By Irv Slifkin.
Star Trek fans thought they knew Susan Oliver, as “Vina” the green alien woman in the abandoned series pilot episode “The Cage,” which featured Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Pike. She was so memorable that she was hired to play the same role in “The Menagerie,” the rebooted opening episode with William Shatner as Kirk.
Movie fans also believed they knew the actress – born Charlotte Gercke in New York City in 1932 – as the lead actress opposite Sal Mineo in The Gene Krupa Story (1959), with George Hamilton as Hank Williams in Your Cheatin’ Heart (1964), and alongside Elizabeth Taylor, Eddie Fisher and Laurence Harvey in Butterfield 8 (1960). And TV fans assumed they knew Ms. Oliver for her regular turn as Ann Howard on the series Peyton Place (1966), as well as appearances on a plethora of TV shows from the 1950s through the 1980s, from Bonanza; Gomer Pyle, USMC; The Twilight Zone; to The Love Boat – and everything in-between.
Despite her steady work and high media profile throughout three decades, the public knew little of Susan Oliver’s private life, a topsy-turvy ride and steady struggle to prove herself an independent woman in Hollywood. She shunned marriage, took career matters mostly into her own hands, and became a wheeler dealer in real estate and an expert pilot comfortable in small aircraft or big jets. But what she really wanted to do is direct and work on her own scripts and projects. After attending an early American Film Institute directing program for women – also attended by Maya Angelou, Lee Grant and Lily Tomlin – she set out to achieve her goals. Unfortunately, other than some sporadic TV assignments on such shows as MASH and Trapper John, she hit a dead-end, a common occurrence for women directors at the time.
In “The Green Girl,” director George A. Pappy Jr. delves into the incredible life of Susan Oliver, revealing her unpredictable life through film clips, still photos, archival footage, and interviews with people in the industry, relatives, and experts who were close to her. A labor of love in which Pappy discovered rare recordings and previously unknown facts about the actress, The Green Girl, which will screen at this year’s Reel East Film Festival, offers an insightful, exhilarating, and ultimately sobering look at the machinations of Hollywood through the life of the blue-eyed, platinum blonde’s actress’s successes and failures.
Here’s an interview with writer-director George A. Pappy about his film and the life and career of Susan Oliver.
Can you tell me why you were attracted to making a documentary on Susan Oliver?
I was watching her two-part Star Trek episode (“The Menagerie”) on Netflix back in 2011, and as I’ve so often done now that I have an iPhone, I looked her up on IMDB.com. I was expecting to see what you usually see with a lot of old Star Trek Original Series guest stars: a handful of credits in TV (mostly from the 1960s), maybe a minor movie or two, and no credits more recent than the 1970s. Instead, I was confronted by an eight-page list of credits, well over one hundred, spanning from the mid-1950s through the late 1980s. And the vast majority of these credits were for significant roles, not tiny parts like “Lady at Cash Register.” I was stunned that I could have missed such a substantial career, especially since I’d always been so keenly aware of her because of her role on Star Trek (see below). The only other thing I ever knew that she’d done was the Twilight Zone episode with Roddy MacDowall (“People are Alike All Over,” 1960). It was a little embarrassing, considering what a TV and film trivia buff I am. Moreover, I have the professional version of IMDB, which shows each actor’s weekly popularity rating (based on how often people are looking up the name). And in 2011, 21 years after her death, people were still looking up Susan more often than many recognizable actors who still work regularly today (a situation which continues to be true in 2017). That said a lot about her impact and stature.
When you started looking into her life, were you aware of anything aside from her acting career?
Prior to looking her up on IMDB that night, I knew nothing about her life. It was on IMDB that I quickly noticed that she directed two TV shows in the early 1980s, a situation which I knew to be very rare back then (when almost every director was male and white). And when I noticed that she’d done a short film in 1978, I suspected that she might have gone to film school (one of the only places people were making short films back then). Sure enough, I learned that she’d been part of the original AFI Directing Workshop for Women, a program with which I’m quite familiar. And I had absolutely no idea about her aviation feats or random facts like her one-time engagement to baseball legend Sandy Koufax. I remember at the time flashing back to that famous refrain from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when the pair were being tracked by the Super Posse: “Who are those guys?” “Who was this woman?”
Were you a big Star Trek fan? Were you impressed with her appearance as “The Green Girl” when you were younger?
I am part of that generation that grew up watching perpetual reruns of the Original Series back in the 1970s, before any of the feature films or the later Star Trek series (Next Generation, Voyager, etc.). I was a huge fan. And yes, Susan’s performance always made a huge impression on me, even as a young boy. For one thing, she was in the only two-part episode of the series, and back in those days, the TV station would make a big deal out of the fact that they were airing that pair of episodes. Plus, that Green Orion Slave Girl really stood out! (And on top of all that, the final still image for the closing credits of the first season featured a close up of Susan as the Green Girl, so that picture is literally burned into my mind – we made the point in the documentary that the image has probably been seen a million times on TV, computers and smart devices all around the world over the past 50 years.)
In your documentary, you state her and her mother struggled financially yet Susan Oliver went to a private boarding school and Swarthmore College. How did she manage that?
From what I can tell, the private school was not necessarily very expensive (we’re not talking Phillips Exeter or anything like that), and Susan’s maternal grandparents were wealthy. I think the financial challenges were more a function of Susan’s mother’s pride (and unwillingness to ask her parents for help) than anything else. As far as Swarthmore went, that first year was paid for by Susan’s father, but he’d remarried by then and had three new sons, so he apparently could not afford to keep paying the tuition after her freshman year.
Was one of the goals of your film to shed a light on her accomplishments?
Absolutely. I felt very bad for her from the very beginning. It was not hard, even before I started talking to people, to see that life had not panned out anything like she’d hoped it would, and a lot of it had to do with her being a woman in a field (acting) where women were generally written off and discarded once they hit 40 (while men continued to thrive and had access to all kinds of other opportunities, like directing). Especially after reading a rare copy of her 1983 autobiography that I found at the library, I felt really strongly that the universe (or Hollywood, or someone/something) at least owed her the decency of a proper acknowledgement, a permanent record of and tribute to her life
She was a registered pilot who attempted to fly to Moscow and was adept with small planes, gliders, and even Lear Jets. Did she ever stop flying?
She did, in 1974. In fact, I think it’s one of the things that led to her financial difficulties later – in addition to some bad real estate deals she made later – Susan undoubtedly would have had a lot more money saved up if she hadn’t owned and maintained her own plane for 7 years (1967-1974). Unfortunately, the money she got from selling the plane went towards securing an option on the novel she planned to adapt into the film Yellowbird, which never got made.
The film Yellowbird is mentioned in your movie as a project Susan wanted to direct. Can you tell us what that project was about?
It was based on the 1970 mystery/thriller novel Waiting for Willa, about a woman who travels to Sweden in search of her sister, who suddenly disappears under suspicious circumstances. Susan wanted to write the adapted script, play the woman searching for her sister, and direct the film. She apparently bought the rights for the novel during the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, but it wasn’t long before she was confronted with a grim reality: nobody in Hollywood wanted to finance the film with her writing and directing (and possibly playing the lead, either; she’d already done so much TV and was in her forties by then). The project simply died on the shelf.
She was in two movies with Jerry Lewis and later he offered to help her financially. Can you tell me about their relationship?
Susan’s manager in the early 1960’s, Dick Heckenkamp, told me that when he sent her to meet Jerry Lewis in 1963 or 1964, he warned her not to let the comedian get her alone in his office because he was supposedly notorious for putting the moves on his female co-stars. And from what Dick said, Susan made him keep the office door open. It would seem that this first meeting won Jerry Lewis’ respect for Susan, and others told me he had an almost brotherly love for her from then on. It should be noted that in general, Susan seems to have been very adept at sidestepping unwanted advances, even if doing so might not be in the best interests of her career.
You have clips with Susan Oliver in The Women’s Prejudice Film from 1974. What can you tell us about that?
I can’t tell you much about it at all. I got the copy that shows up in the film from a huge Susan Oliver fan, but I don’t know where he got it. It was produced in 1974 by Sandler Institutional Films, makers of such classic shorts as “Dolphins: Our Friends from the Sea,” “The Chinese Way of Life,” “Customer Service, It Pays to Please,” and “Learning About Electricity.” They seem to have existed and produced many shorts on a variety of random topics from the mid-1970s until the late 1990s. “The Women’s Prejudice Film” seems to be one of their earliest offerings. Although I have no actual proof, after viewing the entire film (which runs about 16 minutes), I almost had the sense that it was a student-produced film, at least in part.
Was there any interview or piece of footage that you wanted that was very difficult to find?
Well, one of the things the editor and I did was spend 80-90 hours watching every single thing that Susan was in and we could get access to. This was virtually everything, but there were a few TV shows and made-for-TV movies that we could not find. These included “Death in Space” (1974), her episode of “The Manhunter” (1975) and “International Airport” (1985). As you know, we used snippets of her work not just to showcase her acting, but also as thematic reinforcement tools (as when some character she portrayed would do or say something that happened to be relevant to a point currently being made in the documentary). It was amazing how many of these we were able to work in, and it just underscores just how much of a body of work she managed to compile over the years. There were also her several appearances on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. The only of these that we were able to find was from 1967, right before her solo transatlantic flight. But the only way we could get the clip was through Carson Entertainment, and we would have had to pay through the nose (including payments to the Writers and Directors Guilds, as well as to the Screen Actors Guilds). We didn’t face that problem with all the other clips, which we obtained on our own and were able to legally use for free via the Fair Use Doctrine. (I guess technically they weren’t free because we needed a qualified attorney to certify the film as Fair Use compliant, which enabled to get an insurance policy which included a Fair Use rider).
How long did the movie take to make and how was it funded?
I started planning the film in roughly August of 2011 and it was first screened in March of 2014. So I guess that’s roughly two and a half years, start to finish. The home video rollout didn’t happen until late July of 2014, with home video on demand in late 2014. I was heavily involved in the substantial work that made those releases possible, so maybe it’s more accurate to say roughly three years or so. We did raise some money via Kickstarter, and later, via Indiegogo. But the total amount raised was far less than it was rumored to be – especially when you factor in all the donation perks that ultimately had to be manufactured and donated all over the world. Counting the cost of the release (both limited theatrical and home video), I’d say about two thirds of the cost came out of my own pocket. But because this was a 3-year project, it was more or less a steady burn rate, not a lump sum situation. I don’t regret putting that money into the project at all.
Do you find that Star Trek fans are interested in strictly Trek-related material or Susan Oliver’s other efforts and life?
It depends on the fan. One thing that surprised me when we showed up at the Vegas Trek convention in 2014 with the just-released DVD was that some fans were not all that interested in Susan at all. There’s much more interest in the series regulars, and in the guest stars who are actually there in person to sign autographs. Since Susan died in 1990, she largely missed out on this, and so she doesn’t necessarily have the fan following of some Trek guest stars. On the other hand, a lot of the older (Baby Boomer) fans still remember her well from all of her other work, and amongst that crowd, many were quite enthusiastic about Susan’s life and the documentary.
Is there any sort of story of her directing an episode of M*A*S*H (“Hey, Look Me Over,” 1982)? How was she hired and was Alan Alda involved?
I got no specific stories, other than a report that 20th Century Fox (the production company) was very happy with her work on the episode. I can tell you that Alan Alda wrote her episode, which centered around the usually-ignored female character “Nurse Kelly,” and I’d strongly suspect that he had a hand in making sure a woman directed it. I can tell you that in its eleven seasons (251 episodes), only five women directed, and except for Joan Darling in 1976, the other four female directors were all in the last few seasons – again, a strong sign in my mind that Alda had a hand in the decision). Incidentally, Joan Darling was a rare exception in the 1970’s, a female director who’d already proven herself on 21 episodes of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” as well as female-centered sitcoms like “Rhoda” and “Phyllis.”
Where did you get the final voicemail you feature in the film?
I had obtained a copy of the program handed out at Susan’s memorial celebration at the American Film Institute (June 1990) from the same fan who had a copy of “The Women’s Prejudice Film.” The program had a transcription of the farewell message Susan left on her answering machine nine days before she died. I was on the phone with her half-brother one night talking about it, lamenting the fact that the tape must be long gone. He said, “Oh no, I’ve still got it.” I urged him to FedEx it to me immediately (at my expense) so I could digitize it and save several distributed copies just in case. When we went into editing, I told the editor I wanted to try ending the movie with that recording, noting that it would probably be much too heavy-handed, but we’d see now it went during an early test-screening of the first rough cut. Well, it played incredibly well in front of a live audience, so we just kept it. Thank God her family held onto that tape! (And honestly, I felt very good about using it. I can’t help but feel that Susan left that message for a reason. And we made sure people got to hear it.)
I noticed you made a few features and now this film. Any other films planed, documentary or feature?
It all comes down to money. One thing I can’t afford to do again is self-fund another film. I’ve got another narrative feature script I’m currently rewriting, and there’s an inside chance that some independent funding might be available. There’s nothing on the documentary horizon, but I had so much fun with The Green Girl that at some point I may even try to find a regular job working in that area of the business. In the meantime, I’m working on that script rewrite as well as rewriting several first draft novels I wrote in 2015-16 (my latest creative endeavor).
Irv Slifkin teaches film and communications at Temple University in Philadelphia and Rowan University in New Jersey, USA. He is currently producing a documentary on cult films.