Sally Todd: On Sammy Davis, Jr., Jerry Lewis, JFK… and her 1950’s Cult Films!
|Last Update: March 31, 2011|
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The luscious and provocative Sally Todd made a sizzling impression in a cluster of high-profile TV shows and low-budget genre films in the mid-to-late 1950s, and nearly set the nation’s TV and theater screens aflame in the process. With her gorgeous blonde looks and the kind of killer shape for which the phrase “Dangerous Curves” was coined, Sally put many a male moviegoer’s imagination—and libido—in overdrive. That her acting career was ultimately so brief, and was essentially over by the mid-1960s, is one of filmdom’s more unfortunate losses.
Born Sarah Joan Todd on June 7, 1935 in Boone, Missouri (but raised in Tucson, Arizona), she was an athletic child and was given the nickname “Sally Jo” by her parents, Harry N. Todd and the former Pauline Gentry. The beautiful, dark blonde and brown-eyed Sally Jo studied drama as a teenager, and at 17, she entered The Miss Tucson Beauty Contest in 1952 and won first prize, which was an all-expense paid trip to Hollywood. Once on the west coast, Sally began modeling for the ladies swim wear company Cole of California, and in the summer of 1953, she made her film debut among several other bathing suit beauties in a Jane Russell film for RKO called The French Line. In June 1954, Sally appeared in similar fashion at the 9th Annual Los Angeles Home Show, and in 1955 she joined models Phyllis Applegate, Theona Bryant, and Norma Brooks as the Carson Cuties on Johnny Carson’s New York-based TV-variety show on CBS.
Back in Hollywood in early 1956, Sally was offered a screen test with industry giant 20th Century Fox. As perhaps a possible threat to a discontented (and increasingly temperamental) Marilyn Monroe, the studio quickly signed the newly platinum blonde Sally to a contract with the intentions of grooming her for the type of sex symbol parts Monroe had begun refusing. Fox promoted their new starlet in the L.A. Times as “a young Lana Turner and much prettier than Marilyn Monroe”, and placed her in background roles in The Revolt of Mamie Stover (again with Jane Russell) and The Best Things in Life Are Free.
In mid-1956, Sally was widely touted in the press as being television’s highest paid model, and in June, she appeared in a fully clothed pictorial in Playboy. She was so popular with the magazine’s readers she returned to its centerfold au naturel in February 1957 as Playmate of the Month. (However, rather than posing topless, Sally displayed her shapely naked derriere, in a sexy, over-the-shoulder shot, instead.) Sally’s voluptuous 35-23-35 figure was also featured on several album covers and in countless pocket-size pulp magazines of the day, including Focus and Brief. Throughout the rest of the decade and into the early 1960s, her physical appeal was displayed beautifully on the small screen, where she appeared with everyone from Robert Stack (The Untouchables) and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (77 Sunset Strip) to Lee Marvin (M Squad) and Jim Davis (Rescue 8). In 1960, Sally even added an Elvis Presley film to her resume when she played the part of a German bargirl in G.I. Blues, the singer’s first picture after a two-year stint in the Army.
Among Sally’s most serious romantic relationships in Hollywood were her sometimes turbulent affairs with Dragnet’s hard drinking TV mogul Jack Webb and heartthrob actors Vince Edwards and Troy Donahue. She later married millionaire cabaret star Charles Cochran in 1961, but the marriage was short-lived. Soon afterward (and “on the rebound”, according to her), Sally married Bill James, a top amateur tennis player, but that marriage, too, was fleeting.
Sally continued to work in Hollywood during the 70s on TV series like Starsky and Hutch—but strictly behind the scenes, rather than as an actor. In 1980, she left Los Angeles and moved to the Santa Barbara area to care for her ailing mother. Thirty years later, Sally is still enjoying the Mediterranean-style climate and posh lifestyle of one of California’s most beautiful and idyllic locales.
These days, Sally is managed by award-winning concert pianist, composer and artist Peter Clark (www.artjazz88.com), and is planning a return to films with the lead role in the Clark-penned screenplay Checkmate: A Saga of Santa Barbara, which will also feature actress Elaine DuPont (best known for the 1960s cult horror film The Beach Girls and the Monster). Sally calls the story “a comedic farce”, while Peter Clark describes it as having “a little sex, a little intrigue, a little blackmail—no, a lot of blackmail, actually—an accidental murder…all the good things that everybody seems to like in movies.” Clark adds that efforts to finance the project are now underway.
Still stunningly attractive at 75, Sally is delightfully outspoken and honest, and freely admits that her star might have risen farther if her personal life hadn’t always taken precedence over her acting career. Thanks to a chance meeting in Hollywood recently with celebrity biographer Michael Barnum, Sally granted fellow writer John O’Dowd the following interview in 2010. Hopefully, her fun (and revealing) anecdotes here are but a tasty prelude to her upcoming memoirs, which Sally was in the process of finishing in January 2011.
Sally Todd: Pretty much, yes. When I first arrived in Hollywood in 1953 I got a job right away in a big picture, which was a great surprise to my agent…and to myself. The first film I did in the summer of ‘53 was The French Line with Jane Russell. The story took place on a cruise ship and it featured dozens of fashion models (of which I was one). It was also Kim Novak’s first picture. Even though I was brand new to the business and the so-called “new girl in town”, I got paid a ton of money to do that film. Believe me, it was a wonderful surprise.
After I did The French Line, I got two television commercials that same summer that were blockbusters, and then 20th Century Fox handed me a contract. I mean, it happened just that fast. Fox immediately put me in another Jane Russell film called The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956). The film co-starred Richard Egan and Agnes Moorehead and it was all about a bar over in Hawaii that was frequented by all these sexy, call girl types (although back in the 50s they had to call characters like that “hostesses”). I was one of the girls in the bar, and the film was a lot of fun. I recently had lunch with Jane Russell and it was great seeing her again after all these years. She’s nearly 90 now, and she is still going strong…she’s amazing. [author’s note: Shortly after this interview was completed, legendary actress Jane Russell died of a respiratory illness on February 28, 2011.]
One of the first TV shows I did as an actress was The Bob Cummings Show (which was later re-titled Love That Bob). I’m sure a lot of people remember it, or at least have heard of it, as it was quite popular at the time. Bob played a fashion photographer who was girl-crazy and he was always surrounded by a group of beautiful and sexy models in bathing suits. It was a wonderful show for me to start my acting career with—a very easy, light show, and Bob liked me so much in that first episode, he asked me to come back and do two more shows.
I played a cowgirl in the first episode and I hated it because all the other girls in the show were in bikinis and there I was stuck in a prim little cowgirl outfit. I thought it was so corny but I remember Bob telling me that he thought it looked cute on me. Bob was a lovely, lovely man and we had a great camaraderie together. He was originally from Joplin, Missouri, and although I was raised in Arizona, I was born in Missouri, so we would sit together on the set for hours while talking about all the little towns back home that he had seen. You would never think that the chic and debonair Bob Cummings, who had acted for Alfred Hitchcock in Saboteur and Dial M for Murder, was actually a corn fed Midwesterner, but he was.
Bob used to have a male masseuse come out to the set every day because he had a chronic back ailment, and he would have this guy give me back massages, too. All the other girls in the cast were so jealous of that. What a nasty and bitchy bunch of girls were on that show. [author’s note: according to IMDb, Sally’s co-stars in the episode were former WB starlet Peggy Knudsen, movie serial actress and Columbia Pictures contractee Norma Brooks, and bit players Jeanne Evans and Mimi Doyle.] I think they had a problem with me because I was always so happy all the time, and they weren’t. I would do whatever I was asked to do on the show, and they always seemed to be complaining about something. And I was also a lot younger than most of them. I guess they didn’t like me stealing their thunder.
Before long I felt myself developing a huge crush on Bob, and I remember some of the girls saying, ‘He’s so polite. He must be gay.’ Back then, those sort of rumors were always flying around about someone, and I guess it’s still happening today. I never believed Bob was gay, though. When those other girls said that to me, I just laughed at them and said, ‘Of course he’s not gay. He’s just a prince, that’s all. The man’s a prince.’ (And he was.) If anything, the only reason I got over my crush on Bob so quickly was because his wife showed up on the set one day…with their five children. Bob’s wife was a glamorous blonde in a long mink coat and I could see they were very much in love with each other, so that (and their five kids) kind of put everything in a different light, you know? (laughs)
I loved working with Bob Cummings and I wish I’d had enough sense to keep our friendship intact because I think he would have been a wonderful friend to have. But I didn’t keep it going and it was my own fault. I just wish he had been around throughout my life to be a pal, because he was a dear, sweet man, he really was.
John: Around the same time, you worked with another show business veteran…Red Skelton.
Sally: Oh, he was another dear man. I worked with Red on his weekly TV show over at CBS. Without a doubt, Red was one of the funniest human beings I have ever met. He was as funny during rehearsals and in real life as he was when we taped the show. I had originally auditioned for a comedy skit on the show (and I got it), but then I also read for a commercial for Max Factor, and I wound up getting that, too. Then, during rehearsals they changed the script and added a dance routine and they needed a girl dancer who could also act, so I got that, too. So, I had three big parts in that one half-hour episode. After I did the show, I received three huge checks in the mail…I was absolutely flabbergasted. My paycheck for doing Red’s show was phenomenal and I wound up making more money that week than the main guest star.
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