PEYTON PLACE was sizzling in ’66 — take the buzz on DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES and multiply it by 10 — and the producers urgently needed a new face to fill the hole that was left in the cast when Mia Farrow quit to become Mrs. Frank Sinatra. Enter Broadway ingenue Leigh Taylor-Young, who had never seen the show, had no interest in doing TV at all, and only auditioned to please her agents. Naturally, she got the part — and turned it down flat. “I was very polite about it, but I told them I didn’t want to do it and wouldn’t sign the contract.” Befuddled, the agents responded the only way they could: They called her mother.”She didn’t try to manipulate me — Mother knew better than that,” laughs Taylor-Young, who for the past year has been playing Sheridan’s long-lost mother, Katherine, on PASSIONS. “But she made some good points. She said I had always been an experience-oriented person with an adventurous spirit, and she was right.”
In short order, Taylor-Young became a household name, fell in love with co-star Ryan O’Neal — and chaos ensued, à la Ben and J. Lo. “Ryan and I were sort of on that level,” she reflects. “Every era has golden couples, and I’d say there were three years there, in the late ’60s to 1970, when we were under that scrutiny — that light, if you will. Ryan and I were stalked [by the paparazzi] a great deal of the time. When we decided to get married, we took a trip to Hawaii [and] were followed by photographers on the plane and all over the island. I finally said, ‘We have to surrender, let’s just embrace it.’ And one of [the lensmen] became our best man at our spontaneous wedding.” As shooting on PEYTON PLACE resumed, Taylor-Young found herself in the family way: “Back then, pregnancies were never written into the show; you weren’t even allowed to say the word ‘pregnant.'” So the show worked the actress until they could no longer hide her swelling stomach, then wrote her out by shipping her character, Rachel Welles, to an insane asylum. Patrick, her son with O’Neal, was born in September, 1967, and they all lived together in a house that Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall once shared. In just over a year, Taylor-Young had gone from relatively unknown and unencumbered to rich and famous, with a husband, son, publicist, business manager, agent, nanny, assistant and two stepchildren, one of whom was future Oscar-winner Tatum O’Neal. Two weeks after Patrick’s birth, PEYTON PLACE exercised the “Act of God” clause in Taylor-Young’s seven-year contract and formally fired her. A film career started approximately four days later, when Peter Sellers, charmed by her natural innocence, picked her to star opposite him in I Love You Alice B. Toklas. She played a “psychotic nymphomaniac” in her second movie, The Big Bounce (“It’s not just the worst movie I ever made, but one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen”), starred opposite an unknown Robert De Niro in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight and worked on The Horsemen in Afghanistan where she pierced her nose and was a guest of the nation’s then-king. (“He raised silkworms.”) And yes, that’s her in the cult classic Soylent Green.Taylor-Young stayed in Mauritius for two weeks, then jetted off to the foothills of the Himalayas for an extended stay at another no-frills ashram. Once again, her arrival was a complete surprise. “I just showed up at 1 o’clock in the morning, ringing a bell.” As one of only four women at the facility, Taylor-Young prayed, chanted and meditated all day, every day, starting at 3:30 a.m., when she and Swami Tejomayananda would study by oil lamp. “It was very serious; it was not a fluff-and-puff place at all. I slept on a wooden board on the cement floor. There was no bathroom. But I never minded any of it for a second. When I finally went home, I had lice and bedbug bites, and I didn’t mind that, either. They were badges of experience.”A week after Soylent wrapped, Taylor-Young, who was by then separated from O’Neal and “looking for a more dynamic and powerful relationship with God,” left Patrick with her parents and flew (in coach class, by choice) to Mauritius, a tiny island in the Indian Ocean, to study in an ashram with Peter Sellers’s guru, Swami Venketesananda (who had no idea she was on her way). “But Peter had written me a letter of introduction [that said something] like, ‘This is my beloved friend, she’s a great seeker,'” she adds, “so I just landed at the Mauritius airport and said, ‘Do you know where this ashram is?’ And they did, so they took me there.”
Back in L.A., Taylor-Young continued on her spiritual path (“My friends probably thought I had gone crazy because I was now wearing saris and a bindi”), briefly changed her name to Mirabai (“Which people did back then, so it wasn’t as weird as it might be now”), wed and divorced the president of Columbia Pictures, wed and divorced a “doctor of Oriental medicine,” became an ordained minister in something called the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, appeared in dozens more movies and TV series, won an Emmy for her role as Rachel Harris on PICKET FENCES, traveled as a global goodwill ambassador for the United Nations and had a serious health scare (see sidebar). Which is to say, the adventures continued unabated.And are continuing to this day. When she’s not with Patrick and his two daughters by Risky Business icon Rebecca De Mornay, Taylor-Young can be found with the current love of her life, who happens to be a cat. “His name is Lucky,” she reports. “He’s my kitty husband. You must mention him in the article and give him proper due or he’ll be very offended.” Chances are, she’ll have a script or two with her, as well. “PASSIONS is keeping me very busy. It took me a while to get used to the rhythm,” she admits, “but I’m in the groove now, and loving it.” This article originally ran in the March 1, 2005 issue of Soap Opera Digest.