Question: I was searching for stuff on WKRP's Jan Smithers (I had a crush on her instead of Loni Anderson) and found a 1966 Newsweek cover with a picture of her on it. But WKRP wasn't on until the '70s, so what show was she on there for? Thanks. Conrad L., Tallmadge, Ohio
Televisionary: Bailey over Jennifer? Join the club, Conrad. Most every target-market adolescent boy I knew chose the quieter beauty of Bailey Quarters (Smithers) over the in-your-face va-va-voom of bombshell receptionist Jennifer Marlowe (Anderson).
Someone at Newsweek thought Smithers was an attention grabber, too, because she was chosen for the March 21, 1966 cover, which showed her perched on the back of a cycle for a story about trends among American teens, without a TV show to her name. The magazine wanted a typical California girl and picked the then-16-year-old Smithers for the shot, stating in the story that she "orbits between the worlds of the Surf and the Strip" and adding that at Malibu Beach, "she and the other bikini-clad golden girls take their places in the sun...."
"Actually, I hardly ever got to the beach, I'd never been on a motorcycle before, and my mother made me be home by 9:30 when I went out that night," Smithers told TV Guide in 1980.
Furthermore, as far as your question goes, she didn't even try acting until she was 19. By that time in her life, she'd been hit with a streak of bad luck and tragedy. Two years before the Newsweek cover photo, Smithers' mother and father divorced, splitting her and her three sisters between the parents' homes. She later injured her face in a car accident, which left her with a prominent scar on her chin. ("Oh, too bad," she remembered a nurse saying when she was in the emergency room. "She used to be such a pretty girl.") Then one of her sisters died in a separate accident and her mother passed away.
As it turned out, though, the Newsweek cover was a blessing. It landed her some commercial work, which led her to try acting despite a near crippling shyness she fought to overcome whenever she went in front of a camera. (She also lost some jobs because of her scar, but was able to conceal it enough with makeup to make a go of it.)
In 1978 she read for the Bailey role on WKRP in Cincinnati and her timidity actually worked to her advantage. "Other actresses read better for the part, but they were playing shy," said series creator and executive producer Hugh Wilson. "Jan was shy."
It was that same shyness, however, that almost cost her the part once the show got on the air. "Jan was almost terminated last season. It was very close," Wilson said in 1980. "People say to me now, 'Hey, I like Bailey, how come she wasn't on in the first season?' Of course, she was, but she was virtually invisible for a long time. Jan didn't have any volume, for one thing; half the time the studio audience couldn't even hear her. It all seemed like an ordeal for her. So Jan and I had it out and ultimately she told me, 'I'm going to make this work.' Then she sucked in her guts and did it. She's got a lot of guts, that woman."
She also, as I said, had a lot of admirers. "We're fortunate to have two women of the vastly different appeals of Loni and Jan," the late Gordon Jump (Mr. Carlson) observed. "Men look at Loni's character in an animal-type way; they look at Jan's in a more reverent, woman-on-a-pedestal way."
For her part, Anderson didn't understand why so many people saw it as a one-or-the-other deal. "Who says there can't be more than one very attractive woman on a show without it becoming Charlie's Angels?" she asked. "[Jan] is a totally different person from when she started on the show, much more secure, while retaining a lovely elusive quality something very delicate and fragile. It's funny: I've been told some crew members don't like me. They think I really am like Jennifer, which is intimidating to a lot of men that kind of striking, overwhelming woman. But men who won't go near me will walk right up to Jan, like she's a waif and needs someone to take care of her."
And Smithers? She offered up the expected low-key, self-effacing response when told of how many men thought she was sexy: "Oh, God, that's wonderful!"