Her most iconic roles have been the beloved schoolmarm Miss Beadle in Little House on the Prairie, the haunted "Mary X" in the midnight masterpiece Eraserhead, and the devoted wife and mother Betty Briggs in Twin Peaks. These three characters are arguably as diverse as can be, yet they were all imprinted into pop culture by the versatile actress Charlotte Stewart. Now 75 and as busy as ever, Stewart has written a new book named Little House in the Hollywood Hills: A Bad Girl's Guide to Becoming Miss Beadle, Mary X, and Me. For anyone seriously into Hollywood memoirs, the book is a fascinating story of the life of a celebrity who puts the "working" in "working actress". Emblematic of the newly liberalized era for women in Hollywood, Stewart worked hard but played equally hard as her male counterparts. In her book, she recalls many anecdotes of her personal and professional bonds (and occasionally, intimate relationships) with many of her Hollywood peers-- including, perhaps most notoriously, the late Jim Morrison. In addition to some joyous highs, Stewart also speaks very candidly about the crippling lows of her life. These lows included dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, failed relationships, addictions, and health scares. Stewart tells me:
I tried to lead the reader through what I'd went through. It's not necessarily in chronological order, but it's about how some of the best things in my life coincided with some of the hardest times. I just thank God that I had a great family who were supportive, and had friends who came through for me when I couldn't see where I was going... and that maybe I was headed down the wrong path. But I turned it around. Maybe somebody will read my book and recognize something in themselves, and be able to reach out and get some help.
Back to Twin Peaks: Fans of the show have reason to be excited. David Lynch's cult TV series will have a new life on Showtime in 2017, and the filming has completed. Stewart reveals:
We had the wrap party. I can't wait to see it. Of course, I don't know anything about it. All I know is my own part, but I'm not at liberty to say anything about it because we are all under confidentiality contracts. When we were all together at the wrap party, we realized that we were all a tiny part of a big hole, and none of us knew what the other had done. There was no, 'What did you do?' or 'Where did you work?' or 'Who did you work with?' Nothing like that. We are so respectful of David's choice of keeping this a secret. We're doing it for the fans, basically. What fun is it to tell everyone about it ahead of time and have no surprises? So, we're going to be surprised right along with you! I can't even tell you the date it will be on! It may be in January, or maybe a year from now....
Charlotte Stewart took the time to speak with me about her new book and about being a TV icon-- as well as offering advice to anyone thinking about going into "the business"!
JR: Hello Charlotte. Thank you for speaking with me. How has life been treating you?
CS: It is beautiful here in the Napa Valley! It's just really pretty. I was just outside with my little puppy, cleaning the barbecue and doing all the stuff we do every day.
JR: What's your puppy's name?
CS: Her name is Shayna. She's a teacup Maltese: They're kind of fluffy with a little pushed-in nose. They are very smart! She is five years old, all of four pounds, trained as a service comfort care dog, and just a sweetheart!
JR: I wish I was in the Napa Valley too right now! So, congratulations on your new book, Little House in the Hollywood Hills.
CS: Thank you. I'm very excited about it. I tried to be as honest as I could. My life hasn't always been Little House on the Prairie and Miss Beadle. There were a few dark times too. But I have to say that today, I'm the happiest and healthiest I've ever been: I just turned 75 and just got re-married!
JR: Well, congratulations again then! At the end of the book, you had cryptically alluded to a new romance...
CS: It was a total surprise. You know, old friends are the best friends! Somebody came back into my life after about 35 years, and it was just a joy. So, we have a good life here in Napa.
JR: You've certainly worked hard for it!
CS: After everything I have gone through-- the ups and the downs, the ins and the outs-- I really wanted the book to end with that phone call from David Lynch saying, "Hey, Char, you're ready to go to work!" It would have indicated another upward swing and a new change in my life. But then it went even better than that! So, yeah, we decided to do a little add-on at the end of the book and say: Yes, I just got married and life is wonderful.
JR: In the book, you are very candid about some of the hard times that you went through: the unexpected pregnancy, the romantic breakups, the addictions, the health issues... What was it like to be so open about all these to your audience?
CS: It was very difficult. My co-writer Andy Demsky, who also lives here in Napa, really helped me a lot with that. When we started out, I said, "Absolutely not! I am not writing a book. I have nothing to say! Who is going to be interested?"
JR: (Laughs) "Nothing to say"?!
CS: I'm very serious. Andy sort of led me through it, but it took a couple of years. We met every week, sometimes every other week, and I would tell him stories. He would write it down like I said it. Then I'd look it over, and the next week we'd do it again. We did this for two years. He found a thread through there that kind of rang a bell: My life wasn't all up and it wasn't all down. Sometimes it was both at the same time. I would have a health issue (cancer), but I'd also be doing a TV series (Twin Peaks). It was joyful and difficult at the same time. So, you know, life doesn't always go in one direction. You get surprised. I hope that I will always be open to the next thing that happens-- whether it's up or down-- and deal with it as it comes to my life.
JR: In Chapter 11, "New Beginnings", you write about a particularly rough time after Little House had ended: "Professionally speaking, I was no one. I wasn't the freckled blonde of the '60's or the straight-haired, sexually-charged flower child of the '70's. This was the '80's, the Reagan era, and I was 43. Single. Had barely a penny to my name. I was starting again. At the bottom... Well, a girl's gotta work." Was work the grounding force in your life?
CS: I think I've always worked-- and I don't just mean in the entertainment industry-- the entire time. In my 40's, I had to support myself. I had gone through a really period where I had lost everything. I had a business manager who was unfortunately more interested in buying cocaine than he was in investing my money. I lost my house and everything else, and really hit bottom in a really hard way. But I have a work ethic that I had been raised with. I got an office job which I held for 18 years, even throughout all the other TV shows that I did. I'd save up my vacation days and when I'd get a movie offer, like Tremors, I'd take whatever time I had and do the movie... and as soon as I finished, I'd go right back to work. I had a boss who was understanding and supportive. I think that just having that in my life kept me on a good path. I've always had a really good work ethic. I think that the reason I've had such a varied career as an actor is because I show up on time, I know what I'm doing, I don't make a fuss, and I love what I'm doing. I think it paid off in the long run. Even today, I just finished working on the new Twin Peaks series up in Washington. And isn't it exciting that Twin Peaks is coming back?
JR: Yes! Social media is already blowing up about it!
CS: (Laughs) I know! And we almost didn't have it. David Lynch, our director and inspiration, was having difficulty getting the quality of production that he needed. He decided, "Nope. We're not going to do it. If I can't do it the way it's supposed to be done, then I won't do it." So, all of us in the cast-- and there are about 20 or 25 regulars-- took to Facebook and said that if David wasn't doing it, we weren't doing it as a cast! They did a sort of a double take, and then all of a sudden we were back in production!
JR: That's great to hear. In other news, another film you did in the '70's, Neil Young's Human Highway, is destined for rediscovery in 2016. It's just been released on DVD for the first time.
CS: Yes. It was an improvisational film that we did back in the late 70's. It was just re-released. It was so much fun because it was improvisational, which means that you really have to count on your fellow actors to pull their part. It was filmed by documentary filmmakers and rock 'n' roll concert photographers. So, we had the best of both worlds. We had professional actors, and we had improvisational cinematographers and producers who really came through. I can't wait. It's being re-released theatrically now in major theaters all over the United States. It's been re-cut and re-edited, and it's much tighter and much better now. So, keep an eye out for "Human Highway"! It's Neil Young, and Russ Tamblyn, and Dean Stockwell, and Dennis Hopper...
JR: ... and Devo!
CS: Yes, and Devo! That's right. They play the nuclear garbage collectors.
JR: Sounds like fun! So, how do you think has the entertainment business changed as we approach 2017?
CS: Oh my God! Well, for one, there's not just NBC, CBS, and ABC anymore. There are so many channels available over cable and even online. You can just sit down at your computer and call in any number of programs and films... You've got your pick. So, there's a lot of work available. I hope I get a lot more before my day is done!
JR: Yes! By the way, in New York City we get Little House on the Prairie via The Hallmark Channel.
CS: I've got it on right now! (Laughs) I was on the Hallmark Channel. They have a show called Home and Family. They had the cast of Little House on last year, and we had a mini-reunion. In fact, the producer had told me, "Tell us know when your book comes out, and we'll have you back on." So, I sent them my book-- but when they read it they were like, "Uh oh! This is not the kind of book we can have on Home and Family!" The way they put it was that it was "a little too much for our show". I thought, "What?!" So, I wrote to the producer and I said, "You know, I know it's not all sunshine and flowers, but this is my life! I'm sorry if it doesn't fit your format, but I think you should re-consider." And I just got an e-mail this morning from my publicist that the show is reconsidering.
JR: I hope so. Your book really touches on a lot of universal issues! Now, while we're on the subject of Little House on the Prairie: The show was a huge hit, and it's still popular. It transported us back to a simpler, more innocent time. However, the era when the show aired-- the 1970's-- was actually a very heady and hedonistic time in America, with sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll all over the place. What was it like for you, with the contrast between those two worlds?
CS: (Laughs) Well, I managed. I managed just fine! I was under contract back then to NBC for four years, and I had a really good, sincere work ethic. My private life didn't interfere with my work life at all. The only thing that really interfered was long after I left the show, after my contract. I had gotten a little bit older, and the roles weren't coming, and I got involved a little too heavily in alcohol and drugs. I had lost perspective. But my family and my friends stuck with me, and they really came through. They saved my life. I'm just forever grateful that my friends stuck by me and saw me through it. I tried to write honestly about that time, because I don't know if somebody who reads my book is going to go, "Wait a minute! That sounds like my sister, or my aunt, or my friend who's in a little bit in trouble." There's so many wonderful programs everywhere, and maybe I'll influence somebody to get help.
JR: That would be great! So, as we know, America loves nostalgia. In the book, you talk about going to Little House on the Prairie fan shows. The show certainly has its fans!
CS: We do! And I try to attend as many of those shows as I can. I had no idea how popular we were! When I was living in Los Angeles and doing Little House, no one cared! Absolutely nobody. In fact, it was like a joke. We were certainly not appreciated at all. I didn't realize it until years later, when Alison Arngrim-- who played Nellie Oleson-- said, "You've got to come to Wisconsin on this junket. It's for the fans of Little House". I said, "Really? What is it?" She said, "You just have to see for yourself!" I walked out-- I think there were seven of us from the show-- and there were over a thousand people. They were cheering. I started crying. I couldn't believe that all these people came to see us. I was like, "This corny old show?" (Laughs) I go all over the country for these shows now, for at least the last 10 years. In fact, I'm going to France in August. This will be my second trip to meet Little House on the Prairie fans in France. We are shown in 120 countries. Isn't that amazing?
JR: Yes! Do you speak French?
CS: No! But interestingly enough, Alison now speaks fluent French. She taught herself. She was over age 30 when she learned fluent French! So, she's a big help when we're there. But it doesn't matter, because they all speak English over there! I want to go to Japan, because I heard we are huge in Japan!
JR: In Spain, Little House is enormously popular as well!
CS: Oh my God, I want to go to Spain too then! (Laughs) And, you can always count on having a great time with Alison! I travel with her quite a bit. We're going to be in Green Bay, Wisconsin, soon. I was in New York City with her. We had done one of those Comic-Con conventions. Alison was doing the Today Show, and then we were going to do a magazine shoot for Entertainment Weekly. I stayed at the Palace Hotel with Alison. Imagine that! Remember "Eloise", that little girl who stayed at the Palace? Well, we were two "Eloises"! We had the craziest time. She's so much fun to be with, and she's become a dear friend.
JR: I agree. I've met Alison and she is awesome! So, in the book, there seems to be an infinite amount of famous people who you've worked with and met through the years. It's like a "Who's Who?" of the entertainment business. But one of the anecdotes that stands out is meeting Elvis. It seems like he was the one man who made you really starstruck. Am I right?
CS: Oh my God! I think I was 26 years old when I met him. We were doing a movie called Speedway. When I was in high school, he was at his biggest point. He was huge. And here I am sitting on a sound stage with Elvis holding my hand and telling me about his mother Gladys. He was telling me all about being in the Army and how they wouldn't let him go to see her when she was sick... and the only thing I could think of was, "Holy s***! Elvis is holding my hand!" There were a lot of famous people, but remember that that's where I lived and worked. That was my job. These were the people I ran into on a daily basis: like working in The Cheyenne Social Club with Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda, and meeting people who were just working in a movie like me. Gene Kelly was the director. And you get to spend the whole day chatting, and talking, and going to lunch. I know it maybe sounds like "bragging", but that was my life. I didn't mean to just "name drop" in the book, but those were the people who I worked with and spent time with.
JR: With all the diverse roles that you've done-- in commercials, TV series, movies-- was there a role that you just simply didn't like? A part that you wish would just go away?
CS: Hmmm. That's a good question! I don't think so. I think I was always just happy to be working. I didn't always play "goodie two shoes". I had a part in a show called Life Goes On with Patti LuPone. I played a very insensitive, controlling mother of a Down Syndrome child who refused to believe that her daughter has Down Syndrome. It was so insensitive and awful that it was hard to do... but it was also a delight to do, because I got to butt heads with Patti LuPone! Talk about a firecracker! We had a knock-down, drag-out argument in the show, and it was the most fun that I'd ever had. I just loved it. I wish I could work with her again. She's such a pro!
JR: Just don't pull out your cellphone during rehearsals! (Laughs) So, in the book you mention how you have a lot of nieces and nephews, and some godchildren. As a working actress who has been in the business a long time, what would you do if one of them wanted to become an actor? Would you encourage them?
CS: Of course, if that's what they wanted to do. But I'd tell them to get an education first. If someone is 17 or 18 and graduating from high school and wants to go to L.A., it's not that easy. The ratio of success stories to failures is pretty small. I think that getting an education is the most important. I say that because I didn't. I came right out of high school and was lucky to get my first acting job by the time I was 19-- and it was the start of a pretty good career. But I don't think it's that easy anymore. If you don't have an education, how can you portray someone if you don't know what the world is like? If you haven't had any experience, how do you know? So I say: School first, then a bit of travel, and get a couple of good classes... or go to a university that has a really good theater department. I think that's what is necessary. But I would back any of my nieces or nephews or godchildren with anything they want to do. They are all grown now with kids of their own! I'd encourage anyone to get as much experience as you can, even if it's a little theater in your hometown. I went to the Pasadena Playhouse. I did plays, one after another after another, before I got my first part. I knew how to show up on time, and how to learn lines, and pay attention, and to be reliable. Acting is not a joke. It's serious stuff! There's a lot of money involved. I don't mean for the actor, but it costs a lot to do a movie or TV series. They're not going to hire someone who's a flake, who comes in stoned, or doesn't show up on time. All that stuff is serious business. I don't take it lightly. I'm very proud of my business!
JR: No doubt! So, lastly, what do you want to tell your fans?
CS: Just enjoy the book! I hope it's a good read. I've taken two years to get to this point, and I'm very proud of it. I'm also very proud of Andy Demsky, my co-author. He's the brains behind writing it. I just lived it! I've had a wonderful, full, rich life with a lot of talented people, and I'm just lucky!
Little House in the Hollywood Hills: A Bad Girl's Guide to Becoming Miss Beadle, Mary X, and Me is now available.