If not now, when?
The amazing life of Kathryn Leigh Scott
LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American
She was born on a farm in Robbinsdale, Minn., the daughter of a Norwegian immigrant and his Norwegian-American wife. From there, she went on to study acting in New York City, where she worked as a Playboy bunny before landing a role in one of the most popular afternoon soap operas of all time. Her career in television and film has spanned five decades, running parallel with her work as an author and publisher. Meet Kathryn Leigh Scott, a global cosmopolitan with deep Norwegian-American roots.
For many American teenagers—and I was right there with them—there was often a mad rush to get home from school to turn on the TV to watch Dark Shadows, which ran from June 27, 1966, to April 2, 1971. It told the story of the wealthy Collins family in the fictional seaport town of Collinsport, Maine, and the lives of those around them. With its mysterious theme music, the dark and exotic setting of the old mansion on Widows’ Hill, there was a bit of Halloween atmosphere 365 days a year. Fans were swept into the dark, mysterious world of vampires, werewolves, and leviathans. There were complex plots interwoven with love, intrigue, secrets, and crime.
In the 212th episode, we met the vampire Barnabas Collins, played by Canadian actor Jonathan Frid, the iconic vampire for an entire generation. But for me—as fascinated as I was by Barnabas—it was the young women of Dark Shadows who drew me in. With all their beauty, the latest in clothes, and the exciting romance in their lives, I wanted to be just like them. So, when I recently had the opportunity to interview Kathryn Leigh Scott, who played four characters throughout the series, it was nothing less than thrilling.
A Norwegian-American foundation
It’s easy to get starstruck when coming face to face with someone you have known from the screen for most of your life, but when I sat down with Kathryn at her house in Beverly Hills, Calif., I met a very warm and welcoming person, who made me feel completely at home. We were immediately on a first-name basis.
With her incredible resumé, I asked her how her experience as a Norwegian American had shaped her life and world view. On the one hand, there is the strong Lutheran work ethic, and on the other hand, the pressure to be humble and modest.
“That is hard,” she said. “My dad had to wear out one pair of shoes before he bought another. I mean, you never wanted to show up at church with a brand-new hat unless it was Easter, and everybody else was there and had a new hat. Right. You don’t want to stand out. That’s very, very Norwegian.”
But it soon became clear in the course of our conversation, that Kathryn’s parents really did encourage her to embrace life and seize the opportunities it offered.
She was christened Marlene Kathryn Kringstad by her parents, Ole and Hilda Sophie (née Karlsgodt) Kringstad, and she later adopted “Kathryn Leigh Scott” as her stage name. Norwegian was
her first language, and she and her two brothers grew up with the old culture. Her mother taught them the beloved folk songs, “Kjærrringa med staven” and all the others. There was often Norwegian food on the table and Christmas with lutefisk. The family even traveled to Norway to visit family there, and over the years, Kathryn has remained in close contact with her Norwegian cousins.
“When you grow up in America and then you go back to Norway to be among your cousins, you still carry all of those old traditions, and they of course, they’ve grown away from them. Our customs are those of our parents and grandparents; they’re not of the present. I speak for myself, because my brother spent some time in Norway, and he changed.”
Kathryn is a wonderful cook—something learned from her mother—and still makes many of the old Norwegian dishes for special occasions. She can still recite the Norwegian table prayer, and her American friends often ask her to recite it in perfect Norwegian, even though they are unable to understand it.
But, in the course of our conversation, it became clear that Kathryn learned much more from her parents than old Norwegian traditions, that they instilled a strong curiosity and lust for life in her. Her father wrote a humor column for several newspapers, her mother was a beloved school-lunch cook. Both were active as actors in local schools and the community. Her father wrote hilarious skits that the couple performed in, and there was always a lot of laughter.
Already in the second grade, Kathryn made her stage debut in a school play about George Washington. “I played Martha Washington,” she said. “She had all the good lines, and without knowing what I was doing, I wrote it, and then starred in it and directed it. But I had no idea that those things had names—I just did it, and we performed it for the whole second grade. And the teacher got behind it.”
Kathryn was destined for a career on the stage, and in 1962, after a year of college, she moved to New York City to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She had won a scholarship but soon realized she need a part-time job. She answered an ad to work at the original New York Playboy Club and landed a job as a “bunny” there. The job paid well and there was a strict code of conduct in place, making it a safe environment. For many young women, the Playboy Club was a springboard to bigger and better opportunities.
The Dark Shadows years
Kathryn’s big break came when her agent sent her to audition for the new ABC soap opera Dark Shadows. She auditioned and completed a screen test. I asked her if she had a sense of where it would take her, that would be a good match.
“You’re not even thinking about it,” she said. “You just want the job; you have no idea of what it’s going to be. And in this case, we certainly didn’t.”
On the set of Dark Shadows, many close friendships were made, and some of the cast members still keep in touch with each another. The young women on the set became especially close, as veteran stage actress Joan Bennett took them under her wings, both professionally and personally.
“Joan Bennett had four daughters,” said Kathryn, “and I’m the age of her third oldest daughter. She treated all of us like her daughters; she was so comfortable with us. She kept an eye on our boyfriends and how we dressed. And she would say little things that could be motherly in a pointed way.”
Acting in a television soap opera in those days required that the actors learn their lines very quickly, and the Dark Shadows episodes were broadcast live. For the young actors involved, it was intense on-the-job training. Overall, the quality of the acting is very high, an observation that I have made later as an adult.
All in all, I have seen the entire series end-to-end three times, once as a child, the second time when I was recovering from a surgery 10 years ago, and then again when I was sequestered with my husband during COVID-19. Each time, new things have emerged from the script, which undoubtedly has led to the enduring popularity of the series, now in its 55th year.
More than just vampires and werewolves, there is a sophistication to the Dark Shadows script, with strong influences and innuendos from famous literary works: Jane Eyre, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, to name a few. But with production moving so fast, the young actors barely had to time to think about this. The dialogue rolls out very naturally, which is much of the charm of the production.
Kathryn remembers, “Really, you had no idea what was coming down the road and just went on. Sometimes in doing so, you would do something that would trigger the writers to write something for you.”
Ironically, it was the sophistication of the storyline with increasing production costs that in part led to its end. There was time travel with elaborate costumes and special effects, and it became hugely expensive. The complexity of the script was challenging for viewers, and the network realized that costs could be reduced and advertising revenues increased with the quiz show format.
But this was by no means the end of Dark Shadows. Kathryn starred with Jonathan Frid and many of the cast in the feature film House of Dark Shadows in 1970. There are the festivals and other events, website, books, including her own Dark Shadows: Return to Collinwood, published in 2012 for the release the film Dark Shadows, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp. Kathryn had a cameo role in the new film, which was only loosely based on the series.
But the film that introduced younger generations to the strange world of Barnabas Collins was largely a disappointment to earlier Dark Shadows fans, who remain loyal to the “real thing.” I learned that I was not alone in binge-watching the old series during the pandemic. Many of us used the series as type of therapy that took us back to a slower, comforting time, and Dark Shadows saw a surge of popularity.
Embracing life’s opportunities
About midway through our conversation, the phone rang. I recognized the ringtone from Dark Shadows as the theme from Josette’s music box, the small ornately crafted French music box given to Josette du Pres by her lover Barnabas Collins back in the 18th century. It felt a bit like modern-day time travel in real-time, as I reflected on Kathryn’s various characters in the series: Maggie Evans, Josette du Pres, Lady Kitty Hampshire, and Rachel Drummond. Some had left bigger impressions than others.
I asked Kathryn if there had been one character that she had related to more than the others, and it didn’t surprise me when she answered that it was Maggie Evans, the first character to appear in the beginning of the series. While the sweet and lovely Josette, whose beautiful portrait hung over a fireplace in the old house where Barnabas lived, had left an indelible impression on me, Maggie had been so real, so down-to-earth, and I suspected there was a bit of the real-life Kathryn in her.
For Kathryn, Maggie Evans was emblematic of a certain kind of life, and many viewers identified with her. Maggie came from the wrong side of the tracks, growing up with an alcoholic artist father, and as she saw her wealthier friends in Collinsport go off to college, she got a job in a diner and stayed at home. If there was a drinking problem in a family or they were single parents, these viewers could identify with Maggie, and many took inspiration from her.
“I played her as somebody ambitious,” she said. “It’s interesting—when I was 16, I did a feature for the school newspaper with poet Carl Sandburg, who came to town. All the big newspapers and television stations attended his press conference—it was such a big deal, and I was nervous. My dad asked me what I was going to wear. I wasn’t sure, and he said, ‘Wear the red thing!’”
The “red thing” was a suit Kathryn had made in home economics class, and clearly, her father wanted her to stand out and approach her assignment full of confidence—and it worked. She went off to her interview with her questions written on a stenopad and the press corps and television cameras there. The questions started, and Sandberg pointed to her in her red suit and told her to come up to ask her questions.
Sandberg was, of course, playing a game with the professional journalists. Some were irritated, but others picked up that it was a newsworthy item. Kathryn got her two questions answered, wrote her feature story, and ended up winning a state newspaper award. It was the beginning of a long writing career that continues to this day.
“It was just an incredible opportunity,” she said. She had read all of Sandburg’s work – the entire anthology of his poetry – to prepare for the interview. A line from one of the poems, “Mamie beat her hands against the bars of a small Indiana town and dreamed,” left a particularly strong impression. Kathryn had her own dreams of leaving her Minnesota farming community for New York City, and only two years later, she would be playing Maggie Evans in Dark Shadows.
In the opening episode of the soap opera, the train pulls up in Collinsport and the new governess for the family up on the hill gets off and pops into the diner where Maggie works, and a friendship develops. Maggie’s first encounter with Barnabas Collins is in the Collinsport Diner, a defining scene as the two outsiders are drawn to each other. Maggie finds her knight in shining armor is a 200-year-old vampire. The chemistry between the two led to her casting as the romantic, tragic character of Josette, central to the ongoing storyline and, ultimately, the success of the series.
Beyond Dark Shadows
To spell out Kathryn’s filmography and television appearances post Dark Shadows exceeds the scope of this article, so long and impressive is the list. She has continued to act, her most recent film role as Mamie Eisenhower in The 11th Green in 2020, and she is seen on the stage, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom.
She maintains homes in both Beverly Hills and New York City, and she is active in her communities on both of the coasts. In Los Angeles, she has been active in preserving historical architecture. She has served on the boards of the Beverly Hills Women’s Club and the Women’s Club of Hollywood.
At the same time, Kathryn has never stopped writing and publishing. In 1985, she launched Pomegranate Press, Ltd., to publish books about the entertainment industry: biographies, textbooks, guidebooks, and coffee table art books. Among other things, she wrote the book The Bunny Years (2011) about the history the Playboy Club from the perspective of the bunnies working there, four novels, and several books about the Dark Shadows years.
One of many highlights at Pomegranate was the publication of Coya, Come Home (2012) by Gretchen Urnes Beito, with a foreword by Walter F. Mondale. The book tells the story of Coya Knutsen, the Minnesota farm wife who took on national politics, only to see her career destroyed in 1958 when her husband’s letter to her demanding she come home to be a full-time housewife was published. It’s a story that had fascinated Kathryn since she was a schoolgirl, and she knew it needed to be told for newer generations. She now hopes to bring Coya to the screen and is currently working on a screenplay for a feature film.
Life has not always had positive turns for Kathryn, however. After his retirement, her husband and partner in life, Geoff Miller, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Los Angeles magazine, fell ill from a degenerative nerve disease, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), and she suddenly found herself in the role of caregiver.
It was a new challenge to meet. There was little public awareness about the disease at the time, let alone how to function as a caregiver for it. After her husband died in 2011, Kathryn became a national spokesperson for CurePSP. She went on to publish Now with You, Now Without in 2017, described as a “celebration of life, of coping with death, of cherishing memories, and of finding the courage to move forward.”
A changing world
The veteran actress and writer has seen how the film industry and society have changed over the years. So much is done in Hollywood with computer technology and special effects, as action and tempo have been stepped up, both for good and bad. The substance of a story is always key to its success, and much can get lost in the frenzy. Perhaps one of the best examples was Burton’s remake of Dark Shadows. Not only was it camped up, with its fast-moving action and elaborate sets, the day-to-day realism of the original series, so relatable for the audience, was lost.
Naturally, condensing a series that spanned several years into a couple of hours requires turning up the temperature and speeding up the tempo, but this is not always successful. For Kathryn, another case in point, is the recent PBS miniseries Atlantic Crossing (2020). Events and dialogue were written into the storyline that, in reality, just weren’t there, obscuring history and the true story of who Princess Märtha really was. Earlier, Scott worked as the narrator for an accurate documentary, Crown Princess Märtha: the American Story, released in 2005 for the unveiling of Märtha’s statue at the Norwegian Embassy the same year.
“I could only watch a couple of episodes of Atlantic Crossing, and then I had to stop” she said. She got back in touch with the producer of the documentary, Steinar Hybertsen, and there are hopes that it can be re-released. “It’s just wonderful,” Kathryn said. “People need to see the true story of Princess Märtha.” Like the story of Coya Knutsen, it is a story of an inspirational woman that needs to be told.
Inspiration for the future
After spending the afternoon with Kathryn, I felt incredibly honored to hear her own inspirational story. I asked her and her partner, Patrick Oster, a journalist and author of thrillers, what the future might have in store.
“The best things are still ahead,” she said. “Dark Shadows could come back as a series; that’s always a possibility. And there are still things to write. I’m writing another book slowly. And then there is travel.” The two talked about renting a house somewhere in the south of France or Sicily for yet another new adventure. “We’re open to many possibilities,” she said.
And, of course, Norway is on the agenda for the future. Kathryn stays in close touch with her cousins, who are all about the same age. Her father had eight brothers and sisters, and it is a large close-knit family. “It’s really fun to get together with them,” she said.
Kathryn sees the importance of keeping the Norwegian-American connection alive, not just for personal reasons but for all the culture has to offer.
“The Norwegians take the high road without making a big deal out of it,” she said. She is proud that Norway was one of the first countries where women got the right to vote. Granted, it was a new country, but there is also “an ingrained sense of fair play” in Norway. It’s a tiny country that takes on big challenges, both domestically and in the international arena. She pointed to the stage play and film Oslo (released by HBO in 2021) and Norway’s role in international peace-brokering. For Kathryn, it’s a heritage to be proud of.
“If not now, when?” is Kathryn’s motto, and she lives it each day. For Kathryn Leigh Scott, it has always been about embracing opportunities and living each moment to its fullest, and we can all take inspiration from her amazing life.
To learn more about Kathryn Leigh Scott’s life and work, vist her website at:
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 22, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.