Julie Newmar: Living Doll

Most folks have two primary associations in relation to dancer-actress Julie Newmar (Julie Newmeyer, b. 1933). But we would be acting contrary to brand if we led our essay with mentions of something everybody already knows. Besides, most actors would consider starring in their own TV show to be a high water mark of their careers, obscure or not.

The show Newmar starred in (co-starred, really) was My Living Doll (1964-65), a high concept sitcom about a lovely android whom air force psychiatrist Bob Cummings is teaching to be human while simultaneously hiding her from the military who developed her. Sounds familiar, even if you’ve never heard of it, right? It was SO in the spirit of the times. It was developed by Jack Chertok, whose previous show was My Favorite Martian, but it has even more in common with those “private magical sex slave” male fantasy shows Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, especially the latter. I mean, get real. How is a gorgeous female android not a potential sex robot? It’s even in the title. Ostensibly there’s a Pygmalion-and-Galatea/ My Fair Lady element as well, but to be frank, most heterosexual males are IMMEDIATELY taking this concept to a highly pornographic fantasy endgame. Some will deny it, but that will only raise my skeptical eyebrow. There are robots designed for such a purpose on the market now even as we speak, though something tells me they are something cruder than Julie Newmar.

You tell ’em, Julie!

So why didn’t this “can’t-fail” idea last more than one season? A couple of reasons, and they are both named Bob Cummings. Though largely forgotten today, Cummings was a major TV star of the time, and his image was a sort of swinging, womanizing, wisecracking bachelor. I can see him emceeing a burlesque show without an ounce of effort. And that persona I think both tips the balance, and the hand of the producers. On Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, the male stars are nervous bunglers, both upright and uptight, always scrambling around to keep up appearances, in a constant effort to never do the wrong thing. Unlike Bob Cummings, they did not leer. So there’s that aspect. The other was more behind the scenes. Cummings was into uppers (speed). As often happens for those who use it as a performance enhancer, the drug worked for a while, but by the mid ’60s it was taking its toll in mood swings and erratic behavior. He didn’t like playing the straight man, and he walked from the show, which was struggling in competition with The Patty Duke Show, Bonanza, and The Virginian, anyway.

By the time of My Living Doll, Newmar had been visible on stage and screen for a dozen years. The daughter of a phys ed instructor dad and a showgirl/ fashion designer mom, she seemed genetically destined to be the beautiful dancing machine she became. (The description shortchanges both parents. Her dad was former pro football player who ran the phys ed department at Los Angeles City College. The mom, Helen or Helene Jesmer, later known professionally as “Charlene”, was Swedish, which is undoubtedly why Newmar was able to play Swedish characters in The Marriage-Go-Round and on The Beverly Hillbillies. Indeed, she could have played Ann-Margret’s sister). Even more interesting about the mom: she appeared in the Al Christie silent comedy short A Regular Pal (1918) with Billy Mason and Elinor Field, and was in both the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919 and The Greenwich Village Follies of 1920.

As a west coast girl, Newmar broke into movies prior to Broadway, but only by a couple of years. Fortunately, Hollywood was still making musicals and sword-and-sandal pictures for her to dance in. Early screen credits include She’s Working Her Way Through College (1952), Just For You (1952), Call Me Madam (1953), The Farmer Takes a Wife (1953), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), and The Band Wagon (1953). She’s also in the show biz bio-pics The I Don’t Care Girl and The Eddie Cantor Story (both 1953), and did specialty dances in Serpent of the Nile (1953), Slaves of Babylon (1953), and Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954).

With Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) she got her first proper acting role, and this led to Broadway and the original production of Silk Stockings (1955). She was in both the stage and screen versions of Li’l Abner as Stupefyin’ Jones (1956-58 on stage, 1959 for the movie), and ditto with The Marriage-Go-Round (1958-60 on stage, 1961 for the movie).

By now, screen musicals were out of favor, and this was when Newmar began to place her chips on television. As I’m sure you well know, her greatest and most indelible role in that medium was NOT the title character in My Living Doll, but Cat Woman on Batman (no mean feat given that she handed the role off to Eartha Kitt for the third season). Essentially Newmar created the role, later stepped into by so many many, though that leather bodysuit was surely a tight fit.

Newmar seemed to have a penchant for guest shots on the most gimmicky, high concept shows. We’ve already mentioned The Beverly Hillbillies, but she was also on F Troop, Get Smart, The Monkees, Star Trek, Bewitched (in which she reprised her Cat Woman association as a humanized familiar), and Love American Style. (Ya know what I mean? Heavy drama was clearly not her scene). In 1969 she was in two way out movies, the strange, almost hallucinogenic western MacKenna’s Gold, and the Rowan and Martin comedy The Maltese Bippy.

In the ’70s Newmar did the usual rounds of Columbo, McCloud, McMillan and Wife, The Love Boat etc, and she also made appearances in some interesting TV movies. She was the biggest star in the pilot Terraces (1977), playing a character named after her mother. (I’m kind of shocked I haven’t yet written about this odd little artifact, a night-time drama about the residents in an apartment building, It is unlike anything else I can think of). At the beginning of the decade, she also patented several original designs of pantyhouse and brassieres, which she marketed under the rubric “Nudemar”.

Following a 1977 marriage Newmar moved to Texas for a while, and her screen appearances became sporadic. Following the example of her mother, she later became very successful in real estate. The other cultural reference I mentioned at the outset is of course the 1995 drag road movie penned by the great Douglas Carter Beane, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, in which she had a cameo.

As I pen this, Newmar is approaching the 90 year mark, adding another dimension of triumph to the phrase “Living Doll.” H’m, I wonder if she eats healthy and exercises?