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The 9 Lives of Julie ‘Catwoman’ Newmar
In the 1960s, Julie Newmar epitomized sex appeal, femininity and wit in her portrayal as Catwoman in the popular Batman television series.
As Batman’s femme fatale, Catwoman was the perfect villainess and vixen. Bringing a little sex, glamour and pizzazz to the campy, cult classic – arching her back in a long, sensuous stretch, wearing that sparkly, black bodysuit – Julie Newmar captured the hearts of male (and female) viewers young and old.
With beauty, brains and a charming sense of humor, Newmar’s career has spanned six decades, with countless notable television roles playing both comedic and supernatural characters in everything from The Twilight Zone to Columbo to The Monkees, to My Living Doll.
A choreographer, teacher, pianist, dancer, and model, Newmar has appeared in numerous movies like Serpents of the Nile, Slaves of Babylon, and the unfinished film Monsieur Le Coq, playing the ubiquitous love interest of Zero Mostel.
These days, Newmar runs her own real estate business, is an avid gardener and writer, and was recently honored with a Lifetime Achievement award at the Golden Globes Viewing Gala.
In commemoration of her upcoming 80th birthday this summer, Rock Cellar Magazine tracked down the sweet and insightful Julie Newmar, who graciously chatted with us at length about success, sexuality, spirituality, and her enduring legacy as Catwoman.
Rock Cellar Magazine: First off, congratulations on your recent Lifetime Achievement award honor.
Julie Newmar: We the actors are given the heaviest rewards for the productions and pictures we make, for these experiences people have watching in the theatres and on television. It’s heavenly to receive such loving feedback and to have people feel that way.
RCM: In 1961, you appeared as a mystery guest on What’s My Line? What comes to mind when you see footage from your early days on television?
JN: It’s interesting how those shows from 50 years ago come back, either on YouTube or on DVD, isn’t it? I remember on What’s My Line? they wore those eye protectors, but they had big holes in them (laughs).
We didn’t make as many apologies back then. But we also didn’t put the frayed part of ourselves in front of the public, either. It was easier to be relaxed on something like a game show and we quite decently behaved. Don’t you think? I mean, we dressed well and our hair was done. Our manners were nice, and if you watch the clip, do you hear the quality of speech from the host John Daly? Such elegant language and thinking, and we’re missing that today on television.
RCM: You played the role of the Devil in an episode of The Twilight Zone. What was it like working with Rod Serling?
JN: That’s another example of how elegant language and thinking was back then, in the case of that sweet man and creator. For what the show lacked in “spectacularness” – it was virtually nothing when it came to sci-fi effects and visuals – it was decently done. His concepts and his ideas were brilliant.
RCM: These episodes still hold up to this day, would you agree?
In the past, shows like The Twilight Zone reached the minds of children, purely, straight and directly into their imaginations. We didn’t feed them candy. We didn’t falsify things. And when I watch dramatic shows or entertainment today, I’m severely put off. I can’t watch more than 10 seconds, because I quickly realize how false the characters are.
That’s why I think we’ve fallen in love recently with shows like Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey. Much of it was set 70 years ago in the ’30s and ’40s, but there’s this emphasis on the inner morality of people. In other words, the pure goodness of each and every human being, even the ones with flaws. And those characters with obvious flaws, they eventually turn around in that wonderful British spirit and resurrect themselves.
And that’s what shows like The Twilight Zone, from 50 years ago exemplified. That’s why they have staying power, in a similar way to Star Trek and Gene Roddenberry.
RCM: Columbo is another classic television show you appeared on: your character was killed off in the episode Double Shock, with Martin Landau. Any recollections of working with Martin and Peter Falk?
JN: What I remember… was that the house we filmed in was on the same street as the one I lived on; up the hill and right on top is this beautiful house surrounded by a mini forest. A number of people have lived there, including many people I know, so actually that house is more familiar to me than the relationship I have with filming that show.
RCM: So in general, the details of filming particular roles isn’t what you might remember most?
JN: Yes. When you ask me about these shows I was on, from 40, 50 years ago, it’s funny what first comes to mind. Like The Twilight Zone? I remember how they had all those smoking commercials, or in the case of Columbo, I can vividly see that beautiful big house at the top of the hill.
RCM: Whereas fans want to know all the on-set and behind the scenes stuff?
JN: What’s wonderful is meeting people who are familiar with the whole episode who tell me about it! I find people telling me all kinds of tales and stories about the shows I was on, and what they meant to them. I take great joy in that. I just sit and listen and enjoy it through them – hearing about how much they loved something Peter Falk said or something Martin Landau did.
RCM: You have a dance background. Did you score your early film roles like Slaves of Babylon and Serpent of the Nile because of your dancing experience?
JN: Well yes – with Slaves of Babylon, I was just the best dancer of all they had to select from. Even at 16-years of age, what do you know? You can’t just be pretty and walk on stage. But there was great opportunity in southern California, in Los Angeles and Hollywood – I’m talking about the ’40s now – as the education and the arts were so vibrant here.
RCM: Why was the London-based film Monsieur Lecoq, starring you and Zero Mostel, never finished?
JN: I didn’t have the insight or knowledge of what went on behind the scenes. But I remember it personally being a grave disappointment to me, because I’d taken a lease on a flat in London for two years. I thought I’d go and be part of that scene there, but then I had to leave after six months.
It was so much fun working with someone at the talent level of Zero Mostel. He was a genius in comedy and art and painting, and it was such a pleasure to be his foil. I played all the women in the story – his inamoratas.
- Zero Mostel & Julie Newmar; photo: Terry O’Neill
RCM: Nude photos of you from the set of Monsieur Lecoq later appeared in the September 1969 issue of Playboy. Were those photos intentionally leaked?
JN: They didn’t tell me that there was a cameraman hidden on the set. I knew nothing about it; that was just an exploitation by the producers. Oh well. You would think they would have to have the actor’s agreement on that.
Zero Mostel and I were in and out of this faux marble tub for two weeks of shooting. I had no idea a photographer was there – I guess I’m either too nearsighted or was too concentrated in my work. These pictures that Terry O’Neill took are the only history we have of this unfinished film. Actually, the pictures are rather lovely. But I never posed for Playboy.
RCM: Tell us about your role as Rhoda Miller the robot on the short-lived sci-fi sitcom, My Living Doll?
JN: Oh boy, I loved the concept. So brilliant and so marvelous. Here’s a woman who is everything to a man. She has every quality that he could dream of, wish for, want, and yet she’s not real.
When comedy works, two co-stars should be able to let the juices flow naturally – sweet and saline, and come to the surface. I’m talking about the playfulness and the wonderful physicality of it as well, because humor really comes out of character. And if it doesn’t, the audience just sits there and they should turn the dial. And being up against a co-star like Bob Cummings, when you look at it, he was a living doll. It was almost a great show.
You know who they really wanted for the lead instead of Bob Cummings? They wanted Efrem Zimbalist Jr. I’ve always wanted to meet him and have him tell me his story of why he was not available to do that part.
RCM: One of the memorable scenes in My Living Doll came when your character plays Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu. You actually played that yourself, right?
JN: I studied from the concert pianist Dr. MacIntyre. That scene you’re talking about is the only film of me actually playing the piano. The Chopin piece was direct recorded in that one single take on the upright piano. Music was my first love and I think it’s the basis of good comedic timing.
RCM: Next you were cast in the role of Catwoman in the Batman TV series, and she quickly became the show’s most popular villain. Are you a little disappointed that that campy character is perhaps what you’re known best for?
JN: Catwoman is such a sweetheart engagement for me, and when I look back on it, I see how much people identify with that character. They see her as a strong woman who stands up for herself, who initiates things. I really quite like nearly all of her characteristics – she’s witty, she’s fun, and she’s delightful.
RCM: Tell us about that famous totally hot scene where you seduce Batman…
JN: I actually choreographed that scene myself for the producers. I come down the stairs and slide down a railing and it was all choreographed like a piece of dance. I had compassion for the producers, because when you’re shooting at 8 o’clock at night, you’re in the “golden time” or something, you’re into time-and-a-half. It’s extensive and I wanted to save them money, so I shared my ideas with the director and he said, “Yeah, let’s do it!” So we shot the whole thing in one take, and everybody went home happy about it.
RCM: It’s doubtful that any Batman viewer can ever forget this scene – the way you combine power, naughtiness, and vulnerability.
JN: When I watch that scene now, I can see that in seducing the male character how I had to bend my knees and make myself a little shorter, a little more vulnerable. By doing this, it allowed Batman to be the aggressor, even though the truth is, I was. But maybe that reflects everything we do in life.
There were times also where I noticed that I was being extra girlish in that scene. I think that’s something we don’t look upon greatly these days, as girls today are more tough – they have muscles coming out of their shoulders. They wear sleeveless tank tops now.
We were soft and feminine back then. You didn’t have all these masculine traits. Nevertheless, they can change but we all know that for something to survive in history, it has to be awfully good if it’s going to still resonate with people, 10, 20, or 50 years from now. A television series like Batman gets under your skin and it touches hearts. That’s why it endures.
RCM: Did you ever mind being the object of so many males’ affections?
JN: Oh no, it’s an honor to have touched people in the sweet depths of their feelings and to have stayed with them for so long. Especially when we are young, our first encounter with something is almost always more memorable. I’m the receiver of the emotional impact that Catwoman made on so many young lives, and I’m hugely grateful for the fans and to hear their individual versions of what my character meant to them. It’s absolutely heartwarming.
Men will walk up to me on the street and say, “Oh Miss Newmar, you were my first turn-on!” And I ask them, “How old were you?” The answers come back ever-earlier in age – from ten to eight to four.
That was very revealing to me, this attraction to the opposite sex – of course it starts with the mother – and then it evolves with all of those Freudian situations there…!
RCM: So Catwoman’s power to turn on still is flattering?
JN: Actually, I prefer not to use the term “turn-on” because I don’t want it to have any lasciviousness to it. I prefer the innocence of falling in love at an early age with, usually, the opposite sex. I love hearing what it was like, and people’s earliest memories of these personal experiences.
RCM: But certainly Catwoman’s appeal was sexual? Although even mainstream images on newstands now is probably worse, now – for kids?
JN: You’ve definitely got to keep kids away from the sleazy newsstands that are in your supermarkets. You have to walk them away fast and distract children from them, because you don’t want them exposed to this garbage too early.
Eventually they will see it, but you want that to start later rather than earlier. In the meantime you want to engender the idea of education, of learning, of questioning. You’ve got some great teachers out there who need to be in their lives, who can inspire them and aim for the high joy.
When it comes to television – I won’t condemn television; all it is, is messaging. I notice that actors like to think of themselves as mirrors of society. And we do need to be emotional mirrors, and as actors we are very quick to learn and know that.
But we’re also the canary at the entrance of the cage to a lot of deceptions and a lot of enticements.
RCM: You speak of “high joy.” Do you mean culturally, intellectually? Or spiritually?
JN: My family drove me to Sunday school and I had the most elevating, illuminating experiences for my soul – the higher place, the place where you connect to the be-all/all-knowing. As an artist, that’s where inspiration comes from. It’s like you took a pipe from the top of your head and you ask a question and it will be answered. And it will be very clear and clean, and healthy and joyous. And you know you’re getting the right answer if you ask a clear enough question.
So the spiritual part of the self – I really don’t know how one could be without it. If one is without it, and only has a great intellectual curiosity, then what do you have? The atheist Christopher Hitchens who died a year ago, there’s an example, there. Just as someone like Arnold Schwartzenegger can develop muscles, one can have the highest intellectual development, but be without the spiritual part of the self.
RCM: In your popular blog “Julie Newmar Writes,” you seem very curious about romance and love, and invite stories from your readers. Tell us about that.
JN: Love everyone unconditionally, is what I feel. That way, nobody can hurt you. You’re free, you’re not carrying any baggage and you’re not trying to fix something. It’s lovely and healthy. And you certainly don’t have to hang around if you see someone who is not where you want to be in life. That way, you don’t have to continue the inner or outer conversation.
RCM: Has being a celebrity from a young age had its challenges?
JN: I don’t know if it’s easier now or if I’ve internalized it, with a deep gratitude for all the things that have happened in my life. The family I was born into, the piano lessons, the dance lessons, and the voice lessons that my mother provided for me. They gave me all these things before I graduated from high school at 15, and gave me a strong enough career to stand on my own feet and be self-supporting.
[Julie Newmar as “April Conquest” in the laundromat with The Monkees]
RCM: Is it true that you also manage your own career?
JN: Absolutely I do. Perhaps I could use more management, but it actually took me a long time to realize I can actually do that. That’s when you really see who the people are who are looking after you, and your best interests. I’m very good on the internet.
RCM: In addition to your blog, you also maintain a website, and Facebook. Talk about that.
JN: Yes, I have something like 115,000 followers on Facebook, and they’re a lot of fun (laughs). I’ve learned to adapt and give and take what Facebook has to offer us, and the people we want to follow. That’s where all the news is. It’s the underpinnings of what we think of, where the shenanigans that go on in our political front doorstep lives, it’s what’s behind that door.
RCM: You often share your thoughts on American politics on Facebook…
JN: Well, something will excite me and I will want to talk about it, so I’ll comment. But nobody follows the things that excite me – maybe 50 people or something. ‘Course, then I’ll get 500 people who are sharing something that has to do with Catwoman – that’s what really seems to be so vibrant and electric amongst followers. (laughs)
RCM: Have you always been outspoken about politics?
JN: Yes, in the ’60s I was deeply involved and toured the country for [Sen. Eugene] McCarthy. I was passionately against the horrible Vietnam War and the things that Lyndon B. Johnson continued to do blindly year after year. And then Nixon; it was appalling what happened to this country.
RCM: And you always had an active interest, since you were young?
JN: I had a very good education in English class and social studies, so all of this was terribly relevant and important, and we were engaged in it and we knew about it, and we talked about it. It was part of who you were in this life. It mattered. We mattered as Americans in the most profound sense. We were free to express ourselves and complain and be heard. And I think we all feel that way here in this country, and luckily so. When you see what’s being done in places like Syria, we’re so fortunate to be Americans.
RCM: Were there any musicians you especially looked up to from the Greenwich Village music scene?
JN: I remember seeing Janis Joplin perform. The energy in the theatre was electric. She was electric. It was absolutely mind blowing, her with her cursing and her way of dress was what we were looking like – gypsies with holes in our jeans and tears in our hems of clothing. We fashioned ourselves to the political and musical world we were a part of back then.
RCM: Tell us about your book.
The book I wrote, The Conscious Catwoman – when I look back now, the pictures are lovely and the sayings are strong and fine, but that energy is now up on Facebook. And it excites me, as I always try to stay on the rim of this sense of joy and what is coming in the future.
I mean, ecstasy has always been what people have enjoyed most, when they say things to me like, “Oh, you were so hot as Catwoman.” I know what they’re talking about, because the public was right, I was hot. I am hot!
RCM: Yes, even as you approach 80. What’s your secret to longevity and happiness?
JN: If someone were to ask me how to be successful in life, I would say take care of what you have. Make what you have more and better. Just dig your own garden. Always, in a split second we compare ourselves to others and come out winning or losing.
- Photo: Michael G. Bush
My son John was born when I was 48, and I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, so I went back to college when I was 50. I went back to UCLA night school and studied everything I could in real estate and business, in order to get the left side of my brain to form anything like the right side. A lovely girl named Cindy Roark came to live with me and help raise him.
My business life is a busy one, so I’m turning around some properties. Not that I’m very good at it (laughs), but I try to make it work. Like I said, I try to make what I have more and better. That’s my plan looking ahead.
RCM: Do you think you’ll ever act again?
JN: I probably wouldn’t. I don’t want to compete with myself. People think of me and what I looked like 40 years ago, so forget it, I’m not going to do that. With age, you realize how much less time there is, therefore how important each and every thought is.
So we have to ask ourselves, “is that a valued thought I’m having? Shall I take that thought to the next step and the next step?” And if it isn’t, then I’ve got the mental scissors to cut it out and upgrade myself to the next level. I like very much the teachings of Abraham-Hicks. I’m a positive thinker so this really resonates with me, her teachings. It’s taken from the voice of a woman named Esther Hicks, and it’s so empowering.
I haven’t been sick since I’ve listened to her teachings, what she teaches, and all of life – Julie Newmar is more or less more or better. I believe there’s going to be more tomorrow, it’s going to be better, and we’re going to have more information and better technology for a better world.
RCM: With your 80th birthday around the corner, how do you define success these days?
JN: Age is especially rough on people once they’re over 50, because there are so many memories of how we were, and what we wore. And to be growing older in this world that is constantly changing can be very difficult. You can’t wear the same thing you once wore. Well I can, but maybe I shouldn’t? I’m not that person anymore.
But for me, I find it easy to let go of success, the kind of success I had as the Catwoman especially. Perhaps it’s because I’m still reaping the rewards of her impact, playing that role all those years ago. Every time I appear at a sci-fi convention it’s what I call “one big love-in.” You can’t imagine how it feels to see two young girls come up to your table dressed as Catwoman, nervous and shy, wanting to share a moment with you. It’s heavenly.
But “letting go of success” is a pretty heavy statement – and you probably have to qualify it — but I think it’s a very good thing. If you can let go of that kind of success and be fulfilled and happy where you are in the present, you’ve got a lot more coming your way.
Julie Newmar joins fellow “Batman” stars Burt Ward and Adam West at C2E2 Chicago Comic Expo – April 2013.
September 3, 2020
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