Once the Comedy Queen of SCTV, Reclusive Catherine O'Hara Swears She Isn't Just Lying Down on the Job

updated 10/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Once called "the funniest woman on TV," Catherine O'Hara spends much of her time these days bellying up against a snooker table at the Squeeze Club, a Toronto juice bar and pool hall. No, the 32-year-old hasn't been reduced to hustling pool; she's merely hanging out with brothers Marcus and Michael, who own the club. But as far as O'Hara's fans are concerned, she might as well be making a living with her cue stick. A cult heroine during her seven-year stint on SCTV, where she developed wiggy yet precise impersonations of Kate Hepburn, Brooke Shields and Meryl Streep, among others, O'Hara has become eclipsed by her own reclusion.

That's what makes the new HBO special, Really Weird Tales, really special. Running throughout October, the collection of comedy episodes features such SCTV alumni as O'Hara, John Candy, Joe Flaherty and Martin Short. In a tale she co-wrote, I'll Die Loving, O'Hara plays a woman whose affections, once bestowed, cause people to blow up. "Yes," she deadpans, "I'm finally getting to play myself."

Unlike her fictional lovers, O'Hara's career has all but sputtered out since she left SCTV in 1983. Two film roles (the vigilante Mister Softee driver in After Hours and a bouncy Texas gossip in Heartburn) and sporadic TV work (such as The Last Polka and Comic Relief) have been far outnumbered by projects she couldn't get or didn't want. "I don't think Catherine is ambitious in the sense that her career is important to her," says Flaherty. She certainly doesn't seem interested in material rewards. An oddly humble, at times ethereal woman, who once would go for months forgetting to cash her paychecks, O'Hara appears content to stay at home in her downtown Toronto row house or tool around town in her mother's bruised Comet, complete with a melted plastic Madonna on the dashboard.

The sixth of seven children in a close-knit Irish Catholic family, Catherine began acting at age 7 by playing the Virgin Mary in a Nativity parade. After graduating in 1973 from public high school (where she was named Miss Cheerleader), she joined Toronto's Second City—first as a waitress, then as Gilda Radner's understudy and finally as a cast member. When Second City invaded TV in 1977, O'Hara became famous for such inspired creations as Lola Heatherton, the pouty Vegas chanteuse who once asked a fictive Mother Teresa, "Don't you ever want to just take these people by the shoulders and say, 'Hey, why don't you get it together?' "

Eventually, says O'Hara, SCTV grew "less than fulfilling. I lost enthusiasm. I wanted to learn more about acting. I wanted a personal life. I wanted to get scared again." Yet O'Hara, who in 1981 quit Saturday Night Live after one week, has earned a reputation as a performer who doesn't want to work. "It's not true," she says. "I read scripts and get a gut feeling about whether I want to be a part of them. Do I want my parents to see this? I'd just rather stay home than do something I know is bad and have to defend it later."

According to SCTV's Dave (the McKenzie Brothers) Thomas: "Catherine's dilemma is that she never packaged herself in a sleazy, commercial way. She won't play a librarian who turns into a nymphomaniac." Meanwhile, O'Hara insists that she's happy playing pool and calling her own shots. Currently unattached, Catherine—who once dated Dan Aykroyd—is planning to "fall in love, get married and have children. Maybe tomorrow." Otherwise, she claims, the only things she really wants are "precious gems from strangers who expect nothing in return. And potatoes in any form."

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