Friday, November 23, 2012

RIP Deborah Raffin (1953-2012)

I was saddened to hear that actress/producer/audio book entrepreneur Deborah Raffin died this week of leukemia at age 59.  Even though she never quite rose to the level of a top box office star, she was a familiar face on both television and movie screens for almost four decades.  Raffin first came to the attention of moviegoers for her appearance in "The Dove" (1974) the bio-pic of Robin Lee Graham, a young man who made headlines when he sailed around the world alone.  She had previously appeared in the movie version of the Broadway hit "40 Carats" (1973) and later played the lead character in the movie adaptation of Jacqueline Susann's "Once is Not Enough" (1975).

But her career REALLY began when she starred in the 1976 ABC TV movie "Nightmare in Badham County."  Raffin and Lynne Moody played UCLA co-eds falsely imprisoned in a segregated women's prison where the inmates are used as slave labor to help support the economy of the nearby town.  While there, Raffin and Moody are terrorized by evil Southern prison guards Greer (Tina Louise) and Smitty (Lana Wood).  It remains, without a doubt, one of the most anti-Southern movies ever made.  When it was released as a theatrical feature film in 1980 in China, the Communist government tried to use it as anti-American propoganda.  Because it was the first American film shown in China in decades, it purportedly sold over 150 million tickets.  Raffin recalled that, while touring China years later, the Chinese people she encountered recognized her from that film and kept pointing at her saying "Nightmare!  Nightmare!"  She learned that, due to the success of "Nightmare in Badham County," she had since become a popular actress in China.  Many of her others films were also released there.  She even learned that a Chinese-language biography about her life had been written and published.  In the 1980s, long before it became the norm, Raffin was a visionary trailblazer when she became an unofficial cultural Ambassador between the United States and China by helping to establish relationships between producers and officials in both countries.  Through it all, she continued starring in TV miniseries such as "The Last Convertible" (1979), "Haywire” (1980), and "Noble House" (1988), as well as dozens of TV movies.  She also produced miniseries, TV movies, and the 1997 theatrical bio-pic of the life of Oscar Wilde starring Stephen Fry and Vanessa Redgrave.  Raffin even directed TV movies and episodic television.  

Probably Deborah Raffin's most important professional accomplishment was to help establish Dove Books on Tape, the preeminent producer of audiobooks starting from the 1980s.  As with her cultural connection with China, Raffin and her husband Michael Viner blazed a trail with the new concept and shrewdly used their show business connections to get their celebrity friends to voice these audiobooks, which helped make them bestsellers.  What I like the most about Raffin was that she was an actress who did it all.  Lots of actresses like to boast that they are producers, but Raffin did not just dabble in it.  She regularly produced projects that people saw and which enjoyed a certain level of visibility.  Despite her many accomplishments, Raffin always seemed down-to-earth and self-effacing in interviews.  She was that rarity in Hollywood—a good actress who also possessed a sound sense for the business aspects of show business, qualities which helped to ensure her a long and prolific career. 

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