Jillian Kesner was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, on August 9, 1949. Once she completed high school, Kesner traveled to Los Angeles to begin her career as a print model. Several years after arriving in Los Angeles, Kesner found a role in the TV series S.W.A.T. playing Miss California in an episode titled “The Steel-Plated Security Blanket” (1975). After a brief appearance on the TV series Barnaby Jones, she started her film career playing the lead role of Carrie in THE STUDENT BODY (1976). Kesner went on to play small roles in other popular 70s TV shows such as Happy Days, Three’s Company, Mork and Mindy and T.J. Hooker.
In 1981, Kesner began work on the Cirio Santiago directed picture, FIRECRACKER (1981) aka NAKED FIST. Kesner’s character Susanne Carter finds herself entangled in a drug smuggling operation and, as a martial artist, finds herself fighting her way out of trouble. During a lengthy action sequence, she begins to lose pieces of her clothing, including her bra, as she battles in tight confined corners. That doesn’t stop her from kicking ass. Yes, you have to see this scene to believe it.
FIRECRACKER led Kesner to another, yet crazier, role in Edward Murphy’s RAW FORCE (1982) aka KUNG FU CANNIBALS. RAW FORCE is about a group of martial artist en route to an island filled with the ghosts of “other” martial artists who have lost their honor. In this picture you encounter a Hitler lookalike, zombie samurais, rapey monks, hungry piranhas and several dozen naked women being used as slaves.
In the late 80s, Kesner played a seductive vampire in the Fred Olen Ray picture BEVERLY HILLS VAMP (1989). This one entails a trio of wannabe filmmakers going to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune. Unfortunately, all they find are a handful of super sexy female vampires who happen to be hookers. While Kesner is fun and beautiful, the movie itself is an attempt at striking gold off the back of Ray’s earlier film HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS (1988). That aside, both Michelle Bauer and an aging Britt Ekland make appearances in VAMP.
While on the set of THE STUDENT BODY, Kesner met husband-to-be Gary Graver who was the film’s cinematographer. Graver was just setting out on his own, but had already worked with the likes of Al Adamson, Greg Toland and Lucille Ball. At one point, he even cold-called Orson Welles looking for work and the two became fast friends (but that’s another story for a very long blog post). Graver and Kesner would eventually wed, becoming inseparable thereafter. Both Graver and Kesner, in connection with Orson Welles, would devote much of their time attempting to finish his film THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND along with preserving Welles’s legacy.
On December 5, 2007, Jillian Kesner-Graver passed away from complications of a staph infection which she contracted after having been diagnosed with leukemia. She was 58. One year before her death, her husband Gary Graver passed away at the age of 68. Kesner was taken from us far too early. While her days performing as a titillating blonde martial artist were behind her, 58 is just too young to go.
Here is a list of Jillian’s work in film:
1976 The Student Body
1980 Ang agila at ang falcon
1981 Firecracker (a site favorite)
1982 Raw Force (a site favorite)
1982 Trick or Treat
1987 Moon in Scorpio
1987 Evil Town
1989 Beverly Hills Vamp
1992 Roots of Evil
1996 Subliminal Seduction
1997 Operation Cobra
Contributed by: Mike Murphy