June Lockhart: 80 years as a paid performer
"Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson."
When NASA honored June Lockhart last October, it would have been quite fitting to borrow the above lyrics from a popular Simon and Garfunkel song to salute the 88 year old actress. Best remembered by sci-fi fans for her role of TV space mom Maureen Robinson in the 60s series "Lost in Space," June told me recently that the NASA recognition was a highlight of her long career, which includes a Tony Award, an Emmy nomination and a couple of stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
"I was presented with the Exceptional Public Achievement Medal for my work with the space agency," she explained. "I've been to two space shuttle launches and worked with NASA since the 1970s, addressing their employees and traveling on NASA's behalf to promote the agency. So I'm absolutely thrilled by this recognition. No other actress has received this honor."
One of her memorable experiences occurred during a Space Shuttle mission in 1992.
"I called NASA one day and spoke with astronaut Ken Reightler and told him I had a good wake-up song for them to use," recalled June, referring to "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise," a catchy 50s hit by Les Paul and Mary Ford. The song held special significance because the lyrics were written by her father, beloved character actor Gene Lockhart.
"So I went to Mission Control in Houston and at around 2 a.m. they played the song for the crew of the Columbia mission," she explained. "Then a voice from space came over the speaker: 'Some of us up here want to know what Lassie's mother is doing in Mission Control at 2 o'clock in the morning!'"
"Lassie," one of TV's longest-running shows (1954-1973), was June's other big hit in which she dispensed maternal wisdom, this time for six seasons as a farm mom. Later, she morphed from matriarch to medic as Dr. Janet Craig for three seasons on "Petticoat Junction."
"Petticoat Junction was a delight to do, with wonderful scripts," said June. "It was great playing comedy after 'Lost in Space,' which was more dramatic, and 'Lassie,' which didn't have many laughs."
On the big screen, 12 year old June made her debut in the 1938 holiday classic, "A Christmas Carol," alongside both her parents, Gene and Kathleen Lockhart, who played the Cratchits. While she went on to costar with greats such as Gary Cooper in "Sergeant York" and Judy Garland in "Meet me in St. Louis," "A Christmas Carol" is special since it was the only time she appeared with her parents in a motion picture.
But it was memorable for other reasons, too.
"My daughter, Junie, and granddaughter, Christianna, have never let me forget that the first words I ever spoke in movies were: 'I know, I know – sausages!'" said June, referring to her on-screen guess for the contents of a food package Mr. Crachit brings home.
"We all shriek with laugher when we watch it now."
In addition to being an advocate for NASA and many other causes, June continues to work and costarred in the comedy spoof "Zombie Hamlet," which had its world premiere at the 2012 Palm Beach International Film Festival and was just released on DVD in December.
In 2013, she appeared in the interactive movie series "Tex Murphy," a gaming platform that combines animation with full-motion video of real actors.
"That was a new experience and I really enjoyed it. And in December, I also celebrated my 80th year as a paid performer in the business! I made my debut at the age of eight in 'Peter Ibbetson' at the Metropolitan Opera House."
While actors are used to receiving accolades for career milestones, June admits to still being quite overwhelmed by the NASA recognition and is, she says, "over the Moon about it!"
Congratulations, Mrs. Robinson.
Nick Thomas has written features and columns for more than 350 magazines and newspapers. He can be reached at his blog: http://getnickt.blogspot.com.