Joi Lansing: 'Beverly Hillbillies' Gladys Flatt And All-Around TV Bombshell
Joi Lansing was an actress and model popular in the age of the blonde bombshells, and while she didn't threaten the "Three Ms" -- Monroe, Mansfield and Mamie (Van Doren) -- she did amass an impressive number of acting credits on TV series of the '50s and '60s. Her highest-profile TV job was portraying Gladys Flatt, the sexpot wife of Lester Flatt on The Beverly Hillbillies. Though her TV appearances and pinup photos earned her legions of male fans, Lansing was unlucky in love, and died fairly young. This is her story.
In addition to her pinup and TV work -- which included appearances in over 100 episodes of scripted series -- Lansing appeared in upwards of 40 films. Many of these roles were classifiable as eye candy, including uncredited turns as "girl on beach" or "model," and some of her more substantial roles occurred in B-movies. But movie buffs will certainly remember Lansing from Orson Welles' Touch Of Evil. She appears in the infamous opening tracking shot in, delivering line, “I keep hearing this ticking noise inside my head!” The accumulation of credits with a handful of memorable moments helped earn her a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Of course, Lansing’s films always took advantage of her to-die-for body, however, the iconic blonde from Salt Lake City never posed nude in her career despite many overtures.
A Beauty From The Beginning
Lansing grew up a devout Mormon, although her parents divorced when she was young. Moving to Los Angeles with her stepfather and mother, she was immediately signed to a modeling deal with MGM at the tender age of 14. She finished high school on the studio lot, while appearing in small parts in numerous films. In the Judy Garland-Fred Astaire musical Easter Parade (1948), she played "Hat Girl;" in the Clark Gable-Loretta Young romantic comedy Keys To The City (1950), she played "Miss Garbage Truck;" in the classic musical Singin' In The Rain (1952), she played "Miss November" in the "Beautiful Girl" segment. The list goes on.
Lansing attended UCLA, where she caught the eye of a writer for The Bob Cummings Show. Over five years and 125 episodes, Lansing played Shirley Swanson on the series, which was also known as Love That Bob. Over those five years, she became a Hollywood glamour girl and a sought-after lady.
Trouble In Love
Despite finding success in Hollywood, finding a stable partner eluded Lansing for most of her life. She was married four times with two of the relationships ending after less than a year. The impulsive bombshell first wed at the age of 17 but the much too soon marriage fell apart not even a year later. The same was true for her marriage to Jerry Safron, a Columbia sales manager. Her most “successful” relationship with actor Lance Fuller made it a year and a half before inevitably ending in divorce. Her final marriage to an investment broker and her future manager allegedly became a marriage of convenience as they both explored their same-sex inclinations.
Even though Lansing fluttered from husband to husband, she did find time to explore the leading men of Hollywood. Her most famous conquests allegedly included Mickey Rooney, George Raft, and Frank Sinatra.
The Marilyn Monroe Of Television
While Lansing’s movie career never quite took off, she did act steadily on television for years. Many would remember her role as Gladys Flatt in The Beverly Hillbillies from 1963 to ‘68. Sadly, perhaps her best role was also the one least seen. In 1956 she worked with Orson Welles on “The Fountain of Youth,” which was intended to be a pilot, but was never sold. Instead, it aired as an episode of Colgate Theatre in 1958 -- and ended up winning a Peabody award. She also worked on Klondike and even made some records while working nightclubs as a singer through the early ‘60s.
Perhaps becoming pigeonholed as a hot blonde narrowed her career options. She remarked,
I was always known as a glamour girl, and categorized only as that. It was very limiting. Many gals in the industry have more talent than they’re given credit for. My being blond and curvy, you might say, was a kind of mixed blessing.
The deaths of Marilyn Monroe in 1962 and Jayne Mansfield in 1967 affected Lansing's mindset -- the age of the blonde bombshells with Barbie-doll figures and sculpted hair seemed to be ending in the late '60s. Lansing wasn't working as much, and Mamie Van Doren's career fell off a cliff as well. Americans' taste in music, fashion and film was changing rapidly in the late '60s, and a new breed of sex symbols would reign in the ‘70s, including Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway, and Raquel Welch.
Finding Love In Unexpected Places
Lansing’s uneven track record with men likely pushed her to look for love elsewhere. On the set of Bigfoot (1970), a low-budget horror film that would turn out to be her last, she met a woman named Alexis Hunter. Hunter was playing a monkey in the film, therefore, the scene was not as romantic as one might imagine. “Here I am in this monkey suit for such a low-budget stinker of a film," Hunter recalled. "They were gluing hair on my face, spray-painting me and applying these fake teeth. It was just awful. And in walks in this unbelievably beautiful human being. She sat right next to me as they did her hair and makeup. And she was so sweet. She didn’t take herself seriously. She was just like anybody. She just happened to be exquisite.”
The pair quickly fell in love. “I came into Joi’s life at a time when she was ready for the all-encompassing love I was able to give her. I think our love, the love I brought to her as a woman, was softer and safer than the experiences she’d had with the men in her life… and as her lover, I was committed to keeping it that way.”
Naturally, in the ‘60s same-sex relationships were forbidden for celebrities, so the pair came up with a ruse, pretending that Hunter was Lansing’s “sister.” “If anyone had known in Hollywood about our relationship, that would have destroyed her career,” said Hunter. “So we had to pretend to be sisters. Luckily, we both were blonde and had the same color green eyes. People bought it. And we were very discreet. We didn’t go to parties. We pretty much stayed to ourselves." The couple enjoyed three years of blissful romance before Lansing’s tragic passing from breast cancer in 1972 at the young age of 44.