Linda Lavin recalls ‘Alice’

Linda Lavin with her dog Mickey at her West Hollywood home.
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Linda Lavin is getting the hang of Twitter.

She’s been practicing on Thursday nights when she tweets during both East and West coast airings of NBC’s sitcom “Sean Saves the World.” In the series Lavin plays Lorna, the loving, albeit pushy, mother of Sean Harrison (Sean Hayes of “Will & Grace”), a gay divorced father with a demanding job who is now full-time dad to his 14-year-old daughter (Samantha Isler).

“I’m getting a lot of response,” said the vivacious, petite actress, an age-defying 76, about her tweets. “Someone just said to me the other day, you are doing so much for grandmothers!”

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Long before the Internet, Lavin had developed close, personal relationships with fans. While starring in the popular 1976-85 CBS series “Alice,” based on the 1974 Martin Scorsese film “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” Lavin became a kind of spokesperson for blue- and pink-collar working women who identified with her character Alice Hyatt, a widow with a young son who worked at Mel’s Diner, a roadside eatery just outside of Phoenix.

In fact, “Alice” politicized Lavin.

“I was pulled into the women’s movement,” said Lavin, during a recent interview at her vintage West Hollywood home she shares with her husband, designer/painter/musician Steve Bakunas, and their Snoopyesque beagle/Jack Russell mix, Mickey.

“I was asked to speak at events,” she recalled. “I had never been asked to speak in public before. I was a musical comedy actress. I was invited to labor rallies and ERA marches. I got educated. I was invited to join the National Commission on Working Women.”

Her involvement in women’s issues spilled into the TV series. “We did those issues on the show,” said Lavin. “When Mel hired a waiter and paid him more than us, I organized [the waitresses] Flo and Vera and said we are on strike.”

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Though Lavin did two short-lived sitcoms in the 1990s — 1992’s “Room for Two” and 1998’s “Conrad Bloom” — Lavin primarily concentrated on theater. She had been a staple in New York theater before “Alice” — earning a Tony nomination for “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” — then went on to win the award for lead actress in a drama in 1987 for Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound.”


She’s since earned four more Tony nominations (“The Diary of Anne Frank,” “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” “Collected Stories” and “The Lyons”), and raves in 2011 for her performance in Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities.” In fact, her “Desert” costar Stacy Keach recently guest-starred on “‘Sean” as the smarmy father of Sean’s boss (Tom Lennon) who sets his sights on Lorna.

(The actress is set to return to off-Broadway in May in a limited run of “Too Much Sun,” a new play written with her in mind by “The Lyons” author Nicky Silver.)

Lavin and Bakunas also ran the intimate Red Barn Studio Theatre in Wilmington, N.C., where they lived for several years. “We did three plays a year,” she said. “Last year, we decided it was time to leave. We loaned the theater to another company. We moved to New York and then I got this job.”

She had also decided last year it was time to return to the small screen. “Television has the possibility of such a huge and endearing audience,” said Lavin, adding with a smile that she doesn’t mind the weekly series’ paycheck.

Lavin quickly accepted “Sean Saves the World,” which premiered in September to mixed reviews and modest ratings. The series recently got an order from the network for five more episodes, bringing its total to 18 for the season.

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“The script was one of the best I had read in a long time,” she said. “Clearly, I am going to be offered mother roles, but this was a woman who had a mind of her own, was full-blown and had a great energy and a positive energy.”

A highlight of the show is the wonderful chemistry between Lavin and Hayes, who exchange repartee and quips with breezy ease. And the cast seems smitten with her.

“Linda is one of those rare gems that can get a laugh just by entering a room, giving a certain glance or simply saying one word,” said Hayes in an email interview. “Every week, she gives the most real, honest performance of any mom I’ve ever seen on television.”

“She’s kind of everything I hope to be one day,” added Megan Hilty (“Smash”), who plays Sean’s best friend and co-worker, Liz, who has a bit of a contentious relationship with Lorna. “She wants to play and wants to make it right. There is one point in every day I say ‘I get to work with Linda Lavin.’”


‘Sean Saves the World’

Where: NBC

When: 9 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)


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