The tragi-comic saga of Tanya Roberts's death this week was a less-than-dignified exit for the former Bond star. After collapsing on Christmas Eve, it was announced on Monday that she’d died in a Los Angeles hospital, aged 65. There were reports across the press, and memories of her best-remembered roles: as Julie Rogers in Charlie’s Angels; in the cult fantasy The Beastmaster; and, of course, opposite Roger Moore in A View to a Kill.
Later that day, Roberts’ publicist Mike Pingel – who had announced Roberts’ death and even sent out a press release – retracted the announcement. Tanya Roberts was, in fact, still alive, but in a “dire” condition.
It emerged that Roberts’ partner, Lance O’Brien, had mistakenly thought she’d died in his arms. “He went to the hospital, and as he sat in her room she opened her eyes and tried to grab on to him,” reported TMZ, “but her eyes closed and she ‘faded.’” O’Brien was apparently so devastated that he left the hospital without talking to medical staff. He told Mike Pingel that she seemed to “slip away” and that he had “just said goodbye to Tanya”.
In a bizarre twist, Lance O’Brien was being interviewed by US TV show Inside Edition when a call came through from the hospital, informing him that she wasn’t yet dead. “Now you're telling me she's alive?” said the choked-up O’Brien, in a moment captured on film. “Thank the Lord.”
Obituaries were hastily unpublished and Roberts became a meme as she lay dying in hospital, subject of Bond puns (“You only die twice”) and other gags. A lesson, perhaps, in the perilous expediency of trending topics. But after the premature announcement, her death was confirmed on Tuesday. She had died from a urinary tract infection.
But Tanya Roberts deserved to be celebrated as more than a meme. With her well-flaunted beauty and key roles, she was an icon in some quarters of pop culture fandom, and not properly appreciated at the peak of her fame.
Born Victoria Leigh Blum in 1955, she grew up in New York. She began working as a model for TV commercials and appeared in off-Broadway plays. After moving to Hollywood she landed a handful of roles. One early role was in 1979’s low-rent horror The Tourist Trap, later reclaimed as a schlocky cult favourite. In her big scene, Roberts’ character was offed by a knife-throwing Native American mannequin. Around the same time, Roberts auditioned for 10 but lost out to Bo Derek.
Her big break came with the fifth and final season of Charlie’s Angels in 1980. She played Julie Rogers, a tough model-turned-PI – the last of the original Angels.
“We tried to go for someone who was a little more street, a little more urban, a little more ethnic” said producer Leonard Goldberg on a behind the scenes documentary.
As well as her looks – her red hair, pale blue eyes, and sumptuous figure – Roberts was credited for bringing streetwise energy to the show (she was a Bronx kid and legitimate wild child: as a teenager, Roberts quit school and hitchhiked across the US). But she couldn’t save Charlie’s Angels. The series was already on the decline. “Tanya Roberts brings lusty humour to a jinxed job,” said People Magazine, in a feature that served as both a puff piece and death knell for the show. Charlie’s Angels was cancelled in 1981, blighted by an actors’ union strike, changing time slots, and plummeting ratings.
Roberts’ next famous role was in 1982's ridiculous nostalgia-fest, The Beastmaster, about a hyper-muscled warrior named Dar (Marc Singer) who has a telepathic power over animals. Along the way, he accrues a small army of beasts – a panther (actually a tiger dyed black), an eagle, and two, erm, ferrets – and falls for Tanya Roberts’ scantily-clad slave girl, Kiri. (It turns out that Dar and Kiri are cousins – no one seems to mind.)
Even The Beastmaster writer-director Don Coscarelli was unsure about casting Tanya Roberts. He’d wanted Demi Moore for the role, but the executive producer vetoed Moore, then in her late teens, because her voice was too husky – one of many disagreements between Coscarelli and his money-man during production.
Writing in his 2018 memoir, True Indie, Coscarelli recalled his reaction to being pitched Tanya Roberts as an alternative. “What? The Tanya Roberts from the cheesy television series Charlie’s Angels? You had to be kidding.” wrote Coscarelli. “None of the Angels were considered great actresses, and Tanya’s reviews when she debuted as the newest Charlie’s Angel were not the best.”
But his producer wasn’t familiar with American television; he couldn’t be dissuaded. “Tanya was surprisingly nice and certainly one of the most amazing beauties any of us had ever seen,” wrote Coscarelli. “But once she walked into the room, the executive producer was instantly smitten and she was cast.”
In her opening scene, Roberts and another slave girl swim topless beneath a waterfall. Despite the gratuitous sauciness, the film was released in UK cinemas as a PG and put on endless syndication on US television (Billy Crystal once joked that HBO stood for “Hey, Beastmaster’s on!”) Undoubtedly, Tanya Roberts was a major part of why the film became such an Eighties favourite – a hit with dads watching from the corner of their eye, and the inspiration of many boyhood obsessions.
Watching now, The Beastmaster’s paw-prints feel a bit too grubby. Dar is a pure-hearted hero-of-the-moment (he arrives in cinemas swiftly after fellow barbarian Conan, and a year before He-Man's huge popularity). But the Beastmaster is still a letch. Ogling Kiri from afar, he isn’t above mind-controlling his ferrets to steal her clothes, or getting his panther to attack so he can step in and save Kiri – and immediately force himself onto her.
The textbook sleazing of Roger Moore’s Bond – whose charms she was fending off just a few years later – has nothing on the Beastmaster.
Watch: Bond Girl and 'That '70's Show' Star Tanya Roberts Dies at 65
On a DVD commentary, Don Coscarelli and co-writer Paul Pepperman revealed that Tanya Roberts had to plunge into bitterly cold water for the scenes. “Just be sure to look at her face,” said Coscarelli about Roberts’ visible discomfort. To promote the film, Roberts posed in the October 1982 edition of Playboy – appearing nude alongside a lion and tiger.
The Beastmaster picked up cult status on television and VHS afterwards, but reviews were less than favourable at the time – and even shamelessly sexist. “Roberts’ voice sounds dubbed,” wrote the Philadelphia Daily News. “But who’s going to listen to what she has to say anyway?” Variety said that Roberts and her co-stars had “equal acting ability” to the animals.
The Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel was a bit kinder, and criticised the film for not featuring more of Roberts’ character. “This film could have done for her what One Million Years BC did for Raquel Welch,” wrote Siskel.
Roberts followed up with two more fantasy films, Hearts and Armour, and Sheena, a Tarzan-style adventure based on the decades-old comic character, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Released in 1984, Sheena was a box office disaster. New York’s Daily News said about Roberts: “She is so painfully inept as an actress that she makes Bo Derek look like Academy Award material”. Actually, Roberts was nominated a Golden Raspberry for worst actress but lost out to her old rival Bo Derek.
Tanya Roberts most famous role was in 1985's A View to a Kill, Roger Moore’s final outing as 007. The sight of 58-year-old Sir Rodge smooching with Roberts, playing geologist Stacy Sutton, is as ludicrous as anything else in the film: Moore dangling off a fire engine ladder during a high-speed chase, or having a punch-up atop the Golden Gate Bridge. Hilariously, Bond seduces Roberts's character by cooking a quiche.
Depending on your Bond tastes, A View to a Kill is either an undisputed classic or ludicrous self-parody – I would argue that it’s both.
Roberts was nominated for another Golden Raspberry for the film – an overly harsh critique. It’s a tough gig, standing between Carry on Roger, and Christopher Walken in wowza Bond villain mode. But Tanya Roberts is a fan favourite, and a Bond girl in the classical sense – from a time when Bond was Bond and Bond girls were Bond girls.
Later, Roberts was best known for in That 70s Show, playing sultry-voice mum Midge Pinciotti and showing off some previously unseen comedy chops. Her charms were still alluring. One sympathised with the quiche-cooking Bond and Beastmaster executive: it was hard to not to be smitten with Tanya Roberts.
Watch: Actress Tanya Roberts Alive But In Poor Condition In Hospital, Says Publicist