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Jill Banner

Jill Banner (November 8, 1946 - August 7, 1982) was an American film actress, possibly best recalled for her role as Virginia, the "spider baby" in the 1964 cult horror-comedy film Spider Baby. She also had roles as James Coburn's flower child friend in The President's Analyst (1967), and a couple of hippie girls in Jack Webb's television series, Dragnet.

Early life

Jill Banner was born Mary Molumby in Bremerton, Washington. After her father's death in 1949, she and her mother lived in South Dakota and Iowa, near several of their Irish relatives, finally ending up in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale.

She studied at the Hollywood Professional School, a K-12 school for working professional children run by Maurice and Bertha Mann. At HPS, classes typically ran from 8:45 AM to 12:45 PM, allowing the students the afternoon off to pursue various jobs or performing careers. The school assemblies, called "Aud. Calls", were early showcases for the talents of students aspiring to be dancers, singers, and actors. Banner’s classmates included actress Peggy Lipton (from TV's The Mod Squad), Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys, and Disney Mouseketeer Cubby O'Brien. She graduated with the Class of 1964.

Film and television career

She made her film debut in Spider Baby with Sid Haig and Lon Chaney, Jr. Directed by Jack Hill (Coffy, Switchblade Sisters), the film was tied up in litigation from 1964 until 1968. Released under various titles, including Attack Of The Liver Eaters and Cannibal Orgy, Or The Maddest Story Ever Told, the four-year-old black and white feature quickly faded from view in the tie-dyed electric-Koolaid-acid Sixties. We know of Spider Baby today, largely through the efforts of Los Angeles cult film resurrectionist Johnny Legend. The film tells the story of the Merrye family, a clan of bizarre cannibals who suffer from a deteriorating mental condition. They eat bugs, cats, and visitors under the watchful eyes of their caretaker, Lon Chaney, Jr. It was an extremely warped version of the 1960s television family horrors, The Addams Family and The Munsters. Jill was only 17 when Spider Baby was filmed.

While Spider Baby remained in legal limbo in the mid-1960s, Banner was featured in Deadlier Than The Male (1966), a British mystery about two female assassins, starring Nigel Green and European bombshells Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina. She played Wendy, one of the wholesome teenagers in C’mon, Let’s Live A Little (1967) with singers Jackie DeShannon (What the World Needs Now is Love and Put a Little Love in Your Heart) and Bobby Vee (Take Good Care of My Baby), one of the last films of the fading “beach party” genre. In the psychedelically paranoid spy spoof, The President’s Analyst (1967) Banner was a flower child named “Snow White,” who temporarily rescues James Coburn (Our Man Flint, In Like Flint) from a combined conspiracy of the American CIA, the Russian KGB, and The Phone Company (referred to cryptically as “TPC”).

She was featured in several episodes of Jack Webb's police-procedural shows, Dragnet 1967 and Adam-12, usually playing clueless teenagers and spaced-out daytrippers. In the Dragnet story “Forgery,” she played a pot-smoking woman who is duped into a life of check fraud by two hippie dope dealers. In another memorable episode, "The Hammer", Banner played a hardened but stupid juvenile whose sociopath boyfriend has murdered an elderly man for money and a ring. When she is captured Banner’s character shows no remorse, prompting Detective Sgt. Joe Friday to say, "I'll bet your mother had a loud bark."

She performed in several movies and TV shows in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including, Shadow Over Elveron (1968) with Don Ameche and Adam-12 co-star Kent McCord. In The Stranger Returns (1968), a comic spaghetti western (aka Shoot First Laugh Last and Un Uomo, Un Cavallo, Una Pistola), Banner played the pretty daughter of a corrupt postal official who falls into the hands of banditos, only to be rescued by The Stranger. She was also featured in Hunters Are For Killing (1970), an early Burt Reynolds movie, also known as Hard Frame. In an interview, Reynolds once joked that such films were shown in prisons and airplanes, because no one in the audience could leave. She also appeared in episodes of the television shows The Bold Ones and Cade’s County (1972).

Banner had an uncredited bit part in Christian Marquand’s frenetic 1968 movie, Candy, although it is difficult to tell where. The psychedelic film also featured Ringo Starr, Richard Burton, John Huston, and Jill’s co-star from The President's Analyst, James Coburn.

Later life and premature death

It was while filming Candy in Rome that she reportedly met Marquand’s friend, actor Marlon Brando, who was playing the role of a charlatan guru in the film. According to Charles Higham's 1987 book, Brando, the Unauthorized Biography, the fiftyish Brando and 20-something actress became a couple. She abandoned Hollywood for a real estate job in New Mexico in 1976. Brando’s 1994 autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, discusses their relationship, but disguises certain details of her life and refers to her by the name "Weonna". She returned to Southern California and Brando in the early 1980s, reportedly to develop scripts.

In 1982, her Toyota was hit by a truck on Ventura Freeway. Thrown from the vehicle, she died at 3 AM, August 7 1982 in North Hollywood's Riverside Hospital. She was 35 years old. Her grave is located at Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery.

Filmography

References

  • Brando, Marlon (1994). Songs My Mother Taught Me. New York: Modern Library. ISBN 0-679-41013-9.
  • Higham, Charles. (1988). Brando: The Unauthorized Biography. New York: New American Library. ISBN 0-451-15394-4.

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