Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Top TV Moments: Arlene Martel

New York City is home to the United Nations. It is also the birthplace of Arlene Martel, an actress who seemingly played characters from every country represented in that (once) august assemblage. 

She was French on Hogan’s Heroes, Native American on Route 66, Italian on The Untouchables, Hungarian on The Fugitive and Russian on I Dream of Jeannie. On Have Gun Will Travel she played a princess from Montenegro; on The Outer Limits, she was a Spanish cleaning lady. And on Star Trek, of course, she was Vulcan; “Amok Time” may be the best known of her dozens of Comfort TV appearances. If nothing else, it’s the one that gave her a lifetime pass into lucrative convention appearances.

An exotic beauty regardless of heritage, Martel is another of those perennial guest stars from the classic TV era who was equally engaging in broad comedies and serious drama. It’s not mere coincidence that many of the episodes listed below rank among the very best from their respective series.

Death Valley Days (1960)
“Human Sacrifice” is the earliest Arlene Martel appearance I’ve had a chance to see, and it’s one of the more substantive roles from the early stage of her career. She plays the wife of a Shoshone Chief who discovers that, after her husband dies, tribal custom requires she be put to death as well, so she can join him in the afterlife. Not surprisingly, she isn't a big fan of that custom.

Have Gun Will Travel (1961)
Unlike Death Valley Days, a pleasant but by-the-numbers western where the performances are on the stiff side, here Martel has to hold her own in what is nearly a two-character story opposite charismatic Richard Boone, and she is wonderful. Paladin is hired to track down the runaway Princess Serafina; at first she is openly antagonistic, but after a night in the desert she’s cooking him flapjacks and contemplating giving up her kingdom.

I love the writing in the episode’s middle third, as the unlikely duo share a meal and Serafina laments her regimented life, while Paladin suggests that no one, regardless of their station, is truly free. The Roman Holiday overtones in “The Princess and the Gunfighter” are obvious, especially in the closing moments: “If there were no such thing as duty…if there were only wishes…I would wish away every kingdom in the world but this one, and I would never go back.” 

The Twilight Zone (1961)
The Rod Serling-scripted “22” can still scare the bejeezus out of first-time viewers. Barbara Nichols plays a dancer hospitalized for fatigue. During her stay she is traumatized by a recurring nightmare, in which she follows a shadowy figure down to the basement, where the morgue is located. Just as she approaches the entrance a severe looking nurse appears and says, “Room for one more, honey.” But is it just a dream? Arlene Martel plays the creepy nurse. It’s a small part but one not easily forgotten. 

The Outer Limits (1964)
Here’s an interesting trivia question (and no, I don’t have the answer): How many actors appeared in all three of the landmark science fiction/fantasy shows of the 1960s: The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Star Trek? Martel not only accomplished this, all three of her episodes would likely rank high with each respective fanbase. Here, it’s the powerful and poetic “Demon With a Glass Hand” starring Robert Culp as…well, that would be telling. The script was by Harlan Ellison, who (as usual) spent the next 30 years griping about how television butchered his genius. 

Hogan’s Heroes  (1965)
Martel debuted as the plucky French resistance fighter Tiger in the series’ second episode (“Hold That Tiger”) and it’s easy to see why they brought the character back in four more episodes over the series’ six-year run. In her final appearance (“Operation Tiger”), she is captured by the Gestapo and Hogan defies a direct order, risking his life and his team’s greater mission, to come to her rescue. Was he driven by loyalty to their cause, or something more? Just another unanswered question in a series that ended with too many of them. 

I Dream of Jeannie (1965)
“Russian Roulette” was one of the more ambitious episodes from the show’s first season, before the series fell into a repetitive formula that did not serve its talented cast well. Martel is Sonya, one of two Russian cosmonauts visiting NASA. She falls for Tony (of course) and Jeannie is jealous (of course), but she’s powerless to intervene after her bottle winds up in Russian hands, and Sonya becomes her new master. With limitless power in her grasp, Sonya’s first command to Jeannie is to have Tony kick a General in the keister. 

The Monkees (1966)
Apparently someone casting this series enjoyed “Russian Roulette,” as Martel is once again asked to play a comic Russian villain in “The Spy Who Came In From the Cool.” As Madame Olinsky she happily throws herself into the musical montage silliness, and has a fun rapport with her evil but not very bright sidekick, Boris.
Boris: A teenager just stopped me and wanted a date. 
Madame Olinsky: Teenage girls are very aggressive in this country. 
Boris: It wasn't a girl.

Star Trek (1967)
“Amok Time” was a real bell-ringer of an episode (little Vulcan humor there) featuring the famous Kirk vs. Spock battle to the death, put into motion by Arlene Martel as the haughty T’Pring. An interesting footnote is that this is not the only time Martel appeared with Leonard Nimoy on television. Both are featured in a 1960 episode of the western The Rebel, and three years after “Amok Time” you’ll see them again in the Mission: Impossible episode “Terror,” though sadly their characters never share any scenes. 

The Wild, Wild West (1967)
Arlene Martel has a smaller role in “The Night of the Circus of Death,” but it’s a rare instance where she gets to speak in her own sultry voice, without a foreign accent. She’s radiant here as circus performer Erika, in an episode with colors that really pop on DVD. It’s not surprising at all when Erika earns the coveted invitation back to James West’s train after the case is solved. 

Columbo (1974)
“A Friend In Deed” featured Martel’s third appearance in this groundbreaking detective drama. Here she’s just one of the ensemble, but once again good fortune seems to follow her into the episodes in which she appears; Columbo fans always rank this one among the series’ standouts. 


  1. Arlene Martel appeared as Mavis MacDonald on "The Young and the Restless" in 1986.

  2. She was also known as Arline Sax, and under that name she appeared on the S1 TZ episode "What You Need" as "girl in bar". I always watch "Twenty-Two" when I have a chance, since I think the look of the videotaped TZ episodes interesting, especially since I didn't see them in that form until the 80s. All TZ episodes that were on tape were originally transferred to 16mm film when shown until tv stations commonly had shows, including those that were filmed, on videotape.

  3. Amazing post! She was in so many shows, I had no idea. And I love your blog! <3