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BWW Interviews: Sally Struthers Was 'Born with Funny'

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It was with this amusing phrase that Margaret Caroline Struthers loved to describe her talented actress daughter, Sally. And, indeed, for several generations of television and theatre audiences, Sally Struthers has reigned as a comedienne.

The vivacious, outgoing, blonde actress is currently back at the Ogunquit Playhouse for her thirteenth production in eleven seasons where she is playing Mrs. Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie. A perennial favorite at this famed seaside summer stage, Struthers has starred in their productions of (among others) Hello, Dolly! The Full Monty, Fiddler on the Roof, Always, Patsy Cline, and Chicago.

"They know my name, "she says of the Maine audiences. "They fell in love with me as a family member on television forty years ago. They love to scream when I do something naughty. I'm a little wackadoodle, and they love that," she tells me by phone from the theatre shortly before a Wednesday matinee.

"Sally is being humble," Bradford Kenney, Ogunquit's Executive Artistic Director, chimes in. "As a live musical theatre actress, she is terrific! Sally is the real deal. She performs a level of musical comedy that is hard to find. She can dance, sing, act, and she gives 150% on stage eight times a week no matter what else happens - if the scenery falls down, if someone else forgets lines. She is good, and that's why she comes back here over and over. We simply love her!" he concludes enthusiastically.

Struthers' current role in Thoroughly Modern Millie is that of the Chinese villainess. She delights in playing against type. "I did Miss Hannigan in Annie on Broadway, and it was interesting for me who is a bleeding heart for children (her favorite charity is the Children's Fund) to play someone who can't stand them." Struthers has high praise for director Kirby Ward whom she met through his actress wife with whom she shared the stage in Annie in Waltham, MA. "Kirby is a consummate entertainer. He is turning these song and dance shows into something spectacular."

Her transformation into the nasty Meers is so complete that audiences often do not immediately recognize her. She shares a funny story about Leah, the wig mistress, and her elderly aunt who attended a recent performance and commented afterwards, "My goodness, Sally doesn't look anything like she used to in All in the Family," to which Leah replied, "But, of course, Auntie, she is playing a Chinese woman!"

Struthers chuckles heartily. That she will forever be associated with her first big television role as Gloria in the legendary Archie Bunker comedy is something she understands and embraces. "The further I get away from it, the more I appreciate it," she says. "I don't think I understood the phenomenon it would become while we were making it because I was so young and fresh. Even when I knew it was going to be long lasting, it still didn't sink in that this was a show that would be talked about even after I passed away. It is one of the top television shows ever produced."

Sally Struthers likes to tell how she was cast as Archie and Edith's daughter through a series of serendipitous circumstances. After two years training at the Pasadena College Playhouse, she began to appear in variety shows such as the Smothers Brothers and the Tim Conway Comedy Hour. As the lone dancer on the Conway show, she was cut when producers missed the satirical point and thought, "she made the show look cheap." That firing was a blessing in disguise because it freed Struthers to read for All in the Family.

Asked if she regards being remembered for Gloria as a blessing or a hindrance, Struthers promptly replies: "Never a hindrance. It opened doors for me; it made it so I cannot go down a street without receiving a hug from a stranger; it's taken me to events at the White House...who wouldn't want all that?"

Struthers does concede that, unlike the current theatrical climate, in the 70s and 80s actors were often pigeonholed as television or movie or stage performers, "I had done two feature films (Five Easy Pieces and The Getaway) when I got All in the Family, and I probably wouldn't have done more because of this attitude.

Fortunately, however, times changed, and Struthers moved easily among mediums, making her Broadway debut in Wally's Café (1981), followed by the female version of The Odd Couple, and Grease. She went on to star in numerous regional and national tours of musical blockbusters. Her television gigs were also many and varied, most notable among them the recent Gilmore Girls (2000-2007).

She talks of the craft needed "to travel through the mediums." She stresses the technical subtleties required for the small and large screen. "You barely move your eye, and it speaks volumes. You have to learn the differences." She recalls fondly the live television audiences of the early days. "It was like doing a play in the theatre. It was very comfortable."

I ask Struthers how she accounts for her amazing longevity as an actress. "I was never an ingénue," she says candidly. "I knew from the start that I was a character actress," she admits. She recounts her first gig in a Ponds Cream commercial when, to her initial dismay, she was cast as the sidekick, not the Ponds girl. "First my heart sank, and then within the hour I figured out what a blessing it was. Because when the Ponds girl loses her looks, she is done, but if I am the character actress, I will work my whole life."

And, so, Sally Struthers has reveled in creating colorful, larger than life characters. "What is her secret," I ask, "especially since comedy is such a difficult genre?"

She agrees that the flair for comedy is a special gift. "You need insanity; you need to be fearless; you need to think outside the box, and these are intangibles, things you are either born with or not. One of my earliest memories is having only a few words to my command and using them to make my mother and sister laugh. It is a gift that has been given to me, and I am so lucky to be able to make a living using this gift."

"It is a thrill to work with a comedienne of Sally's caliber," Kenney adds. "I love to watch what she does with language, timing, in rehearsal without sets or costumes, with a new director or different situation - how she makes the character come to life. The lines may be funny, but it is all the other things she does that are not on the page that are electrifying."

Quite simply, Kenney says with obvious respect and admiration, "Sally Struthers is a master class in comedy."

Photos Courtesy of the Ogunquit Playhouse


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