Farrah, Loni and Friends Hook Viewers with This Season's Hit Concept: I Played a Tv Prostitute

updated 06/18/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/18/1984 01:00AM

Asked to use the word "horticulture" in a sentence, the caustic critic and Algonquin wit Dorothy Parker replied, "You can lead a whore to culture, but you can't make her think." Judging from the current trend, the same might well be said of network executives. During the past season, the networks took a passionate new interest in the world's oldest profession. Besides populating such miniseries as The Last Days of Pompeii with ladies of the evening, the networks aired at least half a dozen TV movies featuring prostitutes as heroines. Farrah Fawcett, Loni Anderson and Ann Jillian were among those who played strumpets. Even Debby Boone lit up her career with a piece of the action—to viewers' satisfaction. "You can never underestimate the horniness of the American public," observes Lou Rudolph, a Hollywood producer and former head of ABC's TV-movie division.

If ratings are any indication, Rudolph is right. Placing in the top 10 of their respective weeks were CBS' The Red Light Sting, in which Farrah Fawcett played a madam aiding a law-enforcement sting, and ABC's Sins of the Past, which saw Barbara Carrera, Kim Cat-trail and Boone as ex-hookers facing blackmail. NBC paraded Ann Jillian as a B-girl in a Japanese bar in Girls of the White Orchid, and Sessions turned Hill Street's Veronica Hamel into a fille de joie. Such sagas even outperformed some high-powered theatricals on the networks. In one surprising upset, ABC's My Mother's Secret Life, starring Loni Anderson, beat out Chariots of Fire and almost equaled On Golden Pond's audience. The only floozy film to fizzle was CBS' An Uncommon Love, in which marine biology student Kathryn Harrold moonlighted as a massage parlor attendant. Last week CBS went back to its vaults for a repeat of The Two Lives of Carol Letner, a 1981 TV movie starring Meredith Baxter Birney as a call girl turned coed. "It was a turkey," moans Birney. "They must be desperate."

Or imaginative. As pay TV and home video siphon off the network audience for overexposed movies, the networks are producing more TV movies with exploitable subjects. Next season promises more of the same. NBC has Trick Eyes, in which William Shatner is obsessed by Cybill Shepherd's streetwalker, and His Mistress, with Robert Urich and Julianne Phillips in roles that resemble the late Alfred Bloomingdale and Vicki Morgan. An equal opportunity network, CBS has signed Angie Dickinson to play a politician who dallies with a male hustler.

For actresses playing such parts, the work has rewards. First, it's a job. Second, the roles offer both a challenge and a chance for acclaim. Jill Clayburgh got a big boost from the 1975 ABC movie Hustling. "I wanted to play someone down and dirty," adds Kathryn Harrold. "I was tired of going around in suits and carrying a briefcase." Even Farrah favored the change of pace. When The Red Light Sting aired, she observed, "My character, Kathy Dunne, is a stronger, tougher woman than I have ever played on TV. How soft can you be when you work in a brothel?"

Researching the role is not so rewarding; most found it acutely depressing. Linda Purl, who was in Little Ladies of the Night and The Last Days of Pompeii as a slave girl (she was bought by a madam but refused to join the ranks), spent several evenings talking with teenage prostitutes. "They were all young girls who said it was a temporary thing. What they really wanted to do was get into movies," says Purl. Shepherd drove around with the L.A. vice squad and had herself locked up in a cell. After finishing the film, "It took me weeks to recover," she says. Over drinks, Harrold quizzed two massage parlor attendants about their lives and then accompanied them to work. "It was no different than hanging around the beauty parlor," she says. "Everybody sits around reading magazines, filing their nails and gossiping. Once in a while a girl goes off with a customer and you hear the massage tables squeaking."

The networks aren't eager to discuss this proliferation. The party line is that the movies are not exercises in sleaze; instead, they have redeeming value, since all show the women getting out of the business or meeting horrible fates for staying in it.

Kirstie Alley, who was in Sins of the Past, doesn't buy this upward-and-up-lift stance. "The reality is that a woman is selling her body and that is a very sick and very degrading thing," she says. For Alley, a close encounter brought home the point that audiences were missing. The day after the airing of her TV movie, a checkout clerk at her neighborhood grocery store told her, "I saw you on TV. I loved your clothes."

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