Sunday, March 9, 2014

"Guest Starring Jess Walton..."

Actress Jess Walton is best known for her successful and continuing 27 year run as Jill Foster Abbott on the CBS daytime soap opera "The Young and the Restless."  However, before she hit her stride in daytime, Walton was already a promising, successful actress starting from the early 1970s when she was under contract to Universal and working under the auspices of Monique James and Eleanor Kilgallen, who ran the studio's New Talent program.  As I've written about before, while interviewing actress Ana Alicia, the purpose of the Universal New Talent program was to discover young actors and actresses, and put them under contract, so that Universal could use them for their films and TV shows and groom them for stardom.  Jess Walton was one of the best and brightest of the Universal contract players of the 1970s.  Beautiful, with slightly unconventional features that only served to give her face depth and character, Walton was a welcome presence as a guest star on many of the major prime time television shows of that decade.

In many ways, she was a slightly younger version of the sort of intense, husky-voiced brunette that actresses like Suzanne Pleshette, the similarly named Jessica Walter, and Elizabeth Ashley exemplified.  However, unlike those actresses, Walton was considerably less mannered, less severe and cold, and less self-indulgent than Pleshette, Walter, and Ashley could be at times.  Walton rarely over-indulged or overacted as an actress.  Universal should have promoted her into feature films throughout her tenure with the studio, but the 1970s being what they were, feature films were made up with leading ladies who were flaky (such as Diane Keaton) or weird (such as Karen Black).  This is not to suggest in any way that Jess Walton was a "conventional" actress.  Walton is a versatile actress capable of being eccentric and edgy in her own right.  However, I think the reason she wasn't allowed a chance to do major feature films in the 1970s had more to do with the fact that she typically brought intelligence, strength, and integrity to her television roles as a young leading lady, qualities that were in short supply for women in feature films during that time.  I believe, had she shown up a few years earlier, director Howard Hawks would have been intrigued with Walton, especially because she always projected maturity and never played "cute" (a quality Hawks hated in actresses) and cast her as one of his assertive, quick-witted heroines. 

One of Walton's earliest TV guest appearances was in the supernatural series "The Sixth Sense."  In the episode "Coffin, Coffin in the Sky," which aired on ABC on September 23, 1972, she played Lily Warren an injured folk/rock singer injured in Mexico, while researching folk songs that she could use for her concerts, being transported back to San Diego in a small commercial aircraft for medical treatment.  Throughout the flight, Lily goes in and out of consciousness, as she hallucinates and has horrible nightmares that the captain is the plane is driving a horse-drawn hearse and visualizes that the passengers on the plane are dead, lying in coffins.  Dr. Michael Rhodes (Gary Collins), a parapsychologist who is a passenger on the flight, attempts to decipher Lily's visions to determine if her visions are a premonition of mechanical issues with the plane that would cause it to crash upon landing.  Walton brings the right air of ethereal mystery to the role.  Given the limited confines of the Lily Warren character, which required her to be strapped to a gurney throughout the episode with an oxygen mask on, the character could have been creepy, but Walton brings sympathetic and human qualities so that her character never comes across as off-putting or needlessly weird.

I also recall her touching performance on "Marcus Welby, M.D." in the episode "Unto the Next Generation," which ABC aired on December 5, 1972.  Walton played Naomi Sobel, a young housewife and mother of an infant who dies from a rare genetic disorder called Tay-Sachs disease.  After their child dies, Naomi and her husband both deal with their grief and also wrestle with their fear of having another child who may also be born with this disorder.  An unusual episode of "Marcus Welby" in that the storyline spans a timeline of what must have been more than a year and a half, rather than like a week in the life of Welby and his patients, "Unto the Next Generation" is notable for its expression of grief over the death of the infant child expressed throughout.  I recall feeling a level of discomfort watching this family wrestle with their loss and with making difficult decisions for their future.  It just seemed surprisingly authentic for a vintage television series from that era.  Walton gave a raw, emotional performance as the sympathetic Naomi.  With subtlety and conviction, she allowed us to see Naomi's grief, vulnerability and strength in a way that felt completely valid and understandable.

While on loan-out from Universal, Jess Walton made several guest appearances on CBS's classic western series "Gunsmoke."  The more memorable appearance was in the January 22, 1973 episode entitled "Patricia."  She played the title character, a woman with nursing experience from Boston, who is riding out West on a stagecoach when a tornado arrives just as she is traveling through Dodge City.  Patricia courageously works along side Doc (Milburn Stone) and Newly (Buck Taylor) to tend to the injured and wounded, earning the affection and respect of Dodge City's residents.  In the process, Patricia and Newly fall in love.  They announce plans to get married and buy a horse ranch.  However, Doc learns that Patricia is dying of leukemia.  Nevertheless, news of her illness is kept from Patricia and the wedding proceeds.  Newly and Patricia are happy for a period of time until she accidentally learns about her illness and her terminal prognosis.

Walton is excellent in the scene where Patricia stumbles upon the telegram that discusses her prognosis.  As she rocks in her chair, after reading the telegram, the camera slowly zooms in on Walton's terrified and grief-stricken face as she recalls, in voice over, the seemingly innocuous advice and suggestions from other individuals, to rest and take it easy.  She now realizes that others knew of her illness before she did as she puts the pieces together.  She runs from the house, wraps her arms around a nearby tree, as she clenches her eyes shut and attempts to compute this information.  She later flees into the hillside, with Newly giving chase.  When he finally catches up with her, she talks about their future together, with the two still not openly acknowledging her illness, and dies peacefully in his arms.  A character-driven episode of "Gunsmoke" that reflected the later years of the series, Walton gave a radiant performance as the sympathetic Patricia.  Walton was able to project the character's innate decency and kindness without the character lapsing into cliches or sentimentality.  I think Walton was able to avoid that by bringing elements of courage, integrity and intelligence to the character.  She's particularly good in the sequence when Patricia learns about her illness.  She hits the right notes of rage, fear, and frustration and knows just how far to take it without being arch or mannered.

One of her best TV guest appearances during this era was in the "Kojak" episode "Die Before They Wake," which aired February 6, 1974 on CBS.  Walton played Cheryl Pope, the much younger wife of crusading TV reporter Daniel Pope (Robert Burr).  Daniel Pope is killed while investigating a criminal organization dealing in drugs and prostitution.  Cheryl, a former addict who was able to overcome her addictions with the love and support of her husband, goes undercover to try and unmask the criminals behind her husband's murder.  In so doing, Cheryl finds herself exposed to the world of narcotics again and must fight against giving into the temptation of dulling her pain with heroin.  Throughout the episode, a concerned Kojak (Telly Savalas) attempts to keep tabs on Cheryl to ensure that her amateur sleuthing does not result in her death.  The "Kojak" episode afforded Walton an opportunity to play a gritty, heroic character.  Walton skillfully balances Cheryl Pope's qualities of courage and vulnerability so that her efforts to investigate her husband's death never comes across as contrived or silly.  She's particularly good at the end of the episode when her cover has been blown and the criminals she's been investigating realize who she is.  As the criminals discuss eliminating her like they did with her husband, Cheryl scornfully sneers, "Little men make the biggest mistakes!  What?  Are you gonna use the same gun you used to kill my husband?"  She proceeds to needle both criminals in an effort to make them turn on each other.  Walton's grit and determination in this performance should have afforded her more opportunities for feature films in the 1970s.

Walton made several guest appearances while on loan out to Quinn Martin for the CBS TV show "Cannon."  The most interesting of these appearances was in the episode entitled "The Victim," which aired October 8, 1975.  Written by Jimmy Sangster, who wrote many classic horror films for Hammer Studios, the episode opens mysteriously as Walton's character, a struggling singer named Janice Elder, approaches an empty house where the window has been smashed on the front door, the living room is in tatters, and pop music is playing on the stereo.  She finds her old friend--singing star Lena Michaels (Donna Mills)--locked in a room, cowering in fear and in tears.  Lena called her old friend Janice to come rescue her from the house, where she claims she's been held captive.  However, as they are about to make their exit, they are confronted by several men, one of whom knocks Janice unconscious.  She is later found on the side of the road, alive but with drugs in her system.  The police refuse to believe her story, except for a sympathetic detective, played by James Callahan, who calls in his friend Frank Cannon (William Conrad) to investigate Janice's story.

Walton projects the right air of frustration and determination at trying to get people to believe her story.  She's particularly good in the scene where Janice and Cannon return to the house and find that a married couple is purportedly living there, which appear to refute her allegations.  I also like the sense of defiance that Walton projects in her initial scene with Cannon, as Janice is reluctant to reiterate her story to yet another person who might doubt her credibility.  The slowly developing sense of friendship and trust between Cannon and Janice is one of the most interesting elements to this episode.  At the end, it is revealed that Janice's friend, Lena Michaels, is actually an unbalanced psychopath, and that her agents and managers have developed an elaborate ruse to shield her murderous activities from the public to protect her and their investment.  Lena attempts to kill Janice at the end of the episode, only to have Cannon rescue her in the nick of time.  It's at that point you realize that the true "victim" of the episode's title wasn't Donna Mills' seemingly terrified and captive Lena Michaels, but her naively trusting friend Janice Elder, who was concerned about her well-being and attempted to help her.  Walton makes Janice an admirable character so that the audience is concerned with her safety throughout the episode. 

These are just a few examples that come to mind, but I think they help to demonstrate the fine work Jess Walton did in episodic TV guest appearances throughout the 1970s.  The roles, at times, may not have been particularly challenging, but Walton brought layers of depth, nuance, and humanity to them that she never ended up being just "the girl" guest starring on a cop or detective series.  She always managed to stand out so that viewers would sit up and notice her fine work.  I still believe, as I mentioned before, that Universal should have given Walton more opportunities for big-screen stardom.  She had the talent, beauty and presence to warrant feature film roles.  Nevertheless, I'm glad that Walton kept working and eventually found her greatest success on daytime television with "The Young and the Restless."  She brought layers of substance, intelligence, and credibility to the role of Jill Foster Abbott, and was able to allow the character to transcend the mannered campiness that her predecessor Brenda Dickson brought to the role.  While Dickson was certainly entertaining, Walton did the seemingly impossible--she was able to make the role of Jill her own.  As such, she's won two Emmys and been nominated five times.  Prime time TV and feature films' loss has been daytime's gain.