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Anne Francis: Passing of a glamorous pioneer

by Jim Longworth

I don’t send Christmas cards just to get them in return, but when an aging friend who always reciprocates suddenly fails to mail a greeting, it’s natural to pick up the phone and make sure she is alright. That’s what I was about to do last week after not having heard from one of my friends.

Sadly, before I could make that call, news came across the internet that Anne Francis had died.

I first met Anne while moderating an event for the Television

Academy back in November 2000. That night, we saluted “Women in Drama,” and my panel featured eight TV luminaries, including Tyne Daly, Sela Ward and Kathleen Quinlan. At the end of the evening, I called Anne up to the stage, and we honored her as a pioneer for women in dramatic television. The actresses on stage, all of them big stars, were like school girls around Anne. The respect and admiration for her showed on their faces. They knew that Anne had blazed a trail for them with her starring role in 1965’s “Honey West”, an Aaron Spelling production which was the first network drama to feature a woman in the title role, and the first to focus on a female private eye.

Stefanie Powers, star of “The Girl From Uncle” and “Hart to Hart,” told me, “Anne was such a lovely person with a great sense of humor. Whenever I was in her company, she was warm and accessible. ‘Honey West’ broke new ground for women in TV, and we have Anne Francis to thank for that, and for setting the bar high.”

Actually Anne had been setting the bar high for many years prior to “Honey West,” starring in stage plays and in films such as Bad Day at Black Rock, and the cult favorite Forbidden Planet. Later on, she also appeared in two films with my boyhood hero Clint Walker, himself a television pioneer. I asked Clint to comment on Anne’s passing.

“I was stunned. Annie was a wonderful lady and a fine actress. She was a role model, very professional. Every time I worked with her, I knew it would be a pleasant experience. We never had to wait on Annie. She was not a prima donna. She was one of the nicest ladies in Hollywood.”

And while her film work was always memorable, Anne found a home on the small screen. In the early days of television she appeared on programs like “Playhouse 90,” “Studio One” and “The Twilight Zone.” In 1961 she did a turn on an episode of “Route 66,” and in the process had a tremendous impact on a young Patrick Duffy. Patrick recalled the encounter to me.

“She was filming a segment in Montana at Georgetown Lake, I believe. George Maharis and Anne had a romantic scene in that location. I happened to be staying with a cousin, and made myself a pest on the set.

I actually remember George and Anne in a boat at the dock. That image forever locked in my mind, and added to the gravity that pulled me into the same profession.”

In an amazing example of Hollywood kismet, the associate producer of that boat dock scene was none other than Leonard Katzman, who, 20 years later would be the producer of mega hit “Dallas.” He was at the helm in 1981 when Anne did a guest shot along side the young man whose career she had influenced. Said Patrick, “I have loved Anne and lusted after her from Bad Day at Black Rock to ‘Honey West,’ and then to ‘Dallas.’ Another great loss for our industry.”

After “Dallas,” Anne continued to appear in one primetime show after another, including “Murder She Wrote” and “The Love Boat.” I caught up with both Angela Lansbury and Gavin MacLeod and asked them to talk about Anne.

Said Gavin, “I had always been a big fan of Anne Francis. Consequently it was a thrill for me to work with her on ‘The Love Boat’ special, and especially to play her husband on an episode of ‘Murder She Wrote.’ She brought great honesty, creativity and fun to the experience. She was a real pro.”

Added Lansbury, “I enjoyed working with her every time she appeared on ‘Murder She Wrote.’ Anne was a dedicated and accomplished actress, and a lovely woman.”

That “lovely woman” won the admiration of everyone who knew her.

She even won a bout with lung cancer back in 2007. But she couldn’t beat the pancreatic cancer which took her life on Jan. 2. Anne was 80 years young. Fortunately she left behind an impressive body of work for us to remember, most of which is available on DVD. But I will remember most her warmth and humility. Anne really didn’t know how talented and beautiful she was, and that was part of her charm. Patrick Duffy said the image of Anne Francis is forever locked in his mind. I know how he feels.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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