Remembering Janet Margolin

Were she still alive today Janet Margolin (1943-1993) would be nearly 80 years old, but there’s no doubt in my mind she would still be beautiful. What’s especially interesting to me is that somehow (though she starred in movies) she wasn’t “movie star beautiful”. She was more natural than glamorous, which suited the times she lived in. She had the kind of face men fall in love with, not pin up on locker room walls. For a particularly rewarding stretch, she was the muse of comic auteurs Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, and Melvin Frank, and it’s impossible not to see what they saw. Everyone seemed to.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Margolin had it made. She had scarcely left New York’s High School for Performing Arts when, at age 18, she was cast in the Broadway show Daughter of Silence (1961) with Rip Torn, Vincent Gardenia, and Joe De Santis. The show only played a month, but Margolis was nominated for a Tony. She stepped from this immediately into her first movie, Frank and Eleanor Perry’s 1962 art film David and Lisa, in which she played a mentally ill girl who’s only able to speak in rhyme. In the short term this critically acclaimed performance led mostly to TV work, and then in the middle of the decade came several films. She did adaptations of William Inge and Tennessee Williams plays: Bus Riley’s Back in Town (1965), and Ten Blocks on the Camino Reale (1966), respectively. She was one star among many in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and held her own with Marlon Brando and Yul Brynner in Morituri (1965) as a WWII Jewish freedom fighter. Next came the Henry Hathaway western Nevada Smith (1966) with Steve McQueen, which, if nothing else, displayed her range.

Then that comedy stretch we mentioned. Carl Reiner cast her as the most plausible of several romantic interests for Reni Santoni in his first film Enter Laughing (1967). Then she was in the all-star comedy ensemble of Melvin Frank’s Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (1968). Shelley Winters was in both films, as well! Next Margolin was the love interest in Woody Allen’s first self-directed starring vehicle Take the Money and Run (1969). Later she returned in Annie Hall (1977), cast against type and nearly unrecognizable behind glasses as Alvy Singer’s bitchy second wife.

Throughout the ’70s Margolin worked mostly in guest starring roles on tv shows like Mod Squad and Police Story. The pinnacle of her tv work was a regular role on the short-lived Lannigan’s Rabbi (1977), the last of the numerous “4th slot” shows on the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie, in rotation with Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan and Wife. This show featured Art Carney as a police chief who partners with a rabbi played by Bruce Solomon (of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) to solve murders. Amusingly, the pilot had starred Stuart Margolin (of The Rockford Files) in the Solomon role — and he is NOT related to Janet! (I wish she’d married Stuart Pankin. Their Brangelina name could be “Pangolin”.)

She rounded out the 70s with tv movies like Murder in Peyton Place (1977) and The Triangle Factory Fire Scandal (1979) and one last theatrical film, Jonathan Demme’s Last Embrace (1979) opposite Roy Scheider. It was an interesting period for both Demme and Scheider. The latter was between Jaws II (1978) and All That Jazz (1979); the former was between his CB radio movie Handle with Care (1977) and the one that put him on the map, Melvin and Howard (1980). For all concerned, Last Embrace is kind of a forgotten moment, and maybe justly so, judging by the reviews. (Margolin played a woman who goes on a killing spree, seeking vengeance on the Jewish sexual slavery ring that oppressed her grandmother).

This ends her classic period. What happened to her?, you may wonder. She was taken from us twice. In 1979 she married Ted Wass of hot tv sitcom Soap and had a couple of kids. This took her out of circulation for most of the 1980s. Then, towards the end of the decade, the briefest of returns. She has a supporting role in Distant Thunder (1988) with John Lithgow and Ralph Macchio (then still in his Karate Kid period). She has a thankless role as a prosecutor in Ghostbusters II (1989), very much in the unrecognizable “foil” tradition of her Annie Hall role. In 1990 she was on Columbo and Murder She Wrote and in a tv movie called Murder, C.O.D.

In 1993 she was stolen from us a second time, this time permanently. The culprit was ovarian cancer. Broke a lot of hearts that day. That day and many another, I’ll warrant.