LOS ANGELES -- Collaboration is key to any successful production, no matter what the medium, actress Linda Lavin says.
“You discover a character in the rehearsal room, then your imagination takes over and you think, ‘I want her to look like this.’ So you work with designers and writers and producers and, hopefully, you can bring something different, something the audience wants to see,” she says.
While working on the hit sitcom “Alice,” audiences at the weekly tapings weren’t responding the way she wanted them to. Don’t worry, a producer told her. “Wait until we’re on the air. They’ll know who you are and the audience will be more responsive.” Sure enough, the character clicked and the series ran from 1976 to 1985, making Lavin a TV icon.
When she worked with Neil Simon on his Tony-winning comedy, “Broadway Bound,” she told him she was having trouble with a line: “I’m not sure I’m clear about it.” Quickly, he said, “I’ve got something better for you” and, always, Lavin says, “I’d say, ‘No, no. Give me one more chance.’ A great writer has a million options. It’s that collaboration that’s so wonderful.”
Now, in “9JKL,” a new sitcom on CBS, she gets to work with the show’s star and co-creator, Mark Feuerstein. Based loosely on his life, the series shows what it was like to live next door to his parents and his brother during a specific period of his life. Lavin plays his mother.
While the two were on “Conrad Bloom,” another sitcom, the Tony-winning actress got to meet Feuerstein’s real mother. “She’s a very beautiful, interesting, smart and savvy New York woman,” Lavin says. “I’m not playing her. I’m playing what’s written in my version of who I would be if I were his mother.
“That’s what I do when I take on a role. I do the research, but I also bring my own fantasies and parts of me to the creation, so I’m represented there, too.”
Given “9JKL’s” first line, Lavin got a laugh immediately and “years of the joy of performance were in that moment for me. I could feel the connection, which is what we want to do. We want to connect with people.”
Because “9JKL” is shot before a studio audience, she and the others can feed off that reaction. “You know if the jokes land. If they don’t, you don’t have to wait for someone to tell you. We have writers on the set who can rewrite in a minute and get a better joke, a better line, a better setup.”
It’s just the nature of the beast.
Although little has changed about the sitcom process , there’s something about having that interaction.
“Alice” shot two versions – one during the day without an audience and one at night with it. The best scenes from each would be used in the final version that aired. “You always saw the show with the audience was the most exciting, the most dynamic,” Lavin says. “Even the color of your skin was different from the adrenaline, the excitement of doing it in front of the audience.”
Now when she looks back on those old episodes (and yes, she has), the 80-year-old Golden Globe winner beams with pride. “I was so much more self-critical at the time, wanting the writing to be deeper. I wanted to take on real tough subjects and, now, when I watch it, I realize we did. I’m so proud of it. I was grateful I was a part of it.”
Like Feuerstein, Lavin knows what it’s like to write a show. A regular on the nightclub circuit, she just rewrote the dialogue for a show, “which was like writing a one-act play.
“I do it by myself in the tub. I think about songs I want to sing. A story comes to mind, a thought, an idea, and I take my phone and record it. Then I take it to my musical director, Billy Stritch, or my husband Steve Bakunas, and say, ‘Listen to this and give me feedback.’
“To walk out of your comfort zone and into the danger zone of something new and untested is always daunting.”
Whenever she begins to feel the nerves, Lavin remembers what dancer Martha Graham wrote to choreographer Agnes De Mille: “It is not your business to wonder if something is good or whatever other people will think. It’s your business to keep the channel open, do your work, keep the creativity going, then you find out what it is you want to say.”
“There’s another saying in the business,” Lavin adds with a smile. “It’s none of my business what other people think of me.”