It’s a bird, it’s a plane…. why, it’s Susan Oliver flying a plane! Did you know that besides being a stand-out television actress, Susan Oliver survived a plane crash, set aerial records, and won a transcontinental plane race? So, let’s find out how she overcame her fears and did the remarkable.
You might recognize Susan Oliver for her role as the beautiful green girl from Star Trek, she graced them all! Let’s check out the life and career of Susan Oliver.
Susan Oliver’s real name was Charlotte Gercke and she was born in New York City on February 13, 1932. Her parents had divorced when she was only three years old and she grew up living with her dad. George Gercke was a journalist for the New York World and he traveled to some pretty cool places for his job. In 1948, She studied in Japan while he worked there! At the Tokyo International College. It was this experience that inspired a short film that she directed, but more on that later.
In 1949, she moved to California to be with her mother, a well-known Hollywood hypnotist Charlotte decided that she wanted to be an actress, took the stage name “Susan Oliver,”- Oliver was her mother’s maiden name. Susan Oliver enrolled in school to become an actress – returning back to the East coast to study at Swarthmore College. Then, she completed some professional training at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City.
The Blue-Eyed Green-Eyed Girl
Susan with her high cheekbones and rosebud lips was prominent in film and tv for 3 decades. Oliver’s first television role was in 1955 on the live drama series, Goodyear TV Playhouse. She quickly appeared on some 50s staples like Father Knows Best and Bonanza. Oliver’s film debut was in the 1957 independent drama The Green-Eyed Blonde, as the titular character known as, Green Eyes. This was the only film that Oliver received top billing for. But the ironic thing is that Susan would become pretty well known for her trademark blue eyes… Oh, movie magic.
She guest-starred on Wagon Train four times, twice in 1960 – once along with Leonard Nimoy as an American Indian. This was her bread and butter, one-off episodes on all the great shows. A stand-out guest star that could do it all. Oliver’s main draw was her versatility and likability. If a show needed a blonde guest star, Susan was among the first considerations for the job. Oliver tried to champion her own series a few times, one pilot for a new series called Apartment in Rome just didn’t sell. Other notable appearances are 2 episodes of Clint Eastwood’s Rawhide, 3 episodes in the very popular Route 66 – and then a double-parter of The Fugitive in 1963.
In 1964 she had 3 more film chances, first co-starring with Charles Bronson in the western, Guns of Diablo. And then a little more light-hearted, as a destitute patient alongside the slapstick god, Jerry Lewis in The Disorderly Orderly. Their relationship is super innocent and showcases Lewis in peak form. Give it a watch. And finally, she played Audrey Williams, the wife of country music legend Hank Williams. In Your Cheatin’ Heart. Her TV career was still motoring too and in 1966 she joined the prime-time soap opera Peyton Place for 49 episodes as Ann Howard. But she was about to dance herself out of the stratosphere, no longer a green-eyed Blonde, she’s going All Green.
The Green Girl
Her most iconic role came in 1964 on the very first pilot episode of a brand new sci-fi show, Star Trek. Susan Oliver played Vina, and although she was about to go on vacation and had no prior experience in dance, Studio Executive Oscar Katz got his girl, painted her green, taught her how to dance, and together created an unforgettable look. Many people referred to her as “the green girl.” An image of Susan Oliver’s Vina was often used in the end credits for Star Trek earning her a special place in the hearts of Trekkies everywhere. So prominent that a 2014 documentary about Susan Oliver’s life was called The Green Girl.
Susan always wanted to bring her Star Trek experience full circle, and direct an episode for the 2nd iteration, Star Trek: The Next Generation. But, she was not given the chance, the reason being her limited experience with visual effects, despite the fact that a knowledge of visual effects was not a director’s requirement for the series. Oliver had been working as a director since the previously mentioned 1978 short film that she wrote based on her time in Japan, titled Cowboysan. Oliver had an obsession with the American influence on Japanese culture that can be traced back to her time spent in Japan with her father.
She was a member of the first class of the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women, or the DWW. Supposedly Oliver supplied a significant amount of funding for the DWW. She directed the first episode of the final season of M*AS*H, titled, “Hey, Look Me Over”, and followed that with her final directing endeavor, a Season 5 episode of Trapper John, M.D. Susan Oliver’s final acting appearance was in an episode of Wes Craven’s anthology, Freddy’s Nightmares in 1988. She received her only Emmy Award nomination in 1976 for the three-hour-long, made-for-TV movie Amelia Earhart. This brings us to our next chapter. The Skies.
Soaring to New Heights
Let’s start with the Fear she had to overcome to get back in the skies. It was February 1959, coincidentally the same day that Buddy Holly and company crashed in Iowa. Susan Oliver was relaxing in her seat when her transatlantic Boeing 707 suddenly dropped from 35,000 feet to 6,000 feet in a matter of seconds. The plane was able to make a safe landing but Susan was scarred and avoided flying for a year. Her career suffered, she would only take roles that she could travel to via land. Finally, she underwent hypnosis to treat her fear of flying.
In the summer of 1964, local Los Angeles news anchor Hal Fishman took her on a flight in his Cessna 172 and she loved it so much that she returned to the airfield the next day to begin pursuing her own pilot’s license. Talk about overcoming your fears! Then in 1966 while training for her own transatlantic flight, she was a passenger in a plane when the pilot apparently started “showboating” – hit some wires and flipped the plane. Fortunately, both Susan and the pilot survived without injury! And she never flew again. Ha. Just kidding.
In 1967, Susan Oliver became only the fourth woman to fly a single-engine plane across the Atlantic Ocean by herself. She landed her plane in Denmark after her original destination of Moscow denied her airspace.! Susan chronicled her adventures in her 1983 autobiography titled, Odyssey: A Daring Transatlantic Journey. By 1968, Oliver had obtained her commercial pilot’s license for single and multi-engine planes.
She was even named “Pilot of the Year” for her winning performance in the “Powder Puff Derby” in 1970. An impressive victory in a nearly 3 Thousand mile transcontinental race! From a near-crash to a survivor of one, to Pilot of the Year. Truly astonishing determination and bravery.
Sadly Susan was a longtime smoker, and was diagnosed with cancer and passed away at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills, California at the age of 58 — a much too early death for such a determined woman and wonderful talent.
Altogether, Susan Oliver appeared in more than 100 television programs! Do you have a specific episode that sticks out to you? Obviously, her Star Trek character is very prominent, but let’s hear some others in the comments, we wanna hear from you. And any other pilots out there – let’s hear a hip hip hooray for the undeterred courage of Susan Oliver.