Ruth Buzzi, Stonington native and ‘Laugh-In’ star, is far from both Hollywood and her hometown
“I’m going back to the 70’s; anyone need anything?” TV icon Ruth Buzzi recently said. Or rather, she recently tweeted. At 82, the comedian best remembered from “Laugh-In” is on social media, and her nearly 70,000 Twitter followers are eating it up.
Buzzi is a Stonington native, who was head cheerleader in high school, and looks nothing like frumpy Gladys Ormphby with the backwards hair net.
She grew up in a rock house overlooking the ocean at Wequetequock Cove in Stonington, and her father owned Buzzi Memorials, which still makes gravestones, although it is no longer in the family.
From high school, Buzzi headed west to the Pasadena Playhouse, when it had an acting school, and has worked steadily since the age of 19. Even in retirement, she’s “running like a geriatric Energizer bunny on crack.”
She agreed to answer some questions:
What do you remember most about Connecticut? Do you visit?
I had a wonderful childhood. There were woods behind my house, and I spent many many happy days playing in the woods with my friends. But I think more than anything, it’s people that matter most. I loved the good people of my hometown, the friendly, genuine New Englanders of the upper East Coast. ... I visited a couple of years ago and plan to get back soon to see my brothers Harold and Ed, my niece Suzanne and my friends in the area.
“Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” reruns were on TV here every day recently. Seeing each season speed by on cable, all the cast and crew seems to come and go, except for you and Gary Owens. What caused you to stick it out all six seasons?
Attitude. Gary and I always did our homework, came to work prepared, loved everyone on the set from the camera crew, the cue-card people, the NBC shoeshine man, the security guards in the NBC parking lot, the producers, the audience, everyone. We were there to have fun, we did not get involved in politics, did not complain, and both of us realized from day one we were very fortunate to make a living doing what we enjoyed. ... I never took my work for granted, nor assumed I deserved more of the credit or spotlight or more pay than anyone else. I was just thrilled to drive down the hill to NBC every day as an employed actor with a job to do.
Not only did you create all those inventive characters, but you and your colleagues sang and danced. In one episode, you were both Gladys Ormphby (the character on the park bench who wallops Arte Johnson with her purse) and a cute go-go dancer. I don’t think actors today, however talented, have that kind of range. What’s different about actors and comics in the 1960s and 1970s, and people we see today?
That’s a tough question. I may not totally agree with its premise. I still see some unbelievably versatile and talented actors today. We were very fortunate to have existed when variety shows were very popular on television. Sonny and Cher, the Carol Burnett show, Dean Martin, Glen Campbell, Jim Nabors, big TV specials with industry giants like Sinatra, Jonathan Winters, Jerry Lee, Ann Murray, Gladys Knight ... on and on. I did all those shows, and so did many of my versatile colleagues like Goldie, Lily, Jo Ann and Artie... So we had to know a little bit about dancing, we had to be able to carry a tune and we had to be funny. And that’s the big three: music, dance and comedy. Nowadays, there is a lack of demand for those three talents in one package except on Broadway, where I am thoroughly knocked out by versatile, genius performances every time I go there!
Speaking of Gladys Ormphby, even as a little kid, I felt sympathetic toward her. Do you have a backstory to that character? What don’t we know about poor Gladys? Who is she, really?
Gladys is the underdog. Gladys embodies the overlooked, the downtrodden, the taken for granted, the struggler. So when she fights back, she speaks for everyone who’s been marginalized, reduced to a sex object or otherwise abused. And that’s almost everyone at some time or other.
Not to linger too much on “Laugh-In,” but usually it was Goldie Hawn or Judy Carne doing the go-go girl segment, but one episode, I saw all the women in the cast handling the role, one by one. You were fabulous, by the way! Is there a story behind this?
I was in really good shape. I ran, worked out and I surprised people with my strength and ability to do so much physically, because I was so identified with the “old woman” character, people usually forgot that I was barely 30 years old when I started doing that! I had been a cheerleader, and we did a lot of dancing and acrobatics. That served me well when I ended up on television doing variety shows that demanded physicality.
From the beginning, you’ve worked alongside other legendary stars such as Lucille Ball.
Yes, what an incredibly wonderful job, huh! And one of my most important mentors was Lucille Ball. She took me under her wing, put me on her shows as a guest, gave great advice. She took me on a family ski trip with her and the kids. I loved, loved, loved Lucy. And I know she loved me, too. ... I was so lucky to have known them.
You have almost 67,000 followers on Twitter! (It’s grown to over 68,500 since this interview.) Your fans are reacting so positively to this, so can you share your secret to social media success?
I enjoy sharing my life with people who enjoyed my work. I let them, at times, into my home — take them for rides around the ranch on the ATV with the dogs, give them a glimpse of our social life, which is still pretty hectic. And I really love people, I think they know that. And I don’t tell them how to vote, I don’t get on a soapbox and try to change anyone. I let others go that route and there’s no shortage of political garbage out there, but I see my mission on Twitter and Facebook as simple ... staying in touch with my friends. It’s mostly — no, I take that back — it’s always positive.
So now that you’re living on a 600-acre cattle and horse ranch in Texas with your husband, Kent Perkins, you seem emphatic about being retired from show business. What would entice you to hop a plane to Hollywood and get in front of a camera again?
I had better be careful about my answer here. Last time I answered that question it was on a television interview show in Dallas, and the host asked what would it take to get me back into acting. My husband and I had just had dinner with an old friend of his, John Schneider. ... So very flippantly, I answered, “Well, if John Schneider was to call and beg, I might do a movie with him.” The audience laughed. ... But the next thing I knew, he did just that and I ended up shooting “One Month Out” with John, to be released next spring, That led to another film called “Glen’s Gotta Go,” directed by Levie Isaacs last year in Nacogdoches, Texas.
So I have two films in the can, I’m happily retired, and back at the ranch, very content with my kitty cats, my husband and my housework. Oh, and I’m having a whole lot of fun nowadays making little personal videos on demand for anyone who wants me to sing happy birthday or congratulate someone, or whatever, through www.cameo.com/ruth_buzzi. And making a few charity show appearances now and then. Not really having to work, enjoying the people in my life, being grateful for all the incredible people I got to work with and all the wonderful things I have been allowed to do in the past half century, there’s not really too much I’d change, even if I could.
Lee Steele is editor of Sunday Arts & Style. Twitter: @leesteele