Tanya Roberts: Actor who starred in Charlie’s Angels and That ’70s Show
Tanya Roberts, who has died aged 65, found fame in Charlie’s Angels as streetwise fighter Julie Rogers, one of three glamorous young women working for a private detective agency in Los Angeles.
The American series, launched in 1976, was dubbed “jiggle TV” because the crime investigations invariably involved the hard-working sleuths wearing a bikini or other skimpy clothing. A typical adventure featured them at health spas, beauty pageants or Las Vegas nightclubs.
An unwritten rule for the programme’s writers stated that each would don more than half a dozen outfits per episode. Alongside the make-up and trendy hair styles, producers assumed this would make Charlie’s Angels attractive to both male and female viewers.
Their theory appeared to be borne out at its inception in 1976, when Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith played the original trio, with John Forsythe – later to star as Blake Carrington in Dynasty – as their unseen boss, Charlie.
Fawcett was the most popular with viewers, but she left after the first series, to be replaced by Cheryl Ladd as her younger sister.
The show was a hit, but audiences gradually fell away, a process accelerated by the departures of Jackson and then her replacement, Shelley Hack, which opened the door for Roberts to play Julie, a model from New York, for the fifth series, which proved to be the last.
That run got off to a poor start before it had even begun. People magazine, in the US, featured Roberts on its cover and, in an article headlined “Is the jiggle up?”, asked whether the model turned actor could save the drama.
Julie, a role that earned Roberts $12,000 an episode, was noted for using her fists more than her pistol – but the producers’ hope that introducing a fresh face would bring life back to the programme failed to materialise and it was axed after that 1980-81 run.
“The stars were tired of the show and knowing the end of the series was coming soon,” she said. “I came at the end of the party.”
Nevertheless, it gave Roberts her break, although following it up proved difficult.
On television, one-off guest parts did little to further her career, but two feature films gave her the chance to shine.
Landing the starring role in Sheena (1984), titled Sheena, Queen of the Jungle internationally, looked like a golden opportunity and she trained for months to bring an athletic quality to it.
But the Tarzan-like story, based on a comic-strip character brought up in Africa by a fictional tribe, bombed at the box office and only resulted in the movie and Roberts being nominated for Golden Raspberry Awards.
Nevertheless, history looked slightly more favourably on the film as it gained cult status.
Roberts might have been more enthusiastic about her next role, Stacey Sutton, a geologist and heiress in the 1985 007 film A View to a Kill, although she approached it sceptically, aware that becoming a “Bond girl” did not always guarantee a glittering career afterwards.
The movie was a commercial success, although critics remarked on Roger Moore looking to be showing his age – he was 56 during the filming – in the action sequences for his final outing as James Bond and his lack of chemistry with Roberts, who was second choice for her role after Priscilla Presley.
Nevertheless, her all-action persona came to the fore again as she took the steering wheel of a fire engine for a chase sequence while Moore hangs on to the out-of-control ladder – although stunt doubles took most of the strain.
By the next decade, her film career was reduced to appearances in erotic thrillers such as Legal Tender (1991) and Sins of Desire (1993).
But her fortunes improved in 1998 when she joined That ’70s Show, a long-running nostalgic sitcom centred around teenagers in suburban Wisconsin.
Until 2004, she played Midge Pinciotti, who constantly embarrasses her daughter.
Roberts was born Victoria Leigh Blum in the Bronx, New York, in 1955 to Dorothy Leigh (née Smith) and Oscar Maximilian Blum, a fountain pen sales rep.
Her father, born in New York of Irish and Austrian descent, married her Jewish mother in Dorset when he was serving in the US military during the Second World War.
She confessed to being a “rebellious child”, dropping out of school at the age of 15 to go hitch-hiking across the US – and into a marriage that was quickly annulled.
After studying at the Actors Studio, she worked as a model and dance instructor, appeared in TV commercials and acted in off-Broadway plays such as Picnic and Antigone.
In 1977, three years after marrying Barry Roberts, a psychology student who went on to become a screenwriter, she moved to Hollywood and took his surname.
Following Charlie’s Angels, she starred in the 1982 fantasy film The Beastmaster. Demi Moore was the director’s choice for the role of Kiri, a slave rescued from a sorcerer by Marc Singer’s prehistoric warrior through his powers of telepathy with animals, but the executive producer wanted Roberts.
She helped to promote it by posing nude alongside a lion and tiger for a Playboy magazine spread. It was another movie that eventually gained cult status.
Roberts left That ’70s Show to nurse her husband, who had been diagnosed with terminal inflammation of the brain, until his death in 2006.
She died more than a week after being put on a ventilator at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre, Los Angeles. She was rushed to hospital on Christmas Eve when she collapsed at home after walking her dog.
In a bizarre sequence of events, her publicist announced her death prematurely after Lance O’Brien, Roberts’s partner, had seen her in hospital.
The publicist issued a second statement the following day saying she was still alive, but she died within hours and a final statement came a day later.
The cause of death was revealed to be a urinary tract infection that spread and resulted in sepsis.
She is survived by O’Brien and her actor sister, Barbara Chase.
Tanya Roberts, actor, born 15 October 1955, died 4 January 2021
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