By Richard Warren Lewis
None of the usual framed photographs were visible. No telegrams or flowers from the producer. Just a bottle of vodka on the dressing table--and a tea service, essential to the daily ritual observed by loyal subjects in Singapore, Tobago and other outposts of the shrinking British Commonwealth.
The bottom of Miss Mills' teapot says "Made in Japan." The story line of Nanny, which she had been filming for five weeks, was unquestionably made in Hollywood. Its cast encompassed the stereotypical television widower, three Barbie-doll-blonde juveniles, a New Zealand sheep dog and a menagerie of chickens, geese, rabbits, hamsters, mice, goldfish and ducks, not to mention a goat and a pig.
The jaunty Sherlock Holmes cap and military-style cape worn by Juliet's character, an incredibly prescient English nursemaid known as Miss Figalilly, scarcely cloaked the fact that she was a composite of the most commercial elements of Mary Poppins, the good witch Samantha, Jeannie, Dr. Doolittle and the Flying Nun.
Purists found it difficult to comprehend why the piquant, sensitive Miss Mills-- thoroughly steeped in classical drama, and member of an esteemed theatrical family-- would reduce herself to this half-hour bit of fluff, which premiered last month on ABC. Her gilt-edged credentials included appearances at Stratford-on-Avon ("A Midsummer Night's Dream," with the Royal Shakespeare Company), in London ("Lady Windermere's Fan," "Five Finger Exercise," "Peter Pan," "Alice Through the Looking Glass") and on Broadway.
"Working in the theater in England you really don't get paid anything," she explained. "I was starring in London for 75 pounds a week. Ultimately I want to do fee-chers. By making me better known, this series could be a springboard."
For years, Juliet's deserved reputation failed to impress nabobs outside London's theater district, the West End. She simultaneously experienced a nagging identity crisis, being subordinated to two more famous actors--her sister Hayley and her father John.
"It's never much bothered me," she said. "But I've been very much poorer than any of my other relations."
The decisive force in urging Juliet to consider the Nanny pilot was Mills himself, who somehow had emerged unscratched from his disastrous outing on Dundee and the Culhane, a 1967 Western series which mercifully expired after only four CBS episodes.
If nothing else, Mills appreciated the value of the almighty American dollar. "'If this thing's a success,' he told me, 'you can buy me an island,'" she explained. "He thinks that to do a series in America is still the greatest way to get exposure. Millions of people see you and you can make a great deal of money."
For a while it looked as if no one would see her, except a few unhappy people in screening rooms. The pilot film for Nanny was a dismal failure, undermined by the erratic performance of an integral participant--an upstart kangaroo untutored in the refinements of Strasberg or Stanislavski.
"We found out that a kangaroo is a hard animal to train and we had written in a very important part for the damn thing," recalled David Gerber, Fox vice president in charge of sales, who became Nanny's executive producer in the wake of the pilot's $250,000 loss. "Unfortunately, we were more worried about the kangaroo than the human relationships. Audiences want more human interest. I don't believe that yakyaks or big belly laughs are the show for today. If this could become a My Three Sons or Family Affair, I'm happy. It's a helluva violent world outside. Maybe that's why things like that are going."
With the intervention of Berber, a brash, Brooklyn-born huckster, ABC conceded that the basic "adult fantasy" concept of the show--the escapades of a young woman with a British accent who could magically influence events before they occurred and could talk to the animals, all the while dominating a motherless household while exuding innocent sex appeal--was still viable.
Last August, when the network generously appropriated $275,000 for a second pilot, the kangaroo and most of the human actors were jettisoned, leaving Juliet as the sole survivor.
In order to secure her services again, Gerber was forced to buy out the house at London's Garrick Theater, where she was starring in a revival of "She Stoops to Conquer." He gladly wrote a check duplicating what would have been a capacity week's receipts.
"The second time around came more naturally for me," Juliet says. "I used quite a lot of myself in it. I do love talking to children as adults. Our family was all brought up like that. This time the whole atmosphere was more positive. Everybody seemed to think it would go, whereas before, Nanny was just another pilot."
Juliet went back to London and then, ABC, experiencing its annual ratings crisis, tore apart the existing program schedule and added Nanny. Armed with his trusty checkbook, Gerber again flew to London and sprang Miss Mills from her play.
So hasty was the network's decision that Juliet had only four days to pack and report to Stage 3 on the Fox lot, once the home of Peyton Place.
Juliet, who was used to sleeping late in London, now arose at 5:30 each morning to have make-up applied to her creamy complexion and sit while her sandy hair was teased into an upswept coiffure and hooked up at the back, all of this prior to 8 A.M. shooting. At the end of each work day, she left for home long after dark.
"I've led a monastic life since I've been here," Juliet sighed, noting how production schedules had restricted her social life.
She was homesick for her antique-laden London flat and the two Siamese cats she had to leave behind. Feeling displaced and disoriented--a condition aggravated by the disintegration of her eight-year marriage to songwriter Edward Alquist Jr.-- Juliet commiserated with the recently separated Leslie Bricusses and a few still- married members of Hollywood's burgeoning British colony.
A new aquaintance, Steve McQueen's wife Neile, helped her adopt a mongrel puppy to replace the absent cats and drove her to the Mojave Desert, where they watched McQueen roadtest his latest Porche. And within two weeks after filming commenced, Juliet rented a beam-ceilinged home of Spanish architecture just three minutes from the studio. Its big open fireplace stirred memories of the Mills family's country residence--a Georgian house on Richmond Hill.
"My friends would faint if they saw me ensconced in this mansion," she observed. As a buttress against the series' questionable future, a sublet clause was written into the year's lease.
Meanwhile, Juliet hired a 17-year-old nanny of her own for 5-year-old son Christopher. This girl is not one of those formidable English nannies who often spend as many as three years in training. "A proper nanny, one who goes to royalty, just looks after the children," she explained. "When I advertised, I was looking for one like the character I'm playing--somebody who could just muck in."
All these life-style adjustments presumably will be wasted should Nanny fail to attract an appreciable viewing audience. Before entering the crucible of competitive network television, Juliet never bothered to analyze the show's prospects. The combined insight of herself and her father into American TV taste was negligible.
"I haven't got any confidence through any knowledge of what other shows do or ratings or what people like for don't like," she said before returning to the set. "If Nanny isn't picked up, I'll be going home this spring. It won't break my heart."
The more pragmatic Gerber, already in the midst of shooting another situation- comedy pilot, expressed contentment in merely seeing the Fox facilities being used.
"What the hell, at least I'm on the air," he said, remembering the studio's financial investment. "We're on at 7:30 against Hee-Haw. It's a tough spot. If nothing else, we'll still have 15 weeks on the air. I've been through the television jungles before and I'm not gonna cry about it. I'm just putting my head down, looking ahead and saying: 'Gung Ho!' Like Satchel Paige once said: 'Don't look back. They may be gaining on you."