No, I am not obsessed with Pamela Sue Martin (b. 1953). I am, however, obsessed with The Poseidon Adventure (1972), the first movie I ever saw in a cinema, and as it happens, she is the last of the principal cast members I have not yet written a post about on Travalanche (as well as one of the last surviving ones). I’m not kidding, I have even written about Eric Shea, who played her bratty kid brother, and Ernie Orsatti, who played her anonymous shipboard boyfriend, the guy who falls into the stained glass window:
And so I feel not just obligated but compelled to give her attention today. To leave her out would seem both morally and aesthetically wrong. Though I was but seven, she was the first female presented to me in a contemporary film as a sex symbol, the height of Nixon era chic (“Heavy, Robin, very heavy”). I am around Shea’s age, and my world revolved around babysitters (in fact a babysitter had taken me to see The Poseidon Adventure) and Martin’s character in the film is oddly tasked with babysitting her brother on a Mediterranean cruise (whose parents do THAT with their kids two decades into the jet age?)
Oddly — VERY oddly it occurs to me now — after the disaster she does not bond with the young singer Nonnie (Carol Lynley) as I believe would naturally happen, given what I have experienced of the human race. Instead, she continues to pursue middle-aged preacher Gene Hackman, whom she has had a crush on throughout the film, while Nonnie pairs off with the even less appealing haberdasher played by Red Buttons.
I’m not saying there are no young ladies with “daddy issues”; in fact it’s a powerful element of this movie. But it’s kind of weird that there are NO exchanges between her and the other female characters that I can recall. The female characters all interact exclusively with the men (or boy) they came with, or with Hackman, the leader. Just an observation. At any rate, Martin’s character’s obsession with Hackman gets her some of the flashiest acting moments in the movie. She was only 19 years old.
Believe it or not, this was not her first film. The teenage model from Connecticut had previously STARRED in a movie called To Find a Man (1972), in which she plays a sexually precocious, pregnant boarding school girl, holding her own in a cast that included Lloyd Bridges, Phyllis Newman, Tom Ewell, and Tom Bosley. Irwin Allen was impressed by this performance and cast her as Susan Shelby on the strength of it. Her appeal was unique to the times — simultaneously funny, cheeky, wholesome, All-American, and sexual. I associate her sort of appeal with the era of Karen Carpenter. She’d have been perfect for Michael Ritchie’s beauty pageant film Smile (1975).
As it happens, Martin’s career would enjoy two more high profile, tent pole moments, although there was filler in between. After Poseidon came the TV movie The Girls of Huntington House (1973), about a school for unwed mothers, featuring Shirley Jones, Mercedes McCambridge, William Windom, and a young Sissy Spacek. She co-starred with Parker Stevenson in another film about high school kids in a sexual relationship called Our Time, in 1974. (Her career would intersect with Stevenson’s again very shortly, as some of you already know!). She had a supporting role in The Gun and the Pulpit (1974) which starred Marjoe Gortner as a gunslinger who masquerades as a minister to evade the law.
In 1977 came another of her big moments. She was cast as the title character in The Nancy Drew Mysteries, on a show that alternated with The Hardy Boys Mysteries starring Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson. Like his brother David Cassidy before him, Shaun became a massive teen idol (even released hit records), and Martin also enjoyed enormous popularity at the time. The shows were disco era reboots of characters that had appeared in books and film series for decades (and have been revisited many times since). Aimed at young people, the show was kind of perfectly calculated for the moment. In retrospect I posit it right between Ellery Queen and Charlie’s Angels, two other shows I was glued to. At any right, Martin enjoyed high visibility at this time, with cover stories in all the teen magazines, and so forth.
Then, for whatever reason (probably to increase Cassidy’s exposure), the two shows were merged in the second season, which had the effect of reducing Martin’s role as star of her own series, and making her a third wheel in Hardy Boys mysteries. She left the show at the beginning of 1978. Six months later she did this:
Needless to say, a nude Playboy spread altered her image somewhat, and put her in limbo. She was no longer a teen idol, but she was not a full-fledged movie star either. Her next part was a supporting role as a Vegas showgirl in TV movie called Human Feeling (1978) with Nancy Walker, a Soap-era Billy Crystal, Donna Pescow, Armand Assante, Jack Carter, John Fiedler, and Pat Morita. She’s about 10th down in the billing. But she had a starring role in her next film The Lady in Red (1979) about a Depression era farm girl who becomes Dillinger’s gun moll. Robert Conrad played Dillinger, and the film also has Louise Fletcher, Christopher Lloyd and Dick Miller. Next came the obligatory episodes of Fantasy Island and The Love Boat (watch out that Love Boat doesn’t capsize!) Then came her career’s third tent pole moment.
In 1981 she was part of the original cast of Dynasty, as Fallon Carrington, the daughter of John Forsythe and Joan Collins, and stepdaughter of Linda Evans. This was another high profile gig on one of the most popular series in the country, and she remained on the show until 1984.
That year she wrote, produced and starred in a movie called Torchlight, about a wife dealing with her husband’s cocaine addition. The film co-starred Ian McShane and Steve Railsback (Charles Manson in Helter Skelter). It was obviously a highly personal project, but a gamble, and it did not elevate her status as a star.
Leaving Dynasty perhaps wasn’t the wisest of career moves. Her part was recast with somebody else, and Martin returned to the sort of TV movies and such that had filled her calendar prior to the show. She starred in Arthur Hailey’s pharmaceutical company drama Strong Medicine (1986) with Patrick Duffy, Dick Van Dyke, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Sam Neill, and Annette O’Toole. In 1987 she appeared on an episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents reboot, and in the TV movie Bay Coven, in which she and Tim Matheson played a couple who move to a quaint town full of witches (which is the plot of approximately 500 TV movies). The cast of that one includes Leave it to Beaver‘s Barbara Billingsley, Jeff Conaway from Taxi, Woody Harrelson from Cheers, and James Sikking from Hill Street Blues. In Sky Trackers (1990), she and Paul Williams play a couple of scientists concerned with the re-entry of a satellite containing a possible bio-hazard.
Since The Saint: The Software Murders (1994), she has concentrated mostly on stage acting and directing for the theatre, although she did make guest appearances on That ’70s Show and The L Word. She was reunited with Parker Stevenson in a 2014 family film called McTaggart’s Fortune, as well as a 2017 holiday film called My Christmas Prince. Her most recent screen credit is a 2019 episode of the most recent Nancy Drew reboot starring Kennedy McMann. But she remains very active. Follow what she’s up to at her official website here.
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