Lee Meriwether, TV Batman's Other Other Catwoman, Then And Now
Where do you know Lee Meriwether from? Depending on what kind of TV you watched in the ‘60s and ‘70s you could know her from anything from Batman to Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, and Barnaby Jones. If you’re a fan of the pageant circuit you know that she was Miss America in 1955. She appeared on some of the most iconic shows of all time, with guest appearances on fan favorite programs stretching from the late ‘50s to the 2010s. We may not think about Lee Meriwether as one of the all time greats but this will change that because this is a woman that has not stopped working since the director called action on her first role.
She never intended to become an actress
The incredible life of Lee Meriwether began in Los Angeles, California in 1935. She and her family moved to Phoenix when she was fairly young but they eventually settled in San Francisco. She had a fairly normal childhood and by all accounts wasn’t planning on getting into acting. She was attending school at San Francisco City College in 1954 when a fraternity entered her in the Miss San Francisco pageant. The beautiful green-eyed teenager took the title and then went on to win Miss California. Meriwether continued her winning streak when she took home the title of Miss America in 1955.
Lee Meriwether has always been here
After spending a year as Miss America Meriwether started popping on television throughout the end of the ‘50s. She had a stint on The Today Show but her first memorable role came in 1958 with the film 4D Man where Lee played the research assistant for a scientist who throws himself into a “fourth-dimeysionsal state” and starts killing people for their life energy.
Even though Meriwether wasn’t the breakout star of 4D Man she cultivated guest roles on memorable shows throughout the late ‘50s and and 1960s. She pops up in Dragnet, Leave It to Beaver, Dr. Kildare, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the list goes on and on. Her profile was raised significantly in 1966 when she returned to film in a role made famous on television.
She was the second Catwoman
In spite of her lengthy career full of starring roles and guests spots on beloved television programs throughout the back half of the 20th century, Meriwether is perhaps best remembered for playing Catwoman in the 1966 movie adaptation of the Adam West starring Batman series. The role was played by Julie Newmar during seasons one and two, but after injuring herself during the filming of season one producers deciders to bring on another actress to fill the role while Newmar rehabbed her back.
Meriwether makes the role her own in the film, strutting through the role like she was born to be Catwoman, but she says that when she initially went in for the audition she was unsure about whether or not she would stand out from the rest of the actresses in the casting director’s waiting room. She explained:
I was called in to come in [to audition] and I looked around at this room of actresses waiting to read, some very well-known, some not as well-known, or at least not to me anyway but zaftig and, you know, beautiful and I said 'Oh no, they aren't going to remember me from Adam.' So I thought I have to do something - and this is before you ever got lines ahead of time to work on… As I walked in I realized what I wanted to do - one, I changed my voice pattern, I talked up a little higher then, when I started as Catwoman, I dropped my voice down.
When she was asked who played her favorite Catwoman in an appearance on Space Ghost Coast to Coast Meriwether, cool as ever, said, “Eartha Kitt.”
Her appearance on Star Trek is iconic
If you were an attractive actress, dancer, model, or woman standing around in the Desilu offices during the 1960s you were cast on Star Trek. There are so many space babes on the show that standing out takes something special and Lee Meriwether definitely brings her intangible intertwined qualities of beauty and menace to her role as Losira, a holographic Kalandan commander who killed with a touch after saying “I… am for you.”
In the wrong hands this kind of role isn’t just campy it’s cringeworthy, but Meriwether wrings every bit of terror and pathos out of the role that she can find, turning “That Which Survives” into a must watch episode of television. When asked if she thought the role was silly she explained:
Oh, I loved it. I loved it. I thought it was perfect. It was the way Losira had to express that that’s what she had to do. 'I… am for you and I must touch you and you must die.' I knew that and yet I didn’t want that. It was the perfect line to express that Yin and Yang. I think it was a very inventive line of dialogue, a very inventive script. nd I thought the technology they used was fascinating. Nowadays they can do it like that, because we’re in this digital world. But in 1969, when we did Star Trek, they had to roll back the film so that I became three. It was just amazing, and it still holds up.
Lee Meriwether: the busiest woman in show business
Aside from her standout roles on Star Trek and in the Batman film Meriwether has appeared in pretty much every beloved show of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. She had recurring roles in Mission: Impossible, The FBI, Time Tunnel, and even showed up on the Batman TV show as Lisa Carson for two episodes.
Her longest running role began in 1973 when she starred as Betty Jones, the widowed daughter-in-law and eventual business partner of Barnaby Jones on the long running detective series. She appeared in 178 episodes of the show and was nominated for a Golden Globe as well as a Primetime Emmy Award for her work.
Throughout the ‘80s she made guest appearances on CHiPS, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and she even played three different characters on Murder, She Wrote. It’s clear that people love working Lee Meriwether. In the late ‘90s she had a career jolt when she was hired to take over the role of Ruth Martin on All My Children after a contractual breakdown between ABC and the original actor, Mary Fickett. In ’98 Fickett was brought back to the role, but when she retired in 2000 Meriwether was cast in the role again and stayed on until the series ended in 2011.
She’s still working
The 2010s were kind to Meriwether. Aside from finishing out the run of All My Children she appeared on cult favorite TV shows like Desperate Housewives, The League and Don’t Trust the B—— in Apartment 23. She continued working on various projects related to Batman and is likely to pop up in film and television when you least expect her.