Joan Collins: Playing the woman the world loved to hate

Sunday Profile: "Dynasty" star Joan Collins
Sunday Profile: "Dynasty" star Joan Collins 09:02

In 1981 Joan Collins strode into courtroom on "Dynasty," and into television history, as Alexis Carrington, her ex-husband's worst nightmare – and the woman the entire country loved to hate.

Collins laughed, "The first time I realized it was when I was driving down Sunset Boulevard, and these little kids were in a school bus and they all looked out the window and said, 'Alexis! Alexis! We hate you! We hate you!"

As the scheming Alexis Carrington on the '80s TV series "Dynasty," the British actress Joan Collins was really good at being bad. CBS News

In her native England, even the royals were tuned in, Including the Queen Mother: "She said, 'Oh yes, "Dynasty." We all watch it.' I said, 'Oh. And do you hate me?' She said, 'Oh no, my dear. We love you.'"

Correspondent Mo Rocca said, "And it makes me so happy to know that the Queen Mother was more of an Alexis than a Krystle person.  Did success at that age feel especially sweet?"

"Oh, you mean in my 40s? Yes, it was like I was 100!"

At 85, she's as busy as ever. "I wake up every day and think, 'Carpe diem. Seize the day.' Yeah, because, you have to think of every day as the last day of your life, and one day it will be. That's depressing!"

Depressing is not first word that comes to mind when one meets Dame Joan Collins, whether she's chewing the scenery with relish in "American Horror Story," or dishing on stage about her many-storied life, ("To say that that actor was wooden would be unkind to trees"), or her five husbands. (FYI, husband number five, Percy Gibson, is 30 years younger than she is.) 

Collins was born in London in 1933, the eldest daughter in a show business family.  Bestselling author Jackie Collins was her baby sister. It was, she said, a very creative household: "Very imaginative, yes. We were always, always doing something."

As a teenager, she studied acting at London's legendary Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Rocca asked, "And how did you fit in there?"

"I was the one that all the boys were after!" she laughed.

Joan Collins as Evelyn Nesbit, part of a fatal romantic triangle, in "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" (1955). 20th Century Fox

Pretty soon, Hollywood was after her, too. In 1955, "The Girl on the Red Velvet Swing" landed her on the cover of Life Magazine. "It was really my first starring role in America," she said. "I got a lot of mediocre reviews, you know – She's beautiful, but can she act?"

As a contract player with the Fox studio, she screen-tested for the role of Cleopatra, which famously went to Elizabeth Taylor.

"There were some very big people who promised me this role if I would be 'nice' to them," she said. "This was the casting couch. I was dancing with one of the men, he was the head of the studio. And he said, 'I can put you up in a nice little apartment and come and visit you, and you'll not only get all the best roles at Fox, but we'll see that you get Cleopatra.' And I said, 'That's a great idea. And here is my agent, Jay Kanter. Let's go talk to him about it.'"

Rocca asked, "Did you know that by doing that you might be scuttling it?"

"Oh, yes! But I was never, ever, ever going to settle for giving my body to some old man for a role, or even a young man, or anybody. I would never do that, ever, ever."

Although she did have some very steamy romances.

Rocca said, "You've had some great love affairs."

"Have I?"

Warren Beatty: "Yeah."

"Were you in love with Warren Beatty?" he asked.

"I think so," she sighed. "It's like Prince Charles said, 'Whatever love is.' We used to stop on Sunset Boulevard at the news agents, and Warren would look through Modern Screen and see if we had pictures in a magazine."

Harry Belafonte? "Yes. Well, that was very romantic and slightly on the forbidden list. We were on Barbados, doing 'Island in the Sun.'"

"And the sparks flew?"

"I would say so. He wrote about it in his book, too, so I'm not telling tales out of school," Collins said.

And along the way, three children – and those five husbands. Rocca asked Collins to rank her husbands, from best to worst.

"Well, Percy by far the best, absolutely!" she said. "And worst? Well, it's a tossup between Maxwell Reed, the first one, and Peter Holm," she laughed.

Her second husband, singer-songwriter Anthony Newley, falls somewhere in the middle.

Rocca asked, "What kind of a husband was he?"

"Terrible!" she laughed. "No, he did his best, But he wasn't really husband material."

What attracted her to him? "His talent," she replied. "And I was looking for a father for my children. I had gotten to the broody stage. I was 27. And every time I saw a pram, I thought, I would like to have a baby!"

In fact, she had two babies with Anthony Newley: Tara and Sasha.

Joan Collins with William Shatner in the "Star Trek" episode, "The City on the Edge of Forever." Paramount

Rocca asked Collins about an episode of "What's My Line?" with her and Anthony Newley. "Most of the questions are pretty much directed at Tony Newley and you seemed okay with that," he said.

"I did not have any jealousy," she said. "I have everything I want. It would be nice to have a bit more money, to keep up my four homes."

She has always worked. "I've always called myself 'jobbing actor,' or 'jobbing actress.'"

Rocca asked, "Do you know that your episode of 'Star Trek' is one of the most beloved?"

"Yes, I know. It's hilarious!"

There have been some good roles ("Tales From the Crypt"), and some bad ones ("Empire of the Ants"). "I had three children, and I didn't have much support from the husbands, so, I was the breadwinner," she said.

Joan Collins as Alexis Carrington in "Dynasty." ABC

When the call from "Dynasty" came, she was living in England, caring for her youngest daughter,  Katey, who was recovering from a terrible car accident. "I said, 'What's "Dynasty"? I know Dynasty, that's a Chinese restaurant on Kings Road!" she laughed.

Rocca said, "My best friend's mother watched the show for the clothes. Did you hear that a lot?"

"Yes, I did. I had a hugely great friend in Nolan Miller, who made the clothes. I remember once he said, 'You've got a scene in which somebody's trying to strangle you in your office. What do you see yourself wearing?' I said, 'I see myself wearing a green suede crossover dress with matching green suede boots. Do you think you can do that by tomorrow?' He's said, 'Yes!'"

Catfights between Alexis and Krystle were eagerly anticipated by the show's fans. "Well, the press wanted you and Linda Evans to hate each other," Rocca said.

"Yeah. We weren't best friends," she said.

And John Forsythe? Collins said, "John didn't like me. Because John is old-school masculine, misogynistic, and a bit sexist. He frankly didn't like this English woman, and every single person say, 'Oh, she's made the show.'"

And of her character, Alexis Carrington, Collins said, "I knew who she was, I knew her back story, I knew everything about her, and I really, really liked her.

"She was the first empowered woman on TV. And I got a lot of flack for it. She's such a ballbreaker, she's so bitchy, she's such a vixen! You know, I was just standing up for myself as an independent woman!"

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Story produced by Mary Lou Teel.