Lee Meriwether — reluctant beauty queen, prolific actress and the voice of “Big Mama” on the Metal Gear Solid 4 video game — will be among the celebrity guests this weekend at Film Fest Twain Harte.
In addition to her prodigious film, television and stage credits, Meriwether is the star of the 2013 short film “The Curse of the Un-Kissable Kid,” written and directed by 1994 Summerville High School graduate Mark Marchillo, which will be shown at the festival.
“I’ve worked with Mark on a couple of shows at Theatre West and when he asked me if I would be in his film, I said, ‘Of course,’ ” Meriwether recalled by telephone from her home in Los Angeles.
She plays Gypsy, a fortune teller, in the 13-minute comedy about a bullied kid who drinks a magic potion before reading the fine print.
The role is among the latest for the star who previously has worked alongside some of Hollywood’s most famous and talented artists, including Buddy Ebsen, Andy Griffith, James Garner, John Wayne, Jack Benny, Rock Hudson, Lloyd Bridges, Jonathan Winters and the casts of “Batman,” “Star Trek,” “The Time Tunnel,” “All My Children,” “Mission: Impossible,” “The F.B.I.,” “Dr. Kildare,” “The Munsters Today” and dozens of other programs.
Her show business career was a direct result of being crowned Miss America 1955 during the 28th annual pageant held on Sept. 11, 1954, in Atlantic City, N.J. It was the competition’s first live nationally televised broadcast.
“Philco was a sponsor for the first time that year,” Meriwether said. “They had the ‘Philco Television Playhouse’ and they thought they could use me. I did well the first time so they used me again.”
Her first episode was titled “Middle of the Night,” broadcast a week after being crowned, followed by “Run, Girl, Run” in December 1954 and “The Miss America Story” in September 1955.
Her reign also led to her becoming a hostess on “The Today Show.”
It was a career that might never have happened had she not been nominated — without her knowledge — as a contestant in the 1954 Miss San Francisco Pageant.
“I didn’t enter — I never would have entered on my own,” she said. “I was gawky and skinny growing up and I had never been told that I was cute or pretty, ever. So it was quite a shock to me and it happened by sheer accident.”
Her name was entered into the competition by members of a fraternity at San Francisco City College, where she was a radio-television and theater arts major.
“I was walking to class carrying some records for my radio final when someone asked me if that was for my talent segment,” she recalled.
She asked what they meant and only learned then that she was already a contestant.
For the talent portion of the contest, she opted on short notice to recite “Riders to the Sea,” a John Millington Synge monologue she had learned a year earlier as a senior in high school.
“Some of it I remembered and some I ad libbed, all in this terrible Irish accent, and much later I learned I was one of the 16 semi-finalists,” she said.
Shortly after winning the title, she was asked if she was going to Santa Cruz, then the home of the Miss California Pageant.
“I wondered what they were talking about and answered ‘No, I’m not,’ ” she said. “It was pretty naive of me not to know anything about it. They said ‘Aren’t you competing for Miss California?’ and I said ‘Do I have to?’ ’’
She not only won the preliminary swimsuit competition but the sash, crown and trophy as well.
The next expected stop was Atlantic City, but when her father died, “I couldn’t go on,” Meriwether said.
“My mother convinced me my father would be so happy to have me there and that the money just for showing up would be enough to pay for my first year of college.”
The Miss California organizers also voiced their opinion.
“They said you must go — every Miss California since year one has finished in the top 10,” she said. “Thank heaven, because my whole life completely changed after that.”
She again won swimsuit honors and again recited “Riders to the Sea.”
“This time I went back and memorized it correctly,” she said.
This year will mark the 60th anniversary of Meriwether’s win and the first live Miss America telecast. In commemoration, Meriwether will be a judge during the ABC broadcast on Sept. 14.
Meriwether noted that her Miss America winnings allowed her to study acting with Lee Strasberg and take singing, dancing and fencing lessons from the top instructors in New York.
“Miss America is the world’s largest scholarship foundation for women,” she said. “A lot of people don’t realize that.”
The ensuing years brought countless parts and several Emmy and Golden Globe nominations.
Here are some reflections on just a sampling of her roles and acting colleagues:
• Buddy Ebsen, with whom she co-starred for eight years on “Barnaby Jones”: “The dearest, sweetest man — such a love. I was so lucky to do a series with him. You know, you’re working with a lot of people and working very long, odd hours and his personality and generosity and caring and love made it all possible. He was just a joy. I loved going to work and I miss him a lot.”
• James Garner, co-star on the 1986 movie “The Ultimate Gift”: “I got to meet him for just one day. We didn’t have a scene together but, oh, my goodness, he was such a gentleman. I would have loved to work with him one-on-one. He did all his work in one day and was spot on.”
• Andy Griffith, co-star on the 1969 movie “Angel In My Pocket” and 1971 series “The New Andy Griffith Show”: “It was such a treat to work with him, a dear soul. In one scene in ‘Angel in My Pocket’ he needs an organ for his church and sees a one in a burlesque house. My character was pregnant through the entire movie, so when they were auditioning for strippers, I secretly asked the producer if I could try out to see if could get away with it, and I even got a part. I was wearing a blonde wig and tights and had this overamplified bustline, and Andy saw me across the room and said ‘Lee?’ ”
• Catwoman in “Batman: The Movie,” 1966: “I loved doing it, and best of all was the actors I got to work with — Burgess Meredith, Cesar Romero, Frank Gorshin, and of course Adam West and Burt Ward. It was school time for me, watching these geniuses at work. The costume was not as comfortable as one would like, but it was fun to do.”
That role and others still pay dividends, both personally and for her favorite charity, Ability First, serving children and adults with special needs, when she attends entertainment conventions.
“It affords me the opportunity to meet the fans and sign autographs, and all that money goes to Ability First,” she said.
One of its programs is Camp Paivika in the San Bernardino Mountains.
“It’s a great place for kids, and it also gives their caregivers a week or two of rest,” Meriwether said.
She also has been associated with the American Cancer Society, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Actors and Others for Animals, and the Blind Children’s Center.
At 79, Meriwether has not slowed her pace. She works out at the gym three times a week and continues to act on stage and screen.
“I’ve got a job coming up that will take me away for a month and half to Indiana,” she said. “I’ll be playing the wicked Queen Aggravain in ‘Once Upon a Mattress’ at Indiana University Southeast.”
Not all of her parts in recent years have resonated worldwide, but she has enjoyed most of them.
Lesser known projects from 2012 include “Hell’s Kitty,” a web-based horror-comedy about a real cat named Angel who hates women — “That cat actually clawed and bit me,” she said — and “Silent But Deadly,” a comedy about a group of seniors who take over a retirement village.
This year she is featured in “Waiting in the Wings: The Musical” and the horror film “Abaddon.”
Meriwether lives with her husband of 28 years, Marshall Borden. She has two daughters, former actress and “Price is Right” model Kyle Kathleen Aletter and stuntwoman Lesley Aletter, and a granddaughter, Ryan.
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Weekly Arts and entertainment guide for Calaveras and Tuolumne counties