Anyone who criticizes Celia Weston for her sometimes high-pitched, backwoods Southern accent on the television comedy show "Alice" can hardly give her the credit she deserves. As a matter of fact, she’d probably take those criticisms as a compliment. Throughout her years as an actress, and indeed even prior to her formal acting career, Celia developed an acting style that allowed her to change dialects to suit the time, the place and the character, and her role as Jolene in the comedy series "Alice" was certainly no exception.
Celia was born December 14, 1951 in Spartanburg, SC. She always had a passion for acting and, as a youth she, along with her sister, enjoyed creating their own characters and would act out small skits and dialogue based on these characters. One of her favourite creations was a woman named Verlene Mahaffey, a dingy, rednecked Southerner with a very strong dialect, the accent becoming so strong at times it would be almost unintelligible. Years later when Celia landed the part on "Alice," she mentioned her "Verlene Mahaffey" character to the producers and, liking the profile of this character, proceeded to create the new waitress "Jolene Hunnicut."
She landed the part of Jolene while she was appearing in the Broadway play, "Loose Ends." Alan Shayne, president of Warner Bros. Television programming, saw her performance and thought she would make a perfect waitress to replace departing cast member, Diane Ladd. Realizing Celia also had an offer to play a part in the television series, "Private Benjamin," Shayne had little time to waste. CBS immediately flew her out to Hollywood for an audition. She arrived in Los Angeles at 3 AM, and was scheduled to meet the cast and do a scene with fellow actor "Mel" (Vic Tayback) only a few hours later. "She knocked us out. She had innocence and quality," relates Madelyn Davis, co-producer of "Alice." By the time Celia arrived back at her hotel room, the phone was already ringing, informing her that she had the part.
Vic and Celia at the series finale.
Raised in Spartanburg, SC, Celia later attended Salem College in North Carolina. She chose not to major in theatre or the performing arts, but rather studied art and psychology, but appeared often in local college plays. However, her interest in acting remained strong and focused. She capitalized on that interest and went on to attend the North Carolina School of the Arts, and later spent a few months in London at the Bruford School, and in New York studying under the direction of Uta Hagen. Her first role came while in New York when she landed a part in Woody Allen’s "Play It Again, Sam." As with most aspiring actors, money was scarce. As Celia once recalled, "I went through my nest egg and worked as a cocktail waitress during lunch. My mother was mortified. She told everyone back home that I was a waitress in a tearoom." Undaunted, Celia continued with her new-found career and landed roles in two TV pilots, a film ("Honky Tonk Freeway") and two more Broadway plays. It was during the latter of these two plays, "Loose Ends," when she landed the role of Jolene.
On "Alice," Celia was to fill the void left by two former, well-known cast members, first Polly Holliday, who left in 1980 to star in her own spinoff series, "Flo," then Diane Ladd, who quit the series in 1981 after only one season. Ladd’s exit from the show was said to be a "mutual decision." No one involved with the show would comment on her departure or indicate whether rumoured conflicts with the show’s star, Linda Lavin, had any bearing on that decision. Celia, however, naturally felt apprehensive. As she once said regarding those first days, "I felt a lot of trepidation stepping into someone’s shoes. Polly had created a unique character. To imitate her would be suicide for any actress. And I don’t mean any disrespect for Diane, but I never got a feel for what she did on the show.... but Linda Lavin and Beth Howland made those first few weeks bearable. They couldn’t have been more supportive. They sent me flowers after my first show."
Her co-star on the series, Linda Lavin, speaks highly of Celia. She relates, "It’s hard to replace an actress on a sitcom or, in this case, two actresses. Celia is highly tuned, perceptive, extraordinary. From the first time I met her, I felt like I’d known her all my life. She has a breadth and dimension as an actress. I’d work with her on anything." Celia, equally, finds Linda to be talented and an asset to the show. "Linda knows the show better than anyone else. She stays on top of what’s true to a character. She would suggest that a joke or a line might be rewritten so that it would be more suitable for Jolene. And Linda really allows supporting characters to share the spotlight." What were Celia’s thoughts when she landed the role? "I don’t want to be a star or a celebrity," she said, "but I do want to make Jolene a favorite. There’s a fine line between uneducated and dumb. Jolene’s not sophisticated, but she’s smart."
Celia in a recent movie
The series lasted four more seasons before it’s end in 1985, and although the character Jolene never reached the same fame as her unforgettable predecessor Flo, Celia certainly did make a lasting impression with her character and was definitely a favorite among many. As with her "Alice" coworkers, Celia went on to other acting jobs when the series ended, focusing mainly on stage and film. Some of her more notable films in following years included, "Lost Angels," "Dead Man Walking," "Flirting With Disaster," "The Talented Mr. Ripley," and "Snow Falling On Cedars." For her role in "Dead Man Walking," she received an Independent Spirit Award nomination. She also received much acclaim for her work in the Broadway hit, "Last Night at Ballyhoo," which included a Tony nomination, Drama Desk nomination and the Outer Critics Circle and Drama League awards. She has even contributed her voice to an audio book, "Jewel," originally published as a novel by Bret Lott.
Again, as with many of her roles, her dialect of often distinct. In "Snow Falling on Cedars," for example, she played the part of Etta Heine, a grieving, prejudiced mother called to testify at her dead son’s murder trial. As she explains, "the character leapt out at me when I read the book," she says. "I tracked its film prospects and when I learned that Scott Hicks would direct it, I called my agent and told him I wanted to be seen." The part was hers because, says Hicks, "she wasn't just Etta the villain but Etta the grieving mother who'd lost her son." Though Celia hails from South Carolina, she sounded natural and very much like a native-born Bavarian. She reiterated, "I have a good ear for dialect and I did my homework."
With talent and perseverance, Celia certainly has gone far since her "Alice" days and will continue to impress audiences with her unique acting style for years to come.
Celia and Eric Stonestreet on "Modern Family," where she recently played Cam's mother.
Linda Lavin and Celia in New York recently. Photo credit: Reuben, A.
Back to "The Cast" page