Her character, long-suffering Valene Ewing, arrived on Dallas in 1978 before spinning off into the enormously popular Knots Landing. Set in California, the series’ emphasis on close female friendships — and the troubles that routinely tested their strength — set it apart from the other nighttime dramas of the era. That family spirit still exists among the show’s former costars today. “I am more closely connected with Michele [Lee] and Donna [Mills] than ever,” Joan Van Ark, 80, exclusively tells Closer. “The three of us have a sisterhood. I want us to go to a rest home and be three little feisty devils flipping it upside down.”
Happily, Joan’s not ready for retirement just yet. The actress, who is approaching 58 years of marriage to her high school sweetheart, still loves to work. “My dream is to do something way unexpected — like play a biker girl,” she says. “I know there’s one more big one in me.”
You were named after St. Joan of Arc, who led the French army into battle. Are you anything like her?
“Maybe my obsession with spirituality and not being denied one’s goal. I’m like a flame that flickers for a while but always returns to a stillness. When I was 15 or 16, I played her in a University of Colorado production. With her life flashing before her eyes, she’s strapped to the stake and they light the fire. It brought the audience to tears.”
See What the Iconic Cast of the Soap Opera 'Knots Landing' Is Doing Now
On Knots Landing, Broadway legend Julie Harris played your mother, but you had met much earlier in your life.
“My dad was in PR in Denver. When I was 16, he arranged for her to speak with me. She ended up calling the dean of the Yale School of Drama, who agreed to meet with me. I became the second woman after Julie to be admitted when it was all men.”
“Walking to class from my dorm across campus, I would count the cracks in the sidewalk so I would not be distracted by the tsunami of male gorgeousness coming at me. I dated the quarterback of the football team — Doug Hershey of the Hershey chocolate family.”
Did you get free Hershey’s kisses?
“He gave me kisses, but they weren’t chocolate!”
You already knew your husband, John, at this point, right?
“Oh, John was home in Colorado. I always say we were married and divorced several times before we were actually married. We had a relationship, but that didn’t stop me at Yale with a campus full of guys.”
You and John first met in high school?
“Yes. When he was a junior, I was a sophomore. He says he remembers seeing me walk down the school hall in this blue dress and he was so smitten. Well, I’ve never worn blue in my life. I’m not a blue person. Your teeth don’t look white enough when you wear blue.”
What is your secret to a long marriage?
“John says frequent separations and gradual hearing loss. I think that’s pretty damn good.”
Donna Mills Talks New Lifetime Project and Her Current Fitness Goals
One of your first big roles was in the 1972 TV movie The Judge and Jake Wyler with Bette Davis. What was she like?
“On our first day of filming, she was watching my rehearsal. The vibe just didn’t feel right, and then someone came over and said, ‘Miss Davis wants to speak with you.’ I walked over and she motioned to the wardrobe person to go get me a broad-brimmed black hat with a veil. Bette said, ‘Wear this so we know this is a widow’s garb and try the scene that way.’ I’d heard such horror stories, but I loved the woman for being my partner.”
How did you react when you heard that Julie was cast as your mother on Knots?
“My mind feared it was going to be one of the Gabor sisters, and then when they said ‘Julie Harris,’ I let out a scream. I was stunned and beyond thrilled. She was it for me.”
On Knots, the characters you and Donna Mills played often butted heads. Is it true you had to isolate from her before scenes?
“I did isolate. I’d be behind a wall jogging in place. I had to distance myself from Donna to maintain a frostiness. And then when I got home, I shed it. Alec Baldwin would say I was the only one who wasn’t on the phone ordering drapes or comparing swatches for the living room in between scenes.”
Alec played your brother on the show. Have you been in touch with him since the tragic shooting on his movie set?
“Alec, God bless him. That is the most deeply impacting, overwhelming experience. I just can’t imagine. I love him so. I’ve been texting him, and he’s been texting back with symbols of hearts, meaning love. I just want him to know I’m there for him.”
Peter Falk’s Daughter Catherine Recalls Growing Up With ‘Columbo’ Star
Do you still run for fitness?
“Yes, I’m an outdoor person who needs the air. I can’t be out in the sun anymore, so I run every night in the dark for 7 to 10 miles. I used to run right under the Hollywood sign, but now I run in my own neighborhood. It frees all the negativity, and I come back after feeling as though I’ve ‘flushed the toilet.’”
You’ve always been very specific about your diet. What foods work for you now?
“I’m a pattern eater and mostly a vegetarian. Right now it’s lettuce, purple onions, soft-boiled eggs, and I am hooked on organic maple syrup. On a set, I ask for bananas, honey and salt-free, smooth peanut butter to help me sustain an even metabolism. All of these things have nutrients to supply what my body needs. I also take certain endurance vitamins — calcium, D3 and magnesium.”
What do you like about being this age?
“Absolutely nothing, folks. Everything is more time-consuming and not as loose. You just have to keep readjusting.”
Do you have any words of wisdom you live by?
“There is a mantra that I have in my perfume alcove that reads: ‘Climb high. Climb far. Your goal the sky. Your aim the star.’ It’s something that keeps me anchored with hope.”