Tanya Roberts, who has died aged 65 of sepsis, was already a film and television star when she was cast as a “Bond girl”, Stacey Sutton, opposite Roger Moore in A View to a Kill (1985). Moore was 58 at the time, and looking somewhat creaky as he scaled the Golden Gate bridge during his final outing in the role of James Bond, while Roberts was 30 and having the time of her life commandeering a fire engine during a chase through San Francisco, albeit with a little help from bluescreen technology.
She was second choice for the part after the producers were unable to secure Priscilla Presley. This hardly fazed Roberts, who had already made her name stepping into another actor’s shoes when she was cast in 1981 as Shelley Hack’s replacement on the fifth season of Charlie’s Angels, the hit series about a trio of glamorous female crimefighters. “That’s the way every job is,” she told the talk-show host Johnny Carson when he queried the show’s personnel changes. “There was someone before, there’ll be someone after you.”
Her fee was $12,000 per episode, and sShe was welcomed enthusiastically by her co-star Cheryl Ladd, who said: “She has a lot of ‘street’ in her, an edge that’s really fun to play off of.” Roberts described herself as “real New York … I say what’s on my mind, but I think I’m sensitive.”
What she had joined, however, was a sinking ship. With only Jaclyn Smith remaining from the original trio, the series was cancelled within a year of Roberts joining, though she remained buoyant about the whole role. “It gave me my big break. The only tough part was coming into a situation where the other two girls were sick of the show and wanted to get out, and I was all excited.”
She was born Victoria Leigh Blum in the Bronx, New York, to Irish-Jewish parents. “I look real Irish, but I have a Jewish brain,” said Roberts, who sometimes went by the name Tanya Leigh. Her mother was Dorothy (nee Smith), her father Oscar Blum, a pen salesman. She described herself as a “wild, rebellious kid” and told People magazine in 1981 that she had dropped out of school at 15, married “some guy” and “hitchhiked all over until his mother had it annulled”. A year later, she met Barry Roberts, a psychology student and later a TV writer, in a cinema queue in New York; she proposed to him in a subway station and they remained married until his death in 2006. Her older sister Barbara, also briefly an actor, married the psychedelic guru Timothy Leary in 1978.
Roberts worked as a dance teacher and a model. She studied acting with Uta Hagen and Lee Strasberg, and appeared in commercials and off-Broadway theatre. After moving to Los Angeles in 1977, a smattering of film roles came her way, including The Private Files of J Edgar Hoover (1977) and James Toback’s thriller Fingers (1978), as well as some unpromising TV pilots).
It was not until she had come out of Charlie’s Angels that she briefly established herself in cinema with two roles in the fantasy genre. First was The Beastmaster (1982). “It’s good versus evil,” she said, “and it’s a man who’s able to communicate with animals, and the animals help him fight all these bad guys, right?” She agreed to a nude Playboy photoshoot as publicity (“The pictures are full-length body shots draped over tigers, not at all trashy”) and played second fiddle in the movie to its star, Marc Singer.
She received star billing in Sheena: Queen of the Jungle (1984), by which time it was her turn to talk to the animals, at least telepathically. Abandoned in the jungle as an infant and raised by African warriors, Sheena rode a zebra, which was clearly a horse painted black-and-white.
What she really wanted, she explained in 1984, was a hit. “If you’re in a hit, you’re suddenly a star, whether you acted well or not.”
But Sheena wasn’t it. Janet Maslin in the New York Times said of Roberts: “She is in very good shape. That, unfortunately, is the best that can be said of her performance.” Pauline Kael in the New Yorker noted that she “seems afraid to loosen up and come to life” but praised her for having “the face of a ballerina, a prodigious slim, muscular form, and a staring, comic-book opaqueness. She gazes into space with eyes as exquisitely blank as if they’d been put on with pale-blue chalk. She’s a walking, talking icon, and she’s fun to watch.”
Roberts had feared that A View to a Kill, her next film, might be a curse. “I thought, ‘Oh God, every girl who has ever been in a Bond movie never has a career afterwards.’ My agent said, ‘Do it, do it!’” Her fears proved be well-founded, though, and her film work thereafter was confined to erotic thrillers with interchangeable titles: Night Eyes (1990), Legal Tender (1991), Sins of Desire (1993).
It was true that she could appear credulous, and was prone to be mocked openly and chauvinistically. Carson, for instance, plugged an awkward silence in their interview by asking: “Wanna go to bed?” Fortunately, she had a chance to sparkle when she was cast in 1998 on the sitcom That 70s Show. Her knowing performance as Midge Pinciotti, slow on the uptake but growing dissatisfied with her life as a housewife, proved she was no dummy herself.
Roberts retired from acting to nurse Barry when he became terminally ill. She is survived by her subsequent partner, Lance O’Brien, and by her elder sister Barbara.
• Tanya Roberts (Victoria Leigh Blum), actor, born 15 October 1955; died 4 January 2021