Loni Anderson — Smart, Sexy And Speaking Out

Circa 2005

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.

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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.

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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.

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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. Friedman: A few facilities have instituted a policy that mandates their clients must give up everything, including cigarettes. They offer patches to their clients.

Cooper: [To Dr. Friedman] But do you think people sometimes resist using the patches or the gum because they think, Well that’s just another addiction?

Friedman: It could be, although patches are just used short-term, and they are infinitely healthier than cigarettes. Many people don’t realize that it isn’t the nicotine that’s killing their lungs. Nicotine causes the addiction, but tar and other chemicals in the cigarettes cause the lung damage.

Anderson: And a lot of people smoke and drink at the same time, so they are not only taking the stuff into their lungs, they’re taking it into their stomach and their liver, and it’s traveling throughout all of their vital organs.

My dad, who had emphysema in his 40s, died eventually of prostate cancer, but he also couldn’t breathe; one of those illnesses was going to get him. My mom had cancer of the liver and pancreas, and I remember her calling me in her early 50s gasping for breath—she died in her late 50s. She lived in Arizona and I was in California trying to get an ambulance to her because she couldn’t breathe. My dad on his deathbed asked for a cigarette. He couldn’t even lift his arms to smoke it. He was six feet tall and weighed 80 pounds. He was just emaciated and asking for a cigarette. That shows you how strong the addiction can be.

Friedman: I’ve seen people who needed a tracheotomy tube in their necks to breathe, and then smoked through the tube.

Anderson: The doctor I traveled with on the speaking tour said, “People get disappointed with themselves if they don’t quit the first time. But the average is four or five times before you are actually committed, a sustained quitter.” There are those rare people who can quit cold turkey and never pick up a cigarette again. As a matter of fact, the man in my life always says, “I miss smoking. I enjoyed every cigarette I ever smoked.” But he knew it was terrible for his health and he quit cold turkey; that was the end of it.

Cooper: Did you influence his quitting or did he quit prior to meeting you?

Anderson: No, he did it before we met. Otherwise, I would not have gone on the first date. I have a sensitivity to it. I grew up with that blue haze of smoke everywhere. There’s something about that smell that has always made me take a step back.

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Friedman: Have you yourself been a smoker at any time in your life?

Anderson: No, I haven’t. I know it sounds so easy for me to say, “Stop what are you doing,” because I don’t have that addiction; I can’t really know how difficult quitting is. My son Quinton was about 10 when I started working with the campaign. I was speaking at high schools, and the teenagers were saying, “Too late. You needed to talk to us in elementary school.” And then I remembered my mom, at age 11, making that decision so young. I thought about my son. When I would go on a tour he’d say, “Go save one person, Mom, just even one person.” I think it’s a great thing because at 10 years old it made him think about not smoking.

My son doesn’t know his grandparents. They were gone before he was born. My wonderful mom and dad who were so adorable and fabulous, who would be having the best time with him—they’d be 80 years old—they are gone and they have been gone for years and years and years.

Cooper: You talked about how glamorous your mom looked as she held her wine glass and cigarette. When you saw that as a child, did you ever have any desire to try smoking?

Anderson: No, I did not. One day when I was about 11, I wanted to tease my dad and I had candy cigarettes. I could see my dad in our kitchen window, so I hid down behind the trunk and I took my little cigarette out and I was pretending to smoke. I thought I was as cute as a bug…oh, won’t he think this is a riot! He said, “I see that. Okay, come on in. You want to try a real cigarette?” I said, “Okay.” He lit a cigarette for me and said, “You have to smoke this whole thing.” I was puffing and he corrected me, “No, no, you have to take it into your lungs, that’s the way you smoke.” I did and then I turned green. I threw up all over the place and never thought of ever touching a cigarette again. He didn’t want me to be like him. It was horrible, so horrible I don’t know how anybody even starts. Have either of you ever smoked?

Cooper: No, I never have.

Friedman: I worked as a bartender while I was in college, and smoking seemed to be kind of an occupational requirement. I tried to develop the habit but I kept forgetting to smoke.

Anderson: (laughs) Lucky you.

Friedman: Fortunately for me, I don’t have that desire to smoke. At times, though, I will walk by somebody smoking a cigarette, and particularly if it’s the brand that I tried to smoke, I do get an instant, momentary craving…even though it’s been many years since college.

Cooper: You start mixing drinks?

Anderson: (laughs) I have a really hard time when we travel; I’m so used to being in California where nobody smokes. I go to another state and I start coughing; I have to leave the room.

Friedman: Beyond your advocacy, what projects are you working on?

Anderson: I recently did a pilot with Tori Spelling, and it was really adorable.

Cooper: A sitcom?

Anderson: It was a sitcom. I played her mom and she was playing a version of herself. It was kind of like Curb your Enthusiasm, where you’re playing yourself, but everyone else around you is an actor playing somebody in your life. We had a really good time, and it was a very fun part for me. I’ve been able to play the mother of such beautiful women; I was Pamela Anderson’s mother in her series VIP, and I was Denise Richards’ mother on Melrose Place. I was Jennifer Love Hewitt’s mother in her first movie, Munchie. So I only have gorgeous daughters, including my own. Whatever gorgeous actress is out there, I’m always available. I like playing the beautiful girl’s mother; that’s always nice and flattering.

Cooper: No sons?

Anderson: (laughs) No, I’ve been the mom to boys, too. I did a series called The Mullets where I was the mother of two guys with mullet haircuts. And I was Will Ferrell’s and Chris Kattan’s mom in a movie called A Night at the Roxbury. Although I’ve been exceedingly dramatic in many parts—I’ve done 20 TV movies and killed a number of husbands, way too serious for kids to see—I love comedy, that’s my thing.

Cooper: Speaking of husbands, how many times have you been married?

Anderson: I’ve been married three times. The first was my daughter’s father. I was a teenage, divorced mother—not very many of us around in the sixties. I’d known him for only a couple of weeks, and I was only married to him for a couple of months. It was a generation in which people had to be married to have sex.

Friedman: How do you look back on the marriage now?

Anderson: It was a major mistake, but from it I have my lovely daughter and two granddaughters. Then I was married to another actor for quite some time, and I came out to California with him. I always call him my favorite husband. He was my best friend, but we were a casualty of my success on WKRP. We were a regular Hollywood story like you would expect, where both start on the same level and then one takes off and the other one doesn’t. Our business is way too hard on marriages. Then I was married to Burt.

Cooper: Burt who?

Anderson: (laughs) I was with Burt [Reynolds] for 12 years, and we have our lovely son Quinton. I don’t regret any of my marriages, because my husbands have all brought lovely things to my life.

Cooper: Before this interview I had mentioned your name to some of the younger people working in the office and they didn’t recognize it until I said, “Well, she was married to Burt Reynolds…” and that’s what they actually remember.

Anderson: I have mentioned Burt’s name to as many people of the same age and they don’t know who he is either. They don’t know who Clark Gable is, and I always say I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t know who Clark Gable is. (laughs) At the same time, the reverse is happening to us where we don’t know who any of the young people are.

Friedman: Why do you think the public was so fixated on your breakup with Burt?

Anderson: Burt and I were kind of the couple, and everybody loved us together. We had been together a long time, so we were everybody’s sweethearts.

Cooper: Like what has been played out in the press with Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston.

Anderson: Yes, exactly. When everybody loves you together, no matter what happens, they want you to stay together because for some reason it makes them happy. People still say to me, “Oh, we just loved you guys together.” They have no idea what your real life was about or anything like that. I remember a newscaster saying on CNN, “Burt and Loni, Loni and Burt…it just falls off the tongue, and we can’t believe we won’t be saying it anymore.” We’re still friends; everybody is friends, and that is a good thing because we were friends first. I think if you were friends first you should be friends last.

Cooper: Then I hope we stay friends.

Anderson: (laughs) Sounds good.

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