Joanna Lee, 72; Scriptwriter Also Directed and Produced Issue-Oriented TV Dramas

Times Staff Writer

Joanna Lee, an actress turned scriptwriter who also directed and produced a number of issue-driven television dramas, died Oct. 24 of bone cancer at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica. She was 72.

During the 1960s and ‘70s Lee wrote for some of the most popular programs on television, from “Gidget” to “Gilligan’s Island.” She won an Emmy in 1974 for the Thanksgiving episode of “The Waltons,” the family drama series she wrote for from 1972 to 1981.

In the mid-'70s she formed her own company and branched into producing television movies. She won a Golden Globe in 1976 for “Babe,” about Olympic athlete and pro golfer Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Lee wrote the script and was associate producer of the movie.


She had to struggle to get started as a director and producer, careers dominated by men, but gradually developed a strong sense of mission as a filmmaker. To some extent her own life was the impetus. A twice-divorced single mother with two children, Lee began to focus on social problems, particularly those that affected women.

She made a firm decision “that the women I write about are winners. I want women to win in life,” she said in a 1976 interview with The Times.

She wrote the script for “Cage Without a Key” (1975), about a girls reform school. She went on to write and produce “I Want to Keep My Baby” (1976), the story of a teenage girl who decides to give up her child for adoption.

Lee said at the time that she related to unwed teenage mothers because she had been a teenager when her son, Craig Lee, was born. By age 20 she was a divorced single mother.

Her younger son, Christopher Ciampa, the only child of her second marriage, was cast in several of her movies, including “Children of Divorce” (1980). Lee wrote, directed and served as executive producer of the movie. Some of the scenes were taken from her home life with Christopher, a pre-teenager at the time.

She encouraged him to act out on screen some hard times they had had together.

“Chris didn’t pull back. He’s a courageous actor,” Lee said in a 1980 interview with The Times. “I said, ‘Listen, we’re not alone, we’re not unique, so are you willing to share that? I am if you are. And he said, ‘Yeah.’ ”

Lee, who initially wrote sitcoms, turned to heavy dramas after an experience she called life changing, in the 1970s. She became involved in Synanon, a controversial drug rehabilitation program with a center in Santa Monica where many therapy participants lived on the premises for years.

She attended Synanon therapy sessions that were open to non-addicts like her and went on to work in the drug rehab program for six years.

“One of the most valuable tools we’ve found at Synanon is psychodrama,” she said in 1974. “Get problems out in the open and dramatize them where you can look at them and face them.”

Born in Newark, N.J., Lee moved to California with her divorced mother at age 12. Her Hollywood career began in the late 1950s, after she took acting classes and got roles in television dramas such as “Death Valley Days” and science fiction movies, including the cult favorite “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1959). She played a space girl in what some film aficionados call the worst movie ever made.

Lee began writing scripts in the early 1960s after a serious car accident caused her to stop and reevaluate her career.

“I had always written -- school plays, musical comedies, songs. It came so easily to me that it never dawned on me that I could make a living from it,” she told The Times in 1976.

She is survived by her son Christopher and one grandson. Her son Craig died of AIDS in 1992.