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Diana Muldaur on TV

Diana Muldaur TV & Movie careerI honestly don’t know what I first saw Diana Muldaur in. Like the great monolith in “2001,” she was always just seemed to be there. She is: a recognizable face, a commanding presence, a resourceful actress always bringing a little something extra to the role in front of her.

As an early fan of small screen sci-fi, it is quite possible that I—like many of my generation—first discovered Diana her in one of her guest appearances on the original “Star Trek.” Muldaur twice appeared on the Roddenberry series, in the episodes “Return to Tomorrow” (aired: 2/9/68) and, of course, in “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” (aired: 10/18/68).

On both installments, especially “Is There,” where she played the formidable traveling companion of a mysterious and unseen ambassador, Muldaur’s self-assured performance and “star” presence (which seemed to harken back to the stars of the golden era of cinema) not only made her one of the series’s most notable guest performers but, albeit briefly, tilted the balance of power aboard the Enterprise away from its normal male dominance and towards a more feminine or desexualized center.

Diana Muldaur in Star TrekAs many know, Muldaur had a long working relationship with TV visionary Gene Roddenberry. Along with later joining “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” in the Hepburn-like role of ship medic Dr. Kate Pulaski, she had an important role in the Roddenberry-produced film for television “Planet Earth” from 1974.

A pilot for a proposed series which, unfortunately, didn’t sell, “Earth” was later repackaged as a TV movie, aired and then re-aired often ever after

Again, a youthful lover of sci-fi, I remember seeing it some Saturday or Sunday afternoon and connecting immediately to the likable familiarity of its outstanding cast (Muldaur, John Saxon and Ted Cassidy, among others) and being intrigued by its take on that favorite futuristic device—a society ruled by women.

In the film, set in a post-nuclear war America, Saxon starred as Dylan Hunt, the leader of a team of roving scientists who now traveled what was left of the country to survey who (and what) had survived. Eventually, the team stumbles upon an enclave of warrior women where Diana Muldaur, as Marg, serves as their feared and fearless leader. Marg soon makes a slave of Hunt, aided in part by the unappetizing, sedative-laced gruel that she and all the women feed to him and all the men in the kingdom to keep them at heel.

 

Diana Muldaur in Planet EarthIn a society of proud, Amazonian women, to my young mind, it made perfect sense to me that Diana Muldaur, with her authoritative voice and imposing carriage, would be their undisputed leader!

As my dad was a fan of “McCloud,” the fish-out-of-water detective series that starred Dennis Weaver as a “cowboy” detective from New Mexico relocated to New York City, I may have seen Muldaur often there; she made regular guest appearances as McLeod’s writer/girlfriend, Christine Coughlin.

Diana Muldaur in Star TrekAfter becoming aware of—and struck by—Diana Muldaur and her enthralling grandness, I, no doubt, began to take greater notice of her in some of her many, many other guest spots or series roles. She was a lady judge on “The Tony Randall Show” (1976-1978) and made two appearances each on “The Incredible Hulk” and “Hart to Hart.” On the former, in one episode, she was David Banner’s (Bill Bixby’s) sister Helen, who was also a scientist, and on the latter, in one of her two episodes, she was the head of a multi-million dollar perfumery.

Judges, scientists, writers, businesswomen, even the queen of some pseudo-Amazons: throughout her career, Diana Muldaur has always played strong, capable, independent women. And she’s always been up to the challenge. Inasmuch, as I, someone who has long examined the roles of women over the history of primetime, I do view her as one of the medium’s great feminist heroes, one mentioned far less often than a Mary Tyler Moore or a Diana Rigg, but just as deserving.

Muldaur, even when cast in a more traditional role, like that of Helen Keller’s mother, Kate, in the 1979 TV remake of “The Miracle Worker” with Melissa Gilbert (as Helen Keller) and Patty Duke (as Annie Sullivan), is able to add heft to a critically underwritten role.

Well aware of Muldaur by this time as a dependable friend to any devoted small screen viewer, I was happy to run into her in a rare interview in the mid-1980s on the daytime talk show “Hour Magazine.” There, she was interviewed by her old “Born Free” (the TV version/series ran for half a season in 1974) co-star Gary Collins and she spoke of her then role as President of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Muldaur, who served in that position from 1983-1985, was the Academy’s first female president. That she would take on such a high-profile and demanding duty was news to me--but not at all surprising.

Muldaur’s one year on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was far too fleeting but, here again, she provided a welcomed counterbalance in the ship’s onboard personal dynamics; her Kate Pulsaksi was the only one ever willing to regularly go toe-to-toe with the ship’s captain, Jean-Luc Picard.

I was heartened a few years later when, in 1989, she joined the cast of the already-established series “L.A. Law.” Though by this time, she was very much an industry veteran (and an actress “of a certain age,” as they used to say), her all-business barracuda Rosiland Shays revitalized that series and, arguably, provided the actress with her most definitive role. How refreshing it was to see an actress of her depth given a role to match her gravitas. Then, in 1991, when her character was written out of the series (by, literally, getting the shaft), it provided Muldaur with one of the most famous and talked-about exits in TV history.

Diana Muldaur in Star TrekSome years ago, I was fortunate enough to carry out a fanboy fantasy and interview Ms. Muldaur for “Outre” magazine. In the prelude to the published Q&A, I said that she was one of “those” actresses—someone too often overlooked or taken for granted, someone always dependable who has added immeasurably to the firmament of television. Yes, one of “those” actresses--a good one.

 



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