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  Karen Sharpe

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Challenging the System

by Boyd Magers

The pretty lass who would become Don Durant's leading lady on Johnny Ringo ('59-'60) and High Noon director Stanley Kramer's leading lady in real life was born Karen Kay Sharpe in San Antonio, TX, "…in September." [circa '33] Her mother put her in ballet and dancing as a child.

"That led me into ice skating. I came to California in the summertime to study skating. But my mind was not on that, it was really on motion pictures. I went to see 'The Jolson Story' at least 48 times. I was crazy about that story, Larry Parks and that whole era. Whatever it did to me, it was important. In those days, you could not get into a major motion picture studio; it was just another world we were not privy to. The very first two days I was in L.A., I only dreamed about one thing, meeting Larry Parks. On the third day…and we had no connections to the business…I went to the Beverly Hills Hotel as part of a skating entourage and ran smack into him. That was like an omen to me, a good one. I went to his house the next day, he and Betty Garrett were married at that time, and he signed my scrapbook."

"Then I went home to Texas and made life miserable for my family so I could come back out here. By the time I was in high school my mother had brought me to California and I was living here, going to Schwabs, trying to be discovered on a drugstore stool, like Lana Turner, but of course, that was not a true story. I believed everything I read. When it wasn't happening, I began to think, maybe I need to learn how to act!"

"So I did all kinds of plays…playing much older than I was…and was discovered by an MGM talent scout. I did a screen test at MGM when I was about 16, 17 years old and failed it. I was not picked as a contract player, which really broke my heart. I thought my whole career was over. Then I was picked up by Columbia and tested for a contract in a film opposite John Derek. But the man producing it was Donna Reed's husband…and the part went to her. It didn't look like I was going to be a studio contract player, which was really the thing to be in those days. I also tested at Universal with Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie, who was in my school, and also failed that test."

"I was not the blonde pretty type they were looking for. I was more of an Anne Bancroft type of actress and just didn't fit their criteria. I just did what I did in theatre and worked like a little son of a gun to be good at anything I did. I was very lucky in one thing. I went to study with a drama coach, John Morley. In his building was an agent who would only accept ten clients, that's all he would ever take. Leon Lance. He started Terry Moore's career, Diane Baker, Kim Hunter and James Arness. He liked me, and took me. But if there was somebody who'd been with the agency longer, you had to wait until that per-son was set for Lance to work with you. We were required to have dinner every Sunday night with him as a family. He had no children, no wife, nothing; we were considered his family. A great agent, he really cared about his clients and protected you from the casting couch or from anything that was wrong. He was very old fashioned, very strict and very good for me."

"He took me to a photographer, Willinger, who has become quite famous because of all those pictures he did with Marilyn Monroe…and I became a photographic model for magazines. I didn't really want to be a model, but I had a good face, I guess. Paul Hessey was the photographer in the business. Willinger was a small-time photographer, but Hessey did (most) all the magazine covers. He liked me and used me in beer commercials…would take pictures of me and they'd draw me. I did car things. I was a cover girl. COSMOPOLITAN, PAGEANT, I don't remember half the things I did."

"Hessey got me to Hal Roach where they did a little children's program for television called The Angel and the Devil…I was dressed as the angel but was really the devil. That kind of got me started. I did a lot of things for Roach when I was just a teenager. Then I was given an award by PHOTOPLAY magazine. It got in all the movie magazines which led to a little film at Allied Artists, 'Army Bound'. Actually, before that, I went to MGM and did a little part because the talent scout was so upset I'd failed my test; he really thought I should be at MGM. He got me a two or three line role as Janice Rule's younger sister in 'Holiday For Sinners'. That led immediately to Bomba and the Jungle Girl. I liked Johnny Sheffield. He really did not want to be in this business…how smart he was! (Laughs) He wanted to be a brain surgeon, I think. I went with him in his pickup truck, which was very unusual; we just didn't go in pickup trucks in those days."

"Then I met Lynn Stalmaster, who was casting some very big TV shows…Big Town and others. I was lucky to get some very good roles. I was never good at playing ingenue roles. I just didn't know how to do that. I was much better as a killer, neurotic, call girl. You know, as a lead; they were more interesting parts for me. Incidentally, Lynn was an actor who was with UCLA, and just didn't make it apparently, and went into casting. He was a virtually independent casting director. He was tough but was very sweet and very selective. The first time I saw him with Big Town, I fell madly in love with him and went after him, dated him, almost married him. But that didn't mean he was going to cast me. We kept it real separated. If he thought I was right for something, he'd have me in on it, but have two other actresses besides me. He'd pick me up for dinner, but he could never mention anything about my work. If I got it, I got it, if I didn't, I didn't. I respected him but it used to irritate me. Anyway, we're very good friends today."

"That led to a lot of other things. My agent's office was very close to Batjac, John Wayne's company. He took me over to see Andy McLaglen, at that time an AD (assistant director). Andy said I would be really right for a major motion picture (The High and the Mighty) they were doing and to be there for testing the next morning. The director, Bill Wellman, was not happy at all with Andy's decision. He had a fit. How dare Andy say I could test when he, the director, had never seen me. He was really a very gutsy, crusty, egotistical kind of man. He said just call her at home and tell her not to come. But I'd already left for the studio. They planned to send me home and not even run any film on me. But my agent was with me and he'd already signed the contract. You had to sign your contract in advance of the test in those days. For me, a very lucky thing was there was an actress who was kind of a very rich woman (testing opposite John Smith) whose agent, Henry Wilson, didn't think the money was good enough for her. So, at the last minute, he pulled her from the test. I didn't know any of this, of course. Luckily for me, I ended up testing with John Smith 'cause there was no girl to test with him. That's how I got in. Not knowing I was axed before I even started. Wellman never let you rehearse. He always believed in putting film on you the first time you did the scene. You'd try to remember everything he told you and hope you knew the lines. The minute we finished the test, he said, 'That's it. I've found my Nell Buck and I found my Milo Buck. I don't care about anybody else.' I was signed to The High and the Mighty before they even saw the screen test"

"That picture sort of catapulted me into a different arena. Before that, I did Vanquished, where I met Jan Sterling. I met her again on The High and the Mighty and she really took me over. She really was my mentor. She took me to Louise Long, the masseuse that used to mold the stars. Another film that came along was Man With the Gun…Sammy Goldwyn Jr.'s first film to produce and they didn't want me. The girl really needed to be reminiscent of Jan Sterling and I wasn't. I had kind of honey-blonde hair at that time. Jan knew I wasn't going to get the part, so she dyed her hair darker. She went in with a kind of honey blonde color and said, 'Now can Karen play the part?' Which I did. Jan was also, at that time, mistress of ceremonies for the Golden Globes. I was up against Shirley MacLaine, Kim Novak and a lot of people, but I got the award as the most promising newcomer, based on High and the Mighty. Jan gave me the award, which was really lovely."

"That began a whole lot of work for me. I did a Stage-coach West with Bill Campbell and Lee Van Cleef. I did a lot of westerns which I never felt I belonged in, they were just not my type. But they had more character…so you worked, you just did it and never said no. I hated westerns, I just didn't ever feel they were what I was capable of doing. I never felt I got the opportunity to do things I would have been better at doing. But it was leading me to improving my work constantly. I got very hooked on the work, more than hooked on becoming more important."

In the mid '50s, appearing in a TV show directed by Ida Lupino, Karen met an actor who would later become instrumental in her career. Karen says he was "a funny little guy from Texas with bug eyes-nobody would have him in their pictures. But I took him under my wing and was very good to him." When this failed actor became producer Aaron Spelling, he remembered Karen. "When Aaron got his very first break as a producer on Johnny Ringo, the pilot was made with Marilyn Erskine, Stanley Kramer's first wife. (Laughs) Isn't that strange?"

"Anyway, (when it sold as a series)Aaron said, 'I want Karen to play that role.' I didn't want to play it as it was written. The reason I walked out of the series is because I didn't see the role the way Aaron did. I didn't want to play Laura Thomas as Linda Evans was playing her role on Big Valley, as a sweet little thing. I wanted to play Laura more as a tomboy; I thought it would be more appealing. I wanted to cut my hair off and play it like Shirley MacLaine. I thought that would be much more endearing. I didn't want to be glamorous. I wanted to go against the grain. Laura would be much more unique in jeans. So we fought! Aaron, in the beginning, allowed me to start out that way. That was my own long hair by the way-but I wanted to cut it off. There was a lot of (office) intrigue on that series I did not like."

"I don't want to knock Aaron Spelling because I was probably very difficult at that time because I had a vision of that series. We began to have fights about it and finally they let me out of the series. They began to focus on Mark Goddard as Cully. He was playing what I wanted to play. I wanted to play a young tomboy who was not that pretty but more in trouble and a more interesting character for Don Durant (as Johnny Ringo) to work off of. When I saw the shows I was very unhappy. I felt it just wasn't my best work. They changed me around and I was stuck playing this pretty little girl, so I balked. I kept trying to insinuate lines I felt were more appropriate. I would change lines and they got absolutely furious with me, which they had every right to get because that's not very professional."

"I already had the Golden Globe, an Emmy nomination, and I really thought I had the right to dictate in certain ways how that series should be.  But understand, Aaron was on shaky ground, it was his first thing.  Since then, he's done pretty well. I could have followed (what he wanted) if I'd felt comfortable with it; but from the very beginning I was not comfortable.  I think I didn't have the power to insist.  I always saw it differently than it was written.  Women are never written well in the character for the most part, particularly in westerns; you're just decoration or a story plot.  I want that person to come alive, be more believable.  I'd get different impressions when I'd read the script.  I'd try to insinuate my performance and my look into that.  I would be much more comfortable as a Shirley MacLaine…that kind of offbeat quality.  I thought (ingenue) roles were boring.  But you don't get that kind of stuff on television (Laughs).  So, that didn't end happily for Aaron and myself."

"I liked Don very much…and Terence DeMarney, who played my father.  Don was a doll, really.  I just think there was a communication problem because Aaron was insecure.  At that time, he had every reason to be.  He thought (when I was hired) I'd be very dutiful about the whole thing.  I meant to be, but we had different ideas about how Laura should play.  I think he said I could do it my way as influence so he could sign me.  Then, I think, he got pressure from the head office and the network 'cause they were more comfortable with the standard performance.  I was grateful he gave me the role, but since it was his first time out, he couldn't fight for me any harder than perhaps he fought.  It taught me an awful lot.  I was grateful for the opportunity to learn, even though it was a negative."

Although Karen appeared in The Sniper in 1952, she never met the producer of the film, Stanley Kramer, until she was appearing in Jerry Lewis' Disorderly Orderly in '64. "It took Stanley a year to get a date." Married in 1966, the couple moved to the Seattle area in 1978 and only recently returned to Beverly Hills where she oversees their production company, International Films, and is in charge of the Kramer Library Group. One of their projects "in development" is a '90s remake of High Noon.

"I want to do it as the every-man. I'd like someone like Billy Bob Thornton in the Cooper role, it would be more human. I always have to do things different…against the stream, not with it. I think High Noon could be made beautifully today as a small time western, not a big budget film. It's a character-driven piece. It's a challenge and I always like that. I married a man who certainly challenged the system and I certainly was challenging it myself many times. In Shirley MacLaine's acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, which I love, she said she was trying to please every director she ever worked with although, she, for the most part, never agreed with anything they told her to do. I felt like saying, isn't that the truth? She was on a bigger scale and was luckier and had better tools and maybe deeper talent to get that done."

"We're all a little masochistic, because it's a hurtful business. I call it 'the trouble'. You get up every morning with 'the trouble'. You have that unrest. You see what other people are doing; it upsets you and you want to do it too; you want to get that part but it goes to somebody who's totally wrong for it and you get cast in something you're totally wrong for, and you've got to make it interesting."

"Acting is all about discovering yourself. When I took a part…words on a piece of paper, I had to find the backbone of that person and insinuate myself, my ideas, my beliefs and my vision and make that a real person…one you can bring to other people to be fascinating enough to look at or to feel something for that person. It's your own gut that creates it. As you do it, you learn a lot about yourself and you learn about other people too."

Many thanks to my friends, Boyd and Donna Magers, for sharing this article, and to Karen Sharpe for her stories!

Boyd co-authored the book from which this was excerpted with Mike Fitgerald. It's called WESTERNS WOMEN, and can be ordered directly from Boyd Magers.