Interview by Randy Waage

Lydia Cornell is best known for her role in the 80's hit ABC sitcom "Too Close for Comfort" as the funny and sexy Sara Rush. In an exclusive retroCRUSH interview Lydia talked about her past crush on gay co-star Jm J. Bullock, an angry Ted Knight, and the art of dating David Hasselhoff. 

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Texas, but always wanted to live in California and be a beach girl or a Mouseketeer. Disneyland was my favorite place. My favorite stars were Audrey Hepburn, Julie Christie, Hayley Mills and James Bond (Sean Connery) — all British. Everyone thought I was a nut in school because I walked around speaking with an English accent, wearing a trench coat. I dreamed everyday of coming to Hollywood and being in movies. I guess kids who don’t get enough love at home, need attention on a grand scale.

I joined the drama club in high school and co-starred in many plays. I played Petra in Ibsen’s "Enemy of the People". But I was a geek and lost the part of Desdemona in Othello to a gorgeous, statuesque girl. Instead I played a "torch-bearer" along with my best friend Monroe, a drama club geek whom they later used as the prototype for "Monroe Ficus" in our series. We were like stick figures standing behind the actors, holding torches

How did you get your start in show business?

I graduated from college in Colorado with a Bachelor of Science in Business, packed a U-Haul and drove straight out to California after graduation. After being there for three months, working for a record company and modeling for album covers, I went to a party and was "discovered" by a man who owned a newspaper and put my picture in the paper the next day. I had a boyfriend, who took headshots of me and submitted them to the Academy Players Directory. Every actor in town had their picture in there. One day, out of the blue I got a call from some entertainment managers, who thought I had the right look for several pilots being cast. 

They represented a 21-year-old actor named Michael J. Fox, who was playing a 12-year-old (!) on a series called Palmerstown, USA. I signed a contract promising these managers 20% of my lifetime earnings (I didn’t read the fine print) and the next week they sent me on an audition for an ABC pilot called "Blue Jeans" produced by Leonard Goldberg. I bombed royally and it must be hilarious because I over-acted. I didn’t get that one, then got rejected on a second CBS pilot called "Ladies Man" and then I got a third pilot called "Keep it in the Family" — a British series by Brian Cook that was being adapted for American television. 

Luckily I had been rejected on the other two pilots – so I was released and available to audition for this one. In the business, you sign your life away when you commit to doing a pilot audition – and you are not free to do any other pilots until you are released. The third pilot turned out to be the charm and they changed the name to "Too Close for Comfort." The odds of this happening and a show going on to become a hit are very rare.

Did you beat out many actresses for the role of Sara Rush on "Too Close for Comfort"?

They had seen over 300 girls for the role of Sara Rush. It sounds ridiculous, but that’s the number I’ve always heard. I was the very last one to walk in, before network finals the next day. I had to take three buses in the rain, and when I arrived I was half an hour late, my hair was soaking wet and my sweater was clinging to me. The producers were ready to go home and when the casting director told them they had "one last girl" to see, they reluctantly sat down. 

Tom Werner was in the room – he was the network exec, and would later become a partner at Carsey-Werner, producing "Cosby" and "Roseanne". I had to read my lines with Arnie Sultan, the producer. Arnie, who was wall-eyed and looked like Groucho Marx, he had created "Get Smart" with Mel Brooks. There was a scene in which my character says, "I am a mature, sophisticated adult; all I have to say is…" and at the end of the line there was a stage direction that said, Sara gives Dad a raspberry — so at the end of my line, I picked up an imaginary raspberry and thrust it at him.

The producer looked at me like I was an idiot and said, "What the hell are you handing me?"

"A raspberry," I said.

"What are you nuts? Don’t you know what a raspberry is? It’s a Bronx cheer, it’s like this…" and Sultan proceeded to blow his tongue out through his lips until they flapped and made a silly noise. Tom Werner and the other guy in the room cracked up and I just stood there, mortified. Then Arne Sultan said, "She just fell off the turnip truck. She’s perfect, she’s Sara!"

They all broke up laughing and the next day they sent me to ABC network where I had to read with Ted Knight. I was one of five girls who had made it to the "finals" at the network. Every girl was wearing tight shorts and body-hugging clothes to show off their breasts. I was the only one wearing a white flowered dress; I looked like a virgin. When I got into the scary room to read with Ted, there were ten mean-looking people on the couch just staring at me. 

Apparently I did something right because they laughed pretty hard when I opened my mouth. The first line was, "It isn’t truuuuue!" They gave me the job on the  spot – without even waiting to call  my agent. Deborah was the only one reading for the  role of Jackie. We hit it off right away. An interesting coincidence: Deborah was a secretary for my father’s company in New York – and she remembered sending my father telexes in Holland (where we lived during high school.)

I've read they told Jm Bullock (Monroe) to "butch it up" Did you know he was gay? 

I have fond memories of his big butt right in my face. He would deliberately stick it out like Aunt Jemima wearing a "bustle" and I would crack up just as we went onstage. He did a lot of things to make me laugh – in fact, I had a major crush on Bullock for the first two years of the series. I was the only person who didn’t have a clue he was gay! Of course, he hadn’t come out yet, but I should have guessed when he came to the wrap party dressed as Charo. Boy did I feel like an idiot. I used to go to work with my heart thumping, and every time he’d talk to me I’d turn bright red and get tongue-tied. My fantasy was to marry him! It took a long time for Jim to come out. No one ever discussed this issue on the set. But one producer wanted him to speak in a high squeaky voice, and the other kept telling him to "butch it up", as you say.

What was the mood like when the show was retooled & the title changed to the "Ted Knight Show"?

Ted and I had a love-hate relationship. He didn’t want the girls (Sara and Jackie) to become more popular than he was, so when we had funny episodes that revolved around us, Ted would put a stop to that. He even went so far as to bring in a new baby, and add more older people storylines. I also heard they would hide my fan mail, to make sure I didn’t think I had any fans. They would only give us five letters each to make it fair. Once I came to work and Ted was holding a magazine with my picture on the cover. He threw it at me and said, "I’m the star of the show, not you!" 

From that moment on, I backed off any publicity or hiring a publicist – which was stupid because Morgan Fairchild had a big publicity company promoting her, although she was on a show that got really low ratings (Flamingo Road). She became a big name, bigger than the show. I would have done the show for free I loved acting so much. But my managers were negotiating behind my back and angering everyone I guess. Ted was always mad at me. I have some funny stories about the Merv Griffin show and terrible antics we got involved in to make Ted mad. My favorite person on our show was Audrey Meadows.

What was it like re-teaming with your co-star Deborah Van Valkenburgh from Too Close for Comfort for your film Venus Conspiracy?

I had so much fun acting with Deborah on my own movie. I write and think comedy all day long; Deborah had perfect timing and delivery of the lines. Frankly, Deborah and I are angry right now that Too Close For Comfort is releasing a DVD of our first year – yet they never contacted us about helping promote it – and we never did any interviews for the DVD. Jim Bullock has been contacted and apparently he’s involved in the launch party! 

We feel the producers of our show have always treated us like we don’t exist. But I love Jim and speak to him when I can. My son watches this Nick series called "Ned’s Survival Guide" and we saw Jim on it playing a teacher named "Mr. Monroe." Nancy is teaching at UCLA. She always says weird things that don’t make sense. I read somewhere that she says I’m out of the business now – which is completely untrue! I am more involved writing and producing than ever before. Nancy was very bitter and jealous of younger people on the show; she was not a kind person at the time. She’s gotten better and I love her now.

You guest starred on a lot of classic 80's TV shows.

Got to kiss John Schneider on Dukes! Fred Dryer was fun on Hunter, lots of action scenes. Had a great time on all five Love Boats I did. Aaron Spelling is wonderfully generous; his wife would always send the stars engraved silver gifts. I have so many; one is a Superbowl, engraved with "Love Boat" on it. I met great stars and worked with Patty Duke, Shelley Winters, James Brolin, Diane Ladd, Arte Johnson, Ted McGinley, Rosie O’Grier, Englebert Humperdink, Cliff Robertson, Wayne Gretsky (host Victor Awards.) I did comedy specials with Bill Cosby, Debbie Reynolds, Don Rickles, Andy Griffith. I did two "Hotels" – one in which Lew Ayres played my father, a priest. Another one I did was with Evelyn Keyes, who played Scarlett O’Hara’s little sister in "Gone With the Wind." 

I had a crush on David Hasselhoff on "Knight Rider" – we dated briefly during the show. Just ran into him at a wedding along with Paris’ mom Kathy Hilton. Kathy and I had our babies at the same time: Barron Hilton and my son Jack are the same age. I’ve known Paris since she was 11 and she seemed so innocent then. I loved working on A-Team, especially with Dwight Schultz; he’s so handsome! Also, on Simon and Simon, I loved working with Gerald McRaney. He gave me backrubs on the set; I can see why Delta is married to him. 

I worked with the one-and-only Kenneth Mars who was hilarious in Mel Brooks’ original movie The Producers. On Fantasy Island I played a Playboy Playmate who falls in love with John James from "Dynasty". I had to sing and dance. I also worked with Linwood Boomer at Jack Webb "Dragnet" company before we both got series; he was a Xerox boy/gopher, and I was a secretary. Then he got Little House on the Prairie, and I got Too Close for Comfort. Later we did a Love Boat together. He is now the producer/creator of "Malcolm in the Middle".

Did you enjoy working with James Earl Jones in the 1982 horror movie "Blood Tide"? 

Red Tide or "Blood Tide" was a mythological horror movie filmed in the Greek Isles. It was my first film, and I had just gotten the series, so I went to Greece for 9 weeks, and then had to come back and start the show. I loved working with these amazing Academy Award-winning actors: Jose Ferrer, James Earl Jones and Lila Kedrova. Marty Kove, Deborah Shelton and Mary-Louise Weller also were in it. The art director was Aurelio Crugnola who did "The Black Stallion", and became my Italian boyfriend on the set. We lived in a Byzantine castle and had donkeys carry the camera equipment. The producers had a yacht docked in the harbor, and I had to practice windsurfing for my death scene.

I shared a balcony overlooking the Aegean Sea with another actress.  The day I moved in, I heard noises and wandered out to the balcony, where her window was wide open and I saw this actress making love very vigorously with some guy.  She stopped, looked at me and said, "Nice meeting you Lydia!  Now get lost!"  I was mortified. 

You did a brief topless scene in the movie?

I refused to do any topless scenes – to this day I will not pose nude; it’s a moral & ethical issue with me. I never want to have to explain such a sleazy thing to my kids. Anyway, they had me run into the sea, topless, and drown. I had to take off my t-shirt, and make it look like I had no top on. But I was panicked about nudity – I mean I had a network family series to shoot in the fall. The wardrobe lady put bandages over my boobs so the underwater cameras couldn’t get any shots of me topless, but the bandages came off in the water. Later that night I sneaked to the DP’s cave (we all lived in cave-like ruins) and I grabbed the can of underwater film! I hid it in my room, and they never found it. They had to reshoot the underwater scenes, so we finally got smart and put zinc oxide all over my boobs, so they couldn’t use those shots. It worked!

On the movie shoot we had 21 crew members and 4 actors on a small speed boat, filming a scene in the ocean. The entire sound crew was from Mexico and had just worked on Farrah Fawcett’s movie in Acapulco. The entire camera crew was Greek, the producers were British and the actors were mostly American. No one could communicate – it was the tower of Babel! Anyway, we’re filming and suddenly a crew guy gets seasick and up-chucks overboard, losing his entire set of false teeth! For the rest of the summer the poor guy had to eat lamb and potatoes with a straw because it was impossible to get dentures flown in from Mexico –- and we were stranded at the end of the Greek Isles, in a primitive place called Monemvasia! 

Another funny thing happened while dancing at the "disco" – a cave with stone floor in the fishing village. I fell and split my chin open. The nurse had no anesthetic so she made me drink red wine; then she burned a thick carpet thread over a flame and stitched my chin back together. I still have the thread in my chin. One day I ran into a goatherd who was actually an American hippie who had moved to Greece in the 60’s and decided to live here at the end of the earth, herding goats.

Were you ever entangled in the party lifestyle of Hollywood? 

Yes I got into the party life-style, had a crash and burn then a spiritual awakening, but I am 10 years...my entire life changed through prayer – but not the "intolerant right-wing fundamentalist religious-zealot kind". Then after being dumped by a series of schmucks, I surrendered the search for a husband, prayed to accept being single the rest of my life – and the very next day I went to the park with my little boy (wearing Clearasil and baggy sweats — for the first time in my life not looking to meet a man) and of course I met my husband! There he was at the next tree, pitching softballs to his son. Now I have two sons. But though I have a deep faith in God and Christ, I’m a democrat, not a right-wing Republican. Bush, to me, is not a true Christian; he has missed the whole point.

What are your thoughts on being an actress in "Hollywood"?

Being an actress is wonderful, if you like death by humiliation. I loved theater acting for the pure joy of it — pretending with other actors and creating wacky characters. But I had no idea how weird and soul-draining Hollywood could be. Everyone here is so incomplete, so desperate to be famous. You can feel "the yearning" in the airwaves. The audition process and the competition for jobs take all the fun out of it. I actually fainted at an audition once; of course my jeans were too tight, but I really fainted from fear. The button popped off my jeans and hit a producer in the nose.

What new projects are you working on?

I’ve done a lot of films; I just did a cool film with lots of rock stars like Steven Tyler, Jon Bon Jovi, Ringo Starr, Cloris Leachman, Joe Cortese, Cindy Williams. It’s all of us reading parts of a friend’s book, a songwriter for Aerosmith. I’m doing a great movie that I love, called "Nooner" – a hilarious 3-character play that PBS in New York broadcast a few years ago.  

I got a Best Actress nomination at the Method Fest for "Miss Supreme Queen". I am most proud of my one-woman show, "Relationshop" and the movie I wrote "Venus Conspiracy." 

I am getting ready to launch the feature-length version of my big movie "Venus Conspiracy", and I’m finishing my book on the Trotsky assassination (The Sylvia Plan), which has been on the back burner. Mainly, I’m writing a comedy series called "Falling UP" about spiritual growth in a raw, ugly, embarrassing and hilarious way – which is my life.

Do you have a favorite famous person you liked while growing up that you have a retroCRUSH on?

I’ve dated lots of rock stars, but my biggest crush is on singer-songwriter Jackson Browne. I would give anything to meet him. Have you ever heard his song "Adam"? His lyrics and melodies are so brilliant, so haunting. I have been in love with him since high school.

Make sure to stop by Lydia's official website: www.lydiacornell.com
You can also see Lydia in the recently released first season DVD of "Too Close for Comfort".
If you watch closely you can see her in William Hung's "She Bangs" video: William Hung Videos

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