Elaine Lee: Heartbreak to fame on television

Loved performer: Elaine Lee as Vera Collins and Norman Yemm as her husband, Harry.

Glamorous: Elaine Lee

Loved performer: Elaine Lee as Vera Collins and Norman Yemm as her husband, Harry.

Loved performer: Elaine Lee as Vera Collins and Norman Yemm as her husband, Harry.

Glamorous: Elaine Lee

Loved performer: Elaine Lee as Vera Collins and Norman Yemm as her husband, Harry.

Glamorous: Elaine Lee

ELAINE LEE, 1939-2014

March 13, 1972, was “the night television lost its virginity” but after actress Elaine Lee watched herself in the opening night of Number 96, she went to bed heartbroken, convinced that it was the worst thing she had ever seen.

So unsure was she of its future that she continued to work a second job at the Bowlers Club of NSW, but it was her waitressing days that finished up early when the show turned into a surprise smash hit and Lee’s character, the sophisticated dress designer Vera Collins, became one of its most popular.

Elaine Joyce Knoesen was born on December 23, 1939, at Springs, Transvaal (now Gauteng) in South Africa. Her childhood was spent living on a gold mine, where her father worked as an electrician until he died when she was nine.

This left her to grow up with her mother and sister Barbara and they formed a trio of women liberationists long before women started burning their bras. Elaine always wanted to be an actor and moved to Johannesburg, where she joined a theatrical company as an assistant stage manager with occasional small roles.

Soon she was combining radio dramas, company management and starring roles in productions that travelled through South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. After a three-month whirlwind romance with comedian Garth Meade, they married and made their way to Australia in 1970, where he successfully worked the club scene.

But Lee’s fame eclipsed his after she was cast as Vera in Number 96 but, sadly, her marriage did not last. Instead, it was the night-time soap that brought her “joys, tears, lifelong friendships, instant recognition and a sense of belonging to the most wonderful, close-knit family.”

Unlike Vera, Lee couldn’t sew a stitch and had no interest in fashion, but she did believe in the occult and fortune tellers (life would even imitate art when she took up Tarot card reading for real after 96 finished). Perhaps Lee became more like Vera because she loved the character so much. She once wrote – with particular words in bold type to accentuate the “dramatic” – that “it is essential you LIKE the person you’re playing, otherwise it can never work for you”.

Lee believed that female viewers identified with Vera because she was a successful self-employed businesswoman who didn’t need a man but always fell in love with the wrong one. Lee lost count of how many disastrous love affairs Vera had (“about 15 or 16 I think”) or how many “booby” scenes she did.

“I was always uncomfortable and embarrassed doing the nudity. My friends always hooted with laughter whenever I said that but truly, really, I am basically a very shy person.”

Like the rest of the cast, she had blithely signed the infamous nudity clause expecting never to be asked to disrobe, given how many other “lovely nubile young actresses like the gorgeous Abigail” were in the show. So she began to “hyperventilate” when she read in an early script that ex-husband Harry Collins (Norman Yemm) would rape her.

She told her “brilliant” producer, Bill Harmon, that she would have to leave the show, but he placated her with “Honey, you’re an actress, you can do it.”

When it came time to shoot the scene on a closed set, no sooner had Yemm ripped off her nightie (held together by Velcro so that it would come off easily and make a ripping sound), Lee leapt onto the bed, trying to hide her nudity. “Cut,” Harmon yelled, “No, honey, you look too eager.”

Lee became so popular with fans that TV Week would beg producers to create storylines for Vera so that she could be on the front cover. A publican even told her that television sets had been installed into pubs only to stop customers deserting the bars to go home and watch the show.

In 1974, after being raped (again) in the opening sequence by a pack of bikies, Vera Collins married a Liberal Prime Minister (James Condon) in the closing scene of the movie version of Number 96. “It was very tongue in cheek and the public ADORED it,” she wrote of it. Made for less than $100,000, the movie grossed over $5 million, but Lee was only paid $1200. This was actually $200 more than the rest of the regulars because she had to strip.

In 1976, Lee decided to move on so Vera moved out of 96 to marry racing car driver Guy Sutton (played by Peter Whitford). The character returned briefly as a divorcee a few months later in an ill-fated spin-off series but Lee’s real-life relationship with the actor turned out to be more lasting.

Whitford was by her side in 1983 when she hit rock bottom with alcoholism. He feared the worst after admitting her to a facility but, within just a couple of days, she vowed never to drink again and stayed true to her word, leading her attending doctor to proclaim that her recovery had been his greatest success.

Afterwards, Lee “married” Whitford again to brilliantly portray his alcoholic wife on stage in David Williamson’s The Perfectionist.

Among her other stage work was a stint with Lauren Bacall on the Australian tour of Sweet Bird of Youth in 1986. Then the Hollywood legend discovered that Lee was a fellow gambler. Every night when the curtain fell, Bacall would call for – or perhaps order – Lee to go and play blackjack with her (and pick up the tab for supper too).

Elaine Lee continued to work in television in Glenview High, ANZACS, A Country Practice, Heartbreak High, All Saints, Blackjack, Home & Away and a rare foray into comedy with the Kingswood Country sequel Bullpitt. But although she was always best known for her dramatic roles, in reality her life was a non-stop sitcom, meaning she always had a funny story to tell with the roar of her own laughter the loudest.

A lifetime of smoking led to the onset of emphysema but even carrying around an oxygen tank didn’t slow her down. After she got lost one day trying to find a television studio, many people thought taping would have to be cancelled because she was gasping for air. Her breathing returned to normal on set only when the director called “Action!” prompting David Sale to remark that “she might live forever if kept in the glare of TV lights”.

During the filming of Number 96, Lee had driven into a tree and was hospitalized after a wild party at director Peter Bernardos’ house. Although they had not been especially close before this, Sheila Kennelly (who played Norma) became her dearest friend after stepping in to look after her beloved Rhodesian Ridgeback dog, Tha’andi. Years later, when Lee was hospitalised for the final time after fracturing her hip, they both knew the end was near but neither expected her to “fall off the twig” quite so quickly.

“Elaine handled her infirmity with courage and grace. She was the most beautiful, lovable, kind and generous friend anyone could hope for,” Kennelly said.

Lee said “And the future? I am an eternal optimist so I know it will be GOOD. And being an absolute believer in reincarnation, I know that somewhere, sometime, we’ll meet again.”

Andrew Mercado

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