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NUNN ON ONE Betty Thomas: Actress/director returns to Chicago
by Jerry Nunn, Windy City Times

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Second City is bringing the celebs to town to raise money for a good cause.

"I Can't Believe They Wendt There: The Roast of George Wendt" has roastmaster Jason Sudeikis presenting friends such as Bob Odenkirk, Betty Thomas and David Koechner, among others, to poke fun of a comedy legend. The funds raised will benefit Gilda's Club Chicago and The Second City Alumni Fund.

The talented Betty Thomas will be in the house making a rare appearance in the Windy City area. The Emmy-winning actress—best known as Lucy Bates on the television show Hill Street Blues—worked at Second City early in her career. After the troupe opened a branch out west, she moved with it leading to a string of TV and box-office successes.

Thomas paved the way for many female directors with notable movies such as Private Parts, Dr. Doolittle and 28 Days.

Windy City Times: Have you known George Wendt a really long time?

Betty Thomas: Since the '70s. He was in a children's show when I met him and I thought he would be in one the rest of his life, honestly. That did not happen!

WCT: Have you done a roast before?

BT: No. People should come for everyone else and go to the bathroom during my segment, because it is not going to be funny…

WCT: Maybe you could watch some Joan Rivers roasting videos.

BT: I love my Joan! I did The Tonight Show when Joan was hosting it. Joanie was 5'3" and I am 6'1". I knew her assistant and got a designer outfit exactly the same. I showed up and the look on her face was quite good. She said," You look exactly like me, but on steroids!"

WCT: Did you know Gilda Radner, who some of the money for the night is going toward?

BT: I did know her. She was one of my favorite people. You could talk to 8 million people and they would say the same thing. I was a huge fan. She was the most giving improviser onstage that I had ever worked with.

WCT: How was Second City when you worked with them originally?

BT: My company was John Candy, Bill Murray and Joe Flaherty. It was man-eat-man, and pretty rough and tumble back then. There were only two girls and five guys at that time.

Improv was not the thing across the entertainment world back then. There was only Second City.

Toronto happened while we did it. Bill Murray and I went up there. Gilda Radner and Dan Aykroyd switched companies with us. That was weird. Del Close was around and the best thing that ever happened to me.

I think it was difficult for the women. I wanted to be the person that everyone wanted to work with. I couldn't figure that out exactly. It took me quite a while.

I told Debbie Harmon at the time that we were not doing any two girl scenes until I could figure out to be with the big guys. I wanted to get the power, then come back to women scenes. I am not saying that is right or wrong, it was just my point of view. If I found a really funny scene then I would put myself in it. I would be the usual characters, the wife, mother, or whore. It was all about confidence. I learned every time I failed and got better.

We did some great two-woman scenes, eventually.

WCT: Was Hill Street Blues another example of this boys' club?

BT: It was. I was the only girl in the beginning that was a cop. Veronica Hamel eventually shows up and Barbara Bosson came around every once in a while, but otherwise it was just me and the guys. It was obnoxious as hell, but they were very likable guys, I have to admit. I learned to play golf because of those guys. That is what they did at lunch. They would go over to a little driving range. I still hang out with them. Joe Spano is coming over on Monday. Ed Marinaro has disappeared into the East Coast, but everybody else we still see.

WCT: How has being a female director evolved in your opinion?

BT: Has it evolved? I never thought about it, honestly. No one talked about the fact that there weren't too many women directors. I wasn't aware of it as much as I should have been. I was a lucky girl. I am not saying I wasn't talented, I am, but a lucky person also. I was persistent and I stayed. People helped, and I was already a part of the business, so it was a little easier for me than other women that come at it from different ways.

In the beginning, it was thoughtless. I eventually realized there weren't many women directors. That was fucked up to say the least. Everyone has a visual sense if you are talented in that way. Knowing a good cast, blocking scenes, working well with others, those are things that girls do really well.

The Directors Guild of America ( the DGA ) opened my eyes in many ways that hiring was messed up in many ways. It doesn't matter if it unconscious bias, it is still bias, and we all have it. I make sure to see everyone that is right for a show, and not just see my same three friends, which happens to many people. It is a business of who do you know in the sense that is people you want work with over and over again.

WCT: I loved The Brady Bunch Movie. The Real Live Brady Bunch at Annoyance Theatre, with Jane Lynch as Carol Brady, was a big hit here.

BT: I did not know that. I see Janie all the time. I can't wait to talk to her about that. She never told me.

WCT: Did you know with John Tucker Must Die, there would be a big gay following?

BT: No. I guess the underwear thing, but it is really about the girls. It was a high-school game. The girls all had big gay followings, so maybe that is it.

WCT: What do you have coming up?

BT: I almost did a pilot with Jane Lynch. That would have been so funny since you just mentioned her!

I have been working a couple of years on is the movie about Del Close's relationship in the last two years of his life with one of his students. It is based on a book called Guru, written by Jeff Griggs. The student is played by a guy named Alex Sharp. He won a Tony on Broadway for The Curious Incident of the dog in the Night-Time. The main star is not on paper yet so I can't confirm about who it is yet.

We hope to shoot some in Chicago in spring, just after the snow goes away. I will see you at the Second City event and possibly then as well!

Cheers to Wendt, Thomas and the gang with "I Can't Believe They Wendt There: A Roast of George Wendt" on Saturday, Sept. 9, at 7 p.m at the MainStage Theatre, 1616 N. Wells St. Purchase tickets at or 312-664-4032.

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