Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Conchata Ferrell first made her mark as an actress in the theater, earning acclaim—as well as a Drama Desk Award and a Theater World Award—for her work in The Sea Horse, but it was her performance in Lanford Wilson’s The Hot l Baltimore that first led her to step off the stage and in front of the camera. Ferrell has worked both in film and television, shifting between drama and comedy with relative ease, but it’s the latter that’s kept her gainfully employed for more than a decade now, thanks to the role of Berta on CBS’ Two And A Half Men, which kicks off its 12th and final season this week.
Two And A Half Men (2003–present)—“Berta”
Conchata Ferrell: The best story about Berta is my audition. I think they wanted her to be the ethnic character. They asked me to come with an Eastern European accent. I liked the material very much. I love playing women who have the nerve to do things that I don’t have the nerve to do, and Berta is certainly one of those. So I worked it like they wanted, but I also worked it in my own voice, and I thought to myself, “You know, this really works better for me in my own voice, so what I ought to do is ask them if I can do it both ways.” So I planned on that. And then I got there, and there were 32 women auditioning for this role. It was supposed to be a two-part arc, and my character was going to quit because Alan and the boy were moving in.
So, anyway, I looked around, and I thought, “My God, they are never going to listen to this twice.” But then I thought, “If you want this role, go in there and do it the best you possibly can… and the best I possibly can do is in my voice.” So I went into the room, and I said, “I know that you’re looking for, like, a Russian or a Polish accent, and I’ve got a pretty good Russian. However, I bring my own ethnicity to this, and I’ve worked this material. It works better in Trailer Park than it does in anything else.” And Chuck [Lorre] just laughed and said, “Well, do whatever makes you happy.” And I did it, and it was really funny, and I left thinking, “Well, if I don’t get it, it’s not because I didn’t do the best I could.” And it turned out that he really liked the idea of this woman being a trailer-park person.
He also added things to it as it went along, like the fact that she was a Deadhead, an old hippie. It just turned out to be a really wonderful character because I am a lot of those things. I wasn’t a Deadhead, and I didn’t follow a band around, but I definitely was an old hippie. I was a political hippie. So it was so comfortable. I’m from West Virginia, and she just grew into somebody who I could’ve gone to school with, or rode the school bus with. I’ve really liked walking with her and walking in her shoes.
The A.V. Club: And to think it was originally only going to be a two-episode arc.
CF: Yeah, I was supposed to quit because of Alan and the boy. But it was set up in the back storyline that I had taken care of Charlie for almost 20 years, and that we were really good friends, but neither one of us ever talked in terms of that. And I really liked working for him. I liked his lifestyle, I liked the fact that he lived the way he lived and he said what he said and he did what he did. [Laughs.] I liked him because he was a classier version of me, I thought. Now, These are my thoughts, not theirs.
But I remember coming home after the second show and saying to my husband, “Boy, I hope they’re thinking what I’m thinking, because I really fit there.” Then they called me in to do a third show, and when they did, they said, “I’m going to bring her back.” And I went, “Well, I really hope you do, because I really like her.” And they said, “I like her, too.” So that first year, I think I did eight or nine shows—I was a guest star all year—and then the beginning of the second season, he just put me in the house. He liked me in the house. And I loved being in the house. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you have a favorite Berta-centric episode?
CF: You know, they don’t do a lot of Berta-centric things. They never have. There’ve been a couple that were, like, focused on my granddaughters. Megan Fox came in as my granddaughter once. But I think my favorite episode for Berta was the episode where Chris O’Donnell came on [“An Old Flame With A New Wick”], and he was playing Bill, a man who had once been a woman—Jill—and had dated Charlie. And I had my own opinion of Bill, but I looked at the pictures that Charlie had of Jill and figured it out—and then he started dating Evelyn. Berta spent two days sleeping in the laundry room because she didn’t want to miss anything. [Laughs.] It was better than any soap opera I’d ever watched. I loved that episode.
AVC: Do you think this season is as good a time as any for the series to wrap up?
CF: Oh, yeah. But, you know, it’s been good with Ashton [Kutcher]. I really think Ashton came along and saved us. I think we were over. And I think it was a surprise for Chuck when he met with Ashton that he liked him so much and knew that he could work with him. And they made the decision not to make him into Charlie. Yeah, we’ve fumbled around a little bit, but I think for the most part we’ve just done a whole different show, and I’ve really enjoyed it. I do think Ashton came along and saved the show. We all kept working because of Ashton. [Laughs.] But Jon [Cryer] has also been a revelation to work with. He’s funny, but he’s also just a nice guy.
AVC: It seems I have him to thank for this conversation: Didn’t he pitch Random Roles to you after I mentioned it via Twitter as an offhanded suggestion?
CF: Yeah, he did. He really liked [Random Roles], so when he spoke to me about it, it was an easy sell.
AVC: Is there anything Berta hasn’t yet done on the series that you’d like to see her tackle this last season?
CF: Well, I think they have a plan for me, but they don’t ever tell me what it is. [Laughs.] Berta has always had connections. I mean, if Charlie was hurting and needed something… There was an episode when he hurt his back, and he was talking about needing pain pills, and I said something like, “I’m not holding, but I can make a phone call.” And as it’s gone on, I think I’ve become a real dealer, particularly of grass. I’ve said a couple of times, “I need to get out of here, because I’m carrying 10 to 15 in my purse.” So it’s very likely that they could send me to jail! I don’t know that I really want to see that, but it could be an interesting thing to play. They really use my character more as far as how she impacts the household, and how she’s impacted by the household. It’s very rare—maybe one a season—when there’s actually an episode that’s Berta-centric.
AVC: Yet, you still manage to steal scenes all over the place.
CF: Well, she’s that person I wish I could be, and someone I think all of us kind of wish we could be: someone who can just say what’s on her mind and not worry about it.
Maude (1974)—“Rita Valdez”
AVC: It appears that your first on-camera role was playing Rita Valdez on an episode of Maude.
CF: Yes! Florida [Esther Rolle] was leaving Maude, and Norman [Lear] had come to see Hot l Baltimore in New York. I was in the play. And he brought me out, again looking for an accent, but it was a Spanish accent, and it was a woman who was pretending she spoke with a Spanish accent, because Maude was the kind of person who would hire somebody who needed a job more than somebody who just had been looking for a job. I did one episode, and… it was funny, because I went back to New York, and I watched the episode with Lanford Wilson, who wrote Hot l Baltimore, and he said, “This is really interesting: Your whole impetus here is to get off that camera.” [Laughs.] It was an uncomfortable character, and both Norman and I agreed that it just wasn’t going to work, that it starts out being false and it wasn’t going to work. So it was just a one guest-shot thing. And then he brought me back when he decided to do Hot l Baltimore as a sitcom.
The Hot l Baltimore (1973–1974) / Hot l Baltimore (1975) —“April Green”
CF: April Green is my favorite character of all time.
AVC: Funnily enough, I just did a Random Roles interview with one of your cast members from the original play: Judd Hirsch.
CF: Oh, yeah? We just went back, because somebody’s doing a project of— You know how there are books on tape? Well, they’re doing great American plays on tape. It’s almost 40 years ago that we did Hot l Baltimore, but it was, for most of us, the best time of our lives. Those of us who are still alive just went back and did Hot l Baltimore, and it was a wonderful week. Judd was there, and Jon Hogan. It was just fabulous. It was a wonderful thing. And April turned out to be maybe the best friend I ever had, because I found things in me that I had no idea were there, and it was just something Lanford wanted to see me do. She’s my favorite of all time, and there’s a little bit of her in just about every character I do.
AVC: How did you come to do the play? Did you know Lanford prior to that?
CF: I knew Lanford just because he was around the theater group. We weren’t, like, best friends or anything like that. But I wrote a little one-act play in the Circle Theater Company, and they’d give you 100 dollars and the theater for a weekend to stage a workshop. The play was about 25 minutes long, and I needed something to make the evening longer, but Lanford said to me the first time he ever met me, “I’ve got a one-act that you’re perfect for,” so I called him and said, “Can I add Ludlow Fair to the bill, and we’ll have a workshop!” And he said, “Absolutely!”
I found Trish Hawkins to be in it, and Trish turned out to be Lanford’s favorite actress. He wrote everything for her. But he came to see the dress rehearsal—he didn’t come near us until the dress rehearsal—and like I said, it was about a 25-minute play, but he said, “I have an hour and a half worth of notes. You can go or stay.” We both stayed, and I have to be honest: I was an actor when he left. He was the best coach I ever encountered. But it was the sound of our voices. Trish was a soprano, I was an alto, and it was the sound of our voices and the comic exchange that gave him the foundation for Hot l Baltimore: The Girl—Trish—and April. Lanford wrote musically, and we were the first voices that he heard.
He liked reading his plays to people, and I remember him coming to my Christmas brunch. By then, we were getting to be friendly, and he came, and he said, “Do you have a minute? I want to read something to you.” I said, “Sure, I always have a minute to listen to what you’re reading.” And he read April’s entrance into Hot l Baltimore, and it’s a boffo kind of entrance. He said, “What do you think of her?” I said, “I think she’s wonderful. She’s funny, she’s ballsy… all those things I’d liked to be and I’m not.” And he said, “Well, listen, I have no idea where she’s going, this may be the only time we see her in the play, but whatever she is, she’s yours. Merry Christmas.”
That was a magic time for all of us. I mean, it certainly wasn’t Judd’s first time. Judd had already done Barefoot In The Park and everything. But Judd took a small role and turned it into the male lead. So it was a great time.
And then, of course, Norman took it and put it on television… and it was his first failure. [Laughs.] We did 13 episodes, and I loved it. It was wonderful finding the balance between not being able to say “fuck,” but knowing you were playing a hooker. You couldn’t go, “Oh, gee…” I think I played the first episodic hooker!
AVC: As you say, the material featured some topics somewhat controversial for network television at the time. Do you think the adaptation was as faithful as they could’ve made it?
CF: It was as faithful as they could make it, yes. And he made it very political. Lanford’s plays were political, you just didn’t quite know it until you were walking down the street after you saw it. But, yes, I think it was as close as they could get. But the thing about it was that they wouldn’t even carry it in Baltimore! They wouldn’t admit to having hookers in Baltimore. [Laughs.] It never bothered me that she was a hooker. She was such a great character. And there was a gay couple in the hotel that hadn’t been in the play, and Jamie Cromwell was the desk clerk. It was a good 13 weeks.
AVC: How involved was Lanford with the adaptation?
CF: Not at all. Lanford felt that we were all doing the devil’s work out here. [Laughs.] He was strictly a theater man. But his agent also believed in making a living, so when it came to selling the thing, he sold. But he didn’t come and write. He wasn’t unhappy with it, but he didn’t come and write. I remember when I moved back out here after Hot l had closed, and I’d gone back to New York. I’d had two hot plays in New York, and I’d been in Network, but the only work I was getting in New York was television work or going back to typing for a living. So I made the decision to come out here.
I remember calling him one day, because I was very lonely, and telling him about an adventure that I’d had. You know, you go into Beverly Hills here, and it’s just instantly beautiful. And I went to an audition, and it went very well, and just as I was leaving Beverly Hills, I said to myself, “Oh, God, I want to live in Beverly Hills!” And Lance said, “Well, of course you do, darling. Nobody ever said that the devil was unpleasant. He wouldn’t get anybody that way!”
AVC: How did you find your way into acting in the first place?
CF: Nothing else worked. I had a father who worked in a factory, and he loved his job, because the factory saved him from the mines. And he told us—I can’t tell you how many times I heard this in different versions—that we were working-class people, we were always going to have to work, and what was really important was that we liked our work, that we couldn’t spend our lives doing something that didn’t make us happy. Now, if digging a ditch made you happy, then that was fine. And it was perfectly all right to take a job until you found your work.
So I’ve done just about everything. I went to college—the first person in my family to go—and I worked as a waitress, as a desk clerk at a hotel, on a factory line. In New York, I worked in offices and things like that. But I was looking. And I think, like most women my age at that time, I was also looking for somebody to marry me… and that didn’t look like it was going to happen. But then somebody put me in a little thing at a college. They needed a Mama Cass type. [Laughs.] And they wrote a little thing for me, where I was wearing a wig and jewelry, and it was a wonderful, funny little skit. And I got on stage, I started it, the laughs started coming, and every pore in my body opened up, and in my head I went, “This is it.” Thank God I was so stupid that I didn’t realize how hard it was gonna be, because in two weeks, I was packing and going to New York!
I went with another girl from West Virginia, and we worked in offices. I knew a man who was part of that newly formed theater group, Circle Repertory, and he took me there. I wouldn’t say they made me a member immediately, but they let me hang around, and I ended up getting a walk-on role in The Three Sisters, because we started out doing classics. They ended up being producers of new American plays. But I got the role of the maid in The Three Sisters, which let me go to class with everybody else. Marshall [Mason], who was the artistic director, didn’t believe that we all had to work in the same way, but he did think we all needed to speak the same language about theater, so we took classes together. Everything I am as an actress came through that theater. I worked five years there, working a job in the day and working at the theater at night, and at the beginning of the fifth year, we did Hot l Baltimore, and it was a major hit. I couldn’t believe it was happening, so I kept my day job. [Laughs.] I did 380-some performances of Hot l Baltimore, but I kept my day job, and they gave me Wednesday afternoons off so I could make the matinee.
AVC: Did you always have a desire to shift from the stage to in front of the camera, or did it just kind of happen?
CF: It happened mostly just because I wasn’t getting the work. I came up through a theater where everybody was talking about artistic values, so I had that in my head. But when I came out and did the series Hot l Baltimore, and it was one of those multi-camera sitcoms, with an audience, I thought it was the best mixture possible, because you still had the audience, which is vitally important, and it was so much fun. Most of the stuff that I’ve done has been fun. There have been a few that I would just as soon not mention. [Laughs.] But most have been really fun. And I’ve learned from my characters, so every time I do one well, she leaves behind a gift for me. A living gift.
So, yeah, I went back to New York after Hot l was canceled, like you’re supposed to do —or like the people that I knew were supposed to do—and I was really faced with going back to typing for a living. So I just went, “Well, there’s no artistic principle to be served by this, and I can make a living in California.”
So I came out, and I’ve made a living at it, doing different things at different times. For a while there, there were movies of the week, and I can’t begin to tell you how many movies of the week I did. I made a living on movies of the week, which was really good, because I had some comedy, but I also had drama, which allowed me to do something a lot of people hadn’t seen me do. So I never regretted coming. I miss New York, and I miss it something terrible. I miss the people. I miss having that family you have in a theater group. But in terms of my work, I’ve done well. I mean, I’m not a star, I never will be a star—I’m a character woman—but I’ve worked, and I’ve had roles as well as jobs.
St. Elsewhere (1983)—“Gina Barnett”
CF: Oh, God! That was fabulous! And that was my agent having a wonderful idea. She read it, and, you know, it’s about a woman who wasn’t super bright, but who took care of her father, who was an invalid, and she went to the emergency room one evening because she was in terrible pain… and she hadn’t even known she was pregnant! It had been written for a much younger woman, and my agent called the casting director and said, “Listen, you’re gonna think this is crazy, but I think Conchata Ferrell ought to do this. Now, she will come and audition—she always auditions—so all you’re doing is giving up an audition space, but I would just like you to think about how much more poignant this will be if this woman walks out of that hospital without that baby when you know she’s never gonna have another one.” And, oh, it was amazing to play.
AVC: Little did you know that, almost 30 years later, TLC would have an entire series called I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant.
CF: No, I… [Suddenly realizes what was said.] No! Do they?
AVC: Well, they did. It lasted four seasons. But it’s probably fair to say your St. Elsewhere episode may have been a bit more poignant than the average episode of that show.
CF: Oh, it was very poignant. Yeah, it’s one of my favorites. But it’s not something I would’ve thought about. I would’ve read it and gone, “Oh, gosh, when I was younger, I would’ve really liked to have gotten hold of this.” But, yeah, I liked it a lot. She worked in a doughnut shop, and her father was an invalid, and all of a sudden she has this baby, which she’d wanted all of her life, but she had no idea that she’d been pregnant, because she was just really heavy and she just… didn’t know enough. And then to have the baby and go through the process of what would she do with the baby and how would she raise the baby when she’s taking care of her father. So she leaves the baby in the hospital. And it’s very sad.
But, you know, the wonderful thing about roles like that is that it gives you an opportunity to explore what could make you do that. I always like to play women who have something I don’t have, or who are maybe on the dark side, and maybe it’s a place that I wouldn’t let myself go, but I know it’s in there. The character lets you go in there… and then you don’t have to have pay for it. [Laughs.]
Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1998)—“Nurse Greenliegh”
CF: Oh, well, I didn’t last long in that. I got killed! [Laughs.] I was a victim in that one, so it was more of a job than a role. I have tried to treat jobs like roles, so that they come out with layers, but sometimes you can, and sometimes you can’t. The only thing about that that happened was that I found the script amusing. It’s really easy for me to slip into comedy. And I had to go back and re-film a couple of scenes, because they kept going, “It’s funny!” And, uh, that’s not what they had in mind for the character.
E/R (1984–1985)—“Nurse Joan Thor”
ER (2001)—“Mrs. Jenkins”
CF: Nurse Thor on the original E/R was a wonderful character. She tended to boss everybody around, and she was good friends with the doctor. She was a really good nurse, and she had a husband who was crazy about her. That was really interesting, because he would write country songs for her. [Laughs.] She was fun. I don’t know that I learned a hell of a lot from her, except for the fact that she was so much fun, and that she was a head nurse and in charge.
AVC: Clearly, Norman Lear had a thing for adapting plays to sitcoms.
CF: Well, E/R wasn’t Norman, it was Saul Turtletaub. [The series was, however, produced through Lear’s production company, Embassy Television. —Ed.] But it was a good sitcom setup. And George Clooney was in it, too: he played my nephew. So he was on both! But, yeah, it did come out of a play, which came through a theater in Chicago.
The role on the other ER, the drama… I had made a movie a few years before that with Christopher Misiano, the man who was directing that episode of ER, and he and I had become good friends. He had been a grip on Heartland! But he called me, and he said, “I’ve got something for you.” First of all, he knew my daughter, and he knows how I am about my daughter: I just don’t think there’s anything better than my daughter. And this character had lied to her daughter, and it had resulted in her daughter’s death. So it was really meaty to go in there and get hold of it, and then it was also interesting to go in there and work with someone you worked with years ago, and in a totally different way.
It was a really good role. That was one of those roles where you go in there and dig around and find out why you would do such a thing, without ever anticipating what could be the cause. It turned out the daughter ends up killing herself over finding out the truth, and this woman is left without the daughter, facing the fact that she is absolutely responsible for this. Now, I can’t tell you it was a lot of fun. [Laughs.] But it was a good piece of work. What was really interesting was that, when you do roles like that, they leave you where the script leaves you, so… I can’t tell you whether this woman went the same way as her daughter, but when it was over, it was like being left breathless.
Deadly Hero (1975)—“Slugger Ann”
Network (1976)—“Barbara Schlesinger”
AVC: Was Deadly Hero your first film?
CF: It was. It was the first film I ever made. To be honest with you, I played a waitress, and I was sort of confrontational with the heroine, and I don’t remember too much more about it. Film came slowly to me. My second film was Network, and just because I was surrounded by who I was surrounded with—I mean, I sat next to Paddy Chavefsky!—all of that was amazing for me. I’m really impressed by writers. I like actors very much, and I like the fact that I think I’m an artist, but I’m an interpretive artist. I’m the symphony, not the composer. It’s that initial spark that really does it. So if I’m a groupie, I’m a writer groupie. [Laughs.]
AVC: Reading Dave Itzkoff’s book on the film [Mad As Hell: The Making Of Network And The Fateful Vision Of The Angriest Man In The Movies) led me to revisit the film. It’s hard to imagine any TV critic not getting a laugh out of the scene where Barbara reads Diana the list of pitches for new series.
CF: Yes! And the fact that each one of them had somebody in them who was “crusty but benign.” Little did I know I was drawing the diagram of my career! [Laughs.] I am always crusty but benign!
AVC: What are your recollections of Paddy Chayefsky? He seems to have been quite a character.
CF: He was quite a character. We rehearsed, so I got to be there for a lot of things that normally I wouldn’t have been there for, but he said to us, “Listen, I know that the tendency is to put your tongue in your cheek and to go through this, but don’t do it, because the only reason this hasn’t happened is that it hasn’t happened.” And now you look at it…and everything that he wrote has happened! Yeah, he was quite a character. And he was coming in just off the success of The Hospital, which is also a great film. He was very nice to me. In the group scene, because he knew that I didn’t really quite understand the film thing, he would show me how to keep interacting without having to talk. So he was really great, and – believe it or not – Faye [Dunaway] was really very nice to me. But, then again, I didn’t really strike up any competition. [Laughs.]
Mystic Pizza (1988)—“Leona”
CF: Oh, Leona was just a good woman. She had that recipe, and she made it possible for these girls to have a way to make a living. But, you know, she also had a husband and a family, she lived in the community, and she had a really wry sense of humor. My favorite scene was the scene where they were watching the television food critic, and she sort of lets that salty woman that she doesn’t show very often loose. I liked that very much. [Laughs.] That, and the fact that she had her own business and she ran her own life, and yet she still had a husband and a family. So it was fun. And I learned to throw pizza dough, which my daughter thought was the most impressive thing I’d ever learned.
Edward Scissorhands (1990)—“Helen”
Frankenweenie (2012)—“Bob’s Mother”
CF: Oh, God! [Laughs.] Well, you know, I was part of the Greek chorus in that. I was part of the neighborhood, a regular lady in this Neco-wafer-colored neighborhood, and I wore curlers. I’ll never know why I came up with those pink curlers, but it’s the kind of thing that Tim [Burton] really likes. I liked being part of that, and I made choices based on what he had written for Helen, that I was very nosy. I wanted to be like everyone else. When someone else had their trees cut like elephants, I was there. I was at the door, peeking, once I knew he was there. and I wanted to get the haircut before anyone else. I don’t think I ever lusted for him, like Kathy Baker did, but I liked him. But she was caught up in the excitement of having something really unusual around and being part of it, and then having a whole group of friends that you could gossip with. That’s who she was, and that’s why she was fun to play.
It was also a wonderful place to be, because to tell you the truth, it was the first time I ever realized what a wonderful actor Johnny Depp was. The movie was good, but when I read the script, I went, “Well, it’s going to be great or it’s going to be terrible.” I wanted to be part of it, though, because I wanted to be part of something like that. The women had a wonderful time and got along really well. When you do something with Tim, you tend to be on the set a lot, and we sort of bonded. So it was good. And I bought Avon from Dianne Wiest. [Laughs.] So Helen was fun to play, but it was also just fun working with Tim Burton. Often it’s who you’re working with that makes it a real event. Tim called and asked me to do a voice in Frankenweenie a little while ago, and there’s very little that he could ask me to do that I wouldn’t go do.
AVC: We’ve been talking for a while, but do you have time for a few more roles?
CF: Oh, sure. Are you kidding? I love talking about myself! [Laughs.] But not many people are interested. I’ll bet I’m the only person who’s gone down the red carpet with an Emmy nomination and had the paparazzi ask me to step aside.
True Romance (1993)—“Mary Louise Ravencroft”
CF: Oh, I was the casting director in that! Michael Rapaport was in to read for T.J. Hooker. [Laughs.] It was real quick, but it was really fun.
Heartland (1979)—“Elinore Randall Stewart”
CF: The role that I can really talk about is Elinore Randall in Heartland. All my life, I have said, “If I had lived in those times, I would’ve gone west on the wagon.” Well, let me tell you something: I might have gone west on the wagon, but I would’ve gone right back east on the stage. [Laughs.] I mean, we shot that film in Montana in seven weeks, and in seven weeks, we had three days of sunshine. And it was spring! But that’s the way it was. I had to learn to ride a horse, and I had to learn to drive a team, which I got fairly decent at. I never got good at riding a horse, though. I was just really good at getting on and really good at getting off.
But I delivered a calf on camera! This was a long time before Billy Crystal did anything like that in City Slickers. I slept on calf alert. I would finish a day of shooting, and they’d take my wig off, they’d braid it, and put it back on my head, and I’d sleep in the character’s sleepwear. We’d all gone through the training, but this I didn’t know: The herd cattle must be helped to deliver the first calf. They can’t do it by themselves. After the first one, they can do it. We cheated in the movie, though: We had a cow who’d had a calf before. But we were on a calf alert, so I went home and went to bed, and the call came at four in the morning.
So we went out, and Richard Pearce, who was the director—a wonderful director—was also one of the best handheld cameramen around. He had done lots of documentaries. And Fred Murphy was the director of photography, and he’s great. So we went out to birth this calf, and Rip [Torn] and I had gone through it. You have to reach up inside the cow and hook a rope to the front legs of the calf as it’s being born. So we’re out there, we’re going through this and doing it, and at one point there was a conversation going on between Fred and Dick Pearce about where they should shoot this from, and Rip looked up and went, “Guys? We can’t put it back. We’ve got to get this done!” [Laughs.] And I was so terrified that something was going to happen to this life, so it was maybe the realest thing I’ve ever done. I didn’t have act anything. It was just, “Get this baby born!” And I felt really triumphant when the baby was born. Oh, God, was it an exciting thing!
And there were funny things. We were shooting on a train, a steam locomotive, and we’re up there in Montana, so, you know, it’s either mountains or plains, one of the two. So we’re going along, and we’re losing the light, but as we went, the sparks from the train would set a little bit of the prairie on fire, so we’d stop, and the grips and the electricians and whoever would get off and put the fire out, and then they’d get back on and we’d go a little bit more. Finally, we were really losing the light, and there was a little fire out there, and they started to stop, and the D.P. said, “Gentlemen, it’s the film or the fire!” [Laughs.] So we finished shooting the scene, and then everybody got out and put the fire out.
It was such a wonderful story, and it was so interesting. Elinore Stewart’s son was there, and he said to me at one point, “This is like watching my mother come riding home.” I had so much material to draw from, because she had written books, and it was like a childhood dream, being a pioneer woman. Playing her was a great experience, and I’m still close with a lot of people who worked on that. Megan Folson, the little girl, who was 10 years old at the time, she and I are still very good friends.
AVC: Given your comments about the conditions, how tolerant was Rip Torn of the mountains and the prairies?
CF: Well, Rip was actually very good at it. I will tell you, though… [Hesitates.] I shouldn’t tell this story, but it was my first or second day, and we were rehearsing, and when we were leaving rehearsal, Rip had a car, and he said, “Do you want me to show you the town?” I said, “Sure!” So, you know, he’s driving around, he’s showing me this and showing me that, and I said, “My God, how long have you been here?” And he said, “Oh, I just got here two days ago.” And I went, “How in the world are you so familiar with everything?” He goes, “I make it a point to know every way out of town in any town I’m in.”
AVC: That question was designed strictly in the hopes of getting a good Rip Torn story, so mission accomplished.
CF: [Laughs.] Yeah, you know, I was a little in awe of him. But that really worked very well for the character. Barry Primus was also in the film—he played the cowhand—and Lilia Skala was the neighbor, and she was a gem. I tried my best to get my dad to come up to the set. I would’ve loved for him to have been part of it, and they said, “If he comes up, we’ll put in the film. We’ll put him on a wagon or something.” But I think he’d reached the point in his life where he was afraid to fly, so he didn’t come. I think maybe that’s my best work on film, though.
B.J. And The Bear (1979–1981) / The Misadventures Of Sheriff Lobo (1979–1981)—“Wilhemina ‘The Fox’ Johnson”
CF: Oh! That was… [Starts to laugh.] Well, first of all, I played a crooked cop, and one of the reasons that was fun was because I don’t often get to play a bad guy. I mean, it was comically nefarious, but I still really enjoyed it. But my partner was a guy named Wiley, and he was played by Slim Pickens. Other than Judd Hirsch, Slim Pickens is my favorite actor I’ve ever worked with.
There was an episode called something like “B.J. And The Seven Truckers,” where there were these absolutely beautiful young women who were truckers. And you don’t meet people when you’re doing these television things, you just do them, so I don’t know the name of this girl, but I’ve never forgotten this scene. We were rehearsing a scene up in the Angeles National Forest, and I’m directing her to drive and a take a detour, and when she gets to the bottom of the detour, they’re gonna hold her up.
Anyway, I hadn’t met any of the girls or anyone else, but they sort of lock the truck into place, and as we’re doing the rehearsal, the door to the truck swings open, and this absolutely breathtaking young woman comes out wearing mules—you know, the shoes?—and a bandana tied around her hair, with her shirt tied under her breasts so her belly was exposed, and she had the kind of breasts that just sort of stood up there and dared you to say something. She was the kind of person that I’m so jealous of, you know, so I’m thinking to myself, “Well, it won’t cost me much to be mean to her.” [Laughs.]
So she comes down, and my line is, “You’ve got to take the truck and go down that way,” which I delivered in my usual crusty but benign manner. And this girl—I swear to you—she did, like, a Betty Boop kind of move with her hands up in the air and her eyes wide, and she said it like this: “Oh! I can’t go… that way! I’m carrying… eggs!“ [Laughs.] And understand that I’m someone who actually pays attention to what other people are saying and how they’re saying it. So we’re getting ready to shoot it, and Slim was standing right next to me, and he says, “You know, ’Chata, I’d’ve given a million dollars if they’d’ve had a camera on your face when that girl said that!”
He was extraordinary to work with. One time he threw me in the lake because he told me if I did my own stunts I’d be more valuable. [Laughs.] He called it “the picture business,” and he was one of those guys who could wear a 10- to 20-gallon hat onto the set and never cast a shadow with it. That’s how well he understood the picture business. I told him I would always carry the image of him riding the bomb down in Dr. Strangelove, and he told me, “You know, ’Chata, I wasn’t supposed to do that picture, but Peter Sellers got hurt and he couldn‘t ride the bomb down, so they hired me to do it.” And he says, “You know, I’d done, I don’t know, maybe 75 pictures when I did that, but I did that movie, and everything in my life changed. The money got bigger, the dressing rooms got bigger, and the A.D.s started saying, ‘Hey, Slim!’ instead of ‘hey, you.’”
Oh, I know another one! We were in Las Vegas, shooting some scene, and I was sitting there beside him when a little boy came up and asked him for his autograph. And he signed the autograph book, and then he handed it over to me. And I looked at him, and I said, “Slim, he doesn’t know who I am. He doesn’t want my autograph.” And Slim looked at me, and then he looked at the boy and said, “Well, she’s the fat broad on B.J. And The Bear!” [Laughs.] He could just do things like that. Usually, if anybody says “fat” in front of me, I’m hurt. But not Slim.
Freeway (1996)—“Mrs. Sheets”
CF: [Uncertainly.] Ah. Okay.
AVC: You may remember it as the one where Reese Witherspoon handcuffed you to a bed.
CF: Yes! Oddly enough, Oliver Stone recommended me to the director for one of two roles, and… I don’t know why we chose the one we chose. Oh, wait, yes, I do. The director and I decided that the one that we chose was the best because the other one was the woman they killed in the restroom, and… I’m a handful. [Laughs.] You may catch me off-guard and be able to handcuff me to something, but just to push me up against a wall and kill me? Those little girls were not gonna have much of a chance.
It was the first time I’d ever seen Reese, and she was really… businesslike. I mean, she was a serious woman. So what I remember from that is what a serious actress she was, and how impressed I was with her. The role... was the role. You do the best you can. I’ve never seen it. I’ve never seen my part of the film, so I don’t know how well I did it. But the story I carry from it is what a really serious, wonderful actress Reese was.
Heaven & Earth (1993)—“Bernice”
AVC: Since you brought up Oliver Stone, I should ask about Heaven & Earth.
CF: Oh, God, I had a serious crush on Oliver Stone. There’s no just other way to say it. And I was nervous around him all the time, I guess because of the crush, or maybe because I wanted him to like me. And, you know, Oliver doesn’t really like that many people. But we were working with Debbie Reynolds, who is a great broad. [Laughs.] So she was incredibly fun to be with. The phenomenon of that shoot was that… well, for one thing, Oliver actually had some patience with me when I didn’t get it, and he worked with me. The other thing was that he was awed by Debbie Reynolds as I was by him. You would look at him, and you could just see the little boy sitting in the movie theater watching Debbie Reynolds.
So he would always ask her things. Like, “So, Deb, what would so-and-so do with this scene?” And she would say, “Plan!” She was totally fearless, and… she liked him, but she was totally unimpressed in terms of the tantrums and the bullying and everything like that. And the crew adored her, because she could handle him, and he never had a tantrum or anything when she was there. The last day we were there, she said to him, “Oliver? Make a comedy.” [Laughs.]
But I was off-balance. That’s not my best work, and I think it was because I just wanted him to like me. Usually that doesn’t matter to me. I mean, it matters, but it doesn’t, you know what I’m saying? It doesn’t become, like, a reason to be there. But I just really wanted him to like me. I really loved his work.
AVC: Well, it must’ve paid off if he recommended you for Freeway.
CF: Yes! And he wrote me a really lovely letter, which I understand he doesn’t usually do, telling me that there were scenes of mine that he had cut from the movie, and that I mustn’t think it was because of my work. It was because of his time frame. So I got a nice letter from Oliver Stone… and I still have it!
Where The River Runs Black (1986)—“Mother Marta”
CF: Oh, God, yes! That was shot in Belém, in Brazil, and they took us down there a week early just so we could get used to the heat. In fact, they asked us not to stay in the hotel during the day, to go out and wander around so that we adjusted to the heat. I played a nun… and a good nun! I clarify that because I just did a film [Wishin’ And Hopin’] where I play a bad nun. [Laughs.] Nun suits tend to work for me.
Charlie Durning played the monsignor, and there was this scene where he and I were walking down the hallway together, discussing this child that we were trying to decide what we needed to do with, and I think some newspaper or magazine or something got a picture of the two of us coming down the hallway together, and it said that we reminded him of two aircraft carriers coming side by side. [Laughs.] I mean, we were both very large people. But he was a pleasure to work with.
I was terrified of the jungle, and the convent was right on the edge of the jungle. Dana Delaney was in the film—nobody really knew who she was then, but she was wonderful. Belém is on the mouth of the Amazon, just a degree and a half south of the equator, Dana and I had a day off, and we decided to take a trip up the river. They had these boats, and there are lots of these little wharfs, so what they’d do is take you up the river, stop at one of these wharfs, and then you’d get off and go about half a mile into the jungle, and then you’d walk through the jungle until you got to a little road that took you to another wharf, where they’d pick you up. Dana was much braver than I am. Being surrounded by all that life, I was just absolutely terrified. I walked down the track, the little path, with my arms pulled into my body, because I was afraid that even if one of the little ticks had gotten on me, it would’ve scared me to death. But I still did it, and I felt like I’d done what I needed to do. I mean, I couldn’t be on the Amazon and not go on the river. You’ve got to do it.
So I did that, but the rest of the time, I stayed in the city. They had one of those exotic marketplaces where they, like, pile shrimp up in the afternoon in the middle of the sun. I, uh, didn’t buy too many things in that place. But you could buy snake heads there, and things like that. It was one of those places that was just so hot and so humid that it rained every single day. I liked the story of the film, and I liked being part of it, but I hated the jungle. The desert scares me, the jungle scares me… It’s just too much foreign life for me, you know? [Laughs.] And I’m a renegade Catholic. I used to be a Catholic, but I’m not really anymore. I don’t think you’re ever an ex-Catholic, but I’m a renegade. At least I have knowledge, though, so it’s easy for me to play a nun. I know the rules, so it wasn’t hard to build the character. The hardest thing for me was just to deal with the heat. Fat women don’t do well with heat.
L.A. Law (1988 / 1991-1992)—“Lorna Landsberg” / “Susan Bloom”
AVC: To bring things full circle, let’s wrap up by talking about L.A. Law, since you got your first Emmy nomination on that show, and you’ve gotten your most recent Emmy nominations on Two And A Half Men.
CF: Oh, God, yeah. I did one episode early on, but then I came back as Susan Bloom, and was that fun! I am a character woman in a business that is about stars, and I have no power, but Susan Bloom was the most powerful woman I had ever come face to face with. Everybody worked with me on that. Once we knew that I was doing it, the costume designer said to me, “How do you picture her? What would you wear if you had more money than God?” And there was a designer, Laise Adzer, so I told her, “I’d wear Laise Adzer. I don’t know if I can wear her or not—I don’t know if it fits me—but that’s what I would wear.” And she went and found the stuff, and that’s what I wore. And if they couldn’t find it exactly, then they’d make it. And she chose the jewelry. Big, heavy, chunky jewelry.
Susan was totally unafraid of anything, and she terrified everyone but Arnie Becker. She never terrified Arnie Becker. In fact, she got him a job on television as a commentator at one point. But she never fit in there. She wasn’t classy like them. But she was richer than them, and she was very powerful. Boy, to play someone who’s powerful—not just someone like Berta, who’s unafraid, but someone who’s powerful—that’s a whole other matter. That’s life on a different plane. I was really sorry that they couldn’t see more than a year of her. I really enjoyed it. And like you said, it was my first Emmy nomination!
AVC: Were you surprised when you got the nod?
CF: I really was, because you usually have to have the production company behind you, and since I knew at the end of the season that I wasn’t coming back, yeah, I was surprised when I got the nomination.
AVC: Was it just as satisfying to get your subsequent nods for your work on Two And A Half Men?
CF: Oh, sure. It’s always thrilling! [Hesitates.] You know, we all have button issues, and one of my button issues has always been that, other than simple repertory theater, I have never truly belonged with the company that I have kept. There’s a lot of people out there that I would’ve liked to have been friends with, but it just didn’t happen. And I’d like to think I was really part of the industry, but most of the time I don’t. But you get a nomination, you walk down the aisle, and you don’t listen to the paparazzi when they ask you to move over. I mean, I have to be honest with you: I would’ve asked me to move over, too. One time they asked me to move over because they wanted to take a picture of Halle Berry, and the other time it was because they wanted to take a picture of Al Gore, and I couldn’t blame them for either of those, but it’s a bit of a downer, you know? [Laughs.]
But I’ve managed to survive in this business. Two And A Half Men has just been a career miracle, you know? I mean, I’m in my 12th season. How many sitcoms go that long? I love sitcoms, and I particularly like multi-camera, because I like an audience. I don’t quite understand how to do comedy without somebody there setting the pace, and that’s what the audience does. But I feel like the reason I’ve survived in this business is because I love acting. I love acting better than anything, and I do it better than anything else I do. Now, that doesn’t mean that I think I’m a great actress. It’s just what I do better than anything else. I was a good mommy, but I’ve since been fired as a mommy. [Laughs.] My daughter’s 31. Occasionally she needs her mommy, but not a lot. But acting… I mean, I fulfilled my dad’s desire for me: I love what I do. And I don’t plan to retire. The business will just have to stop hiring me, or my body will abandon me, but either way I will work as long as I can work.