Two years before she became the object of young men's fantasies as Catwoman on the ABC series "Batman," Julie Newmar starred as a shapely robot named Rhoda on the 1964-65 CBS sitcom "My Living Doll."
The series, though, never had a chance. It premiered on Sunday opposite the No. 1 show on TV at the time, NBC's "Bonanza," and then moved midseason to Wednesday evenings opposite yet another high profile western on the Peacock network, "The Virginian." The series was axed after 26 episodes, and "My Living Doll" all but disappeared from public view. But now, MPI has brought out 11 of the episodes on DVD.
Produced by Jack Chertok ("My Favorite Martian"), "My Living Doll" costarred Robert Cummings as fiftysomething bachelor psychologist Bob McDonald, who suddenly finds himself caring for AF 709, a top-secret prototype robot that Dr. Carl Miller (Henry Beckman) had built for the Air Force. When Miller is transferred to Pakistan, he asks Bob to look after her so she won't fall into the military's hands.
Bob tries to teach the robot, whom he names Rhoda, to be the "perfect" woman -- remember, the women's liberation movement was just beginning -- and keep her identity secret from the rest of the world. Jack Mullaney played Bob's neighbor Peter Robinson, who believed he was a lady's man and was in love with Rhoda, and Doris Dowling was Bob's sister, who moved in with her sibling and Rhoda to make sure her womanizing brother didn't get too emotionally involved with the robot.
"It was a very unique show," said Peter Greenwood, who works with Chertok's estate. "This is the first time they had ever done a comedic take with a robot [on TV]. 'My Living Doll's' biggest problem was that it was too ahead of its time."
Though the series may seem out of step today in its take on the "perfect" woman, there is nothing dated about Newman's comedic performance. A veritable human Gumby, she took full advantage of her ballet and mime training as Rhoda.
"In the role of the doll, she gives one of the most informed performances of her life," said Greenwood. "Not only is she acting, she's bringing in dance and mime and improv before there was improv."
Newmar, who had appeared in such films as 1954's "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and had won a Tony in 1959 for the Broadway comedy "The Marriage-Go-Round," was handpicked for the role by CBS President James T. Aubrey.
Initially, Chertok wanted Efrem Zimbalist Jr. for the role of Bob McDonald, but he wasn't available. "Bob Crane was under consideration, and many people thought how much better he would have been because he was closer in age," said Newmar. "[That role] needed a true straight man that could handle comedy, rather than somebody merely slick that would bring the tone down."
Cummings, who had starred in the 1955-59 NBC hit series "The Bob Cummings Show," was under contract to CBS. And he was put in the show, even though he was 20 years older than Newmar and looked it. "They needed to find another show for him," said Greenwood. "It seemed like the right fit and it really wasn't."
Cummings was very controlling. "He wanted the title to be 'His Living Doll,'" noted Newmar. "Everything had to turn his way."
Cummings left the show with five episodes to go because they wouldn't film one he had written in which he played his own grandfather. "It was centered around his character," said Greenwood. "It was really Julie's show -- you can't take away the focus from her."
Greenwood had to play Sherlock Holmes to find the series. "The 35mm negatives were destroyed in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, so Greenwood pieced together 11 episodes from 16mm copies he found via collectors.