An actress and director with a clear eye for human strengths and foibles, Joan Darling began her career as a stage actor in the 1960s. She first came to the widespread attention of television audiences in 1971 for her portrayal of Frieda Krause—the good-natured, peanut-munching secretary on the popular series Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law. By the midseventies, she had moved to the other side of the camera—where she won acclaim for her fluid, antic direction of the immortal “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (hailed by TV Guide in 1997 as No. 1 on its list of the “100 Greatest Episodes of All Time”) as well as the pilot and earliest episodes of the groundbreaking series Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Over the years, Darling has successfully juggled several careers at once, returning at regular intervals to her onstage acting roots while teaching and coaching actors and serving as a creative advisor for the Sundance Film Lab—where she mentors young filmmakers with her motto, “Go with your gut and do it the way you know how.”
Joan Darling was born in Boston, one of four children of Simon and Helen Kugell. (Darling is the surname of her first husband.) Her father, an attorney, died when she was seven. As a very young child, she saw her first movie and was, in her own words, “instantly cursed with the passion to be an actress. Women’s lib wasn’t even a gleam in Betty Friedan’s eye back then, but I knew I didn’t want to be just a traditional wife and mother. Being an actress, I felt, was one of the ways a woman could control her own life. It was also, I thought, a way to be anything you wanted, to experience a number of different lives.”
She performed in all of the school plays at the Lawrence School and Brookline High School in Boston, and also acted in plays at Carnegie Tech and the University of Texas—and did summer stock at the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, where she proved her versatility one season by playing an aging queen, a twelve-year-old boy, a seventeen-year-old princess, and an old man.
Eager to be acting full-time, Darling left college and moved to New York, where she was cast in William Ball’s Off-Broadway production of The Country Wife, which led to roles in The Crucible and Ivanov. She also starred on Broadway in a couple of short-lived plays and portrayed Viola in Twelfth Night at the American Shakespeare Festival. In the early sixties, she was the only female performer in the improvisational group the Premise, whose members included Gene Hackman, George Segal, and Buck Henry. After successful engagements in New York and London, the troupe produced a film, The Troublemaker (1964), about a country bumpkin’s adventures in New York City, in which Darling costarred.
Her work with a second improvisational troupe led her to Los Angeles, where she wrote and sold scripts to The Dick Van Dyke Show and 90 Bristol Court. From 1971 to 1974, Darling had a featured role on the ABC legal drama Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law, about a compassionate defense attorney (played by Arthur Hill) in a California town. Darling was Marshall’s good-natured legal assistant Frieda Krause—a strong character who bucked the trend of women secretaries who were “manless” and wedded to their jobs. Frieda, said Darling in a 1973 TV Guide interview, was “married, with a husband who’s proud of her accomplishments rather than threatened by them. She attends law school by night, she has real responsibility and her opinion is sought concerning matters of law. She gets her laughs and she also gets her respect. She’s a whole person with a lot of facets.”
In 1973 Darling went to producer-writer Norman Lear (“a second or third cousin—and the nicest, most generous person in my career”) to pitch a ninety-minute movie on the life of Golda Meir—in which she herself would portray the Israeli prime minister. After she finished her pitch, Lear said, “Joan, how would you like to be a director?” “I’m not a director,” she replied. “I think that’s what you really are,” Lear said, handing her the scripts of the pilot for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
“There was no place back then for a woman even to think about being a director,” Darling recalled in Mollie Gregory’s book, Women Who Run the Show: How a Brilliant and Creative New Generation of Women Stormed Hollywood (St. Martin’s Press, 2002). “If Norman hadn’t thought it up, it would not have happened.” She took Lear up on his offer. After all, she rationalized, “The one thing I knew I could do was direct actors.”
“When I first broke through, there was a lot of attention attached. This was right in the midst of the women’s movement, and I was in the right spot at the right time. So it was important to see if I could—as a woman—handle a crew, take care of business, get a show done on time and under budget. It was scary, sure, because I was really unknown to myself as a director.” As it turned out, “I was capable of developing my own vision. Whenever I’ve trusted that vision, I’ve always been right.”
Darling directed the pilot of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and went on to direct several more episodes of that series. She also directed a legendary episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Chuckles Bites the Dust” (1976)—about a kiddie-show host who is crushed to death by a “rogue elephant” during a circus parade—and a much-praised M*A*S*H episode, “The Nurses.” Darling received Emmy Award nominations for her direction of both of these episodes.
Darling’s many other television directing credits include an episode of Steven Spielberg’s series Amazing Stories and episodes of Magnum, P.I.; Doogie Howser, M.D.; Rhoda; Phyllis; Doc; and Rich Man, Poor Man. She made her debut as a feature film director in 1977 with First Love, starring William Katt and Susan Dey.
In 1985 Darling won an Emmy Award and a Directors Guild of America Award for her direction of the ABC Afterschool Special: Mom’s On Strike—about a mother (Mary Kay Place) who gets fed up with being “everybody’s round-the-clock servant” and stages a walkout to get her husband and children to recognize her true worth. Television critic John J. O’Connor of the New York Times praised the program and singled out Darling’s direction for “[keeping] the general goofiness bubbling in a very effective deadpan mold.”
For the past fifteen years, Darling has been an artistic advisor at the Sundance Filmmakers Lab, where she leads an acting workshop for directors on how to communicate their vision to actors and crew members.
She and her husband, playwright-screenwriter Bill Svanoe, reside in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where they teach at the University of North Carolina—and where she continues to indulge her lifelong love of acting by appearing onstage (most recently in February 2006, in Callback, a two-character play about the acting business, written by Svanoe).