Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Hot Hero Sandwich — Off-Stage with Cast Member Denny Dillon

by G. Jack Urso

Denny Dillon bursts into Hot Hero Sandwich jogging along in her signature red track suit and brilliant smile in what is a perfect analogy for her career.

Trying to keep up with Denny, even when writing about her, will leave you winded. The stereotypical trope of young actors working as waiters and in other odd jobs before their “big break” doesn’t really apply to Denny. Before Hot Hero Sandwich, Denny was already busy in the business. She kicked things off in the 1974 revival of Gypsy starring Angela Lansbury followed by the 1975 revival of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, the same year she appeared in a season 1 episode of Saturday Night Live with her comedy act partner Mark Hampton and followed up in 1977 with an appearance in Saturday Night Fever as one of John Travolta’s more enthusiastic dance floor admirers, then Hot Hero Sandwich in 1979.

And that’s just the first six years of a career that spans five decades.

After Hot Hero Sandwich Dillon landed a roll in the 1980 stage version of Harold and Maude, joined the cast of Saturday Night Live for the 1980-1981 season and, of course, Dream On on HBO with Brian Benben and Wendie Malick, for which she won a CableACE Award.

In arranging the interview, which we rescheduled several times, I had to navigate a calendar packed with auditions, headshots, deadlines for her memoirs, meeting with her agent, and, oh yes, a film release (Paint with Owen Wilson). Oddly, it made me feel, even if just as an observer, part of the energy of the industry.

In our interview, Denny takes us up to speed on her road to Studio 8H, we take a look backstage at the series, and we talk about how the industry has changed since then.

There’s a lot of road to cover, so put on your running shoes and try to keep up!

An Actor’s Life

Ae13U: Unlike the other cast members, Studio 8H at Rockefeller Center where Hot Hero Sandwich was filmed was not exactly new territory for you was it?

Denny Dillon: I have been there one time previous in 1975. I was on the third program ever as a guest star on Saturday Night Live [with comic partner Mark Hampton]. So, then when in 1979 when Hot Hero Sandwich was there, it was just joyous to be there again, and a lot of a lot of the men on the floor . . . the lighting guys and a lot of those people did Saturday Night Live, so that was all great too. I loved that.

[Note: Some of the crew, like production designer Akira Yoshimura are still there as of this writing.]

I discovered the power of television. Because the show aired at 11:00 AM — I was living in Manhattan and I just went out after watching it — it was terrific — and was recognized on the street three times! So, that was exciting.

Hot Hero Sandwich Episode 5 Opening Credits.

Ae13U: That first image of you running along in the red jumpsuit struck such an iconic opening, I think for a lot of fans, absent of any video releases of the series, it remained one of the few images we carried from the show for so many years. 

Denny Dillon: I'm glad you remember it. It was an amazing program that the Harts created and all of it was excellent . . . the writing . . . my personal favorite magical things where the animation of dreams. I just thought that was just so stunning, and with having a child narrate it too, and then the amazing animators they had . . .  it was so ahead of its time . . . and then it won Emmys and I was just so perplexed. Why did NBC cancel it? But, you know, I don't run network, so . . .

Ae13U: The animation by Jerry Lieberman and his studio is just so fantastic — A bit psychedelic and so unlike the typical Saturday morning animation at the time. It really turned me on as a kid to explore other kinds of animation styles. I’m not sure how they selected the children or got them to discuss their dreams. Unfortunately, Jerry Lieberman passed away in 2017, so the opportunity to find out more may have been lost. I plan to do an article or two on that in the future and hopefully can find out more.

The show’s graphic designer (and for Saturday Night Live) Bob Pook and director Tom Trbovich also both passed away this year, so we’ve lost some amazing people and a little bit of Hot Hero history we may not be able to recover.

Denny Dillon: I'm sorry to hear that. He [Tom] was a lovely man. I remember him quite well.

Episode 5 Captain Hero segment with Denny Dillon, Adam Ross (Captain Hero), 
and a greased-up Matt McCoy.

Ae13U: Did you have any kind of formal training as an actor? A particular program, mentor, or workshops were you developed your skill set?

Denny Dillon: I didn't do workshops . . .  I mean . . . well once — again I just get into it so much in my book — but I was always into acting . . . I grew up in the Midwest and I moved to New York. I was very fortunate, got in a Broadway show after being there [a few] weeks. Before Hot Hero Sandwich, I'd been in two Broadway shows, Gypsy with Angela Lansbury, and The Skin of Our Teeth, with Elizabeth Ashley. That was 75. And then I was fortunate enough to be on the first season . . . third episode of Saturday Night Live in 1975 . . .  and then I was doing theater.

So, where was my training? I went to Syracuse University and I was in the drama department, but it really wasn't so much there. I was hired to be in several plays at Syracuse Repertory Theater, which were professionals from New York, but I I've been acting, just not in, not in professional way for a long time.

Ae13U: You were really busy though.

Denny Dillon: I was, yes, I was very fortunate.

Ae13U: It seems like if Hot Hero Sandwich didn’t come along your schedule would still have been pretty busy.

NY Post 10.19.79
Denny Dillon: Yes, perhaps you're right . . . that is sweet of you. I was lucky. I was getting work in the theater . . . I was doing comedy in New York, not at nightclubs, but characters . . .  but Hot Hero was my first television series. And like I said, I was sort of blindsided when it was taken off the air because it was so good. I never understood why.  I thought maybe it was so expensive.

[Note: According to Tom Shales in his review of Hot Hero Sandwich in The New York Times, Nov. 10, 1979, an unnamed network executive reported that production costs for the series totaled over US$1 million, approximately US$3,424,479 in 2020].

Ae13U: Shifting gears a bit, I understand you spent some time in the Philippines during the Marcos regime. It is just too intriguing for me not to ask you if you could share something about that.

Denny Dillon: What I will share is yes, I was when I was 16 years old . . . We, my family, we moved to the Philippines, but I'm in the midst of now finishing up a book, a memoir called Two Tickets to Calamity . . . and I go into it in that book. I'd rather wait . . .

Ae13U: Fair enough. The child actor from the show, Adam Ross, who played Captain Hero as well as your character’s little brother in several segments, currently editor of The Sewanee Journal [a literary journal], is also working on a novel based in part on his experiences as a child actor, so it will be interesting for fans to read a bit more directly from our Hot Heroes in the next year or so.

Episode 4 Phone Friends segment.

Now, on with the Show!

Ae13U: Can you tell me a little bit about what your day was like on the show, shooting schedules, things like that?

Denny Dillon: Did anyone tell you how late we worked into the night?

Ae13U: Everyone spoke about the long days! I was interested in how that affected the Ym and Ur sketches. Jarett Smithwrick and Michael Longfield both noted that filming could go into the early morning hours and so segments highlighting just one or two characters would be filmed at the end of the day [the early morning actually] so as to allow everyone else to go home. However, with all that makeup you and Paul O’Keefe had to wear, it must have taken so long to put on and take off. It’s hard to imagine they would keep you late for those segments.

All Ym and Ur Segments.

Denny Dillon: Yeah, they were space teenagers and we have bald pates . . . I remember the woman who did our makeup. Her name was Barbara Kelly, she was the daughter of Bob Kelly, I believe he founded a makeup company.

[Note: Some of makeup artist Barbara Kelly’s later credits include Fame (the movie), Three Men and a Baby, Birdy, Desperately Seeking Susan, Big, Tootsie, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Star Dust Memories, Ragtime, and many more. Her father, Bob Kelly, was a renowned Broadway wig maker and founded Bob Kelly Cosmetics, a theatrical supply company.]

But it was, you know, they had put on purple on our faces and bald pates, so it was a three-hour makeup job and that was an interesting thing . . .  she made it as painless as possible, but once we got under the lights . . . fortunately, he [Paul O’Keefe] and I were a good team, you know.

Ae13U: Yes, you and Paul played off each other wonderfully in those sketches.

Denny Dillon: We were. He was a pro and I was a pro. You know, when you're in the theater, you got to remember your lines and all that stuff, but they had to shoot that pretty fast because the lights would start to heat up . . . that was a particularly challenging filming experience because a lot of our filming went way, way into 2:00 AM, 3:00 AM.

Ae13U: You were busy working in New York after Hot Hero Sandwich. Did you ever run into Bruce and Carole Hart afterwards?

NBC publicity photo, Denny Dillon (left) as Ur and Paul O’Keefe (right) as Ym (author’s collection).

Denny Dillon: Both of them were such lovely people and I would run into them in New York . . . you know, on the street . . . sometimes when I would run into them because we kind of lived in for a while near the same neighborhood, I would be able to update them on what was going on.

Ae13U: I gather from talking with others from the show that there wasn't a lot of contact with them once production was underway, particularly after they went back to the West Coast to finish production because the facilities in New York weren’t quite able to handle everything. It sounds like you once you were hired they weren't really working too much with the actors at that point, correct?

Denny Dillon: No, not at all. That's correct.

Ae13U: Everyone, from the Harts on down, put so much work into the series, it must have been a heartbreaker to see it end after one season.

Denny Dillon: In all your investigation, were you able to find out why NBC cancelled the series?

Ae13U: Based on my research and my conversations with Sherry Coben, Patrick McMahon, and Dr. Tom Cottle, I don't think NBC ever intended for it to run more than one season. It was a very expensive show for the network and they put it on at a time when it was guaranteed to be pre-empted by sports programming. The last episode reportedly only aired in four or five markets. The product commercials in the show were for a much younger age group than the show’s target demographic. I mean, they would go from Jarett’s n-word monologue in episode 5 to a toy commercial for pre-teens. Not exactly the age group the show was targeting.

They also didn’t do any merchandise marketing and failed to capitalize on the popularity of the Hot Hero Band and the musical guest performances. I just don’t think they knew what to do with it.

Denny Dillon: I'm sad to hear that. It was also, I really felt, truly, it was very ahead of its time . .  I mean, it had all those elements . . . Dr. Cottle was wonderful and the interviews they had with different celebrities about their adolescence . . . their honesty and vulnerability the celebrities . . . it was pretty astonishing.

Hot Hero Sandwich Episode 5 “Fitting In” segment. After an intro with Michael Learned and Pam Dawber, Denny Dillon falls victim to the machinations of a makeover artist played by Claudette Sutherland (written by Sherry Coben).

Ae13U: With all those elements, the conceptual films, the sketches, the animation, the musical performances, the interviews not just with celebrities but also with teens in the “What’s In, What’s Out” segments, it gives a really good look at a specific point in time. In a way, it is a historical document as much as it is a TV series, though I’m not sure how feasible it would be to get it released on DVD with concerns over copyrighted materials in the music used on the series.

Denny Dillon:  Well, I know, I know what you're talking about, Jack. You know, I was on a show on HBO for six years, very ahead of its time, Dream On . . . every show in the world you can find, but you cannot find the show [there have been no video releases]. It was so superior, and I believe it's because of the clips from early television that were used in it . . .  The creators were, you probably know, Marta Kaufman and David Crane, who went on to create Friends, the exec producers John Landis and Kevin Bright, but it’s so frustrating. So, I know how Hot Hero Sandwich was just like one year . . . this little kind of gem in the universe . . . so I know all about doing something and people never seeing it.

Ae13U: I think that’s part of the reason why so many Hot Hero alumni have gotten together for this project. Those who’ve been involved in the show, they all know the promise of the show and they know what everybody missed by not getting that second season.

Denny Dillon: Fortunately, my career kept moving along, but it was disappointing and sad that either the time that it was on at 11 AM . . . or like you say these strange toy commercials following it and not knowing what to do with it was probably the biggest dilemma I would imagine because it was quite sophisticated. It wasn't for little children . . . but how much was it promoted? How much the network got behind it to move it forward?

Ae13U: In my conversation with Dr. Tom Cottle, he said that Bruce Hart really intended the show to run at 7:00 PM on Sunday night so parents and kids could watch together. That they put it on at 11:00 AM wasn't going to cause Bruce and Carole to compromise their vision.  They weren’t going to dumb it down for the kids because the network was pushing them in that direction.

Denny Dillon: Yes, and also you have at that time, just anybody's regular Saturday morning, if you have kids watching TV cartoons . . . by about 11:00, kids are going out and it really, really wasn't for little children.

Episode 7: All was not always laughs on Hot Hero Sandwich. Here, Denny Dillon’s character Marie, along with L. Michael Craig, helps Paul O’Keefe's character Ted deal with the passing of his grandfather, often the first death many young people face. Written by Sherry Coben.

Paying it Forward

Ae13U: Part of the mission of the Hot Hero Sandwich Project is to pass along our experience to the next generation of young people looking to pursue a career in the industry. You’ve had a long and successful career. Is there any advice you can share?

Denny Dillon: Well, you know, this is a bizarre question because first of all, I'm of a different, completely different, generation. When I moved to New York, how did I get in Gypsy the Broadway show? I went to the corner and there was a newspaper called Backstage and they were having auditions for a Broadway show, Gypsy, starring Angela Lansbury. I had an equity card because I was made a professional my last year of college, but you didn't even need to have an equity card then.  I went to the audition . . . I was number 200 . . . and ended up getting in that show.  I would say always New York was more friendly, I felt, than LA; however, some young person asked me something the other day and I thought, you need to ask someone young.

You know why? People now are influencers. They have YouTube channels. They promote themselves. I mean, I'm so old that you went to a casting director I’d have a book of photos of productions that I've been in and then I would talk, you know, one-on-one to the casting person . . . this doesn't exist anymore . . . it’s rude if you call somebody . . . and then in the old days . . . and I mean old, I mean old . . . I am old . . . [laughter]

Ae13U: [laughter] We’re all getting there . . .

Denny Dillon: In New York . . . if you wanted, you could leave a photo at the stage door in case they were having auditions.  It didn't mean that you were definitely going to get in a Broadway show.

You could see I'm more oriented towards the theater and often people see you act in the theater and then you end up being on television, but I didn’t have a clue of advice. I just find it mind-blowing.

I’m purposefully am not on social media. So, if people want to find me, they really gotta do the work, right?

Ae13U: Oh, I know that! [laughter]

Denny Dillon: You know, there's influencers and they go, “How many followers do you have?” It’s like, “What?” I mean I'm computer savvy and all that, but it's a different world. Before COVID, I would be asked once in a while to do a self-tape. Now it's all self-tape. Of course, I have an agent . . . but I wouldn't have a clue how to give advice to a young person.

Ae13U: Well, I think just that acknowledging the realities of the social media age is good advice. Be aware of the environment you're working in and know how to operate in it.

Denny Dillon: I personally I think it's sad. I'm glad I lived when I lived. When I was 35, I went out to LA because I've been at that time I've been in . . . maybe four Broadway shows. I've been told a million times, “You could probably make a lot of money in television.” I moved to LA and it didn't matter the Broadway [shows]. They were very respectful, but they wanted to see tape and so I had tape of Saturday Night Live because when our time was over on that show they were kind enough to give us some footage of our sketches. I had nothing of Hot Hero Sandwich. It was on my resume [but] no one had seen it.

And, you know, they were right. I did get some television there. Quite a bit. Then I realized I missed New York and I moved back. So, I actually live in the Hudson Valley, for 25 years now.

But it's all self-tape and when I do voiceovers, you're your own production [team].

Episode 6: In this dramatic scene, Denny Dillon’s recurring character Cathy (also from the phone friend’s segments) reveals how dysfunctional her family is and decides to run away, but with some help of her friends, and her bratty little brother (Adam Ross), discovers there are all sorts of families, and sometimes our friends are our families. Brief intro with Dr. Tom Cottle and Robert Guillaume.


Concluding Thoughts

Denny Dillon in a recent publicity photo (courtesy Denny Dillon).
Denny says she doesn’t have much advice for the next generation of actors because times have changed so much since she started out, but — with all due deference to the delightful Denny Dillon — I have to disagree. Yes, the way things get done in the industry has changed due to technology. Auditions have gone from in-person to on film, on tape, on digital video, and now on Zoom; however, in an industry succinctly summarized by actor Walter Huston, “In Hollywood, you’re only as good as your last picture,” after nearly 50 years in the industry, Denny always seems to be looking forward.

That work ethic is the best advice a promising young actor can get in any era, and the foundation for turning dreams into a career.

So, that image of Denny running in the opening credits is quite apropos of her career. You got to run to keep up, but you’ll have a good laugh while doing so.
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  1. Good interview with a lot of insight into the show and how it got done. Great advice in the last paragraph.

  2. Love the photos and vids. Thanks for sharing.