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Lorna Thayer, 85; Character Actress Played Memorable Waitress in 'Five Easy Pieces'

June 17, 2005|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

As a film and television character actress with more than 40 years in front of the camera, Lorna Thayer largely flew under the show-business radar -- with one notable exception that made film history.

Thayer was the roadside cafe waitress who memorably refused to bend the rules for Jack Nicholson in the 1970 film drama "Five Easy Pieces."

Thayer, who died June 4 at age 85 at the Motion Picture and Television Fund retirement home in Woodland Hills after battling Alzheimer's disease for five years, had a long and varied career.

She appeared on stage in Los Angeles and New York, made guest appearances on countless television shows and had small parts in movies such as "The Lusty Men," "Texas City" and "Frankie and Johnny." She even co-starred in the 1956 horror film "The Beast With a Million Eyes," a low-budget cult favorite.

But then came "Five Easy Pieces," directed by Bob Rafelson with a script by Carole Eastman under the name Adrien Joyce: a small but high-profile role that earned Thayer a prominent position in the pantheon of memorable movie waitresses.

As the voice of authority opposite Nicholson's rebellious Bobby Dupea, a classical pianist turned oil rigger, the middle-aged Thayer proved to be a formidable foil for the young Nicholson in what has come to be known as the "chicken salad scene."

Dupea: "I'd like a plain omelet, no potatoes, tomatoes instead. A cup of coffee and toast."

Waitress, pointing to his menu: "No substitutions."

And so it goes as Nicholson tries to get around the "no substitutions" policy and creatively come up with a way to get a side order of wheat toast.

"I don't make the rules," the increasingly annoyed waitress says at one point.

Dupea: "OK, I'll make it as easy for you as I can. I'd like an omelet, plain. And a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast. No mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce. And a cup of coffee."

Waitress: "A No. 2, chicken sal sand. Hold the butter, the lettuce and the mayonnaise. And a cup of coffee. Anything else?"

Dupea: "Yeah, now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven't broken any rules."

Waitress: "You want me to hold the chicken, huh?"

Dupea: "I want you to hold it between your knees."

Waitress, pointing to the right-to-serve sign: "Do you see that sign, sir? I guess you'll all have to leave. I'm not taking any more of your smartness and sarcasm."

Dupea, having calmly put on his sunglasses and picked up his gloves: "Do you see this sign?"

In a sudden burst, he sweeps his arm across the table, sending the water glasses, silverware and menus flying.

The scene, which is considered quintessential Nicholson, has had a long afterlife -- no Nicholson tribute or compilation of memorable Hollywood lines does without it.

"She was tickled by it," Thayer's daughter, Adrienne Cataldo, said of the scene's longevity in the minds of moviegoers.

In playing the part, Cataldo told The Times this week, her mother tapped into some of the waitresses she had encountered on the road as an actress.

"Most waitresses are wonderful, but we've all encountered a waitress that kind of grates on you," Cataldo said. "She just kind of went in with that attitude."

The reason the scene was so popular, Cataldo said, was that it was a reflection of the generational conflict of the '60s, Nicholson's anti-authoritarian Dupea and Thayer's by-the-rules waitress representing "the rift and the anger that was going on between the generations."

At one point in the scene, Cataldo recalled, her mother seemed to snarl when she said, "You want me to hold the chicken."

"I remember how horrible I felt when she did that," said Cataldo, who was 25 when the movie came out: "You didn't like that woman immediately."

Although the name of the character actress who played the waitress is overlooked when clips of the famous scene air on television, Cataldo said her mother was never bitter about being overlooked.

"She told me, 'There is no competition in true art, only contributions.' "

Thayer, who was once married to the late character actor George Neise, was born in Boston in 1919.

In 1924, she moved with her family to Hollywood, where her mother became silent film actress Louise Gibney.

In addition to Cataldo, Thayer is survived by another daughter, Nikki Savitsky; five grandchildren, six great-grandchildren; and a sister, Anne Budzisz.

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