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5 Memorable Characters of Edie McClurg

A few months back, I really enjoyed writing a pair of features that focused on Ernie Sabella and Larry Hankin, two of Hollywood's great character actors.  Since then, I've been itching for the chance to add to this series and highlight my favorite female character actor.  So, in taking this opportunity to do so, it's my great pleasure to celebrate the career of the great Edie McClurg!  

In my tributes to Mr. Sabella (CLICK HERE) or Mr. Hankin (CLICK HERE,) I mentioned that I enjoy watching character actors display their talents over the work of a megastar leading actor.  A character actor works in supporting or background roles, almost exclusively.  If you've ever seen someone in a movie and said, "Hey, I've seen that guy before in..." or "What's that lady's name?  She was the neighbor on..." then you've seen a character actor.  

This "5 Memorable Characters" series is my tribute to the less lauded heroes of Hollywood.  This entry in the series is my tribute to one of the funniest women in Hollywood, Edie McClurg.  You may not recognize the name, but for sure, you'll recognize her face... and most definitely her voice.

While her IMDB filmography reads like a list of greatest hits, she made her career out of leaving lasting impressions in just a few short moments on screen.  With her northern-midwest accent and sunny disposition, her voice is immediately recognizable.  

Don't let her midwestern 'niceness' fool you.  She can be hysterically funny or deadly serious, and her bubbly "fake-nice" tone often leaves people wondering if her characters are sincere or facetious.  She's quick-witted with a biting sense of humor that makes it all the funnier when she unleashes her mean streak... always done in a pleasant way, of course!  

Edith Marie McClurg was born on July 23, 1945, in Kansas City, Missouri.  The daughter of a mailman and a secretary for the Federal Aviation Administration, she began performing on stage at the age of 5.  After earning her Master's degree at Syracuse University, she reentered the entertainment industry as a radio DJ, newswoman, and producer for the Kansas City area NPR affiliate.

After nearly a decade in radio, Ms. McClurg moved to San Francisco in 1974 to perform improv comedy with the Pitschel Players.  She moved to Los Angeles a year later, where she joined the prestigious improv group, The Groundlings, as an active member from 1975 to 1985.  

She credits the Groundlings not only with her excellent improvisation training but for earning breaking roles that enabled her to be seen by a broad audience.

In 1976, through her connections in The Groundlings, Ms. McClurg made her on-screen debut as Helen Shyres in the classic horror film Carrie, based on the Steven King novel.

Tony Orlando, Cheech and Chong, and Richard Pryor all noticed Edie from her work in the Groundlings, and she soon found work on The Tony Orlando and Dawn variety show, The Richard Pryor Show, and in the 1980 film Cheech and Chong's Next Movie.

Also, in 1980, she would regularly perform on the very short-lived morning show version of The David Letterman Show as Mrs. Marv Mendenhall.  This cult-favorite talk show may have been short-lived, but the character played by McClurg on this show became the basis of nearly every other character she portrayed.  

"She (Mrs. Marv) became Lucille on WKRP in Cincinnati and the mom in Cheech and Chong's Next Movie, and even the secretary in Ferris Bueller's Day Off," Edie once told Backstage Magazine.  "So that's one character that's really stood me in good stead.  She was so sweet and funny, but she could be a little acerbic."

She worked with fellow Groundling Paul Reubens on his first stage play, The Pee-wee Herman Show, where she would appear as "Hermit Hattie."  She would also work with fellow Groundling Cassandra Peterson in the cult comedy/horror classic Elvira:  Mistress of the Dark. 

She's known for a number of roles on hit sitcoms like WKRP in Cincinnati and The Hogan Family.  Other appearances range from Harper Valley PTA, Clifford the Big Red Dog, and several voice roles in animated shows like The Jetsons, The Snorks, and animated films A Bug's Life, Cars, and Cars 2.   She even made a memorable appearance on one of the most popular episodes of The Golden Girls as a nurse nicknamed "The Angel of Death."  

Her final public appearance was a 2020 voice-over cameo made in an episode of Family Guy that spoofed Ferris Bueller's Day Off.  Sadly, recent reports suggest that Ms. McClurg is dealing with health issues and has retired from her acting career following a dementia diagnosis.

With over 90 films and 60 television series under her belt, Edie McClurg, in my humble opinion, should be at the front of every conversation that discusses Hollywood's greatest character actors.  

Without further ado, let's take a look at what I personally consider to be the 5 memorable characters of Edie McClurg's career.

1.  Car Rental Agent (Planes, Trains, and Automobiles - 1987)

In this classic comedy, Edie McClurg's short 2-minute scene is one of the most memorable of the entire 93-minute film.  She stars as the counter agent at the fictional Marathon Car Rental inside the St. Louis Airport.  

After being stranded in the parking lot by the rental agency's shuttle bus, Neal Page (Steve Martin) reenters the terminal and heads straight for Edie's counter.  Busy on the phone making gossip and plans for the Thanksgiving holiday, Edie's character, officially titled "Rental Car Agent," is blissfully unaware of Neal's building rage.  When she hangs up the phone, a classic scene in film history occurs.

Precisely one minute from when Steve Martin begins his tirade, he drops a form of "F---" an impressive 18 times!  This scene is responsible for why the movie received an R rating, but an alternate scene was filmed without the swear words for television.  Easily, this is one of my favorite scenes of all time and definitely my favorite in the movie.

Edie takes the verbal abuse from Martin, using gestures, fidgets, and other physical actions to show her discomfort.  At the end of Steve Martin's rant, her final two-word rebuttal makes the whole scene.  I won't ruin it for you if you somehow haven't seen this movie yet, but the way her mood turns on a dime is priceless and classic Edie McClurg.

Warning:  The below video contains profanity.  Maybe don't crank the volume up around kids, at work, or in public!

2.  Winnie Pig (Tiny Toon Adventures 1990 - 1993)

Tiny Toon Adventures was one of my favorite cartoons when I was little.  The movie Tiny Toon Adventures:  How I Spent My Vacation got utterly worn out on my VCR as a kid.  In it, I loved, and still love, the road trip adventure that Plucky Duck went on with his best friend Hamton Pig and Hamton's family.  Throughout the television series run, Hamton's parents, Winnie (Edie McClurg) and Wade (voiced by Jonathan Winters in the film), were the only ones ever seen "on camera."  In all other character's cases, the parents were only heard or seen partially with just legs or feet.  If you're interested in reading more about Tiny Toons or How I Spent My Summer Vacation, please CLICK HERE to read all about one of my favorite movies from the early 90s.  

Edie's character Winnie Pig appears in several episodes from the television series in minimal parts but plays a prominent role in How I Spent My Summer Vacation.  Winnie, and her husband Wade, were taking Hamton on a summer vacation to HappyWorldLand, a spoof of Disney World.  When Plucky finds out that Hamton is going, he does everything he can to tag along.  Winnie, Hamton's lovely folksy-sounding mother, somewhat begrudgingly invites Plucky along for the trip.  Plucky is ecstatic until he learns of Winnie and Wade's eccentricities.  Mishaps and mayhem ensue, and when they finally make it to HappyWorldLand, Winnie gathers the family up to leave after only riding the monorail from the parking lot.  After arriving home, Plucky is forced by Winnie and Wade to view a slideshow of their journey.  

Edie's punched-up midwest accent gives the Winnie Pig character the perfect smarmy, folksy tone needed to portray the aloof Winnie Pig that ignores the world around her while still being able to show her love for Hamton and his friends.  

3.  Chastity Pariah (Elvira:  Mistress of the Dark - 1988)

This may be my favorite of the many characters of Edie McClurg.  I've written at length about my love for Elvira, so please visit my "Collections" section to read more.  In her 1988 debut film, Elvira inherits a house nestled in the heart of an uptight New England town.    

In 'Mistress,' Edie plays the prudish Chastity Pariah, the town Council Chairwoman in the little town of Falwell, Massachusetts.  Chastity, the kind of phony baloney holy roller that gives religion a bad name, uses her position and religious beliefs to keep a tight grip over the people of Falwell.  That is, until Elvira shows up.  

I can never contain my laughter when she gets carried away discussing Elvira at the town council meeting.  Her line "a one-woman Soddom and Gomorrah" cracks me up.  

I don't know Edie personally, so I can't say for sure, but something tells me this character wasn't much of a stretch for her at all.  In Elvira's 2021 memoir, Yours Cruelly, Elvira writes:  "Edie McClurg was a no-brainer for Chastity Pariah, which was based on a character she'd made popular "Mrs. Marv Mendelsohn."  In speaking to Edie's real-life personality, she continued that at the Groundlings "...I showed up to the shows wearing a short skirt or low-cut top and had to sneak past Edie McClurg, a former teacher from Kansas City.  If she happened to catch a glimpse of me in her makeup mirror, she would scold me.  'You're not going out in THAT, are you?' or 'I hope you're going to wear a bra!'  When it came to casting Chastity Pariah, the overbearing, self-righteous moral compass of Falwell... Edie was our first choice."  

4.  Ora Anderson ("Life with Louie" - 1994-1998)

This character was likely my first introduction to Edie.  Her voice work doesn't seem like much of a stretch, and she comes across as genuine and kind, which matches the real Edie McClurg based on all reports.  I may have heard her first on another cartoon favorite of mine, Bobby's World, and I sometimes conflate the two shows as I get older.  But her work as Ora or "Mom" on Louie will always be my go-to sentimental role when I think of Ms. McClurg.  

Ora Anderson was Louie's kind, loving, sweet-natured mother on Life with Louie.  Life with Louie was an animated series based n the childhood of well-known standup comic Louie Anderson as he grew up in Cedar Knoll, Wisconsin, during the 1960s.  Although Anderson himself was actually from SAin Paul, Minnesota, he and the producers thought a small midwestern town in Wisconsin fit the show better.  

Ora often acted as the voice of reason for Louie's hijinks or when her husband Andy would erupt in an angry outburst.  Edie's natural sympathetic-sounding accent and charming way of speaking sounded custom fit for the role.

5.  Grace Wheelberg (Ferris Bueller's Day Off - 1986)

Grace, the secretary at Ferris' high school, is likely Edie's most famous role.  While only a minor character in the film, Edie has some of the most memorable lines.  Explaining to Principal Rooney that Ferris is very popular, she rattles off an oft-quoted line that was just a throwaway adlib during auditions that was kept in the script:  "Oh, he's very popular, Ed.  The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads - they all adore him.  They think he's a righteous dude."

Edie uses small background mannerisms and dialogue to hint that Grace is a bit of a slacker, like Ferris, as she sometimes stops paying attention to her boss or playing with the pencils in her hair.  Unlike Principal Rooney, she is more respected and liked by the students. 

John Hughes picked her for the role in this film (and several of his other hit films of the 80s) because he liked to populate his movies with offbeat, distinctive characters.  He once stated he was always looking for someone who could contribute an unusual flavor or quirky line delivery, and Edie checked both boxes.  In most cases, he wanted backup actors for every role during the audition phase, but in Edie's case, he deemed it unnecessary.  Edie would "make even the tiniest role sing" and quickly became a favorite of the legendary writer and director.  John would eventually begin asking his casting crew, "Okay, here's the Edie part!" or "How are we going to use Edie in this?"