Friday, September 8, 2023

Hot Hero Sandwich — Off-Stage with Cast Member Claudette Sutherland

by G. Jack Urso 

When the opportunity to interview Hot Hero Sandwich cast member Claudette Sutherland I immediately leapt at the opportunity. Not just because she is Hot Hero alumni, but she actually was, unknowingly, a part of my childhood. Sutherland’s first role on Broadway was as part of the original Broadway cast for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying with Robert Morse in the lead as J. Pierrepont Finch. My father — a repressed actor — loved the show. In addition to having the soundtrack of the original Broadway cast (with Sutherland), and seeing the film, we even had the board game!

A quirky tale of ladder-climbing that parodies and satirizes the post-war obsession with corporate success, the story starts off with the hero working in a mailroom, echoing Bruce and Carole Hart’s personal manager Larry Weiss’ tale on how the legendary William Morris Agency started off their agents-in-training in the mailroom. 
Left to Right: Frankie Faison, L. Michael Craig, Saundra McClain, Claudette Sutherland, Jarret Smithwrick, and Andrew Duncan. From the episode 5 sketch, “What’s New.”
Sutherland, along with Andrew Duncan, Frankie Faison, Saundra McClain, and Adam Ross, form the supporting cast for Hot Hero Sandwich, performing the adult/parent or child roles (the latter in the case for Ross), as needed. The steady, experienced hand of the veteran older actors brought an efficiency and stability to filming. As has been noted in several of the series’ actor interviews, there were no extensive read-throughs or rehearsals in prep for the sketches. Show up, know your lines, hit your marks, a couple of practice runs, and then ACTION! Those cameras are rolling. You HAVE to be good. 

These veteran actors brought a sharp sense of timing in addition to portraying the wide variety of character types needed. 

Sutherland was working in theater during the time of Hot Hero Sandwich, but later moved to television, racking up an impressive number of parts, before transitioning to teaching creative writing (please visit her website In our conversation, we discuss the long arc of her career, her involvement with the show, and the dynamics of being a supporting cast member. We also take look together at a few sketches she hasn’t seen since broadcast to get her reaction and analysis as a veteran stage actor and writer. 
From Stage to Screen 

Ae13U: Did you intend acting for a career? It’s a perilous journey at best. Nothing is guaranteed. There’s a lot of rejection, yet it attracts millions to pursue it — willingly. What brought to decide that you had to try this? 

Claudette Sutherland: Well, I did intend it. I was at Yale for Yale School of Drama for a while. When I got out of school, I went directly to New York and How to Succeed was the first audition I had and I booked it. I mean, I just went, “Oh, that's easy.” You just go and you sing and then you get the thing and then you do it! I was all sort of, “Well, yeah, isn't that the way it's supposed to be?” But it wasn't for most people and for me that was just really a piece of luck. Good luck. So, I was grateful for that. 

Ae13U: How long were you with How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Claudette Sutherland: It ran for 2 1/2, three years, and I was in it the whole time. 

Ae13U: Jumping ahead a few years, just prior to Hot Hero Sandwich, you were mainly just doing theater at the time, correct? 

Claudette Sutherland: That’s right

Ae13U: Do you recall how you got involved with Hot Hero Sandwich? Did your agent hook you, word-of-mouth, ads in the trades? 

Claudette Sutherland: [laughter] I have no idea! I have no memory of that at all. Maybe Bruce and Carole knew of me, they may have. 

[Note from series writer Sherry Coben: “Everyone involved in NY theatre knew of Claudette, and everyone knew Andrew Duncan too from his work in improv and comedy. There were a series of auditions for all the cast members, but it is within the realm of possibility that Claudette and Andrew may have gotten offers without auditioning. I think Frankie and Saundra probably auditioned though since we weren’t that familiar with their work.”]

Ae13U: Did you audition directly for Bruce and Carole? 

Claudette Sutherland: [laughter] That's so funny, I don't even remember an audition. Sorry! 

Ae13U: Well, it was a while ago, though that seems to be fairly consistent with the cast’s recollections. In the course of their careers, everyone must have gone on hundreds of auditions, at least. 

Name Jeans — Episode 8 

Ae13U: I’d like to draw on your theater experience and take a closer look at some sketches from Hot Hero Sandwich, which range from broad comedy to a more serious, realistic, “true-life” situation. 

One sketch that comes to mind is the “Name Jeans” sketch from episode 8. Rather than the broad comedy of, say, a Nightmare High sketch, this is a small scene between you, as the mother, and Vicky Dawson, as the daughter. Playing out an almost timeless theme — teens and the latest fashions. In this sketch, Vicky wants to buy a pair of designer jeans for $40 (approx. $160 in 2023).  

[Note: This sketch was timely as 1979 was the height of Jordache Jeans’ well-funded PR campaign and just preceded Calvin Klein’s infamous 1980 jeans ads with Brooke Shields]. 

I know you haven’t seen this since it was filmed, but I’d like to take a look at that sketch with you now and get your thoughts. 
Hot Hero Sandwich Episode 8: "Name Jeans.”

[Note: Series writer Sherry Coben appears as the store clerk. The sketch itself may have been written by Marianne Meyer.]
Claudette Sutherland: [laughter] Oh, my God . . . I have long hair.  I was about a size 10, and I looked a little bit like Mary Tyler Moore, but other than that . . . how funny. 
Ae13U: [laughter] Well, what like about this scene is . . . first, just to note for our readers, the line about the mother’s t-shirt lasting longer than Elvis comes just two years after he had passed away, so still a bit timely. 

There are a couple things about this sketch I like. First, it models a real-life scenario for both parents and teens to watch together, which was part of the vision I think the Harts had for the show, but also the acting in the scene is pretty tight. The rapport between you both is believable. The dialog is snappy. The timing is spot on. It’s a testament to you both, and Vicky is just 18 here. 

Claudette Sutherland:  Yes, that’s right. I remember. 

Ae13U: Yet, she keeps up with you, a Broadway vet. I’m wondering if you could share some thoughts about this scene. To achieve that timing seems like it would take a lot of rehearsal, but just the opposite is true here. You both got your script, were expected to show up and know your lines, a couple run-throughs and you’re filming, right? 

Claudette Sutherland: Well, you know, it depends on the production, but in this case, and I must confess, to not being able to remember a tremendous amount from that time because it was so long ago because I’m so old [laughter], but sometimes the things that are done on the fly are the ones that stay the freshest. So, you know, if you've got a time problem with the scene or with the show or whatever, you know, it's not such a bad idea to kind of step up to the plate and wing it in a in a way. I don't remember that we had tremendous rehearsal time . . . I don't remember a lot about that time. 

Ae13U: In my mind, knowing the long days that were put in, I’m thinking you’re all standing around, doing read-throughs, exploring the characters, rehearsals, but now I realize I realize you guys didn't have time for that. 

Claudette Sutherland:  No, there's not. You just go. 

Fitting In — Episode 5 

Ae13U: OK. I have another scene cued up, from episode 5, “Fitting In,” with Denny Dillon. Now, this is a much broader kind of comedy, so the question I’d like to explore afterwards regards the strategies for doing this kind of broad comedy built on stereotypes rather than the more character-driven and conversational humor in the “Name Jeans” sketch. Let’s take a look and get your thoughts. 

Hot Hero Sandwich Episode 5: "Fitting In."

[Note: Sherry Coben and an associate producer also appear in this sketch as customer extras.]

Ae13U: I love that sketch, it still is pretty spot-on in that some teen themes, like our appearance, are pretty timeless. While like “Name Jeans” it deals with the teen obsession with appearances, the approach is much broader. Is there a danger of “overacting” in such sketches, or can one really “overact” in these pieces because they’re “over-the-top” to begin with? 

Claudette Sutherland:  No, you don't have to overact, but, you see, in all of these situations you simply trust the text. And that's, you know, the text is what you have to work with and when the text is good and well done, in my opinion, you just say it. I know that that sounds simplistic, but for me that has always worked when the text is good, when the script is good. If it doesn't then it shows like overacting or it shows as underacting, whatever it shows, but when the script is good then you’re in fine hands and you just have to trust it . . . and that makes you trust yourself and trust your first impulses. 

Ae13U: Since we’re discussing “fitting in,” Hot Hero Sandwich had a large cast. It's a 50-minute show with seven main cast members, five supporting cast members, you, Andrew Duncan, Saundra McClain, Frankie Faison, and Adam Ross. I also count Dr. Tom Cottle as a cast member because his segments took up time on the show and set up the sketches. So, in a way, I look at him as a cast member as week, so there's fourteen people all demanding attention to a degree. I wonder, was the cast too big for the show? 

Claudette Sutherland:  Gee, I never gave that much thought. I guess I would have to sit and look through a hole through a whole production to decide that, but at the time, I didn't. I didn't feel that way at all. I thought it was very well produced and very well-written and I think it really served its purposes. 

Ae13U: Having watched the entire series, I think that for such a large cast that they made the effort to respect the actors enough to provide a balance of work for everybody. 

Claudette Sutherland: Seemed to me, yes. 

Ae13U: I think they tried to give everyone the spotlight as much they could in a short eleven-episode run. I thought Jarret Smithwrick and Vicky Dawson could have done a bit more. They didn’t have characters like The Puberty Fairy, Tapedeck, Stanley Dipstyck, Captain Hero, or Ym and Ur to have fun with, but perhaps a small point given the abbreviated run. 
I recall talking with cast member Michael Longfield (L. Michael Craig) about his experiences on film, specifically the film Taps, where he noted there was a hierarchy, or at least a separation between the main and supporting cast members. I’m sure there’s a big difference between a Hollywood film and a TV production, but I’m curious if there any similar sort of hierarchal dynamic on Hot Hero Sandwich, or were you just a bunch of actors together working on your scenes? 

Claudette Sutherland: I would say that it's the last because number one, there was no reason for us to be all together when we were taping or anything of that sort. It was pieced together and then in editing. That was what pulled it together and made it a whole show. So, I don't have a memory of it being hierarchical.  
Left to Right: Claudette Sutherland, Adam Ross, and Saundra McClain.
Ae13U: On the perimeter of all this is the lone child actor, Adam Ross. I always have had mixed feelings about the use of child actors. In the late 1980s, I spent two summers as a tape operator for a PBS uplink facility in upstate New York and probably saw every episode then in syndication of Sesame Street, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, Reading Rainbow, Zoobilee Zoo, among many others, and, of course, I grew up also watching The Electric Company and Zoom. Commercial children’s productions, such as those from Disney and Nickelodeon, seem, frankly, a bit exploitive to me. 

Then, on Hot Hero Sandwich, we have Adam Ross, who was maybe 13 years old at the time. The only child actor in cast of 11 adult actors, not to mention the crew and staff, Adam is there all alone — one child in a sea of adults.  He’s a novelist now, and editor of The Sewanee Review, a literary journal, so he’s done well for himself, but still I can’t help but have some concerns about what the experience must have been for the lone child actor. 

Claudette Sutherland:  He [Ross] . . .  had to have a tutor.  That relationship, which most kid actors had, was often with their tutor as much as it was with the show. So, that's another way to look at that and to see how kids fared with their tutors. I mean, they could have had bad tutors or they could have had really tutors that changed their lives. It's an interesting question to ask. 

Ae13U: I also should add Adam really holds his own in a lot of his scenes, all of which were with older, more experienced actors. He’s pretty assertive and something of a scene-stealer, so he was well-chosen by the Harts. 

Claudette Sutherland:  I’m sure that’s the case. 

The Transition to Writing 

Ae13U: Turning to your writing career a bit, I read you transitioned to writing and teaching creative writing, even in Singapore for a couple of stints.  At what point did you decide to transition from acting to writing and teaching? 

Claudette Sutherland: What was happening was, most of my time was in New York for thirty years. When I came here [California] was in 1990 and I was done with New York, I was just done with it, and it was getting kind of staggy around about in the ‘80s. So, I left and they came out here and I'm glad I did because when I came out here. There was television out here and there wasn't that much television, only soap operas, shooting in New York. I came out here and I started to work in television — about which I sort of have mixed feelings because I'm a theater person, right? And I, you know, I realize there's money in television, so I wanted some of that money and so that's what I began to do. But then when I reached my middle 50s, the roles that were that were available for character women like myself were beginning to disappear or be taken by very established character actresses. 

I'm not saying that I didn't work. I did quite a lot of work out here but, finally, I began to feel that it wasn't enough, and for me it wasn't about money as much as it was feeling creative. So that's when I began to teach creative writing, because I have a really good eye for it and I'm a good writer and I like that relationship. I very, very much like teaching people how it works. So that became the thing that has it has occupied me for the past few years and I'm glad it has because it's got a longer shelf life than anything else does. So, that's good, because you know, I'm 84 years old, so what am I going to do? I can't turn back the clock [laughter]. 

Ae13U: Do you recall if you had any expectation for a second season or did you see it as just a summer gig? Was there any anticipation that the show might go on for a second season? 

Claudette Sutherland: For me, there wasn't, necessarily. There may have been other cast members who felt differently about that, but I I'm not sure. I just felt it was kind of a one-off for me. I guess had it been picked up . . . for another season that would have been OK, but I wasn't really a principal player. I mean, I was a player, a really good player, but so for me it was fine. So, it was like a one-off. 

Ae13U: Did you have much contact at all with Bruce and Carole Hart? I know they weren't there for the entire filming in New York. 

Claudette Sutherland: I remember staying in touch with them . . .  seeing them from time to time and I always respected their work a lot. So, I was very pleased for them [winning the Emmy]. They were really good at what they do. 

Ae13U: It was a long time ago, so a lot of these casual details are hard to recall. 

Claudette Sutherland: You jolted my memory in some places! Then when I have to see myself [in the clips] all those years ago, I go, “My Lord. Where did that hair come from? When was I ever a size ten?” [laughter] 

Ae13U: Well, watching the clips has been a trip down memory lane for everyone. I don’t think any of the actors had seen the show since it was broadcast, so I’ve heard some similar reactions. 

Well, talking about clips from the show, let’s take a look at one final scene you’re in. Here, as Miss Pinch the librarian in the Nightmare High series of recurring sketches, helping some students to check out books, or does she? Let’s watch.  

Hot Hero Sandwich Episode 8: "The One about the Whale.”

Claudette Sutherland: [laughter] 

Ae13U: Poor Miss Pinch! Between Pooh and Moby Dick, she really had her work cut out for her that day. With only slight variation, that sketch is still relevant today as it regards the censorship of books in public schools. 

Claudette Sutherland:  It’s true. 

Ae13U: That, along with other scenes, such as Jarret Smithwrick’s “n-word” monologue in episode 5 or Denny Dillon’s scene on running away in episode 6, and even the “Name Jeans” sketch with Vicky, deals with classic themes of growing up and helps make the show a bit timeless in that respect. 

Well, Claudette, I can’t thank you enough for adding another chapter to the Hot Hero book. Being able to speak with someone who unknowingly was a part of my childhood has been great. Thank you. 

Claudette Sutherland:  It’s been fun! 

Note: Other sketches Claudette Sutherland appears in include episode 3's, "High School Job Counselor," episode 4’s “Hippie Parents” and "Sex Ed.," and episode 5’s “What’s New," where Matt McCoy does a funny, satirical impersonation of talk show host Tom Snyder.


Concluding Thoughts 
Sutherland today.       
The old trope of actors waiting around in the dressing rooms waiting to be called on stage didn’t apply to the supporting cast on Hot Hero Sandwich. Series writer Sherry Coben noted to me that unlike the main cast and the staff and crew, if the supporting cast were not on the call sheet, they weren’t in the studio. While the show had a five-day-a-week shooting schedule, all the actors were rarely, if ever, called at the same time.

Claudette Sutherland’s experience as a supporting cast member underscores the importance of having the steady hand of experienced professional actors on board. Hot Hero’s adult supporting cast members were veteran actors of varied experience — working professionals who could rise up to the challenges of long days, brief rehearsals, knowing your lines, hitting your marks, and needing few takes. For producers, these are the people who help keep the shooting schedule on time. John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and even Jack Webb had their own supporting cast companies integral to their productions’ success. 

Sutherland also echoes a common theme among the actors and writers I’ve interviewed for the Hot Hero Sandwich Project — the importance of luck and being mindful of its fickle nature. In Sutherland’s case, she notes that she landed her very first audition, which also just happened to turn out to be the first run of an absolutely legendary Broadway show, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Yet, in all cases, everyone also put in the work on their craft. Before Broadway, Sutherland attended the Yale School of Drama, not too shabby a place to learn. She recognized her worth as a character actor, knew when to move from East Coast to West Coast, and knew when to transition to a writing career. Spending decades looking at scripts prepared her well to recognize good writing, and bad, so she took an element from acting she connected with and evolved that into another career. 

Maybe it is just good luck that gets an actor or writer their first break, but it takes hard work to get that bit of luck in the first place, hard work to stay in the business, and then hard work to make some luck of your own. 

Though I somewhat suspect J. Pierrepont Finch, the hero of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, might disagree. 

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  1. Interesting point about how HHS was as much a show for parents with teenage kids as well for kids interacting with their parents. What depth to the show Claudette Sutherland and the rest of the supporting cast added to HHS -- hats off to Carol and Bruce Hart for their vision. Hats off to Aeolus for reviving and continuing HHS legacy.

  2. Refreshing to hear the same positive reflections about the show from all the actors and rest of cast you have interviewed. Says alot about how good the show was and still is.