Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Hot Hero Sandwich — Off-Stage with Cast Member Nan-Lynn Nelson

by G. Jack Urso


Nan-Lynn Nelson roller stated her way into Hot Hero Sandwich fresh off Broadway and having just scored a nice recurring role with The Bloodhound Gang segments for 3-2-1 Contact. Her work encompasses many aspects of the industry, including actor, author, and teacher.

I admit to being a frustrated thespian, and my conversations with the actors allow me to explore that interest. Here, Nan-Lynn shares her thoughts not just on acting and her winding way from Broadway to PBS to NBC and back, but also some behind-the-scenes details on some sketches, location shooting, the realities of makeup for Black actors in the late 1970s, and roller skating in short-shorts with a dog in the opening credits.

While Nan-Lynn continued her acting career after Hot Hero Sandwich, she eventually turned to writing plays and books, including both children’s books and a book on interviewing skills for young people, something which the teacher in me very much appreciated hearing about.

Working with young people, writing plays, authoring children’s books, teaching, it sounds very much like what we fully expected a Hot Hero to be doing — and Nan-Lynn is doing it!


Finding Your Voice

Ae13U: How did you get started in acting?

Nan-Lynn Nelson: I don't come from a show business family, but it's something that I always felt like I could do and that I wanted to do, and I just started pursuing it in elementary school. You know, I got into every school play . . . I was nominated best actress and then I majored in theater when I went to college and — I think it was my senior year in City College — I met a director in the theater world who connected me to The Public Theater where I auditioned for Runaways and got the part. I got an agent, and my career took off.

[Note: Runaways, a musical, played on Broadway at the historic Plymouth Theatre (now the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 235 West 45th St.) May 13, 1978 – Dec. 31, 1978. Nan-Lynn was with the production through the final performance].

Ae13U: In researching your career and where it intersected with the Hot Hero Sandwich timeline, I see you were involved in filming The Bloodhound Gang segments for 3-2-1 Contact about this time in 1978 and early 1979.

Nan-Lynn Nelson: Oh yes, I was in The Bloodhound Gang.

[Note: The Bloodhound Gang was a popular 3-2-1 Contact segment about three teens who use science to solve mysteries, included Nan-Lynn as Vikki, Glenn (One Day at a Time) Scarpelli as Cuff, and Seth Greenspan as Skip.]

Ae13U: When did you audition for Hot Hero and when did The Bloodhound Gang filming take place?

Nan-Lynn Nelson: It actually was that same period I think. If I can remember accurately, I think NBC bought out my contract with The Bloodhound Gang, I think because they were happening simultaneously . . . I was doing Runaways . . . I got The Bloodhound Gang first and then I did a year of that and then Hot Hero Sandwich and somehow they either bought out my contract or they worked it out that I could do both . . . and by that time I'd left Runaways. [Note: Which ended its run Dec. 31, 1978.]

Ae13U: But you went back and did more episodes of The Bloodhound Gang later, right?

Nan-Lynn Nelson: Yes . . . I think that's kind of what happened.

Ae13U: Getting cast in the series must have been through your agent at the time with the Fifi Oscard Agency, correct?

Nan-Lynn Nelson: Yes . . . Jack, you really did your homework!

Ae13U: [laughter] Well, I’m very appreciative of everyone’s time, so I try to do my prep! Let’s turn to Bruce and Carole Hart. Did you have much contact with them during production? I understand at some point they had to go to L.A. to work on other aspects of production, so not quite sure how long they were around.

Nan-Lynn Nelson: I think they were there from time to time. Not a lot of contact though. I think it was a couple of years after the show, my family and I were at a restaurant and Bruce and Carole were there . . . a waiter tapped me on my shoulder and I turned around and they were a few tables up. You know, I went over and hugged them and stuff, but that was it. This was, you know, maybe five years, ten years after the show.

[Note: According to series writer Sherry Coben, Bruce and Carole Hart were in New York City for all production dates, but not on set all the time. Post production was originally intended to happen in NYC, at NBC; however, the technical facilities in there were not adequate for the requirements for the series, so post-production was moved to Compact Post facilities on the West Coast. The Harts relocated there for the duration along with film editor Patrick McMahon and his assistant Stan Salfas.]


Treading the Boards

Ae13U: There are some scenes from the series I do remember from the first run, like the Marijuana Sketch in episode 11, but Jarett Smithwrick’s “N-word” monologue [written by series writer Richard Camp], was so powerful. It blew my mind. I was wondering what your thoughts might be on that?

Nan-Lynn Nelson: You know what, I did not remember that. I really didn't.  So, when I watched it, I was thinking, “Oh, my goodness . . . this show was really ahead of its time,” and it was spot on! It's still relevant.

Ae13U: Absolutely, it's still relevant. It's still incredibly relevant to this day.

Nan-Lynn Nelson: Jarett did such a wonderful job delivery.

Hot Hero Sandwich Episode 5: Dealing with Racism segment with Jarett Smithwrick's N-word monologue starting at 2:16.

Ae13U: Michael Longfield said he had Dan Aykroyd’s dressing from Saturday Night Live that summer. Do you remember where you got assigned?

Nan-Lynn Nelson: I was in Laraine Newman's dressing room.

Ae13U: Let's turn to some of the things you were doing on the series. First of all, in episode 1 and the “Waking Up” conceptual film with the Beatles song “I'm Only Sleeping” as the soundtrack. Just you going through your morning routine and getting ready for school only to realize it’s Saturday. First of all, it's a great song, and when posting the clip I tried every which way possible to get around the copyright block, an instrumental version, cover version, etc., but no go. The copyright owner won’t even allow it to be used with ads, so they got it locked down pretty tight. So, I could only include they very first and last bits of sound.

What's your recollection of the location shooting for the piece? Since of the show was shot in a studio, it would be interesting to know how the show handled location shooting.

[Note: According to series writer Sherry Coben and film editor Patrick McMahon, the license agreement for the Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping” was for one-time use only and cost approximately $2,500 (or about $10,516.15 in 2023). When the show gets rerun, the song is usually replaced by a cover of the song or other music.]

Nan-Lynn Nelson in “Waking Up” from episode 1. Due to YouTube copyright policies, the music soundtrack with the original Beatles song has been replaced with an instrumental version by Go Fret.

Nan-Lynn Nelson: I believe it was in someone's house. And honestly, I mean, this has been such a flashback for me to see these things. [laughter] I sent them to my children, “Oh, this is your mom, like 100 years ago.” My kids are all grown, by the way, and I have grandchildren . . . but yeah, I think it was in someone's home. I don't remember whose, but what I do remember is the dive.

[Note: None of the film pieces were shot in the studio. Director Gail Frank, series writer Joe Bailey’s wife, directed most of the film pieces on location in New York City and surrounding areas. Saturday Night Live producer/director James Signorelli did a couple early filmed segments for the series, but most were directed by Frank.]

Ae13U: Yes, right into the bed at the end.

Nan-Lynn Nelson: I remember the dive and I love how they did it in slow motion. And it was, you know, it was fun . . .

Ae13U: What I liked about it is that it was a silent piece. You know, like, like Michael Longfield (L. Michael Craig) had his own version of a waking up film, only it was shot in studio. What I liked about both pieces is that there is no dialog. We don’t often see silent work anymore on screen. It exercises a different sort of acting muscles, and the audience has to be a bit more involved in following the story. It’s very much like you had to talk in a different language, so to speak.

Nan-Lynn Nelson: Exactly. This show really explored a lot of creative areas, you know, and allowed us to do so many interesting things. The fact that they had these interviews with celebrities that were pretty in-depth, I thought . . . and then we had the musical guests come on. We dealt with very topical, socially relevant issues, and I just remember being very proud of the show and being a part of something that seemed really special, you know?

Ae13U: All right, let’s turn to episode 10. The three-part sketch with you and Michael Longfield's characters, where you’re friends and a little romance develops, but there are just too many differences and they decide to stay friends. I recall watching this episode and my anticipation waiting for the fact you both have different skin colors to be mentioned, but it never was.

Now, to be honest, my very first crush was with a lovely Jamaican girl my age who lived next door, so this immediately connected with me. I remember waiting for the race issue to be raised and, of course, it never was. At the time, I was thinking there’s this elephant in the room and they’re not talking about it. However, in retrospect, no matter how much I thought I didn’t have a problem with the race issue I was still expecting it to be treated like a problem. So, I’m realizing just now, maybe the elephant was in my room, not Hot Hero’s. I may be reading too much into it, and probably am, but I’d like to get your thoughts on this.

Nan-Lynn Nelson: You know what? Yes, Jack, and I think that was the point because their differences really had nothing to do with race . . .  he liked this kind of music and she liked that kind of music. He liked doing this, she liked doing that, so there was an obvious attraction between the two, and obviously one was black and one was white, but once they got together, it's like, well, it takes more than that [an attraction] for a real relationship to develop. You have to have things in common . . . that you can agree on and enjoy together and stuff, though it's not like, you know, Black and White, can't be romantic or whatever, like us two, but we as human beings, we can be friends.

Episode 10: "Getting Together" with Michael Longfield and Nan-Lynn Nelson.
Ae13U: One recurring observation by your fellow actors has been the long days. I’m a big TV and film buff and I’ve read stories of actors sitting around for hours with nothing to do waiting for their call, but it doesn’t really sound like that at Hot Hero. Between readings, rehearsals, filming performances, you often went into the early morning hours. Can you fill me in on how your days went?

Nan-Lynn Nelson: That is so interesting. Just thinking about it, I don't remember it feeling like long days because, yeah, we went from skit to skit and we had to do costume changes and things like that, but I just remember focusing on my lines, you know, making sure I had my lines down, working with the hair and makeup people . . .

Here's something interesting . . . because this was, like,  Summer ‘79 . . . they didn't have any makeup for me and Jarett . . . we were both new in the business and . . . I think nobody was making makeup for people of color for our complexion — nobody. It wasn't until around the ‘70s, late ‘70s that I think it was Flori Roberts started making makeup for Black women and then Bobbi Brown started a collection of makeup . . . and I have to say her makeup was very good . . . but the names of the makeup were Negro #1, Negro #2, and I think I was Negro #4 . . . I think Jarett was Negro #6.

Ae13U: Ouch.

Nan-Lynn Nelson: Yeah, but it was like, “Oh, OK. That's my color.” It was early, but, you know, the country was finally coming into this realization of . . . this multicultural existence in show business, right? And it's like . . . we don't have all of the necessary things. Hair was always a problem, you know, for black actors and then . . . it opened up — a whole other realm of the industry to makeup artists and hair dressers and all that kind of stuff.

So, you know, we were really at the forefront of that happening, and I really wasn't politically aware enough to even be insulted by Negro #4. I just thought, “Oh, that’s a good color for me!”

Ae13U: I think people forget that “negro” was still being used in popular culture at the time. It was beginning to be phased out, but it was still around. It seems very awkward now. Dr. Tom Cottle discussed the issue with some celebrities. He didn’t shoot at Studio 8H, but he did some stuff in New York. Did he ever swing by Studio 8H when you were around?

Nan-Lynn Nelson: I remember him very vividly. I remember he was a very nice man. He had like a very kind of gentle spirit . . . he came to the set, I think a few times. He wasn't there all the time, but I remember thinking, “Oh, he's such a nice man,” and I really enjoyed his interviews. He made people feel very comfortable, so they shared a lot of things, like [Henry] Fonda . . .

Ae13U: . . . Or LeVar Burton talking about his father who abandoned him and then came back later after he did Roots. He was able to get them to open up, and it really helped show kids going through similar trauma that they could survive and be successful, that they weren’t alone.

Looking back, what things do you think the show did well or perhaps not so well, or could have done more of?

Nan-Lynn Nelson: That’s interesting . . . I mean, I applaud what they did take on . . . of course now, in retrospect, I think maybe even more of that, you know, the racial dynamics and things like abuse because at that time too, if I remember correctly, nobody was really talking about being sexually abused as children, and since then, it's like every other person has had some kind of an experience with that, and it's shocking to me . . . and so, you know, things like that . . . and I'm sure they had to walk a fine line with the suits, but I love that they had musical guests, I love that that they had all of those elements and honestly, I think it all worked really well. I really do. I don't remember any bad vibes. Everybody seemed really nice, got along really well from what I can remember and I, you know, I have a tendency to be this like naive optimist most of the time, but if anything bad happened, I don't remember.

All the World is a Stage

Ae13U: In looking over your career, I found your turn to playwriting fascinating. What motivated you to move into it and what would you say are your main influences and the themes you explore?

Nan-Lynn Nelson: Oh, that's a good question. My first husband was a playwright, James Whitten, and I thought he was absolutely brilliant and I thought, “How can people just write plays like this . . . you know, this dialogue in these situations, like how do you do that?” And then when I was pregnant with my first child, I was like, “Oh, I've got all this time on my hands.  I can't go on auditions anymore . . . hmm, maybe I'll write a play!” And I joined a writing group, because I did write poetry and stuff.

So, I joined a writing group and just started exploring, you know, the possibility and story and me as an artist, and particularly as a playwright, and things came very intuitively to me.  I did take one class at the New School playwriting class, like an official class, and not just a bunch of writers sitting around.

[Note: The New School, in New York City, has graduated many noted and influential authors, playwrights, and actors.]

Then . . . because I know there's sort of a technical aspect, but . . .  I don't know if you're familiar with Landmark . . . Landmark is one of these places that you go that helps you sort of broaden your perspective of who you are as a person. It was a weekend thing, but it totally blew my mind and it really made me think I could do anything right. So I said, “You know what? I am going to write a love story play. I'm going to write the best play ever.”

I had already written a few things. So, I started writing this play, and what I experienced as a writer, I had no idea. . . that was having my whole being taken over by the voice of the characters, and to the point that I could not even stop my fingers from moving on the keyboard. And after it was over, I just kind of sat back and I thought, Oh my God, what was that?

[Note: Landmark Worldwide is a personal and professional growth, training, and development company.]

Ae13U: It is amazing when the characters seem to come alive and take over.

Nan-Lynn Nelson: So, I'm writing and then I couldn't even see anymore, I just kept going on and I was exhausted and I read what I wrote and I was like, “Oh, my God. This is really good.  This is some good stuff.” And then after, I wrote this play called Leaving Watermaine, and it was honored by the Susan Smith Blackburn Award. 

[Note: The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize is the oldest and largest playwriting prize honoring women and writing for the English-speaking theatre.]

It is being fully produced with the Charlotte Repertory Theater at the Booth Playhouse, a beautiful, beautiful Broadway-level theater here in Charlotte [North Carolina, where Nelson currently lives], and I am just thrilled to death because this play is over 20 years old . . .  it has had wonderful readings with wonderful celebrities.

Ae13U: Major influences?

Nan-Lynn Nelson: After I finished the play, I met my idol Toni Morrison. I was first introduced to her as a sophomore or a junior in college. I transferred from VCU [Virginia Commonwealth University] to City College [New York], and I was introduced to her. It was my junior year, and it completely blew my mind because I had no idea Black women could write like this. Even though I was a big fan of Lorraine Hansberry and Raisin in the Sun, but to write a novel? The language that she used, it was just like, “Oh, my goodness.” I had no idea, and I was just so blown away I just started reading everything that she wrote. Then I read an article that she was describing exactly what happened to me in that moment of the character taking over.

She was saying she had her son, who was two years old at the time, sitting on her lap. He was wet. He was like throwing up sick, and she couldn't stop. And I actually had the privilege of meeting her years later, but, so yeah, the writing just sort of came and I've been writing and getting recognized and you know, places here and there, and I, I love it.

Tribute to Black Women from Episode 10.

Ae13U: Balancing drama with social issues must be challenging.

Nan-Lynn Nelson: I never really wanted to get political. The most political play I have written is A Town Called Witness, which deals with the depiction of African American youth in the media and how when it comes to bad things that happen, when an African American youth does it, you know, they become these savages. They give them names like monsters, and you know, when they're 16-17 years old, you know? Meanwhile, you know, the Caucasian kids are not even kids, 22 years old  they refer to them as children.

So  and this was after Columbine  I just thought, that's it. I’ve just got to write about it. This is a spoken word piece; it's done and I call it an Afro-Greek urban tragedy. So, there's the Greek chorus. They're the main characters, and the tragedy of it, of it all, a mother finally finds her voice to speak up for her son, who's killed by the police.

Ae13U: Well, the Greek tragedy is unfortunately an apropos model for that. While there is something cathartic about the writing experience, watching it played out on stage, rather than on film, is visceral and involves the audience as part of the action, so it can be more of a cathartic experience than sitting in front of a screen, which is more of a passive experience.

Nan-Lynn Nelson: And I think that's what does separate a play from a film because of the live element, the energy you've got, live human beings in the space.

Ae13U: In addition to writing plays, you also wrote a book, How To Get Paid: Interviewing With Style! As a teacher, I immediately zeroed in on this because I think it is one of the most important and overlooked skills. What inspired you to tackle this topic?

Nan-Lynn Nelson: I've got to do something to help these kids, and it's not just the Black kids, but all of the students — and I treated all of my students the same. I just felt like they needed to know these things . . . like soft skills . . . nobody teaches these soft skills.  You know, the importance of good grooming, being punctual, articulation. Articulating doesn't mean that you sound anything other than who you are. You don't have to sound “White” to articulate, you just have to say words that people will understand what you're saying.

Ae13U: There have been some children’s books as well, correct?

Nan-Lynn Nelson: Journey to Virtue Planet is one of my children's books. It's for younger kids. Another book is called The Girl with the Giggling Hair. They're all about uplifting and expanding perspectives of youth so that they can really . . . see their potential, reach their potential. I've also written a little book, it's not published but [covers] different opportunities and jobs that are available in show business. You don't have to be the star . . . there's set design, there's costume design. There are all of these other lucrative [jobs]; I put all of that together because kids who think they’re the most talented on stage are not necessarily. So, why don't you try set building?

Ae13U: And you know what? They make a good living, better than some of the actors at times in the long run. Michael Longfield pointed out in our interview, that some of the people who worked on production design for Hot Hero, like Akira Yoshimura who also worked at Saturday Night Live at the time, [and continue to do so] are still working at Studio 8H to this day!

So, along these lines, what advice might you have for young people interested in performing? It seems like you’d suggest broadening our horizons beyond just the stage and working on those soft skills.

Nan-Lynn Nelson: Definitely work on those soft skills . . . That's in general . . . no matter what you do . . . but in terms of acting, if you seriously want to devote your life to being a professional actor, you have to understand you have to work at it. You have to really develop your skills, and one of the most foundational skill for me to tell to a young person is you have to be disciplined. This is not going to be easy . . . you know, it's like, listen . . .  this is what show business, if you're talking about theater live on stage, this is what you do.

I said all of those actors, I said even people like Beyoncé . . .  did you think Beyoncé just does this once or twice and she gets on stage and she's ready to do it to perfection?  No, she works for days and days and days, the whole day over and over and over, getting all that timing down with all of her dancers. Engage, engage, engage. You have to get it into your bones.

Who Wears Short-Shorts?

(Left to Right) Nan-Lynn Nelson, Paul O’Keefe, L. Michael Craig (Michael Longfield),
Jarett Smithwrick, Vicky Dawson, Denny Dillon, and Matt McCoy.

Ae13U: OK, one last question I would be remiss in not asking on behalf of fans, both you and Matt McCoy were given to wear some incredibly short short-shorts, particularly in the open credits and in some PR photos. Very typical for the era, but, as you noted earlier, you showed clips of the show to your children and grandchildren. I’m wondering if you ever got any feedback?

Nan-Lynn Nelson: No, I have not gotten any feedback. That's so funny! I remember Matt wearing short-shorts.

Ae13U: Yes. Matt was doing those Tom Selleck short-shorts before Tom Selleck.

Nan-Lynn Nelson: I think I had a little crush on Matt.

Ae13U: I think a quite a few of the fans did.

Nan-Lynn Nelson: . . . but I don't remember me wearing short-shorts.

Hot Hero Sandwich Opening Credits.

Ae13U: Um . . . that little yellow pair you're wearing while roller skating in the opening credits?

Nan-Lynn Nelson: Oh, my God, that’s right! The opening! It's so funny because the one thing I really remember . . . that opening . . . now, they asked if I could roller skate, right? Now, I used to roller skate when I was much, much younger, but I hadn’t roller skated in years, but I was like, “Yeah, I can roller skate.”

‘Cause, that's what you do as an actor, right?

Ae13U: [laughter] That’s right. Tell them you can do it now . . .

Nan-Lynn Nelson: . . . and you go take lessons! [laughter] But I had to literally roller skate and jump in that van in the opening . . .

Ae13U: . . . and with the dog!

Nan-Lynn Nelson: With the dog! I was with the dog and then jumping and then it was all cushioned, I remember. But I think the first time I did it, I hit my head. And I thought, “Oh my God. I almost died before the show even starts.” [laughter] It's crazy. But then you know, I finally got it down and did that opening, but that was real  all of that was happening in real time.

[laughter] Yeah, that’s right. I did have those short-shorts.

Ae13U: Any other final memories?

Nan-Lynn Nelson: Well, I remember Sister Sledge coming to the studio. They were lovely. They were fun. I remember we had the opportunity to be on stage with them at the end. That was so much fun. It was so much fun. It really, really was.

Hot Hero Sandwich Episode 1: Sister Sledge We Are Family.

Nan-Lynn Nelson: I'm just really sorry that the show only lasted one season. You know, I thought for sure it would get picked up. So, I was very disappointed in that.


Concluding Thoughts

Disappointment is both ephemeral and enduring. It is fleeting in that life moves on and drags us along with it. It is enduring because the “what might have beens” haunt us. We wonder about if only things turned out differently, so we try to put it all behind us.

Good luck with that, right?

Sometimes, however, we can take that “what might have been” and turn it into a “what should be,” which is what the mission of The Hot Hero Sandwich Project is all about. This is not so much a walk down memory lane as a guidebook for those seeking the same paths the show once walked.

Many thanks to Nan-Lynn Nelson Ewing for sharing her memories of the show and her insights as an actor, educator, and writer.


Nan-Lynn Nelson Ewing Today
As Playwright: Finalist in the Susan Smith Blackburn International playwriting contest for: Leaving Watermaine. An artist-in-residence at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center developing Enemy of the B.R.E.A.D.  Other titles include: The Unfamiliar, A Swanka’s Revolution, Glory!, The Remembering.  New Works of Merit Honorable Mention for: A Town Called Witness.

On TV: Kate & Allie [created by HHS writer Sherry Coben], The Cosby Show, The Cosby Mysteries, several Law & Order episodes, All My Children, As the World Turns, Another World, The Bloodhound Gang segments on 3-2-1 Contact, numerous TV commercials, TV movie The Littlest Victims.

On Broadway: Runaways, Open Admissions, and replaced Angela Bassett in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.

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  1. It is a pleasant experience to read an interview with such good vibes between interviewer and interviewee. Thank you Nan-Lynn for your memories and good information on the show, expressing just how ahead of its time and socially relevant, then and now, HHS is. Great job Aeolus.

  2. I enjoy the "concluding thoughts" section. Always some good insight.