Linda Lavin says that to thrive, “you have to connect.” In her latest role as Norma, a resident at the retirement home at the center of the TV comedy B Positive (CBS, Season 2 premieres Oct. 14, 9:30 p.m. ET), Lavin is eager to make that connection with the show’s audience. “We are telling a story that is very real about people who no longer live at home but have formed a community in a new home, and how that feels and what that looks like,” the Emmy nominee and Tony winner says. “We hope the audience is connecting with us the way Alice [her groundbreaking 1976-85 TV series] connected with us. That, to me, is what it’s all about.”
Lavin tells AARP how connecting — in both your personal and professional life — keeps you engaging and evolving through your 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond. Turning 84 the day after her show’s second season begins, she offers up her 16 best tips to make it happen.
Norma is struggling with aging, as I am. Aging is challenging. We’re not the person we used to be. In many ways I identify with her: She has a great sense of humor. She’s bright. She is a woman of substance and irony. She has a perspective of reality that I admire and that is inspiring. I love playing her because she has a self-deprecating sense of humor as well.
Norma has a sense of being abandoned, and that is identifiable with a lot of us. As we grow older, we become more vulnerable. I’m excited to be part of the show and to play a character with whom millions of people will identify, because she is making the best of a situation that has taken her out of her comfort zone — out of her independence.
Age: 84 on Oct. 15
Hometown: Portland, Maine
Current Project: B Positive, Thursdays, starting Oct. 14, 9:30 p.m. ET, CBS
In the works: Being the Ricardos, an Aaron Sorkin film that follows the I Love Lucy cast [including Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz] as they go from table read through audience filming for a single episode. Lavin will play the role of television writer Madelyn Pugh, who wrote for I Love Lucy and later, under her married name Madelyn Davis, for Alice as well.
TV greatest hits: Santa Clarita Diet; The Good Wife; Conrad Bloom; Room for Two; Alice [Emmy nominee, best lead actress in a comedy series, 1979]; Barney Miller; The Doctors.
Theater greatest hits: Broadway Bound [1987 Tony winner for best actress]; received five other Tony nominations for The Lyons, 2012; Collected Stories, 2010; The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, 2001; The Diary of Anne Frank, 1998; Last of The Red Hot Lovers, 1970.
Binge list: Ted Lasso; Scenes From a Marriage; Godfather of Harlem; Call Your Agent; CSI: Crime Scene Investigation; Law & Order: SVU; Mare of Easttown; Broadchurch.
Guilty pleasure: “I watch a lot of junk [TV] late at night. I watch a lot of Real Housewives — just the horror of watching people behave badly. It’s entertainment. It’s short-lived ... but it’s something to talk about with my show business friends.
My husband, Steve Bakunas, and I have been vital and alive and active together as a team, revitalizing neighborhoods, building a theater out of an auto garage in North Carolina. And now Steve has designed and built a five-suite inn near Hudson, New York. Because of the pandemic, we’ve been living in it.
When our kids tell us that we have to stop driving, it’s a terrible day in the life of an adult parent because it’s the end of that independence. I know that happened with my father, [so] you make adjustments. My life is about readjustments, one after another. Every one of those readjustments for me is an adventure. How lucky am I to be able to say that?
I faced my fear [shooting last season’s B Positive during the pre-vaccine phase of the COVID-19 pandemic]. I walked through it as I do with many issues in my life. I prepared my own food for the flight. I sat by myself. I wore a mask and a shield. I washed my hands every two seconds. I did everything the CDC told us to do.
I had been living in New York City for the first six months of the pandemic, where the epicenter was. I was giving concerts in my apartment with my friend and musical director Billy Stritch. It was kind of a way for me to give back, to participate in connecting again. We did it live on Facebook. I did thirteen concerts; then I did 13 episodes of a little sitcom with my friend, jazz violinist — I have a nightclub act — Aaron Weinstein. It turns out he’s also a comedy writer. He created a character for me [Yvette Slosch], and we did a pandemic sitcom.
I was locked down in my apartment with my little dog, Mickey, a Jack Russell/beagle mix. He made it through the pandemic with me in New York City, with a liver tumor. He started to fail. When Steve came back from Costa Rica [his grownup children live there], we moved upstate and Mickey lived another 2 ½ months. We put him down. It was time. We didn’t want him to suffer anymore. Our wonderful vet said, “This is not going to get better.” I miss him to this day.
The third time's the charm. This marriage is a wonderful, loving, delightful, deep relationship. We talk about everything. We work on our relationship in several ways: spiritually, psychologically and emotionally. We have grown individually and together.
Certainly one of the gifts of the pandemic and the horrors of it was the isolation and solitude and the separation. I think a lot of people who were crammed together in their small living spaces learned how to live together. Steve and I learned how to live together separately and come back together even stronger than before. There’s no magic involved in it. It takes work, and we do the work.
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I’m kind of a snail. I move around, with my own house around me. We are starting a new adventure out here [in Los Angeles, where B Positive is now taping]. Steve and I have done this about four to five times in the last seven years. We love doing it. We know what it takes to move and start a new life. We’re kind of vagabondish. It certainly has challenged me to leave my comfort zone.
Be reasonable with yourself
I love to eat. I love to cook. My exercise is walking. I did buy a bike last year, but we still haven't taken it out of the box. I keep busy with work, and now that I have dogs, I walk and play with them. I have an occasional meditation routine, but nothing set in stone. I go day by day. I watch what I eat or I say the hell with it. I went vegan a few years ago and gained 10 pounds, so that didn’t work too well. I was hungry all the time.
I have a lot of good, healthy friends in my life, and I hang out with them. I hang out with people who are positive and healthy, and that’s my commitment to being alive.
I had a really tough time getting into television in the ’60s in New York City. I wasn’t blond enough or thin enough. They kept saying I was too ethnic. I thought it wasn’t going to happen. I got one job: the soap The Doctors. It aired the week President Kennedy was assassinated. An unbelievable memory for me, right?
Alice was such a big surprise for me, and it came out of my having the boldness and courage to come out to L.A. to look for work in the ’70s, when everything was falling apart in New York — the theater, the stock market, housing.
I got a tiny job in a pilot for a Warner Bros./CBS show. The head of CBS TV came to me and said, “Would you let us put you under contract? We’ll find a show for you.” I thought he was kidding because it was a really tough year for me: I couldn’t find an agent, I couldn’t get in to see people. Finally, I got this tiny part in a pilot. The pilot never sold, but what came out of it was a two-year contract with Warner Bros., during which time Alice was presented to me. And the rest is history. [Now] I’m back on the very lot where we shot Alice. A lot of memories, a lot of déjà vu all over again.
Gayle Jo Carter, the former entertainment editor at USA WEEKEND magazine, has interviewed newsmakers for AARP, USA WEEKEND, USA Today, Parade, Aspire and Washington Jewish Week.