Susan Oliver (February 13, 1932 – May 10, 1990), stage name of Charlotte Gercke, was an Emmy-nominated American actress, television director and aviator.
Susan Oliver was born Charlotte Gercke, the daughter of journalist George Gercke and astrology practitioner Ruth Hale Oliver, in New York City in 1932. Her parents divorced when she was still a child. In June 1949, Oliver joined her mother in Southern California, where Ruth Hale Oliver was in the process of becoming a well-known Hollywood astrologer. Oliver made a decision to embark upon a career as an actress and chose the stage name Susan Oliver.
By September 1949, using her new name, Oliver returned to the East Coast to begin drama studies at Swarthmore College, followed by professional training at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. After working in summer stock, regional theater and in unbilled bits in daytime and primetime TV shows and commercials, she made her first major television appearance playing a supporting role in the July 31, 1955 episode of the live drama series Goodyear TV Playhouse, and quickly progressed to leading parts in other shows.
In 1957, Oliver did numerous TV shows and a starring role in a movie. She began the year with an important ingenue part, as the daughter of an 18th century Manhattan family, in her first Broadway play, Small War on Murray Hill, a Robert E. Sherwood comedy.
The play's short run was immediately followed by larger roles in live TV plays on Kaiser Aluminum Hour, The United States Steel Hour and Matinee Theater. Oliver then went to Hollywood, where she appeared in the November 14, 1957 episode of Climax!, one of the few live drama series based on the West Coast, as well as in a number of filmed shows, including the October 30, 1957 Wagon Train and the title role of "Country Cousin," an installment of Father Knows Best broadcast on March 5, 1958.
In July, 1957, Oliver was chosen for the title role in her first motion picture, The Green-Eyed Blonde, a low-budget independent melodrama released by Warner Brothers in December on the bottom half of a double bill. It is the only motion picture on which Oliver received top billing.
At the close of the year, Oliver returned to New York, appearing in Robert Alan Aurthur's "The Thundering Wave," the December 12, 1957 broadcast of the prestigious live drama series Playhouse 90. Her performance in the John Frankenheimer-directed teleplay was well-received and she was invited to Playhouse 90 two more times, March 26, 1959 and January 21, 1960.
As the next year began, Oliver continued to be a part of the Golden Age of TV Drama, acting in the February 26, 1958 episode of Kraft Television Theatre and "The Woman Who Turned to Salt", the June 16, 1958 installment of Suspicion, an hour-long suspense anthology series produced by Alfred Hitchcock. Oliver's entry, directed by Robert Stevens, also starred Michael Rennie along with Hitchcock's daughter, Patricia.
In mid-1958, Oliver began rehearsals for a co-starring role in Patate, her second Broadway play. Its seven-performance run was even shorter than that of Small War on Murray Hill but won Oliver a Theatre World Award for "outstanding breakout performance." It was her last Broadway appearance.
Oliver spent the remainder of her career in Hollywood, going on to play in more than 100 television shows, five made-for-TV movies, as well as 12 theatrical features. She appeared in three more episodes of Wagon Train, four episodes of The Virginian, three episodes each of Adventures in Paradise, Route 66 and Dr. Kildare as well as "Never Wave Goodbye," a critically praised October 8 – October 15, 1963 two-part episode of The Fugitive. On April 12, 1961 she appeared in an episode of The Naked City, "A Memory of Crying."
She was fourth-billed in her second theatrical feature, 1959's The Gene Krupa Story. Her next movie was the 1960 Elizabeth Taylor vehicle BUtterfield 8.
The subsequent three-year period between 1960 and 1963 saw Oliver do more than 30 guest-star appearances in primetime series as well as a fourth feature film in the role of psychiatric nurse Cathy Clark in Warner Brothers 1963 hospital melodrama The Caretakers. Robert Stack, Polly Bergen and Joan Crawford were top-billed, along with two stars of the studio's 1960-62 TV detective series Surfside 6, Diane McBain and Van Williams. In the film's tangential plotline, however, Williams' doctor character is drawn to Oliver, as evidenced by their only scene together, a brief dinner sequence.
At the end of 1963, Oliver filmed a guest-starring spot on the ABC western The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, which featured 12-year-old Kurt Russell in the title role. The 26-episode series about a westward-bound wagon train originally focused on the relationship between the boy and his free-spirited Scottish physician father (Dan O'Herlihy). The 13th episode, however, introduced the new wagonmaster Linc Murdock, played by Charles Bronson who, along with Russell's Jaimie, became the focus of the remaining storylines.
"The Day of the Reckoning", shown on March 15, 1964 as the show's final installment, presented Oliver as Maria, Murdock's former love. With an eye towards expanding it, the filming was done on color stock and additional scenes were lensed to bring the running time to 75 minutes, the pre-commercial length of a 90-minute TV "movie of the week". Entitled Guns of Diablo the "movie" has a cast composed of familiar TV faces from the 1960s and further betrays its origins by including the prominent commercial break fade-ins and outs typical of TV product from that era.
By January 1965, the film, with Bronson billed first, Oliver second and Russell third above the title, already had showings in West German cinemas and was later released to theaters in other parts of Europe as well as Asia, Africa and Latin America to capitalize on Bronson's eventual world-wide popularity.
In addition to six TV shows in 1964, Oliver had major roles in three features — Looking for Love , The Disorderly Orderly and, most prominently, Your Cheatin' Heart, in which she was second-billed as Audrey Williams, wife of country music legend Hank Williams, portrayed by George Hamilton. Hamilton, along with a number of other guest stars, also popped up in a cameo appearance in Looking for Love, a Connie Francis vehicle, with Oliver in support as Connie's friend.
The Frank Tashlin-directed Disorderly Orderly was another entry in the then-popular Jerry Lewis theatrical series. Amidst the wild slapstick, Oliver was cast in an oddly serious role as a beautiful former cheerleader from Lewis's high school days.
One of Oliver's 1964 TV appearances was an infrequent outing on a sitcom. As in The Disorderly Orderly, her handful of comedy acting turns were played relatively straight, including an episode of CBS' top-rated The Andy Griffith Show called "Prisoner of Love." The storyline plays out almost entirely in the holding cell area of the Mayberry town jail.
In the Rod Serling-scripted "People Are Alike All Over", the last of three entries helmed for the series by veteran movie director Mitchell Leisen, Roddy McDowall stars as Sam Conrad, an astronaut who lands on Mars, which he finds to be inhabited by a seemingly-human race.
Four years later Oliver was cast in a storyline which evoked similar themes, "The Cage", the unsold 1964 pilot episode of Star Trek. In what could have been a pivotal role of her career, she portrays Vina, the lone survivor of a long-ago crash landing on the distant planet Talos IV, whose idealized image becomes the irresistible fulfillment of love for Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter). Although the network executives saw no fault with the ensemble cast, "The Cage" is believed to have been deemed "too cerebral" and, in a rare move, NBC asked for a revised pilot, made a year later with William Shatner as Captain Kirk.
Seen ten weeks after Star Trek's September premiere, the November 17 – November 24, 1966 two-part episode "The Menagerie" incorporated, in re-edited form, about 80 percent of "The Cage"'s footage. "The Menagerie" was well-received by the science-fiction community and garnered a Hugo Award for dramatic presentation, although Oliver and Hunter were not recalled to film any additional revised scenes. Twenty-two years later, less than two years before Oliver's death (Jeffrey Hunter died in 1969), "The Cage" was finally telecast to a new generation of fans as a 1988 syndicated special, hosted by Gene Roddenberry. Finally, in the end-credit still images seen in early episodes of Star Trek, fans also take note of a striking visual of Oliver as the archetypal green-skinned "Orion Slave Girl". It is her portrayal that created a fair standard for other actresses in this type of Star Trek role.
Remaining with the genre, Oliver was seen in two episodes of Quinn Martin's Larry Cohen-created alien-impostors-on-Earth series, The Invaders, "The Ivy Curtain" (March 21, 1967) and "Inquisition" (March 26, 1968), as well as playing the unreliable associate of dwarf-like recurring villain mastermind Miguelito Loveless (Michael Dunn) in "The Night Dr. Loveless Died", the September 29, 1967 episode of The Wild Wild West. She also appeared in non-genre episodes of Thriller ("Choose a Victim", January 24, 1961, directed by Richard Carlson, the star of a number of 1950s sci-fi films, such as It Came from Outer Space) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (in the title role of "Annabel", November 1, 1962, scripted by Psycho's Robert Bloch from the novel by Patricia Highsmith, and directed by another actor, Paul Henreid.
In a brief footnote, twelve years after her Twilight Zone performance, Oliver was seen in one of the stories on the January 5, 1972 episode of the Rod Serling-hosted Night Gallery. In the 15-minute ghost tale "The Tune in Dan's Cafe", she is the unhappily-married wife of Pernell Roberts, as the couple experiences an emotional epiphany, triggered by the single song ("If You Leave Me Tonight I'll Cry", sung by Jerry Wallace) emanating from a cafeteria jukebox.
Oliver spent most of 1966 in the continuing role of the tragic Ann Howard on ABC's prime-time serial Peyton Place, and in 1967 had her a role in one of the first movies to portray the newly emerging counterculture, The Love-Ins. In the independently produced film, Richard Todd starred as a Timothy Leary-like professor who promotes himself into an LSD-advocating media star. He lures Oliver's character into his hallucinogenic world, impregnates and rebuffs her, causing her to suffer a breakdown. In response, her former lover, underground publisher James MacArthur, who has been supporting the demagogue in his paper, assassinates him at one of his mass rallies. Oliver's most memorable scene depicts her LSD "trip" in which she visualizes herself as "Alice in Wonderland". At the scene's abrupt conclusion, the image disintegrates as she tears off the remnants of her clothing. The sensational nature of the film caused it to be banned in the United Kingdom.
Oliver co-starred in three medium- to low-budget features released from 1968-69. She was one of two female leads in A Man Called Gannon, a western with Anthony Franciosa, which was a little-noticed remake of the 1955 Kirk Douglas vehicle Man Without a Star. It received spotty local distribution at the end of 1968 and into 1969.
The remaining two films, Change of Mind and The Monitors may be considered science fiction, although neither fits into the traditional definition of the genre. Change of Mind was filmed in Toronto by Robert Stevens, who had directed Oliver eleven years earlier in the episode of Suspicion. Despite the recently-found freedom of cinematic subject matter, the specter of implied miscegenation was still reflected in the prejudices of the period, thus consigning Mind to exploitation grindhouses upon its release on October 1, 1969.
Monitors, the last of the three titles, was released a week later, on October 8, 1969. The independently made, poorly distributed satire was filmed in Chicago by The Second City troupe and depicted derby-wearing, slogan-chanting aliens who pacify Earth "for its own good" by negating human emotions and turning America into a passive nation, which spends its time watching brainwashed celebrities appear in TV ads designed to perpetuate the regime. Guy Stockwell and Oliver starred as the leaders of an opposition underground dedicated to the overthrow of the ostensibly benevolent alien dictatorship. The numerous familiar faces in the film included Sherry Jackson, Larry Storch, Avery Schreiber, Keenan Wynn, Ed Begley and Peter Boyle, with "alien TV" cameo appearances by Alan Arkin, Adam Arkin, Xavier Cugat, Stubby Kaye, Jackie Vernon and even the gravelly voiced U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen, who died a month before the film's release.
At the start of the following decade, Oliver appeared in the first of her five made-for-TV-movies, all of which placed her in supporting roles. Carter's Army, co-scripted by Aaron Spelling, premiered January 27, 1970 as one of the entries on ABC's Tuesday night 90-minute Movie of the Week. Oliver, as the sole female member of the cast, appears in a 10-minute role as Anna, a war widow in 1944 Germany, helping captain Beau Carter (Stephen Boyd), a racially insensitive Southerner, and his all-black platoon capture a vital roadway over a dam. Following Oliver's controversial turn in Change of Mind, Carter's Army again (briefly) raises the flag of "forbidden" romance as Anna kisses the second-in-command, African-American lieutenant Wallace (Robert Hooks). Michael Weldon in his Psychotronic Video Guide write-up of the film's video version, Black Brigade, credits Oliver with "TV's first interracial kiss".
Third-billed in Carter's Army (after Boyd and Hooks), a year later Oliver fell to sixth (after Gene Barry, Lloyd Bridges, Diane Baker, Joseph Cotten and Sidney Blackmer) in her second made-for-TV film, NBC's Do You Take This Stranger?. The two-hour identity-switch suspenser, broadcast January 18, 1971, gave Oliver three scenes, but left most of the dramatics to the other cast members.
During 1975-76 she was a regular cast member of the soap opera Days of Our Lives and received her only Emmy nomination (for "Outstanding Performance by a Supporting Actress") in the 3-hour October 25, 1976 NBC made-for-TV movie, Amelia Earhart. Playing Amelia's (Susan Clark) friend and mentor, aviatrix Neta Snook, was a natural for Oliver, a genuine flying enthusiast who piloted her own aircraft. The two were further connected by a near-birthdate — "Snookie" (as she is called in the film), 80 years old at the time of production, was born on February 14 (1896) to Oliver's February 13. Neta Snook, who ultimately continued past her 95th birthday, died on March 23, 1991, outlived Oliver by ten-and-a-half months.
Oliver's final three theatrical features were dispersed between 1974 and 1979. In the first, 1974's Ginger in the Morning, she appeared with another rarely-seen black hairdo (apparently not a wig, since her hair stylist received a separate credit). Monte Markham was billed first and Oliver second, but audiences first saw her 45 minutes into the 90-minute film, which gave its real star fourth billing: "and Sissy Spacek as Ginger."
Three years later, Oliver had a supporting role in a theatrical movie, an obscure Spanish-made item entitled Nido de viudas, which was barely shown in Los Angeles in December 1977 as Widow's Nest. Despite a cast which included Oscar winners Patricia Neal and Lila Kedrova, the film quickly disappeared and has remained obscure.
At the end of the 1970s, Oliver appeared in her last theatrically released motion picture. It was a reunion with her old friend Jerry Lewis in his self-directed comeback vehicle, Hardly Working, in which she was second-billed as Jerry's long-suffering sister. Following the pattern of her earlier dramatic turn in The Disorderly Orderly, this role was a straight one, as the better part of an unhappy comedy which sat on the shelf for over two years before receiving a perfunctory release in 1980-81.
By the late 1970s, with acting assignments becoming scarcer, Oliver turned to part-time directing. In 1977, twenty-eight years after her early experiences in Japan, she wrote and directed Cowboysan, a short film which presents the fantasy scenario of a Japanese actor and actress playing leads in an American western.
Oliver also directed several TV episodes, including the October 25, 1982 installment of M*A*S*H and the December 4, 1983 entry of one of its sequel series, Trapper John, M.D., whose title character was her former Night Gallery co-star Pernell Roberts.
Oliver continued to act through the 1980s, playing supporting roles in her final two films, Tomorrow's Child and International Airport, both TV movies made for ABC. "Child," broadcast on March 22, 1982, was the second of two consecutive TV films about the then-sensational topic of surrogate motherhood (the first one, CBS' The Gift of Life was seen on March 16). "Airport," shown on May 25, 1985, was an all-star unsold pilot integrating multiple stories and characters into a plot-driven mix of suspense and danger at a giant airport. Produced by Aaron Spelling, it had most of the multi-star elements typical of his successful shows Fantasy Island and The Love Boat, which had already hosted Oliver in its January 24, 1981 episode.
In Oliver's last fully active year, she also appeared in the February 21, 1985 episode of Magnum, P.I. and two episodes of Murder, She Wrote, March 31 and December 1. The February 12, 1987 episode of Simon and Simon
The January 10, 1988 episode of the NBC domestic drama Our House and the November 6, 1988 episode of the syndicated horror anthology Freddy's Nightmares. In the "Nightmares" hour-long entry "Judy Miller, Come on Down," she appears in the second half-hour as a mysteriously gloomy maid who arrives at the young title character's home and reveals herself to "Judy" as seemingly her own gray-haired future self. In Oliver's final scene, she turns away from "Judy" and leaves the house, disappearing into the fog.
After surviving a 1966 plane crash which almost took her life, Oliver co-piloted her Piper Comanche to victory in 1970 in the 2760-mile transcontinental race known as the "Powder Puff Derby", which resulted in her being named Pilot of the Year.
In 1967 she became the fourth woman to fly a single-engined aircraft solo across the Atlantic Ocean and the second to do it from New York City. She was attempting to to fly to Moscow, her odyssey ended in Denmark after the government of the Soviet Union denied her permission to enter its air space. Oliver wrote about her aviation exploits and philosophy of life in an autobiography published in 1983 as Odyssey: A Daring Transatlantic Journey.
A heavy smoker, Susan Oliver died from lung cancer in Woodland Hills, California on May 10, 1990.
Her age at death would appear to have been 58, but in the city of her birth, The New York Times obituary stated that she was 61 years old. Virtually all older editions of printed reference works have perpetuated outdated biographical details, giving her birth year as 1936 or 1937 although, according to the (relatively minor) The Times obit, the actual year would have to be 1929.
As of the 2000s, the majority of biographical references have accepted 1932 as the most likely year. Additional details have been provided by the passenger manifest of USAT General Daniel I. Sultan, and Swarthmore College registration records. The manifest listed Charlotte Gercke as departing Yokohama, Japan on May 28, 1949 and arriving in San Francisco on June 7. Her age on the manifest was given as 17, confirming the birth year as 1932.
Swarthmore records indicate that a student named Susan Oliver, born February 13, 1932, attended classes from September 1949 to May 1950.