Her wattle may never see prime time again. But the woman behind the saggy neck flesh who made such an impact on "Ally McBeal" last year returns to that show tonight.
"We got it down to about three hours," actress Linda Gehringer said of the process using rubbery prosthesis and short wig to transform her blond good looks into, well, Janet Reno.
The 5-foot-10 actress from Laguna Beach appeared last season as the statuesque U.S. attorney general on two episodes of the quirky Fox comedy hit, when the false wattle became an object of sexual arousal for one of the show's characters.
"The important thing to know is that it took 1 1/2 hours to get it off," she said, grimacing at the memory.
Tonight, Gehringer, 45, gets to expose her own, prosthetics-free mug, playing a bookstore owner represented by Cage/Fish & Associates, the out-there law firm that employs title character McBeal, played by Calista Flockhart. The episode airs locally at 9 p.m. on Fox (Channel 11).
One of Orange County's busiest actresses, Gehringer said she was elated to be filming her third spot on the Emmy-award-winning series, even though repeated last-minute changes in her shooting schedule made farce of her datebook.
But that's life for a versatile performer struggling to fit TV shoots, auditions and the occasional movie role into an already tight schedule of live-theater engagements, a feat complicated by the gas-guzzling commute between Laguna Beach and Hollywood.
"My husband, Chris, says 'Plan something, and Linda will get a job [that conflicts],' " joked Gehringer, who also has appeared on "The Practice," "Touched by an Angel" and "L.A. Law" and, briefly, opposite Jack Nicholson in the film "As Good As It Gets."
In January, Gehringer canceled a trip to Paris when South Coast Repertory telephoned in distress: The mother of the female lead in their staging of Moliere's "Tartuffe" was having heart surgery. Could Gehringer step in mid-run?
Memorizing rhyming couplets during a weekend would challenge any player, even one versed as Gehringer is in Shakespeare, Chekhov and Tennessee Williams. "It was like being pushed onstage on a pair of roller skates," said Gehringer, who ended up subbing for two performances.
But producers had confidence in the Detroit native, an SCR regular. Last fall, she portrayed U.S. Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas--who ran against then-Congressman Richard M. Nixon for a 1950 U.S. Senate seat--in the Costa Mesa theater's production of "But Not for Me," by Keith Reddin.
"She did a remarkable job" with the last-minute Moliere call, SCR artistic director Martin Benson said. "She's one of the really gifted actresses around. She's also probably the easiest actor to work with you're ever going to meet. She never stops smiling, and she's so warm and supportive of everybody, yet such a competent and dedicated professional."
Hurry Up and Wait
It was during "Tartuffe" that Gehringer got the call for Monday's wattle-less "Ally," whose shooting schedule, like many in the television industry, was a moving target.
To begin with, the script came in about two weeks late. Creator David E. Kelley, who also produces "The Practice," writes the scripts for both hugely popular shows, and he fell behind, series execs said. Gehringer will be seen wearing one of her own sweaters on camera because wardrobe didn't have enough shopping time.
She also had to quickly shift to working in front of a camera. Unlike an audience sitting several feet away, the camera registers every flicker of an eyelid, every distracted glance, Gehringer said. "So you really have to be totally in the moment. The camera picks up any ounce of a lie."
She also shot her part in the show without knowing the entire plot: She got only her scenes from producers. (For "Tartuffe," Gehringer had to memorize most of an entire play by reciting her lines on cues from her husband, who stood in for all the other characters.)
When the "Ally" shoot didn't flow as planned, Gehringer twice had to cancel a scheduled interview with a reporter. One of those times, producers kept her overnight at a hotel near the Manhattan Beach studio where "Ally" films because they thought they'd need her the next morning at 6. They didn't need her until 7:15 that evening.
"When we finally went to rehearse, I couldn't remember my lines," Gehringer said later, joking that her brain had gone numb after two days of waiting.
"I can't say that it's always easy," she said of all the scheduling changes. Still, who cares, really, when you get to work for such critical and popular talents as Kelley, or share makeup trailers with some of the culture's biggest stars?
On the "Ally" set two weeks ago, Gehringer didn't suppress a grin when a visitor, quietly informed she'd played Reno, blurted out, "No kidding?" Earlier, bouncing out of private dressing room, she recalled with awe the first time she walked into the show's makeup trailer.
"These people that you've been watching on TV, suddenly there they are."