Linda ('Lou Grant') Kelsey's Marriage to a Carpenter Hits the Nail on the Head
That enlightened attitude probably goes a long way toward sustaining TV star Kelsey's marriage to Glenn Strand, a carpenter. She is the frizzy-haired, sometimes frizzy-minded reporter Billie Newman on the CBS hit Lou Grant. When she took the role in 1976, she earned about $3,000 an episode, but now it's at least twice that. Strand, 29, is paid by the job—modestly, by her standards.
"Our life," says Linda, 33, "is very much outside show business. I never met anyone in the business I wanted to marry. I was overbalanced toward work until I met Glenn."
Technically that was six years ago, when she was doing summer stock on Cape Cod and dating a friend of his. They did not date, however, until 1978, when Glenn called to say he was visiting Los Angeles. "We've been together ever since," says Linda. After sharing her house for a year, they made it official last May. "We got married because it was the right thing to do," explains Kelsey. "This wasn't a frivolous relationship, and family is important to both of us."
Born in Minneapolis, the daughter of a dentist and a housewife, Linda starred in family puppet shows and high school plays. (A younger brother, Tom, is a makeup artist.) She abandoned voice lessons at 14, "when I found out I couldn't sing," but graduated with a drama degree from the University of Minnesota in 1968. A fellowship at the innovative Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis followed. She also married a fellow actor and the couple moved to Los Angeles looking for film work in 1971. (They were divorced in 1973.)
After suffering briefly as a receptionist for a financial company—"the most boring job I ever had"—Linda started getting small television roles and commercials. She competed for one shampoo assignment with Farrah Fawcett. "I took one look at her and thought, 'What am I doing here?' " Kelsey laughs. She landed another spot she wishes she hadn't, for Nestlé's Butterscotch Morsels. It's still shown, but since Nestlé's has been accused of contributing to malnutrition in poor countries by heavily promoting its baby formula among mothers not educated enough to use it properly, Linda now boycotts its products. She also contributes her royalties from the commercial to a legal campaign against the parent Swiss corporation.
In her first dramatic guest role, a $150 bit on Emergency, she played a patient. "I had all these classical theater credits, and the casting director seemed so glad I was a serious actress when he hired me," she recalls. "It was quite a comedown to lie on a stretcher and say nothing."
While purposely avoiding any permanent role in a series, Kelsey did theater—earning a New York Times rave for one production at New Haven's esteemed Long Wharf Theater—and portrayed FDR's friend Lucy Mercer in the 1976 TV movie Eleanor and Franklin. She was asked to read for a guest shot on Lou Grant after its third episode, then was quickly offered the part full-time. "I said I'd have to think about it," she says. "Actually, it took only about 20 minutes of thinking. I decided that with Ed Asner and producer Gene Reynolds, I'd be a fool to turn it down." Says Asner of Kelsey, "She's excellent, with an even greater potential as a leading lady and character actress. She's a gem."
Strand, a promotion man's son from Mount Kisco, N.Y., is not altogether without a show business background. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa in English lit from Boston University in 1972, he tried backstage jobs with various theater groups, including Sarah Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston—"It was manic and crazy, but a terrific experience." Trying to line up props, sets and union hands as a stage manager in Baltimore convinced him he was in the wrong business. "There was too much calling on the phone and being a heavy," he says. "I don't like being a heavy."
He had picked up some woodworking skills along the way, so in 1976 he moved to Cape Cod ("I always wanted to live near water") and apprenticed himself to a carpenter named John Burt. Two years later, when an astrologer predicted a rough year for Strand, he hopped a bus to California and gave Kelsey a call. "Things worked out pretty well," he grins. "We weren't going out of our way looking for something to happen, but it did."
The couple's modest San Fernando Valley house is just a bike ride from Linda's studio. They also recently bought property on Martha's Vineyard, where they plan to build a one-room, solar-powered house. "Linda and I prefer as much self-sufficiency as possible," explains Strand. "I'm not keen on slogans, but I do believe in living lightly on the earth."
Kelsey says Lou Grant leaves her little time for anything else. "We lead a very sedentary life," she explains. "We may build a fire and have a few friends over for a plate of steamed vegetables." The show has changed Linda's eating habits, which once tended toward rich French cuisine. "I was exhausted by the end of the first year," she says, "so I went to a nutritionist who changed my diet. That helped a lot." Now a semi-vegetarian (no red meat) who cooks only occasionally—"We're amazed when it tastes good"—Kelsey shares the household chores with her husband.
During on-set breaks in her 12-hour days, Linda often knits—it's no coincidence that Billie Newman is seen with needle and yarn on TV, but Kelsey insists the similarities end there. "The danger in doing a series is that people identify actors with the characters they play," she says. "I focus on what Billie would do in any situation, but I don't like to be identified with her." To that end Linda has lately been looking over film and TV-movie scripts. Her closest adviser is her husband. "I trust his opinion and seek his judgment," she says. "He tends to look at things as cynically as I do." Adds Strand: "Linda is good often enough that I don't have to lie to her."
To train for her Lou Grant role after the first season, Kelsey hung around with two female reporters in San Jose, passing herself off to the public as a reporter for the Los Angeles Tribune, the name of the paper on the show. When the current production season ends in February, she may accept a reporter's internship offered by the Minneapolis Tribune "to see what it's like."
In keeping with her feelings that Billie should be a contemporary woman, Linda says she's already figured what will happen if she becomes pregnant. "Billie could certainly deal with the problems of the working mother," Linda smiles, "so if we have a baby, Billie will have one too."