It’s been 36 years since Alice Hyatt walked out of Mel’s Diner for the last time on her way to finally realizing her dream of becoming a singer. But Linda Lavin, who played her, still hears thanks from women who saw their own lives reflected in Alice, her long-running series about a hardworking single mom.
“Alice represented 80 percent of all the women who work in this country who are single mothers and fighting for equal pay and benefits like health care and childcare,” Linda tells Closer. “My favorite thing about it was that it inspired women to go after a better life for themselves. And over the years, it reached five generations of kids, families and women.”
At 83, Linda remains just as hardworking as her former TV character. The performer, who has a recurring role on the CBS sitcom B Positive, plays a tough-minded judge in Naked Singularity, a film starring John Boyega, in theaters and on demand now.
Linda also has several live musical performances on her upcoming schedule as well as a part in the highly anticipated Lucy and Desi biopic, Being the Ricardos.
You starred on Alice for nine seasons. Do you have a favorite episode?
One of the first episodes we did in 1976, which was our first year on the air, was a show where Alice was going to do a commercial for Mel. She thought she’d be all glamorous and singing a fabulous sexy song to sell Mel’s Diner, but instead he put her in a hamburger suit. The source of comedy is thinking you’re going to be on some glamorous train and then finding out you’re the caboose! That was one of my favorites.
How did the cast get along?
We were a family, and a family gets along as it finds out how to balance personalities, needs, desires and egos. A workplace is really all about the production, not about individuals. But we got along very, very well because we lasted for nine years. That’s an unusually long time for a series.
You’re currently on the sitcom B Positive. Who do you play?
I play a woman who lives in the retirement home where Annaleigh Ashford, the star of the show, works. I became sort of a mentor and a good friend — as I like to say, the only grown-up in the room — because she’s very young and [costar] Thomas Middleditch is young. They have an innocence about them and need somebody to give them the honest skinny once in a while.
You play a judge in your new film, Naked Singularity. What was that like?
It was shot in Manhattan in the real courts, not a movie set. It was so real and so dingy, it makes Law & Order look glamorous. And I get to play a very strict, ironically humorous, powerful, articulate judge who puts John Boyega, the star of the movie, in his place. It endears you to him because he is working in a system which is very [messed] up. It was very powerful for me and I loved it.
You’ve done so much with your career: movies, TV, theater, recording. Was there ever a time when you thought you wouldn’t become a performer?
Yes. There was a certain point in my life when I had been active on Broadway and things slowed down. The theater business really took quite a turn downward in the 1970s. That’s when I first started going out to California to look for work. It did look like I might need to find another career.
What do you think you might have done?
I think I would have become an interior decorator. I like working with design and color — it’s one of my hobbies. My husband designed an outdoor venue for entertainment, concerts and weddings in upstate New York where we live in Claverack. His name is Steve Bakunas. My name, as you know, is Lavin, so we’re calling it Bakulaville.
That’s cute. Did you decorate it?
We decorated together. It’s something I have a passion for — no real education in it, although my aunt was an interior decorator. It’s trial and error. I once had to have a house painted three times before it was right. Now you can do that virtually online.
You married your husband in 2005. How did you meet?
I had set up a foundation so I could work with inner city girls from the ages of 9 to 13, who were at risk in their communities. We encouraged them to speak their stories or sing them or find a way to connect with their own power through movement, music or poetry. It was a very exciting time in my life. I was sent to a theater in Cape Cod to do the program, and through that theater I met Steve. So it had a very nice, sweet outcome.
What’s your secret to a happy marriage?
It’s not a secret. The happiness or the satisfaction of a marriage comes from communication and hard work. Learning how to communicate and how to listen, how to understand, how to have compassion for yourself and for the other, how to find ways to laugh, how to find the lovability in yourself. It isn’t just one thing, it’s a lot.
What are you proudest of?
What I’m most proud of is that I have a wonderful life and that I’ve been able to make a living doing what I love. I’m in a relationship with my husband and
a life with him that is full of adventure and growth. I’m proud and grateful for great good health, people in my life whom I love, and the capacity to find myself loving and lovable.
Do you have any tips for staying as vibrant and energetic as you are?
I don’t know if it’s just one thing. I’ve been on a very strong spiritual path for many, many years. That helps me and teaches me to accept the things I cannot change and it teaches me to remember that I am powerless over other people, places and things. It teaches me to forgive myself for my mistakes and to make amends to other people for my mistakes. I have the most wonderful relationship of my life with Steve. Those aren’t secrets. Those are truths that I’m willing to share as I talk about why my life is so good.