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The Man Who Played a Nun
By Tom Soter
I wasn't a nun. But I played one on audio tape. Yes, I admit it. I was the voice behind the infamous Hedwig Zorb (cue: theme music), a notorious nun who appeared in 24 episodes of PLANET OF THE NUNS (http://elysianfields.us/?q=node/7) and in the 20 or so episodes of the spin-off series, THE SISTER.
Hedwig was based on a real character: a middle-aged, German-accented nun who taught my "religious knowledge" class during my high school years, c. 1969-1971. Although she was ripe for parody, I remember there was nothing amusing about her in real life. She was a knuckle-rapping terror who made us sit on our hands if we misbehaved and blithely handed out her most effective punishment to those who crossed her: "Zero for the day." We knew her as Sister Hedwig, but we found out her real name (in those pre-Google days) by looking her up in the school yearbook, where she appeared in years past as a laytacher under the monicker of Hedwig Zorb.
The name was apt, as unreal as the notorious nun. By 1969, when Christian Doherty and I created PLANET OF THE NUNS, I had started doing a wicked impersonation of her that delighted friends and family (I remember recording a collection of improvised songs with my brother Nick on guitar in my Hedwig persona; they were pretty bad, but had remotely clever names, like "The House of the Rising Nun").
Hedwig became one of my most popular characters, turning up in everything from WEST THAT WASN'T and JOE AGENT OF V.A.T. to THE CHRISTIAN DOHERTY SHOW and THE FANATIC. (I have to admit, however, that one reason for all those appearances was the fact that we didn't have any female actresses for our shows, so Hedwig was a necessary guest star to fill out our gender-specific roles.)
Our Hedwig was a real woman's libber. No shrinking violet, she shot (with a silencer) and punched her way out of most predicaments, and by the time of THE SISTER, she had morphed from a terrifying nun into a bonafide heroine, a kind of female Simon Templar (of TV's SAINT, from which we lifted the theme song). Although we had attempted THE SISTER series in 1969, we didn't begin taping it in earnest until 1971, when PLANET OF THE NUNS was ending. The early episodes, like "The Stolen Spaceship," are similar to PLANET, as Hedwig perfoms crimes against humanity with the help of her PLANET associate, Ruth. Later episodes find her dealing with Dracula, Frankenstein, and even Charlie Chan as the series got away from its roots and became more absurd (as though a series about a pistol-packing German nun wasn't absurd enough.)
In listening to her now, I have to admit I find Hedwig something of a bore. Her solution to problems is always the same: "Be seeing you," she will invariably say, moments before shooting someone. The technique is too George W. Bush-like for my tastes. For a 14-year-old, such simplistic resolutions might suffice. But after thousands of deaths in Iraq, such random murder doesn't seem that funny anymore. I imagine even Hedwig would agree.
A Visit to the School, Part 1
Pilot episode. Taped: 1969
In the original, unsold pilot of the series, The Sister (Hedwig Zorb) goes undercover to gather information about a horrifying school. Ruth: Ruth Chas.
The Stolen Spaceship
Episode 1. Taped: April 10, 1971
In this spin-off from Planet of the Nuns, Hedwig Zorb strikes out on her own, seeking intrigue and adventure around the world. This episode finds the villainous No. 1 up to his old tricks, hoping to employ Hedwig in the theft of a NASA spacecraft. Sister: Hedwig Zorb. No.1: Christian Doherty.
The Talented Chopper
Episode 2. Taped: 1971