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Q & A with Sally Struthers, 04.09.02 ...

Sally Struthers has joined a new family — the wacky world of residents on General Hospital. The veteran actress assumed the role of Jennifer Smith, the daughter of late mob boss Frank Smith and jilted fiancιe of Luke Spencer, on Feb. 13. An alum of stage, screen, prime-time television and even infomercials, daytime is the last frontier for the talented performer, and she's having a blast in her 10-episode guest appearance.

Struthers started her career on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. She rose to fame as Gloria Bunker-Stivic, Archie's daughter, on the critically acclaimed '70s sitcom All in the Family, earning two Emmys while on the show. Steadily working ever since, Struthers currently rounds out a quirky cast of characters on the new hit series Gilmore Girls. TV Guide Online caught up with the distinctively voiced actress to discuss her daytime debut and how an old episode of All in the Family prepped her for her latest gig. — Delaina Dixon

Did you petition for the role of Jennifer, or did GH contact you?

No, they offered it to me. It was a surprise phone call out of the blue from my manager. He read on the breakdowns that this Jennifer Smith character was coming back. He talked to the people at General Hospital and mentioned my name to the casting director, and they said, "Oh, we would love to have Sally do it. Would she do it?" So there was no meeting involved, no auditions. I was thrilled.

What did you know of Jennifer Smith before you began shooting?

Nothing. Fortunately, one quick phone call brought me up to speed, because they had a messenger drop three or four scripts to me, and I didn't know who anyone was or what was going on. They put one of the producers on the phone, and she gave me the whole background of Jennifer Smith from 20 years ago until today.

How long did that take?

It only took about seven minutes. The character was on the show twenty years ago, and Luke was supposed to marry Jennifer, and then he wanted to marry Laura. He faked his own death by pretending he drowned and ran off with Laura. So Jennifer's jilted there. Eight years ago they brought Jennifer back, and Luke killed Jennifer's father, who is a mob boss, Frank Smith. Later on, Jennifer's brother was murdered and Laura went to trial for it. She was acquitted. Needless to say, Jennifer has a few issues with Luke and Laura. She has some unfinished business.

Had you been a fan of GH and of soaps in general?

I've worked my whole life, so daytime television has not been available to me. As a result, I have never gotten the chance to be hooked on a soap opera. I've seen episodes, and I think everyone's gorgeous, and I've heard how hard they work. But I have friends that are devotees, who videotape them when they are at work and watch them when they come home, first thing. I have an addictive nature. I'm sure if I watched one for a couple of weeks, I'd be hooked.

You said you'd heard that working on a soap is hard work. When you were on the set, was that proven true?

Oh my God! These people work so fast and without a safety net. Up until now, my whole career has been done with a net. If you fall, it's there — meaning you can do a retake, you can do a pickup, and you have plenty of time to learn it because you've got lots of rehearsal. When you go to do a soap opera, you get pages and pages to memorize, you go on set and run it once for the director, once for the crew and then boom — you shoot it and it's done. Forget whether you're unbelievable or pathetic or something was hanging out of your nose, they are going to move on.

When Roseanne last played the role, Jennifer was over-the-top. Will the character be once again interpreted in this manner?

I haven't seen her performance. I did say to the GH people before I started working, "I'm very linear. Everything has to be on my coffee table where I want it. If I go see a movie and the plot goes from the past to the present to the past again, and I can't follow it, I get very frustrated. I'm the third person to play Jennifer Smith, and I'm sure I'm not like the first two people who played it. Won't that bother your audience?" And they said, "No, they won't mind, they are very forgiving. They are used to four or five actors in one year playing the same character!" That just doesn't follow my line of logic, but I said okay. I didn't ask to see anyone else's work. Based on the way it's written, I just play her as schizophrenic without being on any medication. She's not really dealing with a lot of reality anymore.

How was your first day on the set? Did GH do anything special?

There were flowers in my dressing room, and everyone I ran into hugged me and shook my hand — actors, hairdressers, the camera people — I couldn't believe how friendly everyone was. I thought that these people are going to be a clique, they've all been working together for so long, and they've had plenty of actors come through that play a part for a day or a week. But everyone was so friendly and wonderful. The other day, Genie Francis (Laura) said to me, "We're on a lunch break, and I bet you don't know where the commissary is. Why don't I walk you over there?"

Were people starstruck when they met you?

Everyone's been so respectful. Everyone said nice things — "I've admired you for years, and I'm so pleased that you are doing our show. You are one of my favorites." A lot of them have said, "I watch you every night on Nick at Nite," so that's nice.

What was it like working with two of the biggest names in daytime: Anthony Geary (Luke) and Genie Francis (Laura)?

They are both so darling. Genie couldn't be nicer. She's just an angel. She has no agenda, no guile and no competitiveness. She's just so kind and good, I wish she were my daughter. And Tony and I worked together 31 years ago on All in the Family. He played Meathead's friend Roger.

So how far will Jennifer go to win over Luke once again?

She's determined. Even if it's going to be at gunpoint, she is going to marry Luke.

What was the biggest surprise you discovered on the daytime set?

Because it's my first time, I'm like a virgin here — in this particular phase of show business. I've done so many other things, but I've never done a soap opera, so every moment has been memorable. The first day on the set, there was this director named Joe Behar, a lovely, darling older gentleman, who I was told had been there since the first GH had ever been made. He's still directing, and he works really fast. On the second day, they introduced me to this kid named Owen [Renfroe], who looks about 16, and they said, "This is your director today." And out of my mouth comes, "Oh my, did Mr. Behar pass away?" They said, "Didn't anyone tell you we have a different director every day?" It's been amazing.

Now that you've done the daytime experience, do you think you would return?

Oh yeah, are you kidding? I've spent the last few days trying to worm my way into their good graces and giving them ideas about how Jennifer could come back — even if she's just seen every couple of weeks lurking in the background like she's stalking Luke. She's just there, on the streets of Port Charles, behind a lamppost. You know "Where's Waldo"? Well, this is "Where's Jennifer"!

You also star on the new hit series Gilmore Girls as eccentric neighbor Babette Dell. What's the secret to the show's success?

I've had so much fun on that show because of the writing. Amy Sherman-Palladino is one of the best young writers to come down the pike since the old guys who wrote All in the Family, who used to work with Jack Benny and Bob Hope. That writing 30 years ago was just amazing, and I haven't found a lot of that since then. Amy knocks my socks off. The snappy patter, witty chatter that Lorelai and Rory have together is reminiscent of the dialogue that Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy have in Pat and Mike. She's just brilliant. It's so much fun when they send me a script to see what she has me and everyone else saying. I really enjoy being on the set.

So when you're up late at night, do you watch yourself on Nick at Nite?

I don't watch [All in the Family]. It would be interesting for a trained psychiatrist to hypnotize me and give me truth serum to get to the bottom of that. I almost intentionally avoid it. I'm not sure why I'm not drawn to it. But two days before I started General Hospital, I was channel surfing, I couldn't sleep, and there was a close-up on Carroll O'Connor's face saying, "No Meathead, a guy who wears glasses is a four-eyes..." And I thought, "Oh my God, I miss Carroll so much, and that was so funny, and I have to see another minute of this show." There was this cute blond guy playing Mike's friend, and I'm thinking, who is that? Now I'm going to have to watch all the way to the closing credits to see who it is. I watched it to the end, and it was Tony Geary! Two days later, I'm on set, and I see him in the makeup room. I said, "Well, I haven't seen you in 31 years, but it's great to see you again." If I hadn't seen until the end of that episode, I never would have remembered, and I would have been so embarrassed. It was my guardian angel who made me see that.

What other projects are you working on?

I just closed a two-woman musical, Always... Patsy Cline. I'll be doing Love Letters for the fourth time on the East Coast. I'm up for a part in a movie. I'm busy. It's so wonderful, and I'm really grateful. Now that I'm officially in my middle age, I'm just old enough now to be past any attitude or belief that anything is just coming to me, and I'm grateful for every day. I'm grateful that I can swing my legs out of bed and stand up. I'm grateful when someone wants to see me for a part. I'm grateful for everything.
Credit: TV Guide Online

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