Valerie Harper was reminiscing about Julie Kavner and their work together as the Morgenstern sisters on “Rhoda” during the 1970s. She recalled the time a director had suggested covering some expository dialogue in the kitchen with something funny involving food.
There was a pause. Then Kavner said slowly, in her distinctively raspy voice, “Valerie . . . Valerie, did you ever have a Sara Lee that wasn’t all the way thawed?”
“So we spent the whole time struggling with a chocolate cake that wasn’t yet thawed,” Harper remembered. “Julie was incredibly inventive. I have the fondest memories of her. . . . She can make me laugh more than anyone I’ve ever worked with. I’ve done work I’ve liked as much, but never work that I’ve liked more.”
Then a newcomer to television, Kavner won an Emmy for her role as the long-suffering Brenda--socially awkward, downwardly mobile, entrenched in a losing battle with Sara Lee. The part also led the 38-year-old actress to her current job on “The Tracey Ullman Show,” Fox Broadcasting’s half-hour variety program in which English import Ullman and a cast of regular players--Kavner, Dan Castellaneta, Joseph Malone and Sam McMurray--assume multiple personalities for offbeat sketches, interspersed with behind-the-scenes material and cartoons by Matt Groening.
Kavner has won two Emmy nominations for her work on “Ullman,” which will return in the fall for its fourth season.
James L. Brooks, the executive producer of “The Tracey Ullman Show,” was also the co-creator and executive producer of “Rhoda.” He knew he wanted Kavner for the Fox venture.
“When somebody’s intrinsically funny--you know, in-their-bones funny --they never have to work at (being funny), so they’re free to work on other things,” Brooks said. “We were all nuts about her work. She was the person we most wanted to work with Tracey.”
Film director Woody Allen apparently shares Brooks’ opinion. He has cast her in three of his films: “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Radio Days” and “New York Stories.” (Although Kavner played native New Yorkers in these films, as she did in “Rhoda,” she actually was born in Burbank. Her New York inflections come from her New York-transplant parents.)
Ullman calls Kavner “one of America’s great character actresses.”
“I don’t think the writers consider Julie second banana to me at all,” Ullman said. “We are very equal, (although) I find that mostly I play the bitches. If we play two friends, I’m the one who’s the slut.”
Kavner herself seems somewhat bemused at being described as a “great character actress.”
“What do you think it means? Because I’m not sure I know myself,” she said over a lunch of steamed vegetables. .
She pondered the “character actress” concept for a moment.
“I think there are some people who play themselves,” she said. “Maybe Tom Selleck would argue with you and say that he plays characters, but basically he plays himself. I don’t think it has anything to do with being a lead or a supporting character, because whenever I’ve had the lead in a show, I still don’t play myself. On ‘The Tracey Ullman Show,’ characters are all we do.
“It has been a tremendous opportunity to do things I’ve never done before and may never do again. . . . The fun for me as an actor is getting to play different people, getting to explore the world a little bit, an emotion or a relationship, something that’s not me.”
Shy and Private
Kavner does not like exposing her own personality off-screen, either. Harper described her as painfully shy--the kind of performer who would turn up her collar and run the other way when a “Rhoda” fan greeted her on the street. Kavner, who rarely does interviews, watched with suspicion as a reporter’s tape recorder revolved.
“I’m very, very private; I don’t enjoy talking about myself to strangers,” she said. “Particularly strangers with tapes going.”
Kavner, who studied drama in Los Angeles and San Diego and has performed at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, is also slow to champion her own success.
“That’s true--I’ve never been in a bad television series,” she acknowledged after it was pointed out to her. “I’ve been in bad pieces (on TV), and I’ve been in bad movies, but never a bad television series.
“I did a ‘Lou Grant’ once where I played a battered woman; I thought I was real bad in that. And I played a blind woman in--remember the (1974) series ‘Petrocelli’? I thought I was real bad in that. I won’t go into the movies that were terrible. None of them directed by the Wood-Man (Allen), no. No, he is really quite something.”
Kavner let another question or two go by, then returned to the subject: “I’ve done some other stuff I have been proud of. ‘Bad Medicine,’ did you see that? With Steve Guttenberg and Alan Arkin? Anyway, go ahead,” she said sheepishly. “I just didn’t want you to think everything had been terrible except Woody.”
Kavner is proud of “The Tracey Ullman Show”; some of her favorite sketches include one in which she and Ullman portrayed two middle-aged Jewish sisters arguing over who would care for their mother after their father dies (that one netted her an Emmy nomination), and another in which she played a suicidal druggist determined to overdose on pills, only to be saved by a thief who comes in to burglarize the store and makes her dance the tango with him.
“I thought, ‘How are they going to make suicide funny in any way, shape or form?’ ” she said. “That it ended up being a dance number is extraordinary to me. “This whole television show has been and continues to be a challenge, an experimentation; that’s why I got into it,” Kavner added. “It’s a great process--and the hardest work I’ve ever done as an actor in my life.”