HOLLYWOOD -- Versatile Meredith MacRae is among the country's unique women celebrities. Ask a dozen people why the tall, blond MacRae is famous and you're liable to get a dozen different answers. She has made the rare transition from actress to TV personality, producer, huckster and Mac of all trades. The daughter of singer-actor parents, the late Gordon MacRae and England's Sheila MacRae, Meredith has attained a special niche in show biz and biz biz. She made her movie debut at age 7 with her father and Doris Day in "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," circa 1953. She blossomed as a teenager in the old sitcoms "My Three Sons" for three years and "Petticoat Junction" for four years. She went on to work in a dozen movies and appeared in scores of guest shots on TV series and starred on stage. But she found acting confining. Somewhere along the way, and even she isn't sure just when, MacRae became something else. Call it a national figure, a TV personality, household name or whatever. Unlike many established actresses, MacRae is not self-conscious being herself on camera. The majority of actors and actresses, she says, are essentially shy. They withdraw behind fictional characters to overcome discomfiture on camera. Even veteran performers shrink away from revealing their own psyches. Live appearances can be nightmares.
MacRae, wife of business tycoon Phil Neal, and mother of a grown daughter, appears to be as comfortable in her own skin as in makeup and wardrobe playing a role. Dressed in a chic black suit with faux leopard-skin lapels and cuffs one recent day, she was roundly admired at a small French restaurant in Beverly Hills. Her high profile is explained by a surprising number of activities and enterprises. People recognize her from large screen and small but for other reasons too. She has been a TV broadcaster, reporter, hostess and interviewer. She is on the board of several major charities and established her own movie-TV production company. Moreover, she has been a game show panelist, sung in concert and clubs, developed and appeared on video cassettes, including "The 15 Minute Accupressure Facelift." She produced and hosted 30 segments of "Hard Copy" and "A Current Affair." Her participation in so many public activities qualifies MacRae as a renaissance woman, yet giving the impression of being the friendly woman-next-door. "The first half of my career was limited to series, TV movies and films," she said. "I did some singing and commercials. "Things changed when I became an interviewer for seven years on my own show, 'Mid-morning Los Angeles' (for which she won an Emmy). "Then I expanded to become an interviewer-producer doing documentaries on alcoholism -- my father was an alcoholic -- and other subjects, and hosting TV specials. "I had to put acting on a back burner. But I don't miss it. I like being in control." Her years as an interviewer and producer have added a breadth of knowledge, self-assurance and poise, uncommon in many actresses. Media reporters interviewing actresses often are disappointed to find "there is no there there," as the saying goes. Not so with MacRae. "I've interviewed performers who are so wrapped up in themselves and their careers they haven't much else to talk about," she said. "They devote their lives to acting.
It's hard to think of actresses who have become interviewers and broadcasters. Or should I say TV personalities. "People know me from all different things, 'My Three Sons,' a talk show or telethon or panel show. They don't identify me with characters I've played except Billie Jo from 'Petticoat Junction."' For the most part people recognize her as Meredith MacRae, which she finds gratifying. "Acting was never enough for me," she said. "I looked for intellectual challenges, if only being a regular on the syndicated 'What's My Line.' "I didn't want to be stuck in a groove. I'd do plays in the summer or musicals, anything to broaden my horizons. Waiting around for parts was boring. "I can't explain why I've always felt comfortable as myself on camera. "I didn't have an image of myself or who I was supposed to be or what I should look like. I'm never nervous on camera. "I understand why very good actors, like my ex-husband (Greg Mullavey), can play any role in the world and be fantastic, but when he had to be himself on camera he couldn't do it. "Maybe I feel at home with myself because my parents were in show business. I've been around that atmosphere all my life. "I didn't want anyone to think I was a spoiled brat. I've been a people-pleaser because of the alcoholism in my family." For whatever reason, Meredith has been pleasing people for most of her life, and apparently intends to continue doing so.