What I mean is, I like when things complete themselves; when connections are made; when something begins a certain way, then comes back around. For example, the final scene in the final episode of Newhart.
This is not, technically, the final scene in the final episode of anything. It is, however, the 99th Quaz—one away from the big 100—and I wanted to make some sort of connection to the first-ever entry, which featured actress Wendy Hagen from the Wonder Years. Hence, today’s interviewee is Wendel Meldrum from—drumroll—the Wonder Years. If you were a fan of the show, you’ll know her as Miss White, Kevin Arnold’s sexy teacher. If that doesn’t ring a bell, she was also the “Low Talker” on Seinfeld.
Wendel’s acting career has actually been a marvelous run of this and that and that and this, including four seasons on the HBO Canada series, “Less Than Kind.” Here, Wendel discusses being a woman named Wendel; what she remembers of her time with the Arnolds and how she perfected one of the best cameos in Seinfeld history.
One can visit Wendel’s website here. Wendel Meldrum, you are officially the 99th Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Wendel, I’ve never started out an interview with such a question, but, hey, such is life. In my life, I’ve probably met three Wendels, and they’ve all been men. Your name is Wendel Meldrum. Uh … please explain …
WENDEL MELDRUM: My name is Wendel Anne Meldrum and Wendel is a family name that lives on as best it can in my family of three girls.
J.P.: The reason I contacted you is because my kids and I are heavy into Wonder Years re-runs, and you played Miss White, Kevin’s sexy teacher, in seven episodes. How did you land the Wonder Years gig? What do you recall of the experience? And how difficult is character development when you’re only said character a handful of times? Hell, is it even possible?
W.M.: I was doing a series called ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ with Paul Provenza and from that work I was offered the part of Miss White. I don’t think it was meant to go on more than two episodes. The first incarnation of Miss White she was sporting a snug beehive and I believe a boldly striped shift dress. Her next outing was a softer hair style and a simpler outfit. As to character development, the character is full and developed from the first moment and just like in life, adjusts and grows according to different life experiences. The writing, cast and directing team were all seeking to capture such a lovely world that was guided and held to specifics by the most wonderful creative team of Carol Black and Neal Marlens.
J.P.: You’ve been in a Who’s Who of 80s TV shows—Punky Brewster, Cagney and Lacey, Family Ties, Knots Landing. Wendel, there’s a generation of kids—raised on reality TV—who wouldn’t understand 80s television for a second. Having been a player in the genre at the time, how would you explain 1980s TV? Like, what was the mood? The goal? Was it a good era for the medium, or—in hindsight—a crappy one?
W.M.: Well, I’ve never given it any thought but I think just like any era there are varying levels of quality and longevity with the basic goal of connecting to people through laughter and storytelling. I suppose it offers a snapshot of a cultural reality—from those shoulder padded and big-haired fashions to what made people laugh in the 80’s. I do feel that comedy is a brilliant way to evolve human ideas. It can get us to laugh at ourselves and create a space to reflect and let go of modes of thought that might otherwise remain hidden and brooding. Comedy changes rapidly and I feel so lucky to have had a chance to be a small part of it over the years. I have been doing, what is now called a dramedy, for HBO Canada for the last five years called ‘Less Than Kind’ (it can be seen in the U.S. on Audience Direct TV) and it has been a thrilling challenge to play on the edges of drama and comedy. More please.
J.P.: In 1993 you famously played the Low Talker on Seinfeld—a character people in my life still refer to. What was the experience like? Are you naturally a low talker? And how often, even now, are you recognized for that character?
W.M.: I am not a low talker but I remember they were having trouble casting it. I did the audition sort of twirling my hair near my mouth to give a reason for sounding muffled. Larry David asked me to do it again without the twirl and it worked, I didn’t need it.
The Seinfeld cast seemed to be very grounded, very professional and worked very hard and efficiently to get out the best work possible. It was a joy to work on the show as there was this feeling that it was overseen with such laser care that you could relax and know that if it wasn’t working it would for sure get fixed. Recognized every once in awhile but not often.
J.P.: You recently celebrated your 55th birthday, and even though you look wonderful, 55 is 55. In day to day life, aging pretty much sucks. How about in the world of acting? How does it impact you? Your career? Do you think there are different aging standards for men than women?
W.M.: I am not a fan of statistics or spending time worrying. I have made two films of my own and keep on going exploring my own work. I have a booklet on the web called ‘Notes from the Undercarriage’ and a film, ‘Cruel But Necessary’ and am continuing in that direction. I want to continue playing interesting characters, exploring my craft and being part of telling stories. How or if that will happen, I have no idea. This time of my life is the most exciting and dynamic of all but culture doesn’t seem to tell you that so it’s a constant and wonderful surprise.
J.P.: I know you were born in Rome, I know you’re Canadian. But, Wendel, how did you find acting? Like, when did you know it was something you wanted to do? When did you realize you were good at it? And what—specifically—is it about acting and performing that you love?
W.M.: I was a modern dancer and got into acting in the theatre through being in a dance company. I love having a job where you are completely invisible. Being an actor with your ‘being’ as your instrument is an unending discovery of what it is to be human within a variety of perspectives and circumstances. I love being part of a story, living a life that is not real as if it were.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
W.M.: My best memories of my career are mostly of acting moments where I was ‘in the zone’. The lowest are, I suppose, when I was without much work for a while and raising my son on my own.
J.P.: Your son, Luke Humphrey, is 25 and also an actor. How did you feel about him following your career footsteps? I mean, you’ve certainly experienced some of the dark side of the biz, I’m guessing—irrational rejection, the search for physical perfection, etc, etc. Were you concerned? Did you ever say, “Just go to medical school!”
W.M.: Luke is a wonderful actor and seeing him step effortlessly into ‘Romeo’ at age 16 and live so heartfully inside the Bard’s words left me no choice but to encourage him to follow his passion. He has a BFA in acting from NYU and will be playing D’Artanyon in The Three Musketeers at Stratford this season as well as staring in a new contemporary play. He is a smart, kind, funny and inventive person who loves to learn and whatever this career holds for him I have every confidence he will meet the challenges giving them his best.
J.P.: My wife hates Los Angeles and refuses to consider moving there. You live in LA. Please, Wendel, make the sell here for me. Please …
W.M.: Well Jeff, there as many L.A.s as their are people in it. I raised my son here so there is a sweet feeling of home because of that. If you like the weather and can find a community you like it’s great. I have not been in the ‘industry’ part of things for the most part and am fine with that. I managed to raise my son here in a Waldorf school which has it’s own unique way of looking at children, learning and community without the L.A. plague of influence that people talk about. We live up in the hills so have a pretty incredible life in nature that is minutes away from urban facilities. As to convincing someone to move here, sorry, you are on your own with that one.
J.P.: Wendel, I’ve known a good number of actors and—to be 100% blunt and, perhaps, offensive—many irk the crap out of me. It’s that need to always be “on”; to always be the center of the room. Do you know what I mean? Am I making this up, or does that often come with the business? And how do you explain it?
W.M.: I’ve worked with many actors and have a couple as close friends. I really like actors and our job together is to play and connect which is very fun and endlessly mysterious. Your perspective is certainly valid. Maybe try playing with them next time as they are experts at it and opportunities to stretch ones play muscles don’t come often enough.
• “Notes From the Undercarriage” blew my mind. Please explain: Wait. this is a quick response question? Eep! “Notes From the Undercarriage” is my booklet on the web that is a sort of graphic novel about the absurdity of being a woman on this planet. It’s ideas are the essence of my writing. I am so touched that you read it and thrilled that it ‘blew your mind.’
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details: Once, when traveling to London for my first time as a teenager. It was the middle of the night, lights were out and everyone was asleep. I was feeling the vulnerability of being over the ocean in a metal tube hammered together and strapped to an engine. I started to imagine that the screws were slowly unscrewing and got freaked out that I could make it happen if I kept imagining it. Stopped immediately.
• Five greatest actors of your lifetime: So many to choose from but off the top of my head these are five performances that I love—Anna Magnani (the Fugitive Kind), Al Pacino (Dog Day Afternoon), Jeff Weiss (‘Couple of Dykes’—theatre actor), Susan Tyrell (Fat City), Meryl Streep (Iron Lady).
• They’re doing a Wonder Years reunion, and they want you back to play Miss White—who’s now a homeless prostitute with a crystal meth addiction and a tattoo of Mike Tyson’s face across her forehead. They’ll pay $5,000 to do the episode—plus a free lifetime supply of dental floss. You in?: Sounds like a challenge I would look into—assuming the tattoo is temporary.
• In 1984 you played “Rita” on Vamping—your TV debut, I believe. Three things you recall from the experience: I loved the camera with it’s quiet nonjudgmental eye. I had many great conversations with the sound man who had done the sound on ‘Apocalypse Now.’ When we did a scene outdoors in the middle of winter, which played for summer, we put ice in our mouths before each take to cancel out the reality that you could see our breath. I was in a cocktail dress.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Three’s Company, John Olerud, knitting, long walks on the beach, The Cable Guy, Leon Spinks, Stone Temple Pilots, Canadian bacon, Elvis Costello, candied yams, Ash Wednesday, the smell of raw shrimp, Burger King: The only things I am really familiar enough with to have an opinion is knitting and walks on the beach so walks on the beach and knitting.
• What happens when we die?: We will all find out.
• What’s more likely—Tupac is alive and working in a Gary, Indiana Burger King or aliens exist and will visit earth within the next week?: One is as likely as the other.
• Number of times a month you Google yourself: 0
• Where have all the bread makers gone?: Looking for a gluten free recipe that tastes good.