Joan Collins in Dynasty
Linda Evans, John Forsythe, and Collins
American Horry Story: Apocalypse
Empire of Ants
Joan Collins and William Shatner in the Star Trek episode "The City on the Edge of Forever"
Draped in dazzling jewels, designer ensembles and dramatic hats, Joan Collins played Dynasty's Alexis Carrington Colby, a glamorous fashion plate from hell and one of TV's most treacherous villains.
Conniving and unscrupulous — but with a wide-shouldered wardrobe to die for — she was the biggest attraction of the hit nighttime soap, which ran for nine seasons on ABC (1981–89). In 1983, she picked up a Golden Globe nomination for her work on the series, then received an Emmy nomination in 1984.
Collins had played plenty of vamps and vixens before, but Alexis remains her most celebrated role. Ratings soared after she joined the cast in the season two premiere, and by 1985, Dynasty was the most-watched show on television.
Alexis was obsessed with destroying her ex-husband, oil tycoon Blake Carrington (John Forsythe), and wrecking his marriage to younger woman Krystle (Linda Evans). To that end, Alexis orchestrated wild schemes and instigated down-and-dirty catfights with Krystle. Brawling in a fishpond was not out of bounds.
Born in London to a talent agent and a dance teacher, Collins made her acting debut onstage at age nine. At sixteen, she studied briefly at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts before signing a film contract with the J. Arthur Rank Organization, a famed British studio. In her first major role, she played a juvenile delinquent in I Believe in You (1952). After making just over a dozen films in England, Collins signed with 20th Century Fox in 1955 and moved to Hollywood. At 22, she made waves in the 1955 feature The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, costarring as real-life model-actress Evelyn Nesbit, whose scandalous love triangle had made headlines in the early 1900s.
Collins's sultry appeal led to more bad-girl roles in features, costarring opposite many of the era's top leading men, including Paul Newman (Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!), Richard Burton (Sea Wife) and Gregory Peck (The Bravados).
In the 1960s she appeared on TV shows including The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Batman, Star Trek and Mission: Impossible. By the 1970s, she was working in "B" features such as The Devil Within, The Stud and Empire of the Ants.
Just a few years later, her fortunes turned again when the role of her career presented itself in the form of Dynasty. While on the show, Collins appeared in other series, telefilms and features, even starring in and executive-producing CBS's Sins, a historical miniseries that featured Timothy Dalton, Gene Kelly and Lauren Hutton.
After Dynasty was canceled in 1989, Collins appeared onstage in a West End production of Noël Coward's Private Lives that also ran briefly on Broadway. She has returned to the stage several times since, often in one-woman shows. She's also written seven memoirs, six novels (two of which were bestsellers) and half a dozen health and beauty books.
Collins reprised Alexis in a 1991 miniseries called Dynasty: The Reunion and then rejoined the show's creators and actors in 2006 to reminisce on CBS's Dynasty Reunion: Catfights & Caviar.
She costarred with Shirley MacLaine, Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor in These Old Broads, a 2001 TV movie written by Carrie Fisher and Elaine Pope. Collins has returned to episodic TV many times, both in single episodes and with arcs on such series as Pacific Palisades, Guiding Light, Happily Divorced and The Royals. In 2018, she played two parts in American Horror Story: Apocalypse.
That same year, she did a surprising, makeup-free star turn as an elderly woman in the 2018 short film Gerry, which won her a Best Actress Award at the Los Angeles Shorts International Film Festival.
Appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1979 for her lifetime contributions to the arts, Collins was promoted in 2015 to Dame Commander for her contributions to charitable causes.
Shortly before Dame Joan's ninetieth birthday, she spoke with emmy contributor Jane Wollman Rusoff from her London home.
What were you up to just before you phoned me?
Doing the final edit on my nineteenth book, Behind the Shoulder Pads, a mixture of stories about my life. I write by hand, usually on top of my bed. And I've just had a Kit Kat bar.
What did you like most about playing Alexis Carrington Colby?
She was a very grown woman who did her own thing, didn't take crap from anyone, believed in her beliefs, had a very strong sense of identity and didn't really care what people thought about her.
How was working with Aaron Spelling, who produced Dynasty?
I really liked him. He was a big supporter. I met him when I was doing [1956 film] The Opposite Sex at MGM, and I was working with Carolyn Jones, who became my best friend. She was married to him [and would later play Morticia on ABC's The Addams Family from 1964 to '66]. We used to hang out in their apartment, and he would talk about how he was going to be a big writer and big TV producer one day. Carolyn and I would giggle, "Yeah, so likely!" [Laughs]
Did he campaign for you to play Alexis?
Yes, the others didn't want me. First they wanted Sophia [Loren]. Then they wanted Elizabeth [Taylor]. Then they wanted another actress whose name I don't remember [Jessica Walter]. Basically, they got me at the last minute because Aaron stomped his foot and said, "I want Joan!" When I won my Golden Globe for Best Actress, I said, "I want to thank Sophia Loren for turning down the part."
What was it like to work with John Forsythe, who played Blake Carrington, Alexis's ex?
We didn't really get along very well. I think he was a little bit of a misogynist. He wasn't terribly happy when the show crept back into the number one spot with everybody saying, "It's because of Joan and Alexis." But it was very obvious, because the show had gone down. He was very much into being the top banana. And he always had to get more money than us. He was very upset when I did my Playboy layout [in 1983]. He thought I was destroying the show.
Were you photographed in the nude?
Partially — just a little bit of the top part. I didn't really want to do Playboy, but after a while, Aaron and Doug [Cramer, executive producer] insisted on it.
Did you have much input into Alexis's fabulous wardrobe?
A great deal. At the beginning, they wanted to put me in silk shirts and slacks. But I said, "This woman is a round-the-world jetsetter. She's been going to couturier shows. She has to be well-dressed in couture."
So [costume designer] Nolan Miller and I worked together on the outfits. It was when the Yves Saint Laurent look of broad shoulders and tiny waists was coming in. Princess Diana was doing that look, and Nolan copied quite a few of her clothes.
Any snafus on the show?
Oh, all the time, but nothing major. I mean, if you put your spoon into the caviar too far, it would turn out to be porridge underneath. So you just gently skimmed it off the top. Doug liked us to have real caviar. I was one of the actors who would actually eat the food. I became quite well known for chomping on a stick of celery or a carrot.
Has your beauty ever been a detriment to landing roles?
Oh, yes. That's the case with a lot of actors and actresses. Vivien Leigh told me that she was taken seriously as an actress only when she started to lose her looks.
In the 2018 short Gerry, you played a frumpy elderly woman. Why did you take that part?
People think I can only do glamorous or beautifully coiffed and dressed roles. That made me want to try something different. I thought it could be a leg up on getting more of the older roles. I wanted to do parts that could be age appropriate or play ordinary people with problems. Unfortunately, it didn't go that way. Even though there are older people in the world, the public doesn't necessarily want to see them in movies — unless they're Michael Caine.
Has your 5'6" height helped you as an actress?
No, because I'm taller than others. I know that Natalie Wood and Elizabeth Taylor were about 5'1", 5'2." I did a part with Alan Ladd when I was eighteen and had to walk in a ditch because I was too tall.
Before playing Alexis made you a top TV star, you did the lurid film Empire of the Ants in 1977. What do you think of it?
I paid my dues! It's become a cult film. It's just a rather cheap horror film with crude, phony-looking ants. We didn't have CGI then.
In 1970, you made the low-budget comedy Up in the Cellar. How was that?
It was rather a good little movie. Larry Hagman played my husband. I'd known him since I was a kid. He and his mother, Mary Martin, were around London. A lovely man.
You've had some interesting guest-starring roles. On the original Star Trek in 1967, you were a soup-kitchen operator who catches Captain Kirk's eye. Any recollections?
I played a missionary worker — a woman who saved the world. ["The City on the Edge of Forever"] turned out to be one of the most popular episodes of Star Trek.
After Dynasty, you guest-starred on the original Roseanne as her cousin. Tell me about that.
I got along well with Roseanne [Barr]. We used to kid each other. But one time I told [Roseanne's then-husband] Tom Arnold [an executive producer], "I can't do this line. It's tacky. Please tell the producer." So [Al Lowenstein, producer] came to me and said, "Joan, what do you mean you can't do this line because it's tacky? We're a tacky show!"
More recently, you were on American Horror Story in 2018.
I did two different stories. It was so much fun. I loved working with Ryan [Murphy]. He's a genius, and I loved the roles. I was hoping that they would ask me back!
What projects are in the fire now?
I'm hoping to do The American Duchess, which was written for me by [Fame Game author] Louise Fennell. It's about Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, who I would play. Several companies are interested in funding it. It's the last twenty years of her life after her husband, the Duke of Windsor, has died. She's pretty pathetic then. In some ways, she's a very sympathetic character because she didn't want him to give up the throne. There's a lot the public doesn't know.
What's the biggest piece of luck you've had in your career?
I was literally plucked out of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts when I was a teenager to go under contract to J. Arthur Rank. From there, I was thrown into doing Land of the Pharaohs at Warners. I was twenty-two years old. Darryl Zanuck saw me and put me under contract to Fox. So at a very young age I was getting fabulous movies like The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, The Virgin Queen and Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys! I was incredibly lucky.
But you had what it takes. They wanted what you had.
A lot of girls have what it takes, but they took me. So that was lucky.
What key strength has helped you most in life?
Resilience and great parents. I was taught a good set of values, including do everything for yourself, because nobody else is gonna do anything for you!
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #10, 2023.