“Swoosie is just marvelous,” says Bryan Cranston, a fan since seeing Kurtz’s turn as a schizophrenic named Bananas in the 1986 Broadway production of The House of Blue Leaves. “It was impossible not to fall in love with her character. I remember thinking, ‘Who is that ?!?’”
Tell TV insiders you're about to interview Swoosie Kurtz, and everyone says the same thing: "I love Swoosie!"
And what's not to love? Over tea at L.A.'s The Four Seasons, the actress proves laid-back, self- effacing and even ribald (though less so than Joyce Flynn, the wild mom she played for six seasons on CBS's Mike & Molly). At 73, Kurtz is grateful for a career that's given her seven Emmy noms and one win (for a guest stint on Carol Burnett's '90s show, Carol & Company), plus two Tony wins.
"I've been a professional actress for over 50 years! Isn't that amazing?" she says, raising her cup. And the parts just keep coming. In Amazon's family comedy The Dangerous Book for Boys (the six-episode first season starts streaming March 30), she plays Tiffany McKenna, a grandmother helping raise her departed son's three boys.
With Bryan Cranston and Superbad director Gregory Mottola as creator–executive producers of the series (based on a book by Conn and Hall Iggulden), Tiffany isn't your boilerplate TV nana. "When I read the script, I thought, 'Oh, my God, she says that ? I get to do that ?'" Kurtz recalls. "Tiffany is hip, she's fast, she's quick. But she's silently suffering from the loss of her son. She's no joke."
Born in Omaha, Kurtz has lived quite a life herself. Her parents — Frank, a famed Olympic diver and WWII Army pilot–turned real estate developer, and Margo, a best-selling memoirist — raised her, Kurtz says, with "love, love, love." She was named after her dad's B-17D fighter plane, the Swoose (so called because it was a hybrid, "half-swan, half-goose").
As an only child and military brat, she bounced around schools without much socializing. "It was incredibly hard [because] I was very shy. I've always been a loner, just less so now."
After her family moved to L.A., drama classes at Hollywood High helped her open up. "To make someone laugh or feel connected — a little light comes on in me." She studied at USC for a couple of years until, buoyed by her first TV gig — playing Shelley Fabares's bestie in a 1962 episode of The Donna Reed Show — she bailed for the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts.
Socialite Alex Reed Halsey Barker on NBC's long-running Sisters. Kooky shut-in Lily Charles on ABC's Pushing Daisies. A prostitute named Shirley in The World According to Garp. An AIDS patient in HBO's And the Band Played On. Kurtz charts milestones and memories in her 2014 autobiography, Part Swan, Part Goose: An Uncommon Memoir of Womanhood, Work and Family.
The book hails Margo, now 102, who wrote a 1945 bestseller about her marriage to a hero. "We've always been joined at the heart," Kurtz says, beaming. "She said to me yesterday, 'I don't wait to love people. I love them now.' The Dalai Lama could've said that!"
Strength-training workouts aside, she's pretty Zen herself. In her earlier days, "I had that competitive jealousy," admits the star, who plays Anna Faris's hammy actress-mom in April's big-screen remake of Overboard. "Somehow, magically, that edge has dropped away."
She keeps happy redoing her homes (a sleek architectural in L.A. and a Deco place in Manhattan), enjoying a drink with friends, cuddling with terrier mix Edie — or fantasizing about her next gig. "I'd love to play some sort of troll or magical villainess! And maybe something with guns. You know, mob stuff."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2018