Those who only began paying attention to Joan Collins in 1981 after she landed her career-defining role as Dynasty’s ne plus ultra bitch, Alexis Carrington, have been deprived of one of the most sensational show-business stories ever told—one recounted in dribs and drabs over decades in tabloids, but more completely set out by Collins herself in numerous memoirs, beginning with 1978’s shocking autobiography, Past Imperfect. Collins shares tales of her raping, shakedown-artist first husband; handsy studio heads; an illegal abortion with Warren Beatty; an affair with a dictator’s son; and penury narrowly averted, thanks to The Stud—a soft-core film adaptation of one of her late-sister Jackie’s novels. Collins’s personal saga and career, however, never stopped unfolding. In 2015, recognizing Collins’s charitable works, Queen Elizabeth made her a Dame Commander of the British Empire, and, just a couple of years back, Ryan Murphy showcased her over-the-top gifts in what became her latest scenery-chewing comeback in his eighth season of American Horror Story. On a recent morning in her swanky Beverly Hills apartment high above Wilshire—with her handsome, much younger, fifth husband, Percy Gibson, nearby—Dame Joan shared the highs and lows of her 87-year personal journey to goddesshood.
After reading your memoirs, I’m not a fan of your father, the theatrical agent Joe Collins. He doesn’t sound very loving.
Nobody was a loving father who was born at the beginning of the nineteenth century. He was born in 1902. He was part of the Victorian era. You didn’t hug your children or tell them they were wonderful or beautiful or clever or fascinating. It just wasn’t done. I don’t remember being cuddled, hugged, kissed, or read bedtime stories. You got your love and your caring from your mother—and also, in my case, my sister, Jackie. She was extremely loving, and we were very, very close.
It seems like your father went to extremes. He wasn’t effusive about your early successes.
Yes. I was voted the most beautiful girl in Britain by the association of British photographers, and they called Daddy for a quote. He said, “Well, I’m amazed. She’s a nice-looking girl but nothing special.” But that was the thing: Don’t get too big for your boots.
Tell me about your big break.
My big break was a movie called I Believe In You , which was directed by Basil Dearden, one of the best directors in Britain. I got the role alongside these wonderful actors—Celia Johnson and Godfrey Tearle, Cecil Parker, Harry Fowler. The one who went on to great fame was Lawrence Harvey. In fact, Larry introduced me to Maxwell Reed, who became my husband. The man who raped me.
Reed was a British actor you married in 1952. He sounds like—forgive my language—a real prick.
Believe me, I know these words! [Laughs] We were together for just a year and a half. First of all, you have to understand, he was a major movie star in England at the time. He was the equivalent of, let’s say, Brad Pitt, but not a very good actor. I worshipped him. My sister, Jackie, had a scrapbook with Tony Curtis, and I had Maxwell Reed. So when Larry Harvey introduced us at Danny La Rue nightclub in London, I was completely knocked out. He was tall with jet black hair. I was 18. He was 32. I was quite impressed. And then he called me the next day and asked me for a date. And, of course, I didn’t tell my parents because I knew they wouldn’t approve of me going out with a man who was so much older than me.
So you landed a date with your movie crush. What happened?
He picked me up in an amazing powder-blue Buick, an American car, which you did not see around London in those days. I said, “Where are we going?” And he said, “Oh, we’re going to the country club.” At the time, there were a lot of clubs that were in private homes, so when we drove to a house in Hanover Square I thought nothing of it. So I went in, he gave me a rum and Coke, and said, “Take a look at this book,” which was full of the most sexually explicit pictures I’d ever seen. He said, “OK, I’m going to take a shower,” which I thought was very curious. And the next thing I knew, I was on the sofa and he had raped me. And I hadn’t known anything about it because he had drugged me.
What effect did this experience have on you?
I don’t think it had much of an effect other than the fact that I thought the actual act itself was vile. I didn’t want to tell anybody about it. I was completely ashamed. He took me home. He apologized and said, “I got carried away.”
Why were you ashamed?
Because guilt. I’m 17 or 18. I was ashamed that I had done that thing. My mother drilled it into me endlessly that men only want one thing and you don’t do anything with a man or a boy until you’re married. This was the old-fashioned attitudes of my mother.
Could you have gone to the authorities?
You didn’t go to the authorities then if you were raped. They would probably say, “Well, why did you go up to his room?” I would have been on the front pages of all the newspapers, being this new, young actress who was getting lots of publicity. My father would have gone absolutely berserk. And then Maxwell called me and asked me out on another date, but he said, “Don’t worry—I’ll just take you out to dinner.” He took me to the Caprice. And then we started dating, and I felt that the rape thing had been negated. He never did it again, and he apologized profusely about it.
And then you married him.
He totally turned a new leaf. He became very kind and loving and generous and, I hate to say this, a lot of fun. Being able to laugh with somebody has always been something that I find very appealing.
I have to admit I didn’t know that you’d also been engaged to Warren Beatty in the ’60s. He’d done very little in Hollywood back then. Did you recognize that he’d become a big star?
I sensed—yes, definitely—lots of ambition. I think I probably realized it when he told me he was 21, and then I saw his driver’s license, which he’d left out on the table. I looked at it and I said, “You’re not 21—you’re 22! Why did you lie to me?” He said, “Oh, well, there’s just so much competition, I thought that being younger would help.” Warren was also a brilliant, brilliant networker. I’ve never been that pushy. I’d never done what I know some actresses still do—go to the producer, knock on the door, and say, “I have to have this role.”
You’ve written about how insatiable Beatty was for sex. Your friend Joanne Woodward told you that if you wanted to keep him interested, you should probably get used to having sex several times a day.
Yes. Yes, well, when you’re 21 or 22, you do, I guess, if you’re a man. We had a great relationship for like a year and half. We got engaged. I still have the ring, actually. And then we got bored with each other, as one does.
As a contract player at Fox in the ’50s, you found it very difficult to work under cofounder Darryl Zanuck. He made a move on you, correct?
Not just him. That was how it worked back then. I really didn’t think about any of it very much until this whole #MeToo movement, and then it started to come back to me. In the movies, it was just endemic, wasn’t it? I mean, pawing and groping and being suggestive and trying to take you out and trying to kiss you in the hallways. I mean, it wasn’t just the actors and the directors and the producers—it was all kinds of people.
At Fox, you were initially offered the Cleopatra role that eventually went to Elizabeth Taylor. But Spyros Skouras, the president of the company, told you in very plain terms that you’d have to sleep with him to get the role.
Yeah. And so did [Fox head of production] Buddy Adler. And so did [Cleopatra producer] Walter Wanger, in a way. “You’ve got to be nice to us. We really want you to get this role, but there’s a lot of people in contention.” But I wasn’t nice to them.
That is just so unbelievably horrible to me.
It’s not unbelievable. It happens all the time.
But you resisted it.
Yes, I did. I never, ever went on the casting couch.
You’ve written that many of the roles you got at Fox were not in the best, most successful films. Do you feel like your career was negatively affected because you refused to play the game?
No, no—I took the opportunity and I ran with it. And I did what the studio wanted. I went on the diets, dressed like they wanted me to, went out with the guys that they wanted me to—you know, Jeff Hunter, Robert Wagner—did all the pinup pictures and the photo layouts. So maybe they weren’t the greatest movies ever made, but how many young actresses at that time would have given their eyeteeth to have had that opportunity? Ask Brad Pitt or George Clooney if they were thrilled with every movie they did. I don’t think most actors are.
You met your second husband, Anthony Newley, while on a date with Robert Wagner.
Yes. I’d just broken up with Warren about three or four months earlier. We went to the theater to see Tony in Stop the World—I Want to Get Off, which was the biggest hit in the West End at that time. So we went backstage, and Tony asked us out for dinner. We went to a famous Italian trattoria, the three of us, and I became quite smitten with him. He oozed charisma.
And after marrying him in 1963, you quit acting for a while.
I was now getting to the broody stage in my life. I’d done my seven years under contract to Fox and I wanted to have children. I thought that he would be a really good father. He was, more or less. But Tony was a womanizer.
But you kind of knew this going in, no?
I did, yes. But he told me that he wasn’t going to be a womanizer anymore. Tony had a problematic life. His mother tried to abort him, which she never ceased to tell him, and that gave him a certain underlying dislike of women. But I don’t want to knock Tony, because I have two marvelous children—my daughter, Tara; and Alexander, as he’s now called—and they see their father’s faults. Sadly, he died at a very young age—late-60s. But we had an acrimonious divorce. He was horrible to me. We didn’t speak for years.
In 1969, he released his autobiographical movie, Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? The whole movie is about his desire to find the perfect girl of 17 or 18 to have sex with.
Yeah, he never made any secret about that.
You played his long-suffering wife—a part called Polyester Poontang. What did you think when you read the script?
First of all, I skimmed the script. He wanted our two children, Tara and Sacha, who were then two and four, to play the roles of Thaxted and Thumbelina. And then I thought, How could I not play the mother? They were going to be in Malta for 12 weeks. What was I going to do—stay in London? Or go to Malta and watch another actress play basically what was me, with lines that I’d said many times? I wasn’t incredibly hurt until Universal had a private screening for me in London. When I saw the film, I thought, “This is it. I can’t be married to him anymore.”
Not a fantastic husband.
How many fantastic husbands are there in the world really? I have a lot of girlfriends, and I can think of only one or two who really think that their husbands are fantastic. I have one now. I’m lucky.
I just met your husband, Percy. He’s one of the most charming men I’ve ever met.
Yeah. But, you know, charm is just one thing; he’s also so good and kind and warm and loving. I mean, he’s everything.
I heard a story and I’m wondering if it’s apocryphal. Somebody once asked you about the fact that Percy’s considerably younger than you . . .
I said, “If he dies, he dies.” When we first got together, there was a lot of shock and horror about the fact that there was around 30 years’ difference in our ages. But it calmed down a lot. And now we’ve been married over 18 years and been together for 20. And that’s pretty much a record in Hollywood.
You’ve been the breadwinner in many of your marriages and have written poignantly about your financial struggles. Being famous and beautiful, you could have married a multibillionaire. Did you at any point want that kind of security?
No. I hate rich men!
Because they use women as an accessory—as a doll. They don’t really respect them. Many of them are quite cheap. And they also tend to be very ugly.
Ugly? Like physically ugly?
[Laughs] Yeah. I can be superficial that way.
I’ve noticed that about you. I was very nervous about dressing today, and I’m not sure I did a very good job.
You look very nice.
Because you’ve written about having a real eye for masculine beauty.
Yes. All the men that I’ve ever been with have been good-looking.
So given the choice, you wouldn’t take, say, a Mike Bloomberg over your fourth husband, the Swedish pop star, Peter Holm?
God, no! Peter Holm was very good-looking.
I understand he was good-looking. But this was a man who, after you separated, picketed your house with signs complaining that he was homeless. He seemed not to have any shame.
That’s true. He was basically a gigolo. I remember I was doing a miniseries called Sins in the South of France. I was doing a scene with Gene Kelly, who was playing my older husband, and Peter came out in a teeny-weeny, minuscule, leopard-skin bikini in front of the whole crew. And Gene Kelly said, “What is that?” I said, “It’s my husband.” He had no shame. He did do one thing, though. When I didn’t get what I thought I deserved on Dynasty, he said, “You’re not going back. You’ve got to get what you deserve.” And so I went away. And then I got the raise finally.
Initially, you weren’t really taken with Dynasty when you were first offered the role of Alexis Carrington, were you?
God, yes, I was. First of all, I’d never heard of it. My agent said, “They want you to be in Dynasty,” and I said, “What is that, a Chinese restaurant?” But I loved the role. One of the only things that upset me about playing Alexis is that so many people thought that I was just like that. Even some of the cast would say, “Oh, my God—that sounds so real. Did you really mean it when you yelled at me like that?” I said, “No, darling. It’s called acting.” And this was exacerbated by one of the producers putting out stories like, “Joan Collins threw a fur on the floor and stubbed a cigarette out in it.”
You talk about your difficult contract negotiations, but we think about Friends and how the entire cast united and said, “We’re the No. 1 show on TV, and if we go on, everybody’s going to get a million an episode.” Did the Dynasty cast have the ability to do that?
Well, no. First of all, John Forsythe had it in his contract that a) he had to be front and center of all publicity. I don’t know if you’ve looked at any of the DVDs that are out, but John Forsythe’s head is always in the middle. No, seriously! I’ve got them here. I’ll show you. He also had it in his contract that he had to make at least $5,000 more than anybody else. It was really him and Linda Evans, and the rest of us were kind of just serfs.
It’s hard to imagine you as serf, having sat with you for an hour and having moments where I’ve been shaking like a leaf.
[Laughs] Yeah, I noticed you stopped shaking now.
Well, I’ve stopped perspiring anyway. I imagine that a lot of people assume that being on Dynasty provides a fat annuity. Does it?
I wish. When we finished the show in 1989, a lawyer came to my dressing room and said, “Sign this buyout. This show will never go into syndication because no serials ever go into syndication. We’ll give you a nice three-week salary. Everybody else has signed it.” I said, “Are you kidding? John has signed it?” The lawyer said, “Yeah.” I said, “So that means that when I sign this, I will never get any residuals?” He said, “There won’t be any residuals.”
Did you have your own lawyer?
My lawyers had a look. And they said, “Well, there’s nothing you can do. All the cast have signed it. You’re the last one they came to.” So I signed it. And, of course, Dynasty became one of the most successful shows ever. But all the residuals went to Aaron Spelling and Doug Cramer, the producers. None of
them ever even called any of us when they decided to do the [CW network] reboot of Dynasty.
Last night I watched The Stud—the 1978 movie that your sister wrote and your then-husband, Ron Kass, produced. At the time it was incredibly scandalous and successful—and provided the comeback that eventually led to Dynasty. You wrote that the nudity was necessary exploitation.
Well, yes. Glenda Jackson had done a movie in which she had been totally naked. Jane Fonda had done it in Klute. Julie Christie had done nudity. This was the late ’70s—a lot of actresses were letting it all hang out. I wasn’t happy about it, but I felt that it was part of what this woman, Fontaine Khaled, would be like. Looking back on the film now, it’s not that shocking at all.
You were over 40 at this point, and in a youth-obsessed industry, totally unafraid to take your clothes off. There’s a scene in which you’re actually swinging above the pool absolutely naked in the third-act orgy scene.
Yeah, the sort of orgy scene with Oliver Tobias, Sue Lloyd, and Mark Burns. We all got absolutely drunk out of our skulls. That was the only way we could do it.
You must have enjoyed being one of the most desired women in the world after turning 40.
Well, of course! Who wouldn’t love it? That’s why I posed for Playboy after. I said, “This is it. I’m 49. I won’t be taking my clothes off anymore.”