Alarmingly beautiful Ohioan Diane McBain (b. May 18, 1941), whose early life had been filled with financial hardship, quickly became identified as a star-in-the-making while under contract to Warner Brothers in the late '50s. Cast as a flighty heiress on the whimsical and briefly but intensely popular TV series Surfside 6 (1960—1962), she got a taste of what it might be like if all those breathless predictions swirling around her (“Another Marilyn Monroe!”) actually came true—special treatment, glamorous work with cute boys, the opportunity to launch a proper film career.
Her biggest break came when she landed the title role in the steamy Claudelle Inglish (1961), in which she plays a good girl who refuses to marry a well-off man [Claude Akins (May 25, 1926—January 27, 1994)] for security because she's in love with a handsome young beau [Chad Everett (June 11, 1937—July 24, 2012)]...and who then purposefully sabotages her own future.
Michael Musto says:
“Rebelling against all sorts of societal strictures and demands, 'Claudelle' acts up and becomes the town slut, raising eyebrows with every calculated skirt lift. In the wonderfully trashy role, McBain is fiery, seething, bitter and gloriously fun—a fave of my longtime movie club.”
Yes, it's as good as it sounds.
But in spite of her natural effervescence on screen and a penchant for getting herself into gossip columns without even trying, McBain didn't attain lasting household-name status. Instead, hers is the story of a starry-eyed kid whose past experience with struggling to make ends meet prepared her for a long stretch as a hard-working actress with many memorable encounters but with no guarantee from where her next job might come.
Now 73 (and as lovely as ever), McBain has released Famous Enough: A Hollywood Memoir (BearManor, $29.95), a compulsively readable autobiography in which she does all the things any good memoirist should: She relies on and credits a great co-author (Michael Michaud, whose Sal Mineo: A Biography is one of the best bios I've ever read); she views everything that ever happened to her through a clear-eyed, analytical lens; she imparts wisdom where she can and doesn't pretend to where she can not; and she calls 'em like she sees 'em when it comes to describing the people who've crossed her and/or crossed her path.
I was pleased to interview this resilient, relatable woman—she's so much more than her work. (But even if she were only her work, I mean...Claudelle Inglish!)
Boy Culture: What motivated you to write a book at this point in your life?
Diane McBain: People have suggested I write my memoirs for a very long time. For years, I couldn't think of why I would write my story because my career wasn't the kind of career I wanted, and why belabor the point? Finally, I settled on the theme—actually, I was inspired by the idea—that my life had more to do with a spiritual journey than a material one, so that became my concentration. That was all I needed to get started.
McBain in white with (L to R) actress friends Tippi Hedren (b. January 19, 1930), Kieu Chinh (b. 1939) and co-author Michaud before an L.A. book-signing event in June. Image courtesy of Michaud.
BC: What was it like working with Michael—had you been friendly before? His Sal Mineo (January 10, 1939—February 12, 1976) bio was really wonderful, I thought.
DM: Michael has been a good friend for a long time. I met him volunteering at Shambala, Tippi Hedren's animal preserve here in California. He was a fund-raiser and financial manager for Tippi. But I also knew his ambition was to write. He is a very good poet, you know, and indeed his biography on Sal Mineo is excellent.
“Claudelle Inglish was my personal favorite.”
I was in Baltimore at the time he called. He knew I had written my book and was trying to get it published, and he suggested that he become my partner in the project. He would edit the manuscript and add anything that needed to be added. I jumped at the chance because I knew he was good and had been nominated for an award for the Sal Mineo publication. Michael is a tireless worker, he is highly intelligent and he is terrific to work with. I couldn't have found a better partner for the book.
I'll drink to that—that being the film Parrish (1961).
BC: The book is a fan's dream in that you seem to touch on every aspect of your career and personal life. Were there any major things you consciously decided to leave out?
DM: There were quite a few personal relationships that didn't fit into the major theme, or in any of the minor ones, so I left those out. There were things about my family life that were left out because they didn't advance the story or were too much of an intrusion into the life of the person involved. The story is complete without these minor details.
BC: Which performance that you've given has been your personal favorite, and what was the most miserable you've ever been while acting?
DM:Claudelle Inglish was my personal favorite. There were a couple of miserable experiences! Cab to Canada [1998 TV movie starring Maureen O'Hara (b. August 17, 1920), her second-to-last performance] was enough to make me never want to act again. The Deathhead Virgin [1974 feature about a sunken ship guarded by a spirit] was the stupidest screenplay I ever had to work with.
It's easy to see why The Deathhead Virgin was a killer shoot for McBain.
BC: With someone like Joan Crawford (March 23, 1906—May 10, 1977), with whom you worked on the 1963 film The Caretakers, and who you report was less than friendly, are you able to separate the real person from the legend, and appreciate their work outside of your personal experience with them?
DM: Not really. My personal experiences with people like Joan Crawford definitely color my appreciation for them as performers.
“My personal experiences with people like Joan Crawford definitely color my appreciation for them as performers.”
To be a good performer, you don't have to be egotistical or nasty. Actors exist in service to the story, the director and the other actors, not in service to themselves. In fact, if you are not being authentic and helpful to others in your efforts on the set, you are not being professional, in my view.
McBain had the unenviable task of being the young, pretty one in a a Joan Crawford picture.
BC: Are you ever surprised at some of the movies or TV shows you've done that fans love? What are some of the projects you've done that you're most surprised to find have lived on in fans' memories?
DM: I guess that Batman, especially the one with “Pinky Pinkston” [”A Piece of the Action” (March 1, 1967) and ”Batman's Satisfaction” (March 2, 1967)] is what qualifies here. Frankly, I've never understood why people like the things they like. I've always been mystified.
How could McBain be mystified why fans remain enchanted by her cotton-candy coquette, “Pinky Pinkston”?
BC: Are there any roles that you would LOVE to have played because you think you would've been perfect for them?
DM: Whether I would be perfect for a role or not is up to the director, but I really wanted to do the second female role in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? [1969; the part was played by Susannah York (January 9, 1939—January 15, 2011)] I thought I could have done a lot with that role.
BC: One of the most interesting things about your story is how you were seemingly destined for superstardom—George Takei (b. April 20, 1937) even said to me, without prompting, he assumed you were going to be a superstar when he worked with you—but you didn't get to that level, and then had to really refocus your life. Was there one moment when you became convinced superstardom was not in the cards for you? What drove you to soldier on and do far less glamorous things to support yourself once that realization struck you?
DM: I'm not sure I ever gave up on the idea of becoming a fine actress. I never really cared about superstardom, I only cared about the roles that were available to those who were superstars. I was motivated to continue on in the face of total failure because I had a child to rear on my own with little help from his father. Acting was the best way for me to make money and the best way for me to be a more present mom in my son's life. Full-time jobs brought in money but kept me away from the day-to-day life of my child.
All smiles with “uncommonly handsome and sweet” Chad Everett in Claudelle Inglish
BC: I was fascinated that you worked in the business side of porn at one point when acting gigs became harder to come by—I did, too, in editorial. I recognized your description of the unsexiness of a porn company from my own experience. But you did this in late '60s or early '70s, when it was far more taboo than when I did it in the '90s. Did you worry it would get into the papers or follow you in life?
DM: Yes, I did worry about it. When I first interviewed for the job, I disguised myself as me (the real person under all the makeup and hairdos). The lady who hired me, Judy, recognized me immediately and informed me that she knew who I was right away—so much for disguises. But I needn't have worried—no one cared by that time. “Diane who?” would have been the reaction.
With Troy Donahue, Fabian & “the adorable” Christopher George
BC: I was particularly interested in your time as an accountant in the porn industry in light of how you wrote about your modesty when you posed for Playboy—you did a shoot then begged the photographer to kill it. Of course, the photos eventually leaked. What are your thoughts now on pornography and on nudity? Do you sign your nude photos if fans bring them to you?
DM: Porn—ugh. I recently acquired a housemate, a woman who appreciates art and is an artist herself. She has quite a few nude women in paintings and busts of bare-breasted women placed around the house. I haven't said anything to her, but frankly I am offended by them and I think the place looks a bit like a bordello with all the nude women around. But, I also try to be tolerant.
“Porn—ugh. My taste in nude pictures is obviously tainted by my own experience.”
My taste in nude pictures is obviously tainted by my own experience. I felt so exposed by them and I still feel like I want to cover the photos of me with my hand whenever someone presents one for my signature. I wish the impossible—that all of those photos of me naked would just dissolve into ash and float away.
BC: Who have been some of the most helpful people in your life professionally and personally?
DM: I love people who are honest with me. There were only a few—far too few who could. Michael is currently my professional rock and he is a very honest man. Mary Muirhead was my personal rock for the several years that she remained in California. Janet McMannis is not so much a rock as she is a person who has been honest and forthright with me.
Edd Byrnes was not one of McBain's favorite co-stars, so of course she wound up working with him lots!
BC: You're very blunt in your assessments of your fellow actors and others in the biz. Were you not worried about bumping into them or hearing from them? What would you say to Edd Byrnes [b. July 30, 1933], who gets a pretty fair beat-down in your pages?
DM: I'm worried now! I didn't think much about it when I was writing. I just wanted to be honest about everything and that was how I felt about them.
If I should run into Edd Byrnes and he asks, I will tell him that at the time we were all too egotistical for our own good. And that would be very true.
McBain confirms her affair with Burton in her book, as well as the size of his legendary...talent!
BC: Your affair with Richard Burton (November 10, 1925—August 5, 1984) during and after your film together, The Ice Palace (1960), was a very special part of your life. You write of it in such an unadorned way; it comes across as plain and real. It's romantic, but not a fairy tale. Do you regret not spending more time with him, trying to make something more lasting out of your relationship?
DM: It is a kind of regret. He was married and his wife was expecting their second child. I could never have consciously tried to take him away from her. I know this sounds odd in view of the things I wrote, but I respected his marriage and his job as a father.
“I was madly in love with him and would have given anything at the time to have him to myself, but it was truly impossible.”
Of course, I was madly in love with him and would have given anything at the time to have him to myself, but it was truly impossible. Ask Elizabeth [Taylor (February 27, 1932—March 23, 2011)]...too bad you can't since she's gone now. She would know.
DM: Van isn't number one?!! I'm shocked. I would vote for him in that spot. But, there was Christopher Reeve (September 25, 1952—October 10, 2004), too. Today, I would vote for George Clooney (b. May 6, 1961).
BC: Who was the best kisser you ever worked with?
DM: Really? They were all wonderful. I guess Elvis (January 8, 1935—August 16, 1977) would get first prize, mainly because he is the one most people ask about.
BC: I found it interesting that you mourned the loss of the star system; many actors feel the opposite, but you make a pragmatic case for how it worked for you. Do you think, looking back, the demise of that system was overall good or bad for actors?
DM: That depends on what you think is good or bad for actors. The studio system of making people into stars was terrific and did what it was supposed to do. However, it also turned these actors into dependents. We became addicted (if you will) to the easy way things happened when they needed to. The studio arranged all of the events, the limos, the wardrobe, the hair and make-up needs and could even provide a date for the occasion. They arranged all of the roles that we played, all of the movies that would lead us to stardom, and all of the publicity that made it all seem so important to the viewing public.
“Creating a star is a major undertaking and I don't know how it is done without a studio to back you.”
Creating these for oneself is a daunting job and most actors, who can afford it today, hire people to do these things for them. If you can't afford it, too bad—you do it yourself or it doesn't get done.
Creating a star is a major undertaking and I don't know how it is done without a studio to back you. But it does happen.
Giving lip service to the King
BC: Which current TV shows and movies do you admire?
DM:Life of Pi (2012) and Black Swan (2010) are currently my favorite movies of all time. On TV, there is nothing left except on HBO and other cable outlets that make their own product. The Newsroom (2012—) is, in my opinion, a fine production made by HBO. There doesn't seem to be anything else to see that makes my interest jump.
BC: You write about gay friends and your openness to gay people in your book. Where does this acceptance come from? Was it ever a process or was it an immediate reaction once you found out about gay people?
DM: I don't recall ever having any negative feelings toward people who were different from me. I was always fascinated by folks and their idiosyncrasies. We all have them and I have never thought that anyone was better or worse than anyone else. Sometimes our differences are chosen and sometimes they are not. What difference does it make?
“Gay people are terrific people. When you get to know them, they are the best people around. So, what's the problem?!!!”
When my family talked about my cousin who married a black woman, as young as I was, I thought they were being really stupid. What he had done was brave and completely honorable. Gay people are terrific people. When you get to know them, they are the best people around. So, what's the problem?!!!
BC: Though you also experienced date rape early in your career at the hands of a man whose identity you leave at B.S., your book begins with a hard-to-fathom brutal rape you endured on Christmas Day, 1982. How would you say the latter assault shaped the rest of your life after that day?
DM: Everything I talk about in my story is life-changing in some way. Being raped so brutally certainly brought changes. I became more fearful and cautious when out in public, my startle response continues to be over-the-top, and I never again felt trusting of strangers. These are the expected changes.
“As horrible as the act of rape is and as terrible as the effects can be, there is always the life of the survivor on the other side.”
On the positive side, though, I became acquainted with women who had been through similar assaults and was able to communicate with them in ways that no one else can; I became an advocate for victims and survivors of all kinds of assault; and, I discovered there are many men who have been raped and assaulted by people of the same and the opposite sex, with whom I can relate in ways that no one else can.
As horrible as the act of rape is and as terrible as the effects can be, there is always the life of the survivor on the other side. That life doesn't have to be bad; it can be good and even better than before.
McBain was accused of making up or capitalizing on her second rape when she spoke out about it.
BC: You decided, long before this was commonly done, to speak out—loudly and often and publicly—about your rape, including on TV. Do you remember any people you personally knew treating you differently as a result of this? Do you remain convinced that it affected you adversely professionally? You make a good point when you talk about the soap opera not inviting you to reunions considering the popularity of your character. Odd, because soaps were known, even back then, for covering controversial issues.
DM: People don't want to treat you differently, but they really can't help themselves. I am always uncomfortable around someone who has experienced some recent trauma and find it difficult to find things to say that are appropriate. I know others are the same. Some people are really good at saying the right thing, but being truly at ease around a victim is hard to do. Even meeting with someone who has lost a friend or loved one is difficult. Yes, people treated me very differently at the time.
BC: Some people would become extremely bitter from such a senseless misfortune, but you don't come off as bitter in your book at all. What kept you from having that reaction?
DM: In the first instance of rape, when I was assaulted in Las Vegas, I didn't receive any help or therapy and the effects of that experience marked my personality from that day forward until I could finally come to a time of forgiveness.
In the incidence of the second rape, there was immediate therapy from a woman who came from the Rape Trauma Center at the hospital. Having a community of women come to your aid when you're in need is the first prerequisite for healing. Every city and town needs to have a response center for victims of rape and assault if they care about their citizens at all.
“Every city and town needs to have a response center for victims of rape and assault.”
Needless to say, I recommend such organizations everywhere so that women can feel that someone cares at a moment when she is in danger of losing or shutting down all of her feelings, both positive and negative.