Previously Known For: As Receptionist Jennifer Marlowe on WKRP in Cincinnati
|Currently Known For: Nurses, The Mullets and Love You More|
“I’m a real woman with a real heart and I have to live with a beautiful body and a pretty face which is not nearly as easy as it sounds.” Often described as a modern-day version of Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield thanks to her curvaceous figure, flirtatious personality and bleach-blonde hair, Loni Anderson has spent the last five decades proving she’s more than a cover girl or a stereotypical ditzy blonde. In fact, the 71-year-old Anderson isn’t exactly a natural blonde but remained true to her brunette roots for much of her early life after she was born with jet black hair on August 5, 1946 to a model and an environmental chemist in Saint Paul, Minnesota. So, what inspired Anderson’s transition from a sultry brunette to a blonde, be-dimpled knockout?
Although she always dreamed of becoming an actress, Anderson’s path to the stage wasn’t exactly straightforward or easy as her parents encouraged her to pursue a profession that was far more reliable. She studied art at the University of Minnesota and worked toward earning her teaching certificate while she secretly entered a handful of beauty contests. Married, divorced and already a mother before her 21st birthday, Anderson took a teaching job to support her and her daughter as she finished her degree.
“I did begin as a teacher but, to be honest, I did it for my parents,” she said. “I earned my teaching degree because they didn’t think acting was a good profession to fall back on. I was a teenage mom and they thought I should have something more stable. My student teaching assignment was in a high school. The boys were too close to my age and I was too young for them to take me seriously… I then went to a girls’ school hoping I’d have more luck there and that turned out to be an excellent experience. I taught at a finishing school and could use my art background… I also taught fashion design… I really did enjoy that part of my teaching.”
Apprenticing in the local community theater and auditioning for every part she could find, Anderson caught a small break in 1966 when she landed a bit part in the film Nevada Smith starring Steve McQueen. Completely enamored by the experience, she gave up teaching and spent the next decade appearing in local productions of Born Yesterday, Send Me No Flowers, Can-Can, and The Star-Spangled Banner Girl. By then, she’d already transformed from the sultry brunette to a beautiful blonde—at least by way of a wig. “I did a show as myself a brunette and then I did a new play by Romeo Muller who wrote Frosty the Snowman, the animated special we see every year,” Anderson said of her transformation. “He wrote a show called The Great Getaway. I was cast as the dumb blonde and wore a wig. This was my first foray into doing a dumb blonde voice I’d created. That voice landed me several commercials, which was the true beginning of my professional acting career.”
Anderson experimented with going blonde for years before finally pulling the trigger in 1978 when she was cast in her career-defining role—as Jennifer Marlowe on WKRP in Cincinnati. By then, Anderson was hesitant to be stereotyped as a dumb blonde and worked closely with sitcom creator Hugh Wilson to ensure her character was the smartest person in the room. “I was very much against Jennifer just being a blonde window dressing,” Anderson said. “I know my character’s intelligence is why Jennifer Marlowe became such an iconic figure. No one was doing that. Glamorous blondes were not the smartest person in the room. And the only blondes that were allowed to be funny before our show had to play dumb. That’s why Jennifer was so innovative.”
Although WKRP in Cincinnati wasn’t a huge hit in the ratings, Anderson attracted a cult following of young viewers throughout the show’s four-season run. By the time the sitcom wrapped in 1982, the newly blonde Anderson had already starred as Jayne Mansfield in The Jayne Mansfield Story. In 1983, she joined Burt Reynolds in Stroker Ace which, despite being a box office flop, introduced the buxom bombshell to her third husband, Burt Reynolds himself! Before tying the knot with Reynolds in 1988, Anderson appeared in The Lonely Guy opposite Steve Martin and in Partners in Crime with Lynda Carter before returning to television in made-for-television films like A Letter to Three Wives.
Marrying Burt Reynolds in 1988 and later adopting their newborn son, Quinton Anderson Reynolds, on August 31, 1988, Anderson spent the rest of the decade focusing more on her life at home with her only silver screen credit coming in 1989 when she voiced Flo in All Dogs Go to Heaven. By the 1990s, Anderson made her grand return in the television film White Hot: The Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd and toyed with the idea of joining her husband on his sitcom, Evening Shade, until the network axed the idea. She was then offered a role on Designing Women but, once again, the network couldn’t meet her salary demands, which led her to reprise her role as Jennifer Marlowe on two sequel episodes of The New WKRP in Cincinnati.
Anderson divorced Reynolds in 1993 and settled into the next chapter of her career on television with guest appearances in series like Nurses, Melrose Place and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. She published her autobiography—My Life in High Heels—in 1997. By the new millennium, she enjoyed a recurring role as Mandi Mullet-Heidecker on The Mullets but stepped away from the spotlight in 2009 to care for her daughter, Deidre, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Together, the mother-daughter duo has tackled the condition with Anderson using her fame as a platform to raise awareness about the debilitating disorder.
Apart from caring for her daughter, the 71-year-old Anderson has recently returned to television with credits in Baby Daddy in 2016 and in the Amazon pilot, Love You More, in 2017. She also starred as the promiscuous and perpetually tipsy Frances in the 2017 web series, My Sister is So Gay. “My accepting the role had nothing to do with any financial deal,” Anderson says. “It reminded me of when I was young and you just wanted to do something because it was wonderful.”
As for her legacy, Anderson is incredibly proud of her work on WKRP in Cincinnati and her efforts to break the stereotype of the ditzy, dumb blonde. “I hope my legacy will be that I’ve inspired women to be strong and confident regardless of their physical appearance,” she says. “And hopefully that attractive women aren’t afraid to proudly show that they are also intelligent. As women progress in this industry, I hope that I will be remembered for being a part of that evolution.”