Sally Struthers on '9 to 5,' life and topless scene with Jack Nicholson

Actress Sally Struthers stars in Gateway Performing Arts

Actress Sally Struthers stars in Gateway Performing Arts Center's production of Dolly Parton's "9-5" at Patchogue Theater for the Performing Arts in Patchogue July 18-Aug. 4, 2012 (Credit: Handout)

More than four decades have passed since 23-year-old Sally Struthers was coaxed into a topless scene with Jack Nicholson in "Five Easy Pieces." He received his first of eight best actor Oscar nominations, and Struthers also used the 1970 film as a springboard to an enduring acting career.

Along the way she picked up a couple of Emmys for best supporting actress as Gloria Stivic in "All in the Family." She also was a regular on "Gilmore Girls" and TV's "Nine to Five" and became an icon for children's relief funds. Her Long Island debut as Roz in "9 to 5: The Musical" for Gateway Playhouse in Patchogue is her latest role in regional stage productions. The actress took a break to discuss her career.

 

What drew you to the role of Roz in "9 to 5"?

If they offered me the role of Mr. Hart, I would have taken it. I took it because it was an opportunity to work at this wonderful theater that's been here for 60-plus years, which has a great reputation, and to do a musical that I've never done before. And what's great for me is that the phone never stops ringing with theater offers. I've only been home twice since it became 2012.

 

As Gloria Stivic, you were one of the most endearing characters in TV history.

Very few people know that Rob Reiner and I were the third set of kids for that show. Talk about luck. It was first made as a pilot for ABC, and they looked at it and said, "We can't put this on the air. We'll get tarred and feathered." So they recast those two roles, they looked at it again and said, "We can't put this on the air. It's much too controversial," and shelved it again. At which point, Norman Lear went over to CBS ... so Rob Reiner and I were the third Mike and Gloria.

 

Do you know who the first two pairs of actors were who had the roles of Gloria and Mike?

I have no idea. You know, I don't own a computer. I don't own anything with buttons, I don't understand how to work things with buttons. The world has stymied me. I am so in the last century. I still write letters and put stamps on them and drop them in a mailbox. Somebody told me, either in Pittsburgh, where I just was, or here, somebody said to me, "Oh, I just looked at YouTube for 'All in the Family' pilots and saw both pilots that were made before you did the show for CBS," so it's out there somewhere in the universe.

 

And you won your first Emmy in '72.

I won it when my mother was in the hospital, and we were sure she was dying, and the Emmy Awards that year were on Mother's Day, and I remember shaking the Emmy toward the camera and saying, "This is for you, Mom!" I flew back to Portland, to sit by her bed again. She was the one who figured out what I could do with my life. So she got well, which was just brilliant, and I gave it to her, and she had it in her home until she passed away in 1996.

 

You won your second Emmy in 1979.

Yeah, and I wasn't there for that, because the year before, '78, I had gone with my husband to the Emmy Awards, and our show was nominated in every category, and I sat there and watched "All in the Family" win best TV sitcom, and then I watched Carroll O'Connor win best actor, and then I watched Jean Stapleton win best actress, and then I watched our director win best director, and our writers win best writers, and then I watched Rob Reiner win best supporting actor in a comedy -- and then I lost to Gilda Radner for "Saturday Night Live." And let me tell you something. As much as I don't believe in these awards shows -- and I really don't -- I truly believe if you want a trophy, join a bowling team. But I felt so humiliated that every single category they won, except me, that as soon as it broke on a commercial break, I whispered to my husband, "Let's get out of here." Then we went outside, and there were 400 or 500 limousines outside. I mean, how do you find your car? So we're running back and forth, trying to spot the person who drove us there, and Nancy O'Connor, Carroll O'Connor's wife, came out and said , "Oh my God, oh my God, there's something wrong with Carroll. We've got to get him to the hospital. There's blood spurting out of his nose, and I think he's gonna have a stroke, or he's having a heart attack, I don't know." So we found the car finally, and we rushed Carroll O'Connor from Pasadena, where the awards were taking place, to the UCLA hospital in Westwood, Los Angeles, and he was having a very big high blood pressure attack, and it broke the vessels in his nose, so he recovered from that, but that's all that happened that night. Then the next year when I was nominated again, I said to my husband, "I don't want to go. I've never been so uncomfortable in my life as I was last year. I have an Emmy, and it's at my mother's house, and I'm happy, but I don't want to sit there again. It's just torture." And so we were in our pajamas, we had a bowl of popcorn, we were watching it on TV, and they said, "And the winner is Sally Struthers, and if she were here, I'm sure she would thank the academy." I turned to my husband and said, "I guess it's too late to go down there, huh?"

 

It's funny how life works like that.

But you know, if you let time pass enough, and you remain cognizant of the world besides yourself, you can usually realize that certain things happen actually quite appropriately, because when Gilda Radner died, I was so thrilled that she won an Emmy. I just loved her so, and you know, spread the wealth, spread the wealth.

 

Do you prefer stage, film or TV?

I prefer all of them. I don't prefer to be pegged into any one. I love transitioning through all of them. I love the artistry that each requires, and I love the "fly without a net" of the theater, you know, it's not for sissies -- there are no retakes. You get out in front of an audience, and you can't say, "Stop! Could we go back? I don't remember where I am at this moment, I can't think of my next line." You can't do that. I know many a film actor who refuses to go onstage because they can't memorize 70, 80 pages of dialogue and go out there and do it with no retakes. They can't do it. It frightens the heck out of them. So I love that aspect. I've always loved a live audience. There is nothing better than the immediate reaction to your work, whether it's laughter or a gasp or applause, and you don't get that when you're working on a film. Everyone on the set has to be quiet, so you're not sure if you're being funny or not. I love the opportunity to reach many, many people, which you get with television and film. It's all quite different, and I love doing all of it. I love doing voice-overs, I love doing cartoons. I love doing commercials! I love all of it.

 

How did you get the role of Gloria?

I had just gotten let go from "The Tim Conway Comedy Hour" because the suits in New York said that I made the show look cheap. And the producer said, "That's the whole point, we're trying to make it look like the Conway show doesn't have a budget, has no money, and so that's why there's only one Tim Conway dancer instead of a line of them like the June Taylor dancers on 'The Jackie Gleason Show,' and there's only one musician, and they can't even afford an instrument for him, so he's standing at a music stand, humming the opening theme song." That's funny! And the suits said, "No, it makes the show look cheap." So they let me, the Tim Conway dancer, go. And if they hadn't done that, I wouldn't have been free to read for "All in the Family."

 

You probably thought, "Oh, this is the worst thing that could happen."

Being let go, yes. I loved Tim Conway, I loved the producers, Sam Bobrick and Ron Clark. They subsequently wrote the first Broadway show I ever did and put me in it, "Wally's Café." But it was all serendipitous that I was there and that I was available and that I landed that role. And I think every day that I get a day older, the more in awe I am that I actually had that experience.

 

What's your favorite memory from "All in the Family"?

I think, like the audiences who screamed and laughed at it -- it was the longest television laugh in history -- my favorite moment probably was when Sammy Davis Jr. kissed Archie Bunker.

 

Was there one particular episode you liked best?

The flashback to Gloria's wedding day.

 

Why that one?

Because it was so sweet, and with conversations that Gloria had with her mom and with her dad. It was all very sweet. I lost my father in real life two years before I started "All in the Family," so Carroll really became like a dad to me off-screen as well as on. I loved any tender moments I had with him.

 

I read you were a real cut-up as a kid in your household.

Yeah. My mother, who was very, very bright and single-handedly got my father through medical school by studying with him -- she knew as much about medicine as he did -- but she was trying to make a point when she would describe me to people, because she was often asked, "Has Sally always been like this?" And my mother would say, "Sally was born with funny."

 

I understand you were planning to be a doctor.

Yeah, I wanted very much to be one. I thought I wanted to until it was really time to follow through with that, and then I panicked. I didn't realize at the time why I was having a nervous breakdown, but I cried for days and days and couldn't even figure out why I was crying. One day my mother just got in my face and said, "You've got to tell me what's going on, what you're feeling," and I said, "I can't do it." And she said, "Do what?" And I said, "I can't work on a cadaver." I couldn't do the frog and the cow's eye in biology class. How can I, for months, my first year of medical school, be cutting up a human body and dissecting it and looking at it. "I'm gonna pass out, I'm gonna vomit. I can't do it." And my mother said, "Where is it written in granite that you have to be a doctor like your dad?" And I said, "Well, I just feel so sorry for him because he didn't have any sons. He only has Sue -- my sister Sue -- and me." And I said, "I just feel like he would maybe want somebody to follow in his footsteps." And my mother says, "Stop! No! You need to do what you want to do." And I said, "I don't know what I want to do!" She said, "Well, you've been entertaining the family since you could walk and talk. Why don't you go to an acting college?"

 

Before "All in the Family," your first movie role was in "Five Easy Pieces," and you had a nude scene with Jack Nicholson.

Just nude from the waist up, yeah.

 

What was that like?

Absolutely frightening. He lost his balance. He was carrying me, and we fell through a window, and he got badly cut up, and it was just like, "Oh, my God, let's just get this over with."

 

Did they just come and discuss it with you?

No, they waited until I was on the set. I mean, I was really pressured into it. It was not in the script.

 

Who did the pressuring? Director Bob Rafelson, or Jack?

The director.

 

What were you thinking as you were going through it?

Well, he kept saying, "We're going to protect you, we're going to protect you. Nobody's going to see anything. You can leave your jeans on, and you're going to be with your arms around Jack's neck and your legs around his waist, and he's just going to be twirling around the living room with you, and then twirling into the bedroom, and then you're going to be on the bed. And the camera's going to follow up with him because he has this big grin on his face, and he has a T-shirt on that says, 'Triumph,' like Triumph motorcycles. He says, "You know, we're just going to see your back." "Oh my God, oh my God, why isn't there someone here to help me? Oh my God." It was awful, just awful. It was a nightmare. And my mother went to see the film while I was home in Portland visiting her, and I begged her not to go, and she said, "I'm going. I'm going to see your film." And I said, "I really don't want you to see it." And when she said she was going, I said, "Well, I'll be here when you get back." I was in her house, and I said, "If you're embarrassed, or if you didn't like it, or you're mad, I can't do anything now to take it back, so don't say anything to me, because I'll be more crushed than I am already." She went to see the movie, and three hours later, she walked into the house, and I was sitting there, and she walked right past me and didn't say a word and went to her bedroom and shut the door. And that spoke volumes.

 

Did you ever have a conversation with her about it since then, and what was said?

Nothing. We never discussed it.

 

So looking back, if you had to do it over again...

Oh, I'd never do it. Never.

 

Have you seen Jack since?

Yes, I have. I don't shop in any expensive stores -- my favorite stores are Tuesday Morning, Marshall's, TJ Maxx. But years ago, I was in Tiffany's. Somebody I knew wanted specifically something from Tiffany's for Christmas. And I was in there, and there was quite a crowd, and my friend who I was with leaned over to me and said, "Sally, look over there ... it's Jack Nicholson." So I took a peek and said, "Yes, it is." And she said, "Are you going to say hello to him?" I said, "No," and she said, "Why not?" And I said, "He's busy, and I'm busy, and he probably doesn't even remember me. I made that movie with him a hundred years ago, and I'm not going to go over there and make a fool out of myself." So I was waiting in line, and several minutes later, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and I turned around, and he said, "Hi, Sally, it's Jaaaack!" And I said, "Hi, Jack, I wasn't going to come over. I didn't want to bother you." And he said, "It's so good to see you! Merry Christmas! I haven't seen you in so long. Are you good?" And I said, "Yeah, and I know you are ... what a star you are!" We had a lovely moment. But I never would have approached him.

 

One of my favorite TV shows was ABC's "Dinosaurs," and you played the voice of Charlene, the style-crazy daughter. That was the best.

Yeah, that was such a good production. It was so clever and so funny, and the only reason I didn't stay on longer was because it was too expensive to make. That's why ABC pulled the plug on it. It was a hit. But they couldn't justify the budget anymore.

 

Let's find out a few of your favorite things. Such as your favorite singer.

I guess Elton John.

 

Your favorite TV show?

"The Good Wife."

 

Favorite actress?

Ruth Gordon. There's a portrait in my bedroom. I loved her so.

 

Favorite actor?

Gregory Peck.

 

Is there a movie of his you like the best?

"To Kill a Mockingbird."

 

What is your favorite movie of all time?

"Crash."

 

Who's your favorite comedian?

Oh, what his name? He's an older gentleman now, and he's so funny. He's always talking about the Jews.

 

Jackie Mason?

Jackie Mason! He's hysterical. He's funny.

 

Your favorite book?

I love "Pentimento" by Lillian Hellman.

 

And what's on your schedule now?

I've got theater booked for the next year and a half, and all of that, of course, has a contingency in that if I get cast in another television series, then they understand why I would have to bow out. But what's wonderful is that there's always theater there to do when you're not in the middle of a series.

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