TORONTO — Wendie Malick freely admits that before landing a role on Hot in Cleveland, her acting prospects were lukewarm — at best.
Her last high-profile roles were as a self-obsessed ex-model on the sitcom Just Shoot Me and as a spunky love interest for the titular character’s father in the final season of Frasier. Both shows wrapped by 2004.
Before Cleveland debuted and caught fire last June, Malick had only a few bit parts in 2010. She loaned her voice to the hilarious but under-the-radar HBO animated show, The Life & Times of Tim, appeared in the low-budget romcom You Can’t Have it All and had a bit part in the kids’ show, True Jackson, VP.
But the statuesque actress just wasn’t finding many potential projects at all, let alone any that interested her.
“Last year, my agents were saying to me: ’OK, we’re breaking out all the new shows for the pilot season with characters in your age range, and even going far afield on either side, (and) there were maybe two roles — and of course, everybody wants them,” Malick said in a recent interview at a Toronto hotel.
“They just weren’t writing for women. And occasionally, (my agents) were saying: ‘Read some of the interesting men and we’ll see if they can change it to a woman.’ But I thought: ‘Man, this is just sad — the world is populated by these interesting, fabulous women but we’re not seeing them on television.”’
That was part of the reason she was so thrilled when she first read Hot in Cleveland.
Malick plays Victoria Chase, a soap opera actress who refuses to believe that her star has dimmed in the slightest.
She and two fellow friends from L.A. (Valerie Bertinelli and Jane Leeves) wind up briefly stranded in Cleveland, but soon develop an appreciation for the place.
In the Midwest, they’re considered glamorous and desirable, whereas back home in Hollywood they felt like discarded has-beens. So they stay, renting a house from a wacky caretaker played by the resurgent Betty White.
Malick actually grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., so the setting of her new show isn’t unfamiliar.
She made the trip to promote the second season premiere of Hot in Cleveland, which became something of a surprise sensation during its freshman year.
Airing on retro cabler TV Land in the U.S. and CTV in Canada (the second season kicks off Monday), it was a sitcom throwback: a multi-camera show where almost every role went to a face familiar to the small screen, with a guestlist that included Carl Reiner, Susan Lucci and Tim Conway.
But Malick says she wasn’t surprised at the high ratings and audience goodwill generated by the show.
“We had a feeling that TV Land was onto something,” said Malick.
“I’m surprised it took everybody so long to realize that we didn’t have any popular shows out there that reflected girlfriends of this age, who were pushing 50 and 60 and 90. It had been a very long time since there was a show all about women, and I think the time was right.
“We just had such a dearth of stories about women at 50 and 60. They just don’t talk about them. We’re always relegated to being the judge, the granny, the ex-wife or the principal. So to have a show all about us was absolutely delightful.”
Malick turned 60 in December. Though it’s fairly common for actors to deflect questions about aging, the former model seems to have no such hang-ups.
“I am 60 and proud of it,” she said.
“I think that’s one of the greatest gifts about this job for me was being with Betty and it sort of puts it all in context, and I realize: ‘Oh, I’m just getting started.”’
Still, she probably won’t mimic the 89-year-old’s diet.
“Oh, she eats the most dreadful food,” Malick said. “But somehow, for her, it works. … She somehow has managed to stay sharp as a tack, funny, gorgeous and fabulous (while) subsisting on what appears to be a diet of hot dogs, french fries, coffee and Red Vines licorice.
“I got her to eat my favourite lunch before a show, which is grilled salmon in a chopped salad with beets and yummy things. I eat that before every show. And she tried it one week and she said: ’Oh, that was good. That was pretty good.’ And I said, ’Do you wanna have that again?’ And she said, ’No, I think I’ll go back to my hot dogs.’
“As my husband wisely said: ’You don’t want to mess with that. It’s working.”’
Meanwhile, Malick is relishing her new gig.
She says the cast shares a “remarkable sense of gratitude” to have steady work on a popular show, adding: “There are no egos on our show.”
Her character on Cleveland, meanwhile, doesn’t seem a distant departure from her role on Just Shoot Me. Both characters are vain, egotistical and even slightly delusional. Yet, Malick says, she identifies with them in a way.
“I’m an actress, so is Victoria Chase, so of course I do occasionally suffer from a little too much self-examination,” she said. “It’s interesting ’cause I think all actors walk a very fine line between total insecurity — ’Will I ever work again, will they hate me, will I get this job?’ — and feeling like, ’Oh my God, I’m on top of the world, I am REALLY good.’
“I think you constantly are going back and forth between the two. … (Just Shoot Me co-star) George Segal once told me that people assume that actors are all very outgoing people, and in fact most of us are shy and that’s why we chose this field because we get to climb inside another character, and be bolder and bigger and crazier and wilder and meaner than we otherwise would be comfortable being.”