How Jackie wrote raciest chapter of my life and Dynasty saved me from the dole: DAME JOAN COLLINS reveals two rollocking tales from life story that is soon to be a major TV drama
After a gypsy existence that took me to England and Switzerland and back to New York, I finally put down roots (which I desperately wanted to do) in Beverly Hills.
Yet, at 32, with more than 17 years of acting experience and practically non-stop work in movies, TV and theatre, I had absolutely nothing to show for it except a load of clothes and a car.
No home of my own, no furniture, paintings or cash, and just a few pieces of jewellery, mostly bought by my husband, Anthony Newley. As I explained yesterday, I had given up my career when I had our children, first Tara, and then, 22 months later, Sacha.
But now the kids were starting nursery school and kindergarten, Tony was beavering away all day writing and getting ready to star in a movie, and I started to miss acting.
After a gypsy existence that took me to England and Switzerland and back to New York, I finally put down roots (which I desperately wanted to do) in Beverly Hills
Only an actor can know how much the ‘roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd’ means to them. Even though it’s the world’s most overcrowded profession, it’s in our blood.
As I always did, over the years, I decided to consult Jackie, who was, by now, happily married to her second husband, the wonderful Oscar Lerman. ‘Go for it,’ she insisted. ‘You’re still young, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you. You must do what your heart tells you.’
‘OK for you,’ I grumbled. ‘You’re writing and getting published. I’ve no career and, it seems, a marriage that’s going nowhere.’ While I’d thought Tony would make the perfect husband and father, the truth was turning out to be rather different.
‘Then why don’t you get an agent?’ she replied.
So I did. Since my previous agent, the formidable Sue Mengers, had told me I was ‘too old to get parts’, I switched to Tom Korman, who started to find me guest starring roles in popular TV shows such as Batman, Star Trek and Police Woman.
Jackie and Oscar had been married in our house, with Tara and Tracy (mine and Jackie’s daughters) as tiny bridesmaids, and then they returned to London, where her first novel, The World Is Full Of Married Men, became an instant bestseller and her shining career took off.
Tony and I separated in 1970. I couldn’t have lived with him any more after seeing the film Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe And Find True Happiness? at a screening.
Only an actor can know how much the ‘roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd’ means to them. Even though it’s the world’s most overcrowded profession, it’s in our blood
It bleakly told the slightly dramatised story of his life in which he had affairs with every female who crossed his path. It was terribly upsetting and I left the room in tears.
I had too much pride to swallow this. In a tiny revenge, I had a fling with a TV actor, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. I was desperately sad for Tara and Sacha, but they didn’t have much of a father figure, either, as Tony was always working.
Jackie was delighted, however, that I was now moving back to London. She spent weeks helping me find the right house and was glowing with the ongoing success she had with her novels, plus she and Oscar were expecting their first baby together.
Back in the UK, my career suddenly had a renaissance. ‘I’m not forgotten after all,’ I said to Jackie as we sat on the spacious terrace of her flat, watching our four children play games together. ‘You never were,’ she smiled.
Oscar owned Tramp, the trendy disco nightclub in Jermyn Street. Every night, it was packed with the movers and shakers of the early Seventies. Michael Caine, Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, gorgeous models and all the Beatles were regulars, and so were we: Oscar, Jackie, our brother Bill and me.
We hit the floor every night. Jackie was brilliant at staying up every night until 1am or 2am, getting the kids up for breakfast and school, then writing all day.
At teatime, she would often pick up my kids, too, as I was now the sole breadwinner and working hard on TV sets and movies, which kept me away from home 12 to 16 hours a day. Suddenly, I became known as ‘Queen of the horror flicks’, as I starred in several in a row with the likes of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Ralph Bates.
During this time, I also met the new man in my life, American producer Ron Kass, who was president of the Beatles’ company Apple Records. I remember going up to the roof at Abbey Road for their last concert, when they played Hey Jude, but leaving before I succumbed to a high from all the marijuana being smoked.
When The Beatles broke up, Ron went on to head Warner Brothers Records UK. My career seemed to be following an upwards swing, with several more TV and movie roles.
My beautiful daughter, Katyana Kass, known to us as Katy, was born in London shortly after. With three boys from Ron’s previous marriage, we now had six under the age of 12 between us, and we bought a lovely summer house in Marbella.
We hit the floor every night. Jackie was brilliant at staying up every night until 1am or 2am, getting the kids up for breakfast and school, then writing all day. At teatime, she would often pick up my kids, too, as I was now the sole breadwinner and working hard on TV sets and movies, which kept me away from home 12 to 16 hours a day. Suddenly, I became known as ‘Queen of the horror flicks’, as I starred in several in a row with the likes of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Ralph Bates
We would often spend Easter and summer holidays together with Jackie’s tribe in Marbella and France, and it was a happy time in my life, career and marriage.
Then Ron insisted we all move back to the United States, where he had signed on as president of Sagittarius, a movie company established by businessman and philanthropist Edgar Bronfman.
The two men were very close. Ron had been Edgar’s rock through the incredible ordeal of having his eldest son kidnapped. Edgar was Katy’s godfather and, when he asked us to throw his second son Edgar Jr’s 21st birthday at our house in LA, we said yes. I organised it, inviting all the high and mighty of showbusiness and even advancing the money for the party from my personal account.
It was an immense success, with the likes of Dionne Warwick, Kirk Douglas, director Dick Donner, Rod and Alana Stewart and many others all at the height of their power and fame.
But, on the day after the party, as congratulations and flowers arrived, Ron announced: ‘Edgar’s fired me.’ I couldn’t believe it. After years of friendship and business partnership, after schlepping our family across the Atlantic, his boss had fired him.
I don’t think Ron ever fully recovered from the trauma Edgar caused him. Certainly, this became a turning point in our up-to-now happy marriage. We started by selling the house and downsizing to live off the proceeds, but that wasn’t going to last indefinitely. Now, I had to take on the mantle of being the sole breadwinner again. I decided to take any and all offers.
But, despite my TV appearances, I had lost all my profile after years away from the Hollywood showbiz circuit. ‘Joan who?’ was the phrase I heard most during my rounds of casting directors’ and producers’ offices. When the parts dried up, I even ended up at the unemployment office to collect benefits.
As I handed in my application to the assistant, she exclaimed: ‘Joan Collins??? Didn’t you used to be her?’
‘I still am,’ I replied, coolly. Well, at least she recognised me.
In the Seventies, life became one long plane ride between California and London, wherever my floundering career took me. But it was great to be in California because, by now, Jackie had also moved there with Oscar and her three children and she was churning out bestselling novels.
Feeling massively anxious about our finances, I suggested to Jackie that her 1969 novel The Stud, about the socialite wife of a wealthy businessman who owns a nightclub and likes men rather a lot, would make a wonderful screenplay and I’d be perfect to play the heroine, Fontaine. ‘I’ll write you up a script,’ she said, airily.
Years of rejection followed, because nobody could see the appeal of the subject matter, until I finally met George Walker, a distributor of B-flicks in England.
Yet, at 32, with more than 17 years of acting experience and practically non-stop work in movies, TV and theatre, I had absolutely nothing to show for it except a load of clothes and a car
I gave him my pitch and he fell in love with Jackie’s script. Within four months, we were shooting.
He insisted I do a scene where I swing, topless, over a swimming pool. I definitely did not want to do that scene unless I wore a bathing suit, or some sort of covering, but he was horribly insistent. ‘It’s in the book,’ he said.
‘I’ve got three children — it’s too embarrassing,’ I retorted, helplessly, looking to my husband for support. It was not forthcoming. ‘My children will hate me,’ I protested.
After several days of fierce arguments, I reluctantly agreed, although I had to get extremely drunk to shoot it.
The film was a huge success and I garnered a great deal of attention, not least because a woman in her 40s was not supposed to look that good or have sex appeal.
However, despite the apparent box office success, receipts into our account were not forthcoming and, to this day, I have never really understood why.
But then the greatest tragedy of my life occurred. I had been asked to do a play, The Last Of Mrs Cheyney, in the West End. I could hardly afford to turn it down, despite the success of the movies.
I was in Paris having a costume fitting with the fabled couturier Érte when I was told that my beloved eight-year-old Katy had been hit by a car and was not expected to live. The horror of the nightmare trip back to London in our friend Roger Whittaker’s little plane will never leave me.
When I saw my darling girl in hospital, unconscious, with shaven head and tubes attached to her tiny body, I became hysterical. ‘Keep it inside you,’ advised my wise brother Bill, putting his arms around me. ‘Don’t let Katy feel that you’re upset — I’m sure she’ll recover.’
I spent six weeks living in a caravan in the hospital car park, staying with Katy every day and night when the hospital allowed, reading and talking to her, despite the specialists’ advice that my actions were futile. And, thank God, my strong little girl did eventually come out of her coma.
However, Katy had a long way to go to recover and so began a long period of therapy while I performed first in Cheyney and then another play, Murder In Mind.
Finally, we could take her on a holiday to Spain. While there, I received a phone call from Tom Korman, my LA agent. ‘Do you know what “Dynasty” is?’ he asked.
‘A Chinese restaurant?’ I replied.
He sighed. ‘It’s Aaron Spelling’s new TV show. His answer to “Dallas”. It’s been on air for a season, but the ratings keep dropping and they’ve written this mysterious new character called Alexis, hoping to pep it up.’
‘Love the name,’ I said. ‘Can I think about it?’ I was only thinking about Katy at this time.
‘I’ll fax you a couple of scenes,’ he said. ‘It’s a great role, but Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren have already turned it down.’
‘How long is the gig?’
‘Maybe another season,’ he replied. ‘Call me tomorrow. ABC has got to know fast.’
I spent six weeks living in a caravan in the hospital car park, staying with Katy every day and night when the hospital allowed, reading and talking to her, despite the specialists’ advice that my actions were futile. And, thank God, my strong little girl did eventually come out of her coma
Ron and I discussed how moving back to California would be great for Katy’s recovery, between the LA sunshine and the amazing strides medical research had taken in the U.S., not to mention a steady paycheck.
I read the scenes and loved them and, within two weeks, our family was in LA. I started shooting the second season of Dynasty at my old stomping ground, 20th Century Fox Studios.
It was unbelievable how quickly Alexis Carrington Colby took America by storm. Within two weeks of airings, ratings zoomed, and, by January 1982, it was one of the top ten most popular shows.
I took control of my own outfits on Dynasty, eschewing the tweed suits and pussycat bows I was offered. Paris couture was now rich with huge sleeves, massive shoulder pads and nipped-in waists, and this is what Alexis’s main ‘look’ was based on. I became the world’s favourite ‘bitch’.
Katy was blooming and my sister and I were closer than ever.
In 1983, I won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV show and Jackie’s latest novel was No 1 on the NY Times bestseller list.
We sat eating popcorn surrounded by our children and watched a tape of a French And Saunders sketch a friend had sent us from England.
Jennifer played me, with massive hair and gargantuan shoulder pads. Dawn played Jackie, in animal prints and cateye sunglasses. We watched transfixed as the two comediennes ruthlessly satirised our perceived public personas and laughed out loud when both looked at the camera sultrily and announced: ‘For we are those lucky bitches.’
‘I guess we made it, Sis,’ said Jackie.
‘I guess we did,’ I laughed. ‘And against all odds!’