Diana Rigg crashes America's sitcom scene.
In show business, the truly rare animal is the actress who is devoted to her craft, flexible enough to extend her talents into all media and who can still stand as an independent spirit; as a person who owes no one and who isn't afraid to stand up and be counted. So, we can all thank our lucky stars that there is Diana Rigg, who not only embodies the aforementioned qualities, but who epitomizes the spirit of the modern sexual mores and emerges as a sort of pop-culture, ultra mod, female Zeitgeist, much as Harlow and Monroe did in their generations. Of course Diana (somehow "Ms. Rigg" just doesn't suit) has a lot more in the line of credentials than do most stage and screen femme fatales. She's an accomplished Shakespearean actress and a well-schooled Greek classicist. Her appearances on TV, stage and in films have been met with praise for the most distinguished critics on both sides of the Atlantic. In a relatively short period (considering she's under 35) Diana Rigg has attained the status of a much older professional.
"And with all of my past credits, I guess doing American situation comedy is the next natural step," Diana recently told SHOW. She was referring - in case you haven't read our fall TV preview - to her new NBC series, Diana, which may well launch her to new heights, as a tonic for viewers who have begun to tire of Mary Tyler Moore, Lucy and Doris Day. The lure being that she is not only popular and accomplished, but imported, exotic and totally unlike the American breed of woman TV audiences have been accustomed to watching week in and week out. This is NBC's trump card in its gamble to have a top-rated show in Diana.
"I guess my personal reason for turning to this new venture is to satisfy my continuing yen for variety in my work," Diana told SHOW, during a break in the filming of Diana. "I've done everything from King Lear to The Avengers and now it's time for a change. Though I really don't see the character I play in the series as a femme fatale. She's supposed to be a British divorcee who works in a large Fifth Avenue department store as a fashion coordinator. The gimmick of the show is her social life. Diana Smythe - that's the name the writers came up with - has a brother who gave her his apartment when she came to the U.S.A. and he left New York. She settles down comfortably before discovering that he had dispensed quite a number of house keys. So, there appears from time to time a parade of unusual characters in and out of the place as Diana tries to survive and flourish in a new and culturally different environment.
"In the first episode I actually ended up in bed with a total stranger who turns out to be a friend of my brother, a key holder who hadn't heard about my taking over the apartment. So, you see, the show does have a little zing to it," she said.
That "little zing" was something unheard of several years ago on TV, even when married couples were depicted as sleeping in twin beds with a night table between them, and you wondered how they ever managed to have children, what with all the obstacles.
"Anyway, as I started to say," Diana continued, "I don't see myself as a femme fatale. I can play one on the stage, but I don't think that's the kind of image I project. I think anyone who sees Diana Smythe as a seductress is reading that in - projecting their own desires into the role. Emma Peel, the character I played in the old Avengers series, was more of a seductress and I do think it takes awhile for an old TV image to wear off. Maybe it won't, but I don't think it matters. The series will win or lose on its own merits.
"After the first season, I think I will have enough stamina to take a quick hiatus and go back to the theater and do something smashing - really big," she said. "I think being a big name in television, especially here in the States, I would be bigger when I return to my native territory, which is the National Theatre back home."
That native territory, England, was always home to Diana (who started life in Doncaster, a village in Yorkshire), even during her eight-year sojourn in India, when her father, a civil engineer, was called in for a government project. Jodhpur was a far cry from the streets and alleyways Emma Peel would one day be dashing about in, or the British castles of Lear and Macbeth.
"I guess I started to crave a theatrical career when I was very young. My parents sent me back England to boarding school until my father's project was finished and they returned. Immediately after I finished at Fulnecks Girls School I enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. As a 'shorty' (I was only five feet eight), I had a bit of difficulty getting decent roles," she said with a smile, "and so I turned to modeling for awhile until some repertory parts came up. A stint in 1959 with the Royal Shakespeare COmpany was what I guess you would call my big break."
With her sultry yet moving portrayals of Helena [Midsummer Night's Dream], Adriana [Comedy of Errors] and Cordelia in Lear, Diana's reputation was made. She backed these up with critical acclaim for her efforts in Ondine, Becket and The Devils. These notices led her to British television and a series called The Hothouse, and subsequently launched her as the cat-like espionage agent Emma Peel in the highly touted Avengers series opposite dapper Patrick MacNee. So Diana was on her way to black leather suit and karate stances. The Avengers proved to be so popular that it is still in world wide syndication, which may lead to the pleasantly embarrassing situation of Diana Rigg playing opposite herself at the same day and time in two different series.
Be that as it may, Diana is not one to rest on her laurels, and is very high on her new project, as the following exchange indicates:
SHOW: What is it about this new, American-made series, Diana, that excites you so?
DIANA: For one thing, it was created by Talent Associates just for me... hand tailored, so to speak. It's the first time that a role has been molded around my talents rather than the other way around.
SHOW: I read in Oui magazine that you said that you were only doing the series for six months then go back to England to rejoin the National Theatre? How can you get out of the series if it becomes a hit?
DIANA: That was a poor job of reporting or editing on the magazine's part. What I said was that I wanted to split my year - doing six months here on the series, because that is all the time it takes to do 36 episodes per season, and then when I'm not shooting the show I would spend my off-camera months with the National Theatre Company of which I am still an active member. I would do the series as long as it runs. I never said that I would only do six months then flee the country.
SHOW: Getting back to the new series, do you feel the weight of Emma Peel on you shoulders? The Avengers is still a hot item on the American TV scene. Won't people confuse the two Diana Riggs?
DIANA: I don't think so. The character I play in the new show is a fashion coordinator - a sort of British Mary Tyler Moore. Of course, I think that's oversimplifying it, but you get the idea. Emma was more of a macho character with the leather and boots. There were a lot of Freudian overtones to Emma... fetishism and the like, that just isn't in the new series. Diana Smythe, the fashion coordinator, is a fresh, healthy-minded girl who has just come to America and has a lot of interesting and humorous adventures.
SHOW: Speaking of just coming to America, how do you find the transition from Picadilly to Hollywood?
DIANA: Well, it's not as much of a shocking transposition as you might imagine. I have friends who live here and I know people in the business, so I'm not lost. My husband and I have located ourselves in a cozy spot and we're both happy with the new arrangement. And I've been here before, so American culture has no surprises for me. I've lived in Greenwich Village and I've lived in Los Angeles. After those experiences, nothing shocks me.
SHOW: You mentioned your husband. We were under the impression that you are opposed to marriage. What happened?
DIANA: Who happened, you mean. His name is Menachem Gueffen, and he's a very well-known artist abroad. He's Israeli and does magnificent work. I think we'll soon have a showing of his work in Los Angeles. That will be a treat for the Americans.
SHOW: How long have you known him?
DIANA: We met at a party in London about five months ago and just started seeing each other more and more.
SHOW: Was this the cause of your breakup with Philip, your friend of eight years?
DIANA: No, that relationship was long done and over when I met Menachem. I didn't mention it to the Oui interviewer because I didn't want to discuss my new relationship at the time. We just didn't want the publicity then, but now that we're married it's all about us, so I can discuss it. We're very happy, of course. Luckily, he's an artist. Menachem can work anywhere in the world that we happen to be. That is a distinctive advantage in this business, where you move from one place to another several times a year. Menachem still keeps up his Israeli residency and his British one too.
SHOW: When you went to work on the new show, Diana, did you encounter any difficulty playing a fashion coordinator?
DIANA: Certainly not! I used to be a model, you know, so I was fully aware of what fashion coordinating entails. What does get me a bit confused is the American sense of humor.
SHOW: You mean you have trouble playing a scene that you don't fully understand?
DIANA: Something like that. It's important when you do comedy to get the timing right, and it's hard to time something that doesn't seem funny to you, but I'm getting the knack of it slowly. I'm just accustomed to the dryer, more subtle British humor.
SHOW: How are you adjusting to the TV series grind in Hollywood? When you're finished working from six in the morning 'til ten at night, five days a week, do you just go home and collapse?
DIANA: Sometimes. But I do like the weather out here. I have always liked to swim and now my schedule is such that I can do it every day, outdoors. I also cook, cook, cook - everything. You name it, I cook it.
A bell rang somewhere in the studio. Time for the star to the set for the filming of Diana. Quick goodbyes and she was off, trailing the clouds of stardust.
She left us musing on the ephemeral, ever-changing nature of the actor's craft. Since that first season with the National Theatre, Diana Rigg has been many women - Cordelia, Helena, Ondine, Emma Peel, to name just a few, and she has invested all of them with brief yet sparkling lives that have earned her an international reputation as an actress of major stature.
Now, like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, she has been again transformed for her new NBC series into a glamorous sophisticated career woman - a whole new incarnation of sorts.
And, if the network has figured correctly, it might very well be the British in her that will make the difference ratings-wise and will insure Diana Smythe a happy and long, long life.