The daughter of a premier makeup artist and the sister of a United States District Attorney, Michele Lee was born Michele Lee Dusick on June 24, 1942 in Los Angeles, California. Her childhood was consumed by the Hollywood entertainment industry. Lee was outgoing and had taken every chance to do plays in front of her family and friends. In junior high school, she continued acting in school plays. When she was in the 10th grade at Los Angeles’ Alexander Hamilton High School, she tried out for the band and was the lead singer for that. Prior to her graduation from Hamilton, she landed her first role in the Broadway revue, “Vintage ’60” and her career was launched. A small role in “Bravo Giovanni” and the lead role as Rosemary in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” followed. Her musical talent was brought to the attention of Columbia Records (now Sony) and she signed to the label in a hurry.
Shortly after she appeared in Broadway shows and became a singer, she began making a number of guest appearances on television doing dancing, singing and performing comedy routines on most live-action segments, most notably The Danny Kaye Show (1963). She was only 22 and her career was off to a firing start. She continued making guest appearances on a number of television specials and live-action series. However, the silver screen took precedence as she made her movie debut with the film How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967), followed by The Comic (1969), co-starring Dick Van Dyke. A year that, after her first child was born and soon after, she was back at work, starring as Secretary Carole Bennett on The Love Bug (1968), that it was the best movie of 1970 and it made it to the top of the box office all across the country.
While her laughter was brought unto the world and after giving birth to David Farentino, several months later her father passed away of a severe heart attack in 1970 at age 54. Michele was devastated by the loss of her father but she quickly directed herself to head back to work. She accepted a role on Broadway in “Seesaw”, where her work gave her a 1974 Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Musical. However, tragedy haunted Michele when she was unable to spring back for a long time after her mother died in 1974. Near the end of 1979, after being on vacation with her husband and only child, she accepted the leading role of the feisty-yet-friendly neighbor Karen Fairgate MacKenzie in the prime-time soap opera Knots Landing (1979), which spun-off the immensely popular serial Dallas (1978) on CBS. For 14 of those years, Michele was the big asset of the series and by the very first year that it debuted, it had low ratings and producers, at times, wanted to send “Dallas” stars to the cul-de-sac, including that of Larry Hagman, who met Lee after the pilot episode.
By the Fall of 1980, Lee and the producers of “Knots Landing” always wanted to do something better in order to boost up the ratings and in September of that same year, after refusing to accept “no” for an answer, former dancer and movie starlet Donna Mills came to the series by playing Lee’s manipulative, nasty and least popular sister-in-law Abby Fairgate Cunningham Ewing Sumner, and the series became #1 for the next 13 seasons, among other 1980s soaps that stood the test of time. By 1982, she was nominated for one Emmy Award, but had won the Soap Opera Digest Award, three times. The triumph of the series was splendid but in real-life, her marriage to James Farentino was a burden and the couple was divorced in 1983. In 1989, while going on strong with her role on “Knots Landing”, she also became the series’ director, starting to direct several episodes of the series and just before Donna Mills left, making Lee the big star of the series.
By the 14th and the final season, most of her co-stars of “Knots Landing” were asked to be absent (except co-star Joan Van Ark, who left in 1992) a number of times on the series, but for Lee, she had declined to be absent and wanted to show up without pay. In 1993, “Knots Landing” was cancelled when her second family came to a close and due to high salary amongst her co-stars. When the series was dropped away from its schedule on CBS, she was open to new opportunities. She began to produce and develop her own television movies through her own production company. She has had an incredible career that spans almost 40 years in television, film and on stage and in 1999, she earned her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which is located not far from the site of her very first audition for “Vintage ’60”.
In 1995, after learning a great deal from her idol Dottie West, she appeared in the CBS-TV movie Big Dreams & Broken Hearts: The Dottie West Story (1995), playing the character of the same name doing all the singing and knowing what it was like to be Dottie West. Before she came back to do a reunion movie called Knots Landing: Back to the Cul-de-Sac (1997), she played a retarded woman named Dina Blake on Lifetime’s Color Me Perfect (1996) and was the first lady to star, write and produce a movie for Cable Television and, like The Love Bug, it was the best movie on Cable Television in 1996. In 2000, she starred opposite Valerie Harper in the Broadway play “Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” in New York and almost four years later after a 35-year-absence, she returned to the big screen to play Ben Stiller’s mother in Along Came Polly (2004).
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