Guest Star – Susan Oliver

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 7, 2018

Life is indeed full of little pleasures. Nowadays, I love watching old television shows, and it’s another small delight I can add to my daily total when I can recognize a character actor from the past. The other night I watched an episode of Route 66 with Susan Oliver guest starring. (“Welcome to Amity“- 1961:s1:e29). I had seen her a number of times lately on other old shows, including a two-parter on The Fugitive. (“Never Wave Goodbye” –  1963:s1:e4-5).

Susan Oliver made a career out of guest starring. Back in the early days of television audiences had no problem with guest actors appearing as different characters, and were usually allowed to appear in the same series once a year. Oliver was so well-liked by audiences that she appeared annually in many popular television shows, each time as a different character. Yes, Susan Oliver was strikingly attractive but more important, she always struck me as a tortured soul which uniquely revealed itself in every character she played. I never knew why until an odd incidence of serendipity.

I can’t tell you the first time I saw Susan Oliver, but I can tell you the last time. It was Wednesday night, December 5, 2018 when I saw her in that episode of Route 66. I remembered her name and face but I didn’t know anything about her history. Normally, I would have gone on to watch another show and forgot all about her for the moment. If by accident in the future I again caught one of her guest appearances I would have had another little spark of pleasure if I recognized her and remembered the Route 66 episode.

But something weird happened. It almost felt like The Twilight Zone music played. I clicked the Home button on my Amazon Fire and went to my watchlist. I don’t know why, but my eye immediately caught The Green Girl, a documentary I thought was about Star Trek. That appealed to me. I hit play. Then I discovered the documentary was really about Susan Oliver. That was spooky and fun.

I had completely forgotten that Susan Oliver had played Vina in the first Star Trek pilot that Gene Roddenberry had made in 1964. The film from that pilot was reused in 1966 to make a two-part episode called “The Menagerie” (s1:e11-12). I had seen “The Menagerie” when it first premiered on November 17, 1966. Vina might be Susan Oliver’s most famous role, and thus the title of the documentary. At one point, Vina appeared as a fantasy to Capt. Pike (this was before Capt. Kirk) as a dancing green alien woman. Susan Oliver’s green woman was also shown in the closing credits of the first season of Star Trek, making her famous to Star Trek fandom. I had completely forgotten that until seeing the documentary.

I was eight days from being sixteen when I first saw that episode of Star Trek with Susan Oliver. I thought she was beautiful then, but I didn’t memorize her name at that time. By then I had probably seen her in several television shows. Oliver was never famous, never had her own TV series, or became a movie star, but she appeared in almost countless television shows starting in the 1950s. She’s now haunting me because I’m watching all those old TV shows again.

The Green Girl is a wonderful 2014 tribute to Susan Oliver that tells her life story, interviews her friends and fellow actors, and shows clips from dozens of her performances. The documentary also chronicled her exploits as a competitive pilot. Oliver flew across the Atlantic solo and came in second in a cross-country race. As she aged she tried writing and directing but was thwarted because she was a woman. The Green Girl provides both a moving story about an ambitious young woman breaking into movies and television back when I was growing up and also reminds those of us who grew up back then of all the television shows we loved so much.

The Green Girl

When I was young I used to be frustrated with older folks when they didn’t know my favorite pop culture icons. I couldn’t understand how they could be so clueless to current famous people. Now that I’m old, I’m clueless about the identities of current pop culture favorites, and I realize I should have been more forgiving of my elders. I also wish now that I had memorized far more people back then. I feel bad in 2018 that I hadn’t become a dedicated fan of Susan Oliver in the 1950s, memorizing her name and following her career until she died.

This is kind of weird, maybe even spooky too, but for some unfathomable reason, I’m drawn to my pop culture past. I do love modern TV. For example, I’m crazy about The Marvelous Mrs. Meisel. But I can’t tell you who plays Mrs. Meisel. I’m not even going to make the effort to look it up – I’d only forget it. Why aren’t I memorizing all the details of current pop culture? I don’t even try. I don’t even feel guilty for not knowing. But it is important to me to keep up with the trivia of the 1950s and 1960s. Why?

When Susan Oliver shows up in an old TV show it brings me a little pleasure. Recalling the character actors names in shows I haven’t seen for decades gives me a twinge of happiness. And it’s not like the present doesn’t also bring pleasure. I really, really love The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It gives me great happiness. Much more than watching old favorite TV shows. Yet, I feel no need to memorize the names of its actors. Why?

It feels like I’m giving up on the present because I enjoy the past more. I’m not sure if that’s healthy, but then I don’t care either. I used to wonder why old guys wore orange plaid slacks with red paisley shirts. Now I know it’s because they are old and have an “I don’t give a shit” attitude about everything. (Although I’m quite thankful I don’t have the urge to wear plaid and paisley together. If I did, I would.) For some reason, it’s more important to remember trivia from the old days than it is to remember facts about the present.

If you feel that way, then I bet you’ll love watching The Green Girl.

JWH