After a recent performance of "Summer Wind" at the Alliance Theater in Burbank, a young woman in the audience approached actress Molly McClure, hugged her and said, "You're just like my mama."
But that's nothing new to McClure. "That happens to me all the time," she said.
At 70, McClure has portrayed a number of mothers on stage, including her definitive down-home, whip-cracking matriarch in "Summer Wind." Her gravelly voice sounds as if she came straight out of the hill country of Kentucky, where she indeed grew up.
That sense of Americana has carried her far. At an age when most careers are over, hers is just revving up. McClure will soon make her motion picture debut, playing the bellowing in-law she created in the 21-month-long Hollywood comedy stage hit at Theatre/Theater, "Daddy's Dyin', Who's Got the Will?" The film version, which will be distributed by MGM, starts production in rural Denton, Tex., after Labor Day.
She scoffs at retirement. "No way, I'm just startin'."
Only McClure and one other actress from "Daddy's Dyin', Who's Got the Will?" (Patrika Darbo) will appear in the film, which will co-star Beverly D'Angelo, Beau Bridges, Judge Reinhold, Tess Harper and Amy Wright. The $4-million to $5-million production will be directed by Jack Fisk from a screenplay by the play's author, Del Shore, 31.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles playwright Jean Van Tuyle's boisterous family reunion drama, "Summer Wind," will run through July 29 at the Alliance, giving theatergoers vintage McClure--a tough, countrified woman trying to rein together disparate members of a family.
The actress, who lives in Studio City, first came to Los Angeles from Kentucky 20 years ago, following two of her three daughters. She had been active for 17 years (between 1951 and 1968) with a theater group she founded in Paducah, Ken., and, once here, she resumed acting again in such San Fernando Valley Equity Waiver houses as the McGaw and Actors Valley. But it wasn't until her work in "Tobacco Road" at the Beverly Hills Playhouse 10 years ago that she was able to define her niche as a whiskey-voiced, matronly rural character.
"I can't change my voice," McClure said. "What you hear is what I am. I lose roles because of my accent. But it's also been a big part of my success. Once a casting agent suggested that I use a dialectician to get me into a mid-American accent, and then something like 'Daddy's Dyin" came along. I never thought of a dialectician since."
McClure only began acting in front of a camera two years ago. She does a lot of cameo work in television ("The Women of Brewster Place"), and she's the old cleaning woman on a current Winston Tire commercial. But it has been her stage characters, so many of them named Mama--Mama Wheelis in "Daddy's Dyin,' Who's Got the Will?," Mama Lillie in "Lost Highway" at the Mark Taper Forum, Mama Higgins in "Summer Wind"--that ring with veracity.
"One time after a show, a woman said to me, 'I don't want to insult you, but do you know you look and talk like Marjorie Main. Well, I'm used to that. I don't mind at all."
McClure, the only girl in a family of eight children, began smoking when she was 17 and smoked a couple of packs a day until she quit only seven years ago. That's 46 years of smoking. "I know I'm lucky. What stopped me cold turkey was a producer who said to me that my voice was so raspy that they couldn't hear me beyond the third row. I never took up a cigarette again."
McClure, who carries her 70 years as if she were 50, plays an extended matriarchal figure in real life. She has five grandchildren, ages 7 to 22, and they "all look at their grandma and wonder how I learned to act. Except for learning to talk like this in Paducah, I don't have an answer."