Slain Actress Had A-List Dreams, B-Movie Reality

Times Staff Writers

In the days before Lana Clarkson was found dead inside Phil Spector’s Alhambra castle, a Web site devoted to tracking and mocking lesser celebrities had some fun with the fact that Kmart, which had used Clarkson in its television commercials, had fallen on hard times.

“With Kmart going out of business now,” the site asked, “what will become of Lana Clarkson?”

This was the bane of being a 40-year-old actress, particularly a 40-year-old actress who boasted she’d been inspired by Marilyn Monroe, only to remain stuck in an early Marilyn rut of low-budget, occasionally topless roles.


Lana Clarkson -- of “Amazon Women on the Moon,” “Barbarian Queen I” and “Barbarian Queen II,” and a lone episode of “Three’s Company” -- was part of the grinding Hollywood food chain. She was holding on by her fingernails to make a living, yet, by her friends’ accounts, smiling cheerfully all the while. She ran through life, one of them said, at 11 on a scale of 10.

Detectives are still trying to figure out how Clarkson met Spector and wound up dead on the floor of his home after accepting a ride in the music producer’s Mercedes early Monday. But the killing has called attention to the frustrating existence of B-movie actresses: performers who star in cheap mass-appeal films without ever securing that definitive role.

Clarkson was trying to jump-start her career by moving to theater parts. She did stand-up at the Comedy Club. She put together a Tracey Ullman-like tape of herself doing various comedic characters, among them Little Richard. She conceptualized a Marilyn Monroe impersonation play. She networked relentlessly. Through it all she remained a stunning blond with a laugh that cut through traffic. At 6 feet tall in heels, she towered over any gathering. “Everybody always knew Lana was in the room,” ex-boyfriend Robert Hall said.

Her small cult following still greeted her at conventions, and her friends marveled at what she gave back. At events to publicize the TV shows she worked for, “She’d put in more hours, she’d stay more days,” said actress Athena Massey, who met Clarkson when they worked on a Roger Corman TV female-hero show, “Black Scorpion,” which aired on the Sci-Fi cable channel. “She was always trying to see how she could network to find the next job or turn the job into something bigger.”

Part of the hustle involved taking a temporary hostess job several weeks ago at the House of Blues in West Hollywood, which is apparently where Clarkson met Spector, who was arrested early Monday on suspicion of shooting her to death. Sources said that Spector had been at the club twice in recent weeks, and that he and Clarkson were seen leaving there together at 2:15 a.m. Monday in Spector’s car. Homicide Capt. Frank Merriman of the Sheriff’s Department would say only that Spector was at the House of Blues that evening.

The killing left Clarkson’s friends mourning a woman they described as indomitable yet increasingly aware of the fragility older actresses face.


“Anyone over 40 is fighting uphill in this town,” said veteran actress Sally Kirkland, who met Clarkson three years ago when they appeared together in a play. “But she was such a pro. She would come earlier than anybody, she would work harder than anybody.”

“She was amazingly spunky, fun, energetic,” added Hall, who met Clarkson in 1998 when he was the effects designer on “Black Scorpion” and who lived with her for about a year. “By Hollywood standards, she was past her prime, but she worked it 100% -- gave it more than you see most people giving it.”

Compared with the endless parade of actors from out of state who arrive here by Greyhound and go home without ever getting a SAG card, Clarkson was a success: three dozen credits, a few of them starring roles, in movies and TV. She did several national TV commercials, most notably the Kmart roles she described on her Web site as “white trash.” She rented a tiny but cute bright yellow bungalow on Venice’s grand canal, with a “No shoes in the house!” sign on the front door.

“She supported herself, but it was tough,” said Hall. “She had to struggle a lot harder than someone who had as much of a film career as she had.... I don’t think she was as comfortable as she wanted to be.... For as hard as she worked, I think she deserved recognition.”

Her agent, Ray Cavaleri, who had represented her for only four months, said Clarkson was hoping for a nice TV pilot. “She had started out as a sex femme fatale and was making the transition into more comedy, character type roles,” he said.

Clarkson was born in Southern California and raised in Cloverdale, which bills itself as the place where California’s vineyards meet the redwoods. Friends said she admired Marilyn Monroe and was conscious of how she carried herself. “Lana had that sort of ‘50s movie-star quality,” Hall said. “She definitely saw herself as that type of royalty.”


One friend, Jack Cloud, a feature-film production designer who helped Clarkson with photos for her Web site, said Clarkson dated occasionally and was “a picky gal.” Another friend, Massey, described her as “very free-spirited” and said it would be “not uncommon,” once she met a man, “to talk and see where things might go from there.”

Cloud said part of Clarkson’s effort to rejuvenate her career “was being out and being seen.” Employees at the private mail center she patronized a few blocks from her home remembered her inviting them to visit her Web site and handing out free invitations to a play.

Pamela Brannon, the volunteer-services manager of Project Angel Food, an AIDS meal-delivery service where Clarkson volunteered for the past four years, flipped through her application, in which Clarkson had written: “I love people, I love food, I’ve got a new car and time on my hands.”

“She had a beautiful heart,” Brannon said.

Clarkson begged Julie and James Jungwirth, who owned the Venice bungalow, to let her rent it from them -- even as they warned her that they planned to tear it down and rebuild soon. They relented and let her move in. That was 2 1/2 years ago.

“I can’t say enough nice things about her,” said Julie Jungwirth.

Clarkson paid a little over $1,000 a month for the tiny house and had painted it herself. She would enclose little notes with her rent check like: “I love working at the little cottage and I’ve worked hard to make it into the little haven it is.”

She told her landlords that she was starting her job at the House of Blues on Jan 6. Shortly before that, she wrote, “this is a full-time position and will enable me to pursue my acting and writing opportunities during the day.”


On Tuesday, some friends brought flowers, letters and candles to the bungalow. Others talked about the unfairness. “I can’t believe of all the people I know in my life, this would happen to Lana, who is the most cheerful, trusting person -- like a cheerleader,” Kirkland said. “She just didn’t have enemies. It just breaks my heart.”

So does the music on her Web site. It is the same song that had been playing there before she was killed, a Steely Dan hit called “Peg”:

“I’ve seen your picture / Your name in lights above it / This is your big debut / It’s like a dream come true / And when you smile for the camera / I know they’re gonna love it.... “


Times staff writers Susan King, Geoff Boucher, Andrew Blankstein and Richard Winton contributed to this report.