Film and TV

Yvonne Craig on Long, Strange Journey From Oak Cliff to the Ballet Russe to the Batcave

Should you need me 'round 3 today I'll be moderating a Q&A at the Plano Centre with Nichelle Nichols, former singer with the Duke Ellington Band, star of the James Baldwin play Blues for Mister Charlie and -- oh, right -- Star Trek's original Lt. Uhura. Nichols is here for that Sci-Fi Expo celebrating the Women of Sci-Fi -- among them V and Firefly's Morena Baccarin, Battlestar Galactica's Tricia Helfer and Katee Sackhoff, Buck Rogers and Silver Spoons' Erin Gray and, as we noted a few weeks back, Batgirl Yvonne Craig, who came this close to graduating from Sunset High School.

Craig says she doesn't do many conventions these days. She stopped about six years ago after a 10-year-run and is only coming to this one because she likes event co-organizer Ben Stevens, considers him a friend. And sister Meridel, also Craig's manager, has "tons of friends" still in Dallas, with whom they'll spent the days after the convention antiquing their way through town.

"I said, 'Everybody who's wanted to see me has seen me, and if they haven't, it's their fault, not mine, because I was around,'" Craig says, laughing, of her decision to hop off the convention circuit. "I think you should leave not when people are saying, 'My God, is she back?'"

On the other side, we play some catch-up with Craig -- and find out, among other things, why she never got her diploma from Sunset.

So, despite several Dallas ISD websites claims to the contrary, you didn't graduate from Adamson or Sunset. How'd you wind up one PE credit short of a diploma, given you were, you know, a dancer?

I didn't have the best experience in Dallas schools. [She laughs.] I remember, I once asked the principal if I could have a French class, and he said 'Yes, if you can find a teacher who will teach it.' And I said, "Mr. Johns at Sunset will teach it," and I got 14 students to sign up, and then the principal said, 'Well, I'm not going to do it because I don't know where you'll ever use it.'

I had enough credits to get into college. I just didn't have a PE credit, and it was my fault. I wouldn't dress, and I wouldn't play. I always had an excuse. At that time we didn't know I didn't have any depth perception [she laughs] and why I never could catch anything. But I was missing a quarter of a credit for PE. And I didn't get a diploma because of it. Which is fine with me. I wernt to UCLA and took a couple of courses, so it wasn't like I was penalized in any manner. It was just a piece of paper. But Mr [C.C.] Miller, the principal at the time, later went on the school board, and he didn't want to jeopardize his future. [She laughs.]

You know, several Adamson alumni websites claim you as a grad.

Isn't that crazy? We moved to Texas when I was 14. I was in the top half of the ninth grade at Greiner Middle School for that half grade, then I went to Adamson for a semester. Then we moved to another part of Oak Cliff, and I went to Sunset for the three years. The funny thing about the PE credit is, I was going to the Edith James School of Ballet, and she'd have recitals at the art museum, and [the PE teacher] would come see me dance my little legs off, and then I'd come in to PE class, wrapped up, and claim I'd sprained and couldn't play a sport.

But I was strange in high school, very strange. I was very nerdy. My sister once said, "You were so wrapped up in ballet, didn't you miss football?" And I said, "Oh, sweetie, when I went they didn't have football games." She said, 'What do you think the pep rallies were about? And I said, "Well, I don't know -- I went to study hall because they were too loud." I danced to a different drummer.

[Craig was discovered in Dallas by Alexandra Danilova, who'd come to guest-instruct at Edith James. Danilova was instrumental in helping Craig become, in 1954 and at the age of 16, the youngest dancer in the corps de ballet of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Craig, in fact, appears in the acclaimed '06 doc on the company. But she didn't dance with the company long -- just three years. The Russe was "badly run," and the promise of an even worse experience in, of all places, Latvia, convinced her perhaps it was time to take time off from dance. At which point, a film producer asked to met Craig -- through a newspaper critic, no less.]

And this guy invited me to his office and said, "I'm making a movie, do you want to be in it?" I said, "No, I'm a ballet dancer and working my way toward soloist." And he went on this tirade, stomping around, being a jerk and said, "People would give their right arm to have this kind of opportunity." I said, "It took me forever to get here, you invited me, and I don't want to be an actress." But we became friends, so one night we're out to dinner, and this man comes to the table and said John Ford's son Patrick was going to make a movie with John Wayne's son, who was also named Patrick. He asked, "Are you an actress?" I couldn't talk -- I had my mouth full -- and the guy who took me out said, "She is, and I'm her manager, what can we do for you?"

[The movie was 1959's The Young Lions, which also starred Dennis Hopper.]

Why reconsider?

I sort of thought I was temporarily doing that. I was waiting to find a company I really wanted to go with. And I thought, "This is fun. You get to talk." And the truth is, dancing is so demanding that once you reach a certain place, you always think of yourself ad a dancer. My sister said years later, when people would ask me what I did, I would say, 'I'm an actress, but I'm really a dancer. I think dancers are incredibly disciplined. You''ll never find a dancer who is late. Friends of mine have now seen Black Swan, which is the most ridiculous movie I've ever seen....

Thanks for saying that. I thought I was the only person alive who thought it the greatest unintentional comedy every made.

I was the only one in the theater laughing. A friend said, "If you don't stop, I'm leaving."

But for someone who didn't want to become an actress, you worked nonstop for years -- everything from live television to Dobie Gillis to those movies with Elvis to Batman, of course, to Star Trek to Love, American Style to The Six Million Dollar Man. I mean, that's an impressive list. I think you appeared on every iconic TV show from the early '60s till the late '70s.

Back then, there were very few actors and actresses and lots and lots of product. We did 33 episodes, and when we did Batman into the '60s we were still doing 26 and re-running only a few. There was a lot more work for a lot fewer people, and you used the same people who were responsible and showed up on time and weren't wackos. [She laughs.]

OK, then, to Batman. It is fairly extraordinary to consider: My dad used to skip class at SMU to watch the show when it originally aired; I grew up on it in reruns in the '70s; and now my 7-year-old knows who you and Adam West are. You guys become immortal, which is why you can't tell who'll line up at a sci-fi convention.

You certainly never think it'll have 50-year-old legs. And if I hadn't done Batman I never would have worked with those people. I didn't do musical comedy, so I never would have worked wth Ethel Merman. And Milton Berle had retired at that point -- or at least he said he had -- and getting to work with him was a godsend. It was phenomenal. And you do know it at the time. It's not like, 'Oh, well, Ethel Merman's coming in, whatever.' You know who she is and what she's done.

And the nice thing about that show is you can watch it with your children They like POW! and BAM!, and it looks good to them and it isn't so stupid and you don't see flying body parts and all that stuff that happens now. It was a joy to do.