Saturday, March 2, 2013

Fondly Remembering Tara Buckman


One of my favorite actresses when I was in elementary school was Tara Buckman.  A featured player in movies and TV from the late 1970s into the early 1990s, she was always a warm, winning presence in everything she appeared in.  Buckman started out with a small role in the movie "Rollercoaster" (1977), which was partially filmed in her hometown of Norfolk, Virginia.  My understanding, from a rare newspaper interview given at the time, is that Buckman was signed to a Universal contract by Monique James, Vice President of New Talent at the Studio at the behest of "Rollercoaster's" director James Goldstone.  Goldstone had met Buckman while dining at a restaurant she was working at during his stay in Norfolk making the movie.  Because she had expressed aspirations of becoming an actress, Goldstone cast her as a rollercoaster attendant in the opening sequence of the movie.  Unlike other starlets plucked out of nowhere, Buckman made good on Goldstone's faith in her and forged a prolific acting career for the next decade and a half.  Over the next several years, Buckman guest-starred on many of Universal's top TV shows at the time, usually in decorative roles.  Buckman was always competent and capable in all her performances, but rarely was she given an opportunity to really act in the roles Universal offered her.  However, on the occasions where she was asked to do more, she usually delivered.  In an episode of "Quincy, M.E.," Buckman played a teenager who dies as a result of a botched abortion.  Even though her scenes are confined to the opening moments of the episode, she effectively conveyed the fear, agony and terror of her character during the last moments of her life.


At times, Buckman was loaned out by Universal to other producers and studios including the TV movie "The Man in the Santa Claus Suit" (1979) starring Fred Astaire in one of his last roles.  In that movie, Buckman played a beautiful fashion model who is the neighbor of nerdy professor Gary Burghoff.  Burghoff is in love with Buckman, but is unable to admit his feelings in order to propose to her.  Astaire, who plays various roles in this movie as a ubiquitous and mysterious man (revealed at the end of the film to be Santa Claus himself) who always shows up when he's needed throughout the story, convinces Burghoff he should propose to her while dressed as Santa Claus in order to help him summon up enough courage, while disguised as someone else, to pop the question.  I hadn't seen the movie in over 30 years until just recently.  The scene when Burghoff finally proposes to Buckman is still touching after all these years.  It's apparent that Buckman's character has been in love with Burghoff all this time and has been waiting for him to finally propose to her.  What I liked about the character is that she's already self-aware of her feelings for Burghoff and has simply been waiting for him to propose to her.  Her character is not a thoughtless beauty who needs to be convinced that the nerdy guy is better for her--she already knows it.  Buckman brought an inherent decency to the role that it's believable that this glamorous fashion model would be in love with him.   


Buckman's most notable collaboration during her career began when she was cast in a supporting role in the Hal Needham action comedy-drama "Hooper" (1978), starring Burt Reynolds as a veteran stuntman.  Buckman became part of Needham's stock company and appeared in two more of his films.  In the TV movie "Death Car on the Freeway" (1979), she played an ill-fated victim of the "Freeway Fiddler," a serial killer stalking lone female motorists driving on LA's freeways.  His monicker comes from playing loud bluegrass music on his souped-up van's 8-track stereo system while pursuing his victims.  Her character, a nurse on her way to pick up her airline pilot husband so they can drive to Las Vegas to celebrate their wedding anniversary, becomes targeted by the Freeway Fiddler after she honks for him to drive faster.  Buckman was sympathetic and appealing as she attempted to outrun her pursuer on the freeway.  When the Fiddler side-swipes her Mustang, causing it to spin out in front of oncoming cars which crash into her and cause her vehicle to burst into flames, you're shaken up because Buckman was able to evoke enough audience sympathy so that you rooted for her to survive.  It's also evident while watching "Death Car on the Freeway" that Buckman appears to have done many of her own driving stunts for this movie.  Later, she has a dramatic scene on her hospital death bed as she relates what happened to TV news reporter Shelley Hack.  Buckman impressively eschewed any notions of vanity and glamor as her character--burned alive, scarred and dying--summons up enough strength and dignity to provide Hack information in order to help catch the Fiddler.  As a result, there's real feeling and emotional impact in the scene after Hack makes a quick phone call and returns to Buckman's hospital room only to learn that she's died from her injuries.


In contrast to this serious dramatic role, Needham next cast Buckman in her most famous role as Jill, one of the two Lamborghini driving beauties competing in "The Cannonball Run" (1981).  Paired alongside Adrienne Barbeau's Marcie, Buckman made a vivid impression in the film's opening scene when she leaps out of the Lamborghini at the side of the road, spray-paints an "X" across the 55-MPH speed limit sign, and jumps back into the car when a Highway Patrol officer starts to give chase because of this random act of vandalism.  (Catherine Bach recreated this moment in the weak 1984 sequel "Cannonball Run II" with diminishing results.)  Dressed in form-fitting spandex jumpsuits throughout "Cannonball Run," Buckman was a bright and likeable presence in this ensemble action comedy and more than held her own alongside Barbeau and Farrah Fawcett in the movie.  Throughout the movie, which concerns a cross-country car race from New York to California, Buckman and Barbeau had humorous vignettes as they charmed and sweet-talked their way out of being issued traffic citations with whatever hapless male law enforcement officer who happened to stop them for driving over the speed limit.


The charming aspect about Buckman and Barbeau's performances is that they avoided making their characters crass or tawdry throughout the movie.  They may have taken advantage of the leering stares of the men throughout the movie, in order to avoid being arrested for speeding, but it's clear in the storyline that they never harm, nor sleep with, anyone in the course of the story.  They still maintain their dignity under the circumstances and still come across as appealing characters.  What's often forgotten is the fact that it's the Lamborghini team of Adrienne Barbeau and Tara Buckman who actually win "The Cannonball Run."  They may have used their looks to their advantage, but the movie still takes the time to underscore their commitment and professionalism as race car drivers.  I was disappointed when Catherine Bach and Susan Anton took over the roles of Marcie and Jill in "Cannonball Run II."  Somehow Bach and Anton failed to evoke the same air of mystery and confidence that Barbeau and Buckman did in the original film.


Back at Universal, Buckman's was given a shot at weekly TV stardom came when she was cast as  undercover police detective Brandy in the second season of the Claude Akins action comedy series "Lobo."  Previously titled "The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo" during its first season, the retooled "Lobo" featured wily local sheriff Elroy P. Lobo (Akins), Deputy Perkins (Mills Watson) and Deputy Birdwell "Birdie" Hawkins (Brian Kerwin) being transferred from fighting crime in Orly County to Atlanta, Georgia after the Governor decides to assign them to work on a crime fighting task force in the big city.  At the start of the season, Buckman's Brandy--as well as her partner, Amy Botwinick's Peaches--viewed Lobo and his men as unsophisticated interlopers on the Atlanta police force and worked to undermine their efforts to distinguish themselves.  As the second season progressed, however, Peaches and Brandy's resistance to working with Lobo began to wane and they started to view Lobo and his colleagues as full-fledged members of their team.  During this time, Buckman distinguished herself by being featured in more comedic situations on the series than her co-star Botwinick.  Her participation in scenes involving comedic pratfalls on "Lobo" allowed her to transcend the "sexy crime fighter" stereotype set by "Charlie's Angels" and "Police Woman."  As a result, Brandy came across at times as more eccentric and quirky than expected.  "Lobo" was my father's favorite series and he and I enjoyed watching it every week.  For different reasons (he was a big fan of Mills Watson's comedic abilities) we were both sorry it was cancelled.


Buckman's career in movies and TV should have continued ascending, but by the mid-1980s it had lost some momentum.  She started appearing in exploitation fare such as the sex comedy "Snowballing" (1984) and the controversial horror film "Silent Night, Deadly Night" (1984) which was picketed by angry parent groups due to its ad campaign that reflected the film's depiction of a mad killer dressed as Santa Claus murdering people on Christmas Eve.  Buckman appeared in the film's lengthy prologue as the mother of the main character, who is killed by an assailant dressed as Santa Claus, thus traumatizing the main character and inspiring his own murderous spree years later.  Again, Buckman gave a solid and sympathetic performance with limited screentime, but I was sorry to see her appear in such a film.  I felt the role, which involved nudity in the scene where she is assaulted and killed on-camera, was demeaning to her.  After starting out appearing in mainstream movies and TV shows, it seemed strange to see Buckman working in exploitation fare, and not even playing the lead role at that.


Throughout Buckman's early career in television, I always wondered what it would be like if she appeared as the lead in her movies, instead of featured or supporting roles.  My curiosity was satisfied later in the 1980s when Buckman had a bit of a resurgence appearing in the lead role in a series of exploitation films, some of which were made by Italian filmmakers and shot in the Norfolk and Virginia Beach areas of Virginia.  The most notable of these films were Buckman's collaborations with Italian cult director Joe D'Amato in a pair of racy, soft-core dramas, "Blue Angel Cafe" (1989) and "High Finance Woman" (1989).  The first film, "Blue Angel Cafe," is a loose remake of the classic Josef Von Sternberg film.  Buckman plays Angie, a treacherous nightclub singer whose passionate affair with a politician leads to both their ruin.  What makes this different than the Von Sternberg film is that the focus is more on the negative effects of the affair on the nightclub singer, rather than on the "fallen man" that she has seduced.  Buckman's character hopes that she will marry the politician and raise her stature in life, but finds that there is no climbing the ladder in this case.  She brings a quiet desperation to the role that belies her character's manipulative nature.  At the end of the film, the politican returns to his wife, and Buckman returns to being a nightclub singer.  She invites her former lover to see her comeback performance and expects him to return to her.  When she takes the stage, she thinks she spots him in the audience, but realizes that he has left her for good.  The final freeze frame of her standing alone on stage after finishing her signature song has surprising power and impact to it.


The second film of this Italian Norfolk pair is the livelier and more interesting "High Finance Woman."  Buckman plays Brenda Baxter, a ruthless businesswoman who is very shrewd and clever and has no issues sleeping with, and manipulating, men to gain an advantage on closing business deals.  One of the more memorable scenes in the movie has Buckman adjusting her stockings and garters while waiting for the elevator in the lobby, totally unaware or uncaring of the effect this has upon the young man standing next to her also waiting for the elevator.  She ends up having an affair with the young man at the elevator, a newspaper journalist named Alex (Charlie Edwards), but later discovers that he is the son of her wealthy, middle-aged lover Albert (Louie Elias).  The scene where Alex brings Brenda home to meet his Dad, only to have both Buckman and the father awkwardly recognize one another, is one of the funniest things I've ever seen in a movie.  On the surface, "High Finance Woman" looks like it might be another misogynistic film where an unsympathetic and scheming woman is brought down and punished.  But, no, at the end, Buckman's character gets an incredible promotion and wins back the love of the young journalist.  Both her career and her personal life are redeemed here.  The "bad girl" would never be allowed to triumph like this in a mainstream movie.


Both movies were meant to be racy, erotic dramas for the European market, with Buckman participating in nude love scenes that were shocking for people who remembered her earlier work in mainstream movies and television.  The Italians producing them made a series of films in Norfolk over a 3 year period, including a couple of horror films.  They hired local-area Virginia actors to appear in them, and then tried to pass these productions off as American films to unsuspecting Europeans.  The Norfolk locations in both films were meant to stand in for a major metropolitan city, like New York or Los Angeles.  Buckman is the principal person in these casts with any extensive experience and, as such, is the one who comes across the most assured and professional.  What I liked about them, as cheesy and exploitative as they may be, is that these films were, nevertheless, embued with an European sensibility that emphasized story and character.  They may have been marketed as soft-core porn, but the movies themselves are pretty tame and relatively tasteful in the nudity and sex department.  "High Finance Woman," in particular, is fascinating because Buckman's character isn't interested in men necessarily for romantic reasons, but as a means to be used to close a deal.  The work, at the end of the day, is what drives her character.  It's fun to see Buckman given the lead roles in these movies and doing a respectable job of carrying them on her shoulders.  Given how low-budget they were, I thought she did good work in them.  In many ways, despite the exploitation elements, the D'Amato films constitute probably the best, most complex roles of Buckman's career. 


Buckman also appeared in another Italian film made in Norfolk/Virginia Beach during this period called "Night Killer" (1990), directed by Claudio Fragasso of "Troll II" fame.  Buckman played Melanie Beck, the only surviving victim of a psychopath murdering women in the Norfolk/Hampton Roads/VA Beach area who is now suffering from amnesia and still in jeopardy.  Once she is out of the hospital, she is in a depressed and suicidal state because she can't remember what happened to her and finds herself abducted and held hostage by an abusive stranger named Axel (Peter Hooten), who harasses and terrorizes her in a seedy motel room.  Melanie breaks free from Axel and is taken back home by old family friend Sherman Floyd (Richard Foster).  It's back at her home that Melanie's memory finally returns to her and she remembers that Sherman is the masked psychopath who raped and attacked her.  The only reason she survived is that she was able to fight back and wound him before she lost consciousness and was rescued by the police.  Axel turns out to be Melanie's estranged husband, a police detective whose drinking caused him to be kicked off the force.  Axel devised the scenario of kidnapping and holding Melanie hostage in an attempt to jog her memory so she could spontaneously recall who attacked her.  At the end of the film, Axel and Melanie appear to be happilly reunited, unaware that their young daughter Clarissa (Tova Sardot), who has been under the influence of Sherman, is now a psychotic ready to resume Sherman's murderous activities.  "Night Killer" is an inept, unintentionally hilarious horror thriller with stilted dialogue and amateurish performances by the supporting cast.  It would be completely expendable if it weren't for the fact that it allowed Buckman an opportunity to play a challenging, difficult dramatic role.  Buckman gives an impressive, committed performance in "Night Killer."  During the course of the film, she survives a rape and attempted murder, suffers amnesia, is held hostage and brutally humiliated by Axel at the motel room, and has one final violent confrontation with Sherman.  It may not have been the ideal movie for her, but I think "Night Killer" demonstrated how she could have been effectively utilized in Hollywood productions if given the chance.  "Night Killer" required Buckman to play all sorts of emotions and, even if the script failed her by giving her ridiculous scenes to play, she still gave it her all.


One of Buckman's last lead roles was in the Canadian-shot science-fiction horror film "Xtro II: The Second Encounter" (1991).  Buckman played a scientist working on a top secret government experiment trying to transport people into another parallel universe.  The experiment goes awry when they accidentally bring back an Alien-type monster who starts killing everybody in the underground bunker.  Buckman teams up with Jan Michael Vincent to destroy the monster.  Despite the low-budget production, "Xtro II" is a surprisingly entertaining "B" picture with some decent special effects and a fast pace.  In contrast to Vincent's somnambulistic performance, Buckman is completely committed to playing the conscientious scientist in-charge of the ill-fated "Nexis" project.  She projects gutsy intelligence and assertiveness and looks as comfortable in a lab coat as she is battling the monster in the action scenes.  She was a great action heroine and demonstrated that she had indeed grown as an actress in the 14 years since she was discovered in Norfolk by the makers of "Rollercoaster" (1977).  Buckman's work in this quartet of "B" movies should have warranted even more roles, but she soon called it a day and left acting for good in the early 1990s.  She reportedly now works behind-the-scenes in the entertainment industry and has been busy raising a family.


Tara Buckman was one of the last actresses working as a contract player for one of the major Hollywood studios.  Her discovery in Norfolk was like something out of the classic era of Hollywood.  During her decade and a half-long career, she was a welcome and appealing presence in everything she appeared in.  She was an actress who deserved better roles, but made the most out of every opportunity she was given.  If there is any sort of character arc to her career, it's that her roles started out mostly light-weight and amusing.  As her career progressed, her characters became progressively tougher and darker.  Perhaps she had experienced challenges throughout her career that taught her to become self-aware and assertive in the manner she played her roles.  These qualities should have ensured even more roles for her.  In the world of movie/TV starlets, Buckman remains a bit of a mystery figure.  To my knowledge, she has never appeared at one of those celebrity autograph shows, and she has never given a comprehensive interview reflecting upon her acting career.  In an era where actors and actresses, who accomplished less than Buckman did, shamelessly grant interviews to any writer who will bother to listen to them, Buckman's apparent reclusiveness is admirable and makes her even more intriguing than others who shamelessly continue to vaunt their limited accomplishments.  Wherever Tara Buckman is in her life, I hope she knows she is still appreciated by many movie and TV fans.

10 comments:

  1. I hope she gets a chance to read your tribute. You certainly make a great case for her, and she would be happy, I think, to know that at least one Hollywood critic and historian appreciates her contributions to the art of film.

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  2. Wasn't she in the "Master" ninja show right after Lobo?

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  3. In the 80s, I lived down the street from Tara's parents in Va Beach. I was a young kid, but I remember when she came home to VA right after 'Cannonball Run' dropped.
    It was a big deal for us young cats. We all had crushes on her after that role.. I remember some of the kids went to her mom & dad's house, when she was in town and she was gracious enough to give 'em some signed promo shots, etc.. This has been 30 years ago, but I still remember it. I would see her parents, and her visiting sister around the neighborhood up until the 90s (when I left), don't know if they're still around.

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  4. I lived in Virginia Beach as well, and was a friend to the Buckman family. In fact, I went to high school and was good friends with Tara's younger brother and one of Tara's younger sisters...been to their house on a number of occasions, met Tara a few times when she returned home for visits, etc.....and am still Facbook friends with them to this day. I'll have to tell Tara's sister about this site so she can have Tara take a look. I think Tara would appreciate the very kind things you said about her here!

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    1. Would love to know what she's doing these days. Even in a generic sense. Would be nice to know life has treated her well. Always had a crush on her.

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  5. I worked with Tara at the Ships Cabin where she was discovered & found her to be very focused on becoming an actress. Saw her in Cannonball Run & on Kojak. 7-Eleven had Slurpee cups with pictures of Adrienne Barbeau & her on them..A very pretty & sweet person. An interview in the VA Pilot made her seem shallow talking about Bert Reynolds & how she competed with Sally Field.

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  6. Was first captivated by Tara when I watched the Man in the Santa Claus Suit. Could never understand why anymore mainstream cinema success really came after the Cannonball run..she certainly had the screen presence, acting ability and drop dead gorgeous looks. This is a great article...and even now when people ask me who are my favourite female screen.stars - Tara Buckman is always right up there! If your out there Tara I hope life treating you well and a big hearty hello from the Uk!

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  7. I was very fortunate to attend High School with her.She was just as beautiful then as she is now. She has done well for her self.

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  8. Thank you for this very informative account. I was a closet fan of hers and am still looking for a DVD of Blue Angel Cafe! I can't get that song out of my head!

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  9. I used to deliver her acting messages to her when she was a client of ActorFone West in Los Angeles. Sweet, sexy lady.

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