Holy Hotness! If you, too, grew up in the 60s, Julie Newmar was almost certainly your first crush. As the original, the indelible, and the best Catwoman to ever appear on the high-concept, high-camp television series Batman, she slithered into legend.
Smarter, sexier, and taller than Batman (over six feet in her kitten heels), Catwoman was the first bona fide goddess on children’s television. (Not that the series was intended for children exclusively. With its Expressionist lighting, portentous voice-over by the show’s producer, William Dozier, and “Dutch tilt” off-kilter camera angles, it was designed to appeal to adults as well.)
I met Julie in 2017, when she agreed to a portrait sitting. Witty, wise, and feline still, she lives happily in the paradise she has created in Brentwood. Her garden, which is home to more than 80 varieties of roses, is her passion.
She was born Julia Chalene Newmeyer in Los Feliz, California, in 1933. Her father, a former football player, was head of the physical-education department at Los Angeles City College; her mother performed in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919. “Los Angeles was a great place to grow up,” she says. “It was stimulating; it was healthy; there were great teachers here. I had an extraordinary public education.”
Julie’s passion for dance became apparent early. She began ballet class at age five and, as a teenager, performed with the Los Angeles Opera, eventually appearing as the White Cat in Sleeping Beauty, starring Margot Fonteyn.
Too tall for a career in classical ballet, she was hired by Universal Studios as a choreographer and dance instructor to its contract players. A notable failure was La Dolce Vita’s Anita Ekberg, who took one lesson, then rhumba’d across the studio, out the door, and off the lot.
Julie began working in the movies at 18 as a feature dancer, often unbilled. She was the “gilded girl” in Serpent of the Nile (1953), played a “dancer-assassin” in Slaves of Babylon (1953), and had her first speaking role in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).
But it was on Broadway where she really broke through. As Stupefyin’ Jones, in Li’l Abner (1956), she was onstage for a scant five minutes, every one of them electrifying. (She reprised the role in the movie version two years later, and again in 1998, for a concert revival in New York. She wore the same almost-there costume in all three productions.)
The attendant brouhaha, which included a giant billboard of Julie outside the theater, led to her casting in The Marriage-Go-Round (1958). She played a Swedish bombshell testing the marriage of characters played by Claudette Colbert and Charles Boyer. Julie spent much of the play wrapped in a towel. Colbert wanted to know what kind of swimsuit she would wear under it; Julie decided that none was necessary. The play was a smash, and Julie won a Tony Award for best featured actress.
She signed up for instruction at the Actors Studio in New York, and, at the same time, modeled for master pinup photographers Peter Basch and Bruno Bernard of Hollywood. “Glamour was the easy part,” she says.
Leading roles in summer-stock productions of Damn Yankees and Irma La Douce followed, and in 1964 she played Rhoda the robot in the CBS series My Living Doll. “This was my Shakespeare, the legacy role of a lifetime for my talents,” she says. The show, scheduled opposite Bonanza, was a modest hit for the network and a big hit for Julie. She received a Golden Globe nomination, and next up was Batman.
“I’d never heard of Batman and wasn’t familiar with the comic books,” she says. “I was at home in my penthouse in New York when I got a phone call asking me back to Hollywood to do the show. My brother was visiting from Harvard with some friends. They heard the word ‘Batman’ and practically pushed me out the door! They loved that show.”
“Glamour was the easy part.”
Julie’s first move was to modify Catwoman’s signature Lurex costume (now in the Smithsonian), which she made more form-fitting, emphasizing her hourglass shape by slipping the gold belt from her waist to her hips. Her debut episode, “The Purr-Fect Crime,” aired over two consecutive nights in March 1966 and became an instant classic. It had the scriptwriters, principally Stanley Ralph Ross, scrambling for storylines to exploit the sexual chemistry between Catwoman and Batman.
The show’s runaway success prompted movie offers. She signed on to do Monsieur Lecoq, a turn-of-the-century farce starring Zero Mostel, which was shot in England and France and never completed. (It made her unavailable for the Batman spin-off movie, in which Lee Meriwether played Catwoman.) She also starred in Mackenna’s Gold, a big ticket, all-star Western that flopped and prevented her from appearing in Batman’s third and final season. (Eartha Kitt took over the role for a few episodes.)
Back on TV, she added luster to The Monkees, The Beverly Hillbillies, Star Trek, and Bewitched. In 1977, wanting what she described as a “normal life,” she married John Holt Smith, a lawyer, and moved with him to Texas. After three miscarriages, her son, John, arrived in 1981. He was born with Down syndrome, and later lost his hearing to meningitis. “It may seem odd, but he is my inspiration, my guru,” she says. “From the soul’s point of view, everything is an opportunity.”
Divorced in 1984 and back in California, Julie took stock. Now 50 years old and with a son to support, she went to night school at U.C.L.A. and took classes in real estate to help her manage the modest property portfolio her mother had left her. Today, she has a reputation as a staunch defender of small businesses.
Julie spent much of the 90s discovering the world with her son and relishing her new status as a gay icon, which came as a surprise. In 1992, she appeared in George Michael’s seminal video for “Too Funky,” which was directed by Thierry Mugler and has been viewed more than 37 million times on YouTube. In 1995, she played herself in the drag comedy To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. Another apotheosis.
On August 16, Julie turned 90. She is busy working on her memoir, which she admits to making every effort not to finish. “I have a little kid’s frenzy for life and what is about to happen,” she says. “The computer and the Internet are the most rewarding stage for me. Work is never work. Retire? Never! Ninety is a time of discovery. There is so much more to do, love, and enjoy.”
And Catwoman? “That was such fun! It’s good to be immortal.”
David Downton is an Editor at Large at Air Mail