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Moonbase Alpha Has a Comely Resident

Catherine Schell -
Space: 1999's Moonbase Alpha Has a Comely Resident

by David Dugas
TV Times - July 31-August 6, 1977
Article Source Provided by: W. Christopher Garcia

She could become the Dr. [Mr.] Spock of the 1970s.

The producers of that lavish British TV series Space: 1999 were getting ready for a second year of episodes and needed an actress to play the new character Maya, an exotic creature described as a "resident alien who possesses the incredible power of molecular transformation."

Perhaps the "alien" part made them think of beautiful Catherine Schell.

She was, after all, born in Budapest, the daughter of a soon-to-be exiled baron. She was schooled in Washington and New York and Munich. She is an American citizen who moved to London nine years ago after marrying an English actor.

"Gerry Anderson, the executive producer, just rang me up and asked me if I wanted to do it," Catherine said the other day during a fleeting visit to New York. From the window of her Manhattan hotel suite she was enjoying a summer rain before flying home to drought-stricken England.

"He told me about the part and it sounded very exciting," she said. "We did some makeup tests out at Pinewood Studios and at the end of the week I had the part."

She wasn't a total stranger to the austere and futuristic environs of Space: 1999. Last year she joined stars Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, the husband-and-wife team from Mission: Impossible, for a guest role.

"I played a robot- computerized to please," she said with a smile that broke instantly into a throaty laugh as she added: "I was blown up in the end. There were all these springs and screws flying out of my head."

Space: 1999 began life last year, hoping to inherit millions of fans left behind by the phenomenally successful Star Trek. For its second year the per-episode budget has been increased to $300,000 bringing the 24-episode total to $7.2 million.

Part of the increase pays for the services of producer-writer Fred Freiberger, formerly of Star Trek. Another chunk goes into the elaborate special effects required for Catherine's "molecular transformations."

A press release had described her character as possessed of "a computer brain so fantastic it defies all scientific experience and explanation." It said "molecular transformation" meant she could "transform herself into fascinating objects, creatures and other life forms including a lioness, a panther, a tigress, a dove, a dolphin and more"- not to mention "different human beings and beings never before imagined."

None of that plain old Bionic Woman stuff here. But how does she do it?

"It depends on the sort of animal and the situation," Catherine said. "I sometimes take on the pose of the animal. For instance I've been known to snarl into the camera just before I become a wolf or a black leopard.

"You see what I'm going to turn into in the pupil of my eye. Then I blink and it happens. There is one sequence where I become a black leopard and I come leaping at the camera. Then the leopard takes over in mid-leap."

Before venturing onto the cavernous Space: 1999 set each morning he gets a special hairdo, a pair of beady eyebrows and facial shadows that give her face a distinctively feline look.

The original idea was for her to wear special contact lenses that would make her grey-blue eyes entirely white except for star-shaped pupils. She tried wearing them at home but couldn't see anything through them so they were eliminated.

"I wore them once in a restaurant and the waitress dropped her glass when I looked up at her," Catherine said.

The show's producers hope her Maya character will become as popular with fans as Leonard Nimoy's Dr. [Mr.] Spock did during the three-year life of Star Trek.

Recently Catherine appeared on a Boston TV talk show and Nimoy made a surprise appearance. Catherine recalled the first time she met the actor.

"It was very funny. I was doing a film called Madame Sin with Robert Wagner and Bette Davis at Pinewood and Leonard came over to say hello to Bob Wagner.

"I saw this man standing against the wall and my eyes went straight to his ears. I thought, 'That man ha strange ears.' Then I looked again and thought, 'No he doesn't. He's got perfectly normal ears.' Then it suddenly dawned on me that what was strange about his ears was that they WERE normal. They should have been pointed!

"Then I realized it was Spock. We were very briefly introduced by Bob Wagner. I used to watch Star Trek all the time in England.

"In Boston he asked me if I could do the Vulcan greeting." Extending her fingers- all of them touching except for a gap between the second and third- she demonstrated. "Then I said, 'Can you do this?'" She wiggled only the tips of her fingers, no simple matter for ordinary mortals. Nimoy was stumped. So was I as she demonstrated the feat.

"Freddie Freiberger saw me doing it one day and said, 'We've got to write that into the script- Maya has these weird hands,'" Catherine said.

While Space: 1999 transports Miss Schell to outer space, the show also keeps her at home in London- in a flat off the Fullham road where she has lived since her separation from husband William Marlowe some time ago.

The English take her as an American while Americans think of her as English. She is English now in most respects despite her international background.

Her father, Baron Schell Von Bauschlott, was a Hungarian diplomat based in Washington before World War Two. He went home for the death of his father, stayed on in Budapest to marry and then fathered three children. Catherine and her two older brothers moved with their parents to Washington after the Communists came to power in 1948.

She attended school in Washington and in New York, then continued her studies in Munich where the senior Schells now make their home.

Her movie career began in Germany- with a trip to Brazil for the title role in something called Lana, Queen of the Amazon. After a couple of other German films she was chosen as one of James Bond's girlfriends in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, starring George Lazenby.

She got her first extraterrestrial role opposite James Olson in a Hammer film about skullduggery on the Moon in Moon Zero Two six years ago.

Since then her films have included The Black Windmill with Michael Caine and The Return of the Pink Panther with Peter Sellers.

And she is no stranger to television, having worked in The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, The Adventurer, Looking for Clancy and The Search for the Nile in which she played Florence Baker, wife of the Victorian explorer Samuel Baker.

Curiously, she has never worked in Hollywood and had never visited the place until a year ago. She has just been in the California film capital again but has no plans for returning just now.

What little time can be spared from a week that includes five days on the set at Pinewood, Catherine said, goes toward "an awful lot of sleeping on weekends. I potter about in the garden and grow weeds. I grow the best weeds in London to the dismay of my neighbours- because they spread.

"I like to shop for my flat but I can't buy anything more for it. It's so tiny that nothing else will fit into it."

Her reading does not include science fiction although she thinks it might make her more at home with the terminology that crops up in the Space: 1999 scripts. Co-star Barbara Bain has been getting her interested in science magazines while Catherine has initiated Barbara into the mysteries of English cryptic crossword puzzles.

"I was working them on the set with Tony Anholt (a resident of Moonbase Alpha who becomes somewhat romantically involved with Maya). Barbara used to say, 'Oh, I don't know how you can do those. They're impossible.'

"One day we were doing one and Barbara got one of the answers. The next day she was working a puzzle herself. She's doing them every day now. They're not easy, especially if you're not English, but she's very good with words.

"We send messages from one stage to the other- 'Have you got 23 across?'"

Space: 1999 copyright ITV Studios Global Entertainment
Thanks to Robert Ruiz