A warmhearted retrospective with ‘Big Valley’ cowgirl Linda Evans

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Image Credit: AF Archive / Alamy / ABC Photo Archives

“Know your lines and show up on time.” In spite of a dreadful audition for director Arnold Laven on the set of the Sam Peckinpah scripted Glory Guys, Linda Evans persisted and won her breakout role as Audra Barkley on ABC’s The Big Valley. Greenlit in the wake of Bonanza’s ratings domination on a rival network, the 1965–1969 family western costarred future Six Million Dollar Man Lee Majors, four-time Oscar nominee Barbara Stanwyck, Richard Long, and Peter Breck. The INSP TV channel screens episodes daily. Meanwhile back at the ranch, Evans, who made a comeback as voice of reason Krystle Carrington on the ’80s soap staple Dynasty, permits an exclusive reminiscence coinciding with the 55th anniversary of Big Valley’s debut. Unbelievably, the guileless blonde horsewoman’s tenure on the series was almost thwarted when filmmaking husband John Derek demanded that she sacrifice her career for him.

The Linda Evans Interview, Part One

Seven months before The Big Valley premiered on ABC at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, September 15, 1965, with “Palms of Glory” you guest starred alongside Tim McIntire as a couple bound for California during Wagon Train’s eighth and final season [“Herman”]. Did that frontier anthology, also on the Alphabet Network, have anything to do with you nabbing the role of Audra Barkley?

No, it didn’t. I got to The Big Valley by going to see Jules Levy, Arthur Gardner, and Arnold Laven, who were the producers for a cavalry western called The Glory Guys [Peter Breck was among the cast of the Sam Peckinpah penned screenplay as were future Big Valley guest stars Tom Tryon, Andrew Duggan, Jeanne Cooper, and Wayne Rogers]. I had just finished Beach Blanket Bingo [as aspiring singing star Sugar Kane in the company of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello], and my agent sent me to audition for The Glory Guys. I drove to the small Four Star lot at the intersection of Ventura Boulevard and Radford Avenue in the San Fernando Valley [Before his premature death at age 58 from lung cancer in 1963, actor-producer-director Dick Powell transformed Four Star into a lucrative TV studio responsible for The Rifleman and many other westerns. Currently known as CBS Studio City, it was also the former home of Herbert Yates’ Republic Pictures where John Wayne launched his career as a B-western good guy]. The Tara-style white mansion that the Barkley’s called home was there [sadly torn down for a six-story parking deck].

Arnold Laven was also the director, and he was doing the interviews. I came in very excited and read for him. Arnold looked at me and replied, “My goodness, that’s the worst reading I’ve heard today!” He said it with the sweetest voice. He was such a kind, lovely man. I was like, “Okay, thank you,” and I got up to leave. Arnold stopped me and said, “You’ve got a quality that I really like. I am not sure this movie is right for you, but we are working on another western — a TV show called The Big Valley. I can arrange for you to stay for awhile and study this script. Then let’s read it together.”

I was intrigued and went to another room, preparing as best I could until Arnold knocked on the door. “Are you ready?,” he asked. “We are testing two other girls and three men” [to play wealthy, deceased Stockton rancher Tom Barkley’s illegitimate son and Audra’s older half-brother Heath]. Lee Majors was the one that they had me test with. Interestingly enough, I had met him and his wife [Kathy Robinson] and toddler [Lee Majors, Jr.] months earlier at someone’s home. Lee had just come to California to see about working in films [Majors debuted briefly as Joan Crawford’s doomed, cheating husband in 1964’s Strait-Jacket and had notched two subsequent TV roles on Gunsmoke and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour]. Thank God, I was so happy that we won the parts. I remember Lee telling me that he was supporting his family by working at North Hollywood Park [as its recreation director]. He had to take a leave of absence to do Big Valley’s pilot because he wasn’t sure if the network would pick up the show for a full season.

An unforgettable moment in “Palms of Glory” occurs when Audra covertly attempts to seduce Heath in a Stockton hotel room to determine whether he’s an impostor.

It was shocking for those days, especially for a western. Now that you mention it, that could have been the scene that Lee and I did for our screen test.

Thank God he refused your advances.

Good thing for Lee, or else he wouldn’t have been part of the show for the next four years! It worked out very well.

Do you keep in touch with Lee?

Wow, I have not seen Lee in at least 20 years. A chance meeting at a party in Beverly Hills was probably the last time we chatted. He lives in Florida, doesn’t he? [In 1991 Majors, third wife Karen Velez, and daughter Nikki moved to Fort Lauderdale. Ten years later The Fall Guy pulled up roots and settled in Beverly Hills to be closer to acting opportunities with fourth wife Faith Cross. Disillusioned by Hollywood, in 2012 the couple relocated to a friendlier atmosphere in Houston, Texas]. I live in Washington state. There is no way we are gonna run into each other. It’s poignant that we’re the only two still standing from Big Valley.

Had Barbara “Missy” Stanwyck, Richard Long, Peter Breck, and Charles “Chuck” Briles already been selected as your Tinseltown family?

I don’t have any idea in what order everyone was chosen. I doubt that Missy, Richard, or Peter auditioned as they had been kicking around Hollywood for years. Lee, Chuck, and myself were the unknowns that had to prove our capabilities.

[Author’s Note: As far back as the dawn of the talkies, Stanwyck was a force of nature. She was nominated four times for a Best Actress Oscar and was belatedly given an Honorary statuette in 1982. Baby Face, Stella Dallas, Double Indemnity, Ball of Fire, Sorry, Wrong Number, The Furies, and the Rawhide episode “The Captain’s Wife” are prime Stanwyck performances. Starting in the late 1940s Long worked prolifically at Universal-International before seizing recurring parts for Warner Bros. as crafty conman Gentleman Jack Darby on Maverick and French Quarter detective Rex Randolph on the influential 77 Sunset Strip. Breck had his own series as a reformed gunslinger turned lawyer in the forgotten 1959–1960 Four Star production Black Saddle and as a reporter feigning insanity to solve a murder in Samuel Fuller’s deranged Shock Corridor].

Charles Briles was drafted and volunteered for the California National Guard after only eight episodes as Eugene in the first season. The youngest Barkley offspring was never featured prominently in a storyline, yet he’s depicted on TV Guide’s joyful Big Valley cover next to you and Miss Stanwyck. I met him in 2012 during an unannounced Elvis Week Graceland panel appearance with his Trouble with Girls costar Marlyn Mason, also a two-time Big Valley actress [“The Fallen Hawk” and “Ladykiller”].

Chuck used to called me every couple of years. I’d ask him what he was doing, and he’d wonder what I had been up to. We communicated until awhile before he passed [of congestive heart failure at age 70 in 2016]. Another sweet, very nice actor.

Did you prefer filming at Four Star or on location?

We went out on location often to Thousand Oaks in Ventura County. In the mid-1960s Thousand Oaks was rich with land and trees. Nobody lived there. I can honestly say my favorite films are westerns because I love being outdoors. I love being around cowboys because it seems like it took the Hollywood out of Hollywood when you were with real people, horses, cows, and land. That’s why one of my favorite things I have ever done in my career was Steve McQueen’s next-to-last movie Tom Horn [1980].

When did you learn how to ride a horse?

Actually, my first experience riding a horse was Big Valley. I was given lessons in the Four Star back lot, and it was an incredible learning curve. Unfortunately, because I was the girl and knew the least about it, I received the worst horse. It didn’t have a natural gait. Many times during the first season you see me bobbing up and down and not quite getting the hang of it. It still makes me cringe. When you’re first learning, it’s such a blessing when you get a horse that isn’t difficult to ride.

It wasn’t until I did a wonderful western with Robert Forster and Chuck Connors called Standing Tall [a rare 1978 NBC movie-of-the-week] that they gave me a horse that made me look phenomenal. The horse taught me. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is exceptional!’ When I did Tom Horn, they asked whether I had a favorite horse. I said yes and told them about this horse. They responded, “You have very good taste because Steve McQueen has asked for that horse, too.” I had no idea there were star horses in westerns.

What was your starting salary for Big Valley?

Gosh, I wish I could remember. Those details, even when I was young, never interested me. I never worked for money. That aspect of the business was not something I fixated on.

Perhaps easier to recall — what did you buy with your Big Valley money?

I was living with John Derek, and we did lots of things together [Evans covered his alimony and child support payments to first wife — Russian ballerina Pati Behrs — as recounted in daughter Sean Derek’s 1982 memoir Cast of Characters]. Two things that I indulged myself with were 10 silver goblets from Tiffany’s that I still adore and a Moroccan chest that has moved along with me from house to house for over 50 years. I am 77 years old, so neither are going anywhere.

How did you fall in love with John Derek? For roughly 10 years he scored indelible parts in All the King’s Men [Broderick Crawford earned a 1949 Best Actor Oscar], The Last Posse, The Outcast, Joshua in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, and Otto Preminger’s detailing of Israel’s statehood in Exodus. Ambush at Tomahawk Gap is a taut 1953 B-western brimming with anti-heroes [e.g. John Hodiak] that I recently rewatched.

When I was a teenager, I saw John in The Adventures of Hajji Baba [1954]. He was a dashing prince on an Arabian horse, and I fell madly in love with him. I had a picture over my bed of him and Tab Hunter throughout my teenage years. John caught me in “Palms of Glory” and called Big Valley’s producers. He asked if he could photograph me. John had given up acting by then and preferred to stay behind the camera. He also directed [Derek’s nine films progressed into sleazy territory culminating with 1990’s Ghosts Can’t Do It]. When I received his request, I reasoned, ‘What fun! I can finally meet him.’ If it weren’t for Big Valley, I wouldn’t have known him.

John and I lived in Encino, just a 10–15 minute drive to the Four Star lot. Nevertheless, he insisted that I quit the show, so I went to Levy-Gardner-Laven before the start of season three and foolishly pleaded to be released from my contract. Of course, I had signed on the dotted line, and they refused to let me go. As a concession, they said I wouldn’t have to do every show. Whenever Audra wasn’t in an episode, Missy, Jarrod, Nick, or Heath would say I was away in Stockton which really meant I was at home with John [Evans missed half of the 26 episodes in season three and 10 episodes in the final season. During those off duty weeks the couple traveled extensively in Europe and around the globe. Eloping to Mexico in 1968, they parted ways on Christmas Day 1973 over Derek’s affair with 16-year-old Bo Derek, kindled during the Greece locale of the coming-of-age drama Fantasies].

In the ’60s, the norm for women was to be married and have children [Evans has one stepdaughter — Sean Derek]. I was in love with John and wanted to please him. John was offered projects all the time [it is unclear if Derek was offered a guest turn on Big Valley], but he had quit acting and didn’t look back. I am very grateful that the producers didn’t let me out of my contract.

What did Miss Stanwyck teach you?

I was so nervous to meet her. I was like, ‘Boy, don’t make any mistakes.’ Here I am, 22 years old and working with a legend. When Missy walked up, she was so tiny that it threw me. On screen she was this commanding, powerful woman. In real life she was shorter than I was [5' 5" versus 5' 7"]. She possessed a mighty strength and warmth at the same time.

Missy was the ultimate person to teach a young girl how to be a professional. She really went out of her way to say, “Here’s what you gotta do to be successful in this business. Know your lines, show up on time, have presence in a scene, understand who and what you’re dealing with…” And I have never been late on a set. I have never held anyone up. I rarely ever get sick. I work longer and harder than anybody asks me to because I have learned to appreciate when I get a job as well as my co-workers and their trust in me. I sincerely believe in giving back more than I get.

When I was up to do the Emmy-nominated Gambler: The Adventure Continues [1983] miniseries with Kenny Rogers, he stated, “Part of the reason why you got this part is I checked you out, and you came highly rated. I’ve worked with some pretty unprofessional actresses, and I’m determined not to in this one.” I’m certain Missy’s advice got me that role.

How were your experiences with Peter Breck and Richard Long?

The fans went crazy for Peter. He had a unique way of making Nick come to life. When Nick became angry he would passionately slap his gloves and pace the floor. If we did a scene and I was having trouble, Peter would be very supportive. I always appreciated that about him.

Richard was like a giant teddy bear. You just wanted to hug him. He was a joy. He was funny. He was smart. He was someone that you could sit down with and feel that you had known forever. You could trust him with your life. Even though he succumbed to a premature heart attack at age 47 in 1974, Richard did all of his action scenes on Big Valley. His major heart problems came later, and he struggled heavily with that. I remember going to the hospital and seeing him.

We were so blessed in that every single person on the show was easy to work with and lovely to know. We all cared about each other. We didn’t have problems. It was very sweet how one season would end, and you couldn’t wait to reunite in a few months.

Stay tuned for more of the Linda Evans interview…

© Jeremy Roberts, 2020. All rights reserved. Thanks to Tina Helms of INSP for coordinating the conversation and Kate McCullough for transcription. The Linda Evans interview was edited for clarity and brevity and sequenced cohesively. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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