Cheryl Ladd: Still An Angel!
Interview by Lee Sobel (10/27/20)
On September 22, 1976, a television series premiered on the ABC network that would become a pop culture phenomenon, influencing hairstyles and fashion and unleashing a barrage of licensed merchandise, including lunch boxes, board games and dolls. I'm talking about Charlie's Angels, which catapulted star Farrah Fawcett-Majors into the stratosphere of fame, prompting her to leave the show after the first year when contract negotiations fell apart. The producers of the series were not going to allow their cash cow to suffer the loss, so Fawcett was replaced in the second year by an up-and-coming singer/actress who had mostly guest starred on television named Cheryl Ladd. What's interesting is that Cheryl Ladd said no to the show initially but when Aaron Spelling allowed her to present what she would want to play -- namely to make her role more comedic -- Cheryl Ladd accepted and brought a burst of energy to the series that increased its popularity.
Ms. Ladd's fame on four seasons of Charlie's Angels as Kris Munroe led to her convincing the ABC network to let her produce and star in the TV movie When She Was Bad (1979) about child abuse, risking her image by playing an abusive mother but also giving her an opportunity to expose the problem of abuse and promoting the organization Childhelp which works to prevent and treat the traumas of child abuse.
Born Cheryl Jean Stoppelmoor on July 12, 1951, in South Dakota, she has had a prolific career acting in movies, TV and Broadway; recording hit albums; has written a number of books; and has two daughters, both of whom are in show business. Married to songwriter/producer/novelist Brian Russell since 1981, Ms. Ladd smartly veered away from doing more roles like Charlie's Angels and has revealed a breadth of acting work in such movies as diverse as Grace Kelly (1983), and Poison Ivy (1992). She was a delight to speak with about her career.
Lee Sobel: You grew up in South Dakota - did you want to be an actress or was singing really your main focus?
Cheryl Ladd: My mother loved music and I remember the first movies I went to were musicals. I begged my parents to get me a piano, but they couldn't afford it. But they did pay for dance lessons so I did that. I knew I wanted to be a performer from a young age. I was a weird kid -- I once had an English accent for an entire summer because I loved Hayley Mills. I'd walk into a room and talk to my sister with an English accent and she'd yell, "Mother! Do something about her!"
I was in every recital and choir and I was a cheerleader but I gave that up because we had an excellent jazz band in our town in Huron, South Dakota and they had all these bookings. They were auditioning young women to replace their singer. They only played gigs on weekends because they were working people during the week. So I auditioned and the band leader said, "You're okay," without much enthusiasm. But I guess they were desperate so he asked me how old I was. "I'm eighteen," I said. And he said, "No." I went, "Uh...seventeen?" He said, "I don't think so." I said, "Okay I'm sixteen but I'll be seventeen in a couple of months." He said, "Well we're desperate. Can you learn forty songs in three weeks?" I said, "Yup." We played around North Dakota and then when I graduated from high school we went on the road in the summertime. The bandleader had to become my legal guardian because you couldn't take a minor across state lines. That took some convincing with my parents.
Lee Sobel: How did you come to sing on the cartoon series Josie & The Pussycats?
Cheryl Ladd: The summer I graduated from high school, we were playing in Rock Springs, Wyoming and the guy who had booked our gigs was from California and was an old vaudeville performer in his 70's who had known a lot of bands and when vaudeville went out of style he had decided to be a booker. He handled about twenty different bands and he had heard about my singing and he decided to come see me sing with the band. At the end of the show he came up to me and said he wanted to meet with me the next day. I thought, "Oh no, I am so fired..." I went to meet with him and my mouth was dry as sand because I thought I was fired. He said to me, "Kid, I've seen 'em all -- I've been in this business sixty-five years and you have it." I said, "What??" He said, "Yeah, you've got it and if you want to move to Los Angeles we will help you get started." The band went out to California and got into an accident and everyone had to go back to South Dakota but the booker invited me to stay with his family and I babysat their grandchildren to get free room and board. I
went on my first audition in about a month and it was for Josie & The Pussycats and I got it. That was my first job. I got a car and moved into an apartment with one of the gals that wrote some of the songs for the show that I had become friends with. I remember driving down Sunset Boulevard thinking "I have $3600 in the bank, my own car, I'm living in Los Angeles, California. Oh my gosh, it doesn't get any better than this!" I remember kicking up the sand on Malibu beach and like Scarlett O'Hara I said, "As God is my witness I'll never be cold again!" South Dakota was like forty below - I hated it! I was never a fan of the snow or winter.
Lee Sobel: You did a lot of guest roles on episodic
television series and then you were in the TV movie Satan's School for Girls (1973) with Kate Jackson who you would later work with on Charlie's Angels and it was produced by Spelling-Goldberg who also later produced Charlie's Angels. What are your memories of that TV movie?
Cheryl Ladd: Yeah, it was kind of weird and wonderful for its time. As a young actor you learn something on every set. You learn more about your craft. You learn more about how the shows are made. Good lighting or not good lighting. How to find your mark and all the technical things you need to know as an actor. Kate Jackson and Pamela Franklin were tight little buddies and had their thing and everybody else was on the outside. I remember not feeling connected in any way and that was fine but not really comfortable.
Lee Sobel: I've heard that when you joined Charlie's Angels that you grew much closer to Jaclyn Smith and that Kate Jackson was never all that friendly to you.
Cheryl Ladd: That's true but really they were both very happy when I joined the show because Charlie's Angels was a hit and they needed the third angel.
Lee Sobel: And you worked with Aaron Spelling on Satan's School For Girls.
Cheryl Ladd: Yes, so Aaron Spelling became very aware of me and really liked me and then he wanted me for the series Family and they told me I got it and
then next day they said I didn't get it. I had just quit smoking cigarettes and I went back to smoking. It took me five years to quit. I haven't smoked now for twenty-five years.
Lee Sobel: I actually can't picture you smoking a cigarette because you always looked so wholesome. I don't think I've ever seen a picture of you smoking.
Cheryl Ladd: I actually had this moral thing where I didn't want to cause a young person who was a fan to start smoking so if I saw a camera I would hide it or put it out. I wouldn't let anyone take a picture of me if I had a cigarette in my hand.
Lee Sobel: I heard that you only agreed to do the show if they lightened up your character so you could be funnier - was comedy something you really wanted to do?
Cheryl Ladd: Carol Burnett was one of my idols when I was growing up, so I always had a desire to be more comedic and quirky. I also loved all the Sandra Dee, Connie Stevens and teen beach blanket movies when I was growing up.
Lee Sobel: Before Charlie's Angels you were on an episode of Happy Days (1974).
Cheryl Ladd: Ron Howard was my first screen kiss. I had just found out that I was pregnant with Jordan and I had morning sickness and I kept having to excuse myself and we got to this kissing scene and I got this awful look on my face and I had to explain to Ron, "It's not that I don't want to kiss you." I whispered in his ear, "I'm pregnant and nobody knows." He thought that was the coolest thing. He said, "Oh, Cheryl, that's so great." I think he was relieved that I wasn't getting nauseous because I was trying to kiss him. I always liked him since I saw him on The Andy Griffith Show.
Lee Sobel: The concept of Charlie's Angels was kind of ridiculous and even the network apparently felt that way in the beginning, so I think your push to make the show more comedic made a lot of sense. But Kate Jackson wanted the show to be more serious, right?
Cheryl Ladd: I think she did, yeah. When Aaron Spelling first asked me to join the show, I said no and he looked at like two hundred girls. I walked into Palm restaurant one night with my then husband David Ladd. Aaron Spelling was sitting at a table with his wife, Candy, and Nolan Miller (costume designer for Charlie's Angels). I had already said no to Aaron. As I walked in, Nolan and Aaron were sitting on one side of a booth and I could see them see me. As the story goes, Nolan was saying to Aaron, "Don't worry, you'll find her," and Aaron
said, "I've looked at everybody. I went to New York..." Nolan looked at me and said, "Look at that girl over there. She could replace Farrah." Aaron looked over at Nolan and said, "That's Cheryl Ladd. She said no." So Aaron called me the next morning and said, "Cheryl will you come in and talk to me?" I said, "Of course I'll come in and talk to you." So I went in and he was sitting across the desk from me and he said, "Just tell me why you don't want to do the show." I said, "Well, Aaron, what would I play? Nobody can go in there and try to be Farrah Fawcett, that will not work." So he said, "Give me an example of what you want." I said, "I don't know, I could be funny." He goes, "Okay, why couldn't you be funny?" And I said, "If I'm really the rookie and really enthusiastic and trying really hard because America always fights for the underdog." Aaron is a genius -- he said, "I like that. What if you're Farrah's little sister and you're family already?" I liked that and I said I was in. I didn't know for sure if it would work, but anybody trying to be Farrah wasn't going to work. So I created little miss Kris Munroe.
Lee Sobel: Was there any negative reaction from fans about you taking over for Farrah?
Cheryl Ladd: No, and in fact in my second year (the third season) our ratings kept going up and up and that year the ratings were the highest of the entire run.
Lee Sobel: That was also Kate Jackson's final season on the show. Was she just unhappy and making trouble to get out of the series?
Cheryl Ladd: I think the only person who could answer that is Kate.
Lee Sobel: You also had a husband and a two year old daughter at the time - did they see much of you?
Cheryl Ladd: Our housekeeper would bring Jordan to the set a lot but my husband didn't hang out on the set.
Lee Sobel: There must have been so much stress on you, making the show.
Cheryl Ladd: It was a seven day shoot per show and we did twenty-two episodes a year, and if you had a day off from the show there were wardrobe fittings, all the
interviews, and then during the hiatus everyone was going, "You've got to strike while the iron is hot and make a movie-of-the-week." I was going, "What? I just want to sleep for two months and be with my daughter." It was exhausting. Yet, during the first hiatus David Ladd and I produced the TV movie When She Was Bad (aired 1979). I had been reading about child abuse and it freaked me out. I did some research about it and realized that child abuse was an epidemic in our country and nobody was talking about it so we wanted to do this movie. ABC called me in and told me they wanted to do a movie-of-the-week with me and I was prepared for the meeting. I sat down and told them I'd love to do a movie-of-the week. I knew they didn't have me signed for movies, just Charlie's Angels. So I said I have a movie in mind that I am developing and it's about child abuse and I will play the abuser... You could hear crickets. Because you know they were thinking of beaches and
bikinis. I said, "This is the movie I want to make and I understand it's a very difficult subject but it's something we need to deal with in our country." So I said, "If it isn't something you want to do, I'm going to just take it to another network." And they said, "No, no, no, no, no. Let's talk about it some more." So that's how I made When She Was Bad with Bob Urich and it had a great story about a perfectly nice woman who had issues and took it out on her daughter. And it made a big splash and that has led to me working with the Childhelp organization now for forty years to help abused children. I kind of feel like the whole purpose of my career happening was so that I could help with this abuse problem. I feel like we all have a purpose and that is mine.
Lee Sobel: The show was very glamorous and the women on the
show were so beautiful but did that emphasis on beauty cause any problems for the stars?
Cheryl Ladd: Yeah, we were trying to live up to Jane Fonda -- she started it! When you go into work at 5:30 in the morning and there's Jaclyn Smith with damp hair from the shower and no makeup on and you look at that face, you just want to turn around and shoot yourself.
Lee Sobel: There were a lot of stunts on the show. Did anyone ever get hurt?
Cheryl Ladd: I wanted to do a some of the things, but they wouldn't let me because they were afraid I would get injured and it would cause a major problem for the show. I didn't do things like get thrown down on the ground but the first episode I shot was called "Circus of Terror" where I had knives thrown at me and I said, "What? What do you mean you're going to throw knives at me?" They said, "Well he's going to throw the knives at the ground and the knives will come out of the sides of the board you're standing in front of, but it's still dangerous so whatever you do, don't move, because these things shoot out of there like a gun."
That was my first major stunt and if there's anything I have a problem with it's standing still.
Lee Sobel: There was one episode with an alligator...
Cheryl Ladd: Yes, I did have to wrestle a rubber alligator in one episode, which was ridiculous. It was mostly the stunt person but when I read that in the script I thought, these people have lost their minds now. They're running out of ideas. And that is what happened to the show -- it just became so formulaic that we'd be making the same shows with different costumes. It got so tiresome at the end. To be honest, when Kate left after the third season, it all kind of went flat. The show just didn't work as well.
Lee Sobel: Shelley Hack came onto the show in the fourth season and she was only on for a year.
Cheryl Ladd: I loved Shelley and she's a doll but she just didn't create a character for herself. Literally anybody could have said her lines. It was really up to her to create her character and they just didn't give her enough for her to figure out how to be someone specific enough to hang your hat on. That's just my opinion. I think she was capable of it but it was too rushed and they didn't help her delineate her character.
Lee Sobel: You had a lot of great guest stars on the show. Do you have any favorites?
Cheryl Ladd: There were so many but Ida Lupino and Barbara Stanwyck really stand out in my memory.
Lee Sobel: What was it like when Farrah would come back and do an episode?
Cheryl Ladd: She was happy to see the girls and she was completely professional. You would think we really were sisters on screen when you watched us. But she was just done with that show. She did what she had to do to get out of that contract for the series.
Lee Sobel: Because she didn't get paid enough?
Cheryl Ladd: I think she wanted to be a movie star. Her husband (Lee Majors) wanted her to be at home making dinner and that didn't work out that well.
Lee Sobel: You're both a singer and an actress. What's closer to your heart - music or acting or both?
Cheryl Ladd: Well my career really took off with Charlie's Angels and I've done a lot more of that kind of work. Acting really took over but I still love music. I was the number one recording artist in Japan for several years -- Japanese people like little blonde girls. (laughs) They loved my album; I did four of them over there. I went over there to do a performance in this big shopping mall where they had this huge arena and it was packed with all these little Japanese kids and there were thousands of them outside trying to get in, because you had to have this special pass. When I was leaving they were pounding on the limo and it felt like Beatlemania. It was scary!
Lee Sobel: You sang the National Anthem at the Super Bowl in 1980.
Cheryl Ladd: That may have been the scariest moment of my life. 80,000 people we're in the stands. They marched me out into the middle of the stadium and there was this children's youth choir and jets were flying overhead. I was standing in front of the microphone thinking, my parents are watching this. I started getting choked up because it was so moving and I was thinking, "Wow, how did I get to be here?" Anyway it went very well. As I was walking off the field, one of the football players who was black said to me, "Cheryl Ladd, you're the wrong color to sing that good, honey!" I'm already small and I had flat shoes on because of the grass and walking by those football players with all their gear on, I tell you it was like walking through a forest of giant men. Everything about it was thrilling.
Lee Sobel: I would imagine when Charlie's Angels became so popular it must have been hard to go out in public.
Cheryl Ladd: Yes, we would always go to restaurants through the back door and they'd set up a little table in the back and I would sit with my back to the rest of the restaurant, because it was freaky to watch people watching you eat. You get so self conscious.
Lee Sobel: In 1983 you played Grace Kelly in a TV movie of the same name. What did you do to prepare to play such an iconic person?
Cheryl Ladd: My husband and I were invited to attend the Monte-Carlo Television Festival and we had a ball. We were in the receiving line and I got to stand next to her and Walter Cronkite was there. It was thrilling. She was very polite. I didn't get to spend too much time with her. When I was flying home, Brian showed me a picture that someone had taken of me standing next to her and Brian said, "I think you should play her and do the Grace Kelly story." I laughed and said, "Yeah, right." He said, "No, I'm serious." But it kind of clicked so I started doing research about her and her family. She had wanted to be an actress and her dad did not want her to do anything like that. She went against her family and moved to New York and took acting
classes where she was truly dreadful. They said she was just stiff as a board. Then she did commercials -- all of the things I did when I went to L.A. the first time. At least I had some support from my family. She really worked hard and wanted to be a great actress. I got to do scenes from her very well known movies and that was so much fun to do. The movie was a great success and you can see it on Apple TV now.
Lee Sobel: Are you a fan of Science Fiction at all? You were on an episode of the 1977 TV series
In Millennium with Kris Kristoferson
In Purple Hearts with Ken Wahl
Fantastic Journey and then in 1989 you starred in the movie Millennium.
Cheryl Ladd: I loved the character I played in Millennium. She was a tough soldier who didn't know how to be a woman. She had to teach herself how to walk in high heels and how to be feminine. That's why it was fun to play. The costumes and hairstyle were great. It was just a weird, fun movie.
Lee Sobel You made the movie Poison Ivy (1992) with Drew Barrymore - kind of a Lolita meets Basic Instinct kind of thing. What do you recall about the movie? Also Drew later made a big screen remake of Charlie's Angels.
Cheryl Ladd: I loved working with her. I felt very motherly to both of the girls and I got to play a very different woman who was dying. I really enjoyed playing someone who was not perky. Someone who was just done and pissed off about life.
Lee Sobel: You've really played an impressive number of different roles in your work. Do you have a favorite?
Cheryl Ladd: I loved doing Purple Hearts (1984) with Ken Wahl which was set during the Vietnam war and because I am such a romantic and it was a very romantic movie. I loved that it challenged me to pull it off.
Lee Sobel: After doing a big series like Charlie's Angels, you seem to have avoided getting cast in too many TV series.
Cheryl Ladd: I did two years of One West Waikiki (1994-96) which was shot in Hawaii. There were more producer issues than show issues.
Lee Sobel: In 2016 you were in The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story. How did you like working with John Travolta?
Cheryl Ladd: That was a lot of fun because John and I had never met, although we did have some mutual friends. We both had literally become famous in the same week in the same period of time when he became Vinny Barbarino. There was a lot of waiting on the set as there always is and we were "bumpin' gums" talking about when we got started and what it was like for him to have that success. He is really fun to talk to. Such a nice man.
Lee Sobel: In 1996, you published a children's book, The Adventures of Little Nettie Windship. Can you tell me about that?
Cheryl Ladd: Brian had a cousin with that name, but her name was spelled "Winship" and we just loved that name. We thought, that is a name for a cartoon character. We just started riffing and we said, "Let's write a children's book." My husband and I love being creative; we're always doing something together.
Lee Sobel: In 2000-2001 you were on Broadway for five months starring in a revival of Annie Get Your Gun. What was that like and why did you leave the show?
Cheryl Ladd: That was bliss. For me that may have been the most rewarding and pleasurable thing I've done. I got to use all my talents -- a little singing, a little dancing, a little acting. And you do it and then you get to go home. You're not there 85 hours and nobody yells "Cut!" Every night you do it, it's never exactly the same and the audience is part of it. Some nights you do the comedy lines and the audience is just loving it and eating it up and you just feel like the show wouldn't be as good without that audience response. Other
times you might have matinees that would have a lot of older people there who were like half asleep and you'd think you gave a great performance but they weren't reacting as much. But it was all great.
Lee Sobel: You're daughter Jordan Ladd made her television acting debut on Charlie's Angels when she was three years old and has since had a very active movie career, appearing in such films as Eli Roth's Cabin Fever (2002) and Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof (2007).
Cheryl Ladd: When she was a kid she was really great at putting outfits together and I thought it would be great if she went into the fashion industry and wasn't an actress. It's such a tough business and hard to keep your head on straight. The constant auditioning is difficult -- you have to do like five a week when you're starting out. It's a lot of rejection and you have to have a really strong belief system about yourself so you're not bruised so easily by getting turned down so you can keep trying. It's a really hard business. Jordan has other interests as well; she's a fabulous Pilates teacher and my step-daughter, Lindsay Russell, is a singer and has sung with
Smokey Robinson and is also a yoga instructor and has three kids so she is plenty busy.
Lee Sobel: You no longer live, in L.A., correct?
Cheryl Ladd: I moved to Texas because my mother was living here and she became very ill and I moved here to take care of her. I didn't have to, but I wanted to be with my mom and help my sister. So we built a house here in Texas, north of San Antonio and it's lovely.
Lee Sobel: You've worked with some amazing people.
Cheryl Ladd: I know. I got to work with Jon Voight in A Dog of Flanders (1999) and Michael Caine, who I adore, in Jekyll & Hyde (1990) and Christopher Plummer, I got to play his wife in one thing (Crossings; 1986). So, yeah, I have worked with some really terrific people.