Black History Month Spotlight: Ena Hartman

Last updated on December 18th, 2018 at 08:56 am

Ena Hartman is an unsung trailblazer of Hollywood whose smaller roles in 1960s media productions helped create a path for African Americans in film and television. African-American actresses working in the 1970s benefited from the trail Hartman helped blaze.

Ena Hartman was born on April 1, 1935, in Moscow (Jefferson County), Arkansas. The daughter of sharecroppers Daniel and Magnolia Smith, she was raised by her grandparents. She picked cotton and attended a one-room schoolhouse when she wasn’t needed in the fields.

At age thirteen, she moved to Buffalo, New York, to live with her mother. She dropped out of high school to open a restaurant, handling the duties of cook and waitress as she tried to earn money to go to New York City to become a model. She was discovered by a photographer in the lobby of a modeling agency that had just rejected her. In the late 1950’s she started a career as a top photographic model with the Grace Del Marco Agency and she studied drama with Josh Shelley and Lloyd Richards.

In the early 1960s, NBC television sponsored a talent competition for young actors and actresses, and her talents were brought
to the attention of the vice president of talent relations for NBC. The network extended her a five-year talent contract in August 1962, which meant that she would be trained and developed as an actress to appear in NBC programming. She thus became the first African American to sign a talent contract with a major television network and also the first African-American woman to sign a contract with NBC.

Her roles were small at first, as she appeared as Caroline in the series Bonanza in the episode titled “Enter Thomas Bowers” (1964), and she drew positive reviews from critics nationwide for this role. She appeared as Corrine in “The Farmer’s Daughter” and as Ann Eliza Hammond in Profiles in Courage in 1965. Ena appeared in her first motion picture, “The New Interns” and then as an WAC secretary in the spy spoof “Our Man Flint” in 1966. In 1966, she left NBC and appeared as Marcia Davenport in the television movie Fame Is the Name of the Game.

To the delight of those of us geeks who regularly watched sci-fi, she made another memorable appearance as a member of the Enterprise crew in the Star Trek episode “The Corbomite Maneuver.” Among her other appearances were Tarzan (1966) and the popular television series Ironside (1967–1969), starring Raymond Burr, and as Ida Walters in “The Missing Realtor” episode of Dragnet (1967).

She finished the 1960s with appearances in the psychological thriller Games (1967) and as a nurse in the television movie Prescription Murder (1968), starring Peter Falk in his debut as Columbo. In 1968, Hartman also appeared in a number of other television shows such as Adam 12 and It Takes a Thief. She almost landed a role costarring with Elvis Presley in Change of Habit but lost out to actress Barbara McNair.

Her break-out role might have been in a proposed movie costarring Sidney Poitier about the life of actress Dorothy Dandridge (with Dandridge having personally approved Hartman to play her). But after Hartman and film officials negotiated details, Poitier—who was one of Hollywood’s most popular actors at the time—decided in the final stages to pass on the project, leaving the role unplayed and Hartman without that major job.

She was Honorary Mayor of Universal City for one year in 1968, meeting VIPs. She was the cover feature lead story for that honor on JET Magazine, Sept. 19, 1968. She was the first black woman to be so named. Ena was signed to a two-year contract by Universal-TV, getting one of her more visible roles as Ruth, a stewardess in the box-office hit “Airport” (1970). Hartman then became a tv series regular as police dispatcher Katy Grant for two seasons on the television series Dan August (1970–71), starring Burt Reynolds.

Ena also earned an Image award from the NAACP as the most promising new young Black actress in a series in 1970. After the Dan August series ended, she played Carmen Simms in the movie Terminal Island (1973), with Tom Selleck.

She appeared in an episode of “Police Story” in 1975, which pretty much was the end of her on screen career. Four television movies created by editing together episodes of Dan August were broadcast in 1980. By that time, Hartman had retired from the movie industry.

Ena Hartman is remembered as an attractive and classy actress who might have achieved more if she was born at a later time.