In November of 1969, Claudia Jennings graced the pages of Playboy as Playmate of the Month. She was born on December 20, 1949, in Saint Paul, MN, under the name of Mary Eileen Chesterton. After graduating from high school in Evanston, IL, she adopted the name Claudia Jennings for her photoshoot in Playboy. After her appearance in the popular men’s magazine, Jennings became an actress, appearing first in the Gunther Collins directed picture SAVAGE SOLDIER (1971). She followed up with THE STEPMOTHER (1972) and UNHOLY ROLLERS (1972). Her appearance in these low-budget B-Movies garnered attention from television executives as she began to make appearances in popular 1970s shows, including Barnaby Jones, The Brady Bunch, and The Streets of San Francisco.
While her television roles were somewhat limited in number, it’s her film career that was sadly cut short due to her unforeseen death. As fans of exploitation films, we do have some amazing movies to remember her by. My personal favorite is UNHOLY ROLLERS (1972). Karen Walker (Jennings) is fed up with her day job at the cannery and one day impulsively quits. She becomes a skater in the roller derby. Karen quickly proves her skills despite not being a team player, rising to the top of roller derby stardom while creating friction with the team and tension with the team’s owners.
In Mark Lester’s TRUCK STOP WOMEN (1974), Jennings portrays a hooker at a truck stop brothel. In the film, Rose (Jennings) is tired of being pushed around by the woman who run the trucker’s sleazy retreat, her mother Anna (Lieux Dressler). Rose hires some Mafia contacts in an attempt to take over the prostitution operation. If you like women and truck stops – and let’s face it, who doesn’t – then this picture is for you.
In THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE (1976), Candy Morgan (Jennings) robs a bank with a handful of dynamite. She’s assisted by bank teller Ellie-Jo (Jocelyn Jones – who for some reason infatuated me years ago). Ellie-Jo later gets picked up hitchhiking by Morgan and the two quickly bond, teaming up to play the female versions of Bonnie and Clyde. This movie is GREAT fun, highly underseen, and underappreciated. It’s a forgotten gem, waiting to be rediscovered by exploitation fans.
The final film I’ll mention is ’GATOR BAIT (1974). This Beverly and Ferd Sebastian film depicts swamp lady Desiree Thibodeau (Jennings) as a barefoot poacher. She’s caught by Deputy Billy killing alligators illegally, but the Deputy is willing to let her transgression pass if Desiree is willing to make restitution in form of sexual favors. Desiree, however, isn’t having it. She flees, and during the pursuit, the Deputy accidentally shoots his partner. He tries to pin the shooting on Desiree, resulting in a manhunt for which Desiree turns the tables to exact her revenge. The plot is absolutely silly, but Jennings makes for an attractive and fun lead resulting in very satisfying exploitation experience.
At the young age of 29, Jennings left Stan Herman, a Beverly Hills realtor with whom she was in a relationship. She had also quit abusing drugs and alcohol. On the morning of October 3, 1979, she got in her VW for the last time. While driving to Herman’s home in Malibu, CA, purportedly to pick up her belongings, she was hit head-on by a van killing her instantly while on Topanga Canyon Boulevard. I don’t have to say this, but I will. She was taken far too early . . .
Here is a complete list of films you should consider watching in her memory:
Jud (a.k.a. Savage Soldier) (1971)
The Love Machine (1971)
The Stepmother (1972)
Unholy Rollers (1972)
Group Marriage (1972)
40 Carats (1973)
The Single Girls (1973)
Truck Stop Women (1974)
’Gator Bait (1974)
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1975)
Sisters of Death (1976)
Moonshine County Express (1977)
The Great Texas Dynamite Chase (1977)
Fast Company (1979)
Contributed by: Mike Murphy