Joan Elan (July 24, 1928 – January 7, 1981) was an English actress, whose film, stage, and television career occurred mainly in the United States. She is best remembered today for her appearances on television.
She was born Joan Georgina Bingham-Newland in Colombo, in what was then British Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka). She was the youngest of three children for parents Richard C. Bingham-Newland and Georgina Low. Her father owned a tea plantation near Colombo, where young Joan spent her early years. When her father retired from the tea business the family returned permanently to England. Joan attended school at both Heron’s Ghyll and Horsham in Sussex. She later described to an American interviewer hearing the noise of buzz bombs overhead while at school during World War II.
Following the lead of her older sister, who performed under the stage name Sally Newland, Joan attended the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London. It was here she took on her own stage name, but friends and family continued to know her as Puck, a nickname bestowed for her elfin face and impish ways. She performed with stock companies in England, in Summer Day’s Dream and as the lead in a London production of Junior Miss when she was seventeen.She also had an uncredited role in the 1951 Nettleton Studios film Hell Is Sold Out, which led to talent scouts from Paramount “discovering” her.
Writer-director F. Hugh Herbert had adapted William Maier’s 1949 novel Pleasure Island for the screen, and was looking for three authentic English lasses to play the ingenue roles. He gave the approval for hiring Joan Elan and two other actresses, Audrey Dalton and Dorothy Bromiley, and escorted all three via BOAC from London to New York City on March 19, 1952.
Paramount launched a full publicity campaign around the three girls, with photo-ops, including the cover of Life magazine. Press releases acknowledged that Joan was the eldest of the trio, but shaved two years off her real age and falsely claimed none of the actresses had professional experience, though Pacific Stars & Stripes soon reported Joan’s prior work.
For the film’s world premiere on March 20, 1953, Joan Elan and other stars were flown to Seoul, South Korea, where the showing was jointly sponsored by the Department of Defenseand the USO. Joan Elan and co-stars Audrey Dalton and Don Taylor, along with other Paramount contract players, put on a skit for the troops.
Despite its title, reviewers found The Girls of Pleasure Island to be innocent family fare. Reviews for Joan’s work were more focused on the character than the performance, but she drew no negative comments. The picture was successful, but not overwhelmingly so, especially considering the long press campaign. It did not lead immediately into other film roles for Joan; columnists noted the contrast with her co-star Audrey Dalton. Joan herself may have had some reservations about continuing to work in America, for she enrolled as a voter for the first time in late 1953 at her parents residence at Tilford in Surrey, a status she would maintain for the next few years.
Her Paramount contract had been renewed in 1953, but wasn’t continued any further. By early 1954 she had turned to television, work that at the time was less prestigious than film. She had leading roles in four small-screen productions that year, three of them for anthology series. One of these productions was an ambitious two hour version of Great Expectations, for which Joan played Estella.
As Joan Elan matured into her late twenties, her appearance suggested to some casting directors that she might play “exotic” ethnic types. During 1955 she played Eurasian, Chinese, and Eastern European characters on television, and surprisingly, an English lady. She also had a small role in her third film, MGM’s colorful but leaden Restoration era swashbuckler, The King’s Thief, where she played a shy Quaker girl.
In late October 1955 she opened in Boston for the original production of The Lark. She played the young queen in the adaption of Jean Anouilh’s 1952 French language two-act play about Joan of Arc. After its trial run, the show moved to Broadway in November 1955. Nominated for five Tony Awards (with a win for Julie Harris), the show lasted for 229 performances, a six-month run that later led one commentater to describe Joan Elan as a “New York actress”. Her stage success also raised her visibility in Hollywood, leading to her most prolific performing years. When the touring company was formed for off Broadway, Joan’s part was taken up by Barbara Stanton, who also performed the role on the Hallmark Hall of Fame television adaption in February 1957.
Joan Elan spent the remainder of 1956 making seven one-hour features for television’s Matinee Theater. This technicolor anthology series was shown by NBC in mid-afternoon. According to John Conte, who acted as host and co-starred in some of the features, the rationale for the broadcast time was so that RCA (parent company of NBC) showrooms would have a color TV program to display for their customers. Joan Elan’s English accent lent an air of authenticity to the show, which often adapted literary works in the public domain to reduce costs.
Elan would make four more of these features for Matinee Theater during the next two years. One 1957 program had her playing the title role in Jane Eyre alongside her drama school classmate Patrick Macnee. This was easily the most widely viewed of Joan’s performances, though the one-hour running time necessitated drastic cuts in the storyline. It was a staple of later broadcast for many years on US television, and is still available on YouTube today.
Her experience in filmed television led to her obtaining more parts in popular episodic shows, such as Perry Mason, Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, Rawhide, and Bat Masterson. However, the English accent that she was so careful to maintain, being her most marketable feature, also made her too distinctive for repeat usage during the same season on these shows. She could handle both comic and dramatic roles, but had no demonstrable skills in singing or dancing. Coupled with her natural reserve, this meant she had no opportunities for early television’s many variety shows, nor did she ever seem to do any talk shows. Another drawback for her television career, in which Westerns would play so big a part, was her fear of horses.
Her last film role, Darby’s Rangers (1958), was one of her most popular turns, playing a light romantic part opposite Stuart Whitman. In spite of this well-liked movie and her many television roles during 1957–1960, Joan Elan’s career halted abruptly with the coming of 1961. She had no performing work at all that year. She had one last performance in 1962, on Have Gun – Will Travel, playing opposite Richard Boone.
After her last television role in 1962, Elan stopped performing altogether. She and Harry F. “Bud” Nye, a teleplay writer and occasional author, took out a marriage license in Manhattan in late 1966 but were not married until the next year. There was no issue from the marriage, which was her first and his second. Elan died on January 7, 1981, in New York City, and was interred in Island Cemetery, Newport, Rhode Island as “Joan Elan Nye”.