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Swoosie Kurtz picks herself up off cutting-room floor

Classic Hollywood: Her pro acting debut came in high school, but very little made it in into 'The Donna Reed Show.' Her long career has taken her to 'Mike & Molly.'

April 21, 2013|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • Swoosie Kurtz at Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank.
Swoosie Kurtz at Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

Swoosie Kurtz, who plays Melissa McCarthy's outrageous mother, Joyce, on the hit CBS sitcom "Mike & Molly," got her first lesson in the fickleness of show business more than 50 years ago in a production of Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth" at Hollywood High School.

"We were backstage after the performance getting ready to meet our families when I was told there was a man who wants to see you, Eddie Foy III," said Kurtz, relaxing on a red sofa that matches her hair in her dressing room at Warner Bros.

"He was a famous casting director," she related. "He said, 'I thought you were wonderful in the play. I want to put you on "The Donna Reed Show."' It was a big deal. I had to get my SAG card. I had to get out of school to shoot it."

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Kurtz, 68, worked for one day playing a friend of Mary (Shelley Fabares) in a party sequence and another scene talking to Mary on the phone. She recalled the anticipation the family felt waiting for the show to air.

"We had everybody sitting around the TV sets — all the relatives across the country," Kurtz said smiling. But most of her debut ended up on the cutting-room floor. She was just a blink-and-you'll-miss in the party scene. "And the phone call — all you hear is my voice," she recalled wistfully.

Kurtz picked herself up from that initial disappointment to become one of the most versatile actresses working regularly in theater, film and television.

"She's smart, she's funny and she's immensely talented," McCarthy said via email about Kurtz. "She really has no limitations."

Kurtz, who studied drama at USC and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, first conquered the New York stage in the 1970s working with such noted playwrights as Wendy Wasserstein ("Uncommon Women and Others") and Christopher Durang ("A History of the American Film") and winning Tony Awards for Lanford Wilson's "Fifth of July" in 1981 and six years later for John Guare's "The House of Blue Leaves."

"She plays this aptly named character named Bananas, who is literally insane," said Michael Brandman, executive producer of the "American Playhouse" presentation of "The House of Blue Leaves" for PBS. "The transitions she makes are so sudden, profound and so believable because of how committed she is to her craft. I watched the show again over the course of the last couple of days, and it is one of the most stunning performances on stage I have seen."

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Though Kurtz has appeared in several films, including 1988's "Dangerous Liaisons" and its 1999 contemporary remake "Cruel Intentions," she has found a real showcase for her versatility on television, including movies, such as 1993's "And the Band Played On," and as a regular on several series, most notably the 1991-96 NBC drama "Sisters," for which she earned an Emmy nomination.

For three seasons she's been having fun playing Joyce on "Mike & Molly."

"It's been very liberating," she said. "She is inappropriate in the best possible way. She just tickles my sexual funny bone. She has no filter. She just says stuff because that's what she feels. She's so different from anybody I ever played."

Kurtz was named after the Swoose — part swan/part goose — the nickname for the B-17D Flying Fortress airplane her father, the highly decorated Air Force Col. Frank Allen Kurtz, piloted during World War II. Her father died in 1996 and her mother, Margo, 97, lives with her.

Being a military brat, Kurtz and her parents were constantly moving. "I was almost cripplingly shy," she said.

Then she discovered acting at Hollywood High.

"You find out when you become another person that is the way you can connect with people," she said. "I said, 'Oh, my god, I can make people laugh. I can make them cry.' I realized I could be more comfortable, more relaxed and communicate with a whole room of people — and now a huge audience of people — than I could ever do one to one."

Are you an aficionado of iconic Hollywood? Like us on Facebook and go to the Classic Hollywood landing page to get more Times coverage.

susan.king@latimes.com

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