LA 1968 – I was working on an episode of Ironside called The Fourteenth Runner with Raymond Burr. It was about a Russian Olympic swimmer who defects to the West. I loved the part. As a teenager I was a pretty nifty swimmer and had even harboured Olympic ideas until reality had checked in. So I had overdone the water-nymph bit. Whenever there was a break where I could have dried out and warmed up I stayed stoically in the water until the cameras rolled again. Result? A blocked up nose and a throat that felt like the inside of a Ferrari exhaust pipe.
So when one of the actors I had worked with on Dundee and the Culhane a few weeks earlier, Ralph Meeker, rang and suggested I might like to come out with him I wasn’t in a very amiable mood. As an enticement he mentioned that the party was at the house of legendary stuntman, Yakima Canutt. And John Wayne was going to be there! My ears pricked at that. I was still at the stage when I thought that if I stood close enough to the stars some of the glitter would rub off. Against my better judgement I agreed to go.
Canutt’s hacienda was big and rambling. Yakima met us at the door and ushered us through the house to a large ‘boys’ room at the back. There was already quite a number of people there – all men! Some were playing pool, others were standing around drinking and gossiping. The walls were lined with photographs and blow-ups from films Yakima had worked on. In one of the corners was a table with four or five men seated at it. I instantly recognised Wayne.
Ralph worked his way across to the table with me in tow. He seemed to know everybody but failed to introduce me. I wasn’t happy and I noticed things like that. We stood at the card table until the hand ended then Meeker shook hands with everyone and still failed to mention the fact that I was with him. I was beginning to get the distinct impression that he was regretting asking me out. So I thrust out my hand and introduced myself. Belligerently! It didn’t faze the Duke. My escort pulled up a chair and sat down. I couldn’t believe it. A couple of blokes moved in and started chatting me up but I wasn’t having any. Then Wayne turned round, held out his glass and said something like, “Hey, Little Lady. Would you get me a shot of whiskey in that?” Others held out their glasses and I soon realised that they thought they had a skivvy in their midst. By now the smoke in the room and the noise had driven any stardust thoughts out of my head. Reality had set in.
When one of the players dropped out I slid into his chair and indicated that I wanted to play. Everyone looked at the Duke. He looked as if the Redskins were about to scalp him. He stared at me and then shrugged his shoulders and started to deal the cards. “Five card draw,” he said.
I wasn’t too sure what that meant. The only poker I had played was to break the monotony of waiting for the cameras to roll. Mainly for matchsticks. I had about $25 on me and the way the rest of them were flashing their cash I knew without a miracle that wasn’t going to last long. I was right there. Within half a dozen hands I was staring at a couple of dollars – and Wayne was still being condescending.
Yakima came to my rescue. He made it plain to the other players that it was time for a break and that I wasn’t feeling well. They took the hint and threw in their hands.
Wayne, with a few of the others, gave me a gallant Yankee farewell and moved out onto the back porch. It was obvious that he didn’t expect me to be there when he got back. Yakima suggested he called a limo and I agreed. It had been one of the most ghastly experiences I could recall since I was a child. Yak stood with me in the hall while we waited for the cab. He asked me what I had coming up after Ironside and I had to admit that I was waiting to hear from my agent. A euphemism for ‘nothing’ – which actors never admit.
Yak thought for a minute. ‘I’m working on a war film in Austria shortly. There’s a part in it that would suit you,” he offered. I pumped up some interest. He told me that it was being directed by Brian G Hutton. He got me Hutton’s telephone number and suggested I ring him. As I got into the cab he mentioned that Eastwood and Burton were heading the cast. That definitely blew some of the bugs away.
I was feeling a little better in the morning. I thought about ringing Hutton but I was still depressed enough to put it off. In the afternoon I decided to take the plunge. Unbelievably I got straight through to Brian himself. I gabbled a bit, mentioned Meeker, Ironside, Canutt and even got my close and tender relationship with John Wayne into the conversation. I needn’t have bothered. Brian just said, “Come and see me in London. I always like pretty girls coming to see me.” That didn’t go down well but at least he didn’t call me Little Lady.
After I hung up I convinced myself that it was all a come-on and if I went all the way to London all I would get was a steeple chase around the hotel furniture. Two weeks later I walked into the foyer of the Hilton in Park Lane, London, did an audition for the part of Heidi in Where Eagles Dare and three weeks later booked in to the the Hotel in Salzburg close by Schloss Adler.