Originally published at popcultureaddict.com in 2014.
For over seven decades actress June Lockhart has had one of the most varied careers in pop culture. Finding success in film, television and Broadway, she has appeared in space operas, family melodramas, rural comedies, Universal horror films, MGM musicals, live television, anthology programs, kid shows, animation voice acting, and every single sort of genre of television one can possibly imagine. However, despite an amazing career with hundreds of credits to her name, fans will always remember her as two of television’s favorite Moms – Ruth Martin on Lassie and Maureen Robinson on Lost in Space.
The daughter of respected actors Gene Lockhart and Kathleen Lockhart, June made her film debut in 1938 when she played her parent’s daughter in A Christmas Carol. Although choosing to focus on her studies instead of being a Hollywood kid, film roles kept calling and via the guidance of her father she found notable parts in a series of well-remembered films including All This, and Heaven Too, Adam Had Four Songs, Sergeant York, Meet Me in St. Louis and Son of Lassie. A move to New York in 1947 to star in For Love or Money on Broadway earned her a Tony Award, and she began to appear on live anthology programs during the golden age of television.
Gaining a reputation as a well-respected character actress, it was during a low point in her life that she replaced Cloris Leachmen in the role of Ruth Martin on the insanely popular family drama Lassie. The role popularized her in households across North America, and put her on the pop culture radar.
But June would strike pop culture gold when Lassie left the airwaves in 1964 and she changed gears completely and donned a silver space suit to play the youthful mother and wife Maureen Robinson on Irwin Allen’s cult classic Lost in Space. A psychedelic space opera beloved by generations of fans, Lost in Space ended in 1968, where June took another unlikely journey on the Cannonball Express and moved into Petticoat Junction to replace recently deceased star Bea Benederet as Dr. Janet Craig, the new “motherly figure” at the Shady Rest Hotel. June would stay with Petticoat Junction until its end in 1970.
Three popular series in a twelve year span sealed her his legacy on television, but June’s television appearances would stretch throughout the decades in such TV favorites as Love, American Style, Marcus Welby, Adam-12, The Hardy Boys, Magnum PI, Falcon Crest, Knots Landing, Quincy, Full House, Babylon 5, Roseanne, The Ren and Stimpy Show, Beverly Hills 90210, The Drew Carey Show, Greys Anatomy and hundreds of other TV programs.
However, in recent years June Lockhart has moved her attention away from acting and has found a new passion working with The Los Angeles Lawyers Philharmonic. A lifelong fan of classic and choral music, June Lockhart considers her to be the group’s most vocal “groupie.”
I had the great pleasure of speaking with June Lockhart as she was preparing for The Los Angeles Lawyers Philharmonic yearly concert at The Wilshire United Methodist Church, which is to be held on November 15th. A lovely lady with a plethora of stories, June and I spoke about music, movies, television and her amazing career.
Sam Tweedle: You have been very busy being involved with a number of orchestras lately and have been emceeing their performances. Tell me about the shows that you have been emceeing.
June Lockhart: Yes. That is the Los Angeles Lawyers Philharmonic. The conductor, a man named Gary Greene, was conducting the Los Angeles Junior Philharmonic, and then he decided he’d start a Lawyers Philharmonic. He learned that so many of the lawyers in this town have studied in places like Julliard and Berkley and Cleveland and earlier they were on the road with big bands that are brilliant musicians. He went on line and said “Do any of you want to get together on a Monday night and play a few tunes?” Well, he was inundated with lawyers and judges that wanted to be part of this. That started about four and a half years ago. We’ve done five concerts at Disney Hall, which is, of course, the primo place here in town for music. The orchestra is made up of about seventy five members. There is also a choral group that are made up of lawyers and judges and people who work in law offices. But in this concert on the 15th Hal Linden is going to perform, as well as Tom Dreeson, and Pat Boone will probably be there. Byrd the Bailiff from Judge Judy is going to sing. He’s got a beautiful voice and he’s going to sing What a Wonderful World. So I introduce the numbers.
Sam: How did you get involved with the orchestra?
June: Well, I knew Gary Greene through the Junior Philharmonic, and when he started doing the Lawyers Philharmonic I start going to rehearsals. Well he asked if I would emcee and, of course, I said yes.
Sam: How many shows do you do throughout the year?
June: We do two big concerts a year. We do this one at the Methodist church, and we do one in June or July at Disney Hall. They are six months apart, but it takes that long to get the music all in order for each concert. But they do very ambitious things. They do Beethoven and Mozart and Tchaikovsky. Interestingly enough, many of our most brilliant composters wanted to be lawyers first. Handle wanted to be a musician, but his parents hid is instruments. Tchaikovsky worked in the legal department at the department of ministry in Russia. These remarkable composters were lawyers.
Sam: This sounds like a yearlong commitment for everyone.
June: It’s a dedication. They show up every Monday for rehearsal, except for holidays, and they are absolutely wonderful. But some of the people in the band have had incredible careers in music. For example, Jay Hooper, who is a lawyer, plays the clarinet and is the lead alto sax. But he’s played with Les Brown, Perez Prado, Maynard Ferguson, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, James Taylor, John Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, Mel Brooks and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He’s really quite remarkable. To hear them is wonderful, and their dedication is complete. They show up every Monday. You can tell who was in court that day because they have a shirt and a tie and a jacket on, while the others come in more casually dressed.
Sam: And you are involved all year round?
June: Oh yes. All year round. I got to every Monday night rehearsal that I can, and every Thursday night Gary has started a big band. That’s seventeen guys who are all love swing music.
Sam: So this is a real passion for you too.
June: Oh yes. I was brought up in a home filled with music. My father, Gene Lockhart, was a composer, a singer, he played the piano, he was devoted to music, and we always had music in the house.
Sam: Well you came from an entertainment background. Both of your parents were very successful performers.
June: That’s right. Kathleen and Gene Lockhart.
Sam: You started in show business quite early as well, didn’t you?
June: Well not seriously. I made my debut at the age of eight at the Metropolitan Opera House in a pantomime sequence. I was studying ballet there at the time. Then, my first film appearance was playing my father and mother’s daughter in a version of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. That was in 1938 and I was twelve. Then I did a couple of more films when I was studying at Westlake School for Girls, but nothing seriously. They were lovely parts to do, and lovely experiences, but I was not a motion picture child. It was an opportunity to be in lovely films like All This, and Heaven Too with Bettie Davis, and Seargent York with Gary Cooper. Daddy said “Whether you want to be an actress when you grow up, these are lovely opportunities for you to have a fascinating experience and learn the discipline of what actors do on a set.” I kept up with my schoolwork while I was on the set and then went back into my classes at Westlake without having lost any of the work.
Sam: It was good that your father encouraged you like that, without pushing you into show business.
June: Well let me tell you a story about when I was going to do All this and Heaven Too. I was enrolled at a school called Marlborough School for Girls. Well I had an opportunity to do a screen test for All This, and Heaven Too and my father said “Just for the experience of the screen test, whether you get the job or not, just do it.” So I did it, and it was to play Charles Boyer’s daughter. So, as it happened, I got the part. So we went to talk to Mrs. Blake, who was the principal of Marlborough, and Daddy explained to her the lovely opportunity that I would have and please may I have all my assignments for the four or five weeks that I’d be doing the film so I would keep up with the class. Now this was the year that my father had been nominated for an Academy Award for Algiers and he was a well-respected actor. He was a composer, and author and a very well educated man. So Mrs. Blake listened to all of this and then she said “Well really, Mr. Lockhart, I would have no objection to June doing the film, but I really don’t think the parents of the other girls would want their daughters going to school with anyone in the movies.” There was a deadly hush. My father said “June. Go to your locker and get your book.” When I came back to the office, I was no longer a Marlborough girl. I don’t know what conversation went on between them, but on the way back in the car Daddy said to me “Today you saw of an example of the prejudice that this profession is sometimes regarded. But know this. It is a marvelous profession and one that you can be very proud of always.”
Sam: When did you decide to go into acting permanently?
June: There again it just unfolded naturally. After I graduated from Westalke I was still under contract to MGM where I had done a few films. Then I did Son of Lassie and then had the opportunity in 1947 to make my debut on Broadway in a play called For Love or Money. It just all unfolded. It dropped in my lap. It was effortless.
Sam: I need to ask you about working with Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis because that film is so beloved, and Judy is such an icon. I think that film is the prettiest she ever looked. What was she like to work with at that point of her career?
June: This is the story I usually tell. We would get in at 6:30 am, go into make-up, get dressed in those costumes, that were just beautiful, and we were dressed from the skin out in the Victoria costumes. Then we’d wait, and we’d wait, and then they’d finally send us to lunch. Then we’d come back and they’d say “Well you can all go home. Judy’s not coming in today.” Then another time they’d say “Judy’s just come through the gate. Go to lunch and come back at 2:30.” Well we’d come back and they’d say “No. She’s gone home so you can all go home.” So this went on a lot, but when she was finally ready to come into work she was front and center, funny, knew the dialogue, was absolutely on board and was an absolute joy to be with. She was delicious. It was absolutely wonderful working with her. She was very thin, and I guess at that time she was on uppers because the reason she wasn’t coming in in the morning was because she was sleeping after being awake all night. Amway, I gathered that’s what it was. But when she came in she was great, but it went on for days and days of us getting all ready and her not being there.
Sam: Another favorite of mine is She-Wolf of London.
June: (Laughs) Yes.
Sam: Which doesn’t have any actual werewolves, which is disappointing.
June: No. None at all.
Sam: Was that your only horror film for Universal?
June: I think so. Some of my films were horrific. (Laughs) No, I did a couple of television shows that were spooky. I enjoyed that a lot. It wasn’t an exceptionally good film, but not long after that I was on Broadway and won every award there was to win from the Tony to the Associated Press Award.
Sam: I was looking through your credits and, my God, was there anything you weren’t in?
June: (Laughs) Yes, but I’ve always been selective. I’ve never just done things because it was there. I’ve always turned down more things that I’ve done.
Sam: How do you pick a winner from something you don’t want to do?
June: You look at the script.
Sam: It’s as easy as that?
June: Oh yes.
Sam: Did you ever pick up anything you regretted later?
June: I don’t think so. No.
Sam: One thing that fascinated me was all the live anthology programs you were on in the late 50’s. Shows like Playhouse 90, Climax and Studio One. Was doing live television intense?
June: Yes, but as far as I was concerned it was a lark. It was great fun and you had a chance to rehearse in those days. You rehearsed for a week so you were very familiar with the material. Although I did one show where we went on the air without a last scene written. It was supposed to be during World War II and we were hiding out in a farm house in France or Belgium and we were fogged in, so nobody could get to us and rescue us. I was a jeep driver with all these men. We did actually go on the air without a last scene written. As the show was going on I kept saying to the floor manager “Where’s the last scene.” He said “They’re writing it.” I said “When do we get it?” He said “Don’t worry. They’re writing it.” So as we kept going and we kept getting closer and closer to the end of the show, I found out that I was to leave the kitchen out the back door, it was dark at night, and go to my jeep and he said to me “When you step out the back door to the jeep I’ve written the dialogue for you on the back seat of the jeep in chalk, so you’ll be able to read it. Then go around, sit at the steering wheel, and the rest of the scene is written on the dashboard. So that’s what we did. Do you know who that stage manager was? Dominick Dunne.
Sam: I was delighted to see that you did episodes of Kukla, Fran and Ollie! That show was such a landmark but seems to have been lost in the mists of pop culture.
June: Oh yes. I did that show a lot! They would come to New York and I’d do the show, or sometimes I’d go to Chicago and do the show. When Fran Allison took a vacation or had time off, I’d step in and do her part. I stood outside the little puppet theater and talked to Ollie and Kukla. It was on from fifteen minutes, from 6 pm to 6:15 in New York, and then it eventually went to a half hour. It was just wonderful. I adored Burr Tillstrom. He was a lovely man.
Sam: I grew up on reruns and classic television as a kid, and of course that meant I grew up watching you on Lassie and Lost in Space. The two shows could be no more different than each other.
June: That’s right.
Sam: I know in Lassie you came into the series as a replacement for Cloris Leachman. What was it like to come into a show as a replacement? Was it an easy transition?
June: Apparently. What I’ve heard is that one weekend Cloris Leachman was the mother, and the next weekend I was and they didn’t get one letter, one comment or nothing. I just slipped in there and started doing it.
Sam: Today on television they could never get away with that. They would have killed one of you off.
June: That’s right. Well Jack Rather Productions didn’t work that way. Cloris Leachman didn’t like the job very much, and they weren’t too pleased with her. So when it came down to renew her contract they just didn’t. I had already turned down the part three times.
Sam: Really? What made you change your mind and finally take it?
June: I had been living in New York and had moved to California and was in the middle of a divorce and had two children to support. I ran into Bonita Granville and Robert Golden, the producers, at a red light on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. I greeted them because I knew both of them since I was twelve years old. We had kind of grown up in this town. Well after much greetings, Bob called out “I wish you’d do the mother in the Lassie series for us.” I said “Well, I’ll do it for a year.” Well he said “That’s not long enough.” I said “Well, I’m sorry” but as I drove home I thought “What am I being so damn grand about?” I had two children to support and I have all these responsibilities and this was heaven sent. So I called my agent when I got home and said “See what they are offering and let’s talk about it.” I tested for it and then the Campbell’s Soup Company waited about two months before they okayed me because it was 1958 and they had to make sure you weren’t a subversive character. So I was hired and I started to work. I did it for six years.
Sam: What was it like to have a dog as the primary star of a show you were on?
June: Well, when I was under contract to MGM one of the first big movies I made was Son of Lassie, which was the second Lassie that was done. So when my name came up for the series Rudd Weatherwax said “Oh yeah. Get her. She knows how to work with the dog.”
Sam: It wasn’t the same dog, was it?
June: No. We went through four dogs while I was doing the series. The first one was named Pal. But it was all the same training which means that there was a certain way that the performers had to work with the dog. Often the dog is being cued to look in one direction or the other while you were acting your scene. So you would read your line, pause, one of the two trainers told the dog to turn his head or look up at the actor he was working with where the trainer is up a ladder with a piece of meat whispering “Lassie. Lassie.” That would make the dog turn around and make it look like he was looking at the other actor. Then the next person reads his line, you wait until the dog is told to turn his head again at the additional piece of meat, and so on. You eventually get to where you don’t even hear the trainer calling the dog to turn around.
Sam: it sounds like there was a certain rhythm to working with the dog.
June: Absolutely, and then they just cut out the voice of the trainer.
Sam: Then you went to Lost in Space. I know you’ve heard it a billion times from people who grew up on it but that show was what childhood dreams were made of.
Sam: And you were working with some great people – Guy Williams and Johnathan Harris and Irwin Allen. What made you go into science fiction?
June: Well, I was hired to do an episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. During the first day rushes Irwin Allen came on the set and said “Do you want to do another series?” I said “Yes, I want to.” He said “I have one that I’m doing called Space Family Robinson. It’s all about space. Let me give you the script and you can read it and let me know if you’re interested tomorrow.” So I read it and I thought it was great and I said “I’d love to do it.” So I was the first person hired for the cast. The rest were all sort of cast around me. Guy Williams was a wonderful choice. Johnathan Harris, as you know, joined us as a very bad villain and then they changed it to a comedy part. He was a very difficult man to work with.
Sam: Why is that?
June: Well, he wrote all his own dialogue for the last two years. He just didn’t have any sense of congeniality. Let’s put it that way.
Sam: I’ve spoken to a number of child actors who all spoke to me about the thrill of meeting Guy Williams when he was on Zorro. He really was the kind of guy kids looked up to. The true figure of a childhood hero. I’ve never spoke to an adult actor who played opposite of him. What was he like to work with?
June: He was an absolutely charming, educated, bright, smart man. Well-read and absolutely a musicologist. He knew everything about every composer, who their mistress was, how long they were with them, where they lived, where they were buried. He really was remarkable. So we started bringing in recordings on .78’s to play and we had music going on in the dressing room all the time. We would keep the door open and people would come and stand in the door and listened to a little Schumann or a little Tchaikovsky. It was a real musical education. So you can see that I’ve been able to have music around me all the time. He had a lovely wit and was much underused in that series. It’s really a shame. But, Johnathan just took over the show and they let him do it. I was told once at a meeting with all the writers and people who were in the production that Irwin was overheard saying “Where is my family? What happened to my family in this series?”
Sam: Lost in Space changed its tone so many times. It started as a strict sci-fi series, then turned into a kids show, then got really psychedelic and then moved into time travel. Were you comfortable with the constant change of the series? How did you roll with those punches?
June: I was under contract and I don’t believe that you break a contract. You finish out the run and then you go onto the next thing, and as it was I went onto Petticoat Junction.
Sam: Petticoat Junction wasn’t a series I got to see until I was an adult but I got really addicted by it. I think it was Paul Henning’s most charming series. How did you get involved in that series?
June: Paul Henning and I were friends. We had mutual friends and I saw him a lot. So when my contract ended I dropped him a message telling him I was now out of my silver [space suit]. My thoughts was that he had three successful shows on the air and, surely, he must have a fourth on in the works and maybe that there would be a part for me. It never occurred to me that I’d go into one of the shows that he already had on the air.
Sam: You came in as a replacement for Bea Benaderet, who had just died. She was such a major element of the success of that show. Was it a sad set to be on?
June: I can tell you this. I heard this from one of the actors. It was the day of my first scene. Bea had been gone for many months by this time. I walked on the set and said “Good morning everybody” and this actor told me “We knew from that moment that everything was fine.” I just called it out and joined the company. It was another job and they welcomed me in.
Sam: Well, in many ways Petticoat Junction was a series that had to roll with a lot of punches. They had a number of deaths during the run of the series, and for the exception of Linda Henning, they replaced the girls multiple times. They were adding characters all the time to the series as well.
June: Well Paul Henning was such a master at writing, and he integrated me so easily and so legitimately. I was not the mother. I was the lady doctor that lived at the hotel. I was not related to them in any way. I just set up shop. It was a clever way of bringing me in.
Sam: More writers should have observed the way that Paul Henning did things at that time.
June: It was effortless, and it was a seamless introduction. It was just a joy to do. Great fun. Working with Edgar Buchanan was a hoot. He would tell the dirties stories right up to the time that they did the [clapboard]. You’d have to recompose your face because he would tell you something that was so funny. He was just a dear.
Sam: With all the shows you’ve been on, and the length of time you’ve been involved in film and television, I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of changes in the business.
June: Yes I have, especially in the way they are shot. In the olden days we used to rehearse. I did a film not long ago that is still not released, and I was in scenes with people who were just adlibbing their way through. We hadn’t rehearsed. So finally I was working with this one young man and he was adlibbing all over the place and suddenly he just stopped, and the cameras were rolling. I said to him “Are you through?” He said “Yes.” Then I read my line, which was a plot point that we had to get in. I knew they just would catch up me asking “Are you through.”
Sam: That’s incredible. Do you ever see any of the shows that you appeared in?
June: Right now on MeTV, at 11 pm, Lost in Space is on. So I’m watching it because I didn’t get to watch it at the time. My then husband wasn’t too anxious to sit down and look at the show. Of course, when it was on, we had to get up at 6 in the morning, so I didn’t get to see them. So I’m having a hoot watching them now. And Lassie is on Trinity Broadcasting every Saturday morning at 9 pm, and Petticoat Junction is on at 6 am every morning on MeTV.
Sam: When you watch Lost in Space now, what is it like for you? Do you see ones you forgot making?
June: Oh yes. Absolutely. I have no memory of shooting certain scenes.
Sam: It must also be interesting to see the show in a different perspective. Do you feel the series has held up?
June: Well, again, it became the Johnathan Harris Show.
Sam: Yes, but it really fascinated a lot of us kids over the decades.
June: Well, one of the things that Lost in Space brought to me in later years was a great involvement in NASA since 1970. Amongst my list of pals I have many astronauts that have said that they watched the show as children and knew what they wanted to do when they grew up. They wanted to go into the space program.
Sam: What kind of work have you done with NASA?
June: Well, when they call me to speak to their employees, I do it. I’ve done a lot of promotional work for them. I got out to JPL to all kinds of launches. I go all the time out there. This past year, absolutely, out of the blue as a complete surprise, NASA gave me a gold medal for public service and raising people’s awareness about space. I have some dear friends in the astronaut core. One man, Bill McArthur, was up on the space station for six months. One night the phone rang and I picked up and said “Hello” and the voice on the other end said “Hello. June? This is Bill McArthur calling you from space.” I was so thrilled! He said we can talk for twenty eight minutes because we are coming down the West Coast of the United States. When we get to the bottom of South America I will lose you.” Well we had three phone calls and he finally said to me “Can we have a video conference? Can you go to JPL?” I said “What time do you want me?” So we got it all set up and I went over and we had a video conference. He was up there all alone with a Russian, so the Russian was on the back end in his part of the space station, and Bill was in the other part. So we had sent him a copy of A Christmas Carol and Meet Me in St. Louis and a big poster of me in Lost in Space. So when I went to JPL I said “Did you get the movies and the poster?” So picture this man floating casually up and down, floating and turning slowly around and indicating something over his right shoulder. Well the poster was on the wall and he said “You’re the first pin-up in space.” Isn’t that divine?
Whether lost in space or standing inside an orchestra pit, there is no denying that June Lockhart is a living pop culture legend. I was delighted by her openness of sharing with me some of her amazing stories. An incredibly warm woman, June Lockhart deserves her place as one of the great television matriarchs of all time. For more information on The Los Angeles Lawyers Philharmonic visit http://www.lalawyersphil.org/.