(This interview was originally published March 21, 2011 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 Allison Smith. She is probably best known to '80s fans as “Jennie Lowell,” the daughter of Jane Curtin’s character, on the sitcom Kate & Allie for six seasons. Previous to that role, she starred in the title role of Annie on Broadway for nearly three years which received rave reviews and demonstrated her incredible singing voice. Since the 80s, the beautiful Smith continues to sing and act in roles on television, movies and stage. You will find out a little more about her experiences as “Annie” and on Kate & Allie as well as what she has been up to more recently as we get on to some selections from my interview with Allison Smith…
Q: You started professional acting/performing at a young age. How did you get your start? Did you ever have any formal acting or singing training?
Allison: I sang in a school play at my public school in New Jersey in the 4th grade. Everyone was “wow-ed”. A teacher’s husband who was a stage hand on Evita on Broadway told my mom they were replacing some of the children’s chorus. I went and got it. That was the beginning. I really felt called to be doing it. I never had any formal training at that time.
Q: When you were 10 years old, you received the lead role in the Broadway musical Annie. What are your memories of getting that role and then performing it for nearly three years straight? Were you enjoying yourself performing such a high profile role at such a young age?
Allison: Doing Annie was an absolute pleasure through and through. As I got older, around 11 and had been doing the role a while, I started to come into my own and understand that I had some control over the audience’s reaction, making them laugh or feel sad, and I started to experiment more vocally. It was such a blast and I loved every minute of it.
Smith belted out “Tomorrow” for nearly three years (and over 1000 performances) as "Little Orphan Annie". At that time, she became the youngest person ever (one month past her tenth birthday) to star in a Broadway musical. Smith’s run ended in September of 1982 and the show ended up closing in January 1983.
Q: After leaving Annie, how did the 1983 opportunity to play daughter “Jennie” on Kate & Allie come your way? Did you have any expectations or reservations going into the series? Did you ever expect this role to last as long as it did (6 seasons)? How was the transition from Broadway to a television series?
Allison: I left Annie in September, 1982 and got Kate & Allie in March of 1983. At that time from doing Annie I was known in New York as a working performer, so just continued being offered roles until I got the role of “Jennie” for Kate & Allie. Who would have known I’d be on that show for the next 6 years?
I never would have auditioned for a Kate & Allie if it hadn’t shot in New York. I still had many brothers and sisters at home and we were never interested in leaving New York and disrupting the family. At that time and being a teenager, I was happy to break out of my Annie musical image and play someone different on TV.
Kate & Allie was one of the most popular and critically acclaimed sitcoms of the '80s, consistently ranking in the Top 20 shows until its final season. It starred Susan Saint James as the free-spirited “Kate” and Jane Curtin as her more traditional childhood friend, “Allie”. They were strong, independent, divorced women raising families together. During the show’s run, Curtin won two Emmy Awards for Best Actress in a Comedy Series while Saint James was nominated in the same category three times. The show also starred Allison Smith as Allie’s daughter “Jennie”, Frederick Koehler as her little brother “Chip” and Ari Meyers as Kate’s daughter “Emma”. Kate & Allie premiered in March of 1984 and lasted six seasons (122 episodes) ending in May of 1989.
Q: You got to work side by side with both Jane Curtin, who played your mother, and Susan Saint James. Please tell us what you remember about working with them both on and off the screen. Were they very “motherly” to you on set? What did you learn from working with those two talented and funny ladies?
Allison: Jane and Susan were both motherly and both fabulous. I learned comedic genius from being around Jane and all around greatness from Susan.
Q: You also worked with two other young actors in Ari Meyers and Frederick Koehler. Were you close as a cast? Did you and Ari become good friends in real life? Do you still keep in touch with any of your cast mates?
Allison: We all were very close at the time. You basically live with each other every day. Ari and I became best friends at the time. We all still keep in touch. And Freddy at the time really did feel like our little brother.
Both Allison Smith and Ari Meyers were trophy presenters at the 8th Annual TV Land Awards which aired in April of 2010.
Q: I would imagine that you became the crush of many young boys and were also recognized in public a lot back then. Do you have any memories of the fan mail or interactions you had? Did you enjoy the attention?
Allison: I preferred not being called out or recognized in public. When I was with my friends from home, I really just wanted to blend in and not be made to feel different. Between Annie and Kate & Allie, there was always thousands of letters of fan mail. That just felt so nice to know that people enjoyed my talents. But mostly, I preferred very little attention.
The show took advantage of Allison's singing skills in several episodes including this one when she sings a version of Scandal's "Goodbye to You"...Q: You were going to high school and then attending NYU during your time on the show. What do you remember about having to work and attend school at the same time especially the final two years as you began college?
Allison: I felt really busy the years at NYU and still on Kate & Allie. I felt lucky to be able to do both at the same time and not have to give up one for the other.
Q: Any interesting stories about making Kate & Allie that you can share with us and let us in on?
Allison: Oh, 'Kate & Allie' is so long ago now. We have tapes and tapes of outtakes. That was the most fun. Doing a taping and messing up a scene or getting the giggles. That was always so fun. One time, I remember Ari and I doing an interview with Dick Cavett and getting the giggles over his shoes during the interview. It was pretty inappropriate.
Q:Kate & Allie was both a wholesome and funny show that was loved by many. It featured strong, independent women raising families on their own, but together. At the time, this might not have been as appreciated as it deserved to be. Looking back now, what are your feelings about the series in general? How about your work in particular on the show?
Allison: I think 'Kate & Allie' was ahead of its time in representing different kinds of families. I think my work was just OK. I see a naturalness not yet developed.
Q: I asked a similar question in my interviews with Family Ties creator Gary David Goldberg and The Fall Guy’sDoug Barr. Since you were on a series that was wholesome yet entertaining, I will ask the same question. I know ratings ultimately dictate the programming, but are you surprised and/or disappointed in the lack of wholesome family shows on television today? As a mother, do you find it difficult to allow your daughters to watch the shows available on television today?
Allison: I think television desperately needs wholesome family shows today. I really miss that kind of television. There’s not much I let them watch because there’s very little that’s wholesome or smart on television now. Little House On The Prairie is in re-runs and we’ll watch that.
Q: Are there any '80s roles (TV or movies) that you auditioned for and did not get that would be surprising or interesting especially looking back now?
Allison: I didn’t audition for any other stuff back then. I did the show and then laid low on my time off.
Q: With your first hand experience (or the experience of those you’ve known/observed), what are the positives and negatives of being a child actor? How does being a successful child actor affect your ability to be a successful adult actor?
Allison: The positives of child acting are getting the jobs and having the experiences and doing the work. The negatives are auditioning and not getting the work and then involving rejection into your existence that wouldn’t normally be there. I don’t know how being successful at a young age affects being successful at it as an adult. I try not to think about whether it helps or hurts. There are strong examples of both. I don’t really think of what was but what is and live in that place.
Q: It seems that many of the child actors from back in the '70s and '80s have created strong friendships and sort of a fraternity over the years. Did you find this to be true?
Allison: Since we shot in New York, we weren’t much around other television performers from that time. That was more a California thing.
Q: After three decades in the industry, from your perspective, how has it changed both for the good or bad?
Allison: For the most part, the industry has become star or celebrity driven. There are less good stories with just good actors.
Q: Do you still get recognized in public a lot? I’d imagine that, if so, it is not likely as “Jennie” anymore?
Allison: I don’t think I’m recognized much anymore. If so, it’s more for The West Wing.
Smith had a recurring role during the entire seven-year run of The West Wingwhich was one of the most critically acclaimed and more popular drama series of its time (1999-2006). She played “Mallory O’Brien” who was the daughter of John Spencer’s Chief of Staff character. She was a potential love interest of Rob Lowe’s “Sam Seaborn” character yet nothing materialized much in that regard. An interesting bit of trivia is that Smith’s “Mallory” is the only non-regular character to appear in both the first and last episodes of the series. Q: How was your experience working on The West Wing? In particular, '80s fans are probably most interested in what it was like working with Rob Lowe. What can you tell us about him both on and off screen?
Allison: Rob Lowe was awesome and wonderful and superb in the role of “Sam Seaborn”. He really was so talented at that part. He’s a fun guy, an energetic guy, an inclusive guy, and a hard worker.
Here is a scene from season 4 of The West Wing with both Allison and Rob Lowe together…
Q: You have remained relatively busy working over the years. What has Allison Smith been up to more recently? Both acting or otherwise?
Allison: I have two children who keep me busy in my home life. I participate in their lives in a real mom way; in school and their extra activities. I’m married. I still do a lot of TV work; mostly guest spots lately. I’m still singing. I write. I’m looking into directing.
I am so delighted that Allison took some time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. I want to take this opportunity to again thank Allison Smith for her contributions to '80s pop culture especially through Kate & Allie and, even more, for taking a moment to go back to the '80s with us here as well.