The drama of Clintongate gripped the nation for months, and one of its central characters -- Whitewater figure Susan McDougal, fresh from a stint in the pokey -- is currently on trial AGAIN, accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from world-famous conductor Zubin Mehta when she worked for him and his wife from 1989 to 1992. The defense counters that Mehta's wife Nancy was jealously obsessed with McDougal, claims that Nancy has fabricated the charges, and addresses jurors about this "crime of passion -- Nancy Mehta's passion and her passion for Susan."

We leave these sticky issues to that august court, preferring to cross- examine Nancy Mehta -- a.k.a. Nancy Kovack -- on her B-movie past. A native of Flint, Michigan, Kovack was a student at the University of Michigan at 15, a radio deejay at 16, a college grad at 19 and the holder of eight beauty titles by 20. Her professional acting career began on New York TV and included stints on The Jackie Gleason Show, The Today Show and Beat the Clock; a stage role later opened Hollywood doors for Kovack, who signed with Columbia and played in such films as Strangers When We Meet, Cry for Happy and The Great Sioux Massacre. Her best-remembered role came early in her career, as the alluring high priestess Medea in Columbia's Jason and the Argonauts. In addition to sharing the screen with Jason's stop-motion monsters, Kovack has also married an astronaut (in Marooned), been awed by an Ape Man (in Tarzan and the Valley of Gold) and pawed by Vincent Price (in the period horror thriller Diary of a Madman.)

Tom Weaver: Do you recall how you became involved with Jason and the Argonauts?

Nancy Kovack: Being a Columbia contractee, we just did what we were told. But I was very happy to go abroad at that time -- I was very young. Jason and the Argonauts was shot at the exact place in Italy where the legend was set. For instance, when our Argonauts sailed around a certain cape, the real one had in fact sailed around that very same cape.

Q: Did you enjoy working in Italy?

Nancy: Oh, I loved it. We were there a long time, as I recall, longer than we were expected to be, and I've had a very warm place in my heart for that part of Italy. It's like a second home. We were there for something like four months.

Q: Do you remember meeting the producers, Charles Schneer and Ray Harryhausen?

Nancy: Charles Schneer, yes, I knew him well and I thought he was wonderful. I enjoyed his wife -- she was there -- and I think his children were there, too. It was a very family-like situation. And Ray Harryhausen was on the set constantly. A very dignified, noble, quiet, "still" man -- I appreciated that, and had a great respect for hm. A very gentle man as well. And the special effects which he added to the film were phenomenal -- I don't even have to say that. For that period, they were unique, were they not?

Q: How did you prepare for your dance scene in Jason?

Nancy: Charles Schneer sent me to Rome a week ahead of time to learn this so-called dance. But it wasn't structured very well; in other words, I wasn't given much instruction in it, and I thought it was a little weak. And I also thought, at the time and in retrospect, that it was meant to be suggestive and erotic etc., and [disapprovingly] I find that's a great form of titillation in films. And that's all I have to say about that ... !

Q: Any other Jason anecdotes?

Nancy: It used to be very cold in the morning, and we'd have to get up at four a.m. sometimes in order to be ready for a six a.m. sunrise. We were in the village of Palinuto, in the shin of Italy. It was freezing, and I had a purple sweater that was very warm. And I was told that I couldn't wear the sweater because the color purple was offensive to the people of the village! Purple meant death, and I was asked not to wear it. I said "but I love this sweater!" It was all I had, and we had no access to other clothing, etc. I also remember staying long times on that ship, because the shooting was very difficult. I can't say why particularly, but shooting took a long time. But in general I just remember a great deal of warmth from everyone involved and from the Palinuto people.

Q: Any recollections of Todd Armstrong [Jason}?

Nancy: He was a nice boy, the son of someone who was a friend of someone at Columbia -- as I understand it, that's how he was given the part. He found it phenomenal that I learned a little Italian before I went there. He was always frustrated and seemed sometimes disturbed, I don't know why. He was reactionary. And subsequent to that I understand he left the business.

Q: What did you think of the picture?

Nancy: I think it's a fine record for the legend, and I think that is important. I also feel that it's important for young people to see these things as opposed to other things that we may be seeing today. I do feel that society is deteriorating because of many of the effects of films.

Q: You next appeared in a Vincent Price picture, Diary of a Madman, for United Artists.

Nancy: I must have been loaned out for that, because I couldn't do anything other than what Columbia agreed to. I enjoyed working with Vincent Price on Diary of a Madman; he was very respectful, and I found that unusual. I knew that I wasn't known, and yet he was very respectful of me and kindly -- he didn't have to be. He was professional, and I appreciated that. I remember that just before the scene where he kills me with the knife, Vincent was tickling me and I was laughing, and I couldn't stop laughing after that!

Q: Did you pose for the painting, sketches and bust of you that are seen in the film?

Nancy: No, I think they took a photograph and used that to do the painting and the bust; I think the busts were broken in the picture.

Q: You had a director from the old school in Reginald LeBorg.

Nancy: I had great empathy for him and sympathy for him. He was a good director, a fine director, and I respected him highly. Subsequent to that he didn't do much in the way of films and he wanted to, and I felt very badly about that.

Q: Diary of a Madman really wasn't much of a picture.

Nancy: I think these are all kind of "light" pictures, and they don't get heavier with time. I was very happy to be working. I don't know if you know the debilitating feeling of being under contract and not working. You're not permitted to work anywhere else, and you're really their puppet. And if you're not working, it's so debilitating, mentally and emotionally. So I was just very grateful to work.

Q: Do you spend much time looking at your own movies?

Nancy: No. I never see them, never. I'm a little embarrassed -- in fact a lot embarrassed. And sometimes I can't bear to see them!

Q: You turned up in the borderline sci fi film Marooned.

Nancy: What I remember about Marooned is that I had severely damaged my leg and could hardly stand, and [producer] Mike Frankovich saying, "If you weren't an actress, you'd be in a hospital!" It was a very small part. Marooned was my last film. I met Zubin Mehta and we were married.

Q: Whose decision was it that you curtail your acting career?

Nancy: My husband's. I do sometimes miss the camaraderie of show business, but I am so busy that there seems not to be any space. I love my marriage. I just try to be a good wife and do the best that I can in my marriage. That's all.

Q: Throughout the 10 years you were an actress, you kept busy and worked opposite a number of top stars. Are you happy with your career?

Nancy: Oh, no -- absolutely not! I feel it was very shallow, and that I never was able to play a real person. I was perceived as a girl with combed hair and lipstick, and no matter what I would do they would not give me the role of a real woman. I wanted that and I could have done that -- easily and well. But I don't think there's one film that I can point to that really represents what I might have done. And consequently there's not one film or role that I look at of which I'm proud, not one which I would recommend to anyone to see. It's a very sad statement, isn't it?

Tom Weaver is the author of Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks, Attack of the Monster Movie Makers and many others available from McFarland & Co.

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