Loni Anderson earned three Golden Globe Awards and two Emmy Award nominations for her role on WKRP in Cincinnati.
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY LONI ANDERSON

Loni Anderson was an established, “serious” actress when she morphed into the role of Jennifer Marlowe in WKRP in Cincinnati, putting her own spin on the character and busting stereotypes by playing a “smart” blonde. The hit 1970s CBS sitcom, which earned her three Golden Globe Awards and two Emmy Award nominations, launched her celebrity and transformed her into one of the most memorable sex symbols of the late 1970s and ‘80s.

The icon will share rarely heard personal stories from that era when she takes the spotlight in “An Intimate Evenings With Loni Anderson” on Dec. 9 at Oscar’s Palm Springs. No doubt she will share behind-the-scenes fodder about castmates Howard Hesseman, Jan Smithers, Gary Sandy, Gordon Jump et al, but expect other, more cherished revelations.

Of weathering many a tabloid storm during her explosive divorce with the Burt Reynolds in the early ’90s—Reynolds died in 2018—Anderson notes, “We had a spectacular breakup, but you don’t stay with somebody for 12 years and not like them or love them.”

About her current marriage to American folk singer Bob Flick of The Brothers Four, who have graced the McCallum Theatre stage, she credits Flick with helping her move through the maelstrom of the pandemic.

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PHOTOGRAPH BY RON GALELLA
Loni Anderson on being married to Burt Reynolds: “We’d been together through thick and thin with him in and out of addiction. It wasn’t a secret, he was a troubled guy, a mega movie star — No. 1 at the box office for five years. I was enamored of him when he first started asking me out, but I said no for about a year.”

“Bob and I are really connected,” she admits, “I first met him when I was a teenager. I told my mother, ‘He’s so funny. You could be just in the cabin in the woods, and you wouldn’t even need a TV.’ I wish she was here because here’s the cabin in the woods—now, during a time when you have to like somebody so much that you can spend every day with them and it’s still new, fresh, and you toast each other with your coffee every morning, and say, ‘Here’s to another day of us being together and making it the best day we can possibly make it.’”

Anderson shares more with Palm Springs Life.

Let’s dive into all things ‘blonde?’ There’s a fun backstory about you entering the fold of WKRP and the character of Jennifer.

Exactly. My ex-husband, who was up for the part of Andy Travis, said, “They’re going to call you in for this receptionist.” I looked at the script and said, ‘Yeah, but I don’t want to be window dressing.’ When they did call me in, I just kept saying no. After about the third time of calling for me to read, my agent, a smart man, said, “You know, this is MTM. They have other shows. So, I met with (producer) Hugh (Wilson) and Grant Tinker, and I was on my little soap box telling them, “I don’t want to play anything like that. I’m on the edge of becoming a blond but I’ve been a brunette all my life and I’m taken seriously as an actress. This is not the way I want to end up—as some air head blonde.”

How did they respond?

I expected them to say, “Thank you. Well, hopefully we’ll see you another time.” Instead, they said, “How would you do it?”

What did you do?

Well, now I’m on the spot because I didn’t rehearse. I told them, “Well I think it’s about time glamorous women were smart.” In 1978, that was not a big thing. They asked me to read in that [smart] way, but it wasn’t written that way. I thought I was going to blow it. I read it and then—silence in the room. Afterward, I went to the parking lot and cried, thinking, “They’ll never have me back at MTM!” When I got home, my husband told me my agent called. I got the job. When I met with Hugh, he said, “I want to make Jennifer look like Lana Turner and be the smartest person in the room.” I went to the hair salon and said, “OK, make me a blonde. Platinum.”

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“I felt if I got rejected, there would be another opportunity. You have to like who you are as a person.” — Loni Anderson

Why do you think there is still fondness for the show? And for the 1970s and 1980s, for that matter?

It was a simpler time. We all gathered for “destination television,” which no longer exists. There were three networks. Three hours of prime time. That was it. But I also think what Hugh did with the show was make the humor come out of the story and not out of the joke because jokes get dated and a story that has a humor never goes out of style.

Was it important for you to break blonde stereotypes?

Very. The best advice I ever got was from Steve Allen. I was playing opposite him in a ditzy but not quite blonde role on The Love Boat in 1977.

The crew and actors were cracking up over the voice I used. I was feeling very “full of myself.” But Steve pulled me aside and said, “You do that so well. You must stop, or you’ll never do anything else.”

Let’s talk about Burt Reynolds. What was the biggest lessons you learned from the marriage, and later, the divorce?

The fact that I didn’t marry him until we decided to have a child [Quinton] was kind of indicative of how I felt about marriage. I didn’t think it was necessary, but it was necessary if we were going to adopt a child. We’d been together through thick and thin with him in and out of addiction. It wasn’t a secret, he was a troubled guy, a mega movie star—No. 1 at the box office for five years. I was enamored of him when he first started asking me out, but I said no for about a year.

Why did Burt become so contentious?

His demons and drugs. What people don’t know is that he would call me in the middle of the night, and I’d think, “You just said the worst things in the world about me, and here you are?” After our divorce, I became more of a mother figure for him. He trusted me, but you have to blame somebody if things are going wrong. And, if you’re “altered,” who’s the closest person to blame? Me. So, I just kept quiet because when somebody is altered, that’s a war you can’t win. So, I just took the high road and thought, “It’s tabloid fodder that will go away and he won’t remember what he said. Depending on what day you caught Burt, it was wonderful—or horrible.

Why do you think he had so many demons?

He always worried he wasn’t good enough or that people didn’t take him seriously enough. No.1 is hard because sometimes you have to slip to No. 2. That’s always looming. And it’s terrifying.

Well, your self-esteem seems pretty bright.

Absolutely. But I inherently felt that way all my life. It wasn’t like I needed it from outside because I felt it inside.

You can’t get it ‘out there’ anyway.

Exactly. I don’t know how you get self-confidence from the time you’re little, but I always had it. I felt if I got rejected, there would be another opportunity. You have to like who you are as a person.

What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve been learning about yourself lately?

That I can say whatever I feel and it’s OK. This is who I am, and if you don’t like it, fine. And: Don’t hold onto any anger or resentment because it only makes you old and sick. Think of the best things instead of the worst. I learned that over the last three years since Burt died. In the end, we were in contact, and I thank him every day for all the wonderful things he brought into my life. Quinton, number one, but all the experiences and friends. Some of the greatest stories I have are because of Burt. So, I always say, “Thank you, Burt.” And to all those other experiences you’ve had in your life—take the best from them. Let the other stuff go.