Lenz on Cinema is a continuing series of articles examining the history of cinema through the filmography of actress Kay Lenz.
While Kay Lenz has a long film career, television has played a role in her life that film never did. Her father, TV Producer Ted Lenz, gave Lenz her first role at eight weeks old on the TV show Hollywood on Television (1949-1953) (which also featured a young Betty White). Throughout her childhood, her father would cast her in multiple commercials and TV shows for children. Lenz’s first agent insisted she change her name, so she adopted the name Kay Ann Kemper as a teenager. She switched it back as an adult after her father encouraged her to.
As an adult, Lenz would star as the lead in various TV movies, often as a young pregnant woman (Lenz claimed that she could only tell the difference between the parts based on how she gave birth). She played the titular character in Lisa, Bright and Dark (1973), The Initiation of Sarah (1978), and The Seeding of Sarah Burns (1979). During this time, she also received an Emmy nomination for her role in the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man (1976), but lost to Fionnula Flanagan for the same series (the show garnered thirteen nominations for acting alone). She also won a Daytime Emmy for an episode of The ABC Afternoon Playbreak in 1974.
In 1977, Lenz married The Partridge Family (1970-1974) star David Cassidy after dating for two and a half months. In a Biography Special, Cassidy said they both connected over the recent death of their fathers, both of whom helped them get their start into show business.
In 1983, Lenz and Cassidy divorced in an amicable yet painful manner. It left Lenz in a fragile place emotionally, financially, and career wise. Due to her financial hardships, Lenz did not pay her attorney for two years after the divorce. Despite all of this, Lenz never seemed regretful about any of her career choices. In a 1989 People article, Jeannie Park and Michael Alexander point to the low point of her career as the period where she made Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987) and Stripped to Kill (1987), but immediately say that she had no regrets about either film.
In 1989, she won the Emmy for an episode of the drama show Midnight Caller (1988-1991) and it revived her career. Both Midnight Caller and Reasonable Doubts (1991-1993) would come to represent a successful peak in Lenz’s TV career.
A hard-hitting drama, Midnight Caller stars Gary Cole as Jack “Nighthawk” Killian, a former cop turned late night talk radio host. As a character, Killian has demons that follow him around, including shooting his partner by accident in the pilot episode. Cole would later become more known for comedies such as Office Space (1999) and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004), while co-star Mykel T. Williamson would change his stage name to Mykelti Williamson become a character actor known for playing Bubba in Forrest Gump (1994) and Baby-O in Con Air (1997).
Lenz appeared in three episodes as Tina Cassidy, Jack’s ex-girlfriend who tests HIV positive in the first season and dies of AIDS in the second season. Tina makes her brief first appearance in one scene of the pilot, trying to help the tormented Jack after the accidental death of his partner, only to have him reject her (Lenz did the small scene as a favor).
In her second appearance, Tina meets Jack a year after leaving him and reveals that she’s pregnant and tested HIV positive. Knowing that the child will probably be born with AIDS, Tina has to decide whether or not to have an abortion and she cannot find the father. Now Jack has to find her bisexual lover, Mike Barnes. Lenz won an Emmy for her performance in this episode.
For her third appearance, the show dedicated a whole episode to her. A school teacher, Tina is afraid to go back to her job teaching. Her insurance abandons her due to her condition. Jack tries to help, but seems powerless to how her illness will eventually kill her. After Tina dies, all Jack can do is reflect and wait for another day. The episode ends with Jack signing off by discussing how much work there is still left to do with the AIDS virus.
Before the early 1990’s, HIV and AIDS had not rarely been discussed as an illness with the general public. Many tended to see it primarily as a gay disease and tended to shun it completely. Networks also felt some reluctance to even portray gay people with the disease. When Philadelphia came out in 1993, celebrity athletes such as Magic Johnson and Arthur Ashe had come forward to discuss their experience with HIV and AIDS, making it a somewhat less stigmatized subject.
Midnight Caller became the subject to some controversy surrounding the still very much stigmatized issue when it first premiered in the late 1980’s. When the first episode about AIDs became known, gay rights activists protested it, as the original version of episode had irresponsible carrier Mike Barnes killed by one of his female victims. In the version altered for broadcast, Killian saves Barnes’s life. Tina’s final episode in the series presented much less controversial as it focused on the struggle and stigma an AIDS patient would face. While he did not always have a positive viewpoint of the series’ treatment of the subject, New York Times critic John J. O’Connor said that “the series is trying, and that’s more that can be said about most of the others”
Her next big show came in Reasonable Doubts (1991-1993) starring Mark Harmon and Marlee Matlin. After appearing as a recurring role in the first season, she became a regular on the second season. Lenz had fears about committing to a TV show before this point and appeared mostly in guest spots and the leads in TV movies. Up to this point, her largest role on television was in Rich Man, Poor Man – Book II (1976-1977). A first for Lenz, it would also become her only regular leading role in a life action series.
The Creator, Robert Singer, had worked as an executive producer on Midnight Caller. Singer later worked on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997) and Supernatural (2005-). Lenz would also make a guest appearance on Lois & Clark.
The show follows police officer Dicky Cobb (Harmon) and deaf attorney Tess Kaufman (Matlin) as they work together to bring various criminals to justice. Lenz plays Maggie Zombro, a tough attorney who melts in the arms of Cobb. The second season introduces her in its first episode as a woman who looks like she “chews on razor wire.” Zombro would replace the character of Kay Lockman (Nancy Everhard), who the show killed off in the first episode of the second season. Her performance led to another two Emmy nominations.
Unlike quirky procedural shows like Monk (2002-2009) and House (2004-2012), the show does not have as distinct of a personality. An episode can fluctuate from serious gut wrenching drama to silly comedy that requires the supporting characters to act imbecilic in order to work. Its two-part second season premiere features the killing of a regular character from the last season and a parody of The Natural (1984) in which Dicky gets tagged before he gets to home plate. In a later interview, Matlin admitted that they switched between Romantic drama and procedural often. While well intentioned, the show never quite found the right tone or blend of tones that would make it more successful.
Both shows feature great roles for Kay Lenz, but the roles she plays are opposites of each other.
Midnight Caller explores Tina Cassidy more as a situation than as a character. Every scene of hers becomes about what it means to have AIDS. The first two episodes focus more on Jack’s story. Her last episode involves her slowly slipping away and eventually leaving Killian to die alone. The series presents this story as a melodramatic situation similar to Bette Davis sending her husband away so she can die alone in Dark Victory (1939). This would become another point of contention with John J. O’Connor, who disliked how the show suggested that a person with AIDS would choose to die alone in hospice care in order to not be a burden to their family and friends. Most of this final episode comes down to its melodramatic choices. There’s a scene where she goes to her old school’s Christmas pageant and has some of her former students hug her as she leaves. When Tina leaves Killian’s apartment, it rains. Jack takes in a cat after Tina’s death while Van Morrison’s “Someone Like You” plays. All of these aesthetic choices add to the impact of her story.
Unlike Midnight Caller, Reasonable Doubts features Lenz not as a victim, but as an attorney who often defends both the innocent and guilty. Lenz’s character of Maggie Zombro began life on the series as the attorney to a cop who raped Kay Lockman (who the audience knows is guilty). When Lockman falls into a coma after a restaurant shooting, Cobb comes to Zombro to help him with the difficult legal materials, as he thinks Tess would be too emotionally connected. Later episodes have her fighting a sexual harassment for a character coincidentally named Tina Cassidy (Julia Montgomery) and helping to parole a man who shot his wife and child while on drugs.
Since Lenz plays a regular role on the show, Doubts also explores the character of Maggie Zombro in greater detail by giving her a backstory involving an abusive father and a battered mother. In one episode, her deadbeat brother Philip, (Lane Davies), shows up to claim his inheritance from their mother’s estate, only to have Maggie reveal to him that there are debts. Philip also takes to selling off her client’s file to the opposing lawyer after she kicks him out of her home for provocatively asking Dicky what she’s like in bed. The show also has her struggling with both her relationship with Dicky and her personal faith. The show gives Lenz a lot to play with in this role.
These roles would signal the next chapter of her career as a character actor. In both these shows, she plays a supporting role. While she plays the main love interest in the second season of Reasonable Doubts, she plays the fourth lead overall. After her Emmy win, Lenz revitalized her career. Besides her spot on a TV show and two movies, Lenz would also lend her distinctive voice to animation regularly by portraying Cowlamity Kate Cudster on Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa (1992-1993) and American Maid on The Tick (1994-1996). She would also get cast in Burt Reynolds vehicle, Physical Evidence (1989).
While this was a time of resurgence in her career, Lenz took it in stride as she always did: “I know better than to think that it will last forever. I also know that the bad times don’t last forever either.” With this outlook, Lenz would proceed into the next phase of her career.
- Lenz’s Emmy winning episode was directed by Mimi Leder, who would direct Deep Impact (1998), Pay It Forward (2000), and On the Basis of Sex (2018).
- On Reasonable Doubts, Lenz enjoyed playing the character and had a great time on the show. She also said that she felt like Zombro when she put the costume on.
- One of her earliest roles on a large network show was an appearance on The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968), where she played a girl fawning over future American Graffiti (1973) co-star Ron Howard.
David Cassidy: The Reluctant Idol. Biography, 2004.
Kay Lenz. Roger Cobb’s House. Retrieved from https://www.rogercobbshouse.com/kaylenz.htm
Alexander, Michael and Jeannie Park. After Riding a Lifetime of Ups and Downs, Kay Lenz Hits Her Stride with a role in Midnight Caller. People, November 20, 1989. Retrieved from https://people.com/archive/after-riding-a-lifetime-of-ups-and-downs-kay-lenz-hits-her-stride-with-a-role-in-midnight-caller-vol-32-no-21/
Bennett, Ray. Lasting Lenz: Actress who got her start in TV films regains her career with ‘Doubts.’ LA Times, October 4, 1992. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/1992-10-04/news/tv-593_1_kay-lenz
Everett, Todd. Reasonable Doubts Try to Be Nice – What Does It Get You?. Variety, November 16, 1992. Retrieved from https://variety.com/1992/tv/reviews/reasonable-doubts-try-to-be-nice-what-does-it-get-you-1200430943/
Harris, Harry. Kay Lenz is Weeping her Way to Stardom. The Cincinnati Enquirer, February 27, 1974. Retrieved from https://www.newspapers.com/clip/17734396/kay_lenz/
O’Connor, John J. Review/Television; A ‘Caller’ Episode, on AIDS. New York Times, December 13, 1988. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1988/12/13/arts/review-television-a-caller-episode-on-aids.html
O’Connor, John J. Review/Television; ‘Midnight Caller’ Continues its AIDS story. New York Times, November 14, 1989. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1989/11/14/arts/review-television-midnight-caller-continues-its-aids-story.html
Roots, Kimberly. Marlee Matlin Reminisces About Having Reasonable Doubts With Mark Harmon. TVline, May 14, 2018. Retrieved from https://tvline.com/2018/05/24/marlee-matlin-mark-harmon-reasonable-doubt-tess-dicky/