Like the wily villainess Catwoman, whom she memorably portrayed in the 1966 Batman movie, actress Lee Meriwether’s beauty and popularity have endured through decades. Since being crowned Miss America in 1954, Meriwether has appeared in countless television series, movies and stage productions. Her TV credits alone entail some of the most iconic shows of all time, including Leave It to Beaver, Dragnet, Star Trek, Dr. Kildare, Mission: Impossible and The Love Boat. She also co-starred with Buddy Ebsen during eight seasons of Barnaby Jones, for which she received Emmy and Golden Globe Award nominations.
Meriwether is now back on the big screen in not one but two GLBT-themed movies that will be screened in Long Beach, California on Saturday, September 7th as part of the 20th-anniversary Q Film Festival. In Chad Darnell’s dramedy Birthday Cake, Meriwether plays the Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandmother of one of the lead gay characters. She will be present at the 12:30 PM screening as a special guest and will answer audience members’ questions afterward. Next, Meriwether gives a tour de force performance as a lesbian former opera diva in Marc Saltarelli’s Remember to Breathe, which will screen at 2:35 PM as part of the fest’s Women in Shorts program.
As was clear during a recent phone interview, the gracious Meriwether is still going strong.
CC: Congratulations on your extensive career! Do you have a theory or secret as to your longevity in “the biz”?
LM: Thank you! I’m very lucky. I know my daughter has kept me active and I have a trainer at the gym. I’m very regulated and being well taken care of. I don’t want to have a fall so I am trying to stay strong.
CC: To men of my generation — straight and gay — you are best remembered as Catwoman, even though you only played her once (in the 1966 movie inspired by the hit TV series, filling in for an unavailable Julie Newmar). Has that role been more of a blessing or a curse for you?
LM: Oh, definitely a blessing. I think I was the most fortunate of all the gals who played her because I got to work with three great, classically-trained actors all at once: Burgess Meredith (as the Penguin), Cesar Romero (as the Joker) and Frank Gorshin (as the Riddler). I also got to work with Adam West (Batman) and Burt Ward (Robin), which was fun, and it has contributed to much work for me. I was also in a couple episodes of the series later but in a different role. It was a wonderful experience. I love signing autographs and pictures for the kids too at the various comic book conventions.
CC: You obviously have devoted gay and lesbian fans who are now giving you roles in movies like Birthday Cake and Remember to Breathe. What has been your relationship to the gay and lesbian community or individuals over the years?
LM: It’s interesting because I didn’t realize until after that I have such a following. It doesn’t matter to me and I don’t think of people that way (in terms of their sexuality). When someone says to me, “You know, I’m gay,” I always respond, “Really?” (Laughs). All the gay and lesbian filmmakers I know are doing such good work and are so talented. I just did another movie by a gay filmmaker, Jeffrey Johns, called Waiting in the Wings. I think it’s wonderful that there are now (GLBT) festivals all over the country where their work can be seen.
CC: How did your roles in Birthday Cake and Remember to Breathe come to you initially?
LM: The directors tracked me down and gave me a call. I had worked with Chad before on his science-fiction internet series, Project: Phoenix, which I haven’t seen yet but am really looking forward to. Then he called me and asked me to play this loony grandma in his new movie and I said, “Well, that won’t be a stretch at all” (laughs). Marc contacted me about Remember to Breathe and I asked him to send me the script. I was so moved by it. It’s one of those roles you wait for and hope comes along.
CC: Susan Blakely (The Towering Inferno, The Way We Were) plays your former lover in Remember to Breathe. Had you worked with her previously? What was it like working with her on this film?
LM: No, I hadn’t worked with her before. We looked at each other our first day on set and asked “Why haven’t we worked together before?,” especially since I had worked with so many other actresses over 7 ½ years on Barnaby Jones. It’s a dream come true to work with an actress like Susan who is so giving, so open to sharing.
CC: Is there a particular role or project you’ve worked on that stands out for you as a personal favorite?
LM: The roles I’m working on at the time are always my favorite. Mine right now is the play I’m working on. It’s a beautifully-written script by Bill Blinn, who wrote Brian’s Song, and he’s a dear soul. It’s called A Short Stay at Carranor and it’s playing through September 29th at Theatre West in Hollywood. I play Irene, who at 17 fell in love with a soldier boy and her parents won’t let her continue the relationship. Late in life, they are together again with a chance to make it work. It’s very poignant. (Meriwether won’t be appearing in the play September 13th-15th or 27th-29th.)
CC: When you were crowned Miss America, did you have any idea you would go on to have a successful, 50-year-plus acting career?
LM: I was in such a state of shock, I never even thought about the possibility of winning let alone having a career out of it. By the way, the pageant is moving back to New Jersey this year and all the former Miss Americas are invited back. I’ll be there, which is the reason I have to miss one weekend of the play. It’s all been wonderful.
For more information about A Short Stay at Carranor or to purchase tickets, visit the Theatre West website or call (323) 851-7977.
Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.