“The reason I never reply to that question is because no matter what I say it will be used against me. But I’ll tell you. I did it because I wanted to. I wanted to do it so much that I wouldn’t even take the money. I didn’t wear a stitch and I felt wonderful all over.” Carol Lynley, on why she posed nude for Playboy magazine in 1965, as told to gossip columnist Sheilah Graham at the time.
Carol Lynley had the features and grace of a porcelain cat similar to that you which you might find at a quaint little antique shop on the corner of your small-town main street. Her features may’ve gained her an “in” in a way to being presented by Hollywood in front of the camera lens for all to see. But they hid (and were in sharp contrast to) a gutsy, inner drive that drove a desperation to break barriers as well as an aversion to anything resembling the humdrum or routine. Like many of her generation, Lynley took the circuitous route to stardom beginning. Yet, while her fellow artists made early inroads through the Broadway stage, she began much earlier (much, much earlier truly) working as a child model under the name Carolyn Lee. At the age of 15, just after her splash on the cover of Life magazine for its April 22nd, 1957 issue and as she was first entering stage and film notice, she found that another artist had already registered the name Carolyn Lee. Undaunted, she took the Lyn from her first name and moved it to her last, with the final ley an added modification.
The same day of the Life issue release saw Lynley treading the boards at the John Golden Theatre as Anne Callifer for Graham Greene’s searing three act psychological drama The Potting Shed, running just over five weeks to June 1st. The thrust of the story has a family holding a terrible secret for 30 years and how it tears at each member mentally as well as physically. Rather heated and intense drama that, no doubt gave Lynley some of her gravitas she would exude as her career blossomed. Perhaps, on top of the bold and bullish attitude she frequently showed was a certain understanding of realism about how the film business worked as it pertained to gossip and scandal and the whole press machine that promotes fame. The very same construct that will flatten a star, ultimately, unless they side-step at just the right moment. A quote from Lynley that struck me as a plain example of her getting what the system is about was one she told to People magazine for an interview in its November 28th, 1994 issue about the time she was asked to write an autobiography. She answered with candor as fresh as the face that first popped out on that Life cover in 1957. “But the trouble is, sooner or later they want you to dish up the dirt. Then I have to say, ‘Guys, what can I tell you? I haven’t committed a murder. I haven’t done porno. I haven’t been married 18 times. I don’t make threatening calls. I have my vices—but they’re all awfully normal.’”
More stage would beckon in 1958 with a work that would eventually connect to her big splash on world cinema. On February 27, 1958 came the opening of James Leo Herlihy’s biting and controversial three-act comedy Blue Denim. Directed by the legendary live theatre and film helming icon Joshua Logan, the play centered around two very taboo topics for the time, teen pregnancy and abortion. Carol had the pivotal lead role of the 15-year-old Janet Willard, who becomes sexually involved with 14-year-old schoolmate Arthur Bartley. Closing July 19, 1958 after 166 shows, the play proved enough in popularity for 20th Century-Fox to produce a film version. Phillip Dunne was hired to direct and both Lynley and Warren Berlinger (as fellow school friend Ernie) were brought in to reprise their stage roles. With up-and-coming young star Brandon de Wilde reaching the age of 17 and looking for his first “adult” role, Fox was eager to sign him for Arthur. With a budget estimated at $980,000, the picture ended up a huge success for the studio with some $2.5 million total take at the world box office. Lynley was now a star studios were clamoring for. Yet, the list of credits she would amass from the moment she burst onto the cinema scene is more of a statement to her selection of roles and quality control she exerted. There is nothing really formulaic or repetitively same about the projects she did. And, while money is ever a factor in choosing work, it always seemed as if art and originality or creativity was of equal import to her. She was an artist at heart, looking at the career road ahead for any of the proverbial potholes to avoid. She was working to feed her creativity impulse as much as her family. The heavy soaper Return to Peyton Place in 1961 was followed by Robert Aldrich’s “strange on the range” soaper/western hybrid The Last Sunset. Then came support work in 1963’s gut-wrenching drama of the trials of an actress-turned-stripper played by Joanne Woodward in the (bit on the nose title) The Stripper. Lynley then changed up to comedy with the delightful Jack Lemmon vehicle Under the Yum Yum Tree (also 63). She would tackle the mystery thriller with style as the mother of a kidnap victim in the 1965 Otto Preminger classic Bunny Lake is Missing. It doesn’t take much to see where this trail was going. I think Lynley’s take on reason behind her choosing of these varied parts is best summed up in a comment she had for writer Bill Byers in 1965 when discussing her work in Harlow, the movie biopic on the legendary 1930s icon. “But at least ‘Harlow‘ wasn’t as bland as thing things you see on television. An actress gets bored when she has to work in a medium that never has any lines more controversial than ‘My son has a problem because his teacher has bad breath.” Bland was most definitely a five-letter profanity to her. It is odd that she was not adverse to doing television, by the by. Though, if you track her tv appearances, they were most often guest turns on series and quite varied in genre. Of note with the latter is that she would gain quite the cult following with her strong presence as prostitute Gail Foster, in love with reporter and monster hunter Carl Kolchak (played by Darren McGavin) in the 1971 tv chiller film (and first of two pilots for the short-lived series Kolchak:The Night Stalker) The Night Stalker. The highest rated tv film of its day, The Night Stalker film, the followup second pilot The Night Strangler, and the twenty episode series remained obsessed over by fervent admirers to this day. Lynley is no small part of that fanaticism, either.
In what may have been her most iconic role, certainly of the 70s, Carol joined the cast of Irwin Allen’s 1972 mega-blockbuster disaster pic The Poseidon Adventure as the terrified non-swimmer Nonnie Parry. Interesting in that Lynley was, herself, quite the avid swimmer in real life. Ever the true actress, she plays opposite to perfection. While there is no real proof to this effect that I could find, I’d often thought that Lynley had a certain desire to be as perfect in detail for the role as she could be. For her part in Poseidon, the boots and pendant she wears through the film are from her own actual private collection. Method actors will tell you that props really help them immerse themselves into a character like few other tools can.
As with even the biggest of stars, Lynley did face a decline in her career beginning in the late 1960s that went through to her final years performing. She even did a few extreme low budget efforts that would often go straight to video in the late 80s and early 90s. Yet, even in some of the most threadbare of efforts, I appreciated the devotion that she had to the character. She never seemed to do a part “just for the money”. There was something flawed, goofy, or even tragic about the people she assayed. Ever the glass half-full optimist, Lynley always anticipated a comeback late in her career. As she told the San Francisco Chronicle in a 2000 interview “I don’t mean to sound conceited, but I am a very talented actress, and I have my head screwed on right,”. And she added “I’m not going to drug clinics, I look good, and I’ve got all my marbles. So I really believe I’ll be back.”
Always the survivor, bruised and battered but never daunted, Carol Lynley was as fierce a competitor as Hollywood has produced and said “you can’t do this type” to. In fact, if I could’ve been at an audition she went to early in her career, I’d tell the casting person that it would be simply wise to just hire her. She’s going to play the part, or something similar, for someone else and she will be fantastic at it and you’ll look a bit like that egg on your face is dripping down just a bit. If you have the guts to pose fully nude for Playboy and expose everything that is you to the world, any other role is little more than a walk in the park in comparison. Thanks, Carol for showing us how to do a career full frontal (no, ehh ok, semi-pun intended) in force and be the Hollywood survivor.