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Joey Heatherton: TV's Young Dancing Vixen, Then And Now

Icons | August 23, 2019

Left: Joey Heatherton in a publicity portrait, circa 1965. Right: In 'My Blood Runs Cold,' 1965. Sources: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images; IMDB

Joey Heatherton, a '60s-style sex-kitten often compared to Ann-Margret, was all over the TV airwaves for a time. She was an in-demand singer, dancer, actress and personality for such programs as The Dean Martin Show and The Mike Douglas Show, a style of TV entertainment that is now extinct. Despite Heatherton's ubiquity back then -- entertaining troops in Vietnam with Bob Hope, the whole nine yards -- you just don't see her work at all anymore.

Anyone who was around to see Joey Heatherton in her prime, to see her slink her 5'5" frame around a stage while she sang “I’ve Got Your Number,” knows the magnetic power that she held. Born and raised in Rockville Centre, New York to a pair of performers, Joey Heatherton was imbued with the preternatural radiance that people in the biz call “star power.”

She spent the ‘60s and ‘70s dancing on TV shows, and performing for the USO, but as the decades went on she was marred with scandal and slowly drifted from the public eye. 

Her Appearances On TV In The ‘60s Drove Guys Wild

Left: Nick Adams and Joey Heatherton in 'Twilight of Honor,' 1963. Right: Heatherton in an undated publicity photo. Source: IMDB

Heatherton has been performing from a young age, but her first noticeable role came on a 1960 episode of Route 66 when she guest-starred as a rich brat with a “sexy-kid look.” From there she started dancing on shows like Hullabaloo and The Tonight Show where she famously taught Johnny Carson how to do The Frug. Critics referred to her sensual demeanor as “sleazy eroticism,” and she was often haunted by the critique that she was an Ann-Margret knock-off, but that didn’t stop her from earning fans who couldn't get enough.

From TV Guest To TV Hostess

Left: Heatherton on the cover of TV Guide in 1965. Right: Heatherton on the poster for 'The Happy Hooker Goes To Washington,' 1977. Sources: millionmagazines.com; IMDB

Keep in mind that Heatherton wasn’t just a saucy dancer on late-night TV, she also took on a number on dramatic guest star roles on shows like The Virginian and I Spy, but her biggest television break came in the summer of 1968 when she co-hosted Dean Martin Presents the Golddiggers with Frank Sinatra Jr. For a while, it seemed you couldn’t turn on a TV in the 1960s without seeing Joey Heatherton’s face and figure. 

She Put Her Life On The Line During Bob Hope’s USO Tours

source: missjoeyheatherton

Even though she was taking on television guest roles and dancing on whatever show wanted her, Heatherton also found time to entertain the troops during Vietnam. Between 1965 and 1977 she performed with Bob Hope's touring USO troupe where she sang, danced, and hung out with the boys overseas. While in Vietnam with the USO tour Heatherton performed on a makeshift stage while putting her life on the line to give the US troops a brief respite from the war.

During a trip to Danang Heatherton barely survived an enemy assault while on stage - she literally had to be carried to a helicopter. She remembers:

We were literally surrounded (by the Vietcong). An aide picked me up… while I was on stage he picked me up and carried me, ran with me to a helicopter. We were taken to a plane and all of a sudden we were in the Philippines. I looked down and I had mud all over my feet and legs.

The attack didn’t stop Heatherton from performing, although she says that the constant threat of danger definitely freaked out some of her fellow performers:

There was mortar firing… and you could hear it. You certainly knew what was happening. You could feel the vibration. I remember Les Brown running into a tent and saying, ‘It doesn’t me. It doesn’t bother me… bother me… bother me…”

As scary as things were during Heatherton’s time in Vietnam, she continued to entertain the troops until the war ended. 

In The ‘70s, She Continued To Branch Out

source: pinterest

After spending a decade on the small screen, Heatherton started moving into different kinds of entertainment in the 1970s. She appeared in TV ads for RC Cola and Serta mattresses while performing in Las Vegas. She had a pretty big year in 1972 thanks to the release of her debut LP The Joey Heatherton Album while appearing in the film Bluebeard with Richard Burton, Raquel Welch, and Sybil Danning.

Heatherton didn't have the greatest luck with the film, which is probably why she's less well known today than many of her peers. Though she'd been appearing on the big screen since 1963's Twilight Of Honor, she never had a role in the sort of movie that would stand the test of time. In fact, her best-known movie credit might be as Xaviera Hollander in The Happy Hooker Goes To Washington, from 1977 -- thanks, Cinemax.

Two singles from her album, a cover of the Ferlin Husky song "Gone,” and the track "I'm Sorry" both spent time in Billboard's Hot 100. Three years later she and her father hosted the mid-summer replacement series Joey & Dad, a variety show where the two performed together while her father reminisced about his life. Even though she was only in the second decade of her career, Heatherton was already looking back on her life. 

By The Late '70s, Heatherton's Career As An Entertainer Was On The Wane

Left: Heatherton on the cover of 'Silver Screen' magazine in the 1960s. Right: Heatherton the bikini babe. Sources: Pinterest; IMDB

After her divorce from Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Lance Rentzel in 1972, Heatherton slowly started to recede from the public eye. She co-hosted Joey & Dad for four weeks in 1975, and Happy Hooker came out in 1977, and after that, she more or less stopped acting. In the mid-‘80s, she once again entered the public eye for a string of minor offenses ranging from skipping out on a hotel bill in Long Island and slapping a clerk at Manhattan's U.S. Passport Agency office. But the most out of character moment occurred in 1986 while she was at the home of her drummer, Jerry Fisher.

Heatherton Ran Into Some Trouble In The ‘80s

Left: Troy Donahue and Joey Heatherton in 'My Blood Runs Cold,' 1965. Right: Heatherton in an undated publicity photo. Source: IMDB

Some sources say that Fisher was her ex-boyfriend, or that he was her manager for a short period of time, but a report from the Milwaukee Sentinel from September 1, 1986, refers to Fisher as her drummer - although after the events at his house he was likely her ex-drummer before long. Heatherton was charged with stabbing Fisher in the hand with a serrated steak knife at his home in Suffern, New York. She was also charged with possession of cocaine. Fisher didn’t pursue charges against Heatherton so both charges were dropped.

Thanks To John Waters, Heatherton Returned To The Big Screen

Joe Dallesandro and Joey Heatherton in 'Cry-Baby,' 1990. Source: Universal Pictures

John Waters, the pope of sleaze, has always had a special place in his heart for stars from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Still, it’s wild to think about Joey Heatherton winding up anywhere near a film by the director of Pink Flamingos. In 1990 she made a brief appearance in Cry Baby, Waters’ love letter to rockabilly music and the teenage crimewave movies of the 1950s. She plays a religious fanatic, and she’s so dressed down that it’s to recognize that it’s her.

The ‘90s showed that Heatherton was finished with the media, and in 1997, at the age of 53, she appeared nude in the April issue of Playboy. If you’re a fan of that kind of thing then it’s something that you definitely want to seek out. Like anyone Heatherton has had her ups and downs and run-ins with the law, it’s just that hers have been in the public eye. However, her work always seems aimed at making people happy, so hopefully, we haven’t seen the last of this dancer from upstate New York. 

Tags: Joey Heatherton | Ladies | Then And Now | What Did She Do?...

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.