Deborah Raffin: Actress and businesswoman


Deborah Raffin had a substantial career acting in films and on television, but made greater impact as an entrepreneur when she and her husband launched a series of books on tape, creating a multi-million dollar business.

 On screen, the tall, pretty actress with long fair hair and a wholesome quality will be remembered for her first starring role, in The Dove (1974), in which she portrayed the girl who proved an inspiration for yachtsman Robin Lee Graham as he sailed solo around the world, a trip that took five years.

In Charles Jarrott’s film, based on Graham’s autobiography, Joseph Bottoms played the sailor, who found support from Raffin as she followed him to Fiji, Australia, South Africa, Panama and the Galapagos Islands. Exquisitely photographed on exotic locations by Sven Nykvist, the film was also given a publicity boost by the participation of actor Gregory Peck as its producer. Raffin was later to name her publishing company Dove Books on Tape.

Born in 1953 in Los Angeles, she was the daughter of Trudy Marshall a model-turned-20th Century-Fox starlet who had small roles in such films as Springtime in the Rockies (1942), Heaven Can Wait (1943) and The Dolly Sisters (1945), and Phillip Jordan Raffin, a restaurateur. She studied drama at the age of 15 with Milton Katselas and in London with Kate Fleming at the National Theatre, but then followed in her mother’s footsteps by making her professional debut as a fashion model.   

She made her first screen appearance in the comedy Forty Carats (1973), as the daughter of a divorcée (Liv Ullmann). While her mother is falling in love with a man much younger than herself (Edward Albert), Raffin is attracted to an older one (Billy Green Bush). Though critics praised Raffin’s radiant beauty, the movie’s focus was on its star, Ullmann, whose misjudged comedy timing was blamed for the film’s mild impact.

After The Dove, Raffin played a father-fixated rich girl surrounded by corruption in an opulent production of Jacqueline Susann’s steamy best-seller about the jet-set, Once Is Not Enough (1975). Kirk Douglas played her father, a former film producer who marries a bi-sexual millionairess (Alexis Smith) to maintain his daughter’s lifestyle. Raffin next starred in a television movie, Nightmare in Badham County (1976), which was released theatrically in mainland China, becoming such a hit there that Raffin became the first Western actress to make a promotional tour of the country, after which she became an unofficial ambassador helping China make deals with Hollywood.  

Though Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To (1976) was a superior horror movie dealing with a religious cult and an anti-Christ, another horror film, but Michael Winner’s The Sentinel (1977), was cliché-ridden and tedious. 

Two minor television films, Ski Lift to Death and How to Pick Up Girls! (both 1978) did not improve her stature, and she lost out on the role of Sandy in the film version of Grease when producer Allan Carr, who had decided to give her the part, went to a party at Helen Reddy’s at which a fellow guest was Olivia Newton-John, who captivated him and landed the part.  

In 1980 Raffin starred in Touched by Love, the true story of a nurse, Lena Canada (Raffin) who persuaded a withdrawn cerebral palsy victim to write to her idol, Elvis Presley; it began a correspondence between the girl and the singer that lasted until her death. Raffin also won acclaim for her portrayal of the troubled actress Brooke Hayward in the television movie Haywire (1980), after which her acting career was mainly confined to television movies and mini-series, including the Hammer House of Horror episode “Last Video and Testament” (1984) and a Twilight Zone story, “Something in the Walls” (1989).   

She starred as a business woman opposite Pierce Brosnan in the mini-series Noble House (1988) and her occasional feature films included Death Wish 3 (1985), in which she was a public defender tracking down the murderous vigilante (Charles Bronson), but after discovering his identity she falls in love with him.  

In 1974 she married Michael Viner, a music producer, and in the mid-1980s the couple launched Dove Books on Tape as a hobby, working out of their garage. They soon had a bestseller with Stephen Hawkings’ A Brief History of Time, followed by Sidney Sheldon’s The Naked Face.  

Raffin was responsible for persuading celebrities to provide voices for the tapes – among her recruits were Roger Moore, Ruby Dee, Burt Reynolds and Jason Robards Jr. She also compiled a book of celebrities’ Christmas anecdotes, Sharing Christmas (1990), for which she travelled to Calcutta to get a story from Mother Teresa, with other contributors including Margaret Thatcher and Kermit the Frog. The book’s profits went towards helping the homeless. The enterprise became a multi-million dollar business, though Viner was sometimes criticised for his more sensational projects (including two books by participants in the OJ Simpson case) and the couple sold the company in 1997. The pair, who had one daughter, were divorced in 2005, and Viner died in 2009. Raffin was diagnosed with leukaemia a year ago.

Deborah Raffin, actress and entrepreneur: born Los Angeles, California 13 March 1953; married 1974 Michael Viner (one daughter, divorced 2005); died Los Angeles, California 21 November 2012.

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