Tuesday, November 17, 2015

I saw the Green Girl...

Director/producer George Pappy's "The Green Girl" (scripted by Pappy and Amy Glickman Brown) chronicles the life of an actress many of us have known for decades through television and movies: Susan Oliver. However, as Pappy's film confesses, Oliver never reached big-name recognition in her lifetime and yet twenty-five years after her death, her legacy continues to expand.

To Trekkies, she's embraced as Vina in "The Cage/Menagerie": a woeful, young woman who, but for a moment, is transformed by the Talosians into a green-skinned Orion slave girl for Jeffrey Hunter's uncooperative Captain Pike. To "Twilight Zone" fans, she's remembered as the pretty Martian who hosts a nervous Roddy McDowall in Rod Serling's famous fable, "People Are Alike All Over".

She can be found as well in"The Alfred Hitchock Hour"; "Boris Karloff's Thriller"; "Circle of Fear"; "The Magician"; "Freddy's Nightmares"; "The Invaders"; "Tarzan"; "The Man from U.N.C.L.E"; "I Spy"; and "The Wild Wild West". Oh, and speaking of cowpoke escapades, she's featured in "Alias Smith and Jones"; "The Big Valley"; "Bonanza"; "The Deputy"; "Gunsmoke"; "Laramie"; "Rawhide"; "The Virginian"; "Wagon Train"; and "Wanted: Dead or Alive". 

The intent of my post isn't to rattle off titles, but rather to drive home Pappy's point: for decades, Susan Oliver (born Charlotte Gerke) covered numerous acting bases. Because of that, we all came to know her, even if we weren't always inclined to acknowledge her name or the extent of her skills.

Contrary to what some may believe, she actually co-starred in a number of high-profile, feature-length films: "Butterfield 8" with Liz Taylor; "Change of Mind" with Raymond St. Jacques; "The Gene Krupa Story" with Sal Mineo; "Guns of Diablo" with Charles Bronson; "Looking for Love" with Connie Francis; "The Love-Ins" with James MacArthur; "Your Cheatin' Heart" with George Hamilton; plus "Disorderly Orderly" and "Hardly Working" with Jerry Lewis. She nonetheless grew discontent when further opportunities, including headlining roles, grew elusive. 

This was possibly a long-term effect of her having broken a Warner Brothers contract. Others speculate that her mother, famed astrologist Ruth Gerke, may have restricted her choices; still others speculate that chauvinism and bigotry led to such (a likely cause with the espionage screenplay she co-authored with faithful friend, Ron Wright Scherr). Whatever the case, Oliver sought fulfillment in spite of her continuing disappointments, but no occupation or pastime seemed to satisfy her as much as flying.

To pilot a plane, even of a small variation, would have seemed a ludicrous prospect to Oliver at one point, considering the harrowing experience she and Gene Kelly endured on a jet years prior, but after a hypnosis session, her courage eclipsed fear. She became eager, almost to a fault, in her passion, even having alienated her aviator-ace, gentleman friend, Mira Slovac, when she refused to postpone a solo trip to Moscow when turbulent weather loomed. She forged ahead anyway, and though the Soviets prevented her from landing, her intrepid venture hit the news. Alas, the publicity wasn’t enough to position her further in the limelight, though she at least seized some sense of fulfillment from the impetuous sojourn.

That Oliver had proven herself against the odds in this instance was commendable, though her sadness and quest for higher recognition prevailed, perhaps some might argue unnecessarily. She had firmly established herself as one of Hollywood’s most prolific actresses on the small screen, and her ability to emote higher-ground characterization hit exalted heights on the "The Andy Griffith Show"(as a bewitching manipulator of Taylor and Fife); "Peyton Place" (a fan-loved, five-month stint, no less); "Route 66" (on several significant occasions); and the acclaimed “Fugitive” entry, “Never Wave Goodbye”, allegedly expanded to two parts due to the chemistry she shared with David Janssen. 

Friends and fellow performers (including Gary Conway; David Hedison; John Gilmore; Rosey Grier; Biff Maynard; Lee Meriwether; Monty Markham; Peter Mark Richman; Charles Siebert; Roy Thinnes; and Celeste Yarnall) attest to Oliver's talent and frustrations throughout "Green Girl". Yes, they acknowledge she should have become a veritable, marquee name, that studios should have supported her wish to become a mainstream director (and she surely possessed the potential as proven by her successful "M*A*S*H" episode and the experimental piece, "Cowboysan"), but at the same time, her presence on stage and screen could never be dismissed, even when relegated to the rudimentary level. 

Indeed, Oliver is the "green girl" to many, but Pappy's essay wouldn't have materialized if she was relegated to that sole designation. That people remember her face, her voice, her distinct style is a testament to her legacy. While other performers may have slid into the leads of multi-million-dollar productions, most aren't as cherished or sought out by fans. Like Nancy Kovack and Arlene Martel (fellow "Trek" guest stars), she continues to pique people's curiosity, to be seen, talked about and of course, is now the subject of a distinguished documentary. How many "big names" can boast of that?

Despite her frustrations and insatiable need to prove herself, Pappy's film convinced me that Oliver has achieved the immortality she desired, and I fancy she's now smiling down from some celestial perch, content that at long last, she's become the revered stuff of legend. 

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