JIM DODSON: 'Dr. Mom' Now Lives Among Us
"Here," says Dr. Mom. "Have a piece of this. It's good for you."
With that, Joyce Reehling neatly slices off the end of her deep-fried dill pickle and places it on my plate. This is a woman, I decide, accustomed to freely sharing food and maternal wisdom.
"When you reach 60, as I have, things begin to clarify and finally make sense," she says. "You get a better perspective."
Reehling laughs at herself in an engaging and unself-conscious way, waiting for me to try my pickle. So I do, and it's delicious. Whether it's good for me remains to be seen. But then again, she's Dr. Mom, and she would know such things, one presumes.
A mutual friend has assured me Reehling would soon have me laughing, good medicine for these troubled times unless you're an AIG party planner or mortgage underwriter.
Since I'm both an unreconstructed child of the Golden Age of TV and the son of an advertising man, I wanted to meet Joyce Reehling because she originated the role of "Dr. Mom," the iconic matriarch for Robitussin cough syrup in the early 1980s. For what it's worth, I downed a lot of Robitussin between the start of the Kennedy administration and the end of the happy-go-lucky days of Richard Nixon.
So lunch with the real Dr. Mom is an opportunity I simply couldn't allow to pass, even if it means having to eat my way through deep-fried dill pickle.
Reehling, in fact, is a veteran stage and screen actress with an impressive vita. Her major film credits include "Lorenzo's Oil," "Longtime Companion" and "The Rescue." Her television work includes a 10-year stint on "NYPD Blue" and guest appearances on "Law & Order," "The Cosby Show," "Kate and Allie," "Ed" and "The Equalizer." Her TV commercial and voiceover credits are too numerous to list.
Among her many stage credits, Reehling did "Prelude to a Kiss" on Broadway with Timothy Hutton, "Fifth of July" with Richard Thomas and "The Runner Stumbles" with William Hurt, all of whom she befriended as one of the early members of Circle Repertory Company, the legendary acting company formed in 1969 by playwright Lanford Wilson and director Marshall Mason.
A year ago, Reehling and her husband, Tony Elms, sold their house in Connecticut and moved to Pinehurst for the same reason many folks in the afterglow of a successful professional career migrate to the Sandhills -- to enjoy the final acts of their well-spent lives in a place that's as physically beautiful as it is mentally stimulating.
"We undertook an arduous three-year search before coming here, considering places like Charlottesville, Asheville, Macon, and half a dozen more places in the Southeast," Reehling explains. "Our home in Connecticut was in a beautiful place, so physical beauty meant a lot to us. But lots of place are beautiful. What we found here was even more special. Tony is an outstanding cook, and there were several swell restaurants in this area. You can also get to culture and airports in a very short time. Neither Tony nor I play golf, but there is a constant parkland serenity to the land here -- a buffer against the overdevelopment you see so many other places.
"Maybe most of all, there's a definite grace to life here -- the friendliness of the people you meet on the street in Southern Pines and Pinehurst. We'd reached a stage of life when quiet and grace and friends are really important to us. Part of being an actor is just moving forward on faith. You have to make an honest assessment and proceed with an openness to life."
Becoming a Part of History
It was this blend of curiosity and pragmatism that led this strong-willed daughter of a former Marine and institutional foods salesman who grew up in a small town near Gaithersburg, Md., to strike off after high school graduation in 1967 to the fledgling North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem for training in the theater arts. She became part of history -- a member of the institution's first four-year graduating class.
"Frankly, I'd never heard of it until I read an article in The Christian Science Monitor talking about this exciting new arts school starting up down in North Carolina. Then I saw a little segment on "The Today Show" saying it was really going to be something. So I applied because I'd never wanted to be anything but an actress since I was in the fifth grade."
I ask her what her first impressions of the School of the Arts were like. A couple of years ago, I took my son there for an interview.
"Oh, it was terrifying at first," she says. "The school was really just getting started -- our first theater was a gym painted black. I was a girl from essentially a farm town, and there were all these dramatic kids walking around from big cities and foreign countries -- open, wildly creative, brilliant types. It was very intimidating at first. But it was the end of the Sixties and everything was drama and passion. We were like puppies in a box, full of energy and passion."
It wasn't until she began to learn the craft of acting -- the "work of being an actor," as she put it -- that Reehling began to find her place.
"I discovered the labor of becoming an actor, the learning, the constant rehearsing, the thinking about parts was really what I loved the most," she says. "For me, rehearsal was almost as much fun as the performance -- I mean, sex is a great part of marriage, but you don't do it all the time."
As the turbulent Sixties waned, that same energy and passion took her to New York. She found a job working on a switchboard and began making the rounds of auditions.
"I was dead broke and terrified by that too, most of the time," she allows. "But that's one of the great virtues of art -- it takes you out of your comfort zones and make you stretch and explore your capacities for growth."
'An Exciting Time'
Her break came when she went to read at a casting clearinghouse and did a small courtesy for a young receptionist.
"Mary was a receptionist that none of the other actors waiting to audition spoke to," she says. "I spoke to her and, as I recall, offered to get her a cup of coffee -- my small-town values coming out, I suppose. Anyway, she went on to work for an agency and remembered our friendliness. I heard Lanford Wilson was casting for "Hot L Baltimore," in Seattle and a short time later I got asked to read for a part. I got the part out in Seattle. Then Wilson's agent read the reviews, and I was invited to read for Lanford and Marshall for the off-Broadway production."
She took over the role of "Jackie" for the show's final six-month run.
"It was a very useful thing to learn," says Reehling. "I tell my students, 'You never know when doing the smallest kindness can lead to something that changes your life. For me, it all came back to buying a cup of coffee for a receptionist nobody ever bothered to speak to. Today she is a successful theatrical agent in L.A."
About that time, Lanford and Marshall started up Circle Rep and invited her to join.
"We were like puppies in a box, too -- a company of actors built around a core of great young writers, working directly with playwrights as things were written. It was an extraordinary environment for learning. Every Friday writers would bring in their works -- a scene, an act, sometimes whole plays. We would have classes in the morning, rehearse in the afternoon, and perform in the evening."
She laughs, considering her 20 years with one of America's pre-eminent acting troupes. Then, taking a bite of her own fried pickle, she adds: "Mind you, we were getting paid $140 a week and still dead broke. But it was such an exciting time. When I discovered that I liked eating, I was lucky enough to get commercial TV and radio work."
Her first TV spot was for Pillsbury.
"All I remember about it," she says, "was that I was the mom, and there was this little kid there who is eating my Pillsbury chocolate-chip cookies. Every time we took a break, this kid was stuffing cookies into his mouth. Then the director would begin to roll and he'd whine, 'I'd don't want to eat any more cookies.'"
Reehling's big break as a commercial mom to a nation of TV watchers came in 1984, when she got a call from her agent asking her to read for a spot for Robitussin cough syrup.
"I was teaching at the Governor's School at Furman University, and I had to decide if it was worth taking off up to New York to read for the spot," she says. "I decided to do it, figuring what the heck, and boy am I glad that I did."
In the famous commercial, which played for more than a decade beginning around 1985, Reehling's Dr. Mom steps out into the waiting room where her "husband" and sick kids sit coughing their silly heads off.
"N-e-e-e-xt," Dr. Mom declares in the spot, a wry hybrid of Mom's no-nonsense love and the physician's avuncular bedside manners.
For years, when she got onto airplanes, fellow passengers and air hostesses would spot Joyce Reehling and smile, recognizing Dr. Mom. Some would even mimic her famous, throaty, maternal "N-e-e-e-xt."
"It was rather startling to realize that I'd spent most of a career memorizing thousands of lines from the greatest plays of contemporary literature, only to be best known for one word, 'N-e-e-e-xt,'" she says, mimicking her famous Dr. Mom voice, bolstered by another charming laugh. "But every time America coughed, my actor's pension grew. Oh, well. Richard Thomas is now the voice of Mercedes-Benz."
Tellingly, after a decade of airing, when producers decided to update the popular commercial, they cast a younger Dr. Mom, using Reehling's famous voice as the model. The new version lasted only a short time.
After the contentious Screen Actors Guild strike of a decade ago, she began to see changes in both the industry and herself. As cable dramatically altered the landscape of network TV, so did the huge media mergers that began to happen about that time.
"Basically the same five people owned everything," she says. "As for me, I was suddenly older -- somewhere between a mom and a grandmother -- and instead of going out on three to five auditions a day, I was suddenly doing three to five a week. By the time I drove to the train station, parked, and took a train into the city and back, you were looking at a $30 day. My career began to feel like an expensive habit."
So the search for a "quieter" life officially commenced, eventually leading Reehling and husband Tony to the Sandhills.
"Our timing couldn't have been better," she says. "Given what's happened to the economy, all of America is going through what any actor learns to live with -- instability and little or no security, living on the edge from one moment to the next."
So is there any medicine that will fix what ails us?
She thinks for a moment before replying: "We're all a very interesting moment in our national life -- one where we need to pause and reflect on what's really important to us, to reassess our values and find a way to refresh our perspectives, focusing on home and community.
"One thing I hope is not a victim of these times is art in the schools and our public lives. What an incredible resource the School of the Arts I attended has become to North Carolina's citizens! I wish more people realized that and took advantage of it. If you don't have the ability to appreciate beauty, you never have the 'aha!' moment, the revelation that can change your life and make it so much better."
"So did you watch the Oscars?" I ask the legend who was kind enough to share her tasty fried dill pickle with me.
Dr. Mom smiles almost coyly.
"I confess I tuned in mostly to watch Hugh Jackman sing and dance," she says. "That man is so lovely."
Jim Dodson, writer-in-residence at The Pilot, can be reached by e-mail at jasdodson @thepilot.com.
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