Tonya Crowe: Little Olivia Cunningham is All Grown Up
Tonya Crowe played Olivia Cunningham Dyer for ten years on Knots Landing. As the daughter of Abby Ewing (Donna Mills), Olivia transformed from a freckly youngster with a handful of lines to a sultry adolescent, enmeshed in a borderline-scandalous love triangle with her mother and the rising State Senator Peter Hollister (Hunt Block). Olivia’s moment of television glory came when she slid into a harrowing drug addiction, culminating in the notorious “Give me the keys!” rant after her mother locked her in the house to kick the habit. Luckily Olivia gave up the blow and found bliss with the hunky Harold (Paul Carafotes), a man also trying to escape inner demons.
In this exclusive interview Crowe reveals her feelings about growing up on camera, her expertise as a pool shark and her desire to be a Mom.
Arthur Swift: Happy Birthday to you tomorrow.
Tonya Crowe: Thank you!
Arthur Swift: And thank you for taking the time to talk to us. We have had many questions come in from around the world, but I guess the first question on everybody’s mind is what are you doing now?
Tonya: What am I doing now or since I left the show?
AS: Both. Let’s get an overview of what you’ve been doing since you left Knots.
Tonya: I went to college, UCLA, took some time off and began learning and practicing yoga at the same time.
AS: What type of yoga?
Tonya: Hatha yoga, yoga from India. That was about five years ago. And in the last year and a half have been very much into Kabbalistic yoga. I’ve been working with people to develop a book and a tape based on the “Book of Formation” by Abraham. That book is 3,000 years old and it branches to all religions of the world. It’s been very exciting because it’s a more intellectual form of yoga.
AS: Is the tape ready yet?
Tonya: Not yet, but it’s in the works. I also did Only in Venice, a screwball comedy where I acted and produced and learned how to edit. I was in a long-term relationship and it was a story he had written; it was actually his story. That was three years in the making and I absolutely loved it. I hadn’t been in a film before and it was something I did along with teaching yoga.
AS: That brings us to our first question actually.
Chris Sumner Matheson from San Antonio, Texas asks – “I was wondering if Only in Venice is a sign you’ll be returning to your Hollywood roots?”
Tonya: That’s unanswered. (laughs) It’s a real big commitment to recommit to the industry. That’s a lot of time, auditioning, going on calls, it’s just a lot of work. It’s something I’m contemplating but I needed to have time to have a different life. My childhood happened to be in front of the camera and in my 20s I wanted to explore what I liked, what I didn’t like. Now that I’m into my 30s I think about reentering movies. It would be interesting to be working on something with a beginning, a middle and an end. So I’m undecided but I definitely had a blast when I was acting on Knots. And when I made (Only in Venice) I realized how much I learned on Knots. And let me say how wonderful the producers and crew were on the show. If I got a pilot and they saw it was a better role for me, they’d let me do the pilot. They were really interested in making sure I was happy and developing well. In the teenage years they might not have been so easy to let me go but early on when they weren’t using me as much that wasn’t a concern.
Christine from Germany asks – “For the last two years we’ve held a little awards ceremony on KnotsLanding.Net called ‘The GARY Awards’. In the year 2001 ‘Olivia’ won in the category ‘Best Supporting Character’ and last year YOU won in the category ‘Best Supporting Actress’! 🙂 Does it surprise you that Olivia is such a popular Knots Landing character and more importantly that YOUR enormous acting talent is so much appreciated among Knots Knuts around the world?”
Tonya: (genuinely surprised) I didn’t know that. I’m totally blown away by my award. (Laughs). It does surprise me, but thank you. One thing that made Knots so great is the writing and editing for so many characters. I’m definitely proud and out of all the people on the show for me to win an award makes me extremely happy. I’m a sentimental favorite I guess.
AS: Well I would say it’s more than sentimental reasons. You literally grew up on the show but whereas other child actors did that as well, you actually matured into a real, full-fledged character and people enjoyed seeing that. Not naming names but I don’t think the other child actors were as successful.
Tonya: Thank you. I never saw it that way at the time.
Jordan Tate from France asks – “Dear Tonya, I’m a young woman of 24, I’m a fan of Knots Landing since I’m a little girl so I’m very happy I can speak with you. I would want to know if being an actress has always been your dream, if it was your choice when you arrive on the series being a little girl, and if you sometimes considered the crew of knots landing as your second family, being with them every day? (I’m a young script writer too, and I’ve got a lot of admiration for talented performer as you).”
Tonya: Yes in a big way being an actress was my dream. I remember at 4 and 5 (years old) pointing at the TV and saying that I had to be on TV. I kept going on and on about it. My father was a principal of a school and my mother was doing real estate and we lived in Orange County, a small suburb of L.A., about 25 minutes south of the city. So my father talked to the one student who had an agent and it turned out to be a very good agency. There were about five child agencies that were good at the time so they had me come in and read for them.
AS: How old were you then?
Tonya: I was about five and I did well because I was able to read scripts and anything they gave me. They were amazed but I knew I wanted to do this more than anything. I think true intelligence is desire and if you desire something you can make it happen. I had a huge desire to express myself and you don’t see many kids with that capacity at that age so that worked in my favor.
AS: So you got the agent and how did things move from there?
Tonya: When you first start acting as a child you get vouchers. You don’t have a SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card but you’re in SEG, for extras, and if you get enough vouchers you can eventually get into SAG. I was doing a lot of commercials as an extra. But when I’d be there I’d see other people, other actors, talking and I couldn’t say anything since extras aren’t allowed. And I didn’t like that! (Laughs) My big break was when I got onto Charlie’s Angels as an extra and apparently this was one of the more famous Charlie’s Angels episodes when I was supposed to play one of the kids in the orphanage. The one where Jaclyn Smith goes through hypnosis. Well one of the girls who had a speaking part got into a fender bender and couldn’t make it so they saw that I had the right look, blue eyes and brown hair, and asked if I could read. And I did and my agents were thrilled because this was how I got my SAG card.
AS: And you started getting parts after that?
Tonya: Yeah I did The Cracker Factory with Natalie Wood.
AS: Didn’t you do CHIPs as well?
Tonya: That was later; I think when I was 12. I did a lot of episodic work, that’s for sure. They were very good on Knots to let me do that.
AS: Who’s the Boss? was another one that a lot of people remember. Was there ever a possibility you were going to be a regular on that?
Tonya: That one I did for three episodes and no, it was just a limited role. I played one of Alyssa Milano’s friends; there were three or four of us. Nicole Eggert, who was on Baywatch, was one of them, but I was the leader of that group. I think one of her friends eventually became a regular but I’m not sure.
AS: There’s an urban legend that there was a Joan Van Ark reference in one of your Who’s the Boss? episodes.
Tonya: Really? I don’t remember that. It may have been true but I really don’t remember.
AS: It probably is just a legend. You know how people get carried away! Anyway, how did you get on Knots?
Tonya: My Mom was thrilled when I got the audition for Knots. She was a fan of the show and she was really happy when I got called.
AS: How did that process work?
Tonya: It was an audition and two call backs. About 50, maybe 30 to 50 people auditioned.
AS: Did you audition with Donna Mills?
Tonya: No I was hired and then started with her once I was on the show. And I had a very different look than (Donna) so they had to hire an actor to make it look believable that I was her daughter. But I had a few roles where I had a blonde mother; Tuesday Weld was my Mom in Mother and Daughter.
AS: So as for Jordan’s question, was Knots like your second family?
Tonya: Not like a second family, more like an extended family. And some people more than others. My favorite person was Bill Reynolds, the makeup artist. He was someone I was able to talk to and be confidential with. If I happened to have a hard day, Bill would be the one to talk to. He’s one of the first people you would see, the makeup artist. And he was one of the most established makeup artists in Hollywood. He had this attitude of “I’ve seen it all” and really had seen the stars of the stars but he knew that it was just a job. We’re all just as useful as anyone else and no one is better than anyone. That was a good lesson for me to learn there and he really helped me. Natalie Wood was also good that way; she was an extremely humble, generous and wonderful person. But it’s too easy to get wrapped up in “being a star.”
AS: Did you see that star attitude happening on Knots?
Tonya: Little bits here and there but our feet were really on the ground. And I should say there were others on the set who were very good — Joan Van Ark remembered every single person’s birthday. Michele was really energetic. Bill Devane was Mr. Down to Earth. Kevin Dobson was very warm and caring. Great sense of humor, very sarcastic. Gary, Ted Shackelford, was very sarcastic but a really great sense of humor.
AS: Do you keep in touch with any of the cast? Donna Mills?
Tonya: Yes I do. For a few years we had lost touch but we had reconnected. David Jacobs a little bit through a friend of mine and Michele Lee, I’m friends with her son. I created a friendship with her son David, who lives in New York.
Sid Fairgate from Yakima, Washington asks – “Hi Tonya, I was curious how the cast felt about the addition of the Cunninghams to the show in the second season? I heard John Pleshette was disappointed because he felt Abby kept him from becoming the “J.R.” of Knots Landing. Also, Don Murray left at the end of that year, so I was just wondering how the cast really felt about the new additions to the show.”
Tonya: I had no idea. I was just a kid at the time so I really don’t know. That sounds like a political question and I wasn’t aware of those things at age nine. I will say my character was based on someone in David Jacobs’ family who repeated everything. Do you remember in the first episode when I repeated everything back that people said? Someone in David Jacobs’ family did that.
AS: Is it true that some of the characters were named after David Jacobs’ kids?
Tonya: I don’t know. Could be but I don’t think so.
Christine from Germany also asks – “One of the things I liked about the early years was the close relationship Olivia had to Valene. This kind of changed later and Olivia seemed to be more closer to Karen and the Olivia/Val friendship was somehow dropped. This was too bad as I always felt their friendship was something very special, especially because Olivia was Abby’s (Val’s biggest “enemy”) daughter. Do you happen to know why the great friendship between the two was forgotten about in the later years?”
Tonya: I really don’t know what happened there but I got bummed about that too. Joan is a wonderful actress and did a lot of preparation. She would rehearse lines and play around and she was really into preparation while some weren’t into that at all. I guess it’s the writers who found it hard to keep the characters together. I remember missing that.
Alex Wade from Detroit asks – “Did you ever get sick of wearing that same tired old brown, private school girl’s uniform? And when Britney Spears popularized the sexed up version, did you feel a little cheated?”
Tonya: I like that question. It was made of wool and brown’s not my favorite color so no I didn’t like wearing it (Laughing). If I had Britney’s legs it might have been better to wear. I never explored my sexuality on the show but it would have been fun. Nicolette was already a vixen when she got onto the show but it was harder for me. I was full figured but the producers never minded that when they shot me. But I did have a chest, a butt and hips and I found it flattering that they didn’t mind my body.
Bob Philips from Walsall, UK asks – “I found the Olivia drug taking story to be one of the most powerful stories told on KL. How did you feel when you first saw the script and that you would be involved in a major story arc?”
Tonya: I was very excited when I heard that. At the time, though, I had never done drugs and I couldn’t relate to it like other stories on the show.
AS: Like which other stories?
Tonya: Oh like the kidnapping and divorce stories. My family was divorced so I could relate to that. But I didn’t know anyone who had done drugs; not even my friends were doing drugs. So I had to talk to people, drug counselors mostly and ask what did (people on drugs) do? How did they act? It was a little intimidating. It was funny because my father as a principal would call people into his office sometimes to talk about their kids doing drugs and they would say to him “who are you to talk when your daughter is on drugs?” (Laughing) He would have to say, that’s not my daughter, that’s her character.
Karen from Scotland asks – “What were your thoughts when you were portraying a character who was battling a big drug problem? Did it make you wonder what it must be like for kids who actually do have a serious addiction and who end up getting their siblings caught up in it all inadvertently (like Brian did in KL)?”
Tonya: I was impressed that they were going to explore this issue especially in a character that was uncharacteristic. A character that was least likely to have this problem. The best fan mail I received was when people would write that they had no idea what they were doing until they saw this on the show. They were taking drugs and totally oblivious to what they were doing and suddenly saw a show reflecting their problem and being a mirror. They didn’t realize that their drug use was affecting everyone around them. I think that was the show’s purpose, to affect people in a positive way.
And this was the 80s when it was all Just Say No and Nancy Reagan and I was actually working on that program as a spokesman for a while telling people to stop taking drugs. And I didn’t start doing drugs until I was fired. Just kidding! Actually when I was fired I would go into pool halls from 11 to 5 am, and shoot pool and sleep there. I became quite the pool shark and still am very proud of my pool playing skills. But that’s another story.
Tommy from Miami Beach asks – “First off, let me say how wonderful it was to watch you grow up on TV and to have your storylines(drug addiction for example) help families open up and talk about their problems….my stupid question is: -in the scenes where you smoked pot and snorted cocaine ..what did you substitute for the real thing…you were too young even for tobacco at the time!!”
Tonya: They used an herb and it was horrible. It was an herbal cigarette. You never really snorted cocaine; if you notice I never put anything in my nose. I don’t remember what it was though.
AS: Was it sugar?
Tonya: Not sugar, but something crystally. Some kind of artificial sweetener I think. (Chuckling) I had to learn how to cut it. You know, I’ve never seen cocaine to this day. I’ve seen other drugs but not cocaine. For all I know, there was coke on the set (of Knots), but I never saw it.
KL4me from Montreal asks – “As a child actor, who would you turn to on the set for support and guidance?”
Tonya: Probably Joan Van Ark. She had a wonderful Christmas party every year.
Danny James from Essex, England asks – “Did you ever think of Donna Mills as your second mum?”
Tonya: She was very maternal. We talked about a lot of stuff.
AS: Such as?
Tonya: Boyfriend stuff … not so much school stuff, family stuff, work. I would go to her Christmas party too.
James from London asks – “Your love interests – Hunt Block and Harold: compare and contrast!”
Tonya: Do you mean the characters or the actors?
AS: I’m not sure. Either way.
Tonya: Well, Hunt wasn’t really a love interest, he was more of a crush. But they were both attractive. Hunt was more quiet and reserved; he was adorable and very sweet. Paul was wilder and was a huge Beatles fan. He really got me more into the Beatles.
AS: Did you know that Paul is going to be on the show Without a Trace?
Tonya: As a regular?
AS: I think just as a guest star.
Tonya: Oh that’s great to hear. I always thought Paul should be a regular on a show. But I really liked flirting with both of them though with Paul it was more like a brother and sister. There was a lot of flirting on the set, especially with the crews. We had some great crew members. You’d have the gaffer with these tight shorts or people hammering nails. It was great.
Shari Keating from Clermont, Florida asks – “My question to Tonya is if she felt that the characters/actors Olivia and Harold were mismatched as a couple. He seemed older than her by a large margin, and they didn’t seem to click together comfortably in their scenes. I was just wondering what her thoughts are on that subject now that so much time has passed. Thanks for coming Tonya!”
Tonya: I definitely didn’t think we had the best chemistry — why I don’t know. He was older than me. I was also 17 or 18 in my life and I think acting like I was in a relationship was new for me. I was never comfortable in my sexuality in front of the camera. In my private life I had boyfriends at the time but I had never been with anyone on screen.
Tommy from Miami Beach also asks – “Tonya -second question: do you know if E! or A&E will ever produce an “E! True Hollywood story” or an A&E “TVography” about Knots Landing … after all it was on for 14 years ..and a behind the scenes doco is in order … if they can produce an episode about “Saved by the Bell” then its high time to do one on Knots…”
Tonya: If there’s one in the works, it would be great. It would be very juicy. But I don’t know if it’s being made or anything. It definitely would not be “The Curse of Knots Landing!” (Laughs wildly)
Queen KL from Fort Lauderdale, Florida asks – “Ted Shackelford seems like an enigma to me, I haven’t read a lot about him on a personal level, what was he like, you and he had a very close relationship on the show.”
Tonya: He’s interesting. A tough exterior but very tender, extremely warm. He is who he is, very professional. Didn’t want to put up with the crap of the business and I use that word because that was how he would say it. He just tried to do his job and be low-key. He liked his private life; he had something to go home to so it wasn’t all about the business with him.
James from London also asks – “How did the cast departures of Julie Harris and Constance McCashin, and later Donna Mills, affect morale on the show? Did you feel like you were on borrowed time after she left?”
Tonya: Well with Julie Harris … it’s just when anyone left you had the normal reactions of just missing that person. But it was typical because that’s the way the business works. She was a wonderful, wonderful actress, an American actress of theater and movies, one of the very best of our time. A beautiful person, that type of special person you want to know. Constance? I think she left earlier. I didn’t do as much with her so I wasn’t as sure about why she left.
Val & Gary from Lebanon asks – “What was the producer’s vision of the adult Olivia???”
Tonya: It was hard to answer and I think that’s why it stopped. I don’t think they knew what to write for me and that’s why my character ended. I know I was surprised on one level that they were letting me go but on another I could see that there wasn’t much going on with Olivia.
AS: Did they let you know this at the end of the season or in the middle?
Tonya: In the middle. Some of the producers called me in to the office. They were apologetic and appreciative; they told me thanks for all I’ve done for the show and were very nice about it. Sometime before I remember going to wardrobe and asking (the wardrobe person) if we should buy something new for a scene coming up and she said that we should use something we already had. So suddenly buying something new became an issue so I knew about a week before that something was up. It was like she knew before me.
Todd from Ferndale, Michigan asks – “Why was it so hard for the writers to write for the child actors once they grew up? Could you have lobbied the writers, or was it hopeless?”
Tonya: The truth is, I didn’t want to at the time. I was burnt out. For the last two years I was really doing it for the money and I was ready to move onto something else.
AS: Had you started college by then?
Tonya: No I had finished high school and was just working for a year. That was kind of cool because the entire time I had to work and go to school. But the last two years I was getting tired of it.
AS: What kind of a contract did you have?
Tonya: My initial contract was for seven years which is way too long for a child to commit to something. Now the child contracts are three or four years at most. So I had a seven year contract to start, and then a two year contract and another two year contract.
AS: Was the last contract the one in which you were promoted to being a “regular?”
Tonya: I think so. I would have had to negotiate to become a regular. I don’t remember that but it must have been a negotiation. Was that when they had the pictures?
AS: Your name was in the opening credits but actually there weren’t pictures. That was the one year they didn’t have pictures but just had the actor names floating around sandcastles…
Tonya: Oh yeah! I remember that. Must not have been a good negotiation then!
AS: Did you get a raise in salary when you were promoted to “regular” status?
Tonya: Yes I would have but I was getting paid far less than everyone else (in the main cast).
Lee from Israel asks – “First of all, I would like to say you were definitely one of my all-time favorites on the show, second only to Donna Mills. I truly loved all your storylines and wished for more … My question is: Had you stayed on the show, would you have wanted Olivia to become more of a villain, like her mother was?”
Tonya: I’m actually going to Israel on Monday. Yeah there was talk of that. I don’t think that would have been fun because Olivia wasn’t really that way before. But maybe they could have seen Olivia as different as an adult, so it’s possible.
Alex Wade also asks – “Do you think Olivia should have been made a psycho to terrorize the cul de sac before being written out of the show?”
Tonya: That was what was happening, wasn’t it? I never really watched the show when it was on and I didn’t watch it at all when it was off. You probably know more about the show than I do. But I do understand the show was getting more outrageous later on so yeah, they probably would have made me a psycho. I don’t know how much David was overseeing the show at that point. I know he was working on a few different shows and they got new writers in who added things. So yeah, I probably would have become a psycho.
Michelle from Minnesota asks – “What was your favorite episode?”
Tonya: My drug storyline. There were three episodes and I liked those the most. I also really liked the episodes when there were parties, because I got to see everybody. I’m very social so I really enjoyed that.
Pearsonsf from San Francisco, CA asks – “Brian Austin Green was showcased in the Reunion and he’s a sub-par actor. Did this frustrate you?”
Tonya: (Laughs) I wanted to be in more of that episode; I really did. As for Brian well of course they were going to showcase him, at the time he was a huge draw! So that didn’t frustrate me at all — that’s the way it should have worked.
Along those lines, Pearsonsf also asks – “Tonya, why was your role in the Reunion reduced to a single line? You said something to the effect of ‘I’ve really gotta get out of here”. Did you say that because the script was so bad’?”
Tonya: (laughs more) It was only a line or two, right. I remember flipping through the script and looking at Act One, Act Two, where are my lines? I don’t have any! But I was happy to be in it to begin with. From what you’re telling me people thought I was an integral part of the show but at the time I didn’t know if they were even going to put me in it.
AS: But you were on the show ten years and they wanted to get people back together.
Tonya: Yeah but my interest level wasn’t as high as others was and maybe that showed. I always showed up and did my scenes but other actors would go to the writers and get very involved in how their character was written. And that was good because they knew just as much as the writers did in the creation of their characters.
AS: Who were some of the actors who did that?
Tonya: All of them did. They would make suggestions but I never did that. And maybe that was a reason I didn’t get as much story in my last year because there was more responsibility with (being promoted). They expected me to make suggestions and I didn’t.
AS: I never heard that before. I always thought it was somewhat dictatorial. The writers wrote and the actors played.
Tonya: On Knots it was very interactive that way. If I really had an interest I could have done that but by the reunion I was somewhat callous to the industry so maybe that showed too.
Karen from Scotland also asks – “Probably loads of people have asked this but what is the likelihood of another KL re-union coming off?”
Tonya: I hope it’s likely.
Looking toward the future, Bob from Scotland asks – “I wanted to point out Fantasy Knots Landing to you, a fan fiction I write for this site that continues the show. Do you have any suggestions for what you would like to see happen to your character in future installments?”
Tonya: I always saw her as a warrior. She could take up a cause, a little righteous. She had a lot of integrity. I’d like to see her more like Karen. I guess she could have been a villain but would you have believed it? Single motherhood would have been good. They could have kept exploring the issues that affected everyday people. I think seeing Olivia as a single Mom would be good.
Laura James from Denver, CO asks – “Do you have any children and if so, would you be happy if they chose a career in acting?”
Tonya: I don’t have any children but my sister has two nephews who are 5 1/2 and 3 1/2. I can’t wait to have children myself and I can’t wait to love them. I can’t imagine loving anyone more than I love my nephews. But would I want my children to go into acting? They’d have to really want it like I did. And if they really wanted to do it, then I would pursue it like my father did for me.
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I really enjoyed this interview !
So many things I forgot about this show. What a great actress she was as she grew up on the show> I enjoyed learning her perspective and wish her much success.