Playing Gloria Stivic, daughter of Archie Bunker, on the ’70s sitcom All in the Family brought stardom and two Emmy awards to Sally Struthers. But at her core she is a stage performer.
“I started out in live theater,” she says during a rehearsal break from Annie, opening this Saturday night at Boca Raton’s Wick Theatre. “I went to the Pasadena Playhouse College of Theatre Arts. And I had to learn everything there. Besides taking acting lessons, we had to take fencing and dancing and body movement and play reading and playwriting and directing and stage managing.
“I think theater is magical. I think that’s why it hasn’t and will not ever die, because people actually leave their house and they go to the theater to see the insane magic of live theater that you can’t get watching anything else. As an actor, it is the one form in the vast spectrum of performing that requires you do so without a net.”
In Annie, she will be playing Aggie Hannigan, the hard-drinking, child-hating orphanage matron. It is a role she has performed often.
“I’ve probably done five or six different productions of it over a 22-year period, I’d say. I love that Miss Hannigan is ageless. You can be 45 and play her or you can be, like me, 71 and play her.”
Part of the appeal is how different Struthers is from the character. “Well, it’s kind of reverse psychology for me. I spent 35 years stumping for hungry children all over the world,” as a spokeswoman for the Christian Children’s Fund. “So it’s fun for me to play a woman onstage that can’t stand them. Because it’s just so diametrically opposed to who I am. How often do I get to do that? How often does someone with a round face and blue eyes and a funny voice ever get to play the antagonist?”
Unlike others who have played Miss Hannigan, Struthers mines the character’s inner child. “I stem what I play onstage as Miss Hannigan from the fact that she has spent so many years in the orphanage with too many children coming through that she’s become a child herself,” Struthers explains. “So her reaction to things is very childlike because she doesn’t have much adult stimulation. Once you start acting like a child, you can pretty much do anything you want. I give myself license.”
As to how her performance has evolved over the two decades she has played Miss Hannigan, Struthers says, “I just think as you get older, you get more fearless. I think I’m even reaching further. Some people would call it eating the scenery, but I think that it is a musical comedy – stress on the word ‘comedy’ – and as long as it’s lighthearted, you can stretch credulity all you want.
“I play around a lot onstage and I think that’s probably something that’s different from many or all of the other women that take on the role of Aggie Hannigan,” says Struthers. “Very few people are willing to make themselves as unattractive and ridiculous as I do.”
Struthers has a few supporting roles in films during the early ’70s – 1970’s Five Easy Pieces and 1972’s The Getaway – but she never had a major movie career. She puts the blame for that on All in the Family producer Norman Lear, who refused to let her out of her contract to star in The Day of the Locust, a juicy dramatic role.
“It was a bitter pill to swallow but I did,” she says. “I think that would have put me into the film world for sure.”
Still, this is not a woman with regrets. “No, I think Hollywood, or at least show business, has done very right by me. I mean, I’ve done four or five motion pictures, I’ve done movies-of-the-week, I’ve had six television series, I’ve had four cartoon series, I have done Broadway, I have done tours. There isn’t anything in the industry I haven’t done. I think I’m pretty fortunate. I work all the time. I just go from job to job to job. I don’t think I’ve been mistreated in any way.”
As to what keeps her working so much in her 70s, Struthers says simply, “Paying my mortgage. I don’t get big residual checks. If I don’t work, I can’t pay my mortgage. I mean, if I’m going to hang up my skates, then I have to be ready to sell my house. I don’t feel like downsizing right now. Until I’m ready to say, ‘OK, I’m old now, I’ll live in a two-bedroom condo. It’s over,’ I’d rather work.”
She would be glad to return to The Wick, perhaps in another show she has done before. “Because it’s easier than learning a whole new role. With two weeks of rehearsal here to do ‘Annie,’ a show I know so well, is just barely enough for me. I don’t think at 71 years old, I would suggest doing something new. So I might suggest ‘(Hello) Dolly,’ ‘Always … Patsy Cline,’” the play she has performed most often, “or ‘9 to 5.’”
But for the moment, she invites everyone within earshot to come see Annie. “To see something that’s uplifting and that’s absolutely pure entertainment. And the most delightfully talented children. Come for the Charles Strouse-Martin Charnin music. And the Tom Meehan book. It’s a wonderful time in the theater.”
ANNIE, The Wick Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Nov. 29–Dec. 23. $75-$85. 561-995-2333 or visit thewick.org.