Before Olivia Benson on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” there was Honey West, a crime-fighting private eye on television in the 1960s.
And before Honey West, there was Gloria Fickling, a writer, dancer and Laguna Beach resident. Fickling inspired and molded the character of Honey West through a book series she created with her husband, Skip, in the 1950s and ’60s under the name G.G. Fickling.
The character and her real-life inspiration will appear Saturday at the Newport Beach Film Festival in a short documentary titled “Honey West: The Gloria Fickling Story.”
The nearly 26-minute film tells of Fickling’s journey from New York to California, where she worked as a fashion writer and fell in love with her husband. The couple concocted the persona of Honey West and together published several books about the private detective, selling each novel for 35 cents. Skip Fickling came up with many of the ideas, they wrote the books and she edited them.
“Every woman wanted to be Honey West,” Fickling, 93, said in the film. “[Skip] created Honey West from what he knew of me.”
The character appeared in a board game, on magazine covers and as the star of her eponymous TV show, which ran for one season in 1965-66 and scored lead actress Anne Francis a Golden Globe Award.
Karen Romanko, author of “Television’s Female Spies and Crimefighters,” said in the documentary that crime shows in the ’50s and ’60s had few women as lead detectives.
“Then suddenly you have Honey and she bursts on the scene and she’s the boss,” Romanko said. “It’s really a breath of fresh air.”
The documentary’s cinematographer, Duane Allen Humeyestewa, said a feature film about Honey West is in the works but the filmmakers wanted to show the woman behind the character first. The documentary gives a “behind-the-scenes glimpse into Gloria Fickling,” he said.
“She was pretty instrumental in being one of the first women to embrace putting a female character center story, at the forefront,” said the Texas-based filmmaker.
Fickling also made an impact on her adopted hometown of Laguna Beach, said City Councilwoman Toni Iseman, who was interviewed for the film. Whenever Fickling shows up at an event in town, Iseman said, she’s adorned in jewelry, dressed to the nines and busting a move.
“Where there was music, Gloria was there and she was dancing,” Iseman said.
The documentary shows Fickling attending Thursday art walks around Laguna Beach and meandering down the boardwalk. Other clips show her appearance on Groucho Marx’s TV show and home videos of her and Skip dancing together.
The film crew spent months with Fickling, collecting video of her and poring over old footage of “Honey West,” Humeyestewa said.
“We were just wishing there was some version of the social media platform that existed for them back then because they would have been really good as bloggers or social media influencers,” Humeyestewa said. “The amount of stuff that they documented … is just fascinating.”
The film’s director, Laura Varela, said Fickling is inspiring for the way she maneuvered the publishing world as a woman in the 1960s and for her “joie de vivre.”
“The way she lives her life is a real example for a lot of people who are trying to live full lives at that age, in their golden years,” Varela said. “That’s what really impressed me about her, and I want to be like her when I grow up.”
Varela said she hopes the film inspires viewers to research more about Honey West and reflect on “how lucky we are to be in a time where women are coming into their whole potentiality.”
“Laguna Beach has its share of characters, but Gloria is one of my favorites,” she said. “Go see the film and support our girl.”
If you go
What: “Honey West: The Gloria Fickling Story”
When: 1:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Triangle Square Cinemas, 1870 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa