Superman & Me

PUBLISHED: 13:49 30 September 2008 | UPDATED: 15:29 20 February 2013

Sarah Douglas today:Traffic wardens watch out

Sarah Douglas today:Traffic wardens watch out

Sarah Douglas became a screen icon after playing the leather-clad super-villain Ursa in Superman and even gave Joan Collins a run for her money as 'British bitch' Pamela Lynch in the American TV soap opera, Falcon Crest. She went on to star in a s...

IN THE late Seventies and early Eighties, Sarah Douglas was the toast of Hollywood. Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve ... she worked with them all.

As the leather-clad super-villain Ursa in the blockbuster movies Superman and Superman II, she became an unorthodox pin-up for a whole generation. She was no less memorable as the treacherous Queen Taramis opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Destroyer or as the shoulder-padded super-bitch Pamela Lynch in the American TV soap opera Falcon Crest.

When she dined out in Los Angeles, she was met by crowds of jostling fans and was invited on to every chat show in America. She even met the Queen at a top film premiere and dropped into the White House to meet the then President, George Bush Snr.

And then she reached a certain age and, as is the way with Hollywood, work began to slow down. Besides, Sarah, who was now in her early fifties, realised she had tired of Los Angeles' superficial values and missed dear old Blighty. It was time, she thought, to consider setting up a base back in the old country, and eventually fetched up in Brighton, where she now spends part of her year.

"I love it here," she says, curling up in her elegantly furnished flat situated in a Victorian terrace in Brighton's West Hill district.

"A friend told me you can never feel lonely here and it's true. Every Christmas, my corner store throws a party for the local community and I love the fact that within a spit you can be up on the South Downs."

It's more than 30 years since Sarah blazed across movie screens as the imperious Ursa, the sidekick of the equally villainous General Zod (Terence Stamp) and Non (Jack O' Halloran). But at 55, she has retained her high cheek-boned beauty and enviably slim figure.

However, she is somewhat more voluble than the formidable Ursa, barely pausing for breath or, indeed, my next question. And she's a bundle of energy, too, whether she's kicking a leg in the air to punctuate a point or darting across the room to show me her old press cuttings and publicity photos.

Sarah was just 27 when she beat more than 600 actresses to the Superman role, although it was something of a miracle because her audition was postponed eight times. When she did finally audition, she says she was so tired and cranky it came across in the read-through, and, ironically, it was just the mean streak the casting directors were looking for.

Large parts of Superman I and II were shot back-to-back at Pinewood and Shepperton studios and her very first scene was with the legendary Marlon Brando, who was paid $3.7 million for just two weeks' work.

"We were very aware that he was the greatest living film actor and I felt very intimidated. But he had no airs or graces and loved to pull pranks. He sat me on his lap on one occasion and I remember thinking: 'Do I sit on his enormous belly or perch on his knees?'"

As for her other co-stars, Gene Hackman was a "regular guy" who took her to the theatre, and Terence Stamp, who hadn't acted for years because he'd been living in an ashram in India, was "quiet, spiritual and drank mint tea" - well, when he wasn't shocking her with stories about Julie Christie and his other glamorous ex-girlfriends.
She is slightly more ambivalent about Superman himself, the late Christopher Reeve - who, she claims, was somewhat different from his public image.

"I've never really spoken about Christopher because he is no longer here to defend himself. But I used to be continually asked about him and, choosing my words carefully, would always say he was very much like [his alter ego] Clark Kent - a real gent. Very polite and perhaps a little dull.
"But I've got to say, I suffered a lot of back injuries on Superman and could only walk for about an hour on the wires and then had to have an hour off. And Christopher didn't take too kindly to the fact that this slowed things down ... so it was a bit tricky.

"As far as a warm, generous, kindly human being ... I don't remember that. It isn't that I've got anything terrible to say about him because I haven't. I never really knew him that well. I socialised with everybody else, but not with him. But at the beginning he was a very fresh-faced young American and at the end it was difficult. He definitely got caught up with his own image and did, without question, become a little 'Christopher Superman Reeve'."

She adds that for many years she thought she was the only one who didn't hold quite so many glowing memories, but years later she got talking to Dave Prowse, best known for playing the Green Cross Code man and Darth Vader in Star Wars. He had helped Reeve bulk up for the Superman role and she claims he had found him pretty awkward, too. And when she later told the story to Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), she allegedly responded: "Oh, he was a right pain in the backside."

"I was so relieved that somebody else had found him tricky. It was difficult because you don't want to speak ill of somebody who has had a terrible accident. But my understanding is that [after the injury] everybody said he was a changed man and became an incredibly humble and generous guy. I have nothing ill to say of him."

Sarah's striking image in the Superman films has entered cinema iconography, but she says she threw away a golden opportunity. "Nowadays, I would have marketed that look, but when I took my wig off at the end of a day's filming I thought nothing more about it. I actually had quite long hair tucked beneath that short wig, but nobody advised me to cut it and when I wasn't filming I didn't look remotely like my character.

"I remember walking down a corridor with Gene Hackman at Pinewood Studios and passing a photograph of me looking terribly keen and nice with long hair. I said: 'She's rather pretty, isn't she?' and he said: 'Oh, do you think so?' He hadn't the faintest idea it was me."

Sarah attributes her relatively poor self-promotion skills to her very English upbringing. The younger of two girls, she was brought up single-handedly by her mother who worked as a physiotherapist for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon.

She grew up surrounded by famous actors. Ian Richardson helped her audition for the National Youth Theatre, she took elocution lessons with Paul Scofield and the singer Paul Robeson kept an eye on her at her mother's request on the school run.

It's scarcely surprising that she caught the acting bug and she breezed into the Rose Bruford drama school, rapidly outshining most of her peers. But that wasn't the only reason she stood out. At weekends, she led a jet-set lifestyle in London with her glamorous actor friends, and would later regale envious college pals with stories of how she'd met Noel Coward, drank champagne with Maggie Smith and dined with Twiggy and Justin de Villeneuve.

It seems everything fell into her lap. Dropping out of drama school, she went straight into film, landing a part in the science-fiction movie The Final Programme (1973), adapted from Michael Moorcock's novel. Others parts followed in the TV series The Inheritors (1974) and The Brute (1977), a controversial film in which she played Julian Glover's abused young wife.

Then came the fantasy adventure film The People that Time Forgot (1977), now considered a cult classic.
Ironically, her career cooled after Superman - partly because she repeatedly turned down similar roles to avoid typecasting and partly because her priorities changed when she married her long-term boyfriend, American actor Richard LeParmentier, best known for playing Admiral Motti in Star Wars.

She was eager to start a family, but when no babies materialised he encouraged her to go to America to try to reignite her career. She left Britain in 1982, deciding to give it three months, and on the day she was due to return landed a part in Falcon Crest, CBS's answer to Dynasty, which went out on primetime TV every Friday night. The show's PR team wasted no time in capitalising on her bad-girl image, branding her the 'British bitch' and dressing her in leather and suede with big hair and shoulder pads.

"They cooked up a smouldering feud between me and Gina Lollobrigida, even though I barely knew her. And I was constantly being pitched against Joan Collins, my opposite number in Dynasty.

"I remember being asked what it was like to be compared with her and I said I wished I had her money and beauty, but why would they compare us because she was 20 years older? That headline followed me around every talk show in America and she took terrible affront. That I found difficult."

After two years she jokes that her hair, which had got higher and higher, had nowhere left to go and she left to pursue other projects, although, by then, Falcon Crest had already given her clearance to film Conan the Destroyer (1984) opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"Arnie was quite chauvinistic and liked a hug and a squeeze, but he had a wicked sense of humour and was more than kind. It doesn't surprise me in the least that he's governor of California. He was a very determined bloke and while the rest of us mucked about after filming, he was buying property and making the right connections."

It was while working on Conan that she met singer and actress Grace Jones, who remains one of her closest friends and regularly stays with her in Brighton. "We just hit it off immediately. She's wonderfully naughty and exuberant. And contrary to her public image, she's no monster."

Friendships had assumed particular importance by this time because her marriage was disintegrating. When she lived in Britain, she was happy to play the 'little wife,' but when she got to America she suddenly had a team of people working for her and realised she didn't want to pick up her husband's socks any more.

After her divorce she threw herself into work with a renewed vengeance and throughout the Eighties and Nineties continued to play "evil wicked queens ... with different hats on". She appeared in a clutch of sci-fi TV series ranging from V: The Final Battle (1984) to Stargate SG-1 (1998), and featured in countless low-budget horror movies, which included The Return of Swamp Thing (1989), Beastmaster 2 (1991) and Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993).

These days, however, she readily admits that work is lean in the UK. "In the States, I can do a crumby film and get quite well paid for it, but over here my image is a leather-clad dominatrix from 30 years ago and getting over that is hard work."

But actually, there do appear to be some advantages to being a space-hopping super villain. "The only time people recognise me from Superman is when someone nicks my parking space," she says. "Then I do a very good line in sucked cheeks and flashing eyes." Enough to make even a Brighton parking warden back off ...

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