- By TOM WEAVER
In the early- to mid-1950s, Universal's
bustling stable of stock players had starlets for every
type of role, but few played the variety of roles tackled
by Mara Corday; one might find her in a movie as an
Indian squaw (Raw Edge), or a Middle Eastern
maiden (Yankee Pasha), a flirty French gal (So
This Is Paris) or a Western leading lady (The
Man From Bitter Ridge).
The actress who looked right
at home in the studio's backlot palaces and saloons
-- and who helped save the world from the mighty Tarantula
-- was born Marilyn Watts in Santa Monica, 17 years
before she ever put her foot on the bottom step of the
show biz ladder, dancing in the back row of the chorus
in "Earl Carroll's Revue" at the famed showman's
theater-restaurant in Hollywood. Modeling for photographers
led to wider exposure and ultimately to television roles
and bit parts in low-budget movies. She was in every
type of B picture that Universal made during her stint
at that studio, then (as a freelancer) saved the world
again, not only from The Black Scorpion but also
from The Giant Claw. She gave up acting to concentrate
on marriage and motherhood during her 17 tumultuous
years as the wife of actor Richard Long (77 Sunset
Strip, The Big Valley); since his 1974 death, she's
been playing supporting roles in her friend Clint Eastwood's
movies, just as he had played a tiny role in one of
How did you break into pictures?
MARA CORDAY: A lot of the [Earl Carroll] girls
moonlighted -- they did the show, and then they did
extra work in the daytime. Two of them did quite a bit
of it and they kept talking about being an extra. And
I thought, 'Gee, I think I'll try to get to be an extra.
But before that happened I got into this play on Highland,
in a theater right across from Hollywood High School.
The theater was called Charm Unlimited, and they put
on little plays and charged $8 to get in. The play was
The Time of Your Life by William Saroyan, and
Walter Kohner was in it as a joke -- his older brother
as Paul Kohner, who was one of the top agents out there,
he had all the Hollywood creme de la creme. Paul Kohner
came to see the show, to see his brother, and there
I was -- I played the part of Mary L. He came backstage
and he said, "Would you be interested in signing
with our agency?" And I was just shocked! I said,
"My God, of course!" So I went over and I
read something for him, and he said, "Okay, sign
here." And then he began to represent me and I
started doing television -- little schlocky things like
Kit Carson and Craig Kennedy, Criminologist,
and Jeffrey Jones, Private Eye. I don't know
who today would remember any of them, they were like
the worst of the worst.
What made them bad?
MARA: Oh, God, the acting -- the people they
hired were terrible. Well, for instance, me! The star
of one 'em was Donald Woods, and he was right in the
middle of a nervous breakdown. They had to cart him
out one day and that killed the show, he wound up in
a mental hospital somewhere!
Before Universal, in addition to your television work,
you also worked in the occasional "small"
MARA: Yes, like Problem Girls ,
which I just saw again. It was done in a big mansion
called the Brunswick Mansion on Adams Boulevard in L.A.
It was the most horrible sound system and the lighting
was just atrocious because we were in a house not in
a real studio. And it was directed by a man [E.A. Dupont]
who was like 90 years old. He had done a classic German
picture called Variety , he could barley
speak English, and he was just hanging by a thread!
Helen Walker, the star of that film, had just gotten
arrested for hit-and-run and it literally destroyed
her career, because she was guilty, she was drunk --
and she was drinking all through the picture, too. The
director would yell up, "Quiet!," and she'd
yell down, "F you!"
I wanted to ask you about Allison Hayes, and also about
two other Universal contract players that have passed
on, Mari Blanchard and Susan Cabot.
MARA: Oh. I adored Allison, she and I were very
dear friends. I didn't make many friends over there,
but Allison did become a friend for some reason, I don't
know why. I guess because she was so genuine, she had
not a jealous bone in her body. She was a giving person.
But she wasn't used nearly enough by Universal, she
was one of the ones they cast aside, they never really
pushed her over there. Very statuesque, beautiful face
-- but they didn't push her. She didn't get any real
credit until after she left Universal. We lost touch
because I got married, but we'd run into each other
at different places and throw our arms around each other
and all that. But once I got married, I just sort of
put blinders on and concentrated on my children; that
was the most important thing in my life, my family.
Mari Blanchard, oh, my God, I loved Mari. I always
thought Mari had the greatest walk -- she'd swing those
hips back and forth! She didn't get too friendly with
people, but I'm happy to say I got to see her just before
she died. She got very ill with cancer and died at the
Motion Picture Home. She was a very sweet girl.
Susan Cabot? Well, Susan was very weird, a strange
little girl. She had this enormous head and then this
little tiny body, and she was paranoid.
How did you get involved in Tarantula?
MARA: Well, they just tell you, "Look,
your next picture is going to be Tarantula."
And I said, "That's fine with me," because
it was Jack Arnold and I got along great with Jack.
He was a prankster, and I happen to like a very fun
set, I like to tell jokes and kid around and that's
what he did. It was fine except I didn't like the wardrobe,
I thought it was really conservative. I thought maybe
I could at least wear a negligee for the ending -- the
whole last part of that show was me running away from
this tarantula in a night outfit. But they said, "Oh,
no, not on your life" -- I had to wear pajamas,
and even a light cover over that! So there was no sex
Was Arnold a good director?
MARA: He was not the kind of director who gives
you a lot, but then, in this kind of film, what's there
to do? There's not much plot. You're at the mercy of
the "fright," the "horror," or whatever.
You're at the mercy of the special effects people, 'cause
if they don't do a good job, then the whole picture
goes in the toilet. For instance, The Giant Claw.
What memories of John Agar?
MARA: Poor John, he was just coming out of a
slump. He was like a brother to me, he was very quiet,
very respectful, but he couldn't drink, you could not
give this man a drink of alcohol. He'd turn into something
else. Luckily, I did not see that, because he was straight-arrow
on that set, he did a fine little job for us and we
got along great.
about Clint Eastwood, who was just starting in pictures
MARA: Well, Clint is my "brother,"
I adore Clint Eastwood. Next to Roddy McDowall, I thing
he's the most loyal human being in the business. He's
just a love and he's got this sardonic, wry humor. I
love him as a director -- he's so easy, it's like play.
It's not like work at all.
Using cheesecake as a springboard -- any regrets, looking
back on that?
MARA: Oh, no -- that was probably the launching
pad for me. But Universal certainly didn't utilize any
of that at all; in fact, in films they put me in, I
was all covered up. They always brushed out [of photographs]
this little mole I have between my cleavage, 'cause
it would draw attention. Ridiculous! I did do a lot
of cheesecake there, anyway, in [photo sessions], but
they never let me portray anything sexy in their movies.
I was an Indian or a scientist or a Western girl; they
gave all the sexy roles to Mamie Van Doren, she was
a little vamp.
Without wishing to open any old wounds, what can you
tell me about The Giant Claw?
MARA: When I went in to meet Mr. [Sam] Katzman,
who was the producer, he was raving on and on about
the wonderful special effects people in Mexico that
he had hired. "Boy, this is gonna be something!
I'm spending most of the budget on the special effects!"
So when we made the movie and we were supposedly looking
at the giant bird, I was envisioning something really
horrifying. And when I saw the movie, I couldn't believe
it! It was incredible!
Was that first meeting with Katzman your only encounter
MARA: No, I saw him again the first day [we
shot] at Griffith Park. He came out, and I was getting
a cup of coffee, and he said, "You look like hell.
Don't you go to bed at night?" I apologized; I
felt horrible, because my dear husband had given a party
the night before, when I was trying to learn these lines.
And so I had to go to my mother's house with my tape
recorder to learn the lines. Every time I did work,
Richard saw to it that I would not be able to do my
best. He did some kind of sabotage to me, every time.
So when I did come back from my mother's, the party
was in full swing and they kept me up the whole night
with the loud noise. It was a nightmare.
He did this to be "funny" or to be mean?
MARA: No, he did it to ruin me. He didn't want
me working. He made that very obvious.
Fred F. Sears, the director of The Giant Claw?
MARA: Fred was a very nervous man, I felt. A
man without any sense of humor whatsoever. Just very
frightened -- not loose at all. Uptight. Of course,
Jeff Morrow was very uptight, too. He treated that film
like we were doing Shakespeare or something. He was
a very serious man. The Giant Claw was all done
at one studio -- it was called the Columbia annex, a
little studio right near where Monogram used to be.
I think it was made in about nine days.
Where did you see the movie for the fist time?
MARA: Seems to me I saw it at a theater with
Richard, and I slunk down in the seat. I said, "Oh,
my God, isn't this dreadful!" Then I started to
think, 'Maybe Richard's right, I'd better get out of
the business, if this is what I'm gonna be doing!"
He thought it was dreadful, too.
To keep peace in the family, you later gave up acting?
MARA: I did, because it was just getting too
much. I will say this, that during the filming of [an
episode of] SurfSide 6, we were all going to
go to The Smoke House [to have a drink]. In a weak moment
I said, "Well, Richard, why don't you join us?"
He said okay. Richard had already had three drinks to
our one. We had been there about thirty-five, forty
minutes when he stood up after belting these drinks
down and he announced that he's drunk and he's going
home and am I coming with him? I said, "No, I'm
not going right now, I'm still sipping on my drink and
I'm enjoying the time, and if he wanted to go, go ahead,
I'd see him at the house.
That humiliated him, so when I finally did show up,
two hours later, I was greeted by a madman who grabbed
my throat, threw me on the couch and started strangling
me. A cowboy bandleader named Spade Cooley had just
killed his wife by strangling her, and that's all I
could envision: That I would be dead. So I brought my
knees up, kicked him in the crotch -- grabbed my keys
-- and ran out. Went to my mother and father's house,
about 15 minutes from my house. They weren't home, so
I fell asleep in the car. Anyway, to make a long story
short, I tried to get back into the house and he wouldn't
let me, so I called the police and had him arrested.
The police asked him, "Did you try to kill your
wife?" and he said, "Yes, and I'll do it again,
the dirty bitch." So the handcuffs behind the back
and off he went to jail. And it got in the papers and
it was a terrible thing, but I was glad it did because,
I'm telling you, if you don't get them arrested, you
could be dead. (I'm thinking of O.J. now, you know.)
And he never struck me again after that.
And he passed away in the mid-seventies?
MARA: He died December 21, 1974, at Tarzana
Hospital, at twenty minutes of two. Just before the
Are you aware that you have a lot of fans?
MARA: Well, I'm beginning to realize that.
Do you want to work more than you do?
MARA: Oh, yeah. I enjoy acting. But it's not like
it used to be. I sort of enjoy being semi-retired and just
maybe working behind the camera now, because I've gotten
myself involved with my oldest son -- he's trying to put
together a Big Valley reunion show. He wrote a treatment
and I've helped him with that, and it looks like there's
going to be interest at NBC. I spoke to Linda Evans and
she's all gung ho to do it, and Lee Majors, also. I'm sort
of involved in that, and I've also written a story about
Richard and his first wife, which is a bittersweet love
story. Her name was Suzan Ball, and she was Lucille Ball's
first cousin. I've done the other [acting], and now I think
producing and writing would be interesting for me. And maybe
I could also act in these pictures -- and maybe not just
a few lines here and there!
Tom Weaver is the author of Science Fiction and
Fantasy Film Flashbacks, Attack of the Monster Movie
Makers and many others available from McFarland