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Loni Anderson interview by Chet Cooper and Gillian Friedman, MD

Loni Anderson eases off the throttle, allowing her to fall several hundred yards behind the caravan of outdoor explorers, a group that includes her teenage son Quinton. Just as the line of snowmobiles is about to disappear from sight, she guns her machine and flies across the snow—a momentary indulgence of her adventurous side.

Away from the snow, the woman who refers to herself as Quinton’s mom shows her down-to-earth midwestern charm, belying her celebrity status. But fans will recognize in the understated blonde adventurer a hint of the bodacious with an attitude dynamo from her landmark role as receptionist Jennifer Marlowe on the popular sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. As the office-girl-who-ran-the-company, Anderson turned the dumb blonde stereotype on its head, presenting a character who was both drop-dead gorgeous and smart as a whip.

She has since held roles in numerous films and television shows. She is a favorite for cameos and still loves to do comedy. The daughter of two long-time smokers, Anderson has also played the role of spokesperson for the National Lung Health Education Program’s campaign to increase awareness about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Anderson recently made time for her friends at ABILITY Magazine: editor-in-chief Chet Cooper and managing health editor Gillian Friedman, MD. Together they talk about her family, her career and her advocacy about the hazards of smoking.

Chet Cooper: I remember first seeing you on WKRP. When did you start acting?


Loni Anderson: I started acting when I was 10, doing musical theater. Since I was a brunette at that time, I was always cast in all the exotic parts. I played the Native American, the African American, the Italian. Whatever ethnic group was called for, that was me. Hard to believe, isn’t it? (laughs)

I chose to be blonde for WKRP because the guy who created it, Hugh Wilson, said he wanted somebody who looked like Lana Turner but was the smartest person in the room. Very innovative, by the way, for 1978 when we started the show. On TV nobody sexy was smart, nobody glamorous was smart, especially in comedy.

Gillian Friedman, MD: How much of an adjustment was it to become a blonde?


Anderson: As a brunette, I had previously been this serious actress all of my life. Then I became a blonde and got to play a completely different, comic role. My daughter teases me once in a while saying, “Remember when you used to be my mother and you had black hair?” (laughs) My son Quinton only knows the blonde mother; I wore a dark wig one day and it freaked him out.

Friedman: Did you study theater in college?


Anderson: I actually have an education degree from the University of Minnesota, and I was a teacher for about a minute. I’d had my daughter when I was a teenager—I took my daughter to college with me. But the theater is where I belonged; I simply wanted to be an actress my whole life. My parents thought since I was a divorced mother and a teenager, acting probably wasn’t the right choice, so I got a teaching degree. Interestingly enough, my grandmother was a teacher, my sister was a teacher, my daughter was a teacher and is now a superintendent in northern California, and my son-in-law is a high school principal. I am surrounded. I am the odd man out in the family.

Cooper: Are you doing any teaching these days?


Anderson: I do talk about acting to students making the transition from high school to UCLA. Kids going into this profession really need to know the reality of it. I think a lot of them go into it with stars in their eyes. You’re rejected 10 to 20 times for every part you are going to get. I always say, “Look up the definition of rejection in the dictionary, get really comfortable with it, and then maybe you can go into acting.” I think that’s why we see so many tragedies in our business of people who can’t really separate themselves. I always realized that there’s the Loni Anderson over here who’s the mom, the grandma and the real woman, and then there’s the Loni over there who is just a figment of the tabloids’ imagination.

Cooper: On the other hand, that tabloid fascination with celebrity has given you an opportunity to bring attention to some causes that are important to you.


Anderson: That’s true. I’ve been working with NLHEP, which is the National Lung Health Education Program, to raise awareness about COPD [Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease—a varying combination of emphysema, chronic bronchitis and chronic inflammation]. It’s a lovely organization, completely focused on lung disease. I’ve been working with them and with the American Lung Association.

Cooper: Is the NLHEP affiliated with the American Lung Association?


Anderson: The organizations all interconnect in some way, and they share information with each other.

Cooper: How did you become associated with the NLHEP?


Anderson: They contacted me. Although COPD is the fourth largest killer of people in the U.S., it’s not a very well-publicized disease. There was no celebrity spokesperson for it and nobody was talking about it. So they were looking for someone whose life had been affected by the disease to represent it. The organization started checking around with celebrity agencies and managers. My dad had emphysema and both of my parents had chronic bronchitis and ended up with cancers—all smoking related—and I’ve always been very involved in anything that had to do with lung disease or cancer. I seemed to be the logical choice. I was so excited because a lot of people are involved with all types of cancer issues, but nobody was representing COPD. It was an awareness campaign that I really wanted to be involved with.

Friedman: There is an automatic association for many people between smoking and cancer, but they often don’t consider the other risks such as heart disease or COPD.


Anderson: Right. And smoking is related to practically every terrible thing that can happen to you. People associate smoking with lung cancer, period. But that’s not the only risk; smoking affects so many other parts of your life. Even though a lot of people have been diagnosed with COPD, at least double or triple that number have the disease and aren’t aware of it. People think, I have asthma or I just have this cough and I’m getting older and a little shorter of breath and it’s no big deal. They don’t realize that they could be getting help and some relief. There is no cure for emphysema [progressive destruction of the lung’s ability to gather oxygen] but you can start treating it and you can have a better quality of life. Now that the drug Spiriva has come along, people can go without their oxygen for much longer. They can go out and have a more normal life, where before they had to either take their oxygen tank with them or be at home connected to it.

Friedman: Unfortunately, COPD is associated with people who are in their 50s or 60s or older; kids who are lighting up today just aren’t thinking about the repercussions.


Anderson: Young people think that nothing bad will ever happen to them. They think, I can smoke now and I’ll look really cool, and then I’ll quit because I can do that. I’m young and nothing will happen to me. When I talk to young people, I explain that your lungs are changed forever from your first cigarette. No matter when you quit—although quitting is a good thing, it will extend your life—you can do damage to your lungs that can never be repaired. There is a natural curve as a healthy lung’s capacity decreases gradually over the years and it’s just a nice, easy slope. If you smoke, you go—oops—straight down from the curve, but when you stop smoking you go back to the more gentle descent. You don’t go back up to where you would have been— you’ve lost some of your lung capacity—but you follow the natural, slow decrease again instead of continuing to drop dramatically. People think, Well, I’ve already done the damage, but that’s only partly true. You’re always better off if you quit smoking; it’s never too late.

Cooper: In the awareness campaign, are you just speaking to smokers and potential smokers, or did you also direct your focus toward the doctors?

Anderson: We first went to the kids, but then we talked to doctors, because they are the first line of defense. Your family physician probably isn’t an expert in COPD, so we give doctors tips on the types of questions they should be asking. Almost every person over 45, and definitely those who have ever smoked, should have a spirometry test. You breathe into a spirometer—every doctor’s office should be equipped with one—and it measures your lung capacity. Even if you quit 20 years ago, you should have that test. Many insidious diseases, like COPD, show up years later; we have so much lung capacity that we don’t even notice a problem until we are in our 40s. My dad was a Navy flier in World War II and there was nothing more common then than the friendly old cigarette. He was a four-pack-a-day smoker and had developed bronchitis by his 30s.

Friedman: Four packs a day!


Anderson: My sister and I had a funny story we always told—it wasn’t really funny—about never needing an alarm clock for school because our alarm clock was our dad coughing. When Dad started coughing it was time to get up. When he was in his 30s, he had to cough for about 15 minutes to clear out his lungs before he could get ready to go to work. By his late 30s it escalated into a half-hour, and by the time he was in his 40s it was an hour. He really coughed for a good hour. People don’t realize that excess mucus is part of chronic bronchitis, but that is one of the telltale signs besides the cough. It’s not a very pretty thing to talk about or think about.

Cooper: But it must have been nice to wake up to.


Anderson: (laughs)

Cooper: At what age did your father start smoking?

Anderson: He started smoking when he was 14. Humphrey Bogart smoked and it was all so cool. When my dad was a teenager he belonged to a gangster club where they wore trench coats and had nicknames like Lefty and Fingers and…

Cooper: Smokey?

Anderson: (laughs) Yeah, Smokey. My dad’s nickname was Gat, which meant gun. They all thought they were really cool and they were smoking. My mom started when she was 11. She lived on a lake and she went to the hill next door to try her first cigarette. She started the entire hill on fire and the fire department had to come. It was a major deal, but it didn’t deter her. In those days, it was glamorous. In the movies, Bette Davis lights two cigarettes and hands the second one to James Cagney. It was just so glamorous and romantic. If you look back at any black-and-white movie, everybody is smoking. My memory of my mom is a wine glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other. She was a runway fashion model, and she was quite a glamorous woman.

Friedman: And cigarette companies also tried to tie smoking to the image of women’s empowerment and liberation.


Anderson: Exactly. And kids got involved—young people, musicians and what have you.

Cooper: And as Gillian mentioned earlier, kids are less likely to consider the long-term consequences.

Anderson: That’s why we talk to the kids. You can become addicted so quickly, and that’s what kids don’t get: three cigarettes in, your body already craves it. It is that addictive. We try to get to the kids where it makes a difference to them. With the girls we hit them in the glamour department and explain how cigarette smoke destroys the collagen in your skin. Your skin is going to look older, and there is nothing glamorous about the oxygen tank that you will have to carry around with you someday.

Friedman: Plus it yellows your teeth.

Anderson: That’s true. And there’s nothing glamorous about being dead. Then with the guys, we really get their attention when we talk about impotence, which is one of the major hazards of cigarette smoking.
A teenager said to me once, “But it looks so cool!” I said, “Well, there are a lot of cool dead guys, and we can talk about all of them: John Wayne and Steve McQueen—they were really cool, but they are also really gone. At the end of their lives they said the one thing they wish they could take back was the fact that they smoked.”

Cooper: At that time, most people weren’t aware of the risks of smoking.

Anderson: I remember doing The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. A lot of people had ashtrays—they were all over the set because everyone smoked. Johnny Carson died of emphysema; he was from that generation that didn’t know better. There’s not much you can do for the people who were hooked before 1964 when the Surgeon General said, “This might be hazardous to your health,” but the people who got hooked after that knew it was a death sentence, or at least a disease sentence. It’s amazing to me that young people will still pick up a cigarette.

Cooper: I can almost understand that in ’64 many people may have been skeptical of the Surgeon General’s warnings. But there has been so much research in the last 20 years that supports the connection between smoking and lung cancer, emphysema and bronchitis. It’s not really an issue that people are still debating.

Anderson: We know all of those things can happen.

Cooper: But the tobacco companies have done such a good job of putting a smoke screen around the facts.


Anderson: (laughs) It is amazing, isn’t it? And really, if somebody invented cigarettes today the government would not legalize them. They’d say, This is really a hazardous substance that we can’t allow anyone to have.

Cooper: Are you aware of any new findings regarding second-hand smoke?

Anderson: Yes, and my sister and I are both diagnosed with second-hand smoke syndromes. We have never smoked, but we grew up with second-hand smoke our entire lives, so in our 40s we developed asthmatic symptoms where we need inhalers on occasion, or we can’t get rid of a cold. I think a lot of people our age, the baby boomers who grew up with parents smoking, are going to find that more and more.

Friedman: There are many studies that indicate those exposed to second-hand smoke are at greater risk for developing a variety of respiratory problems.

Anderson: In a lot of the groups I met with, it wasn’t the smoker who had emphysema, but it was his mate. I saw a lot of relatively healthy men who had smoked their whole lives sitting next to their wives who had never smoked. But the wives had emphysema and were on oxygen because for 40 years they drove in the same car and lived enclosed in the same house. Women are much more susceptible and affected.
When women smoke, it is hard for them to quit because they are so worried about their weight; it’s a vanity issue and a mindset. They really need to think about the lifestyle they’ll have when they quit smoking—they will have more lung capacity and will be able to exercise and get rid of those few pounds. In 2000, the number of women dying from COPD surpassed the number of men. Women are being affected younger, and they are dying faster.

Friedman: It’s amazing the difficulty people have quitting when you take into consideration how many different remedies exist, such as nicotine gum and nicotine patches.

Anderson: According to the doctors I’ve traveled with on speaking tours, once you are hooked, smoking is harder to quit then heroin; tobacco is really an incredibly addictive substance.

Friedman: It’s interesting you bring that up because I specialize in addictions in my practice, and there are very few addiction facilities that address nicotine dependence. They are more concerned that people stop substances like alcohol and heroin.


Anderson: Yeah, give them that cigarette. But it’s going to kill them too, it really is.…Continued in ABILITY Magazine


ABILITY Magazine
Other articles in the Loni Anderson issue include Letter from the Editor — Rebuild with Accessibility; Senator Harkin — Embryonic Stem Cell Research; Humor — Cell Mates; Headlines — iBOT, Drug Therapy and Hurricane Aftermath; Recipes — Soups for the Soul; Tuberous Sclerosis — Disease with a Million Faces; COPD — What Smoking is Really Doing to Your Lungs; ADA Update — 15 Years and Counting; Laughing Matters — 6th Annual Comedy Showcase; Nursing School — Students with Mulitple Disabilities; RespiteMatch.com — Matching Caregivers with Consumers: World Ability Federation; Events and Conferences... subscribe


More excerpts from the Loni Anderson issue:

Paralympic Military — Sport as Rehabilitation

ABILITY House — Behind the Scenes of a Smart Home

Front of the Class — Book Excerpt

Senator Harkin — Expand Stem Cell Research: Letter to ABILITY readers

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