It was 23 years ago today that Susan Oliver died quietly at the Motion Picture & Television Home in Woodland Hills, at just 58 years old. Most people didn’t even know she had been struggling with cancer for the previous 8 months. It was a sad footnote to what was a rather remarkable life, although it had been somewhat disappointing to Susan in recent years.
At the time of her death, she’d been trying for over 6 years to get the chance to direct again, an opportunity which eluded her (and so many other women at that time). She’d even tried approaching Paramount about directing an episode of the (at that time) new Star Trek: The Next Generation series (they told her that she lacked the necessary background in complex special effects – for the record, only 2 women directed in that show’s 7-season run: a veteran from England and cast member Gates McFadden, who got the chance to direct one of the final episodes in 1994).
I sometimes wonder what it must have been like for her in the 1980’s, sitting at home and remembering how the phone used to ring off the hook with offers for acting gigs 10-20 years earlier, but in the last decade of her life, she had the opposite experience as a director. She could still land acting work at will (and occasionally had to, just to keep her union benefits alive). But, like all but a precious few women in the 1980’s, she found that the director’s chair was almost always filled by a man. (Actor Gary Conway recently told me the mindset back then was such that a woman director was thought of in the same way as a female professional football player.)
Ironically, things did start to get somewhat better for women directors in the 1990’s (although let’s not kid ourselves – even today, the single-most common characteristic of a successful director is being both white and male). I wish Susan could have stuck around for the ’90’s, where I’m certain she would’ve been welcome to direct on a number of that era’s television shows. Unfortunately, her journey ended 23 years ago today, just 5 months into that pivotal decade.
All we can do now is celebrate her brief but fascinating life and the great lengths she went to in trying to push the traditional boundaries defining acceptable roles for women. Without the pioneering efforts of women like her, things would be as bad today as they were back then…