Once John-Boy's love interest on The Waltons, Kathleen Quinlan shaped her own image in Hollywood
The Oscar-nominated actor pushed back when producers said she was too "strange-looking" to be a star.
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Kathleen Quinlan was still in high school when she got discovered and cast to appear across from Cindy Williams in a quirky bathroom scene before a big party during the 1973 George Lucas movie American Graffiti.
She was living in Northern California at the time, and she wasn't exactly living a glamorous life there. To kids at her high school, she told The Shreveport Journal in 1978, "if you wore makeup to high school you were really a freak."
She described herself as being raised as "the original California girl. Total health nut, exercise, the whole trip."
But that one taste of acting was enough to send her straight to Los Angeles the moment she turned 18. Soon, she was cast in her first bit TV role on Emergency! and she was prepared to do the work to keep moving toward the spotlight.
The small part on Emergency! got her a slightly bigger part in a feature film called Lifeguard, which then saw Quinlan appearing in her first feature roles in TV, including memorably guest-starring on The Waltons in 1974. On the family drama, she appeared twice as Selena Linville, a love interest for John-Boy. In "The Thoroughbred," John-Boy wins her heart by winning a cross-country race atop his mule, Blue. Selena gallops atop the thoroughbred. Their romance was rekindled in "The Collision," when Selena tried to convince John-Boy to come to Spain to write about the Spanish Civil War.
She said told Progress Bulletin it was these meatier parts on TV that helped her grow as an actor.
"Television really paid off in terms of experience," Quinlan said. "It was better than going to acting class. I was able to learn and get paid for it."
Quinlan wasn't the only one who noticed the rapid progress she was making as an actor. Because of her TV work, she was soon considered for a dramatic role in a 1977 movie called I Never Promised You a Rose Garden that would turn every film critic's head, showering Quinlan with universal praise as a rising star.
"A rapturous young actress named Kathleen Quinlan is nothing short of brilliant," proclaimed the NY Daily News that year.
"It is Kathleen Quinlan's performance as Deborah that truly illuminates the whole film," echoed The Daily News.
The Santa Ana Register announced: "A refreshing young actress named Kathleen Quinlan came out of nowhere and set the screen aglow with her large talent, her sweet nature and her natural 'non-actressy' good looks."
Remarkably, none of this went to the California girl's head.
When The Los Angeles Times asked Quinlan what she thought of all the praise, Quinlan humbly said, "Well, it’s nice to read."
The truth is Quinlan felt a lot of pushback as she fought to become a star worthy of the Oscar and Golden Globe nominations she later achieved. She told The Shreveport Journal in 1978 that she'd long ago given up on going into any audition with ego.
"All actresses go through the business of having self-images shattered," Quinlan said, already wise and sage just five years into her career.
That's why she worked hard to build her own image to mirror the powerful star power she saw in she saw herself.
"People used to say 'Kathy Quinlan for such-and-such a role? You've got to be kidding. She's too crazy!' or 'She's too strange-looking!'" Quinlan said. "And I guess part of me wanted to prove it wasn't true. I wanted to play a girl next door."
The actor, whose onscreen magnetism has since been compared to all-time greats like Katherine Hepburn, said she also had to work to get over any concerns she had about Hollywood suddenly considering her too beautiful for the parts she wanted.
"I worked hard to conquer my fear of being desirable as well," Quinlan said, adding humbly, "Look, I never saw myself in real life as glamorous."
That's a funny notion for a girl who was literally sent to the big screen after being discovered in her high-school world, and apparently wearing no makeup. Her natural beauty shone through, and classic TV fans remember that one of the first big roles she got to put it on display came over two episodes on The Waltons.
The critic for The Santa Ana Register wrote in 1977 that what sent Quinlan careening toward the spotlight was her early authenticity, proclaiming, "She was remarkably real as a teenager."