Q&A with Sally Struthers

Photo credit: Ron Davis

From November 29 to December 23, actress Sally Struthers will call Boca Raton home as she portrays the infamous Miss Hannigan in The Wick’s production of Annie. Although she is perhaps best known for television roles like Gloria on All in the Family and Babette in Gilmore Girls, Struthers is a lifelong stage actress. Here, she shares insight into her career and lessons she’s learned along the way.  

PBI: What do you most enjoy about doing live theater?

Struthers: The stage is my first home. I was trained on the stage at the Pasadena Playhouse College of Theater Arts, so I was ready to do that long before I was ready to do anything else. Not everybody can do it. There are a lot of actors who do movies who need to have 17 takes to get three sentences right, and then they piece together a performance. When you’re onstage you have to remember 90 pages of dialogue and do it from beginning to end without stopping. No one’s going to save you.

What’s one of your most memorable early gigs?

I was a dancer on The Tim Conway Comedy Hour. I was the dancer, as opposed to one of the dancers—and that was the joke. The joke was that the show was supposed to look like they had no budget, and so they had one dancer, me, who didn’t dance well. And they had one musician, and the show was so poor they couldn’t buy him an instrument, so he hummed the opening theme song. I was probably in my sixth week of doing that show, and then the suits in New York didn’t get the humor and they told the producers to let me go. If I hadn’t been let go, I wouldn’t have been free to read for All in the Family.

What was the most important acting lesson you took away from your time on All in the Family

To make the show more important than your own part, and that way you won’t get your panties up in a bunch if somebody eliminates several of your lines for time’s sake. In the beginning, I used to count my lines because I only said three lines every week. They were, “Michael, where are you going?” “Ma, I’ll help you set the table.” And, “Oh, Daddy, stop it.” The writers didn’t know how to write for me. When one of my three lines would get eliminated, I would get silent steam coming out of my ears. Rob Reiner took me aside and said, “If you learn to make the show more important than your own part, you will be a happier camper doing this.” And he was absolutely right.

What would Gloria be up to now?

Well, I know she’s divorced, but she had a son, Joey, so by now she’d be a grandmother several times over. Something that I’m not in real life—so good for her.

A whole other generation of TV fans knows you best as Babette on Gilmore Girls. How much of that character is you, and how much is Babette?

Well, you can’t tell it by my acting because I’m not a good impersonator, but when I played Babette I made it my seven-year homage to Ruth Gordon, who was my favorite actress who ever lived and became my friend. That’s the way I went in for the audition.

What has portraying so many comedic characters taught you about taking risks? 

I take risks in life as well as on the stage. It can apply to being an actor and it can also apply to how to live your life, and that’s to just go for the gusto. In everything you do in life, do it with all of your energy, dedication, and spunk, because you get out of something what you put in it.

Your voice is one of your most defining characteristics, and you’ve put it to great use throughout your career. How do you go about finding and developing unique voices for your roles? What do you think a voice can convey about a character?

It’s just like listening to music. Somebody’s voice is their instrument, and if they learn how to use it well, they can take you through from the heights to the depths of emotions. When I do the show Always Patsy Cline, it’s a two-woman musical with just two of us onstage for two hours. Patsy sings all the songs, and I do all the talking. One minute after I have the audience bent over with laughter and then to get them crying, I know that I’ve learned my craft. And it feels really good.

You’ve portrayed Miss Hannigan before. What do you most enjoy about bringing that character to life?

Personally, I just find it delicious to play a woman who can’t stand children since I’ve spent my whole life trying to help them. I was a children’s ambassador for Save the Children. I’ve traveled the world trying to help uneducated and hungry children everywhere. And to get onstage and absolutely despise them is really the fun, opposite thing for me to play. Also, doing the show is a chance to work with two of my favorite groups on the planet, which are children and animals. There’s always a Sandy dog and then an understudy Sandy. And there’s always Annie and all the orphans, so I’m surrounded by what I love. I’m in heaven when I’m doing that show.

Do you have any pre-show rituals before you take the stage?

I carry a striped tea towel, and I put it out in front of me so that the stripes are going from east to west. My brushes are all lettered and my different pieces of makeup are numbered, and I lay them out in order of the way I put them on. And that keeps me calm. If I had to search for everything on a messy makeup table, I’d be late on stage and frazzled by the time I go on. To keep myself calm, I have numbered and labeled every single thing I put on, and I do it like the way you read from left to right. And then I’m good to go.

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