Little girls wanted to be her. Little boys wanted her to throw that lasso around them and make them confess how much they loved her. For four years in the late ’70s, Wonder Woman (a.k.a. Princess Diana, a.k.a. Diana Prince) fought for truth, justice, and the Amazon way, battling Nazis, mad scientists, aliens, and evil rock stars. It was one of those roles that can define an actor, and Lynda Carter has, for better or worse, been identified with her TV superheroine character since.
Though she’s never had another role as high profile, Carter seems fine with that. Part of the reason may be that she’s always seen herself as a singer as much as an actor, if not more so. For the last few years, she’s been taking her solo act to cabarets, theaters, and casinos around the country. She’ll be playing the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood from March 5 to 7; the Allen Room in New York’s Lincoln Center on March 13 and 14; and the Gallo Center for the Arts, in Modesto, Calif., on April 4.
Carter’s musical roots are deep. Born in 1951, she always sang while growing up in Phoenix, Ariz. “I started off at 14 singing professionally,” she says, calling from L.A. two days before her debut at the Catalina club. “I earned my first $100 dollars or whatever it was on that job—probably more like $35 or $40.” After graduating from high school, she went on the road with a rock band but eventually tired of the grind and headed home in 1972. The head of a local modeling agency suggested she try out for a beauty pageant. “Three weeks later,” says Carter, “I was Miss World USA.
After the obligatory move to Hollywood, Carter studied acting and got the occasional guest-starring gig on TV before landing the role that would make her a star in 1975. She took the opportunity to relaunch her music career, releasing a solo album, Portrait, in 1978, and to headline a series of music specials on CBS in the early ’80s. After CBS put Wonder Woman on indefinite hold in 1979, Carter kept busy with a steady stream of movies of the week, including Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess (1983), Daddy (1991), and Posing (a.k.a. I Posed for Playboy, 1991) and starred in two short-lived series: 1984’s Partners in Crime (costarring another iconic ’70s sex symbol, Loni Anderson) and 1994’s Hawkeye (costarring Lee Horsley).
Carter’s profile spiked in 2005 when she appeared in two films, The Dukes of Hazzard and Sky High, played a villain in two Law & Order/Law & Order: SVU crossover episodes, and stepped in as Mama Morton in the London production of Chicago. That last gig inspired her to revive her musical career, and she’s been polishing her act ever since. She’s received good notices even from the usually fussy critics who cover cabaret: The New York Daily News’ review of her show at Harrah’s last fall was titled “Lynda Carter’s Still a Wonder in Atlantic City.” A new album, At Last, is due out in June.
Carter lives near Washington, D.C., with her husband, the lawyer and businessman Robert Altman, with whom she has two children. (Her first marriage, to agent Ron Samuels, ended in 1982.) Carter received some unwanted publicity when Altman was accused of criminal fraud in 1993 because of his involvement with the corrupt international bank B.C.C.I. She sat by his side in court throughout the five-month trial until his acquittal. She frequently does appearances for charitable causes and has spoken publicly about being a recovering alcoholic.
We talked to Carter about what Wonder Woman has meant to her, about juggling music and acting, about working with the then-unknown Debra “Wonder Girl” Winger, and about those bizarre comparisons of Sarah Palin to Wonder Woman.
You don’t strike me as a comic-book geek: Did you have any awareness of Wonder Woman before you got the part?
I bought the comic books, like most other girls. Back then, there weren’t a lot of things available for young girls. There were just these fan magazines, with boy singers. I bought Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Betty and Veronica—wherever there were women being portrayed. Wonder Woman was unique. Sure, I was impressed with the whole superhero thing, but more with the hero than the super. What impressed me was that she was capable, smart, pretty. The only sad part was that she had to hide part of herself; she had to be someone else in life. I wished she could have just told some of the other characters on the show who she was.
What did that mean to you?
I think many women feel that they have a secret self. There are many parts of everyone, the mother part, the wife part, the sister part. It’s that there are pieces and parts of all of you.
And you keep some hidden?
I don’t think I do anymore. I do a little, but…maybe all of us, men and women, work toward growing as a human being, and opening up. As you get older, you’re more tolerant, hopefully. That’s what life experience gives you.
How did you get the part?
They had done a pilot a few years earlier, but they weren’t true to the character, and it didn’t work very well. [Editor’s note: For one thing, it starred a blonde, Cathy Lee Crosby.] Then Doug Cramer [the series’ eventual producer] got a hold of it. He really kind of fought for my casting. I was just untested, untried. I had done a screen test for [producer] Larry Gordon; he showed the screen test to Doug Cramer, and Doug said, “Oh, my God, she’d be great.” I didn’t even have to read for the part. For the next couple of weeks, I kept bugging my agent: “Did you hear anything? Did you hear anything?” Then he called me and said, “Hello, Wonder Woman!”
You know, there weren’t a lot of parts for women back then. They thought that women didn’t really have a TVQ and that they would not be able to hold an audience. If you can believe it. I was like, “Hello, don’t you sell your time by advertising? You think the guys are going shopping?” You know, women are the biggest consumers.
Some people see Wonder Woman as a feminist icon. Did you feel that then, or do you feel that now?
As a matter of fact, she was very much a feminist. You have to remember the times. Feminism was really getting going. Of course feminism has been around forever, but in the ’70s, we were pulling out of the ’50s mentality where we grew up, and becoming our own women, fighting for equal rights and that sort of thing. And Wonder Woman, in the pilot episode, was very much a feminist. But then the network made us change. They thought, “Oh, it would offend a lot of people if we talked about feminist stuff.” God forbid you offend someone! Of course nowadays, you’ve got things like Dexter, with a serial killer holding a series!
But that’s how it was back then. And there really were no women at the workplace, on the set, except for the script supervisor. Now there are men script supervisors, but back then that was it. Women weren’t directing, they weren’t grips, anything. And that’s too bad. A lot of girls now don’t even understand what the feminist movement is, because they’re the beneficiaries of it. My daughter grew up with having Title IX, where she played sports. She’s on the varsity basketball team. When we grew up, we didn’t have that.
So the options for actresses were more limited?
It was hard to get a part in anything. There was a whole group of girls that went out—you saw them on every interview. There was Jaclyn Smith, Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett….There was a whole group of us that all went out for the same things. Every time I would walk in, I’d say, “Well, I’m not going to get this one.” And then we all ended up with series.
Do you have any favorite Wonder Woman episodes?
I tell you, the pilot was pretty amazing. [Watch it here.] The director was really very careful with me and helpful to me. Cloris [Leachman] was in it, Red Buttons, Stella Stevens, all these, like, famous people . That was probably the most fun. It was a heady experience. You know, the whole focus on was on me. It was all your dreams come true.
When I was watching the pilot again, I was surprised at how tongue-in-cheek it was. Did you ever think, “This is just too silly”?
The truth is, my character was never tongue-in-cheek. Wonder Woman was never tongue-in-cheek. Some of the characters around her were. But I always find that when actors think they’re really funny, they’re not so funny. I played her absolutely for real. When someone went all goofy on her, she just rolled her eyes. “There we go again”—in much more a self-deprecating way. It was never “I don’t believe what I’m doing.” She never played goofy and dumb.
Do you have any favorites among your costars?
Lyle [Waggoner (Steve Trevor)] was great. He was really terrific. All the regulars were. I was so busy—I was in every shot, so I was always busy. I didn’t have a lot of time to socialize. Then I was recording and I was performing on my off time and doing Vegas and Reno and summer tours, and all the rest of it.
Probably the most famous guest star from the series is Debra Winger, who played your younger sister, Drusilla [ in the episodes “The Feminum Mystique (part 1 and part 2)"]. She also starred in another one titled “Wonder Woman in Hollywood.” In interviews, she’s been a little snarky about working on the show.
Debra was great. Even though she sort of trashes everyone she worked with. Not so much anymore, but she did back then. She was going through tough times, as I remember. She went on to movies and stuff so anything…There are some people who, you know, anything they did in the past is terrible. She was very talented; you could see she was so talented, and a good person. She was just a little confused. I don’t think she really wanted to do Wonder Woman. You know, when we’re young, we’re out there scrambling. I’m sure she wanted her own thing. I thought we got along very well on the set. She did not misbehave at all. I really liked working with her.
Ben Affleck played the son of my love interest on a movie of the week I did called ‘Daddy’, which was based on the Danielle Steele book. We had a great time, sitting around together. He’s every bit as charming as he seems to be. He’s always got that little twinkle in his eye. He’s a really wonderful guy. I knew when I met him that he was gonna be a huge star.
Back in the ’80s when you were starting your family, did you make a decision to put your performing career on the back burner?
You know what happened is that I was touring all over the world and got pregnant with my son, and I canceled that summer, but I didn’t really intend to, um, switch. What I really intended to do was just take a break, but you know, you’ve got a baby, and a couple of years later I had my daughter, and then they’re starting preschool….It was just never a good time. I did some acting in movies and a couple series and movies of the week and guest-star roles. But I didn’t want to be away from my family for that either. I had had the other stuff. It can be kind of empty. If you don’t have anything else in your life, it’s pretty empty. I really wanted to build a stable environment for my children and all the rest of it.
Moving on to today, what’s behind your new focus on music?
You know, I started out at 14. All the way through high school, I sang on weekends. I went on the road the summer I graduated from high school and was on the road for maybe two years. Shoot, I played everything from the lounges in Las Vegas to the Catskill Mountains—you know, the Borscht [Belt]—to the saloons in Texas to traveling around Holiday Inn lounges and hotels to other kinds of more rock & roll-y venues. I just played all over. We traveled by cars. From one job to the next, traveling across the country one way and across the country back the other way. And then I decided that really wasn’t what I wanted to do, in that way, so I moved to L.A. I actually took a detour into Miss World USA. But then I moved to L.A. and started studying acting
What got you back into full-time music?
My son was going into senior year when I got the offer for Chicago, the musical in the West End of London. When I started singing again, I really missed it. I really have a good time and I really love it. I decided to put an act together. I did some recording here [in L.A.]; then I decided to switch gears and went to Nashville. The Nashville players have a unique sound, and I wanted that sound. Not country, but a little bit more earthy. I ran into some session players that I had known in L.A. that had moved to Nashville, and they’re like the best in the world. Last year, I worked with them on this record, and I asked them do some dates with me. They’re all triple-A-plus players. They’re all at the top of their game.
How would you describe your genre?
As any musician will tell you, it’s always alive, it’s a moving thing. You’re always shifting gears and trying new things. So it’s evolving, I would say it’s somewhat eclectic, but you can certainly hear my Arizona roots, my blues roots, some of it’s kind of funny. There’s a sense of discovery. You don’t really know how the next cut’s going to go. That’s kind of the way the act goes.
Do you interact much with the audience between songs?
Of course I do.
Do you talk about your personal life, or what the song means to you?
I tell on myself. About the stupid things I’ve done. You know, it’s not a chronology. It always connects back to the songs. But if I’m reminded of some story, I’ll just tell it. I never know what I’m going to say. You know, people come because they want to have a nice evening, because they want to enjoy music and be entertained, and feel welcome. People get dressed, get in their cars, they pay money, and you owe them a lot. Their time is precious, particularly in this economy. I really want people to come and hear us because it’s such a great band. And I promise to entertain them. It’s a very good show. I’ve spent a lot, a lot of time on it.
Are the old Wonder Woman fans coming out too?
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. They’re great. I talk about Wonder Woman in the show. I like to talk about her.
In your mind, what were the highlights from your CBS musical specials?
It was totally amazing working with George Benson, Ray Charles, Tom Jones, Merle Haggard, Ben Vereen, Eddie Rabbit, Jerry Reed….
Do you remember getting any advice from those full-time, you know, professional musicians?
I just told you I started at 14. I play three instruments. I write music. I’ve paid as many dues as anyone else has. If you’re a working musician, you’re a working musician. It’s about the music. You learn from everyone you work with. It isn’t about because I’m famous that I have more or less than anyone else. When you’re working with the very best musicians, it raises your level. When you’re working with the very best, your own professionalism rises.
Do you ever Google yourself and find something that makes you say, “That’s not right!” or “I wish that wasn’t there”?
When I have to go online, because I have to approve something, I do. If I read something that is not nice, then it just tortures me. It really upsets me. And so I figure that I at least have to give as much weight to the good things as the bad things. There are gonna be people who like me and people who don’t.
You got a lot of attention when you commented about the comparisons of Sarah Palin to Wonder Woman.
Oh, yeah, I kind of got viral on that. I did an interview, and it sort of went viral.
Would you take back what you said?
You know, her being indignant about things that are said about her—she is very indignant and horrified, and yet she absolutely does not care what she says about anyone else. That’s kind of shocking. “I can’t believe that people just want to pick on me and blah blah blah.” But she does not care if she has her facts right about someone else. And she flat out lies and encourages hatred, and I think that’s disgusting. She’s a public servant and we pay her. I tell you, if you get me up on my high horse, on politics or civil rights…
Do you have any causes you work for?
Me and some girlfriends, we started the Race for the Cure for Breast Cancer in Washington. Twenty years ago, no one wanted to talk about breast cancer. Things like that are really important to me. Most of my work is for women and children. I’ve been on the board of the USO, I’ve done arts for the handicapped and learning programs, and things that supports shelters, women’s education. I do it not because I’m such a good person. I do it because—there’s an expression: Where much is given, much is expected. I’ve been lucky, and I feel like I have an obligation, you know, to pay it forward. And I speak a lot on alcoholism, and I speak to the military a lot, to military wives.
You know, talking about myself is probably my least favorite thing. The only reason to do publicity, it’s really to help bring a focus to the work you’re doing. I’ve never done interviews just to talk about myself without promoting anything: promoting music, promoting a movie, promoting an album, or to do something for public service. It feels very strange just to be self-promoting. To be honest, I’ve been talking about myself for 30 years, and I’m done. [Laughs.] Just picture yourself having to do that. It’s like, “Oh, man, I’ve heard these stories.”
For information about Carter’s singing dates, check her website, lyndacartersings.com.