Second Acts: The Late Bloomer
By Kathryn Joosten
Some people in Hollywood think of me as a model for dramatic midlife transitions: suburban housewife to Emmy-winning actress. But I never plotted out a master plan for following my dreams. My career arc seemed perfectly normal to me as it evolved over time. Each phase just seemed to grow naturally out of the one before.
I started out as a nurse. As a teenager growing up in Chicago in the 1950s, I worked part time at a local hospital, where I spent my off hours hanging around the pediatrics unit with a friendly nurse. She inspired me to go into the profession. After graduating from high school and completing a training program, I landed a job at the Psychiatric Institute at Michael Reese Hospital. I was there nine years, eventually rising to head nurse of the largest psychiatric unit. Then I married one of the staff psychiatrists and gave up nursing for a new life as a housewife in suburban Lake Forest.
Ten years later, he got the mistress and I got the children. As a divorcee with two young boys and not enough child support, I had to go back to work. But I couldn’t go back to nursing after so many years away from it. My skills were no longer current. So I got a job with a “Welcome Wagon”-type company that advertised local businesses to new residents. To supplement that, I hung wallpaper for people who were redecorating their homes, and served as a location manager for photographers and industrial filmmakers doing shoots in the Chicago area.
All this kept me very busy, which is one reason I signed my boys up for the children’s program at the Lake Forest community theater. (It was the cheapest baby-sitting I could find.) Eventually I auditioned for a small part in one of the theater’s productions.
As a kid in elementary school, I had loved performing onstage in school pageants. But my high school was too small to have a drama department, so I had never acted in a play. That all changed in June 1980 when the Lake Forest theater put on the musical “Gypsy.” I made my theatrical debut in the role of Tessie Tura, a veteran stripper who offers career advice to Gypsy Rose Lee. “You’ve gotta have a gimmick,” I sang, “if you wanna get applause!”
I got applause, and I liked it. That experience led to me doing a second show in the next town over, then to another show in another town and finally to a show in a nonunion theater in Chicago. I was totally hooked. I wanted to pursue acting and see where it led me. But I was 42, with two kids and three jobs. Not the most auspicious of circumstances for a person just starting out in show business.
I thought about my mother, who had died of cancer years earlier at the age of 49. She spent her last months bitterly regretting that she had deferred so many dreams, which now would never be fulfilled. It impressed me deeply, and I had vowed that I would never let that happen to me. So I knew I had to give acting a shot.
I laid it out for my sons, who by then were 10 and 12, and asked for a year to see if I could achieve success, which I had no real definition for. I did theater while hanging paper, selling advertising and finding locations. Eventually I got an agent and landed my first professional TV job, as a pingpong ball for the Illinois lottery. I had moved from community theater to semiprofessional theater, and I wanted to go further. After my year was up, I asked the kids for an extension, and they said yes.
All I wanted at this time was to achieve some recognition in theater in Chicago. I kept making progress. A big step came when I got my Actors’ Equity union card while doing a play at the Goodman Theater. But I still wasn’t making a living from acting.
Then in 1992, Disney-MGM Studios held tryouts in Chicago. They needed street performers for their Hollywood theme park in Orlando, Fla. After standing in line for five hours, I auditioned and won a job as a “Streetmosphere” player. By now my boys were older and on their own, so I could accept the offer and move to Florida. I played Annie Hannigan, cleaning lady to the stars. The contract only lasted a year, but it convinced me that I could make a living acting.
After the Disney job ended, I went to bartending school in Orlando so I could support myself while doing local theater. I also worked in catering. But after two years, I realized that my acting career wasn’t going anywhere in Florida. One of my sons was now living in Los Angeles, so I went out there and spent a couple of weeks sleeping on his couch while I checked out the scene. I thought, “Well, I’ll come out and try it for six months.”
This was incredibly naive of me. I was in my mid-50s. I had no agent, no contacts and no track record likely to impress a Hollywood casting director. Then again, what did I have to lose? Five months later, I landed my first TV job–two lines in a scene with Jaleel White, who played Steve Urkel on the sitcom Family Matters. I played a grocery clerk in the episode, which aired on March 17, 1995. That job got me an agent, and I was off to the races. After that it was one job after another.
I went back to Florida, sold my house, packed my stuff into a truck and drove it to Los Angeles, where I’ve lived ever since. I’ve made guest appearances on dozens of TV shows, including Frasier, Monk and Grey’s Anatomy; I’ve had recurring roles on Scrubs, Dharma and Greg and Joan of Arcadia; I played Martin Sheen’s secretary, Mrs. Landingham, on The West Wing; and since 2005 I’ve had a recurring role as Mrs. McCluskey on Desperate Housewives, for which I have won two Emmys.
I didn’t start out saying, “Gee, I think I’ll try to win an Emmy.” I just kept aiming down the path that seemed to shine before me. I’ve always adjusted my work life to be able to follow that path. Each step I took was a natural progression, and I always arranged that I could go back and resume my previous life if I didn’t get to the next step.
I’ve come to realize that I cannot arrive at success. There is no “there” there. It is a continuum. I don’t advise anyone to give up an assured life for a fling at a dream. Be flexible enough to envision what the future may hold, but also realistic enough to hedge your bets. Then you can follow the unknown path, one step at a time.