BWW Interview: LONI ANDERSON ~ Showbiz Legend Joins Animation Legend Don Bluth In Celebration Of 30th Anniversary Of ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN
In the world of animation, Don Bluth is a legend. Following a career with Disney Studios that was highlighted by such classics as Robin Hood, Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too, The Rescuers, and Pete's Dragon, he founded Don Bluth Front Row Theatre in 2005.
In the world of television and film, Loni Anderson enjoys a sterling reputation as a comedienne and actress. She is best known for her groundbreaking role as the "sexy-yet-smartest-person-in-the-room receptionist," Jennifer Marlowe on the hit series WKRP in Cincinnati, for which she received multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. Over the course of her illustrious career, she starred in five additional television series, seven feature films, eighteen television movies and two mini-series, along with scores of starring roles in television series and specials. Her latest venture includes her highly acclaimed turn as Frances, a boozy and oversexed mother of two middle age children in the LGBT-themed comedy series, My Sister is So Gay (streaming on Amazon Prime).
On November 23rd, Loni and Don, along with other celebrities, will reune to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Bluth's animated classic, ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN in which the featured voices included Burt Reynolds as Charlie B. Barkin, Anderson as the rough collie Flo, and Dom DeLuise as Itchy Itchiford.
As part of a fundraising Gala to support the Theatre's work, Anderson will perform in an original stage production written exclusively by Bluth. Other celebrity guests appearing in the show include Gary Goldman (co-director and producer of the film and Bluth's partner in the making of other classics including The Secret of NIMH and Anastasia; Quinton Anderson Reynolds (the son of Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson); and Loni's husband, Bob Flick (one of the founding members of The Brothers Four).
In advance of her appearance, I had the pleasure of conducting a wide-ranging interview with Loni Anderson that covered the development of her career, her observations about theatre, her remembrances of Burt Reynolds, and her association with Don Bluth.
The celebration, including the premiere of Don Bluth's original work and the Gala will occur on Saturday, November 23rd, with a matinee at 1:00 p.m. and an evening event at 5:00 p.m. at Don Bluth Front Row Theatre in Scottsdale, AZ.
- When did you begin your show business career?
I was the kid in Minnesota who put on plays in the garage when I was 5 or 6 years old and charged the neighbors. I was one of those who I guess was destined to be in show business. I don't remember really wanting to do anything else. My first stage performance in community theatre was when I was ten. I played (which, of course, would be totally unacceptable today) a Native American princess named Bow Bright.
Community theatre became my hobby.
My parents told me that going to college and being an actress was not acceptable and that I had to get realistic. So, I got a teaching degree in art education from the University of Minnesota, but I never used it. After I graduated, I kept doing theatre and joined Actors' Equity.
I worked at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. That was spectacular, and I could have continued working there forever and made a lovely living because there's a rich artistic community and it's right next to Chicago, where I could go to do a national commercial.
I was like the "leading lady" for the stars in Minnesota where dinner theatres had famous people come in to do a show and cast local performers around them. So, I did all kinds of wonderful shows. Richard Deacon, who had been on the Dick Van Dyke Show, played my dad in Never Too Late. Alan Sues from Laugh-In and I had a hysterical experience doing Send Me No Flowers.
Somewhere along the line, I felt that I needed to try out New York and Los Angeles. So, I went to New York first and got cast in a traveling company of Fiddler on the Roof and played Tzeitel for 53 weeks.
The fact that I did national commercials out of New York and made more money than my dad who was a chemical engineer and owned his own company amazed my parents. They were fantastic, though, always involved and taking care of my daughter when I couldn't even put her to bed at night because I had to do a show.
Then, in 1975, I said to my daughter, let's go to Los Angeles and see if I can get a job on TV in the daytime so that I can be with you at night and on the weekends and for your school events. I had enough money to last six months, and we moved.
I had an agent immediately because somebody had seen me in Fiddler on the Roof and sent me to ABC where Aaron Spelling was producing S.W.A.T. I appeared in an episode with Farah Fawcett as two beauty queens who had been kidnapped. I was Miss Texas and she was Miss New Mexico ~ the blonde and the brunette. This was before she did Charlie's Angels; we became great friends for our whole lives.
That was the beginning of my career.
- What do you love about your work?
I love live theatre. I love the instant feedback that comes with being on stage and knowing that every night is different and can always be a surprise. An audience reaction can change your performance. For example, we just saw a production of Little Shop of Horrors at the Pasadena Playhouse, and when the overture started, I had to hold myself into my feet because I just wanted to jump on the stage. I'd much rather be up there than sitting in the audience.
- Who were your major role models and influencers as you developed your career?
There were so many different people along the way, but my idol was Doris Day. She epitomized the singing actress, wholesome and funny, that I aspired to be. I've always liked being funny, and I think of myself as an actress who sings, not a singer who acts.
Probably, the person who had the biggest influence on me was Pat O'Brien, an incredible character actor. We were doing a show called Paris Is Out. He told me that I needed to branch out and go to L.A. I responded that I would never do that because there's a pretty lady under every rock, and he said, "Not so many pretty funny ladies!"
- You described yourself as "an actress who sings, not a singer who acts."
I had the opportunity to do both singing and acting in a couple of movies in the early '80's and missed it so much that in 1995, I did the Kenley Circuit in Ohio, appearing in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. [The Kenley Players was an Equity summer stock theatre company which presented productions featuring Broadway, film, and television stars in Midwestern cities between 1940 and 1996. Founded by and operated by John Kenley, it is credited with laying the groundwork for Broadway touring companies.]
I even was on stage at the Grand Ole Opry.
People would ask if I was going to make an album and I'd say no way, I don't have the kind of voice that you want to sit around and listen to unless you're seeing me live on stage in a show. I'm a belter.
- You identified the wholesome Doris Day as your role model. As your career progressed, you became pigeonholed as a sex symbol. Did that inhibit your ability to move beyond the stereotype?
Interesting that you ask. One of the reasons that I didn't want to go blonde in the first place was because I had been, I thought, a very respected brunette actress. People took me seriously. One of the reasons that I initially turned down WKRP in Cincinnati was that I didn't want to be the blonde. Fortunately, the character of Jennifer Marlowe evolved because of me and Hugh Wilson, who created the show. I felt that, if we're going to have a character who is glamorous and sexy, then she has to be the smartest person in the room. So, in 1978, we made the glamorous woman the smart woman. It doesn't seem weird by today's standards, but then it was innovative.
Afterwards, I thought I'd go back to my brunette hair, but I never did. I had to be very careful what I chose to do. I could never do the dumb blonde thing. So, as I appeared in TV movies, I was on my little soapbox, trying to prove that blonde is smart. I've proved it.
- In those days, you were stuck with a "look."
When I was married to Burt Reynolds, he had to always be the hero because he said it was box office poison otherwise. If he died in a film, it tanked, because the hero has to be alive and he has to get the girl. If you establish the mustache, then you should always have that mustache. So, when you think of Clark Gable and John Wayne and Cary Grant, they had to always be the same heroic person that we believed in and loved. Likewise, Lana Turner was blonde and Rita Hayworth was a redhead and Orson Welles tried to make her a blonde and it didn't work out. So, it was just a different time, and I was kind of in the transition of that time where we all had a look.
- You're now featured in a very successful socially relevant comedy, My Sister Is So Gay, in a very different kind of role. What drew you to the story and the role?
When you get old enough to not have anything more to prove, you think, okay, now I just want to do what I like. These two young people, Terry Ray and Wendy Michaels, the stars of the show, were students of Charles Nelson Reilly with whom I had a strong connection. Terry Ray did a guest spot on a show that I was in, The Mullets, where I played the motorcycle mother of two guys with mullets. We realized our shared relationship with Reilly. Later, Terry called me, said he'd written a show with his friend Wendy and that they wrote a part for me and asked if I'd do it in memory of Charles. I said, yes! I play the promiscuous alcoholic wild mom of two gay children that she absolutely adores but is so in their face. It's irresistible to me, it's just the most fun character.
- You'll be in Phoenix in November to help Don Bluth celebrate the 30th Anniversary of his animated classic, ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN. How did you meet Don?
When I was an art major in college, my big loves were Doris Day and Walt Disney. I loved animation, but I felt that I was never good enough and that if I ever worked for Don in his animation department, I would still be doing the trees. I thought that the way for me to be involved would be to do a voice. The opportunity arose when Burt was doing ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN and Don asked if I would voice the Collie, Flo. This was my dream come true!
- What about Flo's character speaks to you?
Flo is so sweet, and she takes care of all those little orphan puppies. Maybe I've never told my sister, but she'll know now, that I used her as my inspiration. She was a teacher and, after she retired, she was a volunteer pre-school teacher. She has the sweetest voice and kids adore her. When I visit her and we're on the street, little kids don't run up and go "Loni, Loni," they run up and call her name and hug her legs. She was my role model for Flo, because she keeps everybody in line in the sweetest way. It's her whole delivery and her whole warmth that the kids adore. That's what I thought of when I was doing Flo.
- You were quite the cast! Burt Reynolds played Charlie B. Barkin and Dom DeLuise was Itchy Itchiford.
Yes, including Charles Nelson Reilly who was a kind of a goofy dog and Vic Tayback as Carface. We had all these wonderful actors, so vital with great voices, who are sadly no longer with us.
- What can we expect when you're in Phoenix for the Gala Celebration?
I couldn't not celebrate this moment. I think Don is an unbelievable artist. Computer animation is different from the beginning of animation where you had actual paintings and artistry. It's all good in its own way, but I love Don's feel for animation because it's more traditional. His movies of course are great.
My son, Quinton, is coming along because he wants to honor his dad. He is Burt's representative now. And he's a great fan of Don's work ~ 31 and still has ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN stuffed animals and stuffed toys and a Fievel, which is his favorite, from Don's An American Tail.
So, we'll be there to celebrate thirty years of ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN and Don and his fantastic sense of animation and his gift for loving theatre.
It is a wonderful thing to give back. For example, Burt had a theatre in Florida, he never made money on it, he just loved it, and he made it a wonderful place for actors to go and work. I feel the same way about Don. His is a passion that has to be supported because we need places like Don Bluth Front Row Theatre. How will anybody ever grow in this industry if there aren't places like this for us to go and do what we love?
- Don has persuaded you and Quinton and your husband Bob Flick to participate in a new work he's written.
We'll be doing a play reading on stage. It's adorable. He's written a little sequel to ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN. It's a surprise, and I don't want to give it away. I'll say this, though, that all dogs do go to Heaven and we want to prove that.
- Before we finish, I understand that you're developing a documentary on Burt Reynolds. What's the scope?
Yes, we are. My son and I are right in the midst of it. It's a really loving tribute to Burt because no matter how many ups and downs he had in his career and in his public life, he was an icon, the last movie star of that era. We want people to remember the incredible actor, director, producer that he was and his contribution. He had that special thing that made men want to be him and women want him.
Johnny Carson, whom we knew personally, felt Burt was the only person he really trusted as an actor celebrity to host the show when he wasn't there because Burt could control an audience.
Once, Burt Lancaster said to me that, at the Golden Boot Awards, when my Burt got up and spoke, he was so funny that Roy Rogers almost fell off his chair. Lancaster said, "I believe that was the funniest five minutes I've ever seen in my entire life." And I knew that Burt had simply got up and ad libbed. He was special in so many ways.
I said to my son, now, we need to have people remember all of this about him and not remember him as aging and frail. He was such a strong iconic figure. I lived with him for twelve years, at the top of his career, he was #1 at the box office, and he was the most handsome thing going...I've seen women faint right in front of us!
- When will the documentary be aired?
Hopefully, next year. It will probably be produced as a feature and then go to streaming. Paramount is producing it.
- You've described a life so rich in show business accomplishments and community service. What's next for Loni Anderson?
My goodness! I know I'll never retire. It's not a word that is in an actor's vocabulary, I think. There's always something that I can do. Even though there's ageism in Hollywood, and as you get older, there are fewer things to do, if something good and something fun comes up, I want to go where everybody's having a good time.
So, maybe, that reminds me of my start in the theatre where everybody was pulling together and said, Let's put on a show! I love that mentality that you really want to do the work, and it has nothing to do with the money, except that there's a great script and good people.
I think life is too short and you don't really want to go to work every day where there is animosity. I was fortunate to be on WKRP where there was such a family.
I have played some bad ladies in the past but I might have a real villain in me, I'm not sure, but there might be. Still, I'll never give up being funny, I have to do something funny. I love laughter, I think you have to have one good belly laugh every day to extend your life. And I think that getting that feedback from an audience, hearing laughter, for me, I love that about stage and I love that about TV in front of a live audience.
Also, I am always looking for charitable ways to give back. There are so many worthwhile charities out there that it's hard to pick one. I say, choose something that maybe has an effect on your life. Then you have the most emotion and the most to give. For me, of course, that's been COPD, which both of my parents had. And MS, my daughter has MS. And Alzheimer's ~ I have so many dear friends with Alzheimer's, and so I've been involved in that. What you want to do is go with the things that are close to your heart.
And you are close to our hearts! Thank you, Loni, for sharing so much of yourself, your experiences, and your observations. It's been a privilege and a pleasure to talk with you. We look forward to seeing you in November.
Photo credit by permission of Loni Anderson
Don Bluth Front Row Theatre ~ https://www.donbluthfrontrowtheatre.com/ ~ 8670 E Shea Boulevard #103, Scottsdale, AZ ~ 480-314-0841