Sunday, November 19, 2023

Hot Hero Sandwich — Off-Stage with Cast Member Saundra McClain

by G. Jack Urso

In Hot Hero Sandwich, Saundra McClain reliably delivered a wide variety of striking comic character performances that are a hallmark of the show. Considering that she started off working in the United States Post Office, it is little wonder that McClain knows how to deliver the goods.

Saundra McClain, along with Claudette Sutherland, Andrew Duncan, Frankie Faison, and Adam Ross, form the supporting cast for Hot Hero Sandwich. While the main cast gets the bulk of our attention, as my dear old dad, who was something of a frustrated actor himself, would tell me — keep your eyes on the supporting players. The faces you recognize, but the names you can’t place. Often overlooked, the supporting cast is the backbone of any large ensemble comedy. It’s a tradition that Saturday Night Live, which shared both the studio and stage crew with Hot Hero Sandwich, maintains to this day with its “Featured Players” cast, separately billed from the main repertory cast.

McClain, circa 1980.
McClain’s training as an actor is extensive, including stints studied acting at HB Studios with Bill Hickey, the New Heritage Workshop, Voices Inc., and the Henry Street Settlement. Her acting credits in film and TV include Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward; The Last Tycoon, with Kelsey Grammer; See You in the Morning, with Jeff Bridges; Free of Eden, with Sidney Poitier; Maid in Manhattan, with Jennifer Lopez, and appearances in Third Watch, Law and Order, L.A. Law, As the World Turns, Ryan’s Hope, and many more.

Though she started out in a Philadelphia post office, Saundra, like many of the cast and writing staff, gave her dreams a shot by moving to New York City, where the industry and the opportunities lay, or, as Saundra, quoting the late, great actor Al Freeman Jr. who told her, “Get the hell out of Philadelphia.” 

And she did, starting out as a tour guide, moving on as a talent coordinator for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson while it was still in New York, then into theater, onto Broadway, and paying the bills with an extensive commercial resume, many of which Baby Boomers and Gen Xers grew up watching — including a classic Peppermint Pattie spot we discuss in the interview.

She has learned under and acted with legends on stage and screen, and it is that very experience that made her such an invaluable part of Hot Hero Sandwich.

A “supporting cast” moniker suggests a lower level in the casting hierarchy, and while it is something of a disservice to Saundra McClain to focus on this one small part of her career, she brought a depth of experience vital to the energy of the series. The Hot Hero supporting cast played a wide variety of character types and, as busy working professionals, they could be relied on to show up on time, know their lines, and hit their marks. A rising young talent might get trust into the limelight, but the steady hands of the supporting cast keep the backbone of the show together and allows the production to fly. Even, as with Hot Hero Sandwich, that flight might be short, it’s still a chance to leave your mark. As Stanislavski himself said, “There are no small parts.”

Hot Hero Sandwich Episode 7: Nightmare High Excuse of the Week.

And who knows? Maybe four decades later they’ll still be talking about it — and here we are, still talking about it.

So, let’s start talking with Saundra McClain.

Bread and Butter and Peppermint Patties

Ae13U: Thank you Saundra for your time today.  First of all, where did you grow up? Are you from the Northeast?

Saundra McClain: Yes, from Philadelphia.

Ae13U: Most actors have that “light bulb” moment, usually when they’re very young, when they discover acting is their calling. When was that point for you?

Saundra McClain: Oh, goodness. It's kind of a mixed bag. I was in high school and I was in the orchestra and on the side I was in the drama club. So things started happening in college. I was a chem major and theater was like a hobby and it wasn't until I was on campus and I was hired to be a stand-in in a movie that I began to sort of take it serious. I remember asking the actor, Al Freeman Jr., what did I need to do to, you know, to get into this business? And he said, “The first thing you need to do is get the hell out of Philadelphia!”

So, a few weeks later I packed up my bags and I left school, actually in my senior year, and went to New York and pursued an acting career.

Ae13U: Al Freeman Jr.! Wow, what a great early contact to make! My dad turned me onto him in Hot l Batlimore [a short-lived 1975 Norman Lear sitcom].
Al Freeman Jr. in a scene from the 1975 ABC TV series, Hot l Baltimore.
Ae13U: I want to shift now to your commercial work, which I understand is extensive. First, I am a huge fan of commercials, I have several articles and a couple hours of commercials posted on my blog and YouTube channel, so when I said earlier I recalled your Peppermint Pattie commercial, I really did! It must have had a long run because I certainly remembered it.

Saundra McClain: Everybody seems to. It ran for ten years.

Saundra McClain’s Peppermint Pattie spot.

Ae13U: Wow! That is a long time for a spot to run. No wonder so many remember it. About how many commercials did you do throughout that period in the 70s and 80s?

Saundra McClain: Oh gosh, probably at least one hundred if not more. I mean, I that was that was how I made pretty much made my bread and butter. Theater [only] paid a living wage when I was in a Broadway show, so commercials is really what I did, and voice-overs.

Ae13U: Other than Peppermint Pattie, can you share some of the brands you may have represented?

Saundra McClain: Oh, McDonald's Burger King, Virgin Airlines, Anacin . . .  I did several McDonald’s commercials now that I think of it. Several detergents . . . what was the lady that used to do your fingernails?

Ae13U: Oh, Madge and Palmolive. “You're soaking in it!” You did one of those. That's great! [Note: Baby Boomers may be the only ones that get that reference.]

Saundra McClain:  I remember doing Wendy’s. Oh, I mean it's so many.

Ae13U: You were definitely representing all the big major brands in the commercials back then.

Saundra McClain: Joy, Tide, Solo, which had short life, I just remember the slogan . . . [Note: Solo was sold from 1979 to 1990. Its slogan was, "You can't forget the softener with Solo.”]

Ae13U: Fantastic. Well, I'm the commercial guy, so that that is just a point of great interest to me. The thing about commercials is that national brand commercials get played a lot. It makes you a familiar presence to those kids who do watch TV. It’s a similar situation with Vicky Dawson, who also has a very extensive commercial resume. While it may not make you a household name as such, it does make you a familiar face, and in a large ensemble comedy, that can make it more inviting to young viewers.

Theater, The Tonight Show, and Tiny Tim

Ae13U: OK, speaking of large ensemble shows, looking through your credits, but it seems that Hot Hero Sandwich may have been your first series on which you were a regular recurring cast member, would that be correct?

Saundra McClain: Yes.

Ae13U: And about that time, getting back to your theater work, I know you did a Broadway play — Comin’ Uptown from December 1979 through January 1980 [Note: Based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens], so I'm wondering if you recall if you were rehearsing for that show at that time.  I know it's going back a long way . . .

Saundra McClain: Yeah, we pretty much at the same time. I know I was in the show and probably doing the TV series [Hot Hero Sandwich] at the same time, but Comin’ Uptown wasn't my first Broadway show, no. [Note: That would have been the show, The River Niger, in 1973.]

Ae13U: Nan-Lynn Nelson was also doing a Broadway play about the same time as Hot Hero Sandwich [see Nan’s interview for more information.]

Saundra McClain: We were down the street from each other. She was doing Runaways and I was doing Colored Girls [For Colored girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, Sep. 15, 1976 – Jul. 16, 1978.]

Ae13U: So, that was about the same time? I’m fascinated by how busy everyone was between the theater and the show.

Backtracking a bit, what I love about you on the show are your characterizations. Not only the unique accents and vocal characterizations, but the full body language and mannerisms you put into the performances in wherever you do. Whether it’s the crusty plumber in a Captain Hero segment, a Jamaican school teacher, or a Stone Age or a Space Age school teacher, you seem to be able to create and inhabit a wide variety of character types. While the other cast members also did that to various degrees, that really seemed to be your forte.

Hot Hero Sandwich Episode 9 Stone Age Nightmare High.
I've got a couple scripts from series writer Marianne Meyer and while there's stage direction there’s not really much direction on characterization. Of course, I don't know what went on at rehearsals, but I'm wondering if you had the freedom to create these characters or were they more prescribed?

Saundra McClain: You know, we just all pretty much did our thing. I mean everybody that was in the show, we were pretty much established actors and brought their own characterizations to the fore . . . Matt [McCoy] was really good at that sort of thing of various characterizations. I've worked with Frankie [Faison] several times. He played my husband God knows how many times! You should ask him.

Hot Hero Sandwich Episode 5: What's New Talk Show Parody Segment with
Matt McCoy as the host and Saundra McClain, Frankie Faison, Andrew Duncan,
Claudette Sutherland, Jarett Smithwrick, and L. Michael Craig.

Ae13U: Oh, I plan too someday if I get the chance! Some of the other actors remember whose Saturday Night Live’s actor’s dressing room they were assigned to. Do you recall whose dressing room you were assigned?

Saundra McClain: Well, I don't remember . . . and the reason I feel is because, before becoming an actor, I worked for Johnny Carson — I worked at NBC — So, I knew the studios, but I never paid attention. There were so many people that that went by me during the time that I worked at the Carson show, The Tonight Show rather, that I don’t recall.  When you’ve worked with Zsa Zsa Gabor, Jack Benny . . . [laughter].

Ae13U: Really? You worked on The Tonight Show when it was in New York? What was your job?

Saundra McClain: I was the talent coordinator. We worked in the same studio I think as Saturday Night Live.

[Note: The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson was broadcast from Studio 6B in Rockefeller Center, which was also home to Saturday Night Live and Hot Hero Sandwich on Studio 8H.]

Ae13U: So, that was your old stomping grounds anyways. Well, that does put your performance on Hot Hero in a larger context. That was an epic era for The Tonight Show. You're really entrenched in TV history!

Saundra McClain: I’m so entrenched that I actually helped plan Tiny Tim’s wedding!

[Note: That legendary moment in TV history took place Dec. 17, 1969.]

Tiny Tim's Entire Wedding to Miss Vicky | Carson Tonight Show.

Ae13U: Wow, you really are entrenched! That is definitely an iconic moment in TV history. I actually got to meet him once when he played at the annual Tulip Festival here in Albany, NY. Was that your only role at Rockefeller Center?

Saundra McClain: I [previously] worked as a “guidette” and I took people on tours of the NBC studios and facilities, so asking me whose dressing room . . . Good Lord! [laughter]

Ae13U: [laughter] Yeah, I guess that would be a bit of a lost detail considering the work you had been doing there before Hot Hero Sandwich. So, that’s actually what they called tour guides back then, “guidettes?”

Regis Philbin with late 1960s-era NBC Guidettes in Los Angeles.
Saundra McClain: The guys were “guides,” I was a page, and the females were “guidettes.”

Ae13U: So, you really kind of worked your way up.

Saundra McClain: I did it for three weeks! [laughter]

Ae13U: Well, you were there and then returned as a talent coordinator for one of the most iconic shows ever. That does give a lot of context for your later career. In whatever capacity you could find, you worked as close to the industry you could.

Get the Hell Out of Philadelphia

Ae13U: Regarding the end of Hot Hero Sandwich and what the cast knew of its future . . . I’ve gotten a mix of different answers on this question. Some hoped there would be a second season, some assumed there wouldn’t be a second season, for some it was just another gig, and Vicky Dawson reports being told by Fred Silverman’s office there would be a second season, and her character in Another World killed off because of it.

So, given this mix of answers I have to ask, and I know it’s been a while, do you remember any rumors or stories going on back then about a possible second season or not?

Saundra McClain: Yeah, I heard rumors about it, but nothing was said to me. I do remember we were nominated for something . . .

Ae13U: There were two Emmy award wins and five nominations for the show.

Saundra McClain: Right, so we thought that the show was going to get picked up because we were sort of like the Saturday Night Live for kids. And the kids [younger cast members] were really cute. I do remember that. So, they did a nice job.

Hot Hero Sandwich Episode 7: Captain Hero Segment. Saundra McClain plays a wisecracking plumber to Claudette Sutherland and Adam Ross as Captain Hero!

Ae13U: Are there any other tales from those times you remember? I understand, as Claudette Sutherland noted, the supporting cast wasn’t in the studio as often as the main cast, and if an actor wasn’t in a sketch, chances are they weren’t aware of it.

Saundra McClain: I think the reason why we don't remember some of the other skits is because we only got the skits that we were in, and I never saw the show, so we never knew what was going to air and when.

Ae13U: Right, and VCRs were very expensive back then, and a busy, young, New York City actor usually has other things going on Saturday mornings, such as rehearsals, work, or sleep after a late Friday night performance!

One last question I usually ask is what advice you might have for young performers, but I can’t help but think about what Al Freeman Jr. told you, “Get out of Philadelphia.” Go to where the industry is. I guess that would be a big major piece of advice you might give. Would that be a safe assumption?

Saundra McClain: Yes, but I don't want people to think that I didn't complete my education. I have an MFA! [laughter] But I did drop out my senior year and then I didn't go back to school until sometime later.

Ae13U: As college faculty, I'm glad to hear that! Though that one bit of advice, “Get out of Philadelphia,” sounds like the title of a motivational book for actors. [laughter]

Saundra McClain: It was “Get the HELL out of Philadelphia!” Not just “get out,” but “Get the hell out of Philadelphia,” and when I mentioned it to him years later, he said, “Don't blame it on me!” [laughter]

Ae13U: That's a great Hollywood story, and I’m such a big fan of Al Freeman Jr., that was a kick to hear. Well, Sandra, that kind of wraps up my questions. I’ve learned a lot about the show, your career, and a bit of TV history, I can’t thank you enough for your time today.

Saundra McClain: Thank you. Bye!

Hot Hero Sandwich Episode 6: Running Away. Some sketches have a dramatic component, as in this piece with Denny Dillon’s character who decides she wants to run away.
Saundra makes her entrance at 4:45.

Concluding Thoughts

After Hot Hero Sandwich, Saundra McClain continued her career in acting, accruing nominations for NAACP Theatre Awards, Ovation Awards, and the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for her roles in A Raisin in the Sun, and her performance in Wedding Band. She later earned her MFA is in Directing from CSU-Fullerton, and moved into directing and teaching at such institutions as Queens College, California Lutheran University, AMDA — The College and Conservatory of the Performing Arts, The Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA), Pomona College, and California State University- Fullerton, passing along her experience to new generations. Along the way, she also found the time to author Peepo & the Magic Talisman.

Despite those considerable and significant credits, it is often the smallest discoveries about the Hot Hero cast that connects me with their work. As it turned out, I watched Bruce and Carole Hart’s work on Sesame Street as a five-year-old during its very first few seasons. I grew up listening to Claudette Sutherland on my dad’s copy of the Broadway cast recording of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Saundra McClain’s Peppermint Pattie commercial was played so often that as a budding young, and notably untalented, mimic, I would repeat her short spot imitating her as best I could — and often to my mother’s irritation. My delight in discovering Saundra was the actor in that commercial was like finding an old childhood friend.

Saundra McClain — One-minute demo video.

Yet, that is magic of television. Even short commercial spots can create an intimacy and familiarity between the actor and the audience, and that safe space can turn a cast of strange faces in an ensemble into something a bit more inviting, even if only at a subconscious level.

McClain started off in the post office before transitioning to acting. This recalls a line in Robert Townsend’s 1987 film, Hollywood Shuffle about a Black actor’s struggles. Rather than compromise your dreams, the film’s mantra was, “There’s always work at the post office.” [Hot Hero Factoid: Townsend auditioned for Hot Hero Sandwich with the role going to Jarett Smithwrick.]

Maybe, but not for Saundra McClain. Sometimes, when you want your dreams to come true you have to get out and deliver them yourself.

Saundra McClain — Today (
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