An Interview with Joyce Meadows - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Joyce Meadows

by Jim Knipfel
Illustration by Samar Haddad
header-image

An Interview with Joyce Meadows

by Jim Knipfel
Illustration by Samar Haddad

An Interview with Joyce Meadows

Jim Knipfel
32 Snaps

In her second feature film, twenty-two-year-old Joyce Meadows starred as Sally Fallon, the levelheaded and good-humored fiancée of an atomic scientist (played by B movie stalwart John Agar). Directed by Nathan Juran, 1957’s The Brain from Planet Arous concerns an evil alien brain with diabolical intentions who arrives on Earth and possesses Agar’s body. Things take an even more unexpected turn when a benevolent brain from the same planet, in criminal pursuit of the evil brain, possesses Meadows’s dog. It’s really something. This was the only science fiction film Meadows ever made, yet over the next half century, The Brain from Planet Arous would develop a solid cult following, and it remains the film for which she’s best remembered.

Meadows was born Joyce Burger in Alberta, Canada, in 1935, though by the time she was nine the family had settled in Sacramento, California. Before making the leap to Hollywood, when she was nineteen, Meadows had already been working as a stage actress and singer, and had even been voted, much to her surprise, Miss Sacramento of 1953.

After making her screen debut, in 1956, with a supporting role (also with Agar) in the low-budget American international western Flesh and the Spur, Meadows would go on to appear in over a hundred films and television shows. She played varied roles in films ranging from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) to The Christine Jorgensen Story (1970) to westerns like Frontier Gun (1958). Perhaps more notably, throughout the ’50s and ’60s she became a familiar face to American television viewers, appearing in what seems like every show on the air at the time. She worked opposite Lee Marvin, Lloyd Bridges, Joan Crawford, Audrey Hepburn, Steve McQueen, Chuck Conners, Rory Calhoun, Edmond O’Brien, and John Forsythe, to name just a few.

While she was never typecast, the tall and beautiful Meadows imbued all her roles with an intelligence and gravity far beyond what one would expect from most female characters of the era. Whether they were tomboys or teachers, doctors, secretaries, or prison wardens, Meadows’s characters exuded a clarity and realism that always made them stand out.

Then, in the early ’70s, she dropped everything and walked away from Hollywood, driven from the industry by its pervasive atmosphere of sexual harassment and abuse. Producers and casting directors tried to coerce her into sex in exchange for acting roles, and she lost countless jobs for refusing. “There wasn’t any kind of social respect for someone like me, and they took advantage of that,” she said. “Or tried.” 

Leaving Hollywood prompted a depression and loss of professional direction, a period she spent, in her words, “set out into the wilderness.” But the derailment allowed her to get “healed up” by returning to her first two loves—theater and music. Over the subsequent years, along with appearing in hundreds of plays, she’s taught acting, fronted a musical group called the New Ideas, was involved with an acting program for developmentally disabled adults, and spent ten years touring with a two-person Shakespeare show. These days she’s part of Cup of Water Players, a musical theater troupe made up of senior citizens.

She may not have broken through to the giddy heights of superstardom, but she has remained a busy working actor and singer for over six decades, something few in the business can claim.

On a chilly Los Angeles morning in 2019, I spoke with Meadows—who remains sharp, funny, insightful, and quite active at eighty-four—about her life and career, growing up during the Depression, the way the business has changed from an actor’s perspective, her decision to walk away from Hollywood, the #MeToo movement, and what it’s like to be rediscovered by a new generation in the twenty-first century.

—Jim Knipfel

I. A BUILT-IN BABYSITTER

THE BELIEVER: You didn’t see your first film until you were nine or ten. What was that first moviegoing experience like?

JOYCE MEADOWS: Yeah, I was about ten, and my cousin Donna—she was fourteen or fifteen—said we were going to the movies. I had no idea what the hell she was talking about, but I pretended I did. So she and one of her girlfriends and I went to the movies. It was Gilda, with Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth. We saw the movie in Pomona, in Southern California. It was confusing. I was very, very curious. Donna said, “I’m going to get some popcorn, so you just sit right here.” In those days the newsreel would come on, then a couple cartoons and two movies. I don’t remember what the second one was. I think the newsreel was on, and I was thinking, How are those people on the screen talking? It was dark, and I saw a stairway to the side of the stage, so I thought I’d sneak up there and see if there was anything behind the screen. I wanted to know how these people were talking. So I snuck up the stairs and was touching the screen and thinking, This is just paper, so how can they make the paper talk? And by now all these people in the audience were yelling, “Hey! Hey!” I had no idea they were talking to me until Donna came back and saw me and had a fit. She was a teenager and was embarrassed. I was just very curious about how they got people to talk on that big ol’ piece of paper.

You have to understand, I grew up in a house with no running water and no electricity. We had an outhouse and used kerosene lamps, so all this was new to me.

BLVR: Did that first experience get you hooked on the movies?

JM: Oh, yeah. When we finally ended up in Sacramento, out in the Carmichael area, which was very rural at the time, there was this little theater, and my mother would say, “As soon as the kids get home from Sunday school, let’s drop them off at the theater.” The three of us—my brother and sister and I—would get so excited we could hardly eat our lunch. The typical thing, if we were going into Sacramento or close to it, was that they would find a theater that was playing two movies, two or three cartoons, and a newsreel. You could drop your kids off, then go do all your errands all afternoon because the kids wouldn’t be getting out of the theater until five. We saw all the cowboy movies, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and Tom Mix. The movies were a built-in babysitter.

BLVR: And you had absolutely no idea that one day down the line you’d be part of that, babysitting other people’s kids.

JM: No, no, not at that time. None of that really sank in until I got to high school. That’s when I realized you could make money, that people were making a living, that these actors were very famous. On my side of the bedroom, I had every movie star pinned up on the wall. The whole wall was covered, between stage and film and music. I was very typical that way.

BLVR: So how did you begin acting? Was it intentional on your part, or did you just fall into it?

JM: I went into it very intentionally. Well… kind of. In the seventh and eighth grades, I became very introverted. Prior to that I was always singing, at the church at Christmastime and Easter, and when they’d put on these little plays. But in the seventh and eighth grades, I stopped doing that. When I got into high school, my best girlfriend, Ruby, tried out for a play and she got in. When it came time to audition, she said, “Why don’t you try out? We’ll both be backstage and we can be together.” So I said OK. I didn’t pay much attention, because my goal was just to get backstage with my best girlfriend. All of a sudden I was in my typing class and here’s Ruby outside the door and she’s just going crazy. I raised my hand and asked if I could go to the restroom. So I went out and said, “What’s the matter with you?” And she was hysterical and said, “You got the lead in the play!” Well, I about fainted, because I had a very strict dad and had to be in the house by six o’clock, and rehearsals didn’t start till after school. So that became a big to-do between my mother and my dad, and I was shaking in my boots. Finally I got to be in the play, and that’s how it all started. I remember thinking, I like this. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

BLVR: After graduation, you started auditioning for acting jobs around Sacramento?

JM: Oh, yeah. I was between eighteen and nineteen, and I played Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. That was the first Shakespeare I’d ever done. Of course, later in life I did it a few more times, but then I was playing Lady Capulet. [Laughs] That’s how I fell in love with Shakespeare. Then one thing led to another.

BLVR: You’ve always been a stage actress, but when you headed for Hollywood, was it in your mind that you wanted to break into the movies?

JM: I was a theater person, yeah, but I also loved the movies. LA seemed a million miles away, and for my type of psyche, I need decent support. I didn’t have any of that with my family; I mean I had no support. I love it on these award shows when all these people say, “Oh, my mom and my dad were behind me all the way.” I always think, God, what it would have been like if I’d had that kind of support? I was all on my own. I should have gone to New York with my kind of psyche. Just to move to LA was a big thing.

There was a woman at the Sacramento Music Circus, a little chubby character gal who sang. She had an in at the Hollywood Studio Club. All of that was arranged before I left Sacramento. I got on that Greyhound bus and headed straight for the Hollywood Studio Club, and that’s where I lived for a while. It was run by the YWCA. It wasn’t just show [business] people in there. There were young women who could have been musicians, secretaries, actors; just a lot of different single women. Rita Moreno and Kim Novak were living there at the same time I was. 

BLVR: You were cast in The Brain from Planet Arous. As young as you were, and relatively new to the business, did you look at it as just another job, or did you read through the script and think, Oh my god, alien brains and talking dogs? What the hell am I getting into?

JM: No, no. See, I would just use the lines and work with the character using the techniques I had learned at that time. The lines were always there. I never had to sit down and memorize-memorize. They came very quickly, very easily.

What was challenging, of course, was having to get your own personal camera moves right so you would get into place at the right time without looking down and thinking, Oh, there’s where I go, and, There’s where I go next, you know? You had to identify and rehearse and memorize all these moves. The camera was moving and you were moving. If you were getting up out of a chair, you couldn’t just pop up, because you were getting up and the camera was moving with you. So that part was very challenging. And I did OK. The director and producers were very happy I didn’t have any performance problems, just technical ones, and they seemed very understanding about that.

II. RADIATION

BLVR: After The Brain from Planet Arous, you never did another science fiction film.

JM: No, no, I never did. Only that one.

BLVR: Was that a personal creative choice, or was it just how things worked out?

JM: It’s just the way things worked out. I’m sure if something else like that had come along, I wouldn’t have turned it down.

BLVR: One of the interesting things I noted, looking through a lot of your performances, is that you so often played intelligent characters. I can’t recall you ever playing a real bubblehead. Even in The Brain from Planet Arous, unlike other female actors in similar genre films, you weren’t cast to simply run around and scream until you were rescued by the male lead. You portrayed smart women.

JM: Well, those were the leads. My agent got me auditions for leads, and usually they were very different kinds of women.

BLVR: That’s another thing. So many of your characters are very different. With rare exceptions—Brando, maybe, and Meryl Streep—so many actors spend their careers playing a single type. Character actors and stars alike. You gave all sorts of performances, and I’m wondering about that distinction between character actors and stars.

JM: Creatively, I was basically a character actor, though I was never cast as that because I was a pretty girl. I had opportunities in the theater to do [more interesting work], and I approached each character as an individual. I never learned gimmicks so the same person would come out all the time; I never wanted the typical star persona. Nobody ever challenged me about it, and when I studied with Stella Adler— 

BLVR: I was about to ask about your time with Stella Adler.

JM: I was a member of the West Coast Ensemble Theatre. That was near Vine and Hollywood, and across the street was the Stella Adler Academy. I was always fascinated with her. A very hard teacher, though—whew. I remember walking out of classes sometimes with tears in my eyes. She was very strong and so blunt, and I wasn’t used to that. In that way, she was not the easiest person to work with. 

Lee Strasberg and Sandy Meisner and Stella Adler at the Actors Studio were all part of the Group Theatre. Adler went to Russia and learned this new technique they were all fascinated with—Method Acting—from the horse’s mouth, Konstantin Stanislavsky. She came back and shared it with the two of them. Then all three had different interpretations, and they split up and went off on their own. But they all had the essence of Stanislavsky in many, many ways. I was familiar with all that. In fact, I remember reading Stanislavsky’s An Actor Prepares in the summer of eighth grade, going into high school. That was the first book Stanislavsky put out that was translated into English.

When Marlon Brando came on the scene, it was all the Method this, and the Method that, and we all just assumed he was one of the shining glories out of the Actors Studio. Then he wrote his autobiography a while back. He was born in a trunk; I mean, his mother ran a theater. However, the only person he studied with was Stella Adler. He didn’t go to the Actors Studio at all. That was very interesting to me, so I learned about her technique and I got her books. I still have her books today. Michael Chekhov too. Chekhov was in movies himself and played very different character roles. Clint Eastwood studied with Chekhov very closely, and there’s a technique that’s so obvious to me. Chekhov called it “radiation,” the way a character is always either putting out or absorbing energy. He was always asking, “Are you a radiator or a receiver?,” meaning: Are you putting yourself into the world, radiating energy out from the center to the other actors, or drawing it in—pulling the world toward you? Eastwood [uses Chekhov’s techniques] in every single movie he’s in, and it makes him the most interesting person on the screen without saying hardly anything. That’s what charisma is. In the Dirty Harry movies, he was a radiator, and in Unforgiven and The Bridges of Madison County, he was a receiver. It was a piece of technique he picked up from Michael Chekhov, and, boy, he made it work for him.

BLVR: If I’m getting this distinction right, at the Actors Studio they train actors to draw upon their own past experience in order to recover a specific emotion, while Stella Adler put more emphasis on imagination.

JM: Right. But I’ll tell you, when your imagination takes over, you think of something and the past comes to the forefront. See, I have a different way of putting it: you memorize your emotions so you can call them up.

BLVR: Thinking of the contrast between these different schools, you were in the show Wanted: Dead or Alive with Steve McQueen. How was it working with him? He was another one who came out of the Actors Studio.

JM: I’ll tell you, it was the crew behind the cameras and the director who had more trouble with him. Don’t forget, he was one of the new wave of actors coming out of the Actors Studio at that time, and they would say things to him. When he was in The Great Escape, they would go, “You have to promise to talk and not just mumble when you do your lines.” Right away, they were pouncing on him and counseling him.

Steve didn’t bother me at all. In fact, I enjoyed working with him. Though he was extremely ambitious, of course. It was fine, but, boy, I’ll tell you, the director and crew had a hard time. I was very new at that time; I had just started with Stella Adler. A great deal of my acting was from intuition at that point. So if he took long pauses or whatever, I just filled it in with my own dialogue, what they call your inner dialogue, which human beings have when they’re listening to someone else.

III. THE WILDERNESS

BLVR: There are so many sexual harassment stories and accusations coming out every week these days. What were things like for an attractive young actress in the ’50s and ’60s? It couldn’t have been easy.

JM: No. No. Well, it was more frightening than anything, in the beginning. I had very strong people behind me, like my agent. I was also studying music with this couple. I was taking voice [lessons] from the woman and studying musicianship with her husband. They were very supportive. She had worked with a lot of actresses who sang in movies and the theater. She gave me a lot of support.

Don’t forget, there was no such thing as “sexual harassment” back then. You couldn’t sue people for that. There were some occasions that were so obnoxious. [Laughs] The way I handled them was to tell them what [my voice teacher] had told me to say. I never got past a lot of those casting directors. They disliked me a lot. 

BLVR: So not putting out definitely cost you jobs.

JM: Yup. Are you kidding? I don’t know if you should print this or not. Sometimes I say things and then I think, Should I have said that? But I’ll tell you, if I had wanted to become a very expensive, high-class whore, with my talent I could have become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. The path was right there for me, but I had just enough background in religion, which was very metaphysical, and I just couldn’t bastardize myself that way. In my religion, I was always working to be a happy, good person, and I wouldn’t compromise in a lot of ways. If I had, I would’ve had all the money and wardrobe I needed. Those were hard decisions to make, and I got very depressed. That’s what set me out in the wilderness for a while in the ’70s.

BLVR: A few years ago I saw an interview with Cesar Romero. This was around 1990, just a few years before he died. A question came up about a few big names who told some casting-couch horror stories in their memoirs, and he said any young woman who got into the business should know what to expect and shouldn’t complain about it.

JM: The thing is, in his era and mine, which were pretty much the same, though his was a bit earlier, this was all before the idea of “sexual harassment” [was articulated]. Hollywood was a very small town, and if you complained at all, which some people did, they had to be a pretty big star and make production companies a lot of money to come out with a story. But the average working actress would have had a very hard time getting a job in this town if they complained about it. Cesar Romero was from an era when men ruled.

BLVR: In some ways times have changed, and in others they haven’t. What do you think about these women today who have created what has come to be known as the #MeToo movement?

JM: Oh, yeah. Well, in my own little world of performing, I don’t really have to think about that anymore. I think it’s good, but the only thing you have to look out for are the scammers, these women and men who make up stuff just to get their names out there. They won’t be honest about it, and I’m hoping there’ll be a way they can be identified. That’s the only problem with it. Bottom line, though, as far as a movement like that, I think it’s necessary. It had to happen. Women had to take the bull by the horns, so to speak. I know secretaries who had to put up with horrible stuff at corporations. 

Certain things have broken my heart, like when all that came out about Bill Cosby. I absolutely loved and adored this man. He was such a talent. I saw him in Vegas before he was famous, and he had you on the floor laughing. But I think it’s necessary that these women are coming out, and I hope it does some good.

BLVR: You disappeared from film and TV for almost twenty years. It was that pervasive atmosphere of sexual harassment that drove you away?

JM: Yeah. If I’d shown up in Hollywood with a PhD in acting, or had gone to college or come from a very wealthy family, it might have been different. I was just out of left field, a kid who loved to act. There wasn’t any kind of social respect for someone like me, and they took advantage of that. Or tried. I had producers say, “Well, you obviously don’t really want to make it. The people who do will sacrifice anything, do anything to become successful in this town.” Things like that would be thrown at you a lot. However, I dunno. I established a reputation as an actor. It could’ve been more… But who knows? There were a lot of things I could’ve handled differently. But I was also interested in music. I had a wonderful time on the road for a while and got healed up, so to speak.

IV. FIVE-AND-UNDER

BLVR: What were you doing in the ten years before you returned to screen acting? Were you concentrating on theater?

JM: Yeah, I did a lot of theater work. Even on the road I did a couple dinner theaters. Then I started doing a lot of commercials. I went to a class to learn about commercials a little better than I knew. My whole point in going back to that was the residuals. If it worked out that I could do these commercials, it would up my pension like crazy. There was no thought about acting in those things, although I did. They always say, “We want real people. We don’t want any acting.” That is so ignorant. When you do an acting job that’s right, you are real. I mean, I didn’t say that to them; I just ignored what they said and worked it all from an acting-camp point of view. And I ended up booking. People always said, “Be prepared, because you’ll have to go on twenty of these before you book one.” I never went on any more than about four or five before I booked. I took advantage of that for a while.

BLVR: What sorts of commercials did you end up doing?

JM: Oh, I did Miracle Whip, I think, and Butterball turkey, and US Storage. I played a lot of mothers and, later, some active grandmothers.

BLVR: So what brought you back to screen acting after that?

JM: I went back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and the business had changed so much. I tried a few times and I did a few things. But, you know, by that time the casts got bigger. And the casts got bigger. And the casts got bigger, and bigger, and bigger and bigger. So there was no opportunity for someone who wasn’t in one of those huge casts to really get a good role on television. So you ended up doing a “five-and-under.” You’d go in to audition and there’d be five people in the room, auditioning twenty people for five lousy lines of dialogue. All these middlemen, and they were all acting like they were auditioning you for Gone with the Wind. The casting directors used to make offers to you. I remember the days where a casting director would say to my agent, “Now, this is a new series. There’s only one scene. But it’s a long scene; it’s nice. So ask her if she’d be interested in doing it, ’cause it’s a good way to get your foot in the door. There’ll be another series, and maybe a lead will come up next time.” 

The whole scene changed, and it really took the juice out of wanting to do anything. So I was doing a lot of theater. I was doing a lot of Shakespeare then, and was back to Molière. It looked like I wasn’t doing anything as far as television, and I wasn’t. Then, later on—and now I’m getting up in years—the reason I’ve quit television now as a senior citizen is that television moves so fast. I tested myself. I would sit down and memorize four or five lines during the day. I’d go to bed, get up the next day, and say, “What were those lines again? What was that line?” OK, I can’t do television, because that’s the way those five lines would go. You get one day to work on them, and the next day you have to do them. Well, when I was younger it took me ten minutes. Now I just can’t keep up.

When I was a young person, these older actors would get hired, and they would struggle and struggle with four or five lines. The director would have to be very patient. I thought, When I reach that point I’m just going to stop. I would never put myself through that sort of misery.

I did quite a few daytime shows—Days of Our Lives, General Hospital, Young and the Restless,a few others I can’t remember. I did about four or five of those while I was doing theater. I did a five-parter once, where I played a warden. A good warden, not a bad one. I bounced around, but I didn’t enjoy those either. I really didn’t. I was miserable all the way through, because they moved so fast. In General Hospital there was this one episode where I played an interior decorator. It was a wonderful scene, and at the end of the day I said, “God, am I glad this day is over.”

V. “WHO NEEDS PSYCHIATRISTS WHEN YOU’VE GOT FAN MAIL?”

BLVR: Although a lion’s share of your screen work was on television, and though your film work runs the gamut in terms of budget and prestige, for a long time you were remembered for your work in a couple of B films, especially The Brain from Planet Arous. Although they represent only a smidgen of your collective output, do you have any thoughts about the role of B movies in American culture?

JM: You know what surprises me? There was a film I did, Walk Tall, that was obscure for a long time, and I’ll be darned if someone didn’t find it, and now it’s out there again. All over the world, these things are coming out and people are watching them. I get letters from people saying, “I have all of your stuff because I love the way they did black-and-white. I love the way they did television back then.” And I think, OK, some of these people are probably about my age and they’re reminiscing. But then you get a young person that falls in love with all that, and they say, “Oh, I hope you have a long career.” I mean, I read that and I think, Don’t they know these things are ancient? It’s so strange to me that all of that is coming back in terms of people’s entertainment. I get letters about things I’d forgotten I ever did. It’s frightening.

BLVR: Now we’re at an interesting point in history when all these old TV shows are being unearthed and released on home video and online. So you have these new generations getting the chance to rediscover your work beyond just The Brain from Planet Arous. Now they can see what you’ve done in films and shows that haven’t been seen in decades.

JM: That’s led to a lot of memorabilia shows, and some of them I really like. One in Philadelphia was probably one of my favorites. A friend of mine who is a computer nerd, David Schecter, built me a web page because I was getting fan mail from all over. We’re talking about China, Finland, Japan, Germany, Russia. I mean, holy Toledo! They must be seeing these things everywhere! And he told me I had to stop sending out autographed pictures for free. The postage was expensive. So now they can go on the website and use PayPal to order whatever they want. But I’ll confess that sometimes if someone writes a very nice letter—and sometimes they even send me their own pictures—I can’t help but sign them and mail them back.   

BLVR: The thing is, to these cult-film fans, these movies and shows have always been around. They’re the ones who are keeping them alive and calling attention to them. 

JM: Yeah, those are the ones you see at memorabilia shows. You meet people who are all over different eras. These are the real cult fans. I’ve even become pen pals with a young man—well, young to me—in Spain named Jorge Moreno. He produces and writes and does movies in Spain. He’ll write and say, “I saw another Alfred Hitchcock of yours last night,” or “Cheyenne was just on.” Then he talks about his mom or whatever. We’ve been doing this for about three years now. He’s got a wonderful career going on in Spain. The bottom-line biggest surprise to me is the return of the older television shows and movies and the people who are really into them. All these people I hear from. 

BLVR: That must be extremely gratifying after all these years.

JM: Oh, yeah; oh, yeah. I tell people this. I have a huge file because I keep all their letters, or I print out the things on the computer. It’s great because whenever you’re feeling down or slightly depressed, you just go to your fan letters because they tell you how amazing you are. They tell you all the great things you’ve done and how wonderful you are. Whenever I’m feeling down, I just pull out one of those letters and read it.

BLVR: Who needs psychiatrists?

JM: Right? Who needs psychiatrists when you’ve got fan mail?

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