She once sang “If Communism Comes Knocking at You Door, Don't Answer It” to Archie Bunker, who thought it was “a damn good song.”
The “All in the Family” audience thought it was hilarious, and former Tulsa high school cheerleader Mary Kay Place, composer of that satirical country tune, took her first step toward the role that would make her famous — as Loretta Haggers, the drawling, God-fearing, sweet-natured, empty-headed, country-singing neighbor on the '70s soap opera parody “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”
Place still has a trace of Okie twang in her voice sometimes, but she's far from empty-headed, having proven her talents as an actress, screenwriter, director, singer and songwriter over and over again during her 40 years in Hollywood.
She'll be sharing memories and lessons learned from her incredible career with an audience at the Oklahoma History Center at 7 p.m. Sunday during an Oklahoma version of “Inside the Actors' Studio.”
“I'm excited to come to Oklahoma City,” the Tulsa native said in a recent phone interview. “That's going be interesting.”
It couldn't be otherwise, considering her show-biz resume, which includes becoming the first female performer ever to win a primetime Emmy as best supporting actress in a syndicated comedy series (“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”). She also co-wrote scripts for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “M*A*S*H” and “Phyllis,” and had prominent roles in “The Big Chill,” “The Rainmaker,” “Being John Malkovich” and HBO's “The Big Love,” to name but a few.
During her Q&A at the history museum — where the “Oklahoma @ The Movies” exhibit is on display — Place will announce a donation to the Oklahoma Historical Society for eventual display in the proposed Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture (OKPOP). The donation includes costumes and memorabilia from her work on stage, screen and in music.
Place is appearing at the Oklahoma History Center in support of the OKPOP Museum, planned for construction in the Brady Arts District in her hometown.
“They're already in the (Oklahoma History Center), the Loretta outfit and I think a hat and maybe some boots,” she said. “And maybe I might bring a costume from ‘Big Love.' I don't know if you ever saw that, but that was a really fun show to do. It was a blast because the writers were so good. ... So I'm going to bring that, and maybe there's a sweater from ‘The Big Chill' as well.”
No doubt, Place has accumulated a big closet of memories since leaving Tulsa to chase her California dreams, dreams that date to her childhood.
“My grandparents, my father's parents, loved to have me sing,” she recalled. “And they would have me sing for their friends and they were always wanting me to sing songs, and I loved to sing as a kid, as a little kid. So the (performing) bug was early. Like 3, 4, 5, 6. It started in and never stopped.”
When recalling her teen years at Nathan Hale High School, the young adult novels of S.E. Hinton came into the conversation; the way the Tulsa author described the different crowds that made up the social structure of high school in 1960s Tulsa: the “soshes,” or popular social-climbers, and the “greasers,” which was not a racial slur in this case, but a high school term for the misfits and the black leather jacket crowd. And then, of course, there were the theater geeks.
“I was not a greaser,” she said with a laugh, “but I had a lot of greaser friends. I was right in the middle because I was a cheerleader and I was in student government and I was in plays. I was in a lot of musical things. We had these big variety shows that our club put on ever year. You know, our Speakers Bureau Club. And we worked really hard on them and we wrote all these sketches.
“And I have to say they were hilarious. They were absolutely hilarious. And a lot of these kids who never went into show business — Gale Caharns is one of them — he was a brilliant writer, director, actor. He could write any music and he's head of a hospital nursing staff in Dallas, Texas, now.
“So I didn't fall into the greaser category, for sure, but I had friends who were greasers. I think I had friends on both sides of the fence. I was in a lot of groups, because I had a lot of different interests and they crossed groups.”
But her main interests lay in acting and writing, and as soon as she graduated from the University of Tulsa in 1969, Mary Kay Place loaded up her Volkswagen and headed west. All she had was a phone number given her by a guest speaker in a drama class.
She was determined to skip waitressing and head straight into the entertainment industry, and that's just what she did, starting at the bottom at CBS Television City.
“I wanted to work in the business and learn and observe,” she said.
Her first job was as a $110 per week clerk typist in the music clearance department at CBS. Her father, Brad, the head of the art department at the University of Tulsa, and her mother, Gwen, an elementary schoolteacher, ran up a big phone bill keeping tabs on her.
But she did all right. The clerk job led to a secretarial position on “The Tim Conway Comedy Hour,” then a similar job with producer Norman Lear's Tandem Productions. And that led to the singing and acting debut on “All in the Family” and, finally, the Loretta role on “Mary Hartman, Hartman,” an Emmy win, and even a Grammy-nominated album called “Tonite! At the Capri Lounge: Loretta Haggers.”
But Place was never comfortable singing in front of people. And she found she didn't have the stamina for directing, although she helmed episodes of “Friends,” “Arli$$,” “The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman” and “Dream On.” And writing? Well ...
“Writing is the most difficult,” she said. “I think writing is really hard, and I think I'm probably the least gifted (at writing). I just, I have enormous respect for writers. I mean they're the kings and queens. Or I should say queens and kings of the whole deal. Because if you don't have the good script — I mean the better the writing is, the better your performance is. And the more satisfying it is for the audience.”
She lists her proudest accomplishments as: “Well, I think certainly ‘Mary Hartman' and ‘The Big Chill.' I think the character I played on ‘Big Love' is one of the highlights, for me. I also liked the character I played on Francis Coppola's ‘Rainmaker.' I also liked the character I played on an independent film called ‘Manny & Lo' with Scarlett Johansson when she was 10. I'm sure there are others, but those come to mind right now, at 8 a.m.”
As for how growing up in Oklahoma shaped her as a person and an artist, Place offers:
“I just think I feel grounded because of growing up in Oklahoma. There was a kind of no-nonsense ... In other words when you're in L.A. and New York there are all these social structures and outward rules that people feel they have to follow and I didn't know anything about that when I grew up in Tulsa. I just was oblivious to it.
“So it could've just been my particular family and what we cared about ... But I felt like that there was just a natural way of being. I just feel like I had real friends and obviously school life was fraught with typical teenage things that every kid goes through, but there was a kind of grounded feeling that I had, growing up in Tulsa. And that served me well, that foundation.”