How Even Closeted, Sheila Kuehl’s Sexuality Cost Her Her Booming Acting Career
Today, we look at the sad story of how Sheila Kuehl’s sexuality cost her her booming acting career, even when she was still in the closet.
This is Quite a Story, a sort of catch-all feature where I share short, interesting anecdotes from interviews or books that don’t really fit into any other feature.
Sheila Kuehl, as I’m sure most classic TV fans know, played Zelda, the smartest girl in school in the hit 1959-1963 sitcom, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, which starred Dwayne Hickman as Dobie Gillis (the show’s creator, Max Shulman, had written a number of short stories featuring Dobie Gillis in the 1940s that had been collected into a book in the 1950s, and even adapted into a couple of films in the 1950s.
The main stars of the show were Hickman’s Dobie and a pre-Gilligan’s Island Bob Denver as Dobie’s beatnik friend, Maynard G. Krebs.
Early recurring characters included Thalia, the spoiled rich girl that Dobie pined after, played by future movie star Tuesday Weld, and jerk rich kid, Milton (played by future movie star, Warren Beatty). Both Beatty and Weld left the show relatively early on (with a new jerk rich kid replacing Milton for the rest of the series’ run and various love interests replacing Thalia). The other main recurring character was Sheila Kuehl (then using her middle name, James, as her last name, so Sheila James) as Zelda Gilroy, the nerdy girl who pined for Dobie.
Years later, when the show got a pair of revival attempts, Zelda and Dobie would turn out to have been married, and Dobie took over his father’s grocery store.
However, heading into Season 4, Kuehl’s character was popular enough that they decided to do a spinoff featuring Zelda. It did not work out well for a rather gross reason.
In the magazine California Conversations, Aaron Read interviewed Kuehl about her career, and the messed-up reason why her sitcom didn’t manifest.
CC: There was a move to do a spin-off of Dobie Gillis?
SK: Zelda was a very popular character, got a lot of fan mail, and they wanted to do a spin-off with her character. It was the only time I ever starred in anything. I was at all the script meetings, I was at all the casting meetings late at night and it was very heavy to be the star. We made the pilot. Everybody thought it was very funny.
CC: Did you think it was funny?
SK: I think it was funny.
CC: You’ve been quoted saying the series didn’t go because studio executives thought the Zelda character was ‘too butch’.
SK: Not the Zelda character…the Sheila person. (Sheila squares up in her chair, still bothered as she tells a story that doesn’t soften in the retelling) Just prior to that, I was staying at UCLA, in a sorority, and my sorority found letters my partner had written to me. I had gotten in a relationship with a woman when I was 17, and it was so natural. I had all these boyfriends, boyfriends, boyfriends, and then I met this woman and oh, this is what it feels like to fall in love. I mean it was so different. Everybody tells you it’s not innate, you cannot believe it. And so, they found letters she had written to me. I went back for my senior year and they kicked me out of the sorority. Then the pilot was made, and it didn’t sell. We were working late and the director took me for a walk and said the president of CBS thinks you’re a little too butch. (another pause) My partner and I were very young and very, very deeply in the closet. She was 2 ½ to 3 years older. We were very deeply in the closet for obvious reasons, and scared to death because I didn’t know anybody like us at all. You know, I’d heard there were queer people, and that it was a terrible thing to be, so it was a very difficult time. I felt that cold feeling like somebody smashed an ice cap on my head and it all ran down the back of my neck. I thought, now everybody will know.
CC: Did they cut back the Zelda character?
SK: I only did four shows the fourth year and I had done 39 a year before. It was over.
CC: Did you work after Dobie?
SK: I did one more series right away and I was like fi fthbilled. It was a spin-off from McHale’s Navy called
Broadside and it came and went quickly.
CC: Did you come out after that?
SK: I didn’t come out for years and years and years and years. I mean, you learn a lesson that somebody even suspects you’re gay and you lose your whole career. I went to work at UCLA. I had a lot of jobs over the next several years, because I didn’t really know what to do. I thought I would be an actress. I thought it was a great tragedy losing my career.
Kuehl, of course, has since gone on to become a very successful politician in California’s state politics and is currently serving out her final term as a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors (she’ll be replaced next year after retiring at the age of 81).
What a messed-up story. Good for her for getting through and finding such great success in politics (and at least she did return to the Zelda character a few times over the years).
If you see any interesting anecdotes from interviews or books that you think would be worth spotlighting, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.