'Dear Joan ...': Recalling her final appearance

By the early 1970s, Joan Crawford's status as a true icon of Hollywood's glory days was firmly established. But like her famed rival Bette Davis, the 60-something actress still had the yen to work, and while the vehicles and assignments came her way, the demands on her talents weren't equal to the task. Joan's movie career had ended with the British-made thriller TROG (1970), in which the force of her presence made the horror-themed production palatable, despite one biographer's carping about Joan being "hardly required to bother with acting at all; it is sufficient that she is merely present and keeps a straight face no matter what happens."* Sadly, fans wished her convincing performance as a wealthy blind matron who pays for a few hours of vision in "Eyes," the middle story of the three-part made-for-TV movie NIGHT GALLERY (1969) had been her adieu to the screen, surrounded as she was in a classier enterprise that served as the initial directorial job for a young filmmaker named Steven Spielberg.

But having starred for producer Herman Cohen in BERSERK (1967), a killer-on-the-loose concoction set in a circus owned by Crawford's character, Joan accepted Cohen's offer of TROG and still entertained queries for her services from other concerns as the new decade progressed. Joan had accepted some TV work in the past, including a brief 1968 stint on the daytime drama THE SECRET STORM; almost two years after TROG's release, Joan took a guest star role in an episode of the hour-long ABC supernatural drama THE SIXTH SENSE. The entry, "Dear Joan: We're Going to Scare You to Death," became Joan's final appearance before cameras and reveals that her ability to command audience attention had not faded a jot.

"Dear Joan...", written by Jonathan Stone and broadcast Sept. 30, 1972, cast the actress as Joan Fairchild, a widow who has also suffered the loss of her daughter Diana (Anne Lockhart) in a drowning accident. While traveling down a rural road on a stormy night, Joan swerves to avoid striking a dog, causing the car to become hung up in a ditch. Unhurt but shaken up, Joan exits the car and spots a nearby mansion, where she seeks help from owner Carrie (Martine Bartlett), an eccentric who helps Joan into the house after Joan suffers an asthma attack.

Joan soon learns that Carrie is playing host to her niece Karen (Lenore Kasdorf) and her friends who are all fascinated by and researching the possibilities of extrasensory perception (ESP). Their leader is the sinister Jason (Scott Hylands), accompanied by submissive Paul (David Ladd) and deaf Laurie (Kelly Jean Peters), whom Jason believes has more refined ESP abilities because of her handicap. Admitting her guilt over Diana's death and a fear of water, Joan finds herself the target of Jason's impatience to find a breakthrough for his researches, using the information to torment Joan with visions of Diana and of the nearby lake. Jason, whose moral balance leans heavily toward Leopold and Loeb, then determines to kill Joan with pure psychic force.

Joan succeeds in outwitting Jason to warn innocent Laurie, who tries to escape across the lake in a boat. Jason catches up with the girl and uses an oar to punch a hole in the vessel's floor, leaving her to die since she cannot swim. Witnessing the dastardly deed from the mansion, Joan uses her own latent ESP to alert Laurie to a life jacket in a cabinet behind her, which the girl dons, saving her life. Jason, convinced Joan must be dispatched, falls to his doom from an upper floor landing after Paul steps in to stop him. Carrie and Karen are led off by the authorities.

"Dear Joan: We're Going to Scare You to Death" was a unique episode of THE SIXTH SENSE in that its regular lead character, Dr. Michael Rhodes (Gary Collins), introduced the story and then stepped aside to leave the drama to Joan. She and Collins appear together in a brief epilogue in which Collins asks Joan if she believes in ESP. "I know there are things that happen that can't be explained away," Joan responds, then recounts a dream in which her dog meets with a non-fatal accident in her apartment that occurs the very next night. Collins tells her he will exercise whatever power he possesses to ensure her return for another episode -- which never came to be.

Although she had played women in peril before, most notably in SUDDEN FEAR some 20 years prior to "Dear Joan...", Joan comes off as more than a match for the coolly evil Jason, nicely underplayed by Hylands. In fact, Joan Fairchild is a model of keeping it together as the danger mounts. Hit by another asthma attack, she accidentally crushes her inhaler, but before she is overcome by lack of oxygen, she turns an adjoining bath into a steamroom by turning up all of the hot water taps. Too bad they didn't allow Joan to give Jason or the other miscreants one of her trademark face slaps. We know Joan's character will survive the ordeal, but still it's fun to see her tackle the role. Ladd, son of screen idol Alan Ladd, is adequate as the conscience-stricken Paul, while Martine Bartlett fleshes out the underwritten role of Carrie, who looks as if she stepped out of rehearsals for a Tennessee Williams drama.

"Dear Joan..." was directed by John Newland, who explored familiar territory with this assignment. The onetime actor is best known as the host and director of ONE STEP BEYOND, the 1959-1961 ABC-TV dramatic series that also explored ESP and other supernatural phenomena, which underwent a revival in popularity thanks to local station syndication at the time he helmed THE SIXTH SENSE. Newland remained busy with TV episodes and made-for-TV movies throughout the '70s; his 1973 production in the latter category, DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, was remade as a theatrical feature in 2010 starring Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes.

Joan's appearance failed to boost the fortunes of THE SIXTH SENSE, which debuted Jan. 15, 1972, as a mid-season replacement on the ABC schedule. Playing into audience interest in all things that go bump in the night, the show was a spinoff from the network's telefeature SWEET, SWEET RACHEL, which premiered Oct. 2, 1971. The Anthony Lawrence-written thriller, produced by Stan Shpetner and directed by Sutton Roley, dealt with a psychic researcher (Alex Dreier) looking to rescue an heiress (Stefanie Powers) from the clutches of an ESP adept using the power to bring about her murder.** 

Impressed with the production, ABC green-lit a series billing Lawrence as the creator amd with Shpetner as producer in association with Universal TV. Dreier's Dr. Lucas Darrow in the movie was sidelined in favor of Gary Collins, whose Dr. Rhodes is an academic called upon by everyone from average citizens to the government to explain mysterious cases with his expertise.

A critic writing about THE SIXTH SENSE a few years after its run found the show consisted mainly of "traditional murder mysteries with rather haphazardly placed ESP gimmicks."*** While there is some truth to the statement, the other side of the coin reveals that some of its shows veered toward the unusual, both in approach and plot resolution, particularly in the first 13 episodes that aired until May. The opener, "I Do Not Belong in the Human World," deals with a woman (Belinda Montgomery) troubled by visions of her brother, believed to have been killed in the Vietnam conflict. Rhodes is convinced the brother (Kip Niven) is alive and a prisoner of the North Vietnamese. Once he establishes an ESP link, Rhodes is able to provide the POW with a means of escape. (Interesting, too, is the casting of Joan's adoptive daughter Christina in a supporting part).

In "The Man Who Died at Three and Nine," diplomat Paul Crowley (Joseph Campanella) comes to Rhodes when he is tormented by images of a young Third World woman drowning just prior to an important conference. Rhodes finds the man is victimized and targeted for doom by the woman's fiance, who blames Crowley for the humanitarian disaster that led to his intended's death. Another entry, "With This Ring, I Thee Kill!" was partly shot on Universal's 1925 set for THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, providing THE SIXTH SENSE with a connection to the horror classics upon which the studio built its reputation.

Although THE SIXTH SENSE aired in a tough time slot (Saturday at 10 p.m., up against MISSION IMPOSSIBLE on CBS and the final hour of NBC's SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES), ABC had enough faith to re-up the show for the fall season, but still on the same day and time. "Dear Joan..." was the second episode of that abbreviated season, with the series lasting another 10 episodes before cancellation led to the final entry seen on Dec. 23, 1972.

Although some observers rightly blame the murderous schedule in which THE SIXTH SENSE was seen for its failure, it was also possible that audience interest in TV shows dealing with the unusual was on the wane thanks to over-exposure in other shows, made-for-TV flicks and theatrical features. NIGHT GALLERY, produced by Universal and a ratings winner for NBC since 1970, was cut from an hour to 30 minutes for 1972-1973 and moved from Wednesday to Sunday nights, hardly the best time for spooky doings, accompanied by a sharp decline in viewing numbers.@ (Another casualty was NBC's GHOST STORY of 1972-1973 whose retitling as CIRCLE OF FEAR failed to improve ratings). Ironically, shortened SIXTH SENSE episodes were joined with NIGHT GALLERY stories of appropriate length by Universal when NIGHT GALLERY was soon after placed in syndication. Most viewers who have seen THE SIXTH SENSE in its hour version prefer it in the original format for the air of eeriness the show strove to create.

Joan Crawford's final appearance before a camera, coming some 47 years after her screen debut at M-G-M, reveals she had lost none of the professionalism and intensity she brought to her roles. It's easy to dismiss "Dear Joan..." as TV tripe so indicative of its time, but her presence gives the show an individuality that helps it stand apart from others of its kind. And while she had no further opportunities to act before her passing less than five years later, Joan went out with a dignified performance to her credit.

* Stephen Harvey, JOAN CRAWFORD: PYRAMID ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE MOVIES, New York: Pyramid Publications, 1974, p. 143.
** Entry on SWEET, SWEET RACHEL in Alvin H. Marill, MOVIES MADE FOR TELEVISION: THE TELEFEATURE AND MINI-SERIES 1964-1979, Westport, Conn.: Arlington House, 1980, pp. 65-66.
*** Gary Gerani with Paul H. Schulman, FANTASTIC TELEVISION: A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF SCI-FI, THE UNUSUAL AND THE FANTASTIC, New York: Harmony Books, 1977, p. 165.
@ Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, THE COMPLETE DIRECTORY TO PRIME TIME, NETWORK AND CABLE TV SHOWS 1946-PRESENT, Eighth Edition, New York: Ballantine Books, 2003, p. 857.


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