Fannie Flagg Unfurls in All Directions: TV's Harper Valley, ERA and a Comic Memoir-Novel

updated 11/23/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/23/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

First there is Fannie Flagg, the sorghum-voiced comedienne of films, records and NBC's Harper Valley. Then there is the heroine of Flagg's recently published first novel, one Daisy Fay Harper, who recollects—often hilariously, sometimes poignantly—her Southern girlhood. Flagg, 40, doesn't flee the inevitable question. "It's my life," Fannie confesses. "There's no way I could pretend otherwise. My parents always fought. He drank. She left home. Things were not exactly as I wrote them, though. My momma did not die when I was young. She died last year, after making peace with Daddy." Her novel, titled Coming Attractions (Morrow, $12.95), has won glowing notices—once reviewers have recovered from their shock that a TV star could write a book some have compared to Catcher in the Rye.

Like her heroine, Fannie is an only child, although she started out as a twin. "My mother had a miscarriage in her third month," she explains, "and my parents figured that was that. They were somewhat surprised when I arrived six months later." Fannie grew up in Birmingham, Ala. and moved to the Gulf Coast when her father bought an interest in a fast-food shop. The best thing about that, Fanny recalls, "was having a hamburger and a malt for breakfast every morning. Talk about a childhood dream!" When the shop burned down the family returned to Birmingham, and her daddy decided to go back to his job as a movie theater projectionist.

Her name then was Patricia Neal (she changed it later, after Actors' Equity told her showbiz already had a famous Patricia Neal), and the memories flooded back when she started to write her book. "It was both painful and liberating," Fannie says. "I loved and hated both my parents so. Loved them because I could see how much unhappiness they were going through. Hated them because I had that fear of being abandoned. I think alcoholics are probably the most sensitive people in the world, which is why they drink. My momma was just beside herself trying to cope with the fact that she loved Daddy but couldn't stand the life."

Always interested in the stage (she wrote a three-act play at 10), her "real" home became the local Town and Gown Theater. Like Daisy Fay, Fannie also entered state beauty contests, but in six attempts she never became Miss Alabama. "I didn't give a damn about winning," she says believably (she once dressed for the swimsuit competition in wet suit, mask and flippers). "I just wanted the scholarships—and I got them." At 18, after a year at the University of Alabama, a local TV station gave her a daily 90-minute talk show. "It was grueling," Fannie recalls. "I finally asked that my salary be raised from $50 to $75 a week. They said no, and I hopped a Greyhound for New York with $175 in my pocket and some routines I had written."

She sold the skits to the Upstairs at the Downstairs nightclub. When the comedienne who was supposed to recite them got sick, Fannie went on in her place. Allen Funt, the Candid Camera impresario, happened to catch the act, and soon Fannie was a writer and performer on his show. After Camera, Fannie became a TV talk and game show regular, made occasional movies (Five Easy Pieces) and starred recently in Broadway's The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Her two record albums, Rally Round the Flagg and My Husband Doesn't Know I'm Making This Phone Call, also were hits.

Fannie lives alone in a bungalow in Santa Barbara and just rented a house in L.A., where Harper Valley is filmed. She has been active for her favorite cause, the Equal Rights Amendment, since making a cross-country speaking tour in 1979. The campaigning, book tours and TV show leave little time to celebrate her success—and one method doesn't appeal anyway. "I love champagne and the idea of drinking, but I just can't," she says. "Alcohol caused a lot of comings and goings in my life. It's hard to forget."

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