If you were born after Jimmy Carter‘s administration, you probably don’t know the name. If you are in to sports, you might think: “Joey Heatherton… didn’t he used to be the quarterback for the Detroit Lions”? Yet, in the 1960s and 1970s, Joey Heatherton was a household name. In my teenage brain, I found her to be interchangeable with Lola Falana, with good reason.
Heatherton made films and recorded albums, but I think of all of those television appearances and the USO tours with Bob Hope when I think of her. It makes me sad that like Falana, Heatherton seems to drop off the face of the earth. Falana found Jesus in the 1990s and was last spotted doing a gig at The Wayne Newton Theatre in Branson, Missouri in 1997.
Two months ago, on a sizzling summer day, I caught a pulpy little film Where Love Has Gone (1964) directed by Edward Dmytryk, one of the Hollywood Ten, the group of blacklisted film industry professionals who refused to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in their investigations during the McCarthy-era ‘Red scare’. He served time in prison for contempt of Congress.
He had a huge hit with The Carpetbaggers (1964) from the novel by Harold Robbins, and he quickly followed it with Where Love Has Gone, a raunchy, glossy, pulp fiction courtroom drama that’s based on a trashy sensational bestseller novel by Robbins. Although Robbins and Paramount Pictures refused to acknowledge a connection, it is obviously based on the real-life case of Cheryl Crane, the daughter of Lana Turner, who in 1958 stabbed and killed her mother’s boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, claiming that she was defending Turner from attack.
Too bad it didn’t star Turner; that would have been real meta tabloid filmmaking. Instead, we get Susan Hayworth and Bette Davis. It opens with middle-aged building contractor Luke Miller (Mike Connors) leaving an Arizona business meeting to go to San Francisco when he learns that his 15-year-old daughter, Dani, played by Heatherton, has been arrested for stabbing to death her mother’s lover after witnessing them argue in her home.
Watching the film led me to thinking about Heatherton, who I hadn’t thought about in decades. The last time I remember seeing her in the news was in the mid-1980s when she seemed to always be in trouble with the law. She was arrested for refusing to pay a $4,906 bill from a hotel where she stayed in 1984. She was arrested after she allegedly slapped and pulled the hair of a clerk at Manhattan’s U.S. Passport Agency office. She was acquitted of both charges.
In September 1986, Heatherton was arrested after she stabbed her former boyfriend in the hand with a steak knife during an argument. After her arrest, Heatherton told police who she was, but they did not believe her. She handed one of the officers her purse to verify her identity. While looking through Heatherton’s purse, the officer found some cocaine. Heatherton was charged with assault and misdemeanor drug possession. A year later, a court ruled that the search was unconstitutional because Heatherton was not advised that she could refuse the purse search.
Also, in 1986, Heatherton was charged with tax evasion, and the feds put a lien on her co-op in order to pressure her into coming up with taxes dating back to 1977.
She was born Davenie Johanna Heatherton. Her father, Ray Heatherton, was a Broadway star and television pioneer. Her mother, also named Davenie Heatherton, was a dancer who met her husband when they were both performing on Broadway in Babes In Arms.
Heatherton grew up on Long Island and began singing when she was five-years-old. She took dance classes with George Balanchine at New York City Ballet. She first appeared on television on her father’s popular local kiddie show, The Merry Mailman. In 1959, she became a member of the ensemble and an understudy in the original Broadway production of The Sound Of Music, and a regular on The Perry Como Show, playing an exuberant teenager with a perpetual crush on Como. She also released her first single that year, That’s How It Goes, but failed to have a hit with it.
She was spotted on an episode of the television series The Nurses and was cast in the film Twilight Of Honor with Richard Chamberlain.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, Heatherton really began to be noticed for her dancing on television, which many viewers considered shocking and critics derided as sleazy. In 1964, she appeared on The Tonight Show, where she showed Johnny Carson how to dance “The Frug”.
Heatherton was a frequent guest on The Dean Martin Show, starting with the very first episode in September 1965. She was the mystery guest on What’s My Line? in November 1965, the last show on which Dorothy Kilgallen appeared before mysteriously dying. By the end of 1965, she had appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan, Esquire, TV Guide, McCall’s, Redbook, and Ladies Home Journal, and on television variety and talk shows.
Heatherton dated George Harrison for about six months in 1964. They met at a charity event and then had a long-distance relationship. In 1965, things just did not work out and their romance ended. It has long been rumored that the song I Need You by The Beatles is about her.
Between 1965 and 1977, Heatherton performed live in Bob Hope’s touring USO troupe, entertaining the GIs with her singing, dance moves and skimpy outfits. The USO tours were televised as part of Hope’s long-running series of NBC monthly specials, culminating in the top-rated Christmas shows, where Heatherton’s numbers were highlights.
In May 1973, she performed at President Richard Nixon‘s White House gala to welcome home 1300 of America’s returned POWs from Vietnam. She and Nixon sing God Bless America to the crowd and for the television cameras.
By the 1970s, Heatherton’s career was no longer hot, but she was still popular enough to do television commercials. Below is a 1972 commercial that she did for Serta. Dig Joey’s bell-bottomed jumpsuit and groovy dance moves!
She continued to perform in Las Vegas and released her first album, The Joey Heatherton Album. The first single, a cover of the 1957 Ferlin Husky song Gone, spent 15 weeks on the Billboard’s Hot 100, peaking at Number 24.
In the summer of 1975, she headlined Joey & Dad, a summer replacement series for Cher‘s variety show. Each episode had Ray Heatherton waxing nostalgic with his daughter while going through memorabilia in his attic, before they would do musical numbers together.
In 1977, Heatherton played Xaviera Hollander in the Watergate-inspired The Happy Hooker Goes To Washington. In 1990, she played a religious fanatic in John Waters‘ Cry-Baby. Heatherton appeared nude at 53-years-old in a 1997 issue of Playboy, and then she seems to have disappeared, unless you count a 2014 court appearance for using her high heels to silence a noisy upstairs neighbor. Or, maybe it was the other way around.
Watch this chills-up-the-spine version of Look What They’ve Done To My Song. Besides segueing into a French version, she includes the ad-libbed line ”look what they’ve done to my bbbb-rain” and dances through a set that looks like one of my LSD trips from the era. Maybe Heatherton is just what we need in 2018.
The essence of Heatherton’s special gifts is strangely captured on SCTV, where the great Catherine O’Hara created a character named ”Lola Heatherton”, an amalgam of Heatherton and Lola Falana. The character spoofs both women, especially their appearances on television variety shows in the 1970s. Lola Heatherton’s catch-phrase is: “I wanna bear your children!”. In the clip below, O’Hara’s Lola Heatherton sings a mordant torch song that names the men she slept with who have drained her of love, recounting grievances until she is dragged away.
Here is Heatherton performing a number choreographed by Michael Bennett. I love how 1960s it is. Listen to her sing. It’s a shame she was never on Broadway in a leading role.