Happy Birthday, Luana Anders
Actress Luana Anders showed a lifetime dedication to her craft, her talent touching several great little pictures and many future giants of the American cinema. Pictures like EASY RIDER, DEMENTIA 13, and THE LAST DETAIL. Giants like Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, and Dennis Hopper. She was born May 12, 1938 in Mar Vista, California, one of the contiguous Los Angeles suburbs south of Santa Monica. Her mother was Marina Anderson (nee, Martinez); Luana would later shorten the family name to “Anders” for her screen career. Her father worked for the Bank of America. After his service in World War II, the Andersons were divorced. She spent some time in foster homes, not all of them pleasant. As a teenager, Luana worked in a Culver City clothing store run by her mother and there learned how to sew. She became involved in local theater in Pasadena, California in the early 1950s, co-starring with Hazel Medina, who went on to become a stage actress and a close friend.
Luana attended Jeff Corey's Professional Actors Workshop with young actors Jack Nicholson, Sally Kellerman, Dean Stockwell, Robert Blake, Shirley Knight, and Robert Towne. Having lost his career and livelihood to the Hollywood blacklists in 1952, actor Corey had created his little school as a source of income, when no other jobs were forthcoming. For $10 per month, students could attend two classes a week at Corey's own house on Cheremoya Avenue, about a dozen blocks northeast of Hollywood and Vine. Many of the students, including Anders and Nicholson, were but teenagers at the time. Corey had built a six-foot extension onto his garage to serve as a stage. Young director Roger Corman had a few no-budget films under his belt, including SORORITY GIRL (1957), when he realized how little he knew about directing actors. He attended Jeff Corey’s classes, learned a little about the acting, and came to appreciate the skills of several fellow students. “When I met her,” recalls Francis Ford Coppola, then an assistant to Corman, “Luana was part of a young acting crowd that included Dick Miller, Jonathan Haze, and Jack Nicholson.” With her breathy, kittenish voice and smiling eyes, her characters were often playful women with something sly just beneath the surface.
She was eighteen when she played a particularly vicious juvenile delinquent in American International Pictures' inaugural women-in-prison picture, REFORM SCHOOL GIRL (1957), with cellmates Yvette Vickers and fellow newcomer Sally Kellerman. Luana was Josie Briggs, the pony-tailed girlfriend of car thief and killer Edward Byrnes (77 SUNSET STRIP). Kellerman would remain a lifelong friend. In 1958, Anders had only a small role in THE NOTORIOUS MR. MONKS with Leo Gordon, but she had a starring role in schlock king Sam Katzman's LIFE BEGINS AT 17. Co-starring with Mark Damon, Dorothy Johnson, and Edd Byrnes (again), she portrayed a Plain-Jane wooed by a rich college kid, who is actually after her beauty queen sister. In this one, Eddie Byrnes is the good guy and Mark Damon the bad guy, who seemingly gets Luana’s character pregnant. Anders was active in television during this time, appearing in THE RIFLEMAN, THE RESTLESS GUN, and RAWHIDE (Incident of the Running Man). Three decades later, Luana herself would write a screenplay about these days of struggle in 1950s Hollywood, but more about that later. 1961 saw her as Vincent Price's sister, Catherine Medina, in Roger Corman's sixteen-day shoot of THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM. When PIT was deemed too short for network television broadcast in 1968, additional scenes were added using Anders, the only cast member available at the time, who related the story in flashback from an asylum. She played a young carnival worker in NIGHT TIDE (1963), a quirky little film about a lonely sailor who falls in love with a mysterious woman who may be a mermaid and a killer. Filmed in 1960, the picture was not released for three years, due to financial and legal troubles. Actor Dennis Hopper, who played the tragic sailor, would later use Luana when he began directing his own films. “I always had great admiration for Luana’s work as an actress,” says Hopper.
In 1963, she appeared with William Campbell, Mark Damon (again), and Patrick Magee in Roger Corman's THE YOUNG RACERS, filmed at Grand Prix racetracks all over Europe. When the film wrapped, Corman still had most of the players under contract and put them to work on a second quickie ax-murder picture called THE HAUNTED AND THE HUNTED from a script written by his soundman, Francis Coppola. Corman provided Coppola with $22,000, the cast of THE YOUNG RACERS, and a mansion in Dublin, Ireland. The novice director gave Luana the starring role as a mercenary widow, Louise Haloran, who seeks her husband's inheritance. In her most famous scene, Luana swims underwater in her bra and panties and learns a terrible secret. The film features some jolting parallels to Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960). “I had just seen her work in THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM,” says Francis Ford Coppola. “She was an enchanting, talented, lovable young woman.” The project’s Assistant Art Director, Eleanor Neil, remembers mixing fake blood for the movie’s gorier scenes. Neil would later marry Coppola, both of them becoming lifelong friends with Luana Anders. The film's title was changed to DEMENTIA, which had already been used as an alternate release title for the 1955 movie DAUGHTER OF HORROR, and finally became DEMENTIA 13, reportedly to capitalize on the Friday the 13th in the month it was released. Other than some earlier quasi-softcore movies, it was Francis Ford Coppola's first feature film.
In the first season (1963-64) of the sci-fi television series THE OUTER LIMITS, Luana starred with Gloria Grahame and Geoffrey Horne in an episode called The Guests. Anders played a young woman named Tess from out of the past who is trapped inside a strange old house; an alien brain monster has frozen time, so it can study the lives of several captive human subjects. In an episode of ONE STEP BEYOND called The Burning Girl, she played a lonely teenager who can’t understand why things around her suddenly catch on fire. “Burning Girl” would become a pet name for Luana among her closest friends. In 1964, she traveled to Puerto Rico to star in THE FUN LOVERS, which was re-titled SEX AND THE COLLEGE GIRL to cash in on the Natalie Wood-Tony Curtis comedy of that year, SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL. Sort of a poor man’s version of WHERE THE BOYS ARE (but without the talent, humor, or writing), FUN LOVERS is the story of a spoiled twenty-something playboy (John Gabriel) who drinks and gambles too much and manages to alienate his staid girlfriend (Anders). Young Charles Grodin plays his awkward buddy, who ends up getting the ravishing redhead (Julie Sommars) and all the best lines.
The struggling young actors’ scene in the Hollywood of the 1960s was a whirl of coffeehouses, Sunset Strip clubs, parties, and Sunset Boulevard restaurants. Luana’s friends and passing acquaintances drifted in and out, some struggling, some floundering, and some finding minor successes in the film business. There was The Unicorn, Pupi’s, The Old World, Ben Frank’s, Cosmo Alley, The Raincheck Room, Chez Paulette, the Sea Witch, Canter’s Deli on Fairfax, Schwab’s drugstore on Sunset, and Ash Grove on Melrose. There were people from Jeff Corey’s class, Martin Landau’s class, the West Coast Actors Studio, and the Pasadena Playhouse. “It was just actors talking about acting, classes, people, and films,” director Henry Jaglom recalls. Actress Carol Eastman, under the name Adrien Joyce, was writing THE SHOOTING. Jack Nicholson was juggling ENSIGN PULVER, BACK DOOR TO HELL, and a new baby named Jennifer by his then-wife, actress Sandra Knight. Monte Hellman, a UCLA film school graduate, was working with Fred Roos on FLIGHT TO FURY and RIDE THE WHIRLWIND. Peter Fonda was taking LSD with The Beatles and The Byrds in Benedict Canyon. Harry Dean Stanton and Bruce Dern were working on REBEL ROUSERS. Sally Kellerman was between HANDS OF A STRANGER and THE BOSTON STRANGLER. In 1966 Luana Anders had a microscopic role in the thriller GAMES with Simone Signoret, James Caan, and Katharine Ross and worked on the comedy HOW SWEET IT IS with Debbie Reynolds and James Garner. Her television work during these years included roles in THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW (A Visit to Barney Fife) and HAWAII FIVE-O (And They Painted Daisies on His Coffin).
In 1967, Luana Anders was featured in the spaced-out LSD film THE TRIP, directed by Roger Corman from a script by Jack Nicholson. The picture starred Peter Fonda as a world-weary television director on a first time experiment with a hallucinogenic drug, echoing director’s Corman’s personal plight at the time. The film co-starred Susan Strasberg, Dennis Hopper as a doper named Max who says “Oh, man!” dozens and dozens of times, and Bruce Dern as a sensible (sensible Dern?) doctor-friend who guides Fonda on his first trip. Many of the principals, excluding Dern, were themselves experimenting with LSD at the time. Luana plays a waitress who has to cope with the drug-addled Peter Fonda in one of the psychodelic Sunset Strip clubs. The film took in $6 million, a huge success at the time for such a low budget production.
Fonda, Dern, Hopper, Nicholson, and Corman had been making biker films like REBEL ROUSERS, THE CYCLE SAVAGES, and HELL’S ANGELS ON WHEELS with mixed success. After Corman, Dern, and Fonda scored a hit with THE WILD ANGELS (1966), Hopper and Fonda struck out on their own, trying to finance a script about two bikers who trip across America without a motorcycle gang. They found backing through Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider of Columbia Pictures, who had made their fortune with The Monkees television show. Fonda would later say, “The Monkees made EASY RIDER.” Dennis Hopper was the director, Peter Fonda was the producer, and afterward they spent years arguing about who actually wrote the script. They brought in actors from Roger Corman's stable, including Jack Nicholson as a drunken lawyer (in a role originally meant for actor Jack Starrett, not Rip Torn, as is often quoted) and Luana Anders as a hippie chick in a Southwestern commune. The commune girl, Lisa, takes a liking to Captain America (Peter Fonda) and goes skinny-dipping with him in a hot spring. The water was actually frigid, and Fonda, who was out sick with the flu at the time, had his scenes shot later and body-doubled into the finished negative. Anders was a young looking 30 at the time. The film, EASY RIDER, showed tens of millions in profit on a $355,000 budget, making Fonda and Hopper rich and Jack Nicholson famous. Filmmaker Henry Jaglom (TRACKS, ALWAYS) remembers Luana from that time. “On EASY RIDER, I was working in one cutting room with an editor and Nicholson was in the next cutting room with another editor. We’d show what we did to Bert Schneider, Bob Rafelson, Peter Fonda, and Dennis Hopper, then back to the editing rooms. It was really very much Hopper’s film, but the other four of us contributed quite a lot. Jack Nicholson introduced me to Luana at a screening, and we started hanging out in restaurants.”
Also in 1969, the Burning Girl was featured in Robert Altman's Canadian film, THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK, the story of a lonely older woman (Sandy Dennis) who takes in a hustling teenage boy (Michael Burns) and slowly comes to possess him completely. Anders played a world-weary prostitute named Sylvie who Sandy Dennis hires for her teenage friend. Burns was most famous for his part as Benjie "Blue Boy" Carver in an episode of the DRAGNET television series called "The LSD Story." About this same time, Anders appeared as the estranged wife of a missing and suicidal man in the DRAGNET episode, The Suicide Attempt. Her character is impatient, uncaring, and has big hair. Her suicidal husband’s only hope is his sister, Sgt. Joe Friday, and Detective Frank Gannon. She had appeared the year before in the Jack Webb production ADAM-12 in an episode entitled Log 111.
In 1971, Luana appeared as a girl kidnapped by a psychotic make-up artist (Mickey Rooney) in THE MANIPULATOR (aka B. J. LANG PRESENTS), a film that greatly embarrassed Rooney. The setting is a warehouse for props and costumes, where the madman hallucinates that he’s making a movie. Luana spends much of her screen time tied to a wheelchair as Rooney’s loony rants and raves at her. Rooney is over the top, as is most of the rest of the picture, but Luana has more meat to her role than any of her other films. That same year, she co-starred with Rooney and John Astin in a television movie called EVIL ROY SLADE, a western spoof that pre-dated Mel Brooks’ 1974 BLAZING SADDLES. Continuing in the western genre, she appeared in the Forever episode of television’s long-running show BONANZA. Her two 1972 films included WHEN THE LEGENDS DIE, a rodeo film with Frederic Forrest (as an Indian) in his film debut, and GREASER’S PALACE, Robert Downey’s very strange story of Christ set in the Old West. In WHEN THE LEGENDS DIE, she had a small but very poignant role as a warm and affectionate nurse. In GREASER’S PALACE, Luana was the demented Cholera Greaser, who sings, dances, vamps around her father’s saloon (The Palace), and seduces the zoot-suited Christ figure (Allan Arbus). Later Anders played the neighbor of an incestuous mother (Ann Sothern) and her psycho-killer son (John Savage) in THE KILLING KIND (1973). At the start, her character is a prude and a snoop, but later becomes attracted to Savage’s bad boy, like a moth drawn to a flame. Director Curtis Harrington (aka John Sebastian) had also directed her in NIGHT TIDE and GAMES.
The mid-Seventies found Anders in secondary roles in great movies made by her old friends from Jeff Corey’s acting school. Jack Nicholson and producer Robert Towne used her again in THE LAST DETAIL (1973), the story of two Shore Patrol officers transporting a prisoner cross-country to a Naval penitentiary. As the career sailors (Jack Nicholson and Otis Young) get to know their prisoner (Randy Quaid), they stop along the way to party and meet a sly temptress (Anders). Her character, Donna, oozes with mischievous sexual promise at first but later turns out to be a religious fanatic. The year 1974 found her playing in an episode of television’s LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE called The Blizzard. In 1975, Towne and actor-producer Warren Beatty featured her as an appointment girl who brings some very bad news in SHAMPOO. She played an embittered frontierswoman in Towne and Nicholson’s THE MISSOURI BREAKS (1976), looking much older than her 38 years. In 1978, she played Mrs. Anderson (Luana’s real name, although she was never married), the leader of three neighbor ladies who try to advise Mary Steenburgen about “relations” with her new husband, outlaw Jack Nicholson. It was the first film for both John Belushi and Mary Steenburgen, but was the fifth movie that Anders and Nicholson had done together.
In 1982, Luana had a tiny, uncredited part as a hairdresser in ONE FROM THE HEART, the extravagant romance that just about sank Francis Ford Coppola and his recently formed Zoetrope Studios. One of the producers, Fred Roos, was a lifelong friend, who had once been Luana’s agent. Throughout the remainder of the 1980s, Luana worked with her close friend, Richard Martini, a writer, director, actor, and musician who had worked as an assistant to Robert Towne. Their work together included PERSONAL BEST (1982), MOVERS AND SHAKERS (1985), and YOU CAN’T HURRY LOVE (1988). Anders and Martini co-wrote LIMIT UP (1989), a comedy about an ambitious commodities trader (Nancy Allen) who sells her soul for success in the stock market. Dean Stockwell, from Jeff Corey's Actors Workshop, played an unscrupulous trader, Luana played a small role as a classroom instructor, and director Martini played a student. Luana’s good friend from acting class days and REFORM SCHOOL GIRL, Sally Kellerman, also appeared with her in YOU CAN’T HURRY LOVE, LIMIT UP, and DOPPELGANGER (1993).
Anders played a beauty shop colorist in Jack Nicholson’s TWO JAKES (1990), a sequel to his 1974 hit CHINATOWN, both written by Robert Towne. She returned to television work with appearances on the series SANTA BARBARA in 1991 and three made-for-television movies, SWITCHED AT BIRTH (1991), HEARTS ON FIRE (1992), and IN MY DAUGHTER'S NAME (1992). She had a small role as a file clerk in the HEART AND SOULS (1993), which starred Charles Grodin, Alfre Woodard, Kyra Sedgwick, and Robert Downey Jr., whose father Robert Downey, Sr. had directed GREASER’S PALACE 21 years before. Downey, Jr. had played a small boy in that same picture. Charles Grodin had also performed with Luana in THE FUN LOVERS and YOU CAN’T HURRY LOVE, although they had no scenes together in the latter. Bridget Fonda, daughter of Luana’s EASY RIDER co-star, Peter, was also featured in YOU CAN’T HURRY LOVE. Anders was almost an extra, playing a member of a town council, in the Jean-Claude Van Damme picture NOWHERE TO RUN (1993) and had a very small role in the Joan Severance potboiler CRIMINAL PASSION (1994). She is hard to recognize as the sanitarium matron who leads Wild Bill Hickock (Jeff Bridges) through the bowels of a women’s mental institution in WILD BILL (1995). Her last picture with friend Richard Martini was the 1996 CANNES MAN (pronounced “con man”), a film world spoof, in which she portrays a Hollywood agent on the telephone. One of the film’s numerous cameos is old friend Dennis Hopper, playing himself. Her final film was AMERICAN STRAYS (1996), an episodic black comedy about some diverse people, including several killers, passing through the desert. John Savage, playing a murderous door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, had also performed with Luana in THE KILLING KIND 23 years before. Luana played a sharp-tongued older woman with a shotgun and a bad attitude.
Anders spent her last years writing short stories and scripts and enjoying the fellowship of friends Fred Roos, Francis and Eleanor Coppola, B.J. Merholz, Sally Kellerman, Henry Jaglom, and Richard Martini. At 58, Luana Anders died of cancer on July 21, 1996 in Mar Vista, the same Los Angeles suburb where she grew up. “She had an odd, eccentric, comic slant on things,” Jaglom recalls, “very emotionally compelling and very funny.” The Coppolas remember her fondly as “a good writer, actress, and friend.” Luana Anders’ career touched the lives of Roger Corman, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Fonda, Vincent Price, Jack Nicholson, Jack Webb, Mickey Rooney, and Warren Beatty. And then the Burning Girl moved on.
[Thanks to Francis Ford Coppola, Eleanor Neil Coppola, Dennis Hopper, Henry Jaglom, and especially Richard Martini for their kind assistance with this article.]
Happy birthday, Luana.