She shot to fame as Prisoner‘s ‘Top Dog’ Bea Smith, but actress Val Lehman wasn’t just battling demons on-screen.
The 75-year-old actress has suffered her fair share of heartache in real life too, with one of her most difficult periods falling before she started filming the 1970s-8os show.
Now, speaking in an exclusive chat with Starts at 60, the actress – who quickly became one of the most memorable faces on Aussie TV after her debut on the show – has opened up about the moment she was forced to choose between an ex-partner and her love of acting.
“He didn’t really want me to be an actress,” she explained.
Despite his wishes, Val never once considered giving up her love of stage and screen, but her decision to follow her dreams didn’t go down well for her relationship and it allegedly ended up turning violent.
“He actually hit me. I said ‘I’m sorry, I am no-one’s victim’. It happened twice, the first time I threatened him, the second time I said ‘that’s it’. It was almost as if he was trying to hit the theatre and he couldn’t so he hit me instead.
“There were other silly things, like, I had an audition and when I went downstairs [to leave] two of the tyres had been slashed on the car – to make sure I couldn’t get there. Of course he denied it was him, but I’m not stupid. I didn’t bother pushing it, I knew damn well he’d done it. I just got there some other way.”
While she loved her partner at the time, she admitted her job would always come first, adding: “I don’t think I ever loved anyone more than the theatre.”
Val’s on-screen character Bea went through her fair share of emotional and tense scenes, and while she was undoubtedly one of the most unpredictable and dangerous people behind bars, Australia fell in love with her.
Part of that adoration no doubt came from Val’s incredible acting, and she admitted she drew from her own experiences in life to get across such a deep level of emotion on screen.
“It’s important to cover issues that people don’t want to talk about, and it makes it possible for them to talk about it,” she said of the show. “It also makes it possible to talk about it in a non-personal way, so they can get out their feelings without feeling like they’re exposing themselves.”
The actress experienced grief at a fairly young age, as her father tragically died after serving in the Navy during the war.
“I’m afraid it was all the asbestos from the guns [that] got to him, and that’s what killed him. It’s very sad.”
However, Val remained close to her mother throughout her life, before she died last year at the age of 96. It was her mum’s independence and ability to live on her own (Val’s step-father died 11 years earlier) that inspired her own independence.
She now lives in her own home on an island off the mainland of Australia, and she added: “My mother had three lives. She was a wildly intelligent woman, she’s a member of the Order of Australia for contributions to the environment and community, and a city counsellor in her 80s.
“She married my father and had me when she was 22, then she divorced him and sometime later had a second child when she was 40 – but never quite married that man! And then much later than that, at the age of 49, she had another child and remarried. I have two half-sisters who are younger than my children!”
For 692 episodes Prisoner kept Australians glued to their TV sets. The series that first aired in 1979 garnered a huge audience of over a million viewers on average for every episode. The show was even a powerhouse overseas ranking as the number two highest rated show when it premiered in the US.
It was a massive program for Channel Ten and its production house Grundy Television Productions.
Val is now planning a big reunion for fans of Prisoner, old and new, and plans to invite up to 15 members of the original cast along. It will take place on Sunday, February 24, next year in Melbourne, and bookings are due to open shortly.
She’s also busy helping with the launch of an entire series of Prisoner action dolls hitting market later this year. Of course, Bea will be the first one available.