Michelle Phillips

Michelle Phillips (born Holly Michelle Gilliam; June 4, 1944) is an American singer, songwriter, and actress. She rose to fame as a vocalist in the musical quartet the Mamas and the Papas in the mid-1960s. Phillips garnered critical acclaim for her voice, which was deemed by Time magazine as the "purest soprano in pop music."[1] She later established a successful career as an actress in film and television in the 1970s. Phillips is the last surviving original member of the Mamas and the Papas.

Michelle Phillips
Phillips in 1979
Holly Michelle Gilliam

(1944-06-04) June 4, 1944
  • Singer
  • songwriter
  • actress
Years active1957–present
Children3, including Chynna Phillips
Musical career
InstrumentsVocals, tambourine
Associated actsThe Mamas and the Papas

A native of Long Beach, California, she spent her early life in Los Angeles and Mexico City, raised by her widowed father. While working as a model in San Francisco, she met and married John Phillips in 1962, and went on to co-found the vocal group the Mamas and the Papas in 1965. The band rose to fame with their popular singles "California Dreamin'" and "Creeque Alley", both of which she co-wrote. They released five studio albums before their dissolution in 1970. With John Phillips she gave birth to a daughter, singer Chynna Phillips.

After the breakup of the Mamas and the Papas and her divorce from John Phillips, she transitioned into acting, appearing in a supporting part in The Last Movie (1971) before being cast as Billie Frechette in the critically acclaimed crime biopic Dillinger (1973), for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe Award. She went on to appear in numerous films throughout the 1970s including Ken Russell's Valentino (1977), playing Natacha Rambova, and the thriller Bloodline (1979). She released her only solo album, Victim of Romance, in 1977.

Phillips became a main cast member in the series Knots Landing from 1987 to 1993, portraying Anne Matheson, the mother of Paige Matheson (portrayed by Nicollette Sheridan). She subsequently had supporting roles in the comedy Let It Ride (1989), and the psychological thriller Scissors (1991). She continued to appear in independent films after the millennium, with supporting parts in Jane White is Sick and Twisted (2002) and Kids in America (2005), and had recurring guest roles in the television series That's Life (2001–2002) and 7th Heaven (2001–2004). She was an outspoken critic of the Bush administration in the mid-2000s, and has also advocated the legalization of recreational cannabis.

Life and career

1944–1964: Early life

Phillips was born Holly Michelle Gilliam on June 4, 1944 in Long Beach, California, the second child of Joyce Leon (née Poole),[2] an accountant, and Gardner Burnett Gilliam, a merchant marine.[3] She has one older sister, Russell Ann.[4] Phillips's paternal grandfather, Marcus Gilliam, was from Walla Walla, Washington,[5] and worked as a miner and hotelier in Erie, Pennsylvania.[6] Gilliam County, Oregon takes its name from her paternal ancestors.[6] Her mother, who was originally from Canada, had numerous health problems, including subacute endocarditis,[7] and died of a brain aneurysm when Phillips was five years old.[8] Her father remarried five times following her mother's death.[9]

Between the ages of six and twelve, Phillips and her sister were raised in Mexico City, Mexico, where her father was studying sociology on the GI Bill at Mexico City College. While there, she attended Mexican schools and became fluent in Spanish.[10] Throughout her childhood, Spanish remained Phillips's primary written language, though she later learnt to write in English.[11] She resided with her father and sister in the Roma Sur district of Cuauhtémoc.[11] Phillips recalled that she and her sister's experiences living in a different culture "helped us get over my mother's death, and instead of grieving, we became very strong, independent, and free."[11]

At the age of thirteen, Phillips returned to the United States with her father and sister, settling again in Los Angeles.[8] She was a childhood friend of Sue Lyon.[12] Phillips attended several high schools in Los Angeles, including Alexander Hamilton High School[13] and John Marshall High School, and Eagle Rock High School.[14] While a student, Phillips played several sports, and studied piano, guitar, and cello.[8] At 5 feet 7 inches (1.70 m) in height,[15] Phillips relocated to San Francisco hoping to work as a model while still in high school.[16] There, she met John Phillips while he was touring California with his band the Journeymen. He divorced his first wife and married Michelle on December 31, 1962, when she was eighteen years old.[17] In 1968, she gave birth to their daughter, Chynna Phillips, who later became vocalist of the 1990s pop trio Wilson Phillips.[18]

1965–1969: The Mamas & the Papas

After her marriage to John Phillips at age eighteen, the couple relocated to New York City, where they began writing songs together.[16] There, Phillips was a founding member of the Mamas & the Papas, helping to form the vocal group in 1965.[19] She co-wrote some of the band's hits, including California Dreamin', which appears on their debut album If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears (1966).

Recording of the Mamas and the Papas' second album (eponymously titled The Mamas and the Papas (1966) and sometimes referred to as Cass, John, Michelle, Dennie, whose names appear thus above the band's name on the cover) was interrupted when Michelle Phillips became indiscreet about her affair with Gene Clark of the Byrds.[20][21] An affair the previous year between Phillips and bandmate Denny Doherty[22] had been forgiven; Doherty and John Phillips had reconciled and ostensibly written I Saw Her Again (1966) about the episode,[23][24] although they later disagreed about how much Doherty contributed to the song.[25] This time, Phillips was determined to fire his wife.[26] After consulting their attorney and record label, he, Elliot and Doherty served Michelle Phillips with a letter expelling her from the group on June 28, 1966.[27] Michelle was rehired shortly thereafter, when the three original members concluded her replacement Jill Gibson, who was a quick study and well regarded,[28] lacked her predecessor's "stage charisma and grittier edge"; Michelle Phillips was reinstated on August 23, 1966.[29][30] After Phillips' reinstatement, the band embarked on a brief tour of the East coast, playing a series of precarious shows in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Maryland, and at Fordham University in New York City.[31]

After returning to California and settling in Los Angeles, the group recorded their third album, The Mamas & The Papas Deliver (1967). In June 1967, Phillips performed with the group at the Monterey Pop Festival in Monterey, California, an event organized by John Phillips and Lou Adler.[32] The festival also featured other prominent California-based counterculture musicians and psychedelic rock acts, including Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Recounting the experience, Phillips said: "[It was like] a Renaissance Fair. It was convenient for the artists and the audience. Practically everyone had a seat, and if not, people were lining up against the fence, and they could see and hear. Or people were sitting outside, you could hear it outside, too ... It was lovely."[33]

In August 1967, the band played what would be their final live performance at the Hollywood Bowl.[34] Phillips would go on to record a fourth and final album with the band, The Papas & The Mamas (1968), before going on a hiatus. Michelle and John Phillips, whose marriage was failing at the time, filed for divorce in a Los Angeles County court in May 1969, and the group officially disbanded in 1971 before the release of their final album, People Like Us, which was recorded to fulfill contract obligations with their record label.[35]

1970–1976: Transition to acting

In 1969, while still a member of the Mamas & the Papas, Phillips appeared in Gram Parsons' science fiction film Saturation 70, alongside Nudie Cohn, Anita Pallenberg and Julian Jones, the then-five-year-old son of the Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones.[36] The film was never finished, and became a lost film.[36] The following year, after the breakup of the Mamas & the Papas, she enrolled in acting classes in Los Angeles, and has said that she intended to start her acting career "from scratch," stating that the royalties from the band's records provided her a sustained income while she began to venture into film.[35]

Her first film role came in Dennis Hopper's film The Last Movie (1971), in a minor bit part; she and Hopper married shortly after the production on October 31, 1970,[37] but the union lasted only eight days.[38] Two years later, she was cast in a lead role in the thriller film Dillinger (1973) as John Dillinger's girlfriend, Billie Frechette. The film was critically acclaimed, and Variety said of her performance: "Phillips, making her film bow after having been a member of the Mamas & the Papas singing group, scores heavily as Dillinger's girlfriend,"[39] while The New York Times noted it as "mildly effective."[40] Phillips was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer for her performance.[41] Reflecting on the film, Phillips said: "I was so lucky to have been surrounded by really great actors. Everybody in that movie was a real actor: Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, Richard Dreyfuss, Harry Dean Stanton. It was just a wonderful, wonderful experience for me and I had so much support and so much help and so much encouragement. That was really my first movie. Dennis' movie [The Last Movie] was a lot of improvisation and craziness."[42] Phillips remained a lifelong friend of co-star Stanton.[43]

The same year, Phillips recorded vocals as a cheerleader along with Darlene Love, for the Cheech & Chong single Basketball Jones which peaked at No 15 on the Billboard singles chart. In 1974, she was featured in the action-horror television film The California Kid opposite Martin Sheen, and also appeared briefly in a party scene with Warren Beatty in Shampoo (1975); Phillips had been dating Beatty at the time, and the appearance was a cameo.[44] She would later state that she considered Beatty the love of her life.[45] In 1975, Phillips signed a solo recording contract with A&M Records and released a promo single, Aloha Louie, a song she wrote with ex-husband John Phillips. Phillips released her first solo single in 1976, No Love Today, on the Mother, Jugs & Speed movie soundtrack.

1977–1986: Solo album, film, and writing

In 1977, Phillips released her first and only solo album, Victim of Romance, produced by Jack Nitzsche for A&M Records.[46] Commenting on the record, she said: "I didn't do it earlier because I never felt secure enough as a vocalist. I'm good, but Cass was always better." Phillips also commented on her involvement in its production, saying that she had been involved in "every aspect, from mixing to putting together the package and cover myself."[38] Her first two solo singles from the album failed to make the U.S. music charts.

The same year, she sang backup vocals with former stepdaughter Mackenzie Phillips on Zulu Warrior, for her ex-husband's second solo album, Pay Pack & Follow. The same year, she starred as Rudolph Valentino's second wife Natacha Rambova in Ken Russell's film Valentino (1977). The film received mixed reviews, with Time Out London saying: "Structured as a series of flashbacks from Valentino's funeral to his early years in America, the first hour or so of this biopic is Russell's sanest and most controlled work in several years, despite its hollow cynicism."[47] The following year, Phillips married radio executive Robert Burch,[48] to whom she was married until 1982.[3] After divorcing Burch, Phillips began dating actor Grainger Hines; with him she gave birth to a son, Austin Deveraux Hines, in April 1982.[49]

In 1979, she appeared in the film adaptation of the Sidney Sheldon novel Bloodline (1979), a thriller starring Audrey Hepburn and Ben Gazzara. Released in June 1979, Bloodline received negative reviews from critics,[50] and Phillips's performance (along with those of James Mason and Maurice Ronet) was criticized by Variety as being "drab."[51] The same year, she recorded the song Forever for the movie soundtrack of California Dreaming the same year, a surf film that had nothing to do with her former group.

Her other film credits during this period include roles in The Man with Bogart's Face (1980), Savage Harvest (1981), American Anthem (1986). On television, Phillips played the mermaid princess Nyah in three episodes of Fantasy Island, and Leora Van Treas in Mike Hammer: Murder Takes All (1983) starring Stacy Keach in the title role,[52] and appeared in TV miniseries such as Aspen (1977) and The French Atlantic Affair (1979). From 1983-1986 she joined the cast of Hotel as the concierge, the daughter of hotel owner Victoria Cabot's rival, who plants his daughter as a spy to further his aim of acquiring control of the St. Gregory. Sometime in the late-1980s, Phillips took in Aron Wilson, a friend of her son Austin's, whom she legally adopted.[53]

In 1986, Phillips wrote an autobiography, California Dreamin': The True Story of the Mamas and the Papas, released just weeks after her former husband's autobiography Papa John.[54] In it, Michelle describes such events as her first meeting with fellow Mama, Cass Elliot, of winning 17 straight shoots at a crap table in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when the band was broke and could not afford the airfare back to the United States, and how her writing credit on California Dreamin', which still nets her royalties, was "the best wake-up call" she ever had: she was asleep in a New York hotel room when her then-husband John Phillips woke her up in order to help him finish the new song he was writing.[55]

1987–present: Knots Landing; film roles

Phillips starred for six seasons on Knots Landing as the constantly scheming Anne Matheson Sumner, the mother of star Nicollette Sheridan's character Paige Matheson (a role which Phillips returned to for the TV movie Knots Landing: Back to the Cul-de-Sac (1997)). During this time, she also appeared in the films Let It Ride (1989); the thriller Scissors (1991), opposite Sharon Stone; and Joshua Tree (1993), starring Dolph Lundgren.[56]

On December 2, 1987, Phillips was arrested in Amarillo, Texas, for marijuana possession after being pulled over for speeding.[57] Phillips was a passenger in the car with then-boyfriend Geoffrey Tozer, and the marijuana was discovered after police searched the couple's vehicle.[57] Phillips was booked and released on $500 bond.[58]

In late 1987, Phillips sang backup vocals on Belinda Carlisle's number one hit, "Heaven Is a Place on Earth", as well as on the Carlisle LP, Heaven on Earth. She also appeared in the Star Trek: The Next Generation first-season episode "We'll Always Have Paris" as Jenice Manheim, wife of the scientist Paul Manheim. She subsequently starred in the short-lived drama series Second Chances (1993–1994) opposite Connie Sellecca and Jennifer Lopez.[59] She played Laura Collins in the television drama film No One Would Tell (1996),[60] and also supplied the voice of Raven, a television host, on Ralph Bakshi's HBO animated series Spicy City (1997).[61] Beginning in 1997, she portrayed Abby Malone, mother of Valerie Malone (Tiffani Amber Thiessen) in Fox's Beverly Hills, 90210.[62] Phillips began dating Steve Zax, a plastic surgeon, in 1999.[16]

In September of 1993, Phillips and a female companion were robbed at gunpoint outside a restaurant in West Hollywood, California.[63][64]

From 1999 to 2000, she had a guest role on the television series The Magnificent Seven, where she played Maude Standish, the mother of one of the Seven. After the millennium, Phillips continued to occasionally appear in films. She had a supporting role in the comedy Jane White Is Sick & Twisted (2002),[56] the drama Harry + Max (2004), and the independent comedy Unbeatable Harold (2006), the latter of which she appeared in as a waitress.[65] Between 2001 and 2004, Phillips also appeared on television in a recurring role on The WB drama 7th Heaven as Lily Jackson, sister of family matriarch Annie Jackson Camden (Catherine Hicks).[66]

In 2009, Phillips appeared at the annual TV Land Awards for the 30th year celebration of Knots Landing.[67] She also appeared in a minor role in the Norwegian historical film Betrayal, which chronicles the German occupation of Norway.[68]

In 2017, Zax, Phillips's long-term partner of eighteen years, died.[69]

In 2019, Michelle Phillips appeared as an interview subject in Andrew Slater's Echo in the Canyon, a documentary on the Laurel Canyon music scene of the 1960s.[70]


Phillips has been noted for her soprano vocals, and was once deemed by Time as "the purest soprano" in pop music.[1] A 1977 Billboard review described Phillips's vocals as " both spirited and smooth."[71] Despite having received critical acclaim for her singing, Phillips has admitted to being self-conscious of her voice, and stated that Cass Elliot encouraged her during their tenure in the Mamas & the Papas.[1] She recalled in 2004: "I've yet to meet another woman as strong, funny and fiercely independent as Cass was. She was very generous vocally, too. John would give us these impossibly high parts to sing because he loved the sound of girls in the clouds. Cass would tell me, 'Just go for it, Mich! You know I'm gonna make it - come and join me!'"[1]

Political beliefs

In 2007, Phillips publicly protested the Iraq War and stated her belief that president George W. Bush and vice president Dick Cheney should be investigated for war crimes.[72] The following year, she advocated legalization of marijuana, crediting it with helping her quit smoking cigarettes: "When I really, really, really wanted a cigarette, I would take a puff of pot, and the cravings would go away," she said.[73]


The Mamas & the Papas


Solo singles

Single Year Ref.
"Aloha Louie" 1975 [74]
"No Love Today" 1976 [74]
"Aching Kind" 1977 [75]
"There She Goes" 1978 [75]



Year Title Role Notes Ref.
1968 Monterey Pop Herself Documentary film [56]
1970 Saturation 70 Unfinished; lost film [36]
1971 The Last Movie Banker's Daughter [56]
1973 The Death Squad Joyce Kreski Television film [76]
1973 Dillinger Evelyn "Billie" Frechette Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer[41] [56]
1974 The California Kid Maggie Television film [56]
1975 Shampoo Girl at Party Uncredited [77]
1975 Miracle Trixie Short film [78]
1977 Valentino Natacha Rambova [56]
1978 The Users Marina Brent Television film [79]
1979 Bloodline Vivian Nichols [56]
1980 The Man with Bogart's Face Gena [56]
1981 Savage Harvest Maggie [56]
1982 Moonlight Meredith Tyne Television film [80]
1983 Murder Me, Murder You Chris Jameson Television film [81]
1984 Secrets of a Married Man Katie Jordan Television film [82]
1985 Covenant Claire Noble Television film [83]
1985 Stark: Mirror Image Jennifer Clayton Television film [84]
1986 American Anthem Linda Tevere [56]
1987 Assault and Matrimony Madge Evers Television film [85]
1989 Let It Ride Mrs. Davis [56]
1989 Mike Hammer: Murder Takes All Leora Van Treas Television film [86]
1989 Trenchcoat in Paradise Suzanna Hollander Television film [87]
1991 Keep On Running Tracy [88]
1991 Scissors Ann Carter [56]
1993 Joshua Tree Esther Severance Also known as: Vanishing Red and Army of One [89]
1993 Rubdown Jordana Orwitz Television film [90]
1996 No One Would Tell Laura Collins Television film [60]
1996 Pretty Poison Mrs. Stepanek Television film [91]
1999 Sweetwater Nancy Nevins Television film [87]
2000 Lost in the Pershing Point Hotel DeeDee Westbrook [87]
2000 919 Fifth Avenue Mrs. Janet Van Degen Television film [92]
2000 The Price of Air Mrs. Rye [87]
2001 March Joan [87]
2002 Jane White Is Sick & Twisted June [56]
2004 Harry + Max Mother [56]
2005 Kids in America Singer [56]
2006 Unbeatable Harold Erma [65]
2006 And the Sea Took Us Herself (voice) Documentary film [93]
2009 Betrayal Eva Karlsen [94]
2016 Good Fortune Herself Documentary film [56]
2019 Echo in the Canyon Herself Documentary film [95]


Year Title Role Notes Ref.
1973 Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law Stephanie Marks Episode: "The Prowler"
1977 Aspen Gloria Osborne 3 episodes [56]
1979 The French Atlantic Affair Jennie Barber 3 episodes [56]
1979–1984 Fantasy Island Various 7 episodes [96]
1980 Vega$ Officer Cassandra Hunt 2 episodes
1981–1984 The Love Boat Barbara Carroll/Sheila Price/Linda Gammon 5 episodes [56]
1982 Matt Houston Glenda Collins Episode: "Shark Bait" [96]
1983 The Fall Guy Fay Charles Episode: "The Chameleon" [56]
1983 The Mississippi Caroline Foster Episode: "The Last Voice You Hear"
1983–1986 Hotel Elizabeth Bradshot Cabot 8 episodes [56]
1984 Automan Veronica Everly Episode: "Murder, Take One"
1984 Fox Mystery Theater Sandra Lorenz Episode: "Paint Me a Murder" [87]
1984 Finder of Lost Loves Alicia Marsh Episode: "Yesterday's Child"
1984 Murder, She Wrote Regina Kellijian Episode: "Death Casts a Spell" [87]
1985 T. J. Hooker Teri Sherman Episode: "Love Story" [56]
1985 Glitter Episode: "The Matriarch"
1987–1993 Knots Landing Anne Matheson 88 episodes [56]
1988 Alfred Hitchcock Presents Katherine Clark Episode: "If Looks Could Kill" [97]
1988 Star Trek: The Next Generation Jenice Manheim Episode: "We'll Always Have Paris"
1993–1994 Second Chances Joanna Russell 4 episodes [59]
1994 Burke's Law Denise Kima Episode: "Who Killed the Starlet?"
1994 Herman's Head Sandra Clayton Episode: "A Head in the Polls" [98]
1994 Heaven Help Us Episode: "Stepping Out"
1994–1999 Diagnosis Murder Livia Parkinson/Christine Shaw 2 episodes [99][100]
1995 Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman Claudette Wilder Episode: "Target: Jimmy Olsen" [101]
1996 Malibu Shores Suki Walker 10 episodes [56]
1996 Too Something Karen Reeves Episode: "Donny's Mother"
1997 The Big Easy Collette Episode: "Ghost of the Pricky Rose"
1997 Pauly Cassandra Episode: "Foreplay"
1997 Knots Landing: Back to the Cul-de-Sac Anne Matheson Sumner 2 episodes
1997 Spicy City Raven 6 episodes [61]
1997–98 Beverly Hills, 90210 Abby Malone 9 episodes [56]
1998 Love Boat: The Next Wave Quinn Ford Episode: "True Course" [102]
1998–2000 The Magnificent Seven Maude Standish 3 episodes [56]
1999 Providence Blair Mason Episode: "If Memory Serves" [103]
1999–2001 Rude Awakening Vivian 3 episodes
2000 Twice in a Lifetime Edwina Lewis Episode: "Old Flames" [56]
2000 Popular Hellacious Akers 2 episodes
2001 All About Us Juliana Merrick Episode: "The Scare"
2001 Spin City Jane Moore Episode: "The Wedding Scammer" [56]
2001–2002 That's Life Maureen 2 episodes
2001–2004 7th Heaven Lilly 3 episodes [56]
2003 Abby Christine Newton Episode: "The Mama and the Papa"


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