Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Andrea Martin on Working The Engels, SCTV, and almost being Liz Lemon’s mom

Illustration for article titled Andrea Martin on Working The Engels, SCTV, and almost being Liz Lemon’s mom

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.


The actor: Over the course of her career, Andrea Martin has regularly appeared on TV and in films—both in front of the camera and as a voice actress—while also trying to make as much time for stage work as possible. And while she’s certainly proven herself adept at drama, she’s best known for her efforts as a comedian since getting her big break as part of the ensemble of SCTV. In addition to having just wrapped a run in the play Act One at Lincoln Center, which was still in process when she chatted with The A.V. Club, it’s just been announced that she’ll be stepping back into the shoes of Berthe, her Tony-winning role in Pippin, for 24 additional performances in September. For now, however, Martin can be found in cast of the sitcom Working The Engels, airing Thursdays on NBC.

Working The Engels (2014-present)—“Ceil Engel”

Andrea Martin: You know, I knew this was why we were talking, but when you said “your current project”—before asking about it—I’m doing a play right now, so that’s really my current project. Also, I finished shooting the show back in January! [Laughs.]

The A.V. Club: How did you find your way into the show in the first place?

AM: I was sent the script. I was also sent the script for two other shows which were filming in L.A., but—well, I chose it for a few reasons. I loved the character and the script really made me laugh out loud. But it was also being shot in Toronto, and I have a home there. And I met the creators, Katie and Jane Ford, and I immediately hit it off with them, so it felt like a no-brainer. I was ending Pippin, I’d been doing something very physically draining for a year, doing trapeze work in a musical, and the idea of being in Toronto, in my house, doing a TV show that really made me laugh—it really seemed like a gift out of nowhere, so I jumped at it.

AVC: Can you offer a kind of a nutshell description of your character, Ceil Engel?

AM: In a nutshell, I’d say that she’s loving, fiercely protective—maybe even enabling—of her children. Family comes first for her. She’s a little bit self-involved, I guess.


AVC: Seems like that would be fun to play.

AM: Yeah! Oh, dear. She’s very much like me. [Laughs.]

AVC: Is it odd for you to play the matriarch of the family on the show?

AM: Oh, God, no. [Laughs.] God knows I’m age appropriate! You know, I have two grown sons: I have a 31-year-old son and a 33-year-old son. That’s an interesting question, though, really, because I didn’t feel like the matriarch. I guess because of my age and my character name—“Mom”—I guess I was the matriarch, but I felt like it was Kacey [Rohl], who plays my youngest daughter, who probably could’ve been the matriarch, because she was certainly more solid and grounded and definitely more mature. She was more pragmatic, for sure.


AVC: You’ve had the opportunity to have reunions with some very old friends on the show, including Martin Short, Eugene Levy, and Victor Garber, among others.

AM: Yes! I don’t know if all of them will be as familiar in America. Maybe Colin Mochrie, because of Whose Line Is It Anyway? He did an episode, and my son Joe Dolman played my assistant in one, and Marty and Eugene and Eugene’s daughter, Sarah [Levy], are also on the show, as is Wendy Crewson, who’s a lovely actress. So we tried to surround it with people that we loved and wanted to work with, and we were very fortunate to be able to make that happen. We got a lot of great people.

AVC: As you said, it must be odd to have been on the publicity train back in Canada and have to get back aboard now for the States.


AM: Well, it seems like a world away, honestly! I finished Working The Engels in the latter part of January, and then on February 8 I started Act One, a play in which I play three characters. So it’s very, very intense! [Laughs.] So it does feel like a world away from Ceil, and it feels a world away from television, I can tell you that—being at the Lincoln Center, on this huge revolving stage of many different levels, in this play about the life of a man who transformed comedy in the theater. And, you know, it’s a historical piece. I’m playing Beatrice Kaufman, George Kaufman’s wife, and I’m playing Aunt Kate, who was delusional and who was kicked out of her family, and I’m playing Frieda Fishbein, one of the first literary agents. So it has all of this historical weight, and it feels a world away from doing a sitcom!

AVC: And you started in theater, didn’t you?

AM: I did start in the theater, yes. But I guess any kind of celebrity I might’ve had at one point was really launched from SCTV.


AVC: If we’re talking launching pads, you were part of a production of Godspell which may have featured the most talented cast ever.

AM: Well, you know, they do refer to it as the legendary company of Godspell. [Laughs.] There we were: Martin Short, Victor Garber, Eugene Levy, Gilda Radner, Dave Thomas, Paul Shaffer as our musical director, and me. Oh, and Marty met his wife, Nancy Dolman, on Godspell. And I’ve since gone on to work with Stephen Schwartz on Pippin, as well as on a couple of benefits. So it feels like Godspell is how we all started out, but our careers—and our friendships—are continuing.


Foxy Lady (1971)—“Girl Next Door”
Cannibal Girls (1973)—“Gloria Wellaby”

AVC: It’s hard to tell from IMDB: Was your first on-camera appearance in Foxy Lady or on The Hart & Lorne Terrific Hour?


AM: [Bursts out laughing.] Now, let me just think about this, though, because Ivan Reitman saw me doing something before I got Foxy Lady. Maybe he saw me in Godspell? [Sighs.] You know what? I don’t even know what came first. God, that was a long time ago. But let’s just say that it was Foxy Lady, and let’s just say thank God you can’t get that movie anymore. I tried to call Ivan to see if I could use a clip from that movie at an awards show I was hosting, and he said he didn’t even know where it was. So thank God! Because those were my early days when I said, “Yeah, I’ll be semi-nude! That won’t haunt me…”

So, yeah, there was Foxy Lady, and then Cannibal Girls. Oh, I’ve done some great films in my time. [Laughs.] Cannibal Girls followed on the heels of the success of Foxy Lady, in which Eugene Levy and I improvised the entire movie. That was another Ivan Reitman film. We shot it in 12 days, and then we were awarded the Best Actor and Actress at the International Horror Festival that’s still going on in Spain. And I never actually knew for sure if it was even a real thing until one day a few years ago when I was, like, “Oh, I need a boost in my self-esteem. Let me see what the International Horror Festival is.” And sure enough, it was a real thing!

AVC: Cannibal Girls, unfortunately, is one you can’t escape from: Shout! Factory put out a special edition of the film a few years ago.


AM: Yeah, that’s what I hear. Honestly, it’s gory, but it’s actually got a lot of funny things in it. Eugene and I really did improvise it all. It’s kind of quirky, and it’s a favorite among the horror-film cult. And then I went on to do Black Christmas, dear God!

Black Christmas (1974)—“Phyl”
Black Christmas (2006)—“Barbara ‘Ms. Mac’ MacHenry”

AM: It’s one of the original—if not the first—sorority-house killer-in-the-attic films. I don’t know that genre very well, but there were many to follow after that stranger-in-the-house formula, and that was certainly one of the first. Bob Clark directed it—Bob Clark of Porky’s fame—and he died in a very tragic automobile accident a few years ago in California. That was very early in my career, and it starred Olivia Hussey—hot off the press from Romeo And Juliet—Keir Dullea, and Margot Kidder.


AVC: And John Saxon, too.

AM: And John Saxon, too! You know everything! [Laughs.] You probably remember these better than I do!


AVC: You said that Cannibal Girls was gory, but Black Christmas seems like it would’ve been a completely different type of experience.

AM: Well, it was really early in my career, as I say, so I still hadn’t done a lot of film work, but I was working with four veteran film actors, so I watched and learned. But we shot the film in a very old house in Toronto, and even though there weren’t the special effects or the benefit of a music score to scare us, there was still something haunting about being in that house and shooting there. I remember just a very eerie feeling, like, “Oh, my God, maybe somebody is in the attic and they are going to kill us!” [Laughs.] So it felt very authentic when we were filming it.

AVC: How did it feel when they asked you to appear in the 2006 remake?

AM: I loved the idea that I was a sorority girl in the ’70s and the house mother in 2006. You know, I was interested in being part of it and seeing where that sequel or remake would take you, but I think there was a real difference between the movies. The first movie didn’t have the benefit—actually, maybe “benefit” isn’t the right word—but it didn’t have the addition of really graphic images and it was left more to your imagination. I think the first film we did was actually more frightening. But, again, I don’t really know that genre very well, so I don’t know what people are used to. My take, though, is that now it seems to be a case of “the more gory, the better.” I’m the kind of person who likes to see a very depressing foreign film from Iran at three o’clock in the afternoon in New York, and I’m the youngest person in the theater. That’s my idea of a good time. [Laughs.]

Club Paradise (1984)—“Linda White”
AM: Pronounced “Whit-tay.” [Laughs.] Well, that was just a pleasure, because Harold Ramis, of course, I knew from SCTV, and he really wrote the movie with me in mind—and allowed me to improvise—but he also created for me one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever done, if not the funniest physical comedy I’ve ever done, in the shower scene. I did my own stunts in it, and—I’ll tell you a story about the parasailing.


I had to do parasailing in it, and I was like, “Yeah! Bring it on! I can do that!” And while I was up there, the rope that connected the boat to the parasail broke, and I was just floating above the ocean, terrified. And since that day, even though it’s quite effective in the movie, I’m really, really frightened of heights. It traumatized me! I did eventually come down—the wind brought me down—but it was really terrifying. So cut to many years later, in 2013, and I’m asked to be on a trapeze in Pippin on Broadway! But I never let anyone know I was terrified of heights. I wanted to complete that and really perfect the skill, so I went to circus school. And even though we were 12 feet above the stage, I never let anybody know I was terrified, because I wanted to look like an authentic trapeze artists. So every night I’d go up, and I’d think, “I can’t be Andrea Martin. I have to be the character. I have to be Berthe.” And that’s the only way I could do that every night, because that parasailing really did traumatize me.

AVC: When I interviewed Harold Ramis in 2006, I told him I had visions that Club Paradise was going to come to be appreciated as a lost classic of the ’80s. He replied, “I think Club Paradise is appreciated depending on what people have smoked before watching it.”


AM: [Laughs.] I think it’s a much better film than that, a really funny film. Pauline Kael wrote a beautiful review for The New Yorker, and I think it’s a really accurate, respectful review for the form and the kind of comedy that Harold created. I think people misjudged it, or maybe it wasn’t publicized correctly, but Harold was a very modest, humble man, and I think the movie was much funnier than people give it credit for. In another time, I think it would’ve been a huge success, honestly.

The Hart & Lorne Terrific Hour (1971)—“Baffin Islander/Anthem Singer #2”
The Sunshine Hour (1976)—series regular
The David Steinberg Show (1976-1977)—“Julie Liverfoot”
The Robert Klein Show (1981)—herself
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1988)—herself
The Carol Burnett Show (1991)—various characters
AM: Oh, yes! Well, first of all, who knew in the early ’70s that Lorne Michaels would go on to do Saturday Night Live? I certainly didn’t know that. [Laughs.] That was the era of variety shows, so I was also on Robert Klein’s show, and I did another show called The Sunshine Hour out of Halifax, with Eugene and Joe Flaherty. David Steinberg had a variety show, and I did Carol Burnett and the Smothers Brothers’ variety show. The Hart & Lorne Terrific Hour—that was on the CBC, and I think only Canada saw that—but the other shows were in the United States, I think. Maybe not The Sunshine Hour, but I think probably the rest.

But the early ’70s, I remember that being a time when variety was still in. I mean, I grew up watching Ed Sullivan and Topo Gigio and the Marquis Chimps, and it was a format I was very, very comfortable in. I read recently that Maya Rudolph just got a new variety show, and—I think there’s a place for it. I think it’ll come back.


AVC: Variety shows would seem to be an easy way of transitioning between working in the theater and working in front of the camera.

AM: Ah… [Long pause.] Huh. I guess I don’t feel that way. I think—they’re two styles of acting. Variety shows usually are comprised of sketches. You know, abbreviated little scenes. And in the theater, you’re usually doing an extended play that has a beginning, middle, and end, and an arc. It demands a different kind of acting, a different kind of commitment. So—I don’t know. I think probably the sketch work I did in Second City transferred very well to variety shows, and vice versa, but maybe not Tennessee Williams and The Rose Tattoo. [Laughs.]


Wag The Dog (1997)—“Liz Butsky”

AM: [Thoughtfully.] Wag The Dog! I was so fortunate to work with Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro and see the two different styles that these gentlemen worked in. Dustin Hoffman was very extroverted and outspoken, mingled with the cast and the crew, and on the first day I got there, he said, “Come up to my dressing room and we’ll run lines!” Just very outgoing and demonstrative. You know, I think it was important for him to be seen and listened to, and I don’t mean that in any derogatory way. It doesn’t surprise me at all that he’s now gone on to direct, because he just wanted to be a part of the whole machine. He seemed driven to be a part of every aspect. Robert De Niro, however, is very introverted and sticks by himself. He’s kind and lovely, but he doesn’t really mingle. And then to watch how they interacted on camera after seeing them off-camera was a real education. Everybody has their own way to prepare, but they both delivered beautifully. And, by the way, they had great chemistry on camera. So that was a huge lesson.


The other gift that I had was working with the director, Barry Levinson. Because I’d be doing a scene, and he’d just throw out lines that were funny and give them to me, and I’d get to use them. He felt very free to throw out the lines, and, of course, I felt free to deliver them because I was used to improvising. Although the part was very small and, even then, I still really hadn’t done a lot of film, the whole experience was a highly educational one. Very formative in my film career.

Hedwig And The Angry Inch (2001)—“Phyllis Stein”
AM: Oh, that’s my all-time favorite movie. And the most proud I am of anything. I thought it was kind of visionary from John Cameron Mitchell, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen any musical be so effective on camera, with the way he integrated the story and the music. It was a cult film, but I love John and I loved the character that he invented that, of course, Neil Patrick Harris just won a Tony for on Broadway. To be a part of something that was underground and was appreciated by an underground audience, it made me feel like I was part of a very elite club. [Laughs.] And working with John, I was just mesmerized by his effortlessness. He did the movie in drag, and he was up in Toronto shooting it with a very macho crew, looking like a woman, with a little, tiny short skirt on, never making any apologies, just wanting to make a good product, not embarrassed or intimidated. He was just really comfortable with everybody—comfortable in his own skin. So I think that the film, although not many people saw it, was kind of revolutionary, really, in the way musicals are depicted on camera.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1995)—“Ishka”
AM: [Laughs.] Ishka! Well, that was tough, because the make-up call was 4 a.m., and I was in the makeup chair until 12 o’clock. It was really difficult to breathe because of the prosthetics, and I wore fake teeth, and it was very hard to hear, because the prosthetics covered your ears. It was enormously claustrophobic for me. So even though it had a huge following—and even many years afterwards I was still asked to go to Star Trek conventions—I only did the role once, because it was just too difficult for me underneath all of that makeup.

Kate & Allie (1986)—“Eddie Gordon”
Roxie (1987)—“Roxie Brinkerhoff”
AM: I can’t believe I’m talking about all of this. Amazing. And, of course, despite what I thought before we started this, of course, I can recall everything. Well, I guess actors love talking about themselves, so there’s no problem there. [Laughs.] Ask me where I met my first husband and I can’t remember, but I can certainly remember this!


So Kate & Allie, yes. CBS wanted to give me my own series, but they wanted to create this character for me that ran a television station and see if it worked, so they kind of put me in Kate & Allie to see how that character came across. And then, even though the character’s name was different, it was more or less spun off into Roxie, but then Roxie was… not a hit. And taken off the air very quickly. I should’ve stayed with Kate & Allie. [Laughs.]

AVC: Was it shocking to you when they pulled Roxie as quickly as it did, or were you already used to the ways of network TV by then?


AM: I didn’t think it was very good, and I didn’t think I was very good. You know, I was really in over my head. I was the star of it, and I hadn’t done many sitcoms at all up until that point—maybe I’d done two pilots? I didn’t really know the form very well. I was a fish out of water. I just don’t think I was very good in it. So it makes perfect sense that it was pulled.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) / My Big Fat Greek Life (2003)—“Aunt Voula”

AM: My Big Fat Greek Wedding was a solo show that Nia Vardalos created, and Rita Wilson, who is Greek and a friend of Nia’s, said, “I think we should get around a table and read this in script form. You should write it as a screenplay.” Nia did, I sat down at the table with them—they asked me to be a part of that reading—and it went over so well with the cast that you see in the movie that they shot it as a film in Toronto. I can’t tell you how many movies I’ve shot in Toronto: Hedwig And The Angry Inch, Black Christmas. And as I say, it’s wonderful for me because I have a house there. [Laughs.]


So that was pretty cool, but the movie experience itself was wonderful as well. We shot it very quickly, and we shot it in a part of Toronto that’s called Greektown, actually. I’m Armenian, so doing a Greek accent came easily to me, and being around those people felt like my own extended Armenian family. The movie—we thought four people were going to see it, but then it went on to make more money as an independent romantic comedy than any other movie in the history of the world. And then we shot a TV series that wasn’t particularly very good. [Laughs.] So that was pulled. But now Nia’s making a sequel, and I just got a call saying, “You’re in it!” And I said, “Great!” So it’s all come full circle.

Nurse Jackie (2009)—“Mrs. Greenfield”
AM: Oh, well, that was a treat to work with Edie Falco, and my friend Linda Wallem wrote it. And it was in New York, where I was also doing a play at the time, so I was surrounded by friends and I got comfortable, I guess, doing it. It was very, very easy. And Edie Falco is so no-frills, not a diva, just a team player, so it felt kind of seamless fitting into it. It just felt like a play, actually. That’s what it felt like doing Nurse Jackie: like I was doing a play.

30 Rock (2012)—“Bonnie”
AVC: Was your guest spot on 30 Rock also a case of being in the right place—New York—at the right time?


AM: Well, 30 Rock happened because—I think Tina Fey is a fan. In fact, I know she is: She just wrote a beautiful blurb for my book that’s coming out in September. They’d asked me originally to play her mother, but I was doing Young Frankenstein on Broadway at the time, and I couldn’t get off. We were in previews, and they wanted me during what would’ve been a Wednesday matinee because my scenes were with Alec Baldwin and Tina, and Alec had it in his contract that he didn’t work Monday and Friday, he only worked Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. [Laughs.] So I couldn’t get off, and then years went by and I think they had just a handful of shows left before the series ended, but they finally got me on. I was so disappointed that I couldn’t do it originally, so it was great that they were able to get me onto the show before it ended.

Wholly Moses! (1980)—“Zipporah”

AM: Wow. That one I really don’t remember much about. [Long pause.] Here’s about all I remember about that. I think Laraine Newman was in it. I don’t remember who else was in it. But I remember I improvised a scene—as I have many times in my life—and it was the first time that the crew applauded afterwards. [Laughs.] The crew! So, yeah, that’s the big thing I remember about that movie.


Innerspace (1987)—“Waiting Room Patient”

AM: I think Joe [Flaherty] and I improvised that scene, too. [Laughs.] But that was so wonderful because I did it as a favor to Steven Spielberg. Can you even believe I’m saying that? But it wasn’t a big part, and he was a big fan of SCTV, so we just did that as kind of a fun thing.

The Completely Mental Misadventures Of Ed Grimley (1988)—“Mrs. Freebus”
AVC: Certainly the SCTV folks have reunited on several occasions over the years in front of the camera, but one of the most entertaining reunions took place in the recording studio, for Martin Short’s animated Ed Grimley series.


AM: That was so much fun. We were all in New York at the time, I think, when we did that. What was the name of the character I played? Mrs. Freebus? But, look, anything I do with Marty and the kids from SCTV, it doesn’t even feel like work, of course. It’s just one big laugh-fest. And that was another one of those sorts of experiences. We speak the same language, so it’s second nature to us, and we’re free to create whatever we want, nobody repressing us, telling us it’s not funny or telling us that it’s over the top. Whatever you might get on another TV show, you definitely didn’t get it on that. It was just a very creative environment to be funny.

AVC: You said you were all in New York. Did you all record together?

AM: I believe we all recorded together. I’m trying to remember for sure. I certainly remembering sitting around the microphone with some people, but I don’t know if all of us were there. It definitely wasn’t like some shows I’ve done, where everyone’s there and we just recorded the whole half-hour at once. I’m pretty sure we did this one in bits. But Jonathan Winters did a couple of episodes, and I definitely remember recording with him. He was a big fan of SCTV, too.


AVC: Given his tendency toward going off-the-cuff, that seems like it’d have the potential to be a long recording session.

AM: [Laughs.] Actually, you’d be surprised. These guys are disciplined. For instance, when Robin Williams works, he’s very disciplined. I did Club Paradise with him, of course, and you’d think it would’ve been a free-for-all, but he was very disciplined and just wanted to do the best possible job.


Second City TV (1976-1981) / SCTV Network 90 (1981-1983) / SCTV Channel (1983-1984)—cast member

AVC: It’s come up repeatedly in passing, but to close, let’s discuss SCTV more specifically. What were the origins of the series, as far as making the jump from the stage to in front of the camera? Do you recall who first pitched the idea of a TV series?


AM: Andrew Alexander, the producer, and I think Harold Ramis and Joe Flaherty were all part of the initial pitch. And then we were all brought in—Catherine [O’Hara] and Eugene and myself and John Candy—to formulate the idea of what it was going to be. And then later Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas joined up, and then still later Marty joined up, but that was the core group. So that’s how it began, at the CBC in Canada.

AVC: Was everyone contributing sketch ideas together, or did you have particular writing partners?


AM: You know, we did all contribute ideas together. We’d meet once a week and pitch our ideas. But it happened that different people liked working with different people. Rick and Dave worked a lot together. John Candy worked with a lot of people because he liked to collaborate. He didn’t like to go and sit and write by himself. But Eugene Levy loved going off by himself and writing, and so did Catherine. But I’d say that John and I really loved and needed to stand up on our feet and collaborate and improvise and work with other writers. But it was kind of a seamless effort. Everybody contributed. While we were shooting, we would rewrite. People would offer lines to us. We were always looking at the monitors. There weren’t any boundaries, actually. Everybody just pitched in when it was needed. We edited, we picked music. Some people liked some things better than others, but certainly we were there for each other 24 hours a day.

AVC: Did you have a favorite impression or impersonation in your repertoire?

AM: Impression? I’d say Sophia Loren was my favorite impression. Let me see… [Goes into her impression.] “Sophia’s Meatball Hut.” [Starts laughing.] Oh, my God, it’s been so many years! “Sophia: The man in your life will love you for it. Sophia.” Oh, I can’t do it anymore. But I loved doing her. And I loved doing Bernadette Peters. People that nobody knows of! Linda Lavin was one of my favorite people, and I guess nobody outside of the theater—or only a small group of people—knows who Linda Lavin is anymore, but the people who knew that impression loved it. And I loved her. I admired her comic ability so much, and I still do. And I just ran into her the other day, and she said, “I loved what you did with me on SCTV!” I didn’t even know if she’d seen it!


AVC: I was actually just going to ask if you’d ever gotten feedback from anyone who you’d impersonated on the show.

AM: Yes, I heard from Lynn Redgrave, Liza Minnelli, and Bernadette Peters. Oh, and I was at a spa once with Barbra Streisand in California, and I thought, “Oh, my gosh, she’s going to know that I did her.” We were there for one week, and she never mentioned anything. I was devastated. [Laughs.]


AVC: The character you played more than any other during the various incarnations of SCTV was Edith Prickley. Did you enjoy the opportunity to actually get a chance to flesh out the character over the years?

AM: You know, she’s such an alter ego of me that it was kind of a go-to character if we ran out of material, because I could improvise very easily with it. I loved playing Edith Prickley because, as sad or second-guessing as I could be as a person, or maybe if I looked at something negatively or was hurt by criticism, just doing her would make me feel more alive and more optimistic and kind of fearless. That’s why I loved playing her.


AVC: And even though it’s almost 40 years since she made her debut, you still look younger now than you did when you were playing Edith Prickley then.

AM: [Laughs.] I know! Isn’t that funny? But it’s true!