For baby boomers, Sally Struthers’ name conjures a host of memories from the groundbreaking 1970s television series All in the Family. Struthers played Gloria Stivic, the wholesome, idealistic wife of “meathead” Mike (Rob Reiner) and the daughter of armchair bigot Archie (Carroll O’Connor) and dingbat Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton). Caught between a sitcom marriage and the emerging feminism of her day, Struthers gave the nation its first liberated version of Miss American Pie, cheerfully speaking out against sexism, racism and homophobia as she helped set the dinner table.
In recent years, Struthers has divided her time between TV series (Gilmore Girls and Still Standing) and stage work. She’s currently touring the country as matchmaker Dolly Levi in gay composer Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly!
I spoke recently with Struthers about her Dolly, her career and her life.
Gregg Shapiro: What do you enjoy most about playing Dolly Levi?
Sally Struthers: Oh, my goodness, Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! is one of the best roles ever written for a woman in the American theater. Dolly Levi 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. 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!
Do you have a favorite song that you sing as Dolly?
I think my favorite one to sing is actually in the second act. It’s “So Long Dearie.” It’s a very sassy vaudeville song done with a straw hat and a cane.
Have you met Jerry Herman?
Oh, yes, Jerry is a friend. His number is in my cellphone. He’s the reason I’m doing this. He hasn’t let anyone take this musical out on a national tour since Carol Channing (who originated the role on Broadway in 1964, when it won 10 Tony Awards). We fell in love many years ago when I did 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.” 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.
Have you met any of the previous Dollys, including Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey or Barbra Streisand?
I’ve met and dined with and hung out with Carol Channing. I saw Pearl Bailey do it, but never met her.
Are you like Dolly, a woman who brings people together?
I am! 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. 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. ”
With all of your theater work, you’ve probably 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, then I’m thrilled. 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. 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.
A 1971 episode of All in the Family 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.” My daughter, who is 34 years old now, when she was in elementary school you didn’t look things up on the computer, you had Encyclopedia Britannica and I bought her a set. One day she was writing a report in her room and she screamed, “Mom!” I came running and asked her what was the matter and she said, “Look.” She opened it up to “T,” and under television there was a picture of the four of us from All in the Family. She said, “You’re in the encyclopedia!” (Laughs). Who knew?