When Circus of the Stars Ruled Primetime

CBS Circus of the Stars Aug 20 1981 INCOMPLETE
CBS Circus of the Stars Aug 20 1981 INCOMPLETE / imacjason

Perhaps it was around the time a leopard named Sheila sank its teeth into her neck that Juliet Prowse began to have second thoughts about Circus of the Stars.

Prowse, an actress and dancer, was rehearsing for an appearance as a leader of uncaged leopards for the 1987 edition of the variety show, an annual extravaganza that recruited familiar faces from the worlds of movies, television, and music and had them perform circus theatrics for the amusement of viewers. But not, apparently, for the amusement of Sheila, who launched her attack after Prowse told her “good morning.” The bite, which required five stitches, came dangerously close to Prowse's carotid artery.

“I’m fine but very lucky,” Prowse told The Los Angeles Times. “I don’t think Sheila was playing. She actually bit me. She sank her teeth right into me.”

It was the first feline assault logged in the history of Circus of the Stars, which began in 1977 and continued through 1994. Pop culture luminaries such as Linda Blair, Emmanuel Lewis, Peter Scolari, Mario Lopez, and dozens of others demonstrated the acrobatic skills they picked up during a grueling few weeks of training. Alex Trebek escaped a pair of handcuffs; Brooke Shields took to the trapeze; viewers worried that if Lorenzo Lamas were to injure himself, filming of Falcon Crest might be interrupted. It was must-see television.

Joining the Circus

The idea for Circus of the Stars originated in France, where audiences and actors alike took it rather seriously. For decades, the country had mounted a show called Le Gala de l’union, a circus spectacle that raised money for retired and indigent French actors. Their biggest stars made appearances, and the specials aired on French television.

American producer Bob Stivers thought the format would work for American audiences, and his plans were ambitious. Early in production, Stivers imagined a U.S. vs. France circus competition that would pit the biggest stars from each country against one another in a variety of big top performances. Paul Newman, Robert Redford, John Wayne, and Jack Nicholson were among the actors expected to represent the U.S., while Catherine Deneuve and Jeanne Moreau would stand in leotarded solidarity for France. Famed French actor Alain Delon was to host.

The plan was perhaps an overreach. By the time the first Circus of the Stars aired on CBS in January 1977, none of those stars were in the show—though Paul Newman was in the audience. 's John Forsythe was hosting, while Lynda Carter, Roots star Gary Collins, and Oscar-winning singer/actor Liza Minnelli made their way through their routines. An audience of American and French socialites who had showed up in evening wear expecting a production on the level of the French iteration sat for six hours in front of a blinking “applause” sign.

With promising ratings and tempered expectations, Circus of the Stars continued as an annual event. The 1979 edition featured Sammy Davis Jr., Jerry Lewis, and Betty White. In 1980, Angela Lansbury, Rock Hudson, Lloyd Bridges, and Valerie Perrine were the ringmasters. In 1986, the line-up included Ricky Schroeder, Burt Lancaster, and Lana Turner, who starred in The Postman Always Rings Twice, as well as Willie Aames, who starred in Charles in Charge. Rather than commit to taping a show over the course of several days, participants were really agreeing to a months-long obligation of training.

“It’s very complicated circus stuff,” Sid Smith, who directed many of the specials, told the Television Academy Foundation in 1997. “Those people that learn to do the trapeze, it takes them 13 weeks to learn. The high wire takes 11 weeks to learn. Going in the lion’s cage and training lions and tigers takes nine weeks to learn. So the stars worked hard for a long time to get themselves ready.”

Other featured performers, like David Nelson of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet fame, were already up to the task. Nelson had trained on the trapeze for a 1959 film, The Big Circus. He later performed on several editions of Circus of the Stars.

While the effort led to a payday, it was also a kind of wish fulfillment. Mary Ann Mobley, who was the wife of actor Gary Collins and had been named Miss America in 1959, made numerous appearances on the show with her husband. Despite being bit by “the meanest, most uncooperative Shetland ponies you ever saw,” Mobley said the event was a chance to realize a childhood ambition. “I went to the circus every year when I was a little girl in Mississippi,” Mobley told United Press International in 1979. “I always wanted to be the girl on the flying trapeze. And now, once a year, I can run away to the circus and become that girl.”

Less capable actors were still given compliments. “Linda Gray of Dallas performs a marvelous act with a dog named Blanca,” read one newspaper report. Others expressed concern that model Barbi Benton might be devoured by lions.

Paws for Applause

Emboldened by the success of Circus of the Stars, producers launched The Wildest West Show of the Stars in 1986, where performers like Alan Thicke and Paul Reubens (as Pee-wee Herman) engaged in Old West stunts. The parent show continued through 1994 and has occasionally been resurrected. A 2008 version featured actors Stacey Dash and Antonio Sabato Jr. flying through the air. Former boy bander Joey Fatone hosted.

Despite the seeming gravity of certain situations involving high-wire acts or animals, no actor was harmed during the 17 years Circus of the Stars was on the air—save for Prowse. After Sheila the leopard went for her neck during that September 1987 training session, Prowse was bit a second time in December during a rehearsal. This time, she suffered minor injuries to her ear. Stars can be temperamental.