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Loving Linda Lavin

Winterguide 2018 | view this story as a .pdf

New year, new hit show for the Portland star.

By Steve Hrehovcik

WG18-Linda-LavinAlice may not live on 96 Clinton Street anymore, but the Deering High graduate is doing a starry turn in her new sitcom 9JKL on CBS, where she plays opposite Elliott Gould. Linda Lavin plays Judy, a lovable, interfering mom to recently divorced son Josh (Mark Feuerstein). An out-of-work actor, Josh is forced to move into apartment 9K, crammed between his mother and father in 9J and brother and sister-in-law in 9L. It touches a nerve, and it’s devilishly fun. “We’re getting wonderful feedback about 9JKL,” says Lavin. “The writing is funny and true to life. The character and actors are wonderful.”

Lavin gets to the set early and never lets up. “It starts at 5 p.m. and can go as late as 11. It’s exactly the same process established all those years ago by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. We film to a live audience at CBS in Studio City, California, on Stage Two,” where Roseanne used to be shot. “A warm-up comic entertains the audience between our scenes and keeping things moving. We also pre-shoot some scenes the day before and then project them on monitors for the audience, mixed in with the live performance. We shoot each scene at least twice; more often than not, we get new lines from the writers and put them in right on the spot. It’s lively and exciting and high-energy.”

Earlier this year, Lavin starred in the saucy Hollywood rom-com How to Be a Latin Lover. She plays Millicent, a mature millionaire in a romantic relationship with Rob Lowe’s character, Rick. “The movie was a lark. It was a lot of fun to create my character, Millicent, with my director, the brilliant Ken Merino. I fashioned Millicent after the upper-class New York socialites of the 1960s. Working with Rob Lowe was delightful. He’s charming and easy to be with.”

The cast of How to Be a Latin Lover (Lionsgate) includes Mexican actor Eugenio Derbez, who plays Maximo, a man thrown out of his 25-year marriage to a wealthy older woman. “Eugenio Derbez is the Cary Grant of Mexico, a huge star. He’s so generous and kind,” Lavin says. “In one of our scenes, I had to speak to him in Spanish, which is not my second language. He was extremely patient and helpful.”

Spicing the spice, Salma Hayek, Kristen Bell, and Raquel Welch helped make this ensemble cast una verdadera celebración.

The Alice Years

In 1976, Lavin grabbed the lead role in the sitcom Alice. The show was a decade-long hit (Lavin was on the cover of People Magazine on April 24, 1978), warm-hearted and feisty, in which Lavin plays a single mom hustling hash-browns in Mel’s Diner, nursing dreams of stardom. Her portrayal of the strong-willed Alice earned Lavin two Golden Globe Awards. Alice ran from 1976-1985. Her character became a powerful inspiration for working women and single moms across the country. “When I was Alice, I came to realize I represented 80 percent of blue- and pink-collar working women. Alice politicized me. She taught me to be aware of the issues facing working women and single mothers today.”

Inspired by her success with Alice, Lavin formed her own production company, Red Barn Studio Theatre 2007. “People came to me with scripts about women in real-life working situations. They were stories about women who walked through fire and came out standing. Stories about underpaid women working in factories and nurses who dealt with people in crisis. This was during the 1970s and 1980s, which I consider the Golden Age of television. These shows were the forerunner of the realistic feature films about women we see today.

“Like Alice, 9JKL deals with family relationships–except it’s a more sophisticated and edgier show. The people are more privileged and on a higher economic level than Alice. I love to go to work every day. I feel very grateful and fortunate for this role, the quality of work and good people at this stage of my life. Fun and creative are the operative words for me. I’m very committed to participating in projects where I can bring and exchange those qualities with like-minded people.”

Made in Maine   

Lavin was born in Portland, Maine, on October 15, 1937, to a musical family at 96 Clinton Street. Her mother, Lucille, an opera singer, gave up a promising career as a coloratura soprano to raise her family. “I remember singing a three-part harmony with my mother and older sister, Jocelyn, while washing dishes,” Lavin says. Her home state is still close to her heart. “I still have connections in Maine, including my sister and her family, plus several high school classmates,” she says. “I like to visit when the weather is better.”

During her formative years in Maine, Lavin studied at Waynflete and Deering High School, polishing her acting chops in local performances and in Deering’s Glee Club. “I attended the Dorothy Mason School of Dance for many years and performed at Waynflete in pageants and plays.” Her talent wasn’t always given center stage. “While I hoped to portray Alice in Waynflete’s Alice in Wonderland, I played the white rabbit.” Lavin’s connection to the local performing arts continued to build. “I studied piano with the great Florence Libby. And from the sound booth at radio station WCSH, I watched my mother perform her radio program every Wednesday night. I also did a number of plays and musical performances at Deering High School.”

Lavin went on to study drama at The College of William and Mary and began performing summer stock in New Jersey. Full of drive, she went to Manhattan in the early 1960s in search of theater gigs. There she met famed producer/director Hal Prince while rehearsing her first Broadway show, A Family Affair. Prince spotted Lavin in the chorus and, impressed with her singing and acting, gave her five more parts in that production. Prince would continue to land roles for Lavin in a number of shows, including Superman and the revival of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide at the New York City Opera in 2017. “We’ve had a long and lasting affectionate relationship,” Lavin says. “He was my earliest and greatest mentor. As a director, Prince always brought out the best in me.”

Roll the Credits

Her talents have won her a Tony for Broadway Bound, Drama Desk, Outer Critic, and Helen Hayes Awards, plus numerous nominations. She’s starred in over 50 films (including The Intern, with Robert DeNiro and Anne Hathaway, 2015), TV shows, and plays, leaving her indelible shine on everything from The Sopranos, How To Be a Latin Lover, Gypsy, The Intern, Follies, and The Good Wife, to The Muppets Take Manhattan. Lavin also directed several episodes of Alice and produced soundtracks for the sitcom, as well as for Damn Yankees! and The Muppet Show.

“I went to Wilmington, North Carolina, to make a movie and fell in love with it.” She also fell in love with her third husband, artist and director Steve Bakunas, and married him in 2005. While they shuttled for roles and performances in New York and Los Angeles, they made their home in Wilmington for 17 years. “We found a garage in a neglected part of town and converted it into a theater,” Lavin says. “We put on three shows a year for five years. We had great support from the town.” Lavin had previously been married to Tony-award-winner Rob Leibman (known for his performance with Sally Field in Norma Rae) from 1969-1981.

Lavin continues to reinvent herself. When she’s not on set, she produces and directs, teaches acting (including a master class at William and Mary), and oversees The Linda Lavin Arts Foundation, dedicated to empowering young women through the performative arts. On top of everything else, Lavin is currently launching a bed and breakfast with her husband in Chatham, New York.

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