That day, on MGM's Sounds Stage 25, where much
of Knots Landing is filmed, Michele Lee was throwing her weight
around. The show was going on location the following week in
Altadena, Cal., about an hour and a half away, and Lee rightly
wanted a car and driver to take her there and back in the early-morning
and late-evening hours. The show's production company, Lorimar,
is not one that is easily pressed into spending additional money.
As Michele Lee noisily pursued her objective with various production
people, she met with helpless, noncommittal stares.
Finally, Lee blocked the path of an assistant production manager
with her wiry, 5-foot-8-inch dancer's body. In high heels, she
towered over the young man and twisted her usually cheery visage
into a satanic scowl. "Listen, Joe," she warned him,
"either I get that car and driver next week or you're going
to have a very unhappy star on your hands." Joe slunk away
to order the car and driver. Michele Lee has this kind of clout
in a show with a giant cast because if anybody is the star,
it is she. This was not true only a few weeks before last season's
filming began. It was then that she became the unknowing beneficiary
of a daytime-soap-opera phenomenon that apparently has seeped
into night-time soap opera. It seems that if you ask your agent
to "renegotiate" your contract (that is, request more
money), you run the risk of having your character suffer a rather
That's exactly what happened to Don Murray; he played Lee's
husband, Sid Fairgate, for the first two years of the series
and then went over a cliff in a tampered-with car. The accident
was not originally intended to be fatal. All of last season's
scripts were planned with the idea that Fairgate would survive
the crash. But somewhere in the renegotiation-of-contract process,
Sid Fairgate's injuries became more serious. He died in the
second episode -and Don Murray left the show "to pursue
his own career objectives," as it was announced to the
press. Lee, playing Karen Fairgate, knew nothing of it until
August, when she attended a dinner for CBS honcho Bud Grant.
After the dinner, David Jacobs, creator/executive producer of
Knots Landing, came over to Lee and said, "Let's sit down
for a minute and talk." Jacobs told her about the impending
departure of Sid Fairgate/Don Murray. "I know how much
you like Don, he said, "but this is good for you. It opens
up your part. You will be the main focus of the show while Karen
Fairgate overcomes her greif, deals with her children, gets
involved with other men, and so on."
Because she admired Murray as an actor, Lee was shocked. But
she recovered quickly. "OK," she said, "now I
want to renegotiate my contract-and get a bigger dressing room."
Both she and Jacobs recall that she said this with "a
twinkle in her eye." Muses Lee, "Without the twinkle,
Karen Fairgate would have been walking on the beach under the
cliff, and Sid Fairgate's car would have come crashing down
on top of her."
And so, by this hazardous route, Michele Lee became the central
figure in Knots Landing, much as the principal plot lines in
sister-show Dallas (also created by Jacobs) have come to revolve
around Larry Hagman. Unlike Hagman's manipulative J.R., however,
Lee's Karen Fairgate dominates with guile, intelligence and
a shrewd understanding of the lascivious pursuits and nefarious
machinations of her neighbors. Also, according to both the actress
and Jacobs, there is a lot of Michele Lee in Karen Fairgate.
All this becomes apparent when you watch her at work at MGM.
For example, Lee was called into a meeting with Jacobs and executive
story editor Ann Marcus to help determine how Karen would realistically
express her greif at the loss of Sid. "Well," said
Lee, "as you know, I'm in the midst of a personal loss
myself. After 15 years of marriage, James Farentino and I split
up. I think Karen would do the same things I did. I didn't remove
my wedding ring for three months, until I was ready to go in
the world as a single person again. I must fill in for Jim with
our 12-year-old son, David, helping him with his homework and
going to school functions with him. I still don't let anyone
sit in Jim's chair at the dinner table." Jacobs and Marcus
listened as Lee went on in this vein for about 20 minutes. Everything
she said was incorporated into the scripts.
On the set, Lee is the undisputed queen bee. At 38, she has
more stage and screen credits than anyone else (with the exception
of Julie Harris), having begun her career as the singing-dancing-acting
female lead in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really
Trying"-both the Broadway and film versions-in 1962.
Lee's physical presence also is impressive. She is taller than
all the other women, and one of the men, in the cast, and she
stands out as the only ethnic-looking-brown-eyed brunette in
covey of Middle America-type blondes. She has the loudest voice,
one that reverberates commandingly around the rafters of the
ancient sound stage. Also, because her late father, Jack Dusick,
was a makeup man at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for many years, she
receives affection and constant kidding from the crew, many
of whom worked with him.
Example: Propwoman Renita Lorden is setting a table for a scene
in a Chinese restaurant in which Lee is to dine with Ted Shakelford,
playing Gary Ewing. She says to Lee, "Last week, in that
ice-cream-parlor scene, you ate up five three-scoop sundaes
before the cameras even rolled. With that appetite, how do you
stay so skinny? Today, I'm not putting out the Chinese food
until the rehearsals are over. Else, I'll have to drive a couple
of miles to get more."
With other members of the cast, Michele Lee is combination
sorority sister, den mother and good ol' girl.
Example: Joan Van Ark comes over to her on the set with a poster
she has made. In the lower-left corner there is a photo of Lee,
taken from a publicity shot, in which Karen Fairgate's face
is contorted with grief over the death of Sid Fairgate. In the
upper-right-hand corner, there is a photo of a ferocious-looking
James Farentino aiming a huge pistol at the Karen Fairgate head.
Van Ark has hand-lettered a caption reading, "It's so refreshing
these days to see a couple who can take their seperation in
Example: Lee and Shakelford chide one another about how profane
their speech patterns have become over the summer. They try
to top one another with pruient talk. Shakelford has the last
word when Lee says she has to go to her dressing room to change
clothes. He says, "I'd like to watch. I need a little comedy
after what we've been filming on the set."
Sometimes, however, some steel becomes evident beneath Michele
Lee's velvet glove.
Example: In one scene, Shakelford inadvertently holds up a
sheaf of papers, casting an obscuring shadow on Lee's face.
She barks, "Don't you ever, ever do that to a star."
Everyone laughs, but no one can be certain that she didn't mean
The daily Michele Lee Show thus goes on within the context
of the making of Knots Landing. Watching both shows proceed
at the same time, Julie Harris marvels that such an expert actress
could have emerged from the impish song-dance-comedy performer
that Michele Lee was-and still is. "The transition,"
says Michele, "wasn't easy."
In explaining it to Donna Mills one day on the set, Lee recalled
the ups and downs that finally led her to what amounts to a
third period of stardom. "When I graduated from Alexander
Hamilton High School in 1960," she said, "I got lucky
by trying out for a local revue, 'Vintage '60,' which David
Merrick saw and brought to Broadway. After that I went right
into a show called 'Bravo Giovanni' and then into 'How to Succeed
in Business Without Really Trying.' When I married Jim Farentino
and our son David was born, I had to stay closer home and I
guess I got myself another kind of stardom-of sorts--singing
and dancing as a guest on TV variety shows. When variety shows
became scarce, I sat myself down and said, 'You're not working
very often, Michele, so you'd better swith gears and learn how
to be a dramatic actress.' Besides, with all that dancing, my
knees were giving out. So I started by doing a couple of Love
Boats, and I worked myself up to serious stuff in TV-movies."
Jacobs fills in the rest of the story. He says, "When
we were preparing Knots Landing as a spinoff from Dallas, my
co-executive producer Michael Filerman came to me and said he'd
just met Michele Lee at a party and that she is Karen Fairgate
in the flesh. Two weeks earlier, I would have laughed Michael
out of our office, but I had just seen Michele in 'Bud and Lou,'
doing a remarkable straight acting job as Lou Costello's long-suffering
wife. She was so different from the singing and dancing Michele
that I could hardly believe it. We called her in and made a
deal that we've never regretted."
Recently, Michele Lee was reflecting on these events in her
little dressing room (all members of the cast of Knots Landing
have little dressing rooms without toilets or running water).
The editing rooms of MGM are just a few feet away. They were
splicing together a Knots Landing episode and suddenly Lee's
voice came blaring in. "Hey that's me," she yelled
and went running out into the street, imploring the editing
personnel to repeat the sound track. They obliged. Anything
for Jack Dusick's daughter.
She came back, glowing. But her mood changed as her eye fell
on a photo of Don Murray, whom she still reveres, and then on
the poster just presented to her by Joan Van Ark. She stared
at the paste-up of James Farentino aiming that enormous gun
at her head.
She was silent for a moment. Then she furiously brushed her
glistening dark hair and said, "Ah, well, it's time for
the star to go to work."
Copyright KnotsLanding.Net 2003