“When she asked me to be on the album, it was a no-brainer,” said Ms. Altman, who was sitting on the floor during the rehearsal sipping tea from a Wonder Woman mug.
The couple’s sprawling Georgian-style mansion contains its fair share of Wonder Woman memorabilia, such as a needlepoint pillow on the living room sofa, a bobblehead on a kitchen shelf and dozens of photographs on the walls. “We’ve tried to keep up with our own history,” Ms. Carter said. “I have a lot of albums, but when the photos are in books, it’s harder to access them.”
Because of Ms. Carter’s enduring portrayal of Diana Prince in “Wonder Woman,” many fans don’t know that she was a singer long before she ever auditioned for an acting role. At 14, she stopped waiting tables at her uncle’s restaurant in Winslow, Ariz., after realizing she could earn $50 a night singing in a band. Although she was a good student and qualified for an academic scholarship to attend Arizona State University, she couldn’t resist the lure of the road. So she left home, promising her father that she would mail him every other paycheck to save.
“My husband once asked my mother, ‘Why on earth would you let your 17-year-old daughter go on tour with a bunch of musicians?’” Ms. Carter recalled. “My mother said, ‘Excuse me, have you ever tried to talk Lynda out of something she made up her mind to do?’”
While touring with various bands, Ms. Carter learned about music theory from jazz musicians and performed at Las Vegas lounges, borscht belt hotels in New York, honky-tonk joints in the South and supper clubs throughout the country. She remembers she was somewhere in the Midwest, in between gigs, when she saw a 30-something female lounge singer on stage and had an epiphany.
“I woke up the next day and couldn’t stop crying,” Ms. Carter said. “I thought, ‘That’s me in 10 years.’”
She gave notice to the band, called the Garfin Gathering, and went home to regroup.
Ms. Carter signed with a local modeling agency — she was 5-foot-9, with long dark hair and stunning blue eyes — and within the span of a month had been crowned Miss Phoenix, Miss Arizona and then Miss World USA. She pointed to a framed picture of herself, wearing a crown, a sash and a minidress, stepping out of a plane in the early 1970s. She noted that while her mother was proud, she found the whole beauty-queen thing ridiculous.
“You have to visualize the time. Women’s lib! Burn the bra! Gloria Steinem!” she said. “And I had some guy telling me I needed a chaperone and had to go cut a ribbon somewhere. It wasn’t me.”
She returned to music, recording a few singles in England with EMI before moving to Los Angeles, where she took acting lessons with the well-known coach Charles Conrad. That’s where she met a young aspiring actor named Les Moonves, who became her scene partner and close friend. “He was so cute,” Ms. Carter said of Mr. Moonves, who is now chairman and chief executive of CBS.
The Miss World USA crown got her in the door for auditions, but Ms. Carter was disheartened to find limited roles for women. She nabbed a few small parts in TV movies playing “the pretty girl,” she said, which enabled her to get her SAG-Aftra card while earning extra money playing gigs and singing advertising jingles.
The Gift of Wonder
Then came “Wonder Woman” in 1975, which turned Ms. Carter into a household name and international sex symbol. When the show was canceled after three seasons, Ms. Carter, who by then was also the face of Maybelline Cosmetics, was surprised.
“The show was larger than the executives realized at the time,” she said. “I was getting buckets of fan mail.”
After what she calls “an unfortunate chapter,” during which she was married to her former talent agent, Ron Samuels, Ms. Carter met Mr. Altman, in 1982. Maybelline was hosting a dinner in her honor in Memphis, and Mr. Altman was working with the legal team for Schering-Plough, then the cosmetics brand’s parent company. Once the relationship got serious, Ms. Carter said, she had absolutely no qualms about leaving Los Angeles and moving to the D.C. area, where Mr. Altman lived.
“I was ready,” she said. “I wanted some substance in my life.”
She reached into a cabinet and pulled out the blueprints for her house, which she and Mr. Altman built together in 1987, right before their son was born. “This was all farmland,” she said, looking out a giant window in her study.
As the children were growing up, Ms. Carter took a hiatus from singing and touring with her band but continued to appear occasionally on TV shows and in films. She will soon reprise her role as Governor Jessman in a sequel to the 2001 cult comedy “Super Troopers,” which will have its premiere on April 20.
But she didn’t resume singing on stage until 2005, when she played Mama Morton in the long-running revival of the musical “Chicago,” in the West End of London. “My son was going to be a senior in high school, and I was about to be an empty nester,” Ms. Carter said.
Patty Jenkins, the director of the movie version of “Wonder Woman,” offered her a cameo, but Ms. Carter was on the road with her band, and too busy to make the filming schedule work. For “Wonder Woman 2,” which will be released in November 2019, she said, “I will back Patty on whatever decision she makes.”
She and Ms. Jenkins met in person for the first time at the United Nations in the fall of 2016, right before the election, at an event to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Wonder Woman character. They hit it off right away and realized they even had the same birthday, July 24.
“My mom is hands-down Patty’s biggest fan,” Ms. Altman said.
Ms. Carter said, “I think you said, ‘Mom! This is like a bromance,’” adding that she also bonded with Gal Gadot, the Israeli actress who now wields the lasso of truth.
Following the success of “Wonder Woman,” the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce offered Ms. Carter a star on the Walk of Fame. It will be unveiled at a ceremony on April 3 with introductory speeches from Mr. Moonves and Ms. Jenkins.