Janis Levy has led a remarkable life. Having intermittently modelled from the age of four, victory in the Face of London competition in her teens and a life-changing encounter with John Frieda culminated in her starring as the iconic Cadbury Flake girl and enjoying a 14-year Hollywood career. Coming face to face with the lady herself, The Leaders Council looks back on Janis’ unique life and career and explores how she eventually came to swap the glitz and glamour of showbiz for the necessities of Hair Development - the family business founded by her late beloved father, Stanley.
In this second chapter of Janis Levy’s life, we look back at her Hollywood Years to discover how she adjusted to life 6,000 miles from home yet always kept her family close, came face to face with her namesake, and how the arrival of her daughter, Tallulah, would change her life all over again.
After Janis had been signed exclusively to NBC, in what would be one of the last ever studio talent hold contracts, she was quickly signed with the same agent looking after stars such as Robin Wright. She was paid a salary, given an apartment, and the network would pay for her flights back to London whenever she was homesick to visit family, in an age predating social media and mobile phones.
“I wasn’t allowed to work with anybody else due to the terms of my contract,” Janis remembers.
“I had a wonderful agent in Los Angeles, but they were frustrated because there were other opportunities for me.”
After Janis’ initial contract with NBC ended, she worked for several other networks including ABC, CBS, Fox and HBO, then returned to NBC as a series regular in their number one smash daytime soap opera, Santa Barbara.
“I remember going to NBC for the Santa Barbara audition. It was for the role of defence lawyer Belinda Bradley, a ‘young, fiery, Harvard educated attorney. I had played American several times, but decided I’d go in with my own accent. They liked my being English and signed me, and although I was cast for only two episodes initially, I ended up being on the show for months shooting over 20 episodes.”
It was during her stint on Santa Barbara that Janis would come face to face with her namesake, Janis Paige, a movie star from the Golden age of Hollywood, who had provided the inspiration for Janis Levy’s name.
“On the cast list for Santa Barbara was movie star Janis Paige, who I was actually named after!” Janis smiles in recollection.
“When I first met Miss Paige, I told her that my parents had named me after her because my mother loved the name and spelling. After that, every day for the first two weeks of shooting, Miss Janis Paige would sweep glamorously onto the set and announce to everyone that I was named for her! In the US they say, ‘for her’ rather than ‘after her’, and it was an amazing coincidence to have ended up working with Janis having been named after her, especially 6,000 miles away from home.”
As well as mixing with some of the biggest names in the business, it was at this stage in her career that Janis first began to feel the real impact that fame would have on her life.
“When I began working on the show, I started getting boxes of fan mail. There was no social media back then, so if people liked you, they’d simply write to you. It was astonishing to receive letters which claimed, ‘you’re my favourite actress ever’ and ‘I love your character’.”
However, the Santa Barbara days were not to last, after a lawsuit between the show’s original writers and the network started a sequence of events that led to its cancellation.
Janis recalls: “The original writers returned and consequently took out a lawsuit against NBC which they won. Every character on Santa Barbara that they hadn’t created was instantly let go, including contract players who’d been on the show for years. Six months later the show was cancelled.”
Despite the cancellation of Santa Barbara, Janis enjoyed playing a wide variety of other characters in movies and TV throughout her career. Including a volunteer nurse who becomes a sharp shooter in Blink of an Eye [starring alongside Michael Paré and Sasson Gabai and shot in Israel]; the argumentative, lovestruck Jody in Club Med the Movie [with Linda Hamilton, Bill Maher, Jack Scalia, Patrick McNee and Sinbad, filmed in Mexico]; the daughter of the director of the CIA; the daughter of a drug lord; Louison O’Murphy, the real life mistress of King Louis XV in Casanova with Richard Chamberlain and Faye Dunaway; a confused teen in Intimate with a Stranger, a movie that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to which Janis received excellent reviews; and a student who becomes a rock star in the mini-series Ellepi [alongside Nigel Court, Robbie Rist, Massimo Ghini and Jean René Lemoine and a fabulous four month shoot in Italy]. Yet, the common factor among all these and other characters in this diverse range was that they were all feisty redheads, and Janis was acting at a time when an English redhead in Hollywood was quite the novelty.
Janis smiles, a glint in her eye: “I almost always played strong women with an attitude. They say redheads have fire in their veins don’t they…”
It was filming Casanova, a TV movie for ABC, which proved to be one of Janis’s favourite assignments. She successfully auditioned for the role in Los Angeles and travelled to Madrid to film, forming friendships with the leads, Richard Chamberlain [Casanova] and Faye Dunaway [Madame D’Urfe].
“Faye was so gracious.. On cold nights on set, she’d invite me into her heated room in the castle when most others were outside in trailers and winnebagos. Having everybody sign your scripts when filming wrapped was tradition back then, and Faye signed my script ‘in friendship always’.
“Richard Chamberlain was divine. We loved all the same songs, because my father had raised me listening to Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, and Richard and I would sing standards in the make-up trailer together every morning. I had the most wonderful time on that shoot. Every movie or show taught me so much as I was able to watch great actors up close, and to learn as I watched the transitions from themselves to their character, which was priceless.”
Janis also found herself striking up a close friendship with renowned actress Linda Hamilton, after having been spotted by producer Leslie Moonves, who went on to become President of Warner Bros. and CBS, and cast for the role of Jody in ABC’s Club Med the Movie.
“When I auditioned for Club Med the Movie, I was waiting in the hallway and a man walked along and said, ‘good morning’ and I said ‘hello’. I was wearing an enormous rainbow mohair cardigan and was swamped in jet-lag. It turned out he was the producer, Leslie Moonves, and on set in Mexico he told me that when he saw me that first day, he knew they’d found their Jody.
“We flew to Mexico from LA on Thanksgiving and were served turkey and pumpkin pie on the plane. What an incredible cast, Linda Hamilton and I became close on set and stayed friends, despite how hard it was to keep in touch. It was easier when we were all in LA, but when you moved away it was impossible unless you relied on the trusty aerogramme! I should have rented a room at the Beverly Hills post office.
“On reflection, I was so young that I probably didn’t really realise the amazing productions I was in, perhaps I was a little naïve, but I’m a Londoner too and somewhat streetwise, I had magical experiences and really honed my craft on set. I made true friends and my Hollywood years were exhilarating. Recently whilst rummaging around our storeroom I discovered boxes filled with diaries that I kept during my Hollywood years. Flicking through them was quite astounding and I think they may make for a pretty fascinating read!
“Everyone in Hollywood was fiercely ambitious, but I don’t think I ever was quite like that. I was very successful as a model and an actor, and there were many opportunities I could have taken but didn’t for various reasons. My parents were always there for me. I never went more than six weeks without seeing my mother. I adored my father; he was such a beautiful person. My parents were married for fifty-eight years. We all miss my father terribly; and he left us all heartbroken when he passed in 2018.
“Having family and friends around me was so important and I am still in touch with my dearest friends from LA. Back then in Hollywood, everybody was rich, famous or gorgeous, occasionally all three. You could be waiting tables one night and land the lead in a movie the next day, so everybody had respect for each other.
“Hair Development had clients in Los Angeles, and I was able to do some training in hair extensions too and when I flew back home, I would go into Hair Development. I remember shooting an American TV series where I wore Hair Development hair!”
It was perhaps due to just how well-grounded Janis was that she did not become overly embroiled in the Hollywood lifestyle. So determined she was to make a success of herself on her own terms that she made a point of acquiring her US green card entirely on her own merit.
“Back then you needed a H1 visa to work in Los Angeles,” Janis explains. “It lasted for a year and was renewable for five years before you were able to go for your green card.
“The green card has different categories. My category was listed as ‘alien of extraordinary ability’. People I’d worked for had to be contacted and asked to write letters of recommendation about my work as part of the application process. Studio heads, producers, directors and casting directors I worked for all graciously gave their time and support to provide immigration with letters about my work, which were quite overwhelming to read.”
Janis’ showbiz exploits saw her green card application return the quickest ever approval by the entertainment attorney. She was granted status within two days when her paperwork was forwarded onto US Immigration to be processed. Of course, the journey to that point took many years of dedication and hard work.
Away from her work on television, Janis was able to rediscover and re-stimulate her love of writing. She studied in UCLA’s Writers’ Program Extensions Courses over seven years, where she learnt the craft of all aspects of writing, including sitcom, screenplay, drama, humour, fiction and non-fiction.
“Going to UCLA really fed into my love of the written word. I had created stories and poetry ever since I was a little girl. I also trained with the American Red Cross and became a certified volunteer at their first aid stations at events.”
Over her years on the West Coast, Janis would also study drama, musical theatre, comedy, improve, voice, singing, tai chi and movement, with her education taking her from the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in West Hollywood to their studio in London, RADA professional actors’ courses and LA’s Playhouse West.
Janis adored her years at Strasberg but recalls her stint at Playhouse West as a challenging one, however, her time there gave rise to an opportunity that would prove to be one of her most treasured roles: depicting the character of Rita in Catherine Hayes’ darkly comedic play, Skirmishes.
Skirmishes depicts the agonising, antagonistic, and shocking scenes between Janis’s character Rita and her sister Jean, as they sit either side of their dying mother. Starring alongside Heather Phillips as Jean and Jane Hamilton as the mother, Janis took part in a production that received superb and tender reviews from the Hollywood Reporter, Variety, and Dramalogue and was quite a success during its run at the Hudson Avenue theatre in Hollywood.
“Skirmishes validated me as an actor and I think was possibly my best performance, it’s quite a feeling, breathing life into a character,” Janis says, momentarily melancholic, back on stage or amidst the chipboard on set.
“We lived and breathed Skirmishes, rehearsed all day, every day for two months and every morning I’d swim 100 laps in the pool at my apartment building where movie goddesses Lana Turner and Fay Wray were my neighbours, and I’d just go over the script again and again. It was such an intense play. We had wonderful reviews during previews, and the play’s dark comedy tore you down. There were total breakdowns every night on stage.
“What an enchanting, mercurial industry I was in! I remember during a four month shoot for a miniseries, one of the leads was so worried that he’d never find work again and this was only days into the production. It made me realise just how fragile being an actor is, as you are literally at the mercy of the industry as you wait for them to say ‘yes’ to you.
“Reflecting on my life in Los Angeles, it was a wonderful adventure. Timing, luck and being in the right place at the right time were key and it was all in a different era without cell phones, internet or social media and when a quirky English redhead was unique!”
For all Janis’s success, nothing compared to the arrival of her daughter, Tallulah. Becoming a mother, and having a duty of care to her child, brought Janis total devotion which saw her fling life as an actress to the sidelines and all that she truly wanted from life from then on was stability within which to provide for her daughter.
“I was and am totally devoted to my daughter. Tallulah changed my life and made my dreams come true. I turned down a lot of work for my responsibilities. Tally has just graduated from the University of Cambridge with a degree in Psychological and Behavioural Sciences. My daughter is a wonderful person, awesome, intelligent, witty and kind, the most remarkable person I have ever known, and I am so proud to be her mother.”
Photo: Janis Levy [right] pictured with her late father, Stanley Levy [left]. Photo supplied by Janis Levy