From Miss America to Catwoman – The Life of Lee Meriwether

Lee Ann Meriwether was born on May 27, 1935, in Los Angeles, California, and is the eldest daughter of Claudius Gregg Meriwether and Ethel Eve Mulligan. Three years later, her younger brother by the name of Don Brett Meriwether, was born.

Lee Meriwether / Buddy Ebsen and Lee Meriwether / Caesar Romero and Lee Meriwether / Lee Meriwether
Source: Getty Images

After the birth of their second child, the Meriwether’s moved to Phoenix, Arizona. Her family then moved to San Francisco, where she got her high school education from George Washington High School. As early as in high school, Lee was always encouraged to take up acting as a career. No one would have thought that it would become a reality in the years that followed.

She Majored In Radio and TV/Theater Arts

After completing her high school education, Lee continued her studies at the City College of San Francisco, majoring in Radio and TV/Theater Arts. She was also an active sorority sister in college.

Lee Meriwether is taking a taxi to the television studio.
Photo by Al Barry/Three Lions/Getty Images

Another celebrity who entered City College was the actor who played Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk series, Bill Bixby.

Mysterious Beauty Pageant Nomination

During her time in college, she was nominated to participate in the Miss San Francisco beauty pageant that changed her life. Yes, you didn’t read it wrong; she was nominated and did not register to participate independently.

Lee Ann Meriwether in her
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

The nomination was anonymous, and to this very day, Lee does not know who nominated her. All she could find out about the details of the nominations many years later was that it originated from the African American fraternity.

The Accidental Beauty Queen

Lee Meriwether herself never intended to participate in pageants, let alone become part of the contestants for the title of Miss San Francisco.

Evelyn Ay, Miss America of 1954, crowns her successor, Lee Ann Meriwether.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

She would not have won either if she had not been nominated to take part and win it; she did. She continued her winning streak to become Miss California and was finally crowned Miss America in 1955.

She Tragically Lost Her Father

Her journey throughout the years of her participation in those beauty pageants did not come easy, as her father passed away right after she won Miss California. With her mother now becoming her sole support system, Lee would have broken into pieces after her father passed.

A portrait of Lee Meriwether.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Her mother persuaded her to continue with the pageant. She motivated her by assuring that it was her late father’s wish to see her succeed and not jeopardize the opportunity to gain the scholarship that the pageants had provided.

Lee Won The Televised Event

Lee was quick to get her act together and soldiered on in Atlantic City for the Miss America Pageant 1955, which she won.

An official portrait of Lee Meriwether as the crowned Miss America.
Source: Pinterest

One of the most historical things about the 1955 Miss America Pageant was the fact that it was the first time that the pageant was televised live on national television. It meant that it was the first time that tens of millions of people were watching the event.

It Was Her First Steps To Stardom

With her incredible talent and beauty, it did not surprise the viewers that Lee was finally announced as Miss America on the first-ever live televised edition of the pageant.

A photographer takes a studio portrait of Lee Meriwether.
Photo by Al Barry/Three Lions/Getty Images

She displayed her acting talent in the Miss America Pageant by reciting the John Millington Synge monologue. Lee Meriwether was a destined to be a star, and in fact, she already was.

Merriwether Was Now Famous

With her win as Miss America, Lee found instant stardom, and it changed her entire life. The fact that the event was shown across the country, it did not come as a surprise that Lee Meriwether became a household name and a well-recognized face to many Americans from that moment on.

Meriwether leans against a wall.
Source: Pinterest

While committing to the schedule of touring the country as Miss America, she was now able to use the credentials of Miss America to learn other artistic skills such as acting, dancing, and even singing.

She Tried Out Many Things

Lee also got to try her hand at fencing, where she learned from some of the top fencing coaches in New York.

Lee is taking part in ‘What’s My Line?’
Source: Pinterest

On Sunday, right after winning the Miss America title in 1955, Lee was asked to appear on the show called ‘What’s My Line?’ which was hosted by John Charles Daly, who was also, coincidentally, the host for the Miss America Pageant that year.

Forming a Diverse Portfolio

She was later given appearances in NBC’s The Today Show, which officially made her the ‘Today Girl’ from 1955 to 1956. During her stint on the Today Show, Lee Meriwether’s role was not as an actress but as a host.

Lee Meriwether Dave Garroway and a chimp named J. Fred Muggs on the Today Show.
Source: Twitter

In those days, the role was more known as the “woman’s editor.”, her cast members include Dave Garroway and a chimp called J. Fred Muggs.

Dealing With Fame and Rumors

One of the consequences of being famous was the tendency to become part of sensational tabloid rumors. Lee had the first taste of that when on August 1, 1956, international news published a photo of Meriwether and Joe DiMaggio announcing their engagement.

Joe DiMaggio and Lee Meriwether attend the opening night of Judy Garland.
Photo by PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

According to DiMaggio’s biographer Richard Ben Cramer, a rumor started by Walter Winchell, a syndicated gossip columnist.

The Acting Roles Soon Came

When it comes to igniting her passion for acting, it began with the experience she gained after she landed an acting role for three episodes of ‘The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse.’

Meriwether takes part in a parade.
Source: Reddit

Her character in the show was Diane, and she was involved in the show’s production in 1954 before she won the national beauty pageant. After becoming Miss America, she was handed the opportunity to play a role in a drama about a Miss America that tried to escape her duties as a pageant winner.

Refining Her Acting Skills

With the experience, the talent, and the desire, it was no surprise that Lee took the $5,000 scholarship money from her Miss America win to study acting. It helped her to polish her acting skills which would be vital for her career.

An image of Lee Strasberg.
Photo by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis/Getty Images

Under the famous acting teachers Lee Strasberg and Curt Conway, she received expert tutelage. Her acting skills increased dramatically, which she would take into future roles.

A Curious First Meeting

In an interview with Capital Gazette, Lee recollected on that experience of meeting Strasberg and said, “I was asked to come to his apartment. He sat in a chair and read a newspaper for about three or four minutes. Finally, he looked up at me and said, you want to study with me? I said yes.” Just like that, Lee became his student for the next four years.

Lee Meriwether and Robert Lansing in a still from 4D Man.
Source: YouTube

Lee Meriwether’s very first film role came in 1958 with the film 4D Man where she played Linda Davis, who was the research assistant for a scientist, played by Robert Lansing, who entered into a “fourth-dimensional state” and began killing people to absorb their life energy

Acting Work Started To Flow

The sixties rolled in with a string of television appearances for Lee Meriwether. In 1961, Lee met her first husband, Frank Aletter, while guest-starring in a CBS sitcom called ‘Bringing Up Buddy.’

Frank Aletter is joined by his wife, Lee, and his daughter Kyle on an episode of ‘Bringing Up Baby.’
Source: Tumblr

Lee appeared in an episode called ‘Buddy and the Amazon’ as a character named Gloria. An appearance then followed this in an episode for the fourth season of ‘Leave it to Beaver’ called ‘Community Chest.’

Creating an Impressive Resume

Then in 1962, she was cast for a role in one of CBS’s anthology series called ‘The Loyd Bridges Show’ as Martha Edelweiss in an episode titled ‘My Child is Yet a Stranger.’ For ABC in the same year, Lee played Nurse Dickens in an episode of the sitcom called ‘I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster’. By the mid-sixties, Lee Meriwether was already fully involved in the entertainment industry as a familiar face on television.

Lee Meriwether attends an event.
Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

She was cast in various roles in eight episodes of the television drama series called ‘Dr. Kildare’ between 1963 to 1965. In 1963, Lee got her second appearance in a movie titled ‘The Courtship of Eddie’s Father’ playing the role of Tom’s secretary, but Lee was uncredited in the movie.

She Had Plenty of Cameos

Various appearances in an episode or two for a few established television series also came her way in the mid-sixties. She landed the role of Jeanelle in an episode called ‘This is Going to Hurt Me More Than it Hurts You’ for the adventure series ‘Route 66’ in 1964.

Meriwether in a cameo from Star Trek.
Source: YouTube

In 1965, Lee also made single episode appearances in ‘The Jack Benny Program,’ where she played The Secretary. In this period, she was received consistent work.

Meriwether Was Still Searching for That Big Job

She also appeared in another television series called ‘12 O’clock High’ between 1965 and 1966, where in an episode titled ‘Mutiny at Ten Thousand Feet,’ she was cast as Lieutenant Amy Patterson and in the episodes ‘The Idolator’ and ‘The Outsider,’ she played Captain Phyllis Vincent.

Lee Meriwether and Robert Brown in a still from ‘12 O’Clock High.’
Source: Pinterest

In the mid-sixties, Lee also guest-starred in the season 2 episode ‘Big Brother.’ All those roles and appearances helped establish Lee as a prominent figure in American television at the time. However, what was about to come her way in 1966 was probably the most iconic role she would have ever played in a movie career.

Lee Meriwether Became Catwoman

The movie ‘Batman’ was released in 1966, and in it, Lee Meriwether was given the role of Kitka or her more infamous alias as The Catwoman. She got the role through an audition where she had to go up against 200 other candidates.

Lee as Catwoman in the Batman movie.
Source: 20th Century Fox

Lee attended the casting auditions, and she was called up, went straight to the chair, curled herself in it, raised her voice to three registers, started purring and saying ‘meows.’ The next day, she got the part.

It Was a Lucky Break

Julie Newmar already played the role of Catwoman in the Batman TV series for the first two seasons, and by default, she was most definitely meant for the role in the movie. An injury sustained by Newmar during the filming of the first season of the television series was the reason why an audition was made for the same character in the film version.

Burgess Meredith, The Penguin, Frank Gorshin, The Riddler, Cesar Romero, The Joker, Lee Meriwether, as Catwoman.
Source: 20th Century Fox

To some degree, there was also talk in the movie business at the time that Julie Newmar did not accept the movie role because of the low pay she was already receiving from the TV series. Some quarters mentioned that Newmar just was not up to strutting around in the distressed leather Catwoman suit for the film.

She Made the Role Her Own

Needless to say, in the film, Lee made the role of The Catwoman her own. Adam West was the quintessential Batman of that era, and of course, it would be borderline sacrilegious not to cast him as Batman in the movie as well. Of course, Adam West reprised his role as Batman from the television series into the film.

Lee Meriwether in her Catwoman costume.
Source: 20th Century Fox

The other cast included Caesar Romero, Frank Gorshin, and Burgess Meredith, who carried their own weight as the villains in the movie alongside Lee Meriwether. At the time, Lee would regard herself as the rookie actor when compared to her other cast members and acknowledges that the experience she gained from acting with them in a big-budget movie set for the first time in her life was an eye-opener.

It Was a Rich Learning Experience

She said in an interview with Boomer Magazine about the experience of working with her co-stars in the Batman movie and how it felt like education for her, “Caesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, I was so lucky to work with all of them. I watched Burgess spend fifteen minutes off-camera rehearsing, letting a cigarette in a long cigarette holder drop from his mouth. It was a work-ethic education.”

Caesar Romero, as the Joker, embraces Lee Meriwether as Catwoman.
Source: 20th Century Fox

In an interview with Fox News, Lee also said of the experience, “I was so lucky to be working with such a talented group of villains. I learned so much from those gentlemen. Their attack on those characters and the work that they did. I would always watch them, and it was quite an education.”

Learning To Be a Movie Star

With such an experienced and talented cast, it taught her a lot more than just some acting skills. She was also able to learn what it was like to be a movie star.

The cast of Batman poses together during an event.
Photo by Bob Riha, Jr/Getty Images

She jokingly added in that interview that it was thanks to the Batman cast, she was able to learn how to conduct herself in a movie set by, “They were wonderful teachers. They didn’t know I was peeking at them, but it was really wonderful.”.

Lee Loved The Iconic Role

Although Lee loved her character, and like Newmar, she was not a fan of The Catwoman’s suit either. The movie did extremely well, and she was later cast to play the role of Lisa Carson, who was Bruce Wayne’s love interest for two episodes in the 1967 season of the Batman TV series, namely ‘King Tut’s Coup’ and ‘Batman’s Waterloo.’

 Lee Meriwether and Grace Lee Whitney in a still from King Tut’s Coup.
Source: 20th Century Fox

The opportunity she was given to play, such as iconic comic book characters, immortalized her presence in the film. To this day, her role as The Catwoman is still very much associated with her life. She would still be invited to attend conventions such as the San Diego Comic-Convention to speak about her experience in portraying that character signing autographs.

A Unique Take on a Classic

In the middle of the Batman TV series, Split was a pop culture phenomenon; Lee was her unique version of the Catwoman.

Adam West, as Batman, and Burt Ward, as Robin, in a still from the TV show.
Source: 20th Century Fox

Honestly, who could forget the colorful tights of the dynamic duo, the bare basic crime investigations methodology, and the distinctively large ‘Kapow!” and “Bam!” captions that appear on-screen each time Batman or Robin swings a punch or makes a kick?

Her Own Slice of History

If Julie Newmar can be regarded as the first live-action portrayal of that character and when she quit the role after two seasons, her replacement; Eartha Kitt, was also a recognizable version of the Catwoman in such a unique way for being the first woman of color ever to portray the character.

Meriwether dressed as Catwoman.
Source: 20th Century Fox

Lee Meriwether sits right in the middle of the two and has the honorable mention of being the first movie version of The Catwoman.

It Wasn’t Her Only Great Role

Another memorable role that Lee Meriwether landed in the latter part of the sixties was the part of Dr. Ann MacGregor in the sci-fi television series called ‘The Time Tunnel’ with Robert Colbert and James Darren.

The cast of The Time Tunnel pose together on set.
Source: ABC

For many sci-fi aficionados, ‘The Time Tunnel’ series was a landmark for science fiction television. Dr. Ann MacGregor was an electronuclear biochemist and was responsible for browsing through the present-day historical facts as a way to determine the location of the main characters, Doug and Tony, in the timeline that they traveled to.

Many Other Jobs Followed

Aside from ‘The Time Tunnel,’ Lee made many appearances in a host of other memorable television series at the time. This included ‘The Fugitive,’ ‘The Lloyd Bridges Show,’ ‘Mannix,’ ‘Star Trek,’ ‘Mission: Impossible, ‘Perry Mason’, and ‘The F Troop.’

Margaret Langdon, played by Lee Meriwether, and Col. James Langdon, played by Rock Hudson in a still from the film.
Photo by FilmPublicityArchive / United Archives/Getty Images

As for her work in movies, the latter part of the sixties also saw Lee acting in the movie ‘The Undefeated’ alongside John Wayne and Rock Hudson, and the movie called ‘Angel in My Pocket’ with Andy Griffith.

An Iconic TV Character Too

Moving to the seventies, Lee Meriwether was presented with the opportunity in another role that would forever be associated with her. That was playing Betty Jones, the widowed daughter-in-law of the title character of the CBS television series called ‘Barnaby Jones’ played by Buddy Ebsen.

Buddy Ebsen and Lee Meriwether as Barnaby and Betty Jones.
Source: CBS

The series ran from 1973 to 1980, and Lee was award-nominated for her portrayal of Betty Jones in the series; and it was one of the roles she is always remembered by and is associated with after Catwoman.

Fans Continued To Love Her

She had such a great relationship with Buddy Ebsen on and off the set, and they were friends all through the years until Ebsen passed away in 2003. Speaking about Ebsen in an interview with Boomer magazine, Lee said, “I loved that man! I was so lucky. He was a dream. He loved the idea of being a detective.

Buddy Ebsen and Lee Meriwether attend the
Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

We had CSI-type equipment in the office on the set, and he liked doing [his tests]. It was a show the whole family could watch.” True to how Lee herself explained it, the show was extremely popular among television viewers at the time and helped to bring a brand new fanbase for Lee.

Working Past Her Prime

Further down the line in her career, Lee also portrayed Lily Munster in the television sitcom, ‘The Munsters,’ from 1988 to 1991. The show itself was a revival of the original series broadcasted in the sixties. In the eighties version, Lee acted alongside Jason Marsden, John Schuck, Howard Morton, and Hilary Van Dyke.

The cast of The Munsters Today.
Source: NBC

She also did a couple of television appearances in the eighties for ‘The Love Boat’ and Fantasy Island.’ Although not in the prime of her acting career, Lee Meriwether still appeared in a host of television shows throughout the nineties until today.

Challenges of a TV Soap

The nineties saw her become part of the soap opera called ‘All My Children’ where she took the role of Ruth Martin after Mary Fickett had an ordeal with the studios involving her on and off retirement.

Lee, as Ruth Martin, in a still from All My Children.
Source: YouTube

Speaking about her role in a soap opera, Lee told Boomer Magazine in an interview, “Working on a TV soap was extremely difficult. Sometimes I had to learn a whole script overnight. But I appeared at some fan events, and the fans really do appreciate what you are doing,” ultimately proving that despite her age, she was more than willing to try out new things. The same decade also saw Lee appear as a guest star in the famous series called ‘Murder, She Wrote.’

She’s Even Done Voiceover Work

In the noughties, Lee appeared in a TV documentary film for Miss America and another made for TV movie called ‘Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam and Burt.’

Lee Meriwether attends the CBS Television Network Affiliates Party.
Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Image

Being such an open and hardworking part of the entertainment industry, it would not surprise anyone if they knew that Lee Meriwether also did the voice-over for Big Mama’s character in the video game Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots that was released for PlayStation 3.

Her Incredible Versatility Shines Through

One movie that she did appear in during the 2000s was the 2006 movie called ‘The Ultimate Gift’ alongside James Garner, Abigail Breslin, Bill Cobbs. She then did an episode of the Disney Channel series called ‘Wizards of Waverly Place’ called ‘Harper Knows’ where she plays the role of a comic book named Battle Diva.

Lee Meriwether attends the ceremony honoring Burt Ward.
Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Then in 2010, she returned to video games as the voice of President Winters in the game titled ‘Vanquish’ released by PlatinumGames. Her ability to just take on any job for just about any media is a testament to her versatility as an actress.

Recently Love Into Theater

From 2010 onwards, Lee is still an active actress and takes on roles, though mostly making quest appearances in various television shows. She has appeared on Desperate Housewives, Hawaii Five-0, The League, and Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23.

Lee Meriwether performs on stage.
Photo by Bennett Raglin/WireImage/Getty Images

Presently, Lee Meriwether has been more involved with Theatre West, the oldest continually running Theatre Company in Los Angeles, over at Cahuenga Boulevard.

Another Black Costume Made an Appearance

In an interview with Capital Gazette in 2013, Lee mentioned that theater has always been her first love, and for the last half a century, she has been a member of Theatre West. Also, in 2013, she portrayed a role of a stripper on one of the theater’s productions called Passionate Ladies, where she was clad in a black leotard.

Lee Meriwether in her Catwoman costume.
Source: 20th Century Fox

Another theater role was in Emmy Award-winning writer William Blinn’s play called ‘A Short Stay at Carranor.’ In the same year, she also was asked to reprise her role as Miss Hastings from the movie ‘The Ultimate Gift’ in a requel/prequel called ‘The Ultimate Life.’

A One Woman Masterpiece

Continuing her work in theater, Lee also did a show called ‘The Women of Spoon River: Their Voices from the Hill’ in 2014 for the Williamsburg Film Festival. The play is a one-woman show in which Lee had to shift characters in a seamless and chameleon-like fashion when portraying the voices, accents, mannerisms, and personalities of 24 characters.

Lee is on stage performing her one-woman show.
Source: YouTube

All the characters ranged from a 24-year-old young woman with a girlish voice to a 96-year-old lady with old-age mannerisms. The show ended with the audience on their feet for a standing ovation. Other than that, recent years have seen Lee Meriwether actively engaging with fans by participating at Comic Cons.

Lee Meriwether’s Personal Life

In terms of her personal life, Lee Meriwether was married on April 20, 1958, to Frank Aletter, with whom she brought to the world two beautiful daughters, Kyle Aletter and Lesley Aletter. The couple had been together for decades, and they finally got divorced in 1974.

Lee Meriwether and her two daughters at a children's party.
Photo by Max B. Miller/Fotos International/Getty Images

Frank Aletter was also an actor but not quite as successful as his ex-wife. Aletter sadly passed away in 2009 at the age of 83 from thyroid cancer. By that time, he’d remarried, as had Meriwether, but neither of them had more children.

She Is Happily Remarried

Lee later remarried on September 21, 1986, to Marshall Borden, who is also an actor and a playwright. They settled down together in Los Angeles, but as with her previous marriage, she remains a lot more active in the industry than her partner.

Lee Meriwether and husband Marshall Borden attend the 57th Annual Hollywood Christmas Parade.
Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

Some of Borden’s memorable roles were from the series ‘Quantum Leap’, ‘One Life to Live,’ ‘A Walton Wedding’ and ‘Says It in Russian.’ He last worked in 2007, and it seems as though he is happily retired with the beautiful Meriwether.

A Legend of the Silver Screen

Her daughter Lesley is now a stuntwoman, and Kyle followed in her footsteps as an actor. Lee also has one grandchild now. Although Lee Meriwether has not been active in Hollywood for at least two years, she still has an estimated collected wealth of about $200 million over her iconic career.

Lee Meriwether and her daughter Lesley Aletter attend an event.
Photo by Paul Archuleta/WireImage/Getty Images

She has made a huge impact in the acting industry over the years and is, without any doubt, an icon and a role model that every aspiring actress can look up to. For Lee, she lives and breathes her vocation, and the phrase ‘you can take the actor out of the act, but you can’t take acting out of the actor’ is true when speaking about Lee Meriwether and her passion.