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Katharine Ross Looks Back on Being a Young TV Star in the ’60s

Before Katharine Ross garnered an Oscar nomination for “The Graduate,” the actress was working in a San Francisco theater troupe and starting to catch fire with guest roles on TV in the early 1960s. She’s onstage on Valentine’s Day at the Malibu Playhouse production of A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters,” starring opposite her real-life husband, Sam Elliott.

Your first notice in Variety was for the San Francisco Actors Workshop production of something called “Twinkling of an Eye.”
And I’m not even sure that we even opened!

So it was more learning experience than thespian breakthrough?
It was where I learned I was bitten by the acting bug. But I actually learned a lot because we all did all of the jobs on the production from acting to ticket-taking to props.

Did your stage work lead to getting cast on television?
I did hear about a casting call for the TV series “Sam Benedict.” They were shooting in San Francisco and wanted to cast someone local. I had two very nice scenes with the star Edmond O’Brien, so that’s not too shabby.

You seem to have gotten several very meaty TV guest slots very quickly. Was it as easy as it looks on paper?
Part of being an actor is never knowing where your next part is coming from. My memory of reading Variety from that time is standing in the unemployment line. You read it and you see so-and-so is doing this and so-and-so is doing that and you wonder “Why am I torturing myself?”

It’s not a business for the easily discouraged.
I remember doing a screen test for the only film that Samuel Goldwyn Jr. ever directed: “The Young Lovers.” It was to star Peter Fonda but he wasn’t available to do the screen test with me so they brought in Chad Everett. He didn’t know that the role was cast and he was putting everything he had into the screen test. I didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth. I went through a series of sessions with a hairdresser to get my look the way Sam wanted it. When they were finished they had hacked off all of my hair. And they wound up casting someone else.

So it really wasn’t all fun and games to be a young TV star in the ’60s.
I’ll tell you what was great about it. It was a time when the old studio system was in its dying throes and they were just starting to try new approaches and the little $1 million budget films were being seen as the way to go. And that did turn out to be the progenitor of a great new era that eventually became the indie film movement.

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