Monday, August 14, 2006

But Really, Sally McMillan Is Ageless

Every guy has his first teenage crush, only mine wasn’t over some female classmate still squirming with the unfamiliarity of a bra and getting used to the attention she attracted in hot pants (this was the early 1970s, after all). No, I fell hard for a woman more than 10 years my senior. A slender, lovely brunette with a make-you-forget-your-name smile and an imperfect, smoky voice that only managed to increase her appeal. Of course, this match was doomed from the outset. I didn’t live in Los Angeles, and I wasn’t Rock Hudson. But then, I surmised, if anyone could appreciate the real me, it had to be the woman of my youthful dreams, Susan Saint James.

Yes, that Susan Saint James--the “Wife” in McMillan & Wife, one of the first three rotating series that comprised The NBC Mystery Movie. The same Susan Saint James, by the way, who turns 60 years old today. Zounds! Could it really have been so long ago that I originally sat, enraptured, in front of my family’s too-tiny black-and-white TV set, watching a 20-something Saint James play Sally McMillan, the sexy, slightly ditzy, and peril-attracting spouse of San Francisco defense attorney-turned-police commissioner Stewart “Mac” McMillan (Hudson)? It seems like just yesterday. Or, at most, the day before. Back when I was attending an all-boys high school, could claim few friends, and suffered with terrible hay fever every summer, but could always rely on Saint James’ smile to lift me from my doldrums, if only for 90 minutes at a stretch.

According to a 1973 cover story in TV Guide, the actress was born Susan Jane Miller, the daughter of a well-to-do Rockford, Illinois, toy manufacturer. “[S]he dreamed of becoming a movie star when she wasn’t dreaming of becoming a nun,” the magazine explained, noting that she’d been raised Catholic. But “her father had bigger things in mind. He sent her to Paris to round out her high school education. She came back wriggling like Brigitte Bardot, so the Millers enrolled her at Connecticut College for Women. She lasted one week,” noted TV Guide writer Arnold Hano, “changed her name and went to New York to model.” The modeling bug didn’t take, though. Instead, she beelined it back to Gay Paree “to try out a career as a singer. Only one thing stood in her way: she couldn’t sing.” Regardless, the newly minted Ms. Saint James did have something important going for her, in addition to beauty: chutzpah.

After relocating to Hollywood, Hano recalled, she took half a dozen acting classes, and then “barged her way into Universal’s casting office, demanding a reading. She read the next day and Universal promptly signed her to a World Premiere [TV] film, Fame Is the Name of the Game” (1966), which featured Tony Franciosa as an investigative reporter obsessed with solving the murder of a call girl. Saint James appeared as Franciosa’s feisty, resourceful editorial assistant, Peggy Maxwell. When, in 1968, Fame spawned the NBC-TV “wheel series” series The Name of the Game, Saint James stepped back into her “Girl Friday” role, with her mini-skirted and go-go-booted Peggy becoming the only regular player in a series that alternated male protagonists (among them Gene Barry, Robert Stack, and Franciosa) on a weekly basis, everyone playing characters employed by a magazine corporation. For her efforts on Name, Saint James earned an Emmy Award.

It was after NBC cancelled The Name of the Game in 1971, and following her appearances in several theatrical films and small-screen series (the latter of which included It Takes a Thief and Alias Smith and Jones) that, TV Guide reported, Saint James finally won “a chance to become a star,” acting opposite fading film lead Rock Hudson in McMillan & Wife. That light-hearted, Leonard B. Stern-created series evidently took its cue from the old William Powell/Myrna Loy Thin Man movies, but ditched the cute pooch and allowed its main players to go through their busy days without being seriously intoxicated (though after-work libations were a common feature of the series). In Sally McMillan, Saint James played the daughter of a legendary San Francisco criminologist and a “child bride” to Hudson’s unconventional police commissioner (more than 20 years her senior).

Although she displayed moments of unintentional brilliance, Sally was supposed to be a naïve catalyst for trouble. “It is not easy to be kooky without being cloying or completely unbelievable,” Richard Meyers opined in his excellent 1981 study, TV Detectives, “but Saint James pulled it off. In every episode, it seemed, Sally would uncover a body or something and spend the rest of the show getting kidnapped, attacked, threatened, or else all three while hubby galloped to the rescue with the help of his stolid assistant, Sergeant Charles Enright (John Schuck).”

For all of its action and episodes of humor, McMillan & Wife also had a romantic edge. Hudson (who most viewers didn’t know at the time was gay), came off as a veteran Casanova, retired from his wolfish ways in order to pursue a life with Sally. (A running gag in the series had Mac continually bumping into former flames, none of whose names he seemed to remember.) For her part, Sally looked up to and adored the elder Mac, sometimes to the point of subservience (which annoyed the more “liberated” Saint James on occasion). But she was also the playful one, flirting lightly with powerful men, darting about in her vintage MG, and dressing for bed in a red football jersey (number 18), beneath which any adolescent boy assumed she wore nothing at all. Sigh ... Those two made an attractive, enviable couple. However, their happiness was not to last. After filming a pilot and 39 episodes of the series, Saint James left the show, apparently due to a contract dispute, following the 1975-1976 season. (Her character was said to have died in a plane crash.) The series limped through one more year as McMillan, but Hudson alone couldn’t draw the show’s previous audience.

Saint James went on to guest in TV series (such as M*A*S*H) and theatrical films (including the 1979 vampire comedy Love at First Bite). But she returned to television serial work in 1984, with the CBS-TV sitcom Kate & Allie. For the next five years, she played a divorced mother opposite comedienne Jane Curtin. Since then, though, appearances on screens large or small have been rare. In 1998, she started a gift-basket business, Seedling and Pip, with her sister and a friend. (Based in Litchfield, Connecticut, the venture sells special-design baskets packed with time-honored books, lullabies, and hand-knit clothing, meant to be given out in celebration of a baby’s birth or other special occasions.) Then, just under two years ago, her third husband, Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics, went down with two of their sons in a Colorado plane crash. Ebersol and their 21-year-old child, Charles, survived, but 14-year-old Edward “Teddy” Ebersol was killed (in an eerie parallel to the supposed fate of Sally McMillan). Saint James’ most recent guest spot was earlier this year, when she played a defense attorney on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Saint James used to find it funny that people still referred to her as “actress Susan Saint James,” even though she’d retired for the most part after Teddy’s birth. It was considerably more appropriate, she said, for her to be referred to as a “mom.” But you know, for somebody like me who found delight in simply watching Sally McMillan sip a martini all those years ago, there’s no chance of my labeling her that way. Even at 60 years old. If I can’t say “actress” in describing her anymore, that’s OK. Were we to meet, I wouldn’t want to label her at all. I’d just want to say “thank you.”

ADDENDUM: Here’s a story about McMillan & Wife that I hadn’t come across before. According to the Ellery Queen TV Series Companion Web site, a 1971 teleflick titled Ellery Queen: Don’t Look Behind You, starring Peter Lawford and Harry Morgan (and based on the 1949 Queen novel, Cat of Many Tails), was the pilot for a show intended to occupy one of the three spots in the original NBC Mystery Movie lineup. When Lawford’s overaged, British “hipster” interpretation of the brainy Ellery didn’t go over so well with the network, it’s said, McMillan & Wife was tapped, instead, to rotate with Columbo and McCloud. Fascinating as that tale might be, though, it’s unlikely to be true. You can read more about the matter in this post.

5 comments:

Paul Pennyfeather said...

Wow, that's twice Peter Lawford almost ruined a sacred mystery icon. Before the hipster Ellery Queen, Lawford did a beatnikesque version of Nick Charles in the thankfully-never-aired series based on the Thin Man movies. The pilot/atrocity is available on the boxed set of the Thin Man movies.

It is one of the most evil things I have ever viewed. They nixed the kid, the dog, and the humor. The woman who played Nora was so miscast one wonders if the creators ever watched the original movies. Lawford could've pulled off Nick Charles, but putting him in a Village apartment surrounded by beatniks was a horrendously bad idea.

No wonder Frank Sinatra was always threatening to kick his ass.

Watching the pilot was like viewing that evil video in THE RING; you're certain you're going to die soon after.

Anonymous said...

I come to this piece a little shy of two years after it's posting date. Thanks for the escort down memory lane. I really enjoyed your post.

Valerie

Toby O'B said...

Actually, 'The Thin Man' did go to series with Lawford. I've seen a few episodes online....

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Yes, Toby, Lawford did feature in The Thin Man, a 1957-1959, half-hour TV series that co-starred Phyllis Kirk. However, Lawford's potential Ellery Queen series didn't get past the pilot film.

Cheers,
Jeff

Anonymous said...

Funny this story about reminiscing on Susan Saint James sounded like I wrote it! My crush started in high school (1972-ish) and actually has lasted a lifetime. Once ebay came around I was able to build a serious real photo collection instead of polaroids from a tv screen. Its amazing I got fixated on a gorgeous movie star and have it last for decades. Fortunately it didnt interfere with real life, getting married and having kids. Still waiting for the subsequent seasons on DVD for the McMillan and Wife series!