a point.

Surprisingly, considering her worsening condition, she took the lead in a low-budget film called Lightning in a Bottle which centered on alcoholism and the agony of a drunk-driving accident. Dee Wallace Stone, Matt McCoy, Stuart Whitman and (yummy) Martin Kove, as her husband, costarred.

She took the costarring role in a series called Hawkeye, an adaptation of the novel Last of the Mohicans which had recently been a surprise hit at the box office in a version starring Daniel Day Lewis. This rendition starred a noticeably older Lee Horsley (once the white-hot sexy star of Matt Houston) as the title character and Carter as his lady love. The Canadian-made show was of a higher quality than Partners in Crime had been, but the comparison to the stars of the hit film was tough and the commute to and from Canada was immensely draining, especially since she was now the mother of two young children, James born in 1988 and Jessica born in 1990. At thirty-seven when she had the first one, she'd gotten a rather late start at motherhood, especially for that time. Hawkeye ended after one season and soon Carter was back to appearing in occasional TV movies.

Before she embarked on this latest spate of work, she went into rehabilitation for her alcohol abuse and made it stick. She's been sober ever since and works to help others through the same problem. From 1996 through 1999, she was the mother of a bulemic daughter in A Secret Between Friends: A Moment of Truth Movie, played a despicable lawyer in She Woke Up Pregnant, defending dentist Joe Penny after he sedated and raped patient Michelle Greene, portrayed a Quaker banker (seriously!) in A Prayer in the Dark, was the mother of a teen rape victim in Someone to Love Me and played a widow in love with a younger man in Family Blessings.
In 2001, she was a governor in the comedy Supertroopers and did two more features in 2005, Sky High, in which she (in a nod to her past as a TV heroine) played a principal at a school for superheroes, and The Dukes of Hazzard, the big screen redux of the country-fried TV show. Here, she was an attractive western lady who winds up involved with the Dukes and held hostage with Willie Nelson's Uncle Jesse. Burt Reynolds, as Boss Hogg, looks on.
This same year (2005), she performed the role of Mama Morton in Chicago in London's West End production of the hit musical. Finally, her attempts to be taken seriously as a singer had paid off. She was invited to record one of the songs from the show on the Chicago 10th Anniversary Edition CD. She's recorded two more albums, one in 2009 (of jazz standards) and one in 2011 (a blend of country, blues, jazz and pop.) She has developed a one-woman cabaret show that she takes here and there. Along the way, she has made guest appearances on Hope & Faith, Law & Order and even popped up as a guest judge on RuPaul's Drag U.
Recent pictures (these in the midnight blue dress are from just last November) reveal a dazzlingly fit and healthy-looking woman. At age sixty, she really is a Wonder Woman. (I can even forgive her the long hair! She did cut it shorter for a while, but when you look this amazing, I say do whatever you want!) She and Altman remain happily married and socially active, having rebounded from the potentially disastrous legal assault of years prior. He created a new media business for himself while she balances her singing with charity work and being mother to their now-grown children.
An abortive attempt was made last year by David E. Kelly to reboot the Wonder Woman franchise (The Bionic Woman already having been given a similar, and similarly failed, treatment.) The less said about these hideous photos from the misguided pilot, the better. The only other female I would ever have remotely accepted in Carter's footsteps was Catherine Zeta-Jones in a feature film, but that ship has sailed by now, too. We will always love Miss Lynda Carter for her extraordinary beauty which radiates from within. We just wish we could see more of her. (Attention casting agents for GCB, get this Arizona gal a guest role on the Texas-set show, stat!)