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Florence: The Name Strikes Fear, Fun

September 25, 1985|MORGAN GENDEL | Times Staff Writer

Mention the name Florence Halop to any true followers of prime-time TV and you're likely to get the same reaction:

Who?

Now try changing the last name to Hufnagel, as in Mrs. Hufnagel, the recurring bad-news patient last season on the hospital drama "St. Elsewhere." That name usually gets a response.

Halop, a child radio star who worked with Orson Welles' Mercury Theater and later co-starred in the '50s TV series, "Meet Millie," parlayed a single guest shot on "St. Elsewhere" into 23 appearances as the patient no doctor wanted to treat.

Lines like "Don't you dare put the hands on me, Butch" (to Cynthia Sykes, as a doctor of uncertain sexual proclivity) or "You're a Cretan, aren't you?" (to a Greek-surnamed nurse) made "The Hufnagel Spot" the series writers' favorite segment of each episode.

Her dialogue--coupled with the comical delivery Halop achieves by slightly raising the pitch of her voice--made Mrs. Hufnagel a favorite of viewers too.

"Listen, I got more fan mail that said, 'Thank God you talked about the hospital bill!' " Halop said, lounging in a housecoat in her Panorama City apartment. Florence Hufnagel had taken one look at the charges on her account and said, " 'What the heck is this? Rubbing alcohol, $6.50? I could get a bottle of Chivas for this.' I said everything that the honest patient would say.

"I also got letters from 17-year-old kids who called me 'Florence Dearest' . . . "

"St. Elsewhere's" medical adviser eventually forced her off the show, Halop said. He reasoned that it wouldn't be realistic for her to come down with any additional illnesses after an entire season's worth. She had to either get well--or die. The show's producers opted for the latter.

But the "Florence Dearest" letters just may keep on coming. On Thursday night, Florence Halop a.k.a. Florence Hufnagel debuts as Florence Kleiner, the feisty bailiff who replaces the late Selma Diamond's character on "Night Court."

"An interviewer asked me: 'Do you feel a challenge taking over after Selma?' And I said, I'd never seen 'Night Court.' I'd never seen Selma. I said, I'm not Selma. I'm Florence!"

Thursday's season premiere does note the similarities, however. Inquiring about her predecessor, Florence Kleiner is told that bailiff Selma (Diamond's character, like Halop's, retained her real-life first name) was "abrasive, short and she had a funny voice." To which Halop's abrasive, short, funny-voiced character responds, "How pathetic!"

Halop insisted that she is not anxious to see the spirit of the late Mrs. Hufnagel resurrected in Kleiner's body. "If I have anything to say about it--and I shall--I'm not going to be nasty."

But Kleiner definitely is a no-nonsense type--much like Halop, who freely admits her age (62); wears her housecoat around the set; smokes and drinks "when I want to" and notes somewhat superciliously that "I never went to drahmah school."

A young actress with a three-line part on "St. Elsewhere" got a taste of the latter sentiment last season. "She knocked on my dressing-room door--three lines, mind you; shor t lines--and she says, 'What do you think our motivation is?' And I said, 'You say your lines and I'll answer you.' And I got such a dirty look. I said 'I'm terribly sorry, but that's the best I can do for you. They're very unimportant lines.'

"I don't take any nonsense from anybody, but basically I'm not that way. . . . "

The years alone are enough to make Halop a little blase about TV stardom. She first stood in front of a radio mike at age 4 1/2. She had been tagging along with her older brother Billy--who later became the leader of the original Dead End Kids--when the little girl who was to co-star with him didn't show. Florence happened to be able to read, having taught herself from her father's law books, so she filled in.

After that, she was heard on such top radio shows as "March of Time" and "Cavalcade of America."

She considers "Meet Millie" an acting triumph because she played the mother of Elena Verdugo, who in real life was only one year younger. Halop was pregnant during part of the series' four-season run, but since she wore padding anyway to age herself ("I was a perfect size 10 at the time"), she worked almost up until the birth of her first daughter.

After a hiatus to raise her two daughters, Halop returned to TV, most often as part of a stable of character actors with which executive producer Danny Arnold populated the police station offices of "Barney Miller." Her "St. Elsewhere" role was preceded by a brief appearance on "Hill Street Blues," as a woman arguing with undercover cop Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz) about poultry.

She continues to work in radio, as a voice-over artist on commercials for businesses such as AT&T (" . . . we have quiche on a stick," she deadpans in her best comic voice, a reference to the newfangledness of AT&T's post-divestiture competition).

Even if Ms. Kleiner is as popular with "Night Court" viewers as Mrs. Hufnagel was with "St. Elsewhere's," Halop gives the role two years, tops. "Then I'm quitting. I want to travel. I want to own a Clydesdale horse."

Until then, "Night Court's" writers could well have some fun with Halop. "They don't know what I can do," she concluded, "because I haven't shown them anything yet."

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