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.”