Sunday, October 20, 2013

On Call, Vol. 2, No. 1 - Personnel Department: Profile on Christina Pickles... A Gal Who Pays Her Own Rent

From On Call: The Official Newsletter of the St. Elsewhere Appreciation Club, March 1998, volume 2, number 1.

British Invasions are nothing new to America. Thomas Jefferson precipitated one in 1776 and Ed Sullivan another in 1964. But in the late '50's, it was the strategic landing of one young, comic beauty that has had the most impact on fans of St. Elsewhere.


Christina Pickles was born in Yorkshire, England where she and her brother and three sisters enjoyed a happy childhood.

CHRISTINA PICKLES ... "It was a big house with everything I needed. We had tennis courts. We were lucky children."

Her father was an architect, and her mother a homemaker, both of whom initially resisted, but later agreed to Christina's request for a pony.

PICKLES ... "I rode all my life beginning at about age eight up to age sixteen. I used to compete in horse shows in Yorkshire. I was one of those little girls who was horse crazy, and the minute I got interested in boys, I completely lost interest in horses."

But in addition to boys, Christina also nurtured an interest in show business, particularly because of her Uncle Wilford Pickles, a famous comedian.

PICKLES ... "One of my earliest memories is of sitting on the front row of the Dress Circle of an old English Theater, leaning my little face against the brass railings and waving to Uncle Wilfred who was performing in a Christmas pantomime. I loved the lights and laughter and audience response. I guess that's why I love doing sitcoms in front of a live audience."

At age sixteen Christina left school and went to the Royal Academy of Art, but soon, a break-up with her sweetheart prompted a change of scenery.

PICKLES ... "They (my parents) suggested it... they were tired of seeing me dragging around the house because I had a broken heart. I left England and went to America to visit some friends I had known at the Royal Academy. I thought I was just going for a short break to get away from my sad romance, but the minute I got off the plane and walked on American soil, I felt I was home."


In 1959, soon after arriving America, Christina found her way to Washington, D.C., a new boyfriend, and an opportunity that would change her life.

PICKLES ... "I had been in America about six months, my boyfriend was going for an audition for this play, so I go along. I was then asked if I would like to audition. I got the role, and he didn't get his. But I was an English citizen, and they said, "You don't have work papers'... I had a green card but I wasn't in the Union. Zelda Fishlander and her late husband Tom ran the Arena Stage and  Tom invoked Taft-Hartley, so I got to do my first job there. They gave me my first break in American theater."

ZELDA FISHLANDER ... "Christina was very very gifted, and I must say I'm good at spotting that (laughs). I new she had it. She was full of verve, energy, compassion, and passion."

And that passion would bring Pickles new found happiness both on and off stage.


In 1961, Christina married Victor Lobl, an aspiring director. It was a marriage that would produce two children and a twenty-three year partnership (including collaboration on St. Elsewhere). The couple lived in Princeton, New Jersey where Christina acted with a local theater company. Their daughter Rebecca was born in 1962, and son Oliver in 1964. The Lobl family then moved to New York City where Christina walked into a golden opportunity with Ellis Rabb's illustrious APA... a rep company that included directors such as John Houseman and performers like Helen Hayes, Nancy Marchand, and Rosemary Harris. Jack O'Brien, now CEO of the Old Globe in San Diego, was a young Assistant Director at APA.

JACK O'BRIEN ... "Rosemary had been invited to go to the National Theater to open with Peter O'Toole, so she was going to be away for a year. I said, 'Well who the hell is going to play all these leading parts,' and Ellis said 'I'm going to hire Christina Pickles,' and I said 'Who the hell is that?' And he said, 'She's a very young, and very original comedian, and I love her looks, and I think she's going to be great.' She walked into rehearsal and everybody knew but me... they all ran up and kissed her. She started to rehearse and she was absolutely loopy (laughs). She was gawky and awkward and did the most outrageous looks and takes, and kept falling into the furniture, and she was absolutely breathtaking. It had never occurred to me that there was more than one way to be funny, brilliant, and beautiful. She completely won me over."

Soon, O'Brien and the Lobls became fast friends and Jack was a frequent visitor to their West Side apartment. O'Brien later moved in to the building, but neither he nor Christina became homebodies. That's because APA was in constant motion, with the Company splitting its time between Broadway, Los Angeles, Ann Arbor (in the Fall), the Royal Alex in Toronto for a month, and back to New York for a new season. On the day prior to one of Christina's Broadway debuts, O'Brien came upstairs to help her rehearse a staccato dialogue.

O'BRIEN ... "I was trying to show her where the laughs were, so we started to run the lines COME... WHERE?... HERE. YES... LOOK OUT... WHAT? ... And then I said LAUGH. And she laughs hysterically HA HA HA, and I said 'What the hell are you laughing for?' And she said 'You told me to,' and I said, 'No, that's WHERE the laugh is' (laughs)."

Christina would go on to give and receive many more laughs as she honed her comedic talents with APA.

O'BRIEN ... "She was an original character actress, but she wanted to be a leading lady... she really wanted it very badly, then she did a very smart thing. She took herself out of a marketplace where she was just one of several women competing and put herself in a position where she could be an individual, and could actually call her own tune. I think that's what made the big difference."


Betty Rea, then casting director for The Guiding Light, noticed that "big difference". She auditioned, then hired Pickles to play the humorous but elegant Linell Conway from 1970 to 1972.

BETTY REA ... "For one thing, I think she had the most marvelous sense of the ridiculous, and she was very, very sensitive to other people. That's a plus for the casting person. She was immediately liked by people... everybody loved her."

Originally, Linell had very few lines, but as Pickles would prove over and over (including later during St. Elsewhere) she knew how to "grow" a role.

REA ... "It wasn't much of a part when she came on but because of her specific talent, it developed. The writers began to have a sensitive feeling about what (she) could give to the part, so they helped develop it, and then bit by bit it blossoms."

Jack O'Brien compared the development of Linell with that of Helen Rosenthal years later.

O'BRIEN ... "(Hers) was not a principal character (at first) she only MADE it interesting by virtue of who she was... they kept building it up because SHE was so interesting."

Christina's two year run on The Guiding Light was followed by a job with NBC's Another World (as Elena de Poulignac). But Daytime's lovely Brit wouldn't make a career out of Soaps. Instead she traveled back to the Stage, not knowing that her return would lead her right back to television.


In the mid 1970's, Christina kept busy in theater, appearing in such plays as A Pagan Place (at the Long Wharf), Molly (at Spoleto), Chez Nous (Manhattan Theater Club) and on Broadway in Other People's Money and Sherlock Holmes.

REBECCA LOBL ... "I went to probably everything she did, but I had a lot of fun when she was doing Sherlock Holmes on Broadway... I was about eleven or twelve. And at that point, I could come visit her alone and come hang out back stage, and watch the performances from the light booth. I liked that a lot."

By 1976 the Lobl family was spending part of their summers in Wiliamstown, Massachusetts, near Williams College where Christina and Rebecca became regulars on the tennis courts.

LOBL... "She's probably smarter, and maybe I'm a little faster (laughs)."

Christina Pickles in Summerfolk
But tennis wasn't the main reason Christina was vacationing in the college town. In the late 1970's and early 80's she was a frequent player at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, appearing in Touch of a Poet, Summerfolk, and Nude with Violin, the latter of which the Times Record critic Vinny Reda wrote: "As the artist's widow, Christina Pickles paces her scatter-brained responses, but slows not a thing down, filling the pauses with her character's dense looks, and not the anticipation of another zinger line."

While performing at Williamstown, Christina came to know two young star-crossed lovers, one a playwright, the other an actress. The couple, Tom Fontana and Sagan Lewis, would later team with Pickles on St. Elsewhere. But it was Christina's association with her co-star in Heartbreak House that would change her life and career. The play starred Blythe Danner, whose husband Bruce Paltrow would "discover" Pickles for prime time television.

In February 1981, Paltrow tapped Christina for a guest role on the high school basketball drama The White Shadow, in which she played a teacher with a history of emotional problems. Hers was a powerful performance, foreshadowing her work on St. Elsewhere when Helen would battle chemical dependency. Her husband Victor directed the episode.

In May of 1982, Christina made an appearance on Lou Grant in an episode titled, "Suspect". She now had the eye of the MTM brass and the confidence of Paltrow, who would soon give Pickles her signature role.


With St. Elsewhere, the Lobls had hit pay dirt, she as a cast regular, and he as a frequent Director.

From the beginning it was clear that Christina would bring a unique dedication to the role of Helen Rosenthal, always researching the real life issues faced by the fictional character. When preparing for the story line on breast cancer (see ON CALL, Volume 1, Number 1), Christina and Tom Fontana visited clinics for background.

TOM FONTANA ... "She felt a real responsibility to the women who suffered from breast cancer. We (the writers) always wanted to get it right, but she REALLY wanted to get it right."

STEPHEN FURST ... "I would call her the consummate professional. When I knew I had scenes with her I always looked forward to it because I knew it would be a very stimulating scene.

HOWIE MANDEL ... "She's just a sweet, wonderful woman who is the consummate actress. I'm happy to know her and blessed to have worked with her."

NORMAN LLOYD ... "Well, she's absolutely first rate. he's a superb actress and she's a lovely lady, and a dear friend. I've never seen her do anything that wasn't first class."

BILL DANIELS (in Mark Craig-style said) ... "Don't you know she's crazy?" (Then added affectionately...) "She was always terrific, always conscientious, always crisp... that wonderful diction of hers... and she is to this day doing well in voice-overs because of that distinctive voice of hers."

BONNIE BARTLETT DANIELS ... "Oh, she's a wonderful actress... She is really a combination of an American actress, but she's also got enough of that 'Brit stuff' in her... that intellectual thing that makes for clarity... that's just terrific."

SAGAN LEWIS ... "I loved how honest Christina was. My main memories of her are in the make-up room (laughs) because sometimes in the mornings, we'd be getting made up at the same time. She was funny. She always had a joke, she had a wry sense of humor, and I really enjoyed her."

Unfortunately, though, just as Christina was grabbing kudos for her professional life, her personal life hit the rocks. She and Victor divorce in 1984, but theirs was an amicable split.

REBECCA LOBL ... "Yeah, it really was. They both walked me down the aisle at my wedding."

Now single and at the top of her form, she began to grow Helen Rosenthal to knew heights.

MARK TINKER ... "Christina got so much inside the character that I sort of believed she WAS the character, and I don't mean that in a bad way. I mean you really believed she was Rosenthal, you really thought she was mixed-up, and a brilliant person at the same time. I just thought her work was terrific."

TOM FONTANA ... "She was great. To me it was a really interesting character because she had all these Jewish husbands, and all these children. And what was great about Christina was that she would really roll with any of the punches we threw at her. She always trusted us completely and we trusted her."

And while Christina could roll with the punches, she could also dole them out too... just ask Jennifer
Savidge, who felt the full brunt of Pickles' hand on episode #76, WATCH THE SKIES.

JENNIFER SAVIDGE ... "We were very good friends off-screen. I guess she was the one I was closest to while we were working on the show. She was very giving and supportive, and would actually set her mind to see how we could get my role to enlarge. The animosity we had on screen was troublesome to both of us because we felt a little bit uncomfortable in the sense that all these two women did was fight. I mean we enjoyed doing it, BUT... we had that scene where she was supposed to slap me. Christina is a very sensitive person and I know she felt a little strange about the whole thing. Then, the person who directed her told her to jump cue without me knowing it."

ON CALL: Did she make contact?

JENNIFER SAVIDGE ... "Make contact! I went flying against the window, and the first thing I saw was the look on Rick Gunter's face (he was working the camera). I could see this look of sheer terror across his face. And the Director said 'How's that?' And Rick said 'That's fine, that's all we need.' I immediately left the set because I didn't want Christina to see how much I had been hurt, because I knew she was sensitive and would be horrified if she saw what happened to my cheek."

CHRISTINA PICKLES ... "It was horrible. I could see she was hurt. I felt terrible. In fact, I don't think I've ever done a stunt again."

And while there might have been turmoil in Helen Rosenthal's life (Lucy's law suit, the breast implant, and later, and addiction to drugs), Christina's real life couldn't have been better. While filming a story line about the Nurses' strike, Pickles met Herb Edelman, who played strike negotiator Richard Clarendon.

Pickles pickets
PICKLES ... "It was love at first sight. I had always liked his work, and I had actually said to my ex-husband Victor 'Who is that actor, he's so good.' And Victor said 'I don't know, but isn't he great?' The first time Herb saw me, I was trying to park my car in my space, but there was a lot of stuff blocking it, and I was swearing saying, 'God damn it! They leave this stuff here and I can't park my car!' And Herb was standing watching me and smiling, and said 'Does this always happen to you? Do you do this every morning?' (laughs) I was very pleased that he was on the show. He was a sweet, dear, funny man."

Herb and Christina didn't flaunt their budding romance... in fact, many cast and crew members weren't immediately aware that the two had became soul mates. Off camera, they were inseparable.

SAGAN LEWIS ... "I knew, but I kept it under wraps. When they were on the set together, that was always fun, a lot of fun, a lot of humor. They were always kidding around together, and having fun with each other... very, very sweet. I don't know if everybody knew they were involved."

By now, Christina had nurtured Helen Rosenthal into a "Forty-Something" role model, which was no small feat considering the TV Networks' preference for women in their teens and twenties.

NORMAN LLOYD .... "I think it was of extreme importance because when women saw Christina acting and playing that nurse as beautifully as she did... I mean she was really terrific in that part as the head nurse. Women watching that felt complimented, they felt that they too could fill a slot like that in life, or high competence as that nurse did. In other words what she was doing with that performance was showing that a woman of any age can be enormously effective on her job."

ON CALL: And also attractive.

LLOYD ... "Damned right, attractive!"

Christina left Helen behind in 1988 after six seasons and five Emmy nominations, but she continued working her magic on a host of supporting roles in film and television.


Ask Christina to describe Helen Rosenthal and some of her other characters, and she will boast:

CHRISTINA PICKLES ... "I'm the mother from hell! (laughs) Thank God for dysfunctional mothers."

"Legends" Christina Pickles and Anthony Hopkins
In real life, Christina is anything but dysfunctional, and enjoys spending time with her grandson Cooper. In front of the camera, however, she seems drawn to the type. During the 1990's she has played Mom to the likes of Brad Pitt (Legends of the Fall), Leonardo DiCaprio (Romeo and Juliet), Drew Barrymore (The Wedding Singer), and Ileana Douglas (Grace of My Heart). She also still cameos on Friends as mother to Courtney Cox and David Schwimmer, a role for which she picked up her sixth Emmy nomination in 1995.

But the 1990's also brought Christina an unexpected role... that of caregiver to Herb, who suffered through a prolonged illness until his death in July of 1996.

REBECCA LOBL ... "Herb's death hit us all pretty hard. He was around in the house, and I had lived there while I went to Law School (in L.A.). Later we remodeled my house just about the time Cooper was born, and so I lived in Mom's house with my husband and a newborn and Herb who was there a lot. He's been part of a lot of important events in my life. He was an amazing guy. You can't imagine what his funeral service was like. Check-out clerks at markets standing up to say, "I just wanted to say he always made me feel special.' Herb had a way of making you feel like you were the center of the world. He was a great guy."

Christina Pickles, Rebecca Lobl and
Herb Edelman
CHRISTINA PICKLES ... "I have been part of a bereavement group, where we try to live with our loss. We laugh a great deal... when really good people get together over real issues, there's always a lot of humor... if they're being real."

And today, Christina's humor and strength continues to sustain her as she goes on with her life and takes her career to new heights, including writing and developing a project for Lifetime.

PICKLES ... The Education of Harriet Hatfield is based on a book by May Sarton (which we optioned). It's about a woman in her sixties who begins a new life."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Advice from Ed
Once while filming an episode of St. Elsewhere, Christina was having trouble deciding how Helen would react to a particular scene, so she consulted Ed Flanders who took her to task. "No," he said... "Helen wouldn't play that scene that way... she's a woman who pays her own rent." Those who know Christina will agree that, like her famous alter ego, she too is a gal who pays her own rent. She is tough, but sensitive, dramatic yet comedic, fun loving but hard working. And like Helen, Christina has made her own way and left her own mark. We Yanks are glad she crossed over to our side.

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