June Lockhart quietly turned Petticoat Junction into a somewhat progressive sitcom
Lockhart was the rare actress with a recurring doctor role in 1960s television.
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Bea Benaderet gave it her all. In November 1967, the 61-year-old actress learned she had lung cancer. She was in the middle of filming season five of her popular television series, Petticoat Junction. Over a six-week span, during the holiday season, Benaderet underwent radiation treatment. As the new year dawned, doctors concluded that her treatment had been successful.
Benaderet recuperated for 10 weeks as production on the sitcom continued. Viewers flooded her mailbox with get-well letters. Meanwhile, a couple actresses stepped in to fill her shoes on the show. Rosemary DeCamp and Shirley Mitchell played the sister and cousin of Benaderet's character, Kate Bradley, respectively. The scripts explained that Kate was merely "out of town" caring for a relative.
By the fifth season finale, "Kate's Homecoming," aired on March 30, Benaderet had rejoined the cast.
A few episodes into filming season six, however, Benaderet stepped away from the production due to fatigue. She refused to give up. A plan was hatched to record her voice for use in future episodes, before her eventual return. As the original voice of Betty Rubble, she was no stranger to spirited voice acting. Sadly, Benaderet passed away on October 13, 1968.
Petticoat Junction suddenly found itself without a lead actor. Benaderet was the heart and soul of the show. Fortunately, a skilled replacement was available.
Lost in Space had finished its three-year run earlier that year. So, June Lockhart, who had played mom Maureen Robinson on the sci-fi series, hung up her spacesuit and headed to Hooterville to join the gang on Petticoat Junction. Replacing a beloved character is never easy, and Lockhart certainly had big shoes to fill. Much like Jack Burns, who stepped in to fill the void left by Don Knotts on The Andy Griffith Show, Lockhart was not given much of a chance by viewers. As the ratings dropped, Petticoat Junction ever so slightly chugged along into new territory.
While the show firmly remained in the Paul Henning television universe, right alongside its lighthearted sibling shows The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres, Petticoat Junction subtly introduced themes of women's liberation. Admittedly, some of it was done for laughs — this was a 1960s comedy with a chimpanzee, after all, not Girls — but the ideas were there. And that was rare enough at the time.
Lockhart joined the cast as Dr. Janet Craig, a medical professional who rents a room at the Shady Rest Hotel. Keep in mind, in 1968, a female doctor was a rare sight on television. The first female doctor on TV was an outlier, Dr. Kate Morrow (Ann Burr) on the series City Hospital in 1952–53. It would be a decade before another recurring female doctor character came along, anesthesiologist Dr. Maggie Graham (Bettye Ackerman) on Ben Casey (1961–66). Lockhart's Dr. Craig was one of the few female medical professionals in a major television role.
Lockhart was perfect for the part. Ten years earlier she had played a somewhat similar role on Have Gun – Will Travel. Her Dr. Phyllis Thackeray character faced sexism and skepticism from grumpy cowpokes in the episode "No Visitors." Thackeray proved popular enough to return in a later episode, as Paladin again stuck up for the good doctor.
Though Have Gun – Will Travel was set a century earlier, Lockhart's character faced a similar situation on Petticoat Junction. When she arrives in town, in "The Lady Doctor," the men of Hooterville regard her with suspicion. One guy even goes so far to make up a phony illness that Dr. Craig could never cure, just to ruin her reputation. Naturally, he gets sick for real and she must heal him, finally earning his respect.
Lockhart was added to the opening credits and worked into the theme song. In a way, Petticoat Junction became one of the earliest shows centered around a professional woman. That being said, the tune did introduce her with the line "Here's our lady M.D., she's as pretty as can be…." Small steps.
Dr. Craig was not the only character sticking up for women's rights at this point in the series. A few episodes later, in "The Feminine Mistake," Bobbie Jo becomes enthralled with a new book of the same title, a spoof of Betty Friedan's 1963 feminist bestseller The Feminine Mystique. After reading the books, Bobbie Jo rails against "artificial domesticity." She refuses to lead the prescribed life of a housewife. Uncle Joe, the laugh track and even the dog are there to laugh at her ideas. Still, Dr. Craig supports her. Bobbie Jo tries out a handful of different professions and eventually settles on astronomy. She wants to work "where women are making their greatest strides — science!"
Elsewhere in television land, Marlo Thomas was setting the mold for single, professional women on That Girl. A couple years later, Mary Tyler Moore threw her hat into the ring (and the air) as a news producer on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Overlooked in all that progress is later Petticoat Junction, a sitcom in which the working women outnumbered the men. It bridged the gap between rural comedies and workplace sitcoms. Even if there was a chimp in the mix, too.