Retrocon 2024

Interview with Debbie Pollack, the sexy American girlfriend in 'Sixteen Candles'

(This interview was originally published October 7, 2012 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is Debbie Pollack. If you do not recognize the name right away, you should remember her as Marlene the “new-style sexy American girlfriend” in the 1984 John Hughes’ film Sixteen Candles. She did not have an abundance of screen time, but she still played a very memorable role alongside Gedde Watanabe’s “Long Duk Dong”. Find out more about her experience working on this iconic '80s film and much more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Debbie Pollack… 

Q: When and how did you get your start in acting? Did you ever have any formal acting training? When did you think that it had the potential to become a career for you?
Debbie: I started acting at a very young age. I was in dancing and singing classes at the age of four. I became involved with the San Diego Junior Theatre and began doing musical after musical. I was a Theater, Film and Television major at UCLA then went to Carnegie Mellon University as a Music Theater major. I just always knew performing was what I was always meant to do.

Q: How did the role of “Marlene aka Lumberjack” in 1984’s Sixteen Candles come your way? What do you remember about the audition process and how you were chosen to audition?

Debbie: I was performing in a musical called How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying in Upper Montclair, New Jersey in 1983. Somehow, the Universal casting director Jackie Burch was given my name for the role of “Lumberjack”, a female high school athlete. When I went to the audition, Gedde [Watanabe] was there and we just played around a lot with each other. The entire audition was pretty much an improvisation.

Q: What were your expectations of the film and role when you first began?

Debbie: It was my first film – I really had no expectations. I was totally green about anything on a film. Gedde [Watanabe] and Haviland [Morris] were very generous with their experience and a subtle and quick education on a film set.

Sixteen Candles is the 1984 coming-of-age film written and directed by the great John Hughes. Debbie Pollack plays the “new-style American girlfriend” to foreign exchange student “Long Duk Dong” played by Gedde Watanabe. 

Pollack is the third character from this film that I have had the incredible privilege of interviewing (after previous interviews with Haviland Morris who played “Caroline Mulford” and John Kapelos who played “Rudy Ryszczyk”). The scenes with Pollack and Watanabe often add comic relief to the film. I particularly like the look of pride on her face when she heads into the party with the “Donger” on her arm. Here is a video which includes each of those scenes from Sixteen Candles

Q: What was your character’s name? I have seen it as “Marlene aka Lumberjack”. Is that how it was referred to in the script? How did the “lumberjack” reference happen and how did you feel about that?

Debbie: One day on set, I said to John Hughes, “Come on, the Lumberjack needs a real name!” I was immediately dubbed “Marlene” but appear in the credits as “Lumberjack” because that’s pretty much how John Hughes saw the character – large, lumbering, imposing and a little dense. One of my favorite scenes that was cut from the final version was Gedde and me in my huge souped-up pick-up truck which had “Marlene” printed across the front bumper.

Q: I am certainly a huge fan of all of the John Hughes films from the '80s. What can you tell us about John Hughes and your experience working for him?

Debbie:He was a quiet guy. He was always rewriting and creating things as we went along on set. He loved to let the actors “play” – the scene on the exercise cycle [which was included in the video above] was not in the script, but when Gedde and I got on the set, John just asked us to play around. I sat down and Gedde leaped on my lap, I started pedaling and John fed us lines as the camera rolled.

Q: You were the “new-style sexy American girlfriend” to Gedde Watanabe’s “Long Duk Dong”. What can you tell us about Watanabe and working with him?

Debbie: Gedde Watanabe is a wonderful, creative talented man. We have stayed in touch over the years. I am so blessed to have worked with him.

Q: You did not really have any significant scenes with Molly Ringwald or Anthony Michael Hall. Is there anything you can share with us about getting to work with either of them at all?
Debbie: There is only one scene in the film where Molly and I are together (in the car) [also included in the video above]. Because (in real life) I was older than the character I portrayed, Molly looked very young next to me. As a result, Molly and I never appear on screen together. All two shots in that scene are of Gedde and me. John made sure nobody looked too old on camera.

Q: For how long did you continue to get recognized in public for this role?

Debbie: To this day, I still get recognized. Thanks to good genes, I really don’t look that much different. On a recent vacation to Italy, I was recognized by people from all over the world. I just started an album on my Facebook page of the people who have taken pictures with me after asking, “Were you in Sixteen Candles?”

Q: Was making Sixteen Candles a fun experience for you? Was the cast close during filming? In my interview with Haviland Morris, she said that she remembered getting along well with you in particular. Did you keep in touch with any of the cast members after?

Debbie: It was a fun experience. There were three distinct groups – the kids (Molly, Michael, etc.), the middle gang – those over 21 but playing younger (me, Haviland, Blanche, Gedde) and then the parents/grandparents. Haviland and I are still friends. Gedde and I are still friends. One of the funny things I remember is Blanche Baker was asked to improv as she came down the aisle in the wedding. I had just gotten married a month before filming started so she asked me about some of the things a drunk/loaded bride might say. I remember the first thing I said was about recognizing the guest in the church who gave me a teapot I loved and, bingo, it ended up staying in the final cut of the film.

Q: What are your feelings about Sixteen Candles now over 28 years later?

Debbie: I am so fortunate to be part of an iconic film. As I said, all these years later I am still recognized – all over the world!! Yes, it is flattering to think people still think I look so much the same but it is so much more special that a character I portrayed made such a lasting impression on so many men and women. There are people who resonate with this character in so many ways. I get notes on YouTube and Facebook from people saying they were just like Lumberjack in high school or several guys said they were drawn to tall women because of Lumberjack (that one always makes me laugh!)

Q: Any interesting stories or facts about making Sixteen Candles that you can share with us and let us in on?

Debbie: There were some amazing scenes that were shot that never made it into the film. If you recall there was a takeout food tray attached to the side of the car when Gedde and I drop Molly at her house before we go to the party [you can see this in the video above as well]. There was an entire scene shot at a famous Chicago hot dog stand (I have unseen movie stills from that night’s shoot). There was a huge crowd of locals gathered around to watch the middle of the night shooting. It was a blast.

Q: What are some of your best memories from making Sixteen Candles?

Debbie: Being totally free to create these characters as we went along. So many things made it into the movie because John Hughes threw out an idea and Gedde and I ran with it!
Q: Have your children seen the film and, if so, what did they think of the film and your performance in Sixteen Candles?
Debbie: You know I’ve never asked them but they do get a little blown away when people still recognize me. They get this funny kind of embarrassed but proud look on their faces.
Q: You appeared in a 1988 episode of Hooperman. What can you tell us about your experience getting to work with the late, great John Ritter?
Debbie: He was a very generous actor and a very funny man. I am sad he died so young. 
Q: You also appeared in a 1989 episode of Newhart. What can you tell us about your experience getting to work with the great Bob Newhart?
Debbie: Honestly, I was a bit star struck!
Q: You have worked with some amazing comedy actors. When and where did you get to perform with Carol Burnett? What can you tell us about your experience getting to work with Burnett?

Debbie: Carol Burnett is an alum of UCLA. In the mid-70s she established an award for musical comedy students and came to UCLA to do a show once a year with the Musical Theater workshop students. I was in the show with her at UCLA every year I was there as an undergrad and won her award in my sophomore year, right before I transferred to Carnegie Mellon. Carol Burnett is a magical woman, a brilliant performer and a generous supporter of the UCLA Musical Theater program.

Q: Are there any '80s roles (TV or movies) that you auditioned for and did not get that would be surprising or particularly interesting especially looking back now? If so, which roles were those?

Debbie: I auditioned to be one of Jennifer Beals’ dancer friends in Flashdance. I was so bummed not to get to be in that film!

Q: You left show business for 20 years. Was this to focus on your family and raising your children? Was it difficult to leave acting? Did you always plan on returning to it someday?

Debbie: Yes, I was a single mom raising small children. I had to find a way to support my family that provided a more stable income. No, I didn’t really plan on returning. I was out of the business for so long, I doubted anyone would remember me. Boy, was I wrong! Everyone knows the “sexy American girlfriend” from Sixteen Candles!

Q: Now you have returned to acting. How is that going so far?

Debbie: As well as I could have hoped. The roles for women in my age range are few, so it’s so important to be on the top of your game at every opportunity.

Q: What roles have you taken on so far?

Debbie: I have a few favorite roles so far – Alyssa Milano’s mom in Pathology, being in the final episode of Desperate Housewives (again as a mom), Criminal Minds (as a psycho mom)… seeing a pattern here??? I am thrilled to have gracefully transformed from the “sexy American girlfriend” to everyone’s mom. Hey, there are always moms on screen which means there will always be jobs for us now mom types!

I am very grateful that Debbie was able to take some time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. You can find out a little more about her at IMDb. I want to take this opportunity to again thank Debbie Pollack for her contributions to '80s pop culture especially for being the new-style American girlfriend in Sixteen Candles and, even more, for going back to the '80s with us here for a little while as well.

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