While she may be the quietest science fiction icon of all time, Linda Harrison had a natural ability to attract the attention of film fans everywhere. With her long legs, auburn hair, soft features and large, expressive eyes, Linda Harrison became a sci-fi sex symbol as the savage woman Nova in the cult classic Planet of the Apes. As Charlton Heston’s speechless mate, Linda Harrison has had three generations of fans fantasizing about being trapped on a planet ruled by monkeys with her. While some might call living on the Planet of the Apes a nightmare, with Linda Harrison by your side it could just be a paradise.
But in real life, Linda Harrison’s roles went far beyond that of Nova. Entering the industry via the beauty pageant circuit, Linda was discovered as a contestant in the Miss International Contest and signed to 20th Century Fox. It was at Fox that she caught the attention of one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, Richard D. Zanuck, and the two were married in 1968. Yet, while she would find a cult following all her own, Linda Harrison’s life in Hollywood seemed to be interwoven with Zanuck’s career, giving her a unique behind the scenes perspective of the film industry as an outsider watching the insiders, and bringing her in contact with some of the most celebrated directors in modern film history including Franklin J. Schaffer, Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Tim Burton.
As The Planet of the Apes became one of the most celebrated film franchises of all time, Linda Harrison chose a domestic role of wife and mother. Making only occasional film appearances, Linda’s on-screen time was far and in between, but there was no doubt that the impact that she had made on the audience was enormous. Although she would not be aware of her fan following for years after her appearance in Planet of the Apes, a legion of fans weren’t going to forget about her.
Warm and personable, Linda proves to have a unique insight into the history of the film industry. With an intense working knowledge of the behind the scenes dealings of Hollywood’s elite, Linda spins an incredible narrative about an aspect of the industry rarely seen by others. Thankfully for us, Linda Harrison is not as quiet as Nova, and she has a lot of fascinating stories to tell.
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS
A CONVERSATION WITH LINDA HARRISON
Sam Tweedle: You started your in beauty pageant circuit. What made you go into that venue when you were a young girl?
Linda Harrison: Well I was always an entertainer. I was an acrobat since I was five. I was very good and I got the top prize. In front of an audience is where I shined, so once I got to be nine or ten years old I wanted to be an actress. Back then talent was shown through the contestants in beauty pageants and talent scouts would come and look for potential movie stars. I was fortunate to have Mike Medavoy, who was a very successful producer, come up to me and say “You should be in the movies.” So that’s why I got into those contests. Plus, everybody wanted me. I was attractive and vivacious and spoke well so it was a natural for me.
Sam: So, in a sense, it worked out the way you wanted it to.
Sam: Today it seems that there is a negative stigma towards beauty pageants. Has the circuit changed since you were in it?
Linda: Yes. We were the real, original beauty contests. Now it’s become more commercialized and sensational with the costumes and the bathing suits. The contestants seem to be very aggressive.
Sam: So you left Maryland for Hollywood and were signed to 20th Century Fox. What was it like to be on the Fox lot?
Linda: Oh, you just can’t imagine the thrill. It was so exciting. My dream was coming true! The interview was great, and they said “Sign her up.” They had to fix my teeth. I had a space in the front of my teeth. There was a drama coach, and she prepared you and tried to develop you as an actress.
Sam: One of your earliest appearances was playing a cheerleader in an episode of Batman with Donna Loren and Cesar Romero as the villains. I absolutely love watching you in that. What was it like finding yourself on the set of Batman?
Linda: It was the very first thing I ever did. Of course, like all actors, you are looking for the big picture. I was dating Richard Zanuck by this time. It was early ’66. I remember that they worked us from eight in the morning until five. So I went up and said “Why don’t you try to conserve our energy, so by the time of the shoot we’ll be more fresh.” Well I remember that they went and told the head of talent that I was a trouble maker.
Sam: Well you must have made an impression with William Dozier because he brought you in for the Wonder Woman test film that he made.
Sam: Now it wasn’t a successful project, but you have gone down into history as one of the first women to put on the Wonder Woman costume. Do you have any memories at all about doing that test film?
Linda: You have to remember that I was dating Richard, and we had a very full life, so there was not a driving ambition [in me], beyond landing that seven year contract. So I did [Wonder Woman] because I was under contract, and they used their contract people and they thought I’d be good at it.
Sam: Now three generations of men have grown up having crushes on you as a result of your role as Nova in Planet of the Apes which is the role that will follow you forever. But what isn’t known by a lot of people is that you also tested for the role of Zira, who was eventually played by Kim Hunter.
Linda: Well that test was to see if they appliance of make up for the apes would work.
Sam: Oh, I’ve seen that. That is the little film that was done with Edgar G. Robertson as Dr. Zaius and James Brolin as Cornelius.
Linda: Yes. They hadn’t cast anyone yet so they used their players.
Sam: The test film was one of the final things that Edward G. Robinson ever did before he passed away. Do you have any memories of working with him?
Linda: Yes. I met him at a party and they wanted him to play Dr. Zaius. We noticed when we did the test that his health was failing so we had to make an adjustment with that.
Sam: When did you first hear about the film?
Linda: I’ll never forget it the evening that we were at Chez Jays in Santa Monica and Dick told me all about [Planet of the Apes.] He was so enthusiastic about it and he told me “If it goes, you’re going to play Nova.”
Sam: In Planet of the Apes you never speak, but you put forth so much emotion with body language and facial expression. You become a fail range character. How intense was it to do a role like that?
Linda: There is a saying that when you get a role that you are ninety nine percent the right person. You are one percent just doing it. Really, Nova fit my personality and temperament. People who can’t speak are very animated. They may be doing sign language, but they are putting in all the different kind of things that they are trying to say by expressing themselves. When I had an interview with the producer and the director, I just worked off of two emotions; fear and love. Charlton Heston’s character was my mate and I didn’t quite know what to do with him, but obviously he was kind and I gravitated towards him.
Sam: You and Charlton Heston had an incredible chemistry on screen. What was it like working with him?
Linda: Well, the extraordinary thing was that ever since Ben-Hur, in the scene when the mother and daughter and healed when Christ transcended, [Charlton Heston] became my idol. So on the first day of shooting I told him that.
Sam: And how did he react?
Linda: He thanked me.
Sam: So did that give you a more intense emotional connection of sorts to Charleston Heston as a result?
Linda: Well every day I couldn’t wait to get to work. Just to be close to him was an honor.
Sam: Nova also seems to be a physically demanding role. I think about all the scenes of you running through the fields and being dragged around by apes. Did you do a lot of those scenes, or did you have a stunt double?
Linda: No. If I wasn’t on a horse, we were running. We had these little tiny mesh shoes to wear, but they didn’t help much. I remember crossing a field, and going fast and they had men at the bottom to catch me. Everybody was fighting over who was going to catch Nova coming down the mountain. I was psychically inclined anyways. I was an acrobat and I was in shape. But when that camera roles, it doesn’t matter what obstacle was in the way. You were on camera and you could handle it.
Sam: Do you have many memories of working with Kim Hunter or Roddy McDowell?
Linda: It was an interesting thing that happened during the making of Planet of the Apes. The apes tended to stay together, and the humans had their own camp. Yes, I did get to talk to them, but it was very hard for them to talk through the masks. These people had to get up at three in the morning to get all the [make up] done. But the reason that Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowell and Maurice Evans were picked was because of their great acting ability. You had to have that to get the emotion through the make up.
Sam: And they all manage to make those characters come very alive.
Linda: Yes they do. Its an interesting thing. Once you take some of the senses away, like not being able to speak clearly, something else happens in you and makes the performance better.
Sam: It’s like taking away one of your senses. When Planet of the Apes came out, were you surprised it became such a cult phenomena?
Linda: Well, I was onto greener pastures. I was twenty-one. I was looking for my next job. I didn’t realize I had a following until I was in my fifties.
Sam: Are you kidding? Were you surprised?
Linda: Well, everywhere I’d go they’d say “You were in Planet of the Apes,” but I never knew that it had such an impact on the mass audience.
Sam: Well, those films are films that just stick with you.
Linda: Remember that we were the flower children. We were the baby boomers. We were at war. Viet Nam was a very unpopular war and we were changing and making transitions. We planned [the film] to be entertaining, but the subconscious of the people writing and making the film was an experience of global consciousness. They took [the film] from the book but there had to be changes. [In the book] they had a much more advanced civilization and in order for Dick to make this movie he had to keep it under five million, or else he had to take it to the board of directors and they would not have bought this kind of film.
Sam: Well the post-apocalyptic setting went with the political climate at the time the film was made.
Linda: Yes. The civil rights and the greed of man. Man makes war. These are still issues today.
Sam: That could be an indication of why Rise of the Planet of the Apes was such a big hit. They explored a lot of those issues again. As a society we can relate to it.
Linda: Oh. It was a terrific film.
Sam: Was there a different feel on the set when you were making Beneath the Planet of the Apes?
Linda: Oh yes. The first one had a top director and cinematographer. You couldn’t beat Franklin J. Schaffner. He went on to win best director for Patton. In the second film we made it for less. [Director] Ted Post was fabulous to work with, but I could get away with murder with him. Ted was an actor’s dream so there was a little more make-up on me. I was actually very comfortable because I had done [the first film.]
Sam: Probably the biggest moment in that film is when Nova finally speaks her first line.
Linda: Well it was hardly a line. It was a word.
Sam: But it is the biggest moment of that film. Did you realize it was going to be a standout moment, or did you see it as just a line?
Linda: I knew it would be a standout moment, but we working with it. Nova would have vocal chords, but undeveloped. How would she say it? So it ended up “Tay-lor.” Charlton teased me about it.
Sam: The film has such a bleak ending.
Linda: Well you know why? Charlton didn’t want another sequel. Dick had to bribe him to do five minutes of film.
Sam: How did he bribe him?
Linda: Well, Dick was very good friends with Charlton and he said “All you have to do is be on film for five minutes” and he probably paid him a lot of money.
Sam: When they went on with the Planet of the Apes series, you pretty much done with it?
Sam: Another film that you were in that became a cult classic was Airport 1975. That has an amazing ensemble cast, and you were back with Charleston Heston again. It is an incredible film.
Linda: There is a funny story of how I got Airport 1975. Dick and I were thrown out of Fox, so he went on to form Zanick-Brown with his partner David Brown. Well we had discovered Stephen Spielberg. He had done Duel as a TV movie and we had a movie called Sugarland Express. So Spielberg did that and [Zanuck and Brown] recognized his incredible talent. Then Jaws came along, and I was in the throws of two little babies. My creative side wasn’t being used. So I said to [Dick] “Get me a part” and he said “I’ll get you the part as the wife of the sheriff in Jaws.” So they were in New York talking about who they were going to cast and Dick said “I want the part of the sheriff’s wife to go to Linda.” Spielberg said “Oh no. I promised that part of Loraine Gary.” So Dick called me and said “Here’s the situation. Lorraine was promised the part, but I promised it to you so it’s yours.” Well just like me, I give everything away so I said “Give her that part.” So they said we’ll find you a part, and I got a part of the gal Friday in Airport with Gloria Swanson. Spielberg mentions this all the time in articles, that I was up for the part and Lorraine was up for the part and he didn’t know what to do and he was young. I would have loved to have had that part in Jaws. But they said that Roy Schneider couldn’t get a girl as beautiful as me. (Laughs)
Sam: (Laughs) Poor Roy Schneider. Now there was a ten year gap in your career between Airport and Cocoon. Why did you seem to disappear from the radar for a decade?
Linda: I was raising my children, which has always been my top priority.
Sam: How did you get involved in Cocoon?
Linda: Well, I was studying at an acting school and we were giving a presentation of work we had done, and invited agents to see us. Dick came and I had a couple of scenes. Well he said “There might be a part for you in Cocoon.” So I had an interview with Ron Howard and he said “You got the part.”
Sam: Is Ron Howard as nice and easy going in real life as he seems to be on television?
Linda: Yes indeed. He is a very good soul. We would walk into the hotel and a lady would say [to Ron Howard] “Come and say hello to my son. He’s such a fan” and Ron would take the phone and say “Hello, how are you” and have a conversation. If someone wanted his autograph, he would give him an autograph. He is such an exceptional man.
Sam: Cocoon was Ron Howard’s first successful film. What was it like working with him during the early part of his directing career?
Linda: The thing I liked about him was he wanted all your mannerisms. It’s like if I were talking to you, maybe my hand is going up and down to express myself. He wanted you to be you. If you were authentic, and coming from the inside of you, he’d call you on it. He’d say “That’s fake.”
Sam: Out of all the films you did, which is the one that you are the most proud of.
Linda: Well they were all unique. The first film I did was Way…Way Out, with Jim Brolin, and the second film I did, A Guide For the Married Man, was directed by Gene Kelly. It was all these vignettes about how to cheat on your wife and not get caught. That was fun because my scene took me all over the world. I was in limousines and on a donkey and on a camel and then they catch us.
Sam: Well while you’ve only been in seven or eight films, but while some people appear in a hundred films, the films that you did seem to have had a giant impact on the people who have seen them.
Linda: I know. Wasn’t I fortunate? (Laughs) On the personal side I was married to Dick, we had an amiable divorce and remained friends, and we raised two wonderful sons and their marriages are beautiful. We have four grandchildren. I am very proud of that, and my boys are very down to earth with no falseness or aggressiveness or obnoxiousness. They are good and sound.
Sam: What was it like for them to have Nova as their mother? Where they aware growing up that their mother was a science fiction sex symbol?
Linda: Well when I was raising them they were such boys. It was all boys and they weren’t thinking of girls. My house was a club house where everybody came, and they had their friends. They would plan in the morning what they were going to do all day, and I was just there to feed them and make sure they were safe. But what hit them was that thirtieth anniversary of Planet of the Apes, and they were actually seeing the film for the first time as young men. I mean, they saw excerpts all the time because it was always playing and Dick would always say to them “There’s your mother. There’s your mother.” But during the thirtieth anniversary they were young men and their eyes would get real big because I was young and in my prime, and they felt lucky to have me as their mother. But my sons are so low profile.
Sam: How did you get involved with Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes?
Linda: I remember that it was during a time when things weren’t best in Dick’s career. It was my oldest son’s Harrison’s birthday and we always did something special for the boy’s birthdays. Well I was at this thing at 20th Century Fox and the head of the studio was there, and he came up to our table and introduced himself because he was a fan of mine. Its one of these things that all these different professionals are now fans. Well he said “Guess what. We signed Tim Burton to do a new Planet of the Apes movie.” I said “I hope they’ll use some of the [original stars]” and he said “Oh, he’s good about that.” That evening when we were out for Harrison’s birthday I was telling Dick about this and he said “Well did you tell him you were married to me?” The boys took me aside and said “Dad would really like to produce that picture because he was on the ground level. He made it happen.” It was true that without Dick Zanuck Planet of the Apes would never have materialized. So the very next day they were having lunch at a tennis club and when [Dick] got back there was a call from the head of the studio that said “We want you to come on as producer.” For the last twelve years he’s been Tim Burton’s producer.
Sam: What did you make of being part of that production?
Linda: Well if you blink you miss me. They showed my shots all over the place, but it got cut out.
Sam: What are you thoughts of the Tim Burton film? A lot of fans aren’t fond of it.
Linda: Well they were when we were making it, and Tim was a big fan of Planet of the Apes. They gave him such a huge budget. I think they gave him a hundred and forty million. The thing about the original was that we didn’t have a lot of money so our dialogue had to be sharp and everything had to work real well. So sometimes it’s a blessing to have less money, and it makes you very creative, then to have a whole lot that you just spend on costumes and beautiful shots, but you don’t hone in on the script. But it made a lot of money.
Sam: And that is what the studio likes in the end.
Linda: Oh yes. But I have to say that growing up with Dick [I leart] that there was nothing like a hit and they were few and far between.
Sam: What is Tim Burton like to work with? Is he as strange as his films?
Linda: No. He’s a very gentle. You feel like his mind is overworking. He has a creative mind, and underneath he is always thinking.
Sam: You haven’t acted in a long time. Are you finished with that aspect of your career?
Linda: I think so. I really have no desire to act.
Sam: Was there any kind of things that you didn’t get to do that you would have liked to have done?
Linda: Not really. You have to understand that I was involved with a very powerful man, and I loved what I learned because I learned a lot about the business. I learned about what happened behind the scenes and what it took to make a great script. I knew his father Darryl Zanuck. He and Dick were very close. So I had this incredible life. From the age of twenty years old I went from a little town of two thousand to going to eating caviar. Some people said it was just too much for a young person. Dick had a lot of power. He could make or break people back then.
Sam: That must have been intimidating for a lot of people.
Linda: Yeah, but he was very good with people.
Sam: So it sounds like you have been able to really maintain a strong family unit to this day.
Linda: Yes. We are very family. I see Dick once a week. The boys talk to their father every day, so Dick knows what’s going on in my life, and I know what’s going on in his life through the boys. We are very respectful to one another and when we go out everybody is very civil and excited and grateful. That is something we are most proud of. That’s our real anchor.
While the fans will always love her as Nova, Linda Harrison has had far more roles in life: model, pageant contestant, actress, icon, sex symbol, wife, mother and grandmother. She has had a unique journey that has gone beyond the usual human experience. But as Linda points out, during her career she only made a handful of films. While some of those films have become some of the most popular films in Hollywood history, there is something about Linda Harrison that has stuck with film fans. Perhaps it is her beauty, but maybe it goes beyond that. In the role of Nova, Linda Harrison only uttered a single word, but perhaps we saw something deeper, and more raw, in her being. Something in her beauty and gentleness and those deep soulful eyes. Linda Harrison found her way into the hearts of fans without saying a word, but that feat in itself says so much.
PCA NOTE: I’d like to thank Carol Summers for arranging my interview with Linda Harrison, and for all her friendship, advice and friendship over the last three years. You’re a real gem Carol. Thanks for everything.