By David D. Duncan
AUGUST 11, 1997: Anne Francis is perhaps best known for her roles as the luminous Altaira in the classic science-fiction film, Forbidden Planet (1956), and as television's smart and sexy private eye, Honey West (1965-66). During a recent telephone interview, Ms. Francis, who will be appearing this week at the Memphis Film Festival, reflected upon her life in the public eye:
Flyer: Your career spans the history of modern entertainment, from stage to radio to movies to television.
Francis: Today, no one really remembers the Golden Age of Radio and the early days of television. How I got my start was by pure accident. I didn't come from a show-business family; neither of my parents were involved in it. Actually, someone said to my mom that they thought I'd make a good child model, so she took me up to the John Robert Powers modeling agency, which was the top one in New York City at that time. We were sitting in the outer office with a lot of other folks and Mr. Powers himself came out of his office door, looked around the corner, pointed at me, and said, "I'll take that one!" And that's how it all started, when I was just 6 years old.
Flyer: Over the years, you've had the opportunity to work with some of Hollywood's finest practitioners -- both actors (James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Paul Newman) and directors (Raoul Walsh, John Sturges, Robert Wise). Any particular influences?
Francis: I was so fortunate to work with some of the best from the "old school." No one in particular guided me, but I learned something from every one of them. I think that's pretty much what happens in our lives. Our experiences are our teachers. Each one was important to me.
Flyer: Don't you find it frustrating that the entertainment industry has always been a very youth-oriented business, which unceremoniously puts its best practitioners out to pasture at the top of their game?
Francis: It's always been that way, unless you move on to being a very strong character actor, which used to happen. But there really isn't a place today for good character actors. They were stars too, and today we don't have them.
Flyer: Did you do any other science-fiction films after Forbidden Planet?
Francis: Surprisingly enough, I didn't. But part of the allure of Forbidden Planet is that it's a classic that still holds up, which I think is fun. Because a lot of times, films from previous decades don't hold up very well for today's audiences. But I've been fortunate enough to be in three true cinema classics -- Bad Day At Black Rock , Blackboard Jungle , and Forbidden Planet . Each one is a riveting, tight piece of entertainment and I'm proud to have been involved in each of them.
Flyer: You also tackled some unusual roles that got overlooked, particularly your very intense performance as a prostitute in the gritty and grim Girl Of The Night (1960), co-starring Lloyd Nolan as a psychoanalyst.
Francis: Girl Of The Night is the one I'm most proud of, as far as the work I did on it. I was going through analysis at the same time I was playing going through analysis on that film. It was quite a workout, and it really beat me up.
Flyer: Any roles you wanted to play that didn't materialize?
Francis: I would have liked to have done the lead character in Elia Kazan's film version of Tennessee Williams' Baby Doll [subsequently made in 1956 with Carroll Baker in the title role]. I was supposed to do that, and some things went on with Mr. Kazan. I said, "No, thank you," and I was not in it.
Flyer: You must have appeared in literally hundreds of hours of episodic television. Did you enjoy working in that medium?
Francis: I had grown up working in television and I had reached the end of my rope as a contract player at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. They were always looking for a new face, so I thought, forget it, I want to go back and do television. In those days, that was the death knell for an actor. You worked television, you didn't do film. Of course, they cross over all the time today.
Flyer: The TV series you starred in on ABC, Honey West, was somewhat ahead of its time, with clever film techniques, overlapping dialogue, and stop-frame editing. The original source material was somewhat tawdry (original paperback novels by the husband-and-wife team of Gloria and Skip Fickling under the pen name of G.G. Fickling), but that didn't stop it from being quite popular during its short run, spawning now-hard-to-find Honey West merchandise (board game, one-shot comic book, soundtrack album, doll and accessories).
Francis: Honey West was grueling for me, very long and arduous during shooting. But I won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Emmy. It was shot in black-and-white and we were planning to go to color the following season. But ABC [the network] and Four Star [the production company] disagreed and ABC said, We can buy The Avengers cheaper than we can make Honey West. And that's exactly what happened. We were certainly on to something. When I looked at Moonlighting many years later with Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis, I thought, "Oh, my gosh! There we are again!" You know, the blonde detective racing around flirting and carrying on and the recalcitrant boyfriend who was always angry with the girl for getting into trouble.
Flyer: Apparently, Honey West created some sexual stirring among prepubescent males in the 1960s, as did Elizabeth Montgomery on Bewitched (as Samantha) and Yvonne Craig on Batman (as Batgirl).
Francis: I had an appointment with Oliver Stone a couple of years ago. When I walked in, he threw his arms out with this big grin on his face and said, "Honey West!" As he hugged me, I thought, well, I guess he was at that impressionable age when Honey West was being broadcast!
Flyer: Most people probably don't realize that you also directed your own documentary on rodeo riders that was shown on PBS, Gemini Rising (1970).
Francis: Most young blondes in those days were not taken too seriously. I had wanted to work on a project all my own from beginning to end for many years. Of course, in those days, I had managers who said, "Look, you're an actress. You're not supposed to do this other business." And now I look at all the women today who are doing it, and no one's batting an eyelash. But at that time, it was considered just a whim.
Flyer: You also wrote a book in 1982 titled Voices From Home -- An Inner Journey, which can be best described as New Age before it was cool.
Francis: It was mainly sharing experiences that I have had that I was sure that other people had, but were afraid to discuss with others. I just thought it would be a nice way of saying, "Hey, you're not alone, there are others out here too who have experienced certain phenomena in our lives and realize that there's a lot more than meets the eye, as far as our trip here on the planet is concerned." That was my main reason for writing it and sharing it.
Flyer: We didn't see much of Anne Francis in the late 1970s and most of the 1980s. Any particular reason for your low profile during those years?
Francis: My children grew up and I was at a point where I was not responsible for anyone or anything but myself for the first time in my life. It's kind of nice to just go do what I want to do when I want to do it, and unless it's something that really is exciting to me, I just don't care. So it's kind of fun just learning to take care of myself. That in itself is a full-time project -- taking care as far as physically, mentally, emotionally, all of those things. I've been in a business that has been a very battering business, a tough one in many ways.
Flyer: However, you've been back in the limelight recently.
Francis: Yes, I appeared on an episode of Home Improvement. I had to turn down a role in the upcoming syndicated Conan The Barbarian series because I thought I had been exposed to chicken pox. I didn't want to end up in Mexico with pink spots!
Flyer: Have you ever been to any film conventions before this one?
Francis: The only one I've ever been to is the one in Lone Pine, California, that features Westerns shot there. I wanted to attend the Memphis Film Festival for a number of reasons -- to find out about old and new fans and to visit again with friends who will be there. I worked with Kevin McCarthy on Honey West and Dale Robertson on Lydia Bailey , and I haven't seen Debra Paget in ages. James MacArthur [Hawaii Five-0] and I will probably wind up on the same plane together, as we live in the same desert in California.
Flyer: It must be unusual to have a new generation of fans who know your name through the midnight-movie audience-participation film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), as the line "Anne Francis stars in Forbidden Planet" is prominently featured in the song, "Science Fiction/Double Feature."
Francis: You know, I still haven't seen that thing, but my immortality is assured [laughs]. Isn't that wonderful? You know, my star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is smack right in front of the Jimmy Doolittle Theater. I always think that one of these days, some producers are going to be standing there chatting, and they'll look down and see my name, and say, "Oh, God, she'd be perfect for this!"
(The 1997 Memphis Film Festival will be held from August 6th through 9th at Four Points Hotel, 2240 Democrat Road. Fees for single-day admission are $20 per adult, $10 after 5 p.m. In addition to the above-mentioned celebrities, Jerry Van Dyke, Darryl Hickman, Richard Devon, and local favorite Gene Rutherford are slated to appear. A constant schedule of vintage films will be shown, and over 100 vendors will offer a plethora of memorabilia. Word to the wise: Try to attend during one of the weekdays, as things pretty well wind down by Saturday.)
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