by Patricia Grandjean
Oct 15, 2010
10:39 AMBox Office
Q & A/Web Exclusive: Susan Saint James Ebersol
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It's been more than 20 years since we've spoken with activist, actress and Litchfield County resident Susan Saint James Ebersol, who retired from acting after her 1980s series, "Kate & Allie," ended its run. Married to NBC executive Dick Ebersol, she's also known for her work in "McMillan and Wife" and "It Takes a Thief" as well as her longstanding support of Special Olympics. No stranger to personal adversity (she's struggled with depression and lost her youngest child, Teddy Ebersol, in a 2004 plane crash),she be honored on Oct. 17 by High Watch Recovery Center in Kent—a recovery community based on 12-step principles—with its first Sister Francis Award (named for the center's benefactor). The award presentation is part of an anniversary celebration that will include a high tea and silent auction, taking place at Avon Old Farms in Avon. Proceeds from the event benefit the construction of a $2 million medical wing. For more information, call (888)493-5368 or visit highwatchrecovery.com.
This is an anniversary, of sorts. We did a Connecticut Magazine cover story on you 21 years ago this month.
I know, with a photo of me sitting in my jeans on my stone wall.
What do you remember about that piece, if anything?
Had I stopped working already? It was before I had Teddy, who was born in June 1990. So I hadn't gotten pregnant with him yet, and I was just finishing the last year of "Kate & Allie," though I didn't know it. But I don't remember the interview—it's funny because I just saw that issue. I'm sort of sorting through all my stuff right now, as much as I can take. It's not much fun, not the romp you think it would be: "Oh, look at this photo of me." Because there was so much anguish and stuff going on all the time. You remember what you weighed, and why you hated that outfit.
But I remember the interview being very positive, and a lot of fun. What do you remember about it?
I remember thinking you were very kind to give us so much access to your home, because it's not something everybody we feature does. I remember thinking that was quite generous and somewhat uncommon.
True. Although I think I asked that all the photos be shot from the back yard. In terms of having people here, I've done a ton of fund raisers for political things; I did one for Bob Ballard when I was a trustee at the Mystic Aquarium. So I've never been too shy about that. I did put gates in eventually, because people would just walk in. When you're on TV, people think of you as their best friends. It's not like being a movie star; in that case people see you as a little more "scary." People would walk in the back door and yell, "Sue!" I'd be like, "Huh? What?"
I'm such a citizen; I was on the Parks & Rec commission here, raised my kids here, taught CCD one year at the local church. Once I retired, I became more that way. My last three boys were all born in the same hospital Dick was born in. I was in the garden club. We own the radio station in town; I did an "afternoon drive" show for awhile.
I did get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame after I retired. Now, that was fun. It was a kind of tribute to the years I did spend there. When too much time passes from your last job, you sort of become a footnote. And your fans are so aged, they're not carrying the banners for you so much. But the ceremony was really sweet, I actually loved it. And three of my boys live out there, so they go by and see it all the time.
Tell me about the award you're receiving this month, the Sister Francis Award from High Watch.
I became friends with Janina [Kean, president and CEO of High Watch Recovery Center]. . . actually, I'm trying to remember how we became friends. Up until about 12 years ago, I was probably best known in Connecticut for my work with Special Olympics. Probably still to this day; I mean, when we did the World Games in 1995 in New Haven, I got five honorary doctorate degrees in the state. That was because I was all over the place promoting the organization . . . actually, I was from the time we moved here, in 1981, when I was pregnant with my son Charlie. I moved here and didn't really know anyone, and Dick was producing "Saturday Night Live," so he didn't come home on the weekends. So I was up here all alone, although happily, and I called Mrs. Shriver and said, "What can I do up here?" I'd been huge with Special Olympics in California. She said, "well, my son Timmy is going to run the board, and Peter Wheeler"—who is a great, great friend of mine—"is going to be the executive director, so sign up."
I jumped in, and I was all over the state within 20 minutes of having Charlie; I was massively involved. We had 15 to 20 athletes at every taping of "Kate & Allie," and we did two tapings a week. We did 120 shows, so that was 240 batches of kids—I think everybody in the Special Olympics program at that time got a chance to come down in a bus and see the show tape. I became such a strong and active advocate in Connecticut—you know, my mom was born in Cromwell, my dad in Waterbury, and they went to high school in Middletown, so they were citizens, too.
After I retired, I just thought, "This'll be great, I won't go to work any more." I had five kids, I took a cake-decorating class, entered the Goshen Fair with my knitting and won a prize. I did everything I thought I was dying to do when I stopped working. And all of a sudden I was slammed with the fact that I no longer got a paycheck, for the first time since I was 15 or 16. I didn't have anyone telling me, "Good job"—kids don't usually say, "Mom, I loved that advice you gave me today. Wow, you're a great mom." Usually, when they're 50 and you're dying, they come up with that one. So, I got depressed. And I had never, ever gone through that before. I mean, I ran the world from the time I was 2 years old.