Always Down To Earth
The Perennial Mom — She Played The Maternal Characters In Lassie And Lost In Space Among Many Others — Carved An Acting Career That Is As American And Hometown As Apple Pie
Photo of June Lockhart in her role in Lost in Space.
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
June 24, 2014 — June Lockhart was born into an acting family. Her parents, Gene and Kathleen Arthur Lockhart, were able to instill in their daughter a healthy respect for along with a smart perspective on a rough and tumble industry.
“I received my first paycheck for $2.50 in 1933 and I’m still working today. I’ve been a paid actor in this business for 80 years,” she said proudly during an interview from her Los Angeles home.
It may just be a show business longevity record.
Now 88, Lockhart is best remembered as the mother in two iconic television series of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Lassie and Lost in Space. But before she jumped into television, Lockhart weaved between films and stage work, packing her resume with a clutch of favorable notices and a Tony Award.
The 1940s were the zenith of Hollywood’s fabled studio contract system, where stars were (mostly) willing indentured servants who appeared in an assembly line of films.
“I was always in and out of the studio system mainly because I had a lovely home life and a great retreat in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., where I was more interested in racing my speedboat than appearing in movies. I was raised in an acting family so I knew how the business ran. You had a life, but you also were an actor. I put all the effort into it as I would a serious hobby,” she said.
Lockhart’s laissez faire attitude brought her to Warner Bros. where she acted opposite such A-listers as Bette Davis, Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper in such films as All This, and Heaven Too, Adam Had Four Sons, and Sergeant York.
In 1944, she moved across town to MGM where she had a small, but pivotal role in the musical, Meet Me in St. Louis. She recalled the production delays caused by the film’s star Judy Garland.
“We’d be in this heavy, warm, period clothing ready to shoot – and no Judy. At 12:30, they’d announce that Judy had just come through the studio gates and we’d break for lunch. We’d return at 2 p.m. ready to work and then they’d let us go home because Judy didn’t want to work that day. That went on day after day,” she said.
Despite the delays, Lockhart is proud to be associated with this classic. She described her role as “unusual.” Lockhart’s character, Lucille Ballard, the beau to the only son of the Smith family is mentioned throughout the film, but only appears in the final few scenes.
“Bringing in a major problem-solving character that late was a rare screenwriting device, but it worked,” she said.
In 1948, Lockhart conquered legitimate theater, winning a Tony Award the first time out of the gate for her role in For Love or Money. Her Tony, she told us, is bound for the Smithsonian for a future exhibit celebrating America’s rich theater history.
Lockhart, in 1945, appeared in the hit film, Son of Lassie. Fourteen years later, she reunited with a descendant of America’s favorite collie to star as the mother in more than 200 episodes of the Lassie TV series. Lockhart said the show is enjoying a revival on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, the world’s largest Christian TV network.
“If they only knew about Rudd Weatherwax’s (Lassie’s trainer) proclivity for drinking,” she laughed.
With her “mom” image now firmly entrenched, Lockhart’s next series put her in a sleek silver spacesuit as Maureen Robinson, the matriarch of the Space Family Robinson in the 1965 sci-fi series, Lost in Space. The show aired for just three seasons but is still a re-run mainstay with an avid following. It’s probably the role, Lockhart said, with which she is still most identified. The show typically found Lockhart minding the hydroponic garden with Judy, her oldest daughter while husband John, son Will and the mischievous Dr. Smith were out on their death-defying adventures.
“It was nice dignified work and we all looked great so we played the scenes as they were written,” she said.
While Lockhart popped up as a guest star in virtually every episodic TV show in the 1960s and 1970s, her last regular role was as Dr. Janet Craig on the last two seasons of the CBS comedy, Petticoat Junction.
“After Space, I was looking for a new role and I jumped at the chance to do comedy,” she said.
Although far from retired, the 88-year-old Lockhart is more earthbound these days, and admits to the guilty pleasure of enjoying the “appallingly entertaining” Kardashians television show. As the robot on Lost in Space might say, “It does not compute!”
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from Hollywood’s Golden Age. They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 years of celebrity profiles from vaudeville to movies to TV. Reach them at www.reeltoreal.com.
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