Rebecca Schull has become an idol to flight attendants, thanks to her role as the relentlessly perky ex-airline attendant Fay Evelyn Cochran on NBC’s hit comedy “Wings.”
“Whenever I fly, a stewardess will come up to me and recognize me as if I were their long-lost buddy,” Schull says. “One woman said to me one day: ‘Oh, we love you. We feel like you are our spokeswoman.’ They have a real affection for the show.”
Currently, Schull is featured in the new Michael Keaton film “My Life,” in the very dramatic role of Keaton’s Ukrainian immigrant mother, who must struggle with her son’s fatal illness and the fact that he’s all but disowned his family.
The film’s casting director called her in to read for the part. “I auditioned for them on tape and then (writer-director) Bruce Joel Rubin saw the tape,” she recalls. “There was a lot of discussion about it. I wasn’t hired immediately. There was some interest in somebody else, I think. But my impression, at any rate, was that Bruce wanted me from the beginning.”
“My Life” marks Schull’s first big movie role. “I had a small part in the Woody Allen movie ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ and I had done a student film years and years ago,” she says. “This was the first time I had a real role and it was a great experience for me.
“It’s very different than TV and stage,” Schull says. “You can wait around for 14 hours in a day and think you are going to go home without ever having done anything, and then at the last moment be called on the set to do a very emotional scene. The trick with that is you have to learn how to stay relaxed during those 12 hours and still be prepared, so in 5 or 10 minutes’ notice, you can get out there and deliver.”
Until the early ‘70s, Schull was a housewife with three children. But her life changed when her husband Gene was transferred to Dublin to set up offices for Encyclopaedia Britannica.
“I think that ever since I was a kid I had fantasies of being an actress,” Schull says. “I think I always felt I could act and wanted to, but I didn’t have the ambition or the ego to pursue it as a young woman. When I was young, being an actress meant being a movie star, so it was in the realm of fantasy.”
Feeling isolated in Dublin with her husband working and her children in school, Schull decided to keep busy by taking acting lessons. “I started taking classes when I was past 40,” she says. “I was 20 years older than anyone else in the class. That was the big leap for me at the beginning. I studied with a wonderful teacher.”
Schull took classes for nearly three years without any inkling she would make a career out of it. Because the school was connected with a small Dublin professional repertory company, Schull starred in productions of “The Night of the Iguana” and “A Delicate Balance” before returning to New York with her husband in 1975.
“That’s when I had to start looking for work as an actress for the first time,” Schull says. “I didn’t know anybody in the business and didn’t have an agent.” But within 18 months Schull landed her first Broadway play, “Herzel.”
“It wasn’t bad,” Schull says. “I had a small part and I understudied somebody else.”
“Wings” airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC; repeats of “Wings” airs weeknights at 7:30 and 11:30 and weekends at 6:30 p.m. on USA.