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When Stars Play Themselves
by Cary O'Dell

Well-known actors “playing” themselves on TV series is nothing new—remember Van Johnson, William Holden, and Tallulah Bankhead, among others, interacting with the Ricardos on “I Love Lucy”? 

It was a trend that TV has long continued—usually during sweeps weeks.  On “The Brady Bunch,” at one time or another, the Bradys got to meet everyone from Monkee Davy Jones to famous baseball player Don Drysdale.  And, again, Lucy had many famous meetings in her later series ranging from Joan Crawford to Johnny Carson.  On “Roseanne,” the family met Loretta Lynn; on “Will & Grace,” the gang got to hang with J.Lo, among others.

In more recent times, sometimes actors have portrayed some sort of amplified version of themselves as reoccurring characters on successful TV series.  James Van Der Beek was “James Van Der Beek” on “Don’t Trust the ‘B’ in Apartment 23” and Matt LaBlanc was himself on the series “Episodes.”

Sometimes, though, over the years, actors have played themselves in a far more serious vein, in made-for-TV movies or even in mini-series. 

The real-life lives of actors can often contain highly dramatic incidents that deserve to be shared, dramatized, via the medium of television.  And when it comes to casting the lead—who better than the person themselves?  This sort of autobiographical acting is not unique to television.  For example, among other cases, Audie Murphy played himself in the film about his own heroic military service in the movie “To Hell and Back” in 1955. 

Interestingly, though, when this sort of casting has come to the small screen, it has, so far, exclusively been the domain of women.

Nineteen eighty seems to have been the big breakthrough year for this type of self-reflexive casting.  In fact, the first two occurrences occurred in the same month--October of 1980.

The lovely actress Ina Balin made her Broadway debut in 1958 in “Compulsion” and followed that with a role in the stage version of “A Majority of One” in 1959.  In 1959, she made her film debut in “The Black Orchid.”  Later she appeared in such films as “From the Terrace” (1960), “The Comancheros” with John Wayne (1961), “The Patsy” with Jerry Lewis (1964) and “Charro!” with Elvis Presley in 1969.  Later, she was also a busy guest performer on TV.

Balin made the first of many trips to Vietnam, with the USO, in 1966.  Later, she would become the single, adoptive mother to three Vietnamese orphans.  Her concern about the orphaned children of Vietnam later compelled her to become involved with the humanitarian efforts to evacuate dozens of parentless children from the country in the days just before the fall of Saigon.  Balin’s Vietnamese efforts would later be recounted in the 1980 TV movie “The Children of An-Lac.”  For the film, Balin enacted the role of herself. 

The same month that “Children” had its network, primetime debut, the already-legendary Sophia Loren took on the familiar role of herself in a reenactment of her own life story.  Based upon the book, “Sophia:  Living and Loving,” for the two-night movie event, Loren portrayed herself.  But, as the film got into the planning stages, its producers faced a quandary.  If Loren was to play herself only as a grown woman, that meant that the actress could not be seen in the film until she was, at least, the age of  30 or so.  How were they going to portray Loren’s rough upbringing in war-torn Italy? 

To solve that problem, the producers hit upon a unique solution.  For the first third or so of the mini-series, it was decided that Loren would play her own mother before, then, taking over the role of herself!  The young Sophia was played by actress Ritza Brown.

It took an individual of Loren’s talent and charisma to pull off such a dual role in a believable way.  Thankfully, the actress and icon was up to the challenge.

What began in 1980 would continue on for the next 20-plus years. 

Perhaps most powerfully, actress Theresa Saldana, who had previously appeared in the big screen’s “Raging Bull” (1980), starred in the film “Victims for Victims:  The Theresa Saldana Story” in 1984.  A couple years prior, in real life, Saldana was viciously attacked by a deranged, obsessive fan.  The actress was stabbed ten times by her assailant and nearly lost her life.  But she survived and resumed her career.

For the film, which drew its title from Saldana’s memoir and from the advocate group she began after he assault, Saldana bravely portrayed herself.  The film aired in 1984.  (Interestingly, Saldana had played Sophia Loren’s sister, Maria, in the 1980 Sophia Loren TV biopic mentioned earlier.)

After already writing a number of books, actress Shirley MacLaine published her most daring work in 1983.  In “Out on a Limb,” MacLaine related her recent investigations with metaphysics and other “new age” topics.  The book became a bestseller.  Five years after its release, MacLaine starred, as herself, in a mini-series based on the book.  Also titled “Out on a Limb,” the five-hour mini-series aired on ABC in 1987.  Co-starring with MacLaine was Jerry Orbach, who played the actress’s agent, and Anne Jackson who played her long-time, real-life friend Bella Abzug.

In 1988, another brave actress decided to portray herself in a hard-hitting and honest TV movie.

Ann JillianAnn Jillian was a busy fan favorite on such shows as “It’s a Living” and in TV movies like her Emmy-nominated role as “Mae West” in 1982.  Jillian was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1985 and underwent a double mastectomy.  After enduring her surgery and the subsequent chemo therapy, Jillian resumed her career.  One of the roles she took on was playing herself.  In ‘88, “The Ann Jillian Story” recounted Jillian’s diagnosis and recovery.  Jillian’s real-life, stead-fast husband, Andy, was played by Tony Lo Bianco.

One of the most successful child stars in history, the Oscar winner Patty Duke, endured an odd, at times harrowing childhood.  Later, Duke—though she remained a successful working actress-- would also suffer for many years from manic depression before being successfully diagnosed and treated.  Duke recounted all of her life in her 1987 autobiography “Call Me Anna.”  A couple of years later, “Anna” was made into a TV movie.  While the young Patty was played by Ari Meyers, the grown Patty was played by Duke.  “Call Me Anna” aired in November of 1987.  Notably, in the film, Duke’s real-life brother, Raymond, portrayed the siblings’s real-life father.

Shortly after Carolyn Sapp (Miss Hawaii 1991) was crowned Miss America in 1992, a newspaper (apparently against Sapp’s wishes) disclosed that she had once been the victim of domestic violence at the hands of her one-time boyfriend, Nuu Faaola, who was, at the time, a professional football player.  Court records, police reports and later Sapp confirmed the story.  Late in 1992, Katz-Rush Entertainment asked Sapp for the rights to retell her story—both her pageant win and her experience as a battered woman in a network TV movie.  Sapp agreed, and agreed to play herself.  “Miss America:  Behind the Crown,” starring Sapp, aired in September of 1992. 

Today, Sapp, now married and the mother of three, works as a successful stuntwoman and continues to advocate against violence against women.


A few years after the shocking suicide of her husband, Edgar Rosenberg (which occurred in August of 1987), comedy legend Joan Rivers, and her daughter, Melissa Rivers, retold their story in the primetime TV movie “Tears & Laughter:  The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story.”  “Tears” covered the period in the lives of the Rivers women immediately after Rosenberg’s death when both ladies found themselves emotionally wounded and unmoored--and often at odds with each other, before healing and repairing their relationship.   

Finally, in 1995, two more women portrayed themselves in two more made-for-TV movies. 

In “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” Annette Funicello’s life as a Mouseketeer and after is portrayed.  The child Annette was played by Andre Nemeth; teen Annette was played by Eva La Rue.  As an adult, Funicello played herself.  This film aired in October of 1995.

Also in 1995, beloved soap star Deidre Hall played Deidre Hall in the TV movie “Never Say Never.”  The film chronicled Hall and her then-husband’s long battle with infertility before, successfully, turning to a surrogate who eventually gave them two healthy children.  Amid a TV movie landscape that, at the time, mainly consisted of various women in various types of deadly peril, Hall’s film was a welcomed, uplifting change of pace. 

One wonders if the above mentioned films were only allowed to go before the cameras once these women decided to take on the leading roles themselves?  There is also a school of thought that says such self-portraying is self-exploitative.  Though, by and large, it’s probably pretty brave.  Certainly in the cases of Saldana, Jillian and Sapp it could not have been easy or fun to have to revisit such difficult times.

As made-for-TV movies (at least on the networks) are now, largely, a thing of the past, actresses (or maybe even an actor one of these days!) playing themselves in such productions have, more or less, come to an end.  But, they are an interesting subset of films, giving us insight, today, into, not only some very interesting personal lives, but also a unique era in TV history.

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