Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Summer Nose-talgia #8: Happy Birthday to Polly Holliday of "Alice" & "Flo"!

One of the brighest lights of mid-1970s TV sitcoms was actress Polly Holliday who is celebrating her 77th birthday today.  The acting veteran from Alabama cut her teeth in regional-- Sarasota, Florida -- and New York theater and movies (All the President's Men) and knew how to take a role and make it hers.   Holliday did just that with her co-starring role on the CBS comedy Alice starring actress/singer Linda Lavin in the title role.

Alice (which debuted Fall of 1976) was adapted from director Martin Scorcese's 1974 feature film Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore; the lone cast holdover was Vic Tayback who played the eponymous owner of Mel's Diner.  Lavin was cast as the widow looking for a new life out West, Beth Howland played the ditzy Vera, and Polly Holliday was Flo, a wise-cracking waitress who knew how to handle any situation.  (In the movie version, Ellen Burstyn won an Academy Awards for her Alice, and Diane Ladd was nominated for her work as Flo).

In fact, Polly Holliday's charisma and Texas-style joie de vivre in the role of Flo was allegedly almost too good, as her catchphrase "Kiss My Grits!" soon became as quotable as Fonzie's "Aaaay!" for TV viewers of the time. Great moment for pop culture, maybe not such a great moment for a woman co-starring on a TV show with another actress who nominally the "star" of the show.

With Flo's character growing in popularity and reported increasing friction between Linda Lavin and Holliday over Flo's ascendance, Flo was spun-off -- or maybe run off -- into a series of her own.  Flo premiered in February of 1980, mid-way through the fourth season of Alice which continued to hold on until its eventual decline and cancellation in 1985 -- an impressive nine-season, 202 episode run.

Flo, on the other hand, only lasted that half-season and one more; it was cancelled in June 1981 after only 29 episodes.  After that though, unfortunately the character of Flo never returned to the original series except for flashbacks in the farewell episode. Aficionados of Alice admit that a lot of the zing went out of the series after Polly Holliday's departure, and that's no doubt the truth.

Flo Castleberry was a character brought to life by a very talented actress, as Polly Holliday frequently had to remind viewers and reporters.  For her work as Flo she won Golden Globes twice out of four nominations, and was nominated four times for Emmy Awards.  Holliday went on to solid supporting roles in movies such as Gremlins, Stir Crazy, and Mrs. Doubtfire and series TV work on Home Improvement, The Golden Girls, and Private Benjamin, among many others.

She also returned to her stage roots to much acclaim including a Tony Award nomination for her role as Big Mama opposite Charles Durning as Big Daddy with Kathleen Turner as Maggie the Cat in the 1990 revival of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  Well-liked and well-respected among her peers, Polly Holliday also sponsors a yearly award at the Southeastern Theatre Conference which is open to high school students in the region who will be pursuing a Theatre Arts Major.  The tremendously talented and versatile Holliday also continues to pursue her own acting career in stage, screen and TV.

With both of her series recently available on DVD, the masterwork of Polly Holliday in creating a beloved TV character can be appreciated again and again.  Television is the mythology of our culture, and Polly Holliday as Flo is among the pantheon of characters populating its vivid history.

Happy Birthday, Polly Holliday!

P.S.:  An interesting fact is that in the years since Alice and Flo, Holliday demurred to utter her trademark "Kiss My Grits!" when requested by fans, instead asking them to say it to her.

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