The Michele Lee Interview
Michele Lee, who appeared in every episode of the 14-year run of Knots Landing, was not merely the star of the show, not merely the Queen Bee, the Den Mother, the moral center. She was also its number one fan. Ten years after the show's conclusion, her knowledge of the venerable drama is staggering. She is as eager to discuss theories about why the show sustained its success, as she is quick to praise her fellow actors. Knots Landing is still prominent in her mind, and she guards the legacy well.
Michele Lee is not only Karen Mackenzie. She starred in, wrote, produced and directed Color Me Perfect, a landmark television movie about mental disabilities. She has had a lavish Broadway career, from originating Rosemary in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying to most recently earning a Tony nomination for Tale of the Allergist's Wife. And she even shared billing with a lovable Volkswagen, Herbie, in The Love Bug. But for those who know the residents of Knots Landing better than their own families, Michele will always be Karen, a model citizen, mother and friend.
It is a pleasure to present Michele Lee in this exclusive interview.
AS: Thank you for taking the time with us today. It's great to speak with you in New York City.
Michele Lee: I'm so glad to be here.
BACK TO THE CUL DE SAC
Tommy Strangie from Miami Beach, Florida asks: "First let me start by saying that I have watched every episode of Knots Landing in fact again in repeats and I always find something new to love in the show and your incredible performance as Karen Mackenzie … this is less a question than a gushy way of saying thank you for 14 years of a wonderful show that I couldn't wait to see and watch with my family … opening up many discussions on a lot of issues … anyway, Do you have a favorite episode? … PS Congrats on the Tony nomination and the success of "The Tale of the Allergists Wife" … Best Wishes from Your rambling fan - Tommy Strangie.
Michele: I love this kind of rambling. I now have a swollen head and my feet are hurting too. It's very difficult to answer a question of favorite episode. I have several episodes or storylines that are my favorites. Certainly the Constance McCashin character and how that was written out was one. That was done with great love and time and thought and creativity by David Jacobs in a two-part episode.
Karen's addiction, at a time when we as a nation were examining our culture and addiction problems. It was powerful because of the knowledge that addiction could come to anyone, including a First Lady and Karen Mackenzie. Lastly but certainly not least, Val's babies - and the emotional connection with the audience who worried about any peril happening to their children-that was always an important, emotional story for me.
AS: Well, I guess that answers what would have been my next question, from Tatianna in Virginia, who asked during the run of the show which storyline did you most enjoy…
Michele: Yes, it probably did.
AS: So let me ask this then, which storyline did you like most that you were the lead actress in? The stories that revolved around you, I mean.
Michele: Let me answer it from another perspective. The things that I loved about my character - the things I loved with Karen, Mack and Val were when we were able to show our comedic talents as actors. I believe that was inherent in so many of the scenes. Oh! Let me add to that last question by also mentioning the Pollyanna speech as one of my favorite moments as Karen. The Pollyanna speech was a testimony to our writers keeping our fingers on the pulse of what (the audience) was feeling in their own lives. If we were doing the show today I could give the Pollyanna speech and add a few more items. I loved that feistiness in Karen.
Alex Wade from Detroit, MI asks: "A lot has been made of the fact that actors on Knots had input into the storylines. Which storylines did you directly influence or lobby for?"
Michele: I hardly had to lobby for stories but there were times during the course of Knots Landing that things that were happening in my personal life were reflected in Karen by David Jacobs.
AS: Like what for example?
Michele: When I was a single parent in the third or second season, I was a single parent in my personal life. So feelings that were happening in my personal life, things that happened with my girlfriends, they would take pieces of us and you'd see that turn up in an episode.
Let me tell you a story. There was a time when I was with a friend and I was trying on a sweater. Either the sweater had shrunk or I had gained weight because I was having a lot of difficulty getting this sweater on! And my friend asked me if I had gained weight or the sweater had shrunk. "I don't know," I said, so she said maybe if you stretched it out the sweater would fit…
AS: I remember that well.
Michele: Yeah, remember that in the scene with Val? That was a small example of how things would turn up in the shows.
AS: And it's funny that that was a real life example because it fit well with the story it was a part of. You were feeling threatened by Michele Phillips' character going after Mack, so you, or Karen, might have been more self-conscious about your appearance.
Michele: That's right, that's right. Now I remember that. That's an example of how great our writers were.
James from London asks: "The comedic toing and froing between you and Kevin Dobson was one of the things that gave Knots Landing its wonderfully unique and 'knotty' flavour! How did that aspect of your onscreen partnership develop, and would it be fair to say that Mack brought out a lighter, even zanier side of Karen that wasn't there during her first marriage?"
Michele: Kevin Dobson and I as actors had something very special. We loved to do this banter as Karen and Mack; we would get together in my dressing room before a scene and rehearse what we were going to do. This brought out the lighter side in the characters and it's one of my very favorite things in playing Karen.
Frankie from Baltimore, Maryland asks: "What are your feelings when you hear that Karen was looked at as a hero for us Pollyannas out there? Do you think this made her character less assertive since she was looked at as a Pollyanna or do you think that there's a little of Karen in everyone?"
Michele: I think Karen was very assertive in that statement. I hope there's a Pollyanna in all of us and that part doesn't ever die. I still have that part in me. I think what was interesting about that speech was that we weren't used to hearing our characters that impassioned. Karen showed the frustrations we were having with our society. There are two things to consider with that speech - the issue of Karen being called a Pollyanna and whether Karen actually was a Pollyanna. Karen wanted to be a Pollyanna and wasn't ashamed of that.
Remember in our society, maybe people don't remember, but remember when we could go over to other people's houses and come in through an open back door? I remember when I was a little girl and my mother and father would have people over and they'd walk into an unlocked door in our house. Maybe apropos Knots Landing would have been Val opening the back door and Karen saying (simulates Karen calling from another room), "Hi Val, come on in!" That would never happen now.
Alex Wade from Detroit also asks, "Much in this forum has been made of Karen's little explored dark side. For instance, she's never been voted (s)mother of the year, as her kids appeared the most messed up (Diana and Eric both married sociopaths and Michael had that weird incest hang-up). Looking back, does she wish that Knots had explored Karen's dark side more?"
Michele: (Laughing) First let me say "incest" wasn't exactly incest. But if you take apart Karen's kids and looked at them, you'd have to say at some point what the hell happened to those kids? I don't think she had a dark side and I think she did a very good job of raising kids --- what I think happened is that they ran out storylines (Laughs more). It's true! That family was supposed to be the solid family, the Rock of Gibraltar, but how do you keep it interesting? You have a kid marrying a sociopath, that's how. So I don't know if I'd want to see Karen's dark side explored more … maybe her lukewarm side, how's that? But I have to say that I think a lot of people would have liked to have had Karen as a mother. It's a good question, though. Good question.
Collin from Los Angeles asks: "Can you talk a little about the excellent writing/producing team of Bernard Lechowick and Lynn Marie Latham, who kept Knots extremely strong for several seasons as the show grew older? Their scripts and storylines for the series were particularly strong."
Michele: I agree. I think they had a wonderful knack for writing character. (Loud, prolonged noise occurs in the background). What was that? Hold on … (Noise continues). I'm looking outside my window because the war is beginning any minute. (Laughs). Let me look at another window … Can you hear that?
AS: Sounds like a dump truck.
Michele: That's pretty loud. I've got my TV on and who knows what's going to happen. (Noise continues, louder than before)
AS: Maybe it's a motorcycle.
Michele: Motorcycle, yeah maybe … I don't know, weird. Where was I?
AS: "I think they had a wonderful knack for writing character."
Michele: Oh yeah. They understood the voice of the character and had a great sense of humor. And you're right; they did it later in the series when most other shows start to fade.
AS: They were my favorite writers.
Michele: Mine too.
Allison from Sanford, FL asks: "Was there any co-star that was more challenging to work with than others? Also, who was your favorite to work with, and why? Thanks."
Michele: That's a difficult question to answer. Bill Devane, who I love, let me say that right from the beginning, had a very interesting approach to work. He kind of used his persona to dictate how his character would be seen. So sometimes that would result in his scenes being rewritten on the spot. The reason I say I love him is because 99, or 99.9 percent of the time he was right. But it did make it difficult to rearrange things at the last minute. He liked to bully people but he didn't really bully, if that makes sense. I liked working with him but I'm sure most people were frightened of him. (Laughs wildly).
As for who I liked to work with most, it may not be new to say but we had no actor who "acted" as a star. That is hard to find in personalities. I loved working with Kevin - we were husband and wife (on the show) and we acted as husband and wife in real life. Joan Van Ark and Val … when we ever send notes or gift cards or any messages to each other we still always refer to each other as Karen and Val.
There was a time in the second season I believe when Karen was worried that her husband was going to cheat on her (of course that would never happen) and she was with Val and they just look at each other and say "Pizza?" Remember that?
AS: Sure do.
Michele: So pizza, that's a phrase that has stuck with us for many years. Sometimes when Joan and I are together we will look at each other after something has happened and just say, "Pizza?"
Pamela Newstead from the United Kingdom asks: "Do you still keep in touch with all the old Knots Cast, i.e. Joan Van Ark, Ted Shackelford, Donna Mills and your screen husband Kevin?"
Michele: Not as much as I would like to. I was invited to go to Donna Mills' home for a party recently and I couldn't make it because I was out of town. They all came to see me in my Broadway play "Tale of the Allergists Wife." Ted Shackelford is in another country and doing something else so it's difficult to see him. Bill Devane is in Palm Springs so he's out of the way.
AS: (blurting out): I went to his restaurant out there, Devane's. Have you been?
Michele: Yes I did.
AS: Sorry I cut you off.
Michele: It's OK. I did recently go to Michael Filerman's home for a party for the tenth anniversary of Knots Landing going off the air. He only had a small group of people associated with the show.
AS: Really. What did you talk about at the party?
Michele: How bad TV is today. (Laughs)
AS: What does he do now?
Michele: He produces. He's producing a few Broadway shows and is very active in the theater. He's more in the theater but sometimes produces outside of New York. Michael was always one of my favorite people.
Pearsonsf from San Francisco, CA asks:
it was a dream come true to meet you this past year in San Francisco. Also this year I drove down to the cul-de-sac and visited. Have you ever taken a nostalgic trip to see your old stomping ground?"
Michele: I only went back to the cul de sac once. We were driving somewhere and were nearby and turned off and stopped there. Oh listen, it was pretty awesome. It was a part of my life that will always be there.
Christine from Germany asks: "I enjoyed watching the storyline in seasons 11/12 where Karen is supposedly stalked by a crazy fan and later it turns out the baddie is actually her producer. Sadly, this happens in real life too that celebrities get stalked. Therefore my question: Did you ever have an obsessed fan in real life?"
Michele: I never had an obsessed fan, to my knowledge, who stalked me. Like all actors, I've had some letters and communications that were disturbing in some manner.
Bob Philips from the UK asks: "Which other character on Knots would you most have liked to play?"
Michele: Well, it's always fun to play the bad guy, so I'd have to say Abby. I'm not as sexy as Abby, no one is, but it would have fun to play that part.
AS: A lot of people would disagree with you.
Michele: I've always thought of myself as sexy. (Laughing loudly). Tell them I'm laughing. (Continues laughing)
Robert from Canada asks: "Will we ever get DVD season sets of Knots Landing?"
Michele (quite surprised): Ooh Robert, I never thought of that! Seriously, I'll have to take that suggestion up with the right people. That's an excellent idea. Thank you!
AS: What about an E! True Hollywood Story? I know a lot of people have wondered if that would come out.
Michele: Isn't that about the dirt on a show? I don't believe in that stuff. I've always been really opposed to it. But yeah, there had been talk about doing one.
Bob McCormack from Scotland asks: "I am the creator of Fantasy Knots Landing, an original web series on Knots Landing Net that follow the characters after the end of the show. Do you have any ideas for how you would like to see Karen and Mack progress beyond the show?"
Michele: I've never heard of that! Is this something you do?
AS: I've contributed to it but Bob created it and does almost all the work. There's even a forum set up just to discuss Fantasy Knots Landing.
Michele: Are they actual scripts or just one-page summaries?
AS: Actual scripts.
Michele: Well, what is going on with it?
AS: It covers the four years from the end of the show to the reunion in '97-
Michele: Aha! Very clever. What a great idea.
AS: You really should check it out. So knowing that, how would you like to see Karen and Mack progress?
Michele: Certainly they have to be the family that stays together. They shouldn't be beyond the society that we are living in. And they should never, ever be divorced. Karen and Mack were the hope for all successful relationships. It should stay that way.
Kl4me from Montreal asks: "Actors go through contract negotiations every few years on primetime shows. Were there a few times that you considered not re-signing and why?"
Michele: That gets a little personal, but speaking for everyone, everyone wants to be appreciated and every side wants a little more from the other. I really couldn't imagine my not returning to Knots Landing, but there was a thought or two about that at different times.
Brian Lavalle from Massachusetts asks: "I loved Knots Landing; it was the best ever show on television. However I think the only mistake the show ever made was releasing Constance McCashin as Laura, how did you feel about that?"
Michele: Most people were very upset. Laura and Constance were part of our core group when we started Knots Landing and the character itself brought a tone that wasn't inherent in any other character. That was definitely missed. Maybe some people know that every year a show is on viewership begins to erode. And each year there's an erosion of advertising dollars. Actors get cost of living increases and whatever they negotiate, but the advertisers are giving less money to produce the show. (The producers) had to look at how they could save dollars to keep the show going so it made real sense to cut the budget at that time.
AS: Is that what happened with Julie Harris too?
Michele: Yes. It wasn't easy.
AS: But was the thought ever there that they could become recurring characters? Did they both have to leave the show for good?
Michele: That becomes the actors' question. Do they want to stay on a show that has made this kind of decision? Then again, sometimes the show thinks that the best way to get rid of (bad choice of words) a character is to have the character die. Some cases it works but in most cases it doesn't.
AS: I stress this point because in the discussion of Knots Landing that is the number one issue, at least as I see it. Why did they have to kill Laura off? What would it have been like if she stayed, etc., etc.
Michele (surprised): That's interesting. Do you think it's because of the fact that they "killed Laura off," as you put it, or the way they did it? From brain cancer?
AS: I think it's all those things. Why did she have to go, why did they make it cancer and maybe even fans have had the same reaction as characters on the show, namely, why did Laura leave Knots Landing to die?
Michele: Yes, true.
AS: I think it's a combination of those things that still makes it so intriguing for fans.
Michele: And maybe that's what makes it good television, too.
Petey Hollister from Fayetteville, AR asks: "It's my opinion that one of the biggest missteps during Knots Landing's run was the murdering of Linda Fairgate. Linda had such potential as a long-lasting character, what with the way she became intertwined in the lives of Karen, Mack, Michael, and eventually Greg and Paige. The season twelve writers obviously realized this, for as that season rolled along, Linda was obviously being groomed as a new, younger Abby, someone to shake up the Sumner Group. I'm curious to know how you and other cast members felt about losing Lar Park Lincoln when the horrible season thirteen writers came onboard, especially when Linda was developing into such a worthy adversary for Karen and Paige?"
Michele: The answer to that is it that she was not being groomed to be an Abby, it was just a development that was happening at the Sumner Group. But as for the season 13 writers, John Romano is someone I admire. The reason it wasn't as successful with him is that he was told to freshen up the show, to write it darker and grittier. There were a lot of "darker" shows out there doing well - cop shows were seeing great success, and others. It certainly wasn't John Romano's fault, but the gritty thing wasn't working.
AS: Is the gritty approach why they got rid of Linda Fairgate?
Michele: You can't have too many actors demanding more and more money when we were getting fewer and fewer advertising dollars. One of the reasons why the show went off the air - actually the single reason-was that it was a determination of the cost effectiveness of the situation. It would have been impossible to keep the show going at the rate we were going, and we all made the decision to end the show. Some people said Knots Landing was cancelled, but that was never the case. We had a 19 share, which was very high. They didn't get those kinds of numbers in that slot for years.
AS: But in the last season things were really getting hairy with budget problems.
Michele: For certain episodes not all of us were in the show and that became obvious.
AS: Except for you. You did some shows for scale.
Michele: I didn't do it for scale; bite your tongue!
AS: You appeared in every episode that year while most regulars were in 15; weren't those extra shows for scale?
Michele: Oh, the extra shows, right. Yes, those shows I did for union scale and you're right, I didn't know that's what you meant.
AS: Why did you do that when other actors did not?
Michele: When I look at the heart of the show and what it should be … I had a great problem with the core characters not in every show. People need to tune in and see the core characters.
AS: I remember it got so bad that there was an episode near the end called "My Kingdom for a Horse" that only had you, Greg and Anne in it, and the rest were supporting characters. The seams were wearing thin there.
Michele: And by then I was hardly in it at all. They'd have me come in for one day and do something very quickly.
FIVE AND FIVE
AS: I'm going to list five classic Knots Landing moments and I wondered if you can give me your quick thoughts about them, as someone who worked on the show and as a fan.
Interviewer: Val getting her babies back.
Michele: Very emotional. We were all in touch with how the audience was feeling. A very emotional time.
AS: Karen getting shot by Wolfbridge.
Michele: I just wanted to make sure I had clean underwear. (Laughs loudly). That's all I cared about. And also I wanted to look good as I was draped across the floor, dying. I had a red Kamali dress that was perfect for the occasion.
AS: Val being terrorized by Jill Bennett.
Michele: Ooh yes, that was great. It showed how talented our actors were. It had Joan Van Ark performing as if she were in play - one continuous take. Very thrilling.
AS: Karen entering drug rehab.
Michele: Mixed feelings. (Long pause)
AS: Can you elaborate?
Michele: I had questions as to whether Karen should take this route. (Pause) But I worked very hard on those nine episodes about drug dependency. I became very involved with playing that part properly.
AS: I think you should have won an Emmy for that storyline. That was your finest moment on Knots.
Michele: Thank you. You know, Julie Harris and I were the only ones nominated for Emmys. But that was the mindset; it's a soap opera and you don't give it Emmys.
AS: Joshua falling to his death.
Michele: I just saw him for lunch with Julie Harris.
AS: Really? How is she?
Michele: She is recovering. She was taking mime lessons to recover her speech from her stroke. Isn't that something? So when you say that about Joshua it reminds me of my present day meeting with Alec Baldwin. He's in the movie I'm in so it was good to see him and Julie Harris.
AS: And she's getting better? That's terrific.
Michele: She's recovering quite well.
AS: Let's do the same thing for these actors on Knots … tell me some thoughts on Donna Mills.
Michele: Donna Mills - not only a beautiful woman, she is also a very shrewd businesswoman. She's got a lot of knowledge in many different areas and can conform to what a man thinks a woman should be.
AS: How so?
Michele: She can be assertive without seeming to be, that's what I mean.
AS: Michelle Phillips.
Michele: Oh, Michelle. I saw her recently, too. She's just a good broad. (Laughs) I always imagine her in a dressing room with the New York Times or L.A. Times wearing white gloves so she wouldn't get ink on her hands. Very smart, very well read and someone I like very much.
Interviewer: Halle Berry.
Michele: Talk about a beauty. She was sweet. Always had a smile. Very intent on doing good work.
AS: Did she leave the show or was she written out?
Michele: She was written out. She had a type of contract for say, two years, where she was possibly going to be in a certain number of episodes. They used her for what they needed her for and that was it.
AS: I guess we already covered William Devane, who was going to be my next person.
Michele: Yes we have.
AS: How about John Pleshette then?
Michele: John Pleshette. He was amazingly creative. As you know, he wrote several shows. He was a very nice person.
THE WORLD BEYOND KNOTS LANDING
Erika Longo from Wayne, NJ asks: "Hi Michele! I'm 15, and have met you three times, twice in NY and once in LA! My question for you is: Are you planning on coming back to Broadway anytime soon, and if so what will your next project be?"
Michele: Oh, thank you. Right now I'm in New York doing a workshop for a new musical comedy by Cy Coleman and Wendy Wasserstein. What a "workshop" is is an invited audience of (the producers') peers and possible financial backers to give ideas and criticism. It starts tomorrow and runs for ten days.
AS: Is it open to the public?
Michele: No, it's a closed show. We're just in the testing stages.
Chris Sumner Matheson from San Antonio, TX asks: "How does it feel heading back to the big screen after so long?"
Michele: Oh it was fun. Everyone was funny! I really loved the leading ladies, Debra Messing and Jennifer Aniston. We got along right away and they made it fun.
AS: What's it called?
Michele: Right now it doesn't have a title, so we're calling it the "Untitled John Hamburg Project" (he's the director). But it's from Universal and it stars Ben Stiller and you'll know it when you see it.
Shari from Clermont, Florida asks: "We've been talking on the KL Forum about our favorite movies starring Knots Characters. One of the movies mentioned was Color Me Perfect, about an Autistic woman. Autism is very close to my heart (my son has Asperger's Syndrome), and I was wondering was this project a labor of love for you, and if so, why?"
Michele: It wasn't autism. We didn't give it a name. It was a deficiency in some sense of the brain. Doing that movie I wore four hats as you probably know so it was like a birthing process. So definitely, yes, a labor of love.
Dan James from Essex, England, UK asks: "Hi Michele, I would like to ask about the film Colour Me Perfect. I saw this film a while ago, and found it very touching, was it hard not only starring but also directing the movie? And did you find it hard to play a woman who had mental problems? I felt the film was brilliant, well acted and written, and it was very sad at the end."
Michele: Yeah to all those questions. I found it difficult to wear all those hats though it was a smooth process overall. We came in on time and under budget, as the saying goes. I don't think the next time I would bite off so much when making a movie but it was a wonderful time.
David from Ohio asks:
I'm a HUGE fan of yours own everything you were in, pictures of you and everything my grandma said I've been a fan since I was little back in 1988 I watched Knots Landing with her. I read that you had your own pilot called "The Michele Lee Show," how did you like working on that?
Love To You and Blessings
#1 Michele Lee Fan
P.S. You have a beautiful voice!"
Michele: Why thank you so much. I can't believe you knew that show! I loved it. It was in the late 70s, before Knots Landing. The trouble was, it was like Valerie Harper's character Rhoda from the Mary Tyler Moore Show very much so Rhoda already had the built-in audience and I lost out.
Pamela from London, UK asks: "What is your opinion about the possible war with Iraq?"
Michele: Ooh boy. Watching TV as we're speaking and it looks like we're going to war. (Note: this is Sunday, March 16, 2003). I have mixed feelings about all this. It's so troubling that it's taking a war to solve all these problems. We missed a great opportunity to embrace the world for its sameness and not by looking at all our differences. This is an instance where the Pollyanna speech really can come into effect. I just hope that even if we do go to war, somewhere out of it good will come.
Carma from Oakland, CA asks: "Knots Landing always seemed so realistic to me; it was as if the viewer was being let in on the lives of these real people in this California town. My question is why do you think there are no other shows like it anymore? And what do you think of the rise of reality television? Perhaps reality TV has taken the place of this type of drama? NOTE: I also love reality TV :)"
Michele: Interesting how they equated the two as people we know. I do think there is a void with no continuing drama out there. If handled properly, I think there is a great audience for it out there. As far as reality shows are concerned, I really despise them. Maybe they could be inspiring, though I don't know how. I just see them as voyeurism and they reflect the continuing demise of television. Dealing in terms of dollars and cents, these reality shows are very worthwhile but they're replacing quality TV.
Greg Matheson from Delaware asks: "Do you think there will be another reunion?"
Michele: I don't know if we could have another reunion, honestly. Everyone is living such different lives. I think the actors would do it since they loved the show so much. But my guess is as good as yours.
AS: And on that note, thank you very much for spending such a long time with us today.
Michele: It's my great pleasure, Art. Thanks to everyone who wrote in! These were some excellent questions. I really had to think on some of them. Have a great day everyone.