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Entertainment & Arts

Classic Hollywood: Laraine Newman’s road from ‘SNL’ to ‘Celebrity Autobiography’

Lee Mullican Untitled (Venice) 1967
Actress Laraine Newman, from the first cast of “Saturday Night Live,” was photographed against a painting by Lee Mullican Untitled (Venice), 1967.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Laraine Newman was all of 23 when she became a member of the Not Ready For Prime-Time Players with Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris and Dan Aykroyd on the groundbreaking NBC comedy-variety series “Saturday Night Live.”

During her five years on the show, Newman brought to life such indelible characters as Connie Conehead, Sheri the Valley Girl, Lina Wertmuller and even Rosalyn and Amy Carter.

Newman appeared in several movies including Woody Allen’s 1980 “Stardust Memories” and 1986’s “Invaders From Mars,” but is best known these days for her voice-over work in countless animated series including 2006’s “The Incredibles,” 2015’s “Minions” and 2016’s “The Secret Life of Pets.”

A founding member of the world renowned Los Angeles improv group the Groundlings, the 66-year-old Newman has also been a regular performer in the award-winning comedy show “Celebrity Autobiography.” Created by Eugene Pack, the show features various actors performing passages from celeb autobiographies penned by such stars as Oprah Winfrey, Celine Dion, Britney Spears, David Hasselhoff, Ricky Martin, Sylvester Stallone, Cher and Elizabeth Taylor.

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On Saturday, Newman will be performing in the latest edition of “Celebrity Autobiography” at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills as part of its Sorting Room “nightclub” series. Also scheduled to appear are Pack, Jennifer Tilly, Dayle Reyfel, Sherri Shepherd and Steven Weber.

Newman, a self-described introvert, recently talked about her life in comedy and the fun of performing in “Celebrity Autobiography.”

Did you always want to perform?

It was my trajectory — I’m lucky that way. I always knew what I wanted to do. At camp I wrote my own shows. I went to Beverly Hills High School, which had a great drama department. Our teacher, John Ingle, didn’t quite know what to make of me, but he gave me a platform and let me do my thing.

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I know you were into mime here when you were 16, but how did you end up studying with Marcel Marceau in Paris?

I knew I was not going to be going to college. I didn’t have the grades and school was miserable for me. I wrote to the drama schools in England. They had preliminary auditions, which were in New York. Out of 300 people, they’d take 80. I made the 80 group for all three schools and had to go to London for the final auditions, from which they took 20. I was not accepted.

I was just despondent. I’m talking, weeping on the phone to my mother. She says, why don’t you go over to Paris and see if Marcel Marceau will accept you at his school. He accepted me. It was an amazing experience. I got teased mercilessly when I was at “SNL” for having done mime.

How did you get involved in “Celebrity Autobiography”?

It started off at the Amalfi Restaurant on La Brea. There’s a room upstairs, that’s where I first saw it. A friend of mine was in the show and invited me. Eugene asked me if I’d like to do it. I was like, hell, yeah.

So who have you been doing recently?

We have a whole mashup of people talking about food — Neil Sedaka, Barbra Streisand, George Hamilton, Dolly Parton. Sylvester Stallone is talking about everything that’s in his refrigerator and his freezer. I know from his perspective, he is imparting the way that he eats. But it’s a goldmine if you want to just list things and give it that little skew that offers you the absurdity of the fact that they’re doing that.

Lately, I have been doing Carol Channing and Celine Dion. Carol’s autobiography is hilarious. She has a wonderful attitude about herself. She’s very frank. She talks about being friends with Barbra Streisand because Barbra Streisand came back stage to congratulate her on her performance. Of course, she originated the role of Dolly Levi in “Hello, Dolly!” Then, Barbra Streisand does the movie and she says, “And that was the end of that!”

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You also read from the book written by Burt Reynolds’ assistant. Yeah, I had fun with her because I just took the perspective that she was in love with him, so that fed into a certain aspect of what’s she writing.

How did you move into voice-over acting for animation?

I always did characters. I did character monologues at the Groundlings. I had a manager at the time and it was her idea. I auditioned for two solid years and then [after] the first job I got I never stopped working.

Why did it take so long to get your first break in voice-overs?

I took a class with [voice-over coach] Charlie Adler. After I took his class is when I started booking. I guess there was an aspect of it that I didn’t quite understand, which was that I am kind of a retiring introvert. You can’t be that in animation because it’s so broad.

What are some of shows are you working on now?

I’m on “Vampirina,” “Captain Underpants” and a show called “Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz” for Warner Bros. I’m the Wicked Witch. It’s really fun. They love it when I scream, so they write a lot of screaming elements.

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How did the Groundlings come about?

A friend of mine wanted to audition for CalArts. He had me be his partner and they accepted me. I was there only for three months because I realized I really didn’t like acting. My sister Tracy was in this improv workshop. It was just a workshop, so I joined that. From that the whole group formed the Groundlings.

Producer Lorne Michaels first saw you in the Groundings and cast you in a 1974 Lily Tomlin special. Is that how you got “SNL” in 1975?

He came back and saw me again [at the Groundlings]. I was doing new characters and new material. That’s when he said to meet him at the Chateau and he talked to me about this show that was going to be a cross between “Monty Python” and “60 Minutes.” I had never heard of “Monty Python,” but nodded my head vigorously as if I had. Then he said, do you want to go New York? That’s when my stomach fell into my feet because I didn’t want to go to New York.

But it was only going to be for 13 weeks, so I could probably stick that out. The idea of New York scared me. I was very young. I didn’t know anybody. It was difficult for me. I didn’t have the support system and I wasn’t fully formed, either. I did not have a lot of experience when I got there.

Do you have a favorite “SNL” sketch?

For years and years, everybody asked what’s your favorite sketch. And I could never answer. But I discovered a sketch that is absolutely my favorite — it’s the beatniks sketch. I don’t know if you remember it, but the whole cast was in it and Steve Martin was host. It’s so good.

You were great friends with Gilda Radner on “SNL.” Did you stay close until her death in 1989?

Not the kind of friends that we had been when we were thrown together 24 hours a day. But Gilda was such a good person and a loving person. It would be my birthday and she knew I loved sushi and someone would be walking up my driveway with a delivery of sushi from her.

Do you still dabble in sketch and improv?

Every once in a while, I do the Groundlings alumni show. I still study improv. This guy Bill Steinkellner — he’ s a writer and a showrunner — teaches a class Saturdays for three hours. It’s all Groundlings alum. It’s so much fun and it makes a difference in performance. When you do voice-over, you forget to use your body and your face.

Info

“Celebrity Autobiography”

The Sorting Room at the Wallis

Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills

July 21 at 7 and 9 p.m.

Admission: $30-$50

calendar@latimes.com


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