Nashville star Misty Rowe, well known from TV series like HeeHaw, Happy Days and playing Marilyn Monroe, reminisced with David Hennessy on her career and life off screen that saw her working with Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, battling ageism in the industry and her family’s trials with domestic violence, Alzheimer’s and her own cancer.
Misty Rowe has portrayed the icon Marilyn Monroe in two feature films. She is also well known from her roles in country music sketch show HeeHaw that saw her work with a wealth of country stars including Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers as well as her work on TV classic Happy Days and in the Robin Hood parody When Things Were Rotten.
Misty has told all about her incredible career as well as tumultuous life off screen in the new book Misty Memories also being revealing about witnessing domestic violence as a child, looking after her mother when she got Alzheimer’s and her battle with cancer.
She also took a landmark case against a production company for age discrimination and spoke up when she and other actresses were taken advantage of by an inappropriate doctor on the set of a film.
Born in California, Misty’s family goes “way way back to Ireland.”
Misty told The Irish World it was moving to go back through her old memories: “I got to go through all my memories and then I went through every box of photos and press clippings and notes from people, little things that you save when you’re 16 now mean a lot.
“Many of the stars I worked with have now passed on. While I was writing the book, Kenny Rogers died. He had been a very good friend of mine and his wife Marianne Rogers- they were married for 13 years- we were the new girls on HeeHaw in 1972. We started out together and she actually met Kenny on the set of HeeHaw and we all became friends.
“There are pictures of Johnny Cash in the book, there are pictures of Dolly Parton, there are stories about them.
Misty has portrayed the icon Marilyn Monroe in both Goodbye Norma Jean in 1976.
“It was very hard playing her but I played Norma Jean the girl that Marilyn was and the movie ends when she becomes Marilyn Monroe. It’s called Goodbye Norma Jean because it’s really about the end of the girl, the end of the girl and the beginning of the star.
“Then her life ended up so sadly.
“It was a lot of pressure but I got so much publicity out of it because I was the first actresss to ever play Monroe in a feature film and I went all over the world with it.”
Misty would reprise the role for Goodnight, Sweet Marilyn in 1989.
While she first had success as a beauty queen, Misty found it hard to break into acting due to casting directors not liking her voice. It would be none other than Charlie Chaplin who helped her gain confidence with a little remark when they briefly met.
“I was very young when my career started out and I was very shy and I had a little lisp and this high voice. At interviews they would say, ‘You’re a pretty girl but you’ve got to lower that voice and you know you’ve got a lisp’.
“Then I met a young man called Robert Amram who did documentaries. He said to me, I have to go to this little black-tie affair, do you have a little black dress you could wear? And I said, No, I only have a pink mini-skirt because I was only 20 years old and that was the fashion.
“He said, No, we really do need to have a little black dress. We went to this little black-tie affair and when the limbo stopped and there was a red carpet I said, ‘Robert, this is not a little black-tie affair, this is the Academy Awards. The Oscars.
“He was nominated for two Academy Awards and he won them both. He’s got two Oscars he can’t carry around and escort me so he lets me carry one and on the way out all the photographers are flashing and going, ‘Who is she? Who is she?’ With other photographers going, ‘I don’t know but she’s got an Oscar’.
“To go through this and remember how naive I was when I first started out- I didn’t even have a little black dress.
“Charlie Chaplin was there. I actually got to meet him very briefly. I said, ‘Hello, I love your movies’. He said, ‘Her voice is like little bells’. From that day on I thought, ‘Well maybe my voice isn’t so bad’. It kind of gave me some courage to go out there and audition.”
Misty became known for playing squeaky voiced blonde on the television series HeeHaw which is where she worked with a wealth of country stars including Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers.
This was also where she found her high voice to not be such an issue but an advantage.
“HeeHaw was great. They had the best country artists in the world come in to guest star. They had fabulous musicians on the show. They would say, ‘Misty, that funny part of your voice where you squeak when you get embarrassed, can you do the joke again with so-and-so and at the end just squeak?’ That put a topper on a joke that wasn’t working.
“The things they liked about me were the things that other people thought were wrong with me. That made me so comfortable. The HeeHaw people became my second family and I just bloomed when people appreciated me and they knew how to direct me. They knew how to use my assets and my faults and mix them together. I will always be thankful to them for that.
“I was on it for 19 years. They liked my lisp and another one who liked my lisp and my ditziness was Mel Brooks.”
Misty starred as Maid Marian in Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood parody When Things Were Rotten.
“One reviewer said, ‘This is such a cute show, Maid Marion is a ditz’. I loved working for Mel Brooks because he let me wear more clothes than anybody. HeeHaw was little crop tops and cut off jeans. Playboy had me in practically nothing but Mel Brooks gave me long flowing gowns.”
HeeHaw only filmed for a portion of the year which allowed Misty to work on other things. Another project she took on was the classic retro TV show, Happy Days.
“It was so incredible that I should land that. I was Wendy the car hop on Happy Days and one of my shows I was directed by Ron Howard. It was one of the first times he ever directed.
I also worked with Donny Most and ‘the Fonze’ Henry Winkler who has since became an amazing actor. He was amazing then to create that character but now he’s won an Emmy. Of course Anson Williams. They were my guys.
While all the ‘chicks’ loved ‘The Fonze’ Misty actually turned him down.
“I was shy and he invited me to listen to music in his car during my lunch break. I said, ‘I have to go tell wardrobe and hair that I’m not going to have my hair rolled during lunchtime, I’m going out to the parking lot to listen to music with Henry, the Fonze’. They looked at me and said, ‘Um-hmm you know that Henry invites every new girl on the show to listen to music with him, don’t you? Sit down, we’re rolling your hair’.
“And he was a little bit upset with me that I hadn’t gone to the parking lot, ‘I sat out there for an hour and you never showed up’. I said, ‘They made me get my hair rolled so I looked good for shooting this afternoon..’
“I just adore Henry and I adore Donny. I actually saw Ronnie. His two daughters were with him. I said, ‘Excuse me’- Because I hadn’t seen him since 1974 and this is 2000 or something- ‘I don’t know if you remember me but I was Wendy the car hop..’ He was just so sweet. He said, ‘It’s great to see you, Misty’.”
Misty recently reunited with another Happy Days cast member performing with Donny Most before the pandemic had to halt their big band shows.
“We got a lot of applause. People were very kind. I think they were happy just to see I was still alive,” Misty laughs.
Misty disrobed for Playboy in 1976. Although it wasn’t something she was keen to do, sneaky and devious photographers had been taking snaps of her on the beach and it seemed one way of stopping such photos turning up in magazines.
“Barbie Benton talked me into it. Barbie Benton was one of my best friends on HeeHaw and she was with Hugh Hefner. I was very embarrassed to do it. I asked that it be shot by a female photographer and I got complete approval of pictures.
“My issue, from 1976, was one of the most sold-out issues in the history of Playboy because Jimmy Carter was in it- But wore more clothes.
“I thought, ‘I’ll just do it and I’ll cut out any pictures I think show too much. It will be on the stands for a month and that will be the end of it’. No, who knew the internet would come in and these things would just appear all the time?
“My daughter was trying to apply for her SAT test to go to college and she goes, ‘Mum, how could you?’ It did come back to haunt me.
However, while HeeHaw gave her a start in the business and confidence, it would take all this back with interest when she was suddenly and sensationally fired along with other females who had reached the age of 40 to be replaced with twentysomethings. Misty decided to fight what she saw as a case of age discrimination even though others thought she was deluded.
“I just thought, ‘This isn’t right. This isn’t fair’. It was 1992 so two weeks after my daughter was born I filed suit against one of the largest corporations in America for age discrimination.
“People were laughing at me.
“Even my brother said, ‘Who do you think you are? You’re just little Miss HeeHaw who got to be 40 years old. That’s the way it is in this business. Women get old, they get fired’.
“And I said, ‘You know what? It isn’t fair, it isn’t right and I just gave birth to a daughter. If her mother doesn’t stand up for this, it’s going to be the same thing later in her life’.
“It was hard and I did it.”
Misty’s settlement was much needed as she found herself as a single mother after soap actor James DePaiva suddenly left her for a co-star.
“Divorce is probably one of the saddest times in a person’s life especially if there’s a child involved.
“I think these things make you stronger, if you have to start over.”
Misty is now happily married to her second husband.
“My mum always said when I was so sad about my first marriage ending, ‘I want you to remember how many people marry for the second time and how happy they are’. That seemed impossible when I was going through so much pain but my mum was right.
“When I got married for the second time, my mother was 86 years old, in a wheelchair, on oxygen. When I told her I was getting remarried she said, ‘Well who’s walking you down the aisle?’ I thought, ‘No, I’m 55 now, I don’t think I’ll do that’.
“She goes, ‘I’ll do it. Your Dad walked you down the aisle the first time and that marriage didn’t last at all’. So my mother got out of her wheelchair and walked me down the aisle. And that marriage has lasted.”
It was her daughter Dreama who put the idea of writing a book into Misty’s head. Misty’s mother suffered with Alzheimer’s and Misty writes about struggling to take care of her.
“My daughter said, ‘Mum, you really should write a book, get all your stories and memories down. Mum, I was born after your big television career so I don’t know any of those stories and Nanny got Alzheimers and she forgot everything’.
“I said, ‘Except the fact she loved us. She might have forgotten my name at the end but she knew I was her daughter’.
“She said, ‘But what if it runs in our family and you get it? You won’t remember the wonderful people in your life but if you had a book, I could read it to you’.
“She said, ‘Please, Mum, write a book’.
“I had taken care of my mother when she had Alzheimer’s and then there came a point when I could no longer take care of her and the doctors told me, ‘She needs to be in a nursing home. You can see her whenever you want but you can no longer take care of her yourself. That’s heartbreaking. Anyone who has had to put a loved one in a nursing home, I feel your pain. It is devastating but it was the right thing to do.”
Another harrowing chapter is when Misty writes about being told she had stage 4 cancer.
“When they told me I was at stage 4, I was unmarried, I had never had a child, I lived in Hollywood. I called my agent and I said, ‘Get me work. Get me anything. I need to make money. I need to get my affairs in order’.”
Misty then returned from a filming trip abroad to get what was good news for her but that she realises was bad news for someone else.
“When I got back, I got a phone call that changed my life. The lab called me at home to say, ‘Misty, we have something to tell you. We got the wrong Rowe. You are not at stage 4, you are at stage 2’.
“Because of that, I still had the surgery. I had my thyroid removed and thank God they got all of it. I was so thankful I was going to live a longer life but I was wondering about the other Rowe who got the other phone call. They would be told they were at stage 4. Because of that I’ve always done little things from time to time for charities and different things.
“That was a big turning point for me in my relationships and the way I lived and the way I treated people. I was so grateful. Then I did get married and I did have a child and I started to do the things that I had put on hold because I wanted a career, I wanted to act. It didn’t seem as important as living after that.”
Misty also writes openly about the horror of her childhood when she saw her father beating her mother.
“My childhood was a mixture of happiness and violence, of love and fear. Anyone who has had a person they love be an alcoholic will relate to that. It’s very difficult to love someone who can be so sweet and so kind and so loving and then after they start drinking turn into some kind of monster.
“When you’re a child, how do you defend your mother? My older brother was only three years older than me so at three years old when I’m seeing my mother being strangled my brother, who is only six at the time, is trying to pull my father off. That should not be. Children should not have to go through this. No human being deserves to be treated like that. It is a sickness. It is a deep sickness.
“I didn’t know if I was going to share that in the book or not but a lot of people have pain and they have been through the things I have. Sometimes when you learn other people have experienced similar I think it lets people know they are not alone, that others care and that most importantly, they can get through it.”
It may have been long before a movement like MeToo but Misty encountered a doctor being inappropriate with herself and other actresses when they were sent to be checked out for a film’s insurance.
“That was pretty bad and I think if he had only tried something on me at that time I would have probably been quiet and not said anything.
“But we had to go and then we were all quiet and the next day when one very brave actress said, ‘Did any of you think the doctor we went to see was inappropriate in any way?’
“That’s when we all shared but we still didn’t know what to do and the brave one said, ‘I’m going to tell the assistant director. They will know what to do’. And they did.
“We spoke up immediately. It was dealt with and the person was removed.
“I ended up being a single mother when my daughter was two years old. I had to be tougher. I had to get stronger because I had a two year old to take care of. Raising my child did make me a stronger person. Now I speak up all the time.
“I want to say to young women who go through things that aren’t appropriate: Speak up.
“In the workplace it’s just inexcusable and you have to speak up.”
It was her best friend Marianne and her husband Kenny Rogers who realised when Misty was at her lowest ebb and had tried to take her own life.
“Well, Marianne noticed it. She told Kenny what she saw and she said, ‘Misty said she scratched her wrists in rose bushes’. And he said, ‘How deep was the scratch? And when he found out he said, ‘I don’t think it was the rose bushes’.
“And they just opened their lives, opened their hearts. They surrounded me with love. They were so generous. I’ve never known two people who were more generous and more loving.
“Life may have it’s ups and downs but if you can stick around and go through them it’s worth it all.”
You can buy Misty Memories by clicking here.