Diana Hyland, a striking, knowing beauty with a confident air about her, was born Diane Gentner on January 25, 1936, in Ohio and appeared on stage in summer stock, as a teen, before graduating from Cleveland Heights High School.
Moving to New York in 1955 to test her acting mettle, the slim-faced, honey-blonde actress began to find TV roles almost immediately (one of her first being a Robert Montgomery Presents (1950) episode) in-between supplementing her income as a switchboard operator. Initially billed as Diane Gentner, she changed it to Diana Hyland (taking her mother’s maiden name). Following a tour of the play, “Look Back in Anger”, she broke through quite impressively on the Broadway boards as the neurotic ingénue in the acclaimed 1959 Tennessee Williams production of “Sweet Bird of Youth”, starring Paul Newman and Geraldine Page. Her role of “Heavenly Finley” could have made her a film star, had she been allowed to take it to the big screen, but Shirley Knight was given that honor.
In the early 60s, Diana focused on the small screen with strong, emotional roles on such soaps as Young Dr. Malone (1958) and Peyton Place (1964) (in a particularly showy role as a minister’s alcoholic wife). She also scored well in a series of guest parts, notably The Twilight Zone (1959), The Fugitive (1963), The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962) and Alcoa Premiere (1961), the last for which she received an Emmy nomination. She was a particularly sought-after presence on medical shows, as well, spicing up such popular tearjerkers as Ben Casey (1961), Dr. Kildare (1961), The Doctors (1963) and The Doctors and the Nurses (1962), Medical Center (1969) and Marcus Welby, M.D. (1969).
Strangely, Diana made noticeably few films during her career, her best showcase being that of the unconventional minister’s wife opposite Don Murray’s Rev. Norman Vincent Peale in One Man’s Way (1964). In addition to a small, downbeat supporting turn in The Chase (1966) starring Marlon Brando, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, she also co-starred with Fess Parker in the routine western yarn, Smoky (1966). Remaining focused on TV, Diana continued to brightened up the TV medium, into the 1970s, with an emphasis on crime (Kojak (1973), Harry O (1973), Cannon (1971), Mannix (1967), etc.).
In 1969, Diana married actor Joseph Goodson. They had one son, Zachary Goodson, who was born in 1973. The couple eventually split. A highly independent, intelligent and outspoken woman in real-life, she subsequently began a May-December affair with a much younger actor, John Travolta, in 1976. Travolta, who was more than 17 years Diana’s junior, had just come into his own with the sitcom, Welcome Back, Kotter (1975). The two actors met while appearing together in the TV-movie, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976). John played the special-needs title role and Diana, along with The Brady Bunch (1969) dad, Robert Reed, were cast as his parents. Interestingly, around that time, Diana was cast as a sophisticated wealthy woman who has designs on the much younger “Fonz” in the early 1977 Happy Days (1974) episode, Happy Days: Fonzie’s Old Lady (1977).
Around that time, Diana won the regular role of Dick Van Patten’s wife, “Joan Bradford”, mother to a large brood, in the upcoming family comedy series, Eight Is Enough (1977). Career-wise, things couldn’t have looked more promising for this lovely, talented actress. Sadly, it would be a short-lived celebration. A couple of years before, Diana had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite having a mastectomy to curb it, the cancer returned around Christmas time of 1976 and the disease spread rapidly. The 41-year-old actress died just a few months later, on March 27, 1977, having shot just four episodes of her new series. The rest of the episodes that first season explained her as being “away”. When the series returned that fall, it was revealed that her Joan character had also died. The second season was then devoted to having Dick Van Patten’s widower character return to the dating scene and eventually remarrying.
With Diana’s untimely death, Hollywood lost a truly superb player way before its time. In a most fitting tribute, the actress was awarded a posthumous Emmy for her touching supporting performance in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976). John Travolta accepted on her behalf at the awards ceremony.
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