Joey Heatherton: "Nine Feet of Girl in Four Feet of Leopard Skin"
Joey was the daughter of early television legend Ray Heatherton, whose "Merry Mailman" entertained thousands of children and spawned countless imitators across the country. He was a gentle and extremely talented man who had lit up Broadway in years past.
Quite reasonably, Joey associated with older established stars. They were the ones in power. They were the ones who could provide jobs. She played a teenager infatuted with "Mr. C," Perry Como. While such infatuation was seen as endearing to an older generation, it seemed a tad out of touch to a younger one. World War II era vets saw it as innocent. Cynical younger folks, who were becoming increasingly sophisticated, wondered whether a more appropriate appreciation would be gold-digger. I, personally, saw it as neither. It was a role willingly played to secure a position, a necessity in the brutal world of entertainment, but Joey's continuing association with older men would haunt her career. It was a sound decision at the time but one that could not sustain a career through the turbulent sixties and seventies.
The sixties and early seventies were complicated. Joey toured with Bob Hope for the USO. It was Bob who said of Joey that she was "nine feet of girl in four feet of leopard skin." Her efforts and Bob's on behalf of America's brave fighting men and military women were laudible, but the war had become incredibly unpopular. Supporting the troops could also be interpreted at the time as support for the war and that placed any star in a very precarious position.
Hollywood and Broadway do not linger long on yesterday. They always ask, what next? Joey must have sensed her star to be on the decline. She responded, quite sensibly, by using her most marketable commodity, sexiness. She began appearing nude here and there including a movie, Bluebeard, with Richard Burton. The movie was star-studded and roundly panned by critics. Her efforts were condemned as amateurish and once more she had chosen to hitch her wagon to an older establishment star when it would have done her far better to work with younger men so as to remind the audience, the demographics of which were growing younger, that she was one of them and not of the generation quickly passing.
A spread in Playboy could have rejuvenated her career but it reinforced the "blast from the past" image that now began to plague her.
It is hard to appreciate how different the sixties and seventies were from today. Taking a nude turn in a movie would put a little extra juice in a lagging career or finish it off. It could provide something to talk about especially if you were part of the in-crowd, but Joey, who had always associated with older gentlemen professionally, suffered the curse of seeming part of the past. Their generation was going quickly in terms of frontline entertainment and young people looked upon her not only as something of a collaborator with them but now, in her thirties, part of an older generation. Someone who built a career on being a sex kitten could not continue to do it into her middle age. Even her sexy mattress commercial seemed a little out of touch, an well-intentioned anachronism akin to the sexy shaving cream ads of the sixties.
In searching for images, I came across one of those many then and now images that one finds on the net. I was discouraged that the photograph chosen for now depicted Joey as careworn. I meditated upon it and realized, however, that time and the tides of life had not erased or even diminished the effervescent beauty of this incredible talent who had filled the dreams and fantasies of at least one young man so many years ago. Her soul and beauty are timeless and eternal. She remains the fresh faced innocent and funny girl who could be sexy at the same time, the dancer who could turn on a dime effortlessly and sing like a bird in the morning.
In the end, we are left to reflect upon what we do to our stars, our sex symbols, and how we abandon them to harsh fate alone and aboard rudderless ships. It is we, and not Fate, who are cruel, because we see what is happening and do nothing. We hear but pay no attention and certainly do not respond. Joey Heatherton remains one of the most talented singers and dancers to have ever graced the stage. She gave selflessless in her efforts with the USO. She was and will always be a good daughter of an incredibly talented and loving father. She remains a star in our hearts and will always be. There is just way too much woman there to be ignored.
I am not one to mourn over what could have been. I see possibilities. We have never had a Grand MILF on television or in the movies who is sexy and funny and relevant. Miss Heatherton, please come back! We love you and miss you and you still fill our dreams.