In the early- to mid-1950s, Universal's bustling stable of stock players had starlets for every type of role, but few played the variety of roles tackled by Mara Corday; one might find her in a movie as an Indian squaw (Raw Edge), or a Middle Eastern maiden (Yankee Pasha), a flirty French gal (So This Is Paris) or a Western leading lady (The Man From Bitter Ridge).

The actress who looked right at home in the studio's backlot palaces and saloons -- and who helped save the world from the mighty Tarantula -- was born Marilyn Watts in Santa Monica, 17 years before she ever put her foot on the bottom step of the show biz ladder, dancing in the back row of the chorus in "Earl Carroll's Revue" at the famed showman's theater-restaurant in Hollywood. Modeling for photographers led to wider exposure and ultimately to television roles and bit parts in low-budget movies. She was in every type of B picture that Universal made during her stint at that studio, then (as a freelancer) saved the world again, not only from The Black Scorpion but also from The Giant Claw. She gave up acting to concentrate on marriage and motherhood during her 17 tumultuous years as the wife of actor Richard Long (77 Sunset Strip, The Big Valley); since his 1974 death, she's been playing supporting roles in her friend Clint Eastwood's movies, just as he had played a tiny role in one of hers (Tarantula).

TOM WEAVER: How did you break into pictures?

MARA CORDAY: A lot of the [Earl Carroll] girls moonlighted -- they did the show, and then they did extra work in the daytime. Two of them did quite a bit of it and they kept talking about being an extra. And I thought, 'Gee, I think I'll try to get to be an extra. But before that happened I got into this play on Highland, in a theater right across from Hollywood High School. The theater was called Charm Unlimited, and they put on little plays and charged $8 to get in. The play was The Time of Your Life by William Saroyan, and Walter Kohner was in it as a joke -- his older brother as Paul Kohner, who was one of the top agents out there, he had all the Hollywood creme de la creme. Paul Kohner came to see the show, to see his brother, and there I was -- I played the part of Mary L. He came backstage and he said, "Would you be interested in signing with our agency?" And I was just shocked! I said, "My God, of course!" So I went over and I read something for him, and he said, "Okay, sign here." And then he began to represent me and I started doing television -- little schlocky things like Kit Carson and Craig Kennedy, Criminologist, and Jeffrey Jones, Private Eye. I don't know who today would remember any of them, they were like the worst of the worst.

Q: What made them bad?

MARA: Oh, God, the acting -- the people they hired were terrible. Well, for instance, me! The star of one 'em was Donald Woods, and he was right in the middle of a nervous breakdown. They had to cart him out one day and that killed the show, he wound up in a mental hospital somewhere!

Q: Before Universal, in addition to your television work, you also worked in the occasional "small" movie.

MARA: Yes, like Problem Girls [1953], which I just saw again. It was done in a big mansion called the Brunswick Mansion on Adams Boulevard in L.A. It was the most horrible sound system and the lighting was just atrocious because we were in a house not in a real studio. And it was directed by a man [E.A. Dupont] who was like 90 years old. He had done a classic German picture called Variety [1925], he could barley speak English, and he was just hanging by a thread! Helen Walker, the star of that film, had just gotten arrested for hit-and-run and it literally destroyed her career, because she was guilty, she was drunk -- and she was drinking all through the picture, too. The director would yell up, "Quiet!," and she'd yell down, "F you!"

Q: I wanted to ask you about Allison Hayes, and also about two other Universal contract players that have passed on, Mari Blanchard and Susan Cabot.

MARA: Oh. I adored Allison, she and I were very dear friends. I didn't make many friends over there, but Allison did become a friend for some reason, I don't know why. I guess because she was so genuine, she had not a jealous bone in her body. She was a giving person. But she wasn't used nearly enough by Universal, she was one of the ones they cast aside, they never really pushed her over there. Very statuesque, beautiful face -- but they didn't push her. She didn't get any real credit until after she left Universal. We lost touch because I got married, but we'd run into each other at different places and throw our arms around each other and all that. But once I got married, I just sort of put blinders on and concentrated on my children; that was the most important thing in my life, my family.

Mari Blanchard, oh, my God, I loved Mari. I always thought Mari had the greatest walk -- she'd swing those hips back and forth! She didn't get too friendly with people, but I'm happy to say I got to see her just before she died. She got very ill with cancer and died at the Motion Picture Home. She was a very sweet girl.

Susan Cabot? Well, Susan was very weird, a strange little girl. She had this enormous head and then this little tiny body, and she was paranoid.

Q: How did you get involved in Tarantula?

MARA: Well, they just tell you, "Look, your next picture is going to be Tarantula." And I said, "That's fine with me," because it was Jack Arnold and I got along great with Jack. He was a prankster, and I happen to like a very fun set, I like to tell jokes and kid around and that's what he did. It was fine except I didn't like the wardrobe, I thought it was really conservative. I thought maybe I could at least wear a negligee for the ending -- the whole last part of that show was me running away from this tarantula in a night outfit. But they said, "Oh, no, not on your life" -- I had to wear pajamas, and even a light cover over that! So there was no sex appeal there.

Q: Was Arnold a good director?

MARA: He was not the kind of director who gives you a lot, but then, in this kind of film, what's there to do? There's not much plot. You're at the mercy of the "fright," the "horror," or whatever. You're at the mercy of the special effects people, 'cause if they don't do a good job, then the whole picture goes in the toilet. For instance, The Giant Claw.

Q: What memories of John Agar?

MARA: Poor John, he was just coming out of a slump. He was like a brother to me, he was very quiet, very respectful, but he couldn't drink, you could not give this man a drink of alcohol. He'd turn into something else. Luckily, I did not see that, because he was straight-arrow on that set, he did a fine little job for us and we got along great.

Q: What about Clint Eastwood, who was just starting in pictures then?

MARA: Well, Clint is my "brother," I adore Clint Eastwood. Next to Roddy McDowall, I thing he's the most loyal human being in the business. He's just a love and he's got this sardonic, wry humor. I love him as a director -- he's so easy, it's like play. It's not like work at all.

Q: Using cheesecake as a springboard -- any regrets, looking back on that?

Oh, no -- that was probably the launching pad for me. But Universal certainly didn't utilize any of that at all; in fact, in films they put me in, I was all covered up. They always brushed out [of photographs] this little mole I have between my cleavage, 'cause it would draw attention. Ridiculous! I did do a lot of cheesecake there, anyway, in [photo sessions], but they never let me portray anything sexy in their movies. I was an Indian or a scientist or a Western girl; they gave all the sexy roles to Mamie Van Doren, she was a little vamp.

Q: Without wishing to open any old wounds, what can you tell me about The Giant Claw?

MARA: When I went in to meet Mr. [Sam] Katzman, who was the producer, he was raving on and on about the wonderful special effects people in Mexico that he had hired. "Boy, this is gonna be something! I'm spending most of the budget on the special effects!" So when we made the movie and we were supposedly looking at the giant bird, I was envisioning something really horrifying. And when I saw the movie, I couldn't believe it! It was incredible!

Q: Was that first meeting with Katzman your only encounter with him?

MARA: No, I saw him again the first day [we shot] at Griffith Park. He came out, and I was getting a cup of coffee, and he said, "You look like hell. Don't you go to bed at night?" I apologized; I felt horrible, because my dear husband had given a party the night before, when I was trying to learn these lines. And so I had to go to my mother's house with my tape recorder to learn the lines. Every time I did work, Richard saw to it that I would not be able to do my best. He did some kind of sabotage to me, every time. So when I did come back from my mother's, the party was in full swing and they kept me up the whole night with the loud noise. It was a nightmare.

Q: He did this to be "funny" or to be mean?

MARA: No, he did it to ruin me. He didn't want me working. He made that very obvious.

Q: Fred F. Sears, the director of The Giant Claw?

MARA: Fred was a very nervous man, I felt. A man without any sense of humor whatsoever. Just very frightened -- not loose at all. Uptight. Of course, Jeff Morrow was very uptight, too. He treated that film like we were doing Shakespeare or something. He was a very serious man. The Giant Claw was all done at one studio -- it was called the Columbia annex, a little studio right near where Monogram used to be. I think it was made in about nine days.

Q: Where did you see the movie for the fist time?

MARA: Seems to me I saw it at a theater with Richard, and I slunk down in the seat. I said, "Oh, my God, isn't this dreadful!" Then I started to think, 'Maybe Richard's right, I'd better get out of the business, if this is what I'm gonna be doing!" He thought it was dreadful, too.

Q: To keep peace in the family, you later gave up acting?

MARA: I did, because it was just getting too much. I will say this, that during the filming of [an episode of] SurfSide 6, we were all going to go to The Smoke House [to have a drink]. In a weak moment I said, "Well, Richard, why don't you join us?" He said okay. Richard had already had three drinks to our one. We had been there about thirty-five, forty minutes when he stood up after belting these drinks down and he announced that he's drunk and he's going home and am I coming with him? I said, "No, I'm not going right now, I'm still sipping on my drink and I'm enjoying the time, and if he wanted to go, go ahead, I'd see him at the house.

That humiliated him, so when I finally did show up, two hours later, I was greeted by a madman who grabbed my throat, threw me on the couch and started strangling me. A cowboy bandleader named Spade Cooley had just killed his wife by strangling her, and that's all I could envision: That I would be dead. So I brought my knees up, kicked him in the crotch -- grabbed my keys -- and ran out. Went to my mother and father's house, about 15 minutes from my house. They weren't home, so I fell asleep in the car. Anyway, to make a long story short, I tried to get back into the house and he wouldn't let me, so I called the police and had him arrested. The police asked him, "Did you try to kill your wife?" and he said, "Yes, and I'll do it again, the dirty bitch." So the handcuffs behind the back and off he went to jail. And it got in the papers and it was a terrible thing, but I was glad it did because, I'm telling you, if you don't get them arrested, you could be dead. (I'm thinking of O.J. now, you know.) And he never struck me again after that.

Q: And he passed away in the mid-seventies?

MARA: He died December 21, 1974, at Tarzana Hospital, at twenty minutes of two. Just before the bars closed.

Q: Are you aware that you have a lot of fans?

MARA: Well, I'm beginning to realize that.

Q: Do you want to work more than you do?

MARA: Oh, yeah. I enjoy acting. But it's not like it used to be. I sort of enjoy being semi-retired and just maybe working behind the camera now, because I've gotten myself involved with my oldest son -- he's trying to put together a Big Valley reunion show. He wrote a treatment and I've helped him with that, and it looks like there's going to be interest at NBC. I spoke to Linda Evans and she's all gung ho to do it, and Lee Majors, also. I'm sort of involved in that, and I've also written a story about Richard and his first wife, which is a bittersweet love story. Her name was Suzan Ball, and she was Lucille Ball's first cousin. I've done the other [acting], and now I think producing and writing would be interesting for me. And maybe I could also act in these pictures -- and maybe not just a few lines here and there!

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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