When you hear the name Sally Struthers, there are probably a few images that come to mind. The most immediate one is likely the role that made fledgling actress Struthers famous, that of Gloria Stivic, wife of Mike (Rob Reiner) and daughter of Archie (Carroll O’Connor) and Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton) on the groundbreaking `70s sitcom “All In The Family.”
As one of the voices of reason and compassion in the racist/sexist/homophobic Bunker homestead, Gloria often had a profound effect on both the audience and her father. Her friendship with a gay man in an early episode of the series is just one example.
In recent years, Struthers has divided her time between TV series (“Gilmore Girls” and “Still Standing”) and stage work. Currently, Struthers is touring the country in a Jerry Hermn-sanctioned lead role of matchmaker Dolly Levi in the award-winning music “Hello, Dolly!”
You have previously played Dolly Levi on stage in other productions of Hello, Dolly! What do you enjoy most about playing the character?
Dolly Levi in “Hello, Dolly!” is one of the best roles ever written for a woman in the American theater. She gets to be brilliant and sassy and meddling and adorable and sing seven songs and manipulate a man into proposing to her and make other people fall in love and dress in beautiful clothes and have lots of monologues.
It’s a challenge to learn and once you’ve learned it it’s in there for life. It’s brilliant! The words are brilliant, the lyrics are brilliant. It’s such an entertaining show. There are so many beautiful people on stage dancing and singing “memorable” songs!
Have you had a chance to meet Jerry Herman?
Oh, yes, Jerry is a friend of mine. His number is in my cell phone. He’s the reason I’m doing this. He hasn’t let anyone take this musical out on a national tour since Carol Channing. He hasn’t let it happen. He gave me the go-ahead.
We fell in love with each other many years ago when I did “Mame.” I didn’t play Auntie Mame, I played Agnes Gooch. He came to the show and said, “You’re the funniest woman I’ve ever seen. No one has ever played Agnes Gooch the way you played it.”
We have awards in Los Angeles akin to the Tony Awards called the Ovation awards. That year, I won an Ovation Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for “Mame.” When Jerry Herman said that I could go out with “Dolly” I felt like St. Peter had let me into the gates of heaven. That’s quite a nod.
Are you, like Dolly, a woman who arranges things?
I am! I’m a bit of that myself. There are two couples that I know of, so far, that are married because I introduced them. There are lots of other people [I’ve gotten] together. I also take people into my house to give them a place to live, so my house is always full. I get myself involved in a lot of people’s lives in a way to try and help them.
Oh, my God! It’s so much fun! My sister said to me once, “How can you stand it with all those people in your house? Don’t you need alone time? Don’t you need your own space?” I said, “I have eternity to be alone in the grave. While I’m alive, I want to be around people. I want it to be a party every day.”
You mentioned your friendship with Jerry and with all of your theater work, you’ve developed quite a following in the LGBT community.
I know in my own personal life that I have as many friends that are LGBT as I do straight. If that translates into fans, as well, who enjoy it when I work, then I’m thrilled. I learned this song in Bible school, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, LGBT and everything else.”
Embrace them all and they will embrace you back. That’s my motto. I don’t understand people that are afraid of other people! Because of their sexual persuasion or the color of their skin — what’s the matter with them?
We all breathe the same, we all lay down to sleep, we all chew our food the same. What’s wrong with people? I get so disappointed in people that are narrow-minded. I know they’re probably that way because they were raised by narrow minded people.
You learn bigotry on the knee of your parents. I still get disappointed in this day and age with all the books and newspapers and television shows and films we have to enlighten people that people don’t change, they don’t open up.
A 1971 episode of “All In The Family,” a groundbreaking sitcom in which you co-starred and won a couple of Emmys for portraying the character of Gloria, was one of the first shows in prime time to feature a gay character. At the time, did you have any idea of the significance that episode would have?
I was just a young, naïve kid from Portland, Ore., who landed this role. I had never heard of these racial slurs, epithets. I would sit in the rehearsal hall on Monday mornings when we read the script dialogue for that week. Archie would say these words and I would say, “What does that mean?” I was told, “That’s what some people use as a derogatory term for a Spanish person or an Italian person or an Irish person or a black person.” I’d say, “Well, I’ve never heard that in my life in Portland, Ore. I come from a nice Lutheran Norwegian family. We don’t dislike anybody.”
No, I didn’t understand the significance of any of it until I was way past it. I had to be in my 30s, 40s, 50s to look back and see just how groundbreaking that show was and therefore how fortunate I was to be a small part of it. It’s dumbfounding to me. I still will open a newspaper in any city I’m in and immediately go to the crossword puzzle page and sometimes it’ll say, “Actress who played Gloria on ‘All In The Family,’” and I go, “Oh, my God! I’m in the crossword puzzle. Who knew?”
I know that you will be on tour with “Dolly” for a number of months, but are there other projects that you have in the works that you’d like to mention? I wrote my own one-woman show, “Life Is Short and So Am I,” and I’ve been doing that in quite a few places. I won’t be able to do it now until April 2014. But it’s been really fun to do and I’m looking forward to doing it again.
More info: Sally Struthers appears in “Hello, Dolly!” on Nov. 21, at The Classic Center in Athens at 7:30 p.m. For more information call 706-357-4444 or visit www.classiccenter.com.