Actress Diana Muldaur laughs when reminded that long before he was the Governator, or even the Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger shared his first onscreen kiss with her — in an episode of the television series The Streets of San Francisco.
“I must have kissed 500,000 men on camera,” she shrugs, reflecting on her 30-year career that included roles on L.A. Law, Star Trek (the original and The Next Generation), The Tony Randall Show, Born Free and McCloud.
Among all those kisses Ms. Muldaur also served as the first female president of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. So it was that she was recently asked to tell her life story for the academy’s archives, emmytvlegends.org. The camera was trained on her again, this time in her living room in Edgartown, where she and her husband, producer Robert Dozier, moved full-time 11 years ago.
Her blonde hair cut short, wearing a loose white top and pants, the lively and elegant Ms. Muldaur had a confession. “I was never going to be an actress,” she said, recalling her childhood. “I just was good at it and I could make a living and vicariously be there to learn all the other marvelous things in the industry there were to learn.”
She had wanted to be a war correspondent. Curious about people and observant of the world around her, she might have used many of the same skills. “People have always fascinated me,” she said, adding that people-watching on the Fifth Avenue bus was a favorite pastime of hers growing up in New York city.
Instead of fodder for a news report, “that all becomes part of me when I act, all those observations.”
Ms. Muldaur rarely went to the theatre as a child, though her father was an admirer of Gilbert and Sullivan. “I think because I was deprived of it, I was a little more interested in it,” she told archives director and interviewer Karen Herman, who invited the Gazette to sit in on the interview.
Then came a school play, Mrs. McThing, a turning point for Ms. Muldaur. She played an old woman and had a marvelous time doing character work. From then on, she joined summer workshops and summer stock theatres.
“I was a terrible little snob. I would only do Shakespeare,” she said of her early theatre experience at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, where she majored in drama. After college, Ms. Muldaur moved to New York and studied under Stella Adler for six months.
“If she thought you had any talent she was brutal to you,” the actress said of Ms. Adler, from whom she learned the art of “bringing myself out.”
Ms. Muldaur also worked at the Circle in the Square Theatre and winter stock theatre in Puerto Rico.
In New York, Ms. Muldaur said, “I found that it was much easier to get a job on-Broadway than off-Broadway.” She appeared in the plays Seidman and Son, Poor Bitos and A Very Rich Woman.
With such success on stage, naturally Hollywood came calling. Ms. Muldaur got her start on the small screen, in the soap opera, The Secret Storm and on Dr. Kildare.
Her career took off, and Ms. Muldaur now finds herself fixed in popular culture in surprising ways: Part of her dialogue from an episode of Gunsmoke appears on Pink Floyd’s 1979 album The Wall. She appeared as a drunk in the pilot for Charlie’s Angels. Of Star Trek, Ms. Muldaur says, “It was one of the most creative, wonderful things I had ever done.”
And, of course, there was her performance as the polarizing Rosalind Shays on L.A. Law, who ushered in a new kind of woman on television. “The woman executive that had always been before [on television] was one that was really an assistant to a man,” Ms. Muldaur said.
“I felt there was a whole new woman coming on the scene,” she said, and Rosalind Shays was that woman. “If she had been a man, no one would’ve even noticed her.”
Still, it was a scene with her erstwhile lover (Leland McKenzie played by Richard Dysart) that fixed Rosalind in television history.
When he tells her he can’t marry her and doesn’t love her, she replies that she doesn’t resent him, pats his tie, hears the elevator beep and takes a header right into the shaft, leaving a stunned Mr. McKenzie listening to her scream.
That famous elevator scene took 10 takes and, luckily for Ms. Muldaur, was done by a stunt woman. Rosalind’s demise was kept a surprise and shocked viewers.
“I had no idea I was going down the elevator until I read it,” she said, adding that she had to keep up the ruse through countless interviews and pretend that her character would have a story line the following season. “I just was wonderful, I have to tell you. Wonderful. Nobody had any idea.”
Ms. Muldaur came up in an era when women were more objects than truly fleshed-out characters. “What bothered me the most was being called ‘the girl’ [by the men on the set],” she recalled. “Most of the people I know in Hollywood are men because I never worked with women. Very seldom worked with women.”
When Ms. Muldaur was elected the first female president of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 1983, it caused a stir.
“I wasn’t part of the good-old-boys’ network,” laughed the woman who had previously served as the actor’s representative to the board and as vice president. “It was very political, but it was fascinating to me.”
The New York branch of the academy had broken off and refused to speak to the three men who had been president before Ms. Muldaur. One of her goals as president was bringing New York back into the fold. Another was presenting a good Emmy ceremony. “I think everybody needs recognition for wonderful work and I think the fans love it,” she said.
“It’s also big business. If something wins an Emmy, it stays on longer.”
Another of her goals was dealing with the drug problem that had appeared in Hollywood.
“I think [drugs] impacted everything. It wasn’t just actors,” she said. Crew members had drug addictions, entire shows had to go off the air. From her leadership position, Ms. Muldaur fought to get drugs off the sets, a campaign in which she employed the help of Nancy Reagan.
She also had to handle the advent of cable and its impact on network television, a medium she loves. “I just think television is the most important thing that’s happened to us in history, possibly — of course, now it’s the computer.”
Now she focuses on her family, her animals and sailing. Her house at the end of a woodsy lane is not far from the Edgartown harbor. It dates to 1952, but after she bought her brothers out, she redid the majority of it.
“I wasn’t acting, so I had to create,” she explained. “The reason we act is because we observe and because we feel.”
The Vineyard has been a part of Ms. Muldaur’s life from the very beginning. She used to breed and show Airedale terriers from her home, but she has given that up. She works at the animal shelter now and she sails. And she intends to remain here through the very end.
“I’ll be the third generation dead here,” she said. “This was my world.”
Ms. Muldaur’s interview will be available for viewing on emmytvlegends.org within the next few months.