Lee Meriwether never had any intention of becoming a beauty queen. But thanks to a fraternity at the City College of San Francisco, she became not only Miss San Francisco, but later Miss California and finally Miss America in 1955.
Meriwether was a sorority sister and a radio and TV/theater arts major at the college when she learned she’d been nominated to be a contestant in the Miss San Francisco beauty pageant. The nomination had been anonymous; it took Meriwether seven years to learn it was the African American fraternity that had suggested her for the beauty pageant. To this day, though, she doesn’t know the identity of the student or students who nominated her or why they selected her.
Whatever the reason, the nomination changed Meriwether’s life.
She parlayed her Miss America win into a near six-decade acting career that has run the gamut from being Catwoman in the 1966 “Batman” feature to earning Emmy and Golden Globe nominations as Buddy Ebsen’s daughter-in-law and partner in crime-solving on the CBS detective series “Barnaby Jones” to becoming a daytime soap doyenne for 11 years as the beloved matriarch Ruth Martin on ABC’s “All My Children.”
But her first love has always been the theater. In fact, for the past half-century, she’s been a member of the renowned Theatre West on Cahuenga Boulevard in Los Angeles.
And on this sunny early afternoon, the striking, 78-year-old white-haired actress is relaxing on the comfy antique sofa on the stage at Theatre West next to Emmy Award-winning writer William Blinn (“Brian’s Song,” “Roots”), who has stopped by for a brief visit.
Meriwether opens Friday in his play “A Short Stay at Carranor,” a drama that was first performed at a Sonora theater festival about a decade ago. Blinn, who is also a member of Theatre West, revisited it about 10 months ago and suggested it to the company’s board.
Neither are very forthcoming about the plot twists and turns. “I would say it’s about Lee and her love and their unwillingness to accept the final hand life has dealt them,” Blinn said.
“Stop giving away the plot,” cracked Meriwether as Blinn says goodbye and heads out of the theater.
Ironically, Meriwether’s first post-Miss America gig was not an actress but as a host — then known as the “woman’s editor” — on “The Today Show,” with the legendary Dave Garroway and the equally famous chimp J. Fred Muggs.
“Dave was absolutely brilliant,” she said. “J. Fred Muggs came on primarily to battle the ratings [giant] ‘Captain Kangaroo.’”
She only stayed a year with “Today” before she started to get acting gigs on such series as “The Philco Television Playhouse,” including starring in a drama about a Miss America who runs away from her duties.
Meriwether took her Miss America scholarship money to study with famed acting teacher Lee Strasberg.
“I was asked to come to his apartment,” she said. “He sat in a chair and read a newspaper for about three or four minutes. Finally, he looked up at me and said, you want to study with me? I said yes. He said, all right. That was pretty much my audition. I studied with him for four years.”
Even though she’s been a constant in the theater scene for five decades in Los Angeles, the mother of two grown daughters is primarily known for work in such TV series as Irwin Allen’s cult 1966-67 ABC sci-fi series “The Time Tunnel,” the syndicated 1988-91 sitcom “The Munsters Today” and in films including 1966’s “Namu, the Killer Whale” and 1969’s “The Undefeated.”
She’s still guest-starring in TV series, including “Hawaii Five-O,” and has completed two indie films that are on the festival circuit. And though she hasn’t been invited to appear yet in the online reboot of “All My Children,” she confessed that “I keep hoping that they will.”
Meriwether breaks into a warm smile at the mention of Ebsen, with whom she starred from 1973-1980 on the CBS detective series “Barnaby Jones.”
“He really worked at being at the top of his game,” she said of Ebsen. “You had to keep up with him. I adored him. I think he had feelings for me too.”
And once a Miss America, always a Miss America.
Meriwether won’t be performing in “A Short Stay at Carranor” from Sept. 13-15 because she’s heading back to Atlantic City for the Miss America pageant. This year’s event features a reunion of the winners.
‘A Short Stay at Carranor’
Where: Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. W., Los Angeles
When: Fri-Sept. 29; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Information: (323) 851-7977, https://www.theatrewest.org