Monday, October 13, 2014

The Legacy of Jan Hooks

With Saturday Night Live approaching its 40th anniversary this year, it's hard to fathom that we're inching closer to the prospect of seeing former cast members of old age. With the exception of World War II veteran Herb Sargent (who passed in 2008), the "In Memorium" reel is filled with actors and writers that died much too soon. Earlier this week Jan Hooks, one of the greatest female cast members in the show's four-decade history, died suddenly at age 57. Hooks had been sick for some time, though her illness has not been disclosed. A New York City resident since the early 1980s, this eulogy was probably the best I've read in the days following her passing.

If I had to pick my five favorite all-time female cast members, in chronological order I would choose Gilda Radner, Nora Dunn, Hooks, Amy Poehler, and Kristen Wiig (though Wiigy's spot is in close danger, thanks to current cast member Kate McKinnon). We all know Poehler is a bona fide TV star and Wiig's fledging movie career has already seen its ups and downs, the first three women on this list are known predominantly, if not almost exclusively, for their work on SNL. Much has written and said of Radner's influence on comedic actresses in recent decades, but people either intentionally ignore or overlook her very underwhelming career after Studio 8H. In fact, Radner might be the first alumni to be dismissed as "well, she was funny on SNL..."

From that perspective, Hooks' career trajectory is not dissimilar to Radner's. Like her frequent partner in crime Dunn, Hooks was a linchpin of what I usually refer to as the Renaissance era of SNL, part of arguably the greatest and tightest ensemble in NBC's veritable sketch comedy show. Where Dunn alienated the show's producers (including her ex-boyfriend, Lorne Michaels) by refusing to share a stage with host Andrew Dice Clay --and after a PR fiasco, was soon fired-- Hooks left on her own volition after five years. And yet, both Radner and Hooks spent their first post-SNL decade in the wilderness, Radner with questionable and often mediocre film projects, Hooks relegated to work as a character actress. Her greatest champion was fellow SNL alum Martin Short, who cast Hooks as his wife on both his short-lived self-titled sitcom as well as various projects with his alter ego Jiminy Glick. It wasn't until various medical issues in the mid-2000s forced Hooks to stop striving for elusive stardom.

So why did Radner, Dunn, and Hooks all struggle? Movie stardom was an attainable goal, yet it never really happened (assuming Dunn did not inadvertantly burn bridges for the Diceman episode). Of course, you could say the same thing about the entire Renaissance cast; Dennis Miller is infinitely stronger at stand-up than acting, Dana Carvey pulled a Radner and attached himself to some lousy scripts, and Kevin Nealon, Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman found steady work in supporting roles. One could argue in hindsight that these actresses were overshadowed by their male co-stars, a viable argument given the "boys club" reputation SNL had through the mid-1990s. There was a misogynistic pecking order, and Dunn, Hooks, and Victoria Jackson took their place near the back of the line. Radner loved John Belushi like a brother and he seemed to recipricate the affection, but I doubt they ever saw each other as true equals.

Glass ceilings and internal sexism aside, Jan Hooks will go down as an all-time great in the SNL annals and one of its most underrated and underappreciated talents. She was a consumate team player, a star that shined both individually and alongside the extrordinary talent SNL incubated in the late 1980s. Outside of late Saturday nights, she was a versatile and clutch supporting actress, doing memorable work on TV series like "Designing Women," "Third Rock from the Sun," "The Simpsons," and "30 Rock." She accomplished quite a bit in 25-plus years as a working actress, and I hope her passing offers a fresh and positive perspective on a talent gone too soon.


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