The photo that stumped readers for years. She looked so familiar, yet no one could identify her.
Cary O’Dell at the Library’s National Recording Registry is the maestro of our ever-popular Mystery Photo Contest. He’s back with big news.
It was a mystery that I was beginning to think would never be solved.
You’ll remember, dear readers of our Mystery Photo Contest, the dark-haired actress in the striped shirt. The pensive gaze off camera. The dark eyes. Her identity had flummoxed us for so long I eventually nicknamed her “The Most Mysterious Woman in the World” last December.
Half a year later, kids, we announce this mystery is SOLVED!
Our heroine in alive and well and still working in the film and television industry. She was identified by James Owen, the only reader to match the face to the name in a couple of years of online guesses. He was nearly as excited as I was when I let him know the news: “Very cool! Happy to help!”
And our mystery woman’s name is – wait, don’t you want to hear the story first?
Most of you know of my ongoing search to put names with some of the unidentified movie, TV and music photos we found within a very large collection of press stills acquired by the Library a few years ago. We posted many of these unidentified faces in our Mystery Photo Contest and you guys have been terrific at tracking them down. Among others, there was Cynthia Lynn, she of “Hogan’s Heroes,” and Esther Anderson, the Jamaican actress and film producer.
But one of the most puzzling of all was that soft-focus photo of the young actress coolly looking off to her right, posed before a blurry background. Guesses poured in. Her secret to anonymity seemed to be that she so resembled so many other actresses of the late ’60s and early ’70s that she looked like everyone and no one. When I sent the photo to Tina Sinatra — a popular guess — she said, “Yes, we all looked alike at that time with our Marlo Thomas hair.”
Some of the other guesses that readers ventured: Marlo Thomas herself, Paula Prentiss, Celeste Yarnall, Dana Delany, Sherry Jackson, Kim Darby, Lucie Arnaz, Stephanie Zimbalist, Susan Saint James, Barbara Parkins, Bonnie Bedelia, Diana Canova, Lynn Loring, Katharine Ross and Linda Harrison.
I reached out to all of these women over the past couple of years. One by one, they all said some variation of, “Nope. Not me.”
But after our December “most mysterious woman” post, new guesses flooded in. I went back to work. Some of the very gracious actresses I contacted after reader suggestions: Mary McDonnell, Gail Hire, Anne Archer, Katherine Justice, Sabrina Scharf, Jody Miller, Maureen McGovern, Samantha Eggar, Jennifer Salt, Pamela Tiffin and Lesley Ann Warren.
You guessed it: Zilch. De nada. Nothing.
Then there was that guess from James Owen. I had dutifully fired off an email to the actress he suggested. And, on a recent day, I got a response. I clicked it open.
“That’s a very nice photo of me,” wrote Wendy Phillips. “Thanks. I hadn’t seen it before.”
Yes, in fact, I did almost fall out of my chair.
After I read that line several times over, I immediately replied: “ARE YOU KIDDING? That’s you?! Could you call me?”
Wendy Phillips today. Photo: Courtesy Wendy Phillips.
Brooklyn native Wendy Phillips began her career in 1975 at the age of 23, starring in the critically-acclaimed TV adaptation of “Death Be Not Proud” (opposite Robby Benson). She’s been working ever since. The Internet Movie Database counts 89 credits over the past 45 years, including the big screen’s “Bugsy,” “I Am Sam” and “Airplane II.” On TV, she has starred in “Promised Land,” “A Year in the Life,” “Falcon Crest,” “Home Front” and “Big Love.” Her most recent role was appearing in two episodes of CBS’s “Seal Team” in 2018.
In our conversation, she said she thinks our mystery photo was taken on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot. “It wasn’t unusual to be pulled off a soundstage by a photographer or the press department and be made to quickly pose and get a picture, kind of on the run,” she said. “The funny part is I remember the outfit because I hated the sleeves.”
She continued: “I am pretty sure it was from a pilot I did called ‘Love Tapes.’ The original script was called ‘They’re Playing Our Tapes’– ugh! It was made by MGM and then got tied up in legal battles between the executive producer and the studio. It finally aired in 1980 as a TV movie.”
The pilot never took off, but it wasn’t from the lack of talent. It featured several female TV stars of the era — Loretta Swit (better known as Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan from “M*A*S*H”), Mariette Hartley (lots of westerns and those great Polaroid commercials with James Garner) and Jan Smithers (Bailey on “WKRP in Cincinnati”).
Of our epic search for her, I said, “We tried to make you Barbara Parkins and Dana Delaney….”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Dana and I had a similar look, were a similar type; she and I and Erin Gray were always auditioning against each other.”
She was quite amused by our lengthy search and cheerfully noted the photo was far from the best likeness of her. I would like to thank her not only for solving this mystery but also for her good humor that went along with it. And I would like to thank James Owen, the one (and only one) who suggested “Wendy Phillips” in the first place.
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