Diane McBain, a blonde beauty who enjoyed popularity mainly on TV in the '60s, died Wednesday, December 21, at 81. The cause was liver cancer.
McBain was born May 18, 1941, in Cleveland, Ohio, but her family quickly relocated to Glendale, California, putting her in Hollywood's orbit.
Discovered in high school, she made her TV debut on two episodes of Maverick (1959), becoming one of many Warner Bros. contract players. The arrangement made some into stars and others — like McBain — into indentured servants forced onto a funhouse-mirror path of typecasting.
Still, she later observed, "Creating a star is a major undertaking, and I don't know how it is done without a studio to back you."
In spite of mostly two-dimensional roles, McBain made big impressions on 77 Sunset Strip (1959-1963) and the teen-friendly detective series Surfside 6 (1960-1962), playing a bubbly, yacht-dwelling heiress on the latter.
She starred opposite real-life lover Richard Burton in Ice Palace (1960), an epic that also featured a young George Takei.
Her starring role in the good girl-gone-bad drama Claudelle Inglish (1961) was "my favorite," she recalled 43 years later, but she probably gained more fans as the leading lady in the Elvis flick Spinout (1966) than from any other performance.
McBain told me in 2014, “Claudelle Inglish was my personal favorite. There were a couple of miserable experiences! Cab to Canada [1998 TV movie starring Maureen O’Hara' was enough to make me never want to act again." Indeed, she only ever acted six more times after that.
"The Deathhead Virgin [1974 feature about a sunken ship guarded by a spirit] was the stupidest screenplay I ever had to work with," she candidly admitted.
But they weren't all bad — in 1966, she made two appearances as a bookstore clerk on the buzzy series Batman alongside Mad Hatter David Wayne, and the following year made two more appearances as villainess Pinky Pinkston on the popular show. Pinky still has many fans, a fact that caused McBain to tell me in our interview, "Frankly, I've never understood why people like the things they like. I've always been mystified."
McBain wound up working in Hollywood from 1959-2001, achieving over 70 credits in film and on television, including guesting on myriad series. To name a few: The Alaskans (1960), Sugarfoot (1960), Lawman (1960), Bourbon Street Beat (1960), Hawaiian Eye (1962 & 1963), Burke's Law (1964-1965), The Wild Wild West (1965 & 1967), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1965-1967); Love, American Style (1969); Mannix (1970), Land of the Giants (1970), Mod Squad (1971), Police Story (1974); Marcus Welby, M.D. (1976); The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (1978), Charlie's Angels (1979 & 1981), Hawaii Five-O (1980), Eight Is Enough (1981), Dallas (1982), Matt Houston (1983), 20 episodes of Days of Our Lives (1983-1984), Airwolf (1984), Crazy Like a Fox (1985), Knight Rider (1985), 11 episodes of General Hospital (1988), Jake and the Fatman (1990), Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996); Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1998); The Young and the Restless (1999) and her swan song, Strong Medicine (2001).
Some of her other films: Parrish (1961), Black Gold (1962), the Joan Crawford drama The Caretakers (1963), Thunder Alley (1967), Maryjane (1968), The Mini-Skirt Mob (1968), Five the Hard Way (1969), I Sailed to Tahiti with an All Girl Crew (1969), The Delta Factor (1970), The Wild Season (1971); Wicked, Wicked (1973); Puppet Master 5 (1994); Greg Berlanti's gay comedy The Broken Hearts Club (2000) and Besotted (2001).
In her 40s, McBain began rape counseling after surviving a brutal sexual assault of her own, which she described in her memoir Famous Enough (2014), written with Michael Gregg Michaud. The book is both dishy and serious, and she told me that working with divas like Crawford and Edd Byrnes didn't impress her much. “To be a good performer, you don’t have to be egotistical or nasty. Actors exist in service to the story, the director and the other actors, not in service to themselves. In fact, if you are not being authentic and helpful to others in your efforts on the set, you are not being professional, in my view.”
In recent years, McBain was a regular at autograph shows and book signings.
She is survived by her son and goddaughter.