From 'Dobie Gillis' to the Simpson case

October 17, 1994|By Roger Simon | Roger Simon,Sun Columnist

SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- When lunch was over she led me down the street to where her 1964 Porsche was parked.

A lot has happened in the last 30 years, but none of it to this Porsche.

It was bright and red and shiny, and the sunlight spilled down and caressed every one of its sensuous curves.

Sheila Kuehl loves this car.

"The car that 'Dobie Gillis' bought me," she said.

To the casual observer, the car might not fit her image.

Kuehl is one of America's leading advocates for women's rights, a tireless battler against sexual harassment and domestic violence.

A Harvard law graduate, she now teaches courses on "Gender and Law" at both UCLA and L.A.'s Loyola Marymount University. She helped found the California Women's Law Center and helped draft the legislation that made wife-beating a crime in the state. She is now running for the California Assembly.

And, oh, yeah, she used to play Zelda on "Dobie Gillis."

And, oh, yeah, her district includes Brentwood, where O. J. Simpson lives. (Though he currently is a guest of the county at Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles.)

Since Simpson is merely accused of two murders, not convicted of them, he could vote for Kuehl by absentee ballot in November.

But will he?

It is hard to say. Though he may not know it, his life has intersected with Kuehl's on one occasion:

For the past 15 years, Kuehl has served on the board of the Sojourn Shelter for Battered Women, whose exact location is a secret, but which is situated in a rather upscale section of Los Angeles. (Upscale women get smacked around all the time.)

"Nicole called the Sojourn Shelter a couple of times in the late '80s," Kuehl said, which is something I had never heard before. "And when O. J. pleaded no contest to spousal battery in 1989 and was fined a few hundred dollars -- a wrist slap -- the check was made out to the Sojourn Shelter. I picked up the check."

If he had gotten more than a wrist slap, I asked, if he had gone to jail, might that have prevented Nicole's murder?

"I don't know that he killed her," Kuehl said carefully. "I am a lawyer, an officer of the court. I do know that battering husbands kill their victims all the time. But they also don't kill their victims all the time. All I know for sure is that O. J. got off real light. Real light."

Kuehl is 53 now, a few pounds heavier than when she was on TV, but still "perky." She is resigned to the fact that she will probably be called perky up to, if not beyond, her dying day.

She was 18 and attending UCLA when she was cast as Zelda Gilroy in "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis." It was a smash hit from 1959 to 1963.

She was doing so well, in fact, that CBS was going to spin off the Zelda character into her own series. Kuehl, who had begun her TV career as an 8-year-old on "The Stu Erwin Show" using the stage name Sheila James, could think of nothing better. She had bought a house at Malibu and life was going along just like it does on TV.

And then reality intruded. A TV executive sat down with her and told her to forget about her own show. The powers that be had decided that the Zelda character was just a little "too butch."

"It scared me to death," Kuehl said.

Oh, yeah. One other thing: If elected, Kuehl will be the first openly gay person ever to serve in the California legislature.

At the time of "Dobie Gillis" she was still very much in the closet, but she understood what the executive was telling her. The Zelda Gilroy character may have been unique in the history of early TV sitcoms. She was an intelligent, ambitious, articulate woman.

"Too butch" in other words.

True, Zelda lived only to transform the lackadaisical Dobie into a success so she could marry him. And true, Zelda got her way with Dobie by crinkling up her nose at him, a gesture he could not resist.

"For women of that time, the only possibility for achieving success was through a man," Kuehl said.

When the show ended, Kuehl bought a shiny red Porsche and waited for her phone to ring with more TV offers. It didn't. She lost the Malibu house, but hung onto the Porsche. Maybe she knew the Porsche was going to be the one symbol of frivolity in an otherwise serious life. Or maybe she just liked fast, red cars.

In any case, she decided to devote her life to the cause of women's rights. So she went to Harvard Law School, where she was elected class marshal and president of the law student council. And in her last year, she did so well in winning a moot court competition that visiting Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall walked over to her, clasped her hand in both of his and said, "Lady, I like your style."

She went back to California and began years of hard, slow work. Now, she has seen the issue of domestic violence transformed overnight by the murder of Nicole Simpson.

"The people working on it have gone from being harpies to being heroes," she said.

I showed Kuehl an interview with Denise Brown, Nicole's elder sister, conducted about 10 days after Nicole's death.

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