SUZANNE PLESHETTE: An Avatar in My Path
I believe in avatars—the ancient kind and the modern kind. Modern avatars become us when we serve the ball in Wii tennis, or take the stage as Guitar Heroes. They are our markers, our imagined selves in virtual reality.
But if we take time to notice them, avatars of the ancient variety are with us in Real Time, each and every day. These ancient avatars, according to Hindu myth, are human forms of deities, sent to deliver messages and guide us on our journeys.
Before I start sounding like New Age Amy Semple, let me memorialize one of my own personal avatars: the actress Suzanne Pleshette. She died of lung cancer on January 19, 2008—a few days short of her 71st birthday, when she was supposed to install her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
But with or without that star in the sidewalk, Suzanne Pleshette will live in my memory as an avatar—both ancient and modern. As a ancient avatar, the characters she portrayed were messengers, telling me: “Marian! Stop whining about your unibrow and your mousey brown pageboy. Blondes do NOT have more fun. So what if you suck at kickball? You, too, can grow up to be a funny, smart, sexy, self-assured, BRUNETTE.”
As a modern avatar, Suzanne Pleshette first came to me on Christmas Morning, 1963, in the form of my first Barbie. But this doll was no blonde pony-tailed ingénue. She was a ringer for Suzanne: a sophisticated brunette, with a chic bouffant hairdo and heavy-lidded green eyes. She became my avatar, my imagined Grownup Self in the virtual reality I created inside her cool cardboard apartment, a Dream House with a Murphy bed and martini glasses on a tray atop her hi-fi console.
Equipped with the wardrobe I collected in my black patent Dream Case, my Barbie avatar was quintessential Suzanne, a Method actress not afraid to expand her range. She might wear the black and white tweed suit for her role as Jeanne Green, the New York editor in Youngblood Hawke. The next day, she’d wear a sensible shirtwaist with the cardigan thrown over her shoulders, becoming the brave schoolteacher who gets pecked to death trying to protect her students from murderous seagulls in The Birds. Tomorrow? A gold lame cocktail suit, trimmed in mink, for an after-theater soiree at Sardi’s, celebrating her debut as Annie in The Miracle Worker.
Like Suzanne, my Dream House avatar was a smart woman of the world, someone who could play a teacher without being pedantic. Someone who could portray a character without betraying herself.
In high school and college, I got hooked on The Bob Newhart Show, not only because of its dry humor and quirky characters, but because Suzanne Pleshette as Emily seemed to channel some wise, witty goddess. (Athena? Our Lady of Good Counsel? Kali?) Unlike the “housewife” characters I’d grown up with—Lucy, June Cleaver, and the like — Emily was the voice of reason, a woman of wit, conscience and intelligence—the perfect foil for dullish Bob.
Suzanne Pleshette’s Emily still resembled my girlish avatar in the Dream House, but she was now something more: a woman comfortable in her own skin. Around 1973, I got the Emily’s message from a wise deity: “Stop burning lingerie and listen up! Women can have their own careers and have loving relationships, be sexy and sleep with their husbands, be fabulous cooks and curl up with a good book. And by the way, she’s supposed to have a higher IQ than Bob’s. She’s an educator, and he’s only a psychologist!”
For me, Suzanne Pleshette did what avatars—both ancient and modern—do best: they inspire us to pack up the Dream Case and hit the road. Whether we ride the Vespa with Troy Donahue, get pecked to death by seagulls, or wake up on designer sheets next to Bob Newhart, we create our own happiness by using the gifts we are given.
Suzanne Pleshette doesn’t need a star on a Hollywood sidewalk; she’s become that star in the sky. I’m sure it’s her cosmic avatar, just north of Venus at twilight. She’s playing some game, winking at us as she outsmarts the Man in the Moon.
In loving memory of Suzanne Pleshette,
January 31, 1937 – January 19, 2008
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