Sheila James Kuehl thought her portrayal of Zelda Gilroy on the first season of the TV series "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" was for just one episode.
The name of the series, which ran from 1959-1963, made it clear the character played by Dwayne Hickman wasn't the kind to settle down with one woman. Zelda did return, and she can be seen in all four seasons being released in a four-DVD box set Tuesday.
The character became such a fan favorite, Kuehl is still recognized for the TV show, even while working in politics — serving two four-year terms in the California state Senate and six years in the state Assembly — longer than she was an actor. Kuehl is currently running for Los Angeles County supervisor.
She says she loves talking with fans of the show because it was such a positive acting experience.
"I started when I was 18 and it was just a joy to go to work. It was a really funny show that had great writing. The reason it worked so well — like the good TV shows today — was the friendship among the characters. One character might decide to do something but as soon as they would realize it might hurt the other, they would back off," Kuehl says.
Many fans greet her with the nose crunch that became Zelda's trademark. Every time Zelda crunched up her nose at Dobie, he would automatically respond in kind.
The gesture of love wasn't in the script. It was created on the set during Zelda's debut in the episode "Love Is Science." Zelda proclaimed her love of Dobie. But when the scene ended, the director felt there was something missing and asked everyone to think of a better ending. When Kuehl thinks, she scrunches up her nose. The director saw that, and he added it to the scene.
The Oklahoma native was young when she starred on "Dobie Gillis," but she brought a lot of experience to the role. She started acting when she was 10, spending five seasons on "The Stu Erwin Show" and appearing in the films "Those Redheads from Seattle" and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." She'd made guest appearances on TV shows before falling for "Dobie Gillis."
Zelda was so popular that a spinoff series was shot, but CBS opted not to go forward with the show. Although she had not revealed her sexuality at the time, Kuehl believes the network turned down the show because they had found out she was gay.
"Everyone was high on the pilot, but when it got to the CBS hierarchy they put the kibosh on it because they said the character was too butch. That scared me to death because it was a very different time and I could have lost my career if word got out that I was gay," Kuehl says.
She continued to work, returning to "Dobie Gillis" for four episodes of the final season and in two made-for-TV productions based on the characters. Kuehl went on to star on the TV show "Broadside," a spinoff of "McHale's Navy," but it was quickly canceled. When the acting jobs began to dry up, Kuehl went to Harvard to study law, opened a practice and then got into politics.
Having been an actor before getting into public service was a positive.
"It helped that Zelda was very smart," she says. "And because she was such a familiar character, people really liked me."
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355.