When she starred in Eye of the Cat, Eleanor Parker had been in more than forty theatrical films. She was forty-seven years old. She had just been in the biggest movie of all time–1965’s The Sound of Music. When Eye of the Cat came out in June 1969, Sound of Music was still playing in theaters in its original, four and a half year theatrical run. Eye of the Cat would Parker’s last theatrical release for ten years. With the exception, of course, of The Sound of Music, which got a rerelease in 1973.
After Cat, Parker had committed to her first regular role on a television series, “Bracken’s World.” She’d quit halfway through the first season, but still got a Golden Globe nomination for Best TV Drama Actress.
But she’d never play another lead. She was forty-seven. Hollywood had no use for a forty-seven year-old female lead; not even the TV side. Parker returned to the theater, where there were better parts, and she started regularly appearing in TV movies. At least at the beginning of the seventies.
Parker had two television movie appearances in 1971; first was ABC’s Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring, which stars Sally Field as a teenage runaway who returns home. Parker plays Mom, Jackie Cooper is Dad, Lane Bradbury is Field’s younger sister. Meanwhile, Field’s old man (David Carradine) is traveling cross-country to rescue her from her parents’ square, suburban–functionally alcoholic and dysfunctional–household. Turns out Bradbury is showing all the pre-runaway signs, something Field can’t convince her parents. Joseph Sargent directs.
Although a little short–seventy-four minutes–and it takes Sargent a while to get comfortable with the television framing on his establishing shots, Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring is a spectacularly acted “family in crisis” drama. Sargent and writer Bruce Feldman use flashback to reveal Field’s story, juxtaposed against Bradbury in the present. Great parts for Cooper and Parker. They start the film, with Field coming into it gradually; Field’s excellent, assuming the protagonist role through her performance alone; she gets little help from Feldman’s teleplay.
Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring first aired in February and ABC reran it before the end of the year. It aired every few years for at least a decade. The film was a budget VHS mainstay–the first EP edition arrived in 1991–and it’s been on DVD, from one label or another, since 2001. Spring is now available streaming as well.
A few weeks after Maybe aired, Parker was on television screens again, appearing in the first “two part TV movie” (they weren’t called miniseries yet). Vanished aired on NBC in March, with Richard Widmark top-lining as the President of the United States. It was his first TV venture. Scientist and presidential pal Arthur Hill disappears. Then other scientists worldwide start disappearing. Is it a Soviet plot? Parker plays Hill’s wife, who gets investigated by FBI agent Robert Hooks and his roommate, White House press secretary James Farentino. Vanished has twelve major starring credits; in addition to Parker, Widmark, Hooks, and Farentino, there are Tom Bosley, Murray Hamilton, E.G. Marshall, Larry Hagman, Skye Aubrey, Robert Young, and William Shatner. Then there are all the supporting players. Huge cast. Buzz Kulik–reuniting with Parker from 1967’s TV movie turned theatrical release, Warning Shot–directs from a teleplay by Dean Riesner.
Vanished is a tedious three hours and ten minutes. The cast enters and exits as needed–Hooks goes from playing a major part to a nothing one, Parker ends up disappearing as completely as Hill, Widmark is scenery for the first half and then takes over the last quarter. The movie’s got a lot of moving parts and Kulik keeps them functioning. It just never gels into anything. The reveals are never good enough to excuse the cheap, sensational teases.
Despite a snide, dismissive review from John J. O’Connor in The New York Times, Vanished went on to get Emmy nominations for Widmark and Young. The movie, in its two parts, got rerun occasionally over the years, sometimes in the middle of the night, more recently on cable television. It’s never had any home video releases. There’s seemingly no notoriety in being the first two-night television movie.
It would be a year and a half before Parker appeared in anything again. In early November 1972, she starred in an episode of NBC’s horror anthology “Circle of Fear,” Half a Death. She plays mom to Pamela Franklin, who plays twins. One twin is haunting the other. The series is out on DVD from Warner Archive; it’s Parker’s only TV series appearance until 1978. She’d stick with TV movies until then (with a sort of exception).
TV movies such as Home for the Holidays, which aired on ABC just a few weeks after her episode of “Circle of Fear.”
Home for the Holidays has a spectacular cast; in addition to Parker, there’s Jessica Walter, Sally Field (playing Parker’s younger sister this time), Julie Harris, and Walter Brennan. Brennan is the cranky, rich, sickly dad. Walter, Field, Parker, and Jill Howarth plays his daughters. Harris is his new wife (and the prime suspect in the sisters’ mother’s death). There’s a lot of unpleasant backstory to the sisters, who reunite on Christmas Eve at Brennan’s request. And then they have to deal with a mad killer. John Llewellyn Moxey directs from an original Joseph Stefano script. Stefano wrote Parker’s last horror movie (and, at this point, last theatrical film), Eye of the Cat.
The movie’s fairly successful. Most of the acting is excellent, particularly Harris, Walter, and Parker. Field holds her own. Haworth doesn’t. Brennan is barely in it. Moxey relies way too much on zooming his shots, but otherwise he directs the movie pretty well. There’s a great chase sequence. Stefano’s script is thin; the actors gets the movie to the finish line. The end–featuring the big reveal–is problematic. Zooming does play a part.
Holidays didn’t make any critical waves–Howard Thompson dismissed it in the New York Times, definitely not a fan of the “ABC Movie of the Week” thrillers. It had its first VHS release in the late eighties, then another, budget (i.e. EP) release in the early nineties. It’s also been released on DVD–by Echo Bridge Home Entertainment–but only in their horror movie compilation sets, which they don’t market or index well. The only way to spot a Home for the Holidays inclusion is to read the back cover; a time consuming process seeing as how Echo Bridge has dozens of horror compilations. It also appears to be out of print.
Parker’s next TV movie was again for ABC. The Great American Beauty Contest aired in March 1973, starring Parker as a former winner, now hostess. Robert Cummings plays her sidekick. Louis Jordan is one of the judges (a scummy, blackmailing one). JoAnna Cameron, Farrah Fawcett, Tracy Reed, Kathrine Baumann, and Susan Damante play the main contestants. At least the ones Stanford Whitmore’s teleplay showcases. It’s a behind-the-scenes story of the contest. Robert Day directs. Contest is an Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg production; they also produced Home for the Holidays.
While Parker’s all right–and even manages to get a decent character arc in Whitmore’s jerkily paced script–Great American Beauty Contest is pretty bad. Day’s direction is bad, Whitmore’s writing is bad. Cummings provides okay support for Parker and Jordan’s a great villain. None of the actors playing the contestants give notable performances. Reed and Baumann are better than the rest. Damante is worst. Fawcett’s little better than Damante. Still, somehow–probably thanks to Jordan’s odiousness–Contest stays engaging. Or maybe it’s just agitation from dreading a Fawcett or Damante win.
The Great American Beauty Contest got a not terrible write-up from Howard Thompson at The New York Times when it aired. He liked Whitmore’s writing. And Fawcett’s performance. The movie has rerun occasionally over the years but, Fawcett or not, it’s never had a VHS release or a DVD one.
Parker didn’t have any 1974 acting credits, at least not film or television, and when she returned in 1975, she was once again going to try series television. She starred in a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner sitcom pilot, taking over the Katharine Hepburn role from the film. Richard Dysart plays the Spencer Tracy part, Bill Overton the Sidney Poitier, and Leslie Charleson the Katharine Houghton part. Madge Sinclair and Madge Sinclair played Overton’s parents. The sitcom would have dealt with the turmoil related to Overton and Charleson’s interracial marriage, if ABC had picked it up. They did not, however; the pilot only aired once in July 1975. ABC apparently had cold feet over the interracial kissing, which should’ve been an obvious result of an interracial marriage. The pilot’s never had a home video release of any kind.
Following Guess Who, Parker took 1976 off from filmed work. In 1977, she resumed guest starring on regular television series. That year she appeared on “Hawaii Five-O” and the first episode of “Fantasy Island.” Parker would do two more appearances on “Fantasy Island,” one in 1979, another in 1983. She also did “Love Boat” in 1979, then an episode of “Vega$” in 1980.
Amid those guest spots, Parker did a couple more TV movies, a pilot, a miniseries, and her final theatrical appearance.
The Bastard is the miniseries, a big budget adaptation of John Jakes’s novel; it aired on NBC in May 1978. Parker is one of the twenty-one credited stars. Andrew Stevens plays the lead, a French bastard who comes to the Colonies and ends up an instrumental figure in the Revolutionary War. Lee H. Katzin directs. William Shatner plays Paul Revere. Parker plays Stevens’s father’s widow, a duchess. She doesn’t want to let him have his inheritance. Patricia Neal plays his mother. Neal and Parker, reunited thirty-eight years after Three Secrets, are in scenes together (but only share the screen in long shot). Keenan Wynn, who appeared with Parker in A Hole in the Head but never alongside her, is another of The Bastard’s twenty-one stars. They again don’t share any scenes. And Tom Bosley. He was in Vanished. He’s Ben Franklin.
Could The Bastard be worse? Sure. It’s a relentlessly simple period piece, with Southern California not just standing in for the American East Coast, but Britain and France as well. Parker’s cameo is good. Neal’s part isn’t. Stevens is annoying–though he gets better for a while during the second half. Katzin’s direction is bad. Guerdon Trueblood’s script is bad. The bit parts for seventies television actors amuses a little (I mean, Bob Newhart‘s Peter Bonerz in a costume drama is something else). But it’s bad.
While The Bastard didn’t get glowing reviews, it was well-regarded enough to get a Golden Globe nomination for Best TV Movie and a couple art direction Emmy nominations. And sufficient viewers to warrant watched NBC going ahead and finishing the adaptations of Jakes’s the series–The Kent Chronicles–with two two-night sequels. Parker didn’t return for either of them. The Bastard had a VHS release in the nineties from Universal, along with its two sequels. Acorn Media has put all three out in a Kent Chronicles DVD set.
In August 1979, Parker would make her final theatrical appearance in Sunburn, a Farrah Fawcett vehicle. The film stars Charles Grodin as an insurance investigator who goes down to Acapulco to investigate a claim. Fawcett’s the model he hires to be his pretend girlfriend (so no one knows he’s an insurance investigator). Art Carney plays Grodin’s sidekick. There’s an assortment of suspects, including Joan Collins (who’d also been in Warning Shot, the aforementioned 1967 Buzz Kulik film Parker costarred in), John Hillerman, William Daniels, even Keenan Wynn. No, Parker still doesn’t get a scene with Wynn (after Hole in the Head and Bastard). Parker doesn’t even get a speaking close-up. She’s usually in some kind of long shot. Richard C. Sarafian directs for Paramount.
Sunburn has a lot of problems, like Sarafian’s direction. He can’t do any of the things Sunburn wants to do like being a noir spoof. Most of the cameos are too thin. Fawcett’s a reasonably affable star in her (second) star vehicle. Grodin goes all out with a caricature of himself. Joan Collins is awesome. If it were made better–it’s not just Sarafian, the film’s a technical turkey–and written a little better, there might be something to Sunburn. But it could also be a whole lot worse.
The film got a tepid endorsement from Janet Maslin in The New York Times. Maslin found it was an improvement over Fawcett’s previous post-“Charlie’s Angels” vehicle, but didn’t care for Collins in particular. Audiences didn’t care for the film in general and it quickly bombed. Parker apparently only did the cameo because Sunburn was filming near her Palm Springs home. It had a VHS release in 1980 from Paramount and has been absent home video since then, save a Japanese DVD release.
Parker was back to TV a few months later. Her next TV movie, She’s Dressed to Kill, aired on NBC in December. Parker plays a drunken fashion designer declining in affluence who mentally abuses her models. John Rubinstein is the lead, a photographer who gets caught up with a murder mystery after Parker invites a bunch of people out to her private mountain to show her new line. Jessica Walter (who appeared in Home for the Holidays with Parker) plays Rubinstein’s boss. Connie Sellecca is one of the models, Gretchen Corbett is the “plain girl” Rubinstein romances. Gus Trikonis directs from a George Lefferts teleplay.
She’s Dressed to Kill is a diverting ninety minute thriller, plus commercials. Parker’s great, chowing down on all available scenery, and Walter’s excellent. Shame Walter’s barely in the movie. Rubinstein’s an okay lead, Corbett’s good, Sellecca’s bad. The writing never helps the actors. And the movie ditches characters too often (i.e. Walter). Better direction from Trikonis wouldn’t hurt either. But it’s far from bad.
For repeat airings, the movie sometimes got retitled, Someone’s Killing the World’s Greatest Models, but it was always She’s Dressed to Kill for home video. USA Home Video first put it out on VHS in the eighties and it had at least two releases; one giving Parker top-billing. It came out on DVD in 2008–a “grey” market release.
It was almost a year before Parker’s next appearance. She tried another pilot, Once Upon a Spy, a two-hour movie; ABC aired it in September 1980. A resulting series would have featured the adventures of computer scientist turned spy Ted Danson, his beautiful handler, Mary Louise Weller, and their boss, an M-type character only called “The Lady.” Parker plays “The Lady.” Christopher Lee plays the villain, who kidnaps a scientist with a shrinking ray. Ivan Nagy directs from a Jimmy Sangster script.
If it weren’t for Nagy, Sangster, and Danson, Spy would be a lot better. Weller’s likable, Lee’s good, there’s a genial tone–and a nice Bond knock-off score from John Cacavas. Parker doesn’t get anything to do. She sits in a room by herself and frequently says “bloody,” possibly because Welsh Sangster didn’t know how Americans talk. Nagy’s direction is bad. Danson’s got the physicality for the role, but his performance is the pits. Still, it’s not terrible for a TV movie.
Once Upon a Spy’s ratings didn’t get it a series order from ABC. The movie got rerun over the years, but never had a home video release in the United States. Columbia put it out on VHS in the UK. In 2013, the Sony Pictures Choice Collection DVD label put it out on DVD.
Parker’s next TV movie–her last of the eighties–was Madame X. The seventh version of Madame X. NBC aired it in March 1981. Tuesday Weld plays the lead, a shamed woman exiled to Europe by her sinister mother-in-law (Parker). Granville Van Dusen plays the mama’s boy husband. Weld kicks around Europe (filmed on set in Hollywood Europe), meeting various men–including Jerry Stiller and Jeremy Brett–all while getting progressively drunker. She ends up on trial, with her defense attorney (Martina Deignan) the daughter Weld had to abandon. Très dramatique. Robert Ellis Miller directs, Edward Anhalt adapts from the original Alexandre Bisson play as well as the 1966 theatrical version’s screenplay.
Madame X is bad. But not because of Weld, who never gets to be protagonist and is mostly second-fiddle to the guest stars in her scenes. Second-billed Brett’s good, but barely in it. Anhalt’s script is a lot of the problem; Miller’s direction is so detached it can’t even be part of the problem. Van Dusen’s bad. Parker’s pretty good in the handful of scenes she has without Weld (not much of a Return to Peyton Place reunion for the pair). Len Cariou’s good for a while. The script fails him. The script fails everyone.
The movie’s never had a home video release, which is kind of surprising considering Tuesday Weld’s the lead and there’s some Madame X brand recognition. It has aired on television occasionally over the years, but infrequently. And certainly more in the eighties than since.
Over the next few years, Parker did some more guest spots. She appeared on “Love Boat” again in 1982, then her third and last “Fantasy Island” along with a “Hotel” in 1983. All of those episodes are available on DVD. In 1984, Parker guested on “Finder of Lost Loves,” an Anthony Franciosa series on ABC; it lasted half a season. Nothing in 1985, but in 1986 Parker made it to Cabot Cove for her requisite appearance on “Murder, She Wrote.” But for most of the eighties, Parker was retired.
Her final screen appearance came in 1991, with her only foray into cable television–TNT’s Dead on the Money. The movie’s a spoof of romantic thrillers, with lead Amanda Pays visiting slick, wealthy beau Corbin Bernsen’s family estate. Parker once again plays wealthy matriarch. John Glover plays her other son, the goofy one. Kevin McCarthy is the father. Nothing is as it seems with the family and Pays might be in real danger. Will she figure out what’s going on in time to save herself? Mark Cullingham directs, with Gavin Lambert adapting a Rachel Ingalls novel.
Dead on the Money is a fun time; the implied danger works well with the humor. Money is a spoof on itself–a TV movie romantic thriller joshing the idea of TV movie romantic thrillers. Real-life couple Pays and Bernsen aren’t as good as everyone else, but both are likable. Glover’s great, McCarthy’s outstanding and strange (he’s barely in the movie). Parker has her moments, including some particularly good ones with McCarthy when they don’t have to be concerned about moving the plot forward.
When Dead on the Money aired in 1991, TNT was only three years old. They heavily promoted the movie, one of their first “originals.” Critical response was mixed–Variety didn’t like it, The New York Times wasn’t thrilled but appreciated Parker, McCarthy, and Sheree North. Subsequent video guides gave it decent capsule reviews. Money came out on VHS in the fall 1991, from Turner Home Entertainment, and even got a LaserDisc release the next spring. It’s never had a DVD release and doesn’t seem to have aired in decades, making it a lot rarer than it should be.
A few stinkers aside, Parker’s television movie appearances have a lot of charm to them. She didn’t get a lot of great roles but she got a handful of good ones, not just in the TV movies but also as a series guest star. It was a quiet, graceful second half to Parker’s fifty year career as an actor.
Still, it’s too bad some of this work isn’t more accessible–particularly Dead on the Money.