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.

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."

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Lacey 36 months ago
I first noticed her in The Twilight Zone movie. It was her looks that intrigued me.
Puragess62 38 months ago
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UTZAAKE 38 months ago
"The small part on Emergency! got her a slightly bigger part in a feature film called Lifeguard,..." For the uninitiated, Kathleen Quinlan co-starred with Sam Elliott, Anne Archer and Parker Stevenson in this movie from the summer of 1976.
Mob39 UTZAAKE 38 months ago
When this movie was on HBO/Showtime/Cinemax I would watch it every single time. It was definitely a popular movie of its time. Too bad it’s forgotten.
Wow look at that! My father produced "LIFEGUARD" and I did get to meet Kathleen. Sam Elliott was an unknown at the time and gave a really wonderful performance and he was just born to play that part. Pretty much EVERYBODY on that beach was my family or our neighbors running around in our bathing suits. The movie has a nice following after all these years.
moax429 38 months ago
Before "Apollo 13," I remembered seeing Kathleen Quinlan in Whoopi Goldberg's movie "Clara's Heart."
DethBiz 38 months ago
I always remember her from the Oliver Stone The Doors movie.
DethBiz 38 months ago
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JoeSHill 38 months ago
Kathleen Quinlan may have indeed gotten her break playing in CBS's "THE WALTONS"-and. like many actors and actresses, their climb up the ladder in their careers is indeed a lot of work! The last time we saw Kathleen Quinlan, was in the CBS legal drama, "FAMILY LAW" that ran from 1999 to 2002 (replaced by "CSI: MIAMI") the series, produced by Paul Haggis Productions in association with Columbia TriStar Television and CBS Productions ran some 68 episodes, and was a great series for Ms. Quinlan, who co-starred with Tony Danza, Dixie Carter, Sali Richardson, Meredith Eaton, and Christopher MacDonald, and was a great legal drama from CBS's early 2000s Primetime lineup that deserved a few more seasons on TV, and Quinlan did a really fine job playing the lawyer, one of her best roles to date!
AgingDisgracefully 38 months ago
Strange looking? I disagree.
I wouldn't kick her out of NATO for enjoying house-brand saltines on my Sealy Posturpedic.
Rob AgingDisgracefully 38 months ago
Me neither. I’ve always considered her very attractive.
Budzy 38 months ago
"slightly bigger part in a feature film called Lifeguard"

A film called? Lemme fix this for you since you're clearly not well versed in late 70s , early 80s movies.

"slightly bigger part in the iconic movie, Lifeguard"

FFS, a feature film "called" Lifeguard. Jesus.
denny Budzy 38 months ago
FFS , 40% on Rotten Tomatoes, how iconic.
Mob39 Budzy 38 months ago
Why must people always use the Lords name in vain to make a point?!? 🙄🙄🙄
Tresix Budzy 38 months ago
I remember seeing this movie on its opening weekend. It was on a double feature with “Vigilante Force” starring Jan Michael Vincent and Kris Kristofferson at Chicago’s Loop Theater.
Michael 38 months ago
I think the first time I noticed her was in "Independence Day" from 1983. She lives in a small town and wants to get out, and kind of like "Selena" she has affectations, wearing a beret and smoking cigarillos. And she tries to help an abused wife.

So I paid attention after that, "Breakdown" and " The Doors" and "Apollo 13" and "Event Horizon" .
denny Michael 38 months ago
Breakdown was good, then again almost anything is with Kurt Russell.
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