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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: Wendie Malick, who left a modeling career in the mid-’70s to become an actress, appearing mostly in small roles on television and in movies before she landed a big part in the HBO series Dream On in 1990. Since then, Malick has worked steadily, mostly on television and mostly in sitcoms: Just Shoot Me, Frasier, and TV Land’s original series Hot In Cleveland, in which she plays a vain, aging actress trying to restart her life in the Midwest alongside a couple of her Hollywood friends. Malick can also be seen in the comedy What Happens Next (now available on DVD and from various VOD services), playing the sister of a billionaire who discovers late in life that he’s gay.
Dream On (1990-96)—“Judith Tupper Stone”
Wendie Malick: At that time most people caught HBO when they were staying in a hotel. Very few people had it as part of their cable; it was kind of a luxury. We were the first successful comedy on HBO, particularly after they paired us up with The Larry Sanders Show. It was pretty outrageous what we could get away with, but it was really smart, funny writing, even though it was a little gaudy and bordered on raunchy. So many amazing shows came out of that writing pool, probably the greatest of which was Friends. But yeah, we were kind of pioneering a whole new territory, and that was also a huge break for me, because I started out as a straight-woman for Brian Benben, and once they found out I was funny, they made me progressively more and more loony. That was kind of the first time people realized I was a comedienne.
The A.V. Club: That’s strange, given that you had connections with the original Saturday Night Live.
WM: Yeah, I was really good friends with Al Franken and Tom Davis, and Michael O’Donoghue was a dear friend. My ex-husband Mitch Glazer worked on that show, and he and Michael were partners; they wrote Scrooged and a couple other movies together, and I did a few of their little spoof commercials. That was a pretty happy, fabulous time, with Danny Aykroyd and John Belushi and Laraine Newman, who’s still a friend. Such groundbreaking television in those days. We just couldn’t believe that we could get that stuff on television. That was back in the days when literally everybody stopped whatever they were doing at 11:30 on Saturday night to watch what was going to happen next.
AVC: Yet even with those associations, people didn’t think of you as a comedienne?
WM: People who knew me did, but I was probably somewhat typecast because I was tall and slim and brunette. I was never much of an ingénue, but often played the heavy, or a doctor or a lawyer or a murderess. I killed like, three husbands one season on various shows. [Laughs.] Which was fun! And now I play a lot of outrageous women who are slightly bitchy and narcissistic. Then I find that when I meet people in real life they think I’m so incredibly nice and balanced. [Laughs.] Just by contrast, I guess.
Just Shoot Me (1997-2003)—“Nina Van Horn”
AVC: You mentioned the “type” you play, which you really became identified with on Just Shoot Me, right around the same time that Christine Baranski was doing something similar on Cybill.
WM: You know what’s really weird? Maybe it’s the water. She grew up 10 minutes away from me. We’re both from the suburbs of Buffalo and we’re the same age. I’d never met her when we were younger. We’ve laughed about that. We’re both Buffalo gals who have very sarcastic senses of humor. [Laughs.] I think it’s something about living there. Maybe how dark it is. Something to do with the weather.
AVC: What was your model for Nina Van Horn?
WM: Well, “model” is an interesting word, because I had been a model when I was in my 20s. For five years, I took time off so I could travel the world, and not only worked in New York but lived in Paris for a year. I was in demand all over the world because I could tan in like, four hours. [Laughs.] I was the girl of choice when you had to send a girl down to the beach in a bathing suit. Great time, marvelous time. So for Nina I sort of drew from an amalgam of the women I had worked with, and took things too from my mother and her friends. They were all extremely colorful. It’s sort of a blend. I’ve always found it enjoyable to send up the less-attractive aspects of our personalities, like vanity. I think we are all so silly in how seriously we take ourselves, and it’s good to make fun of that.
AVC: That’s something you do a lot on Hot In Cleveland, where you make fun of dieting and clothes and make-up.
WM: It’s really very silly what women do to themselves in the name of “beauty.” Pretty insane, pretty insane.
Hot In Cleveland (2010-present)—“Victoria Chase”
WM: I’d worked with Jane [Leeves] on Frasier, but Val [Bertinelli] and I had never met before. Jane, Val, and I all had lunch together in Malibu before we did the pilot. Betty [White] and I had seen each other at various animal functions, because we are both very active in the animal-protection world. But this was my first time working with Betty and Valerie. Now it’s like an old pair of jeans. That style… We shoot with four cameras, with an audience, which is something that many of us grew up on, and that many of us were lucky enough to be part of in the “golden days” of sitcoms. Because we have a writing team that comes predominantly from Frasier, it’s sort of streamlined and brighter and smarter, with characters that are just a little better-drawn than we’ve seen in a long time in a sitcom like this. I think it’s like coming home to something for the audience, where they know what they’ll be in for, and will probably end up laughing and feeling a little better.
How To Pick Up Girls! (1978)— “Stephie”
WM: That was right near the beginning, yeah. I had done theater before that. Off-off-Broadway, dinner theater, summer stock, things like that. But I think that was my first television role, How To Pick Up Girls. I was pretty awful, actually. [Laughs.] I remember I was very aware from modeling of what my good angle was, so I was always trying to turn my head so that the camera was catching my better angle. I had a swing set fall on my nose when I was a little kid, so everything goes slightly to one side, and the fashion photographers made me very aware of that. So I was always trying to stand, like, “model-posed” whenever I was in front of a camera. It was pretty stilted and dreadful when I saw some of that stuff in later years.
Trauma Center (1983)—“Dr. Brigitte Blaine”
WM: That show was on in tandem with The Fall Guy, that thing about the stunt man. We had some wonderful actors. It was Jim Naughton and Dorian Harewood, and me, and Eileen Heckart, a brilliant actress from New York. We thought it would be somewhat like St. Elsewhere, which was also on at that time, but then they hired Lou Ferrigno and this other actor to be the ambulance guys. And when they tested it, the audiences all loved that part. Lou was coming right off of The Incredible Hulk, so it sort of became that the Incredible Hulk was driving the ambulance and would save people and then bring them into the hospital. [Laughs.] It ended up being pretty goofy. But that was my first taste at having a series, which was fun.
Baywatch (1989-94)—“Gayle Buchannon”
WM: I was Hobie’s mother. They called me the Meryl Streep of Baywatch. [Laughs.] Once a season I’d come back and have some really dramatic scene where Mitch and I almost get back together but then at the end we discover that his heart belongs to the sea. [Laughs.] So it never worked out.
Being on Baywatch was bizarre, because it was this huge, unexpected hit. Maybe not so much in this country, but that thing aired all over the world. I think people just had this fantasy of what Southern California was like, with these incredibly brick-bodied, blonde-haired women flouncing around on the beach, and these big hunky guys. It was pretty funny. But I was just glad I didn’t have to jump in the water when it was 30 degrees.
What Happens Next (2011)—“Elise”
AVC: Did you know the director, Jay Arnold? How did you get cast?
WM: No, I didn’t know him, but he wrote me the sweetest letter. Sometimes I just go with my instincts, and this just seemed like it would be a fun, interesting little project to do for a few weeks. Jay and I ended up becoming really good friends, and now we’re collaborators on this whole ad campaign for Budget Rent-a-Car. We finished the movie and he said, “I like you so much, I want to keep working with and I’m going to pitch you to Budget. I think you’d be a great spokesperson for them.” He had that account, so we since have kept making these commercials. He writes them, but I get to sort of imprint my own two cents on them, which is nice.
AVC: Does that happen more often at this stage in your career, that people come to you rather than you having to go looking for work?
WM: It goes both ways. It’s still a pretty competitive world out there, particularly with mature actresses, but certainly the more you’re in people’s minds and the more they have their eyeballs on you, the more you’re part of the pool.
AVC: What Happens Next is a gay-themed comedy, and the character you play on Hot In Cleveland is something of a gay icon, too.
WM: Yeah, I have quite a big following in the gay community. We were recently nominated for a GLAAD award, too, Hot In Cleveland. We were so honored and thrilled with that. I think any time you play a character that’s kind of wild, bigger-than-life, and glamorous, you find yourself with a pretty big gay following. It sort of goes hand-in-hand.
AVC: Your Hot In Cleveland character is an ex-soap star and in What Happens Next you worked with Jon Lindstrom, who’s a soap vet. And you’ve done a little soap work yourself. What is your reaction to the end of the daytime drama era?
WM: Well, I think everything has its shelf life, and it might’ve been time for that to expire. Soaps certainly had an amazingly long run. The first television show I ever did was Love Of Life, which was I think one of the first soap operas ever on television. I played “Nurse Jones.” I never had a first name and I wore that little nurse uniform everyday. Ugh, so boring. [Laughs.] But I got on TV.
I think probably part of the trick with soap operas is that they now have to compete with these amazing soap operas like Downton Abbey, where the production value, writing, costumes, all of it, are just so extremely brilliant. But y’know, for a while we thought that the multi-camera sitcom was dead, too, and I was thinking, “Maybe it’s time, because they really aren’t very good anymore. They aren’t very interesting, and the writing seems to have suffered.” But now, here they are back, so one never knows.