Fannie Flagg is one of those performers who I have seen all my life but know little about. I thought it would be fun to learn about her show business career. Like me, she started writing later in life as her second career. I wanted to know how that whole dream fulfillment came about. Let’s get to know Fannie Flagg.
She was born Patricia Neal in Alabama in 1944. Flagg, of Finnish ancestry, spent most of her childhood in the Birmingham area. It sounds like she had a “normal” childhood. Although she liked writing, she had problems because she was dyslexic which she did not realize until she was an adult. She was an archery champion at age 12. By age fifteen, she thought about entering a convent. Luckily for us she didn’t. In high school she was a cheerleader and a saxophone player in the band.
As a teen, she entered the Miss Alabama pageant, where she won a scholarship to the Pittsburgh Playhouse Theater Acting School. Acting might have been in her blood because both her father and her grandfather were motion picture machine operators. The summer she returned home, the woman who cohosted the Morning Show in Birmingham was leaving, so Fannie was able to replace her.
Who knows what direction Flagg’s career would have taken if the head of WBRC-TV were not so tight-fisted. Flagg asked for a raise and they denied it, so she quit her job and moved to New York City. She had to take on a new name since there was already a quite famous Patricia Neal in show business. Her grandfather suggested “Fannie” because so many comediennes used the name and a friend came up with “Flagg.”
Her first television job was on CBS Repertoire Workshop in 1964. During this time, Fannie recorded two comedy albums with various skits that included parodies of famous women. She appeared on a variety of talk shows including The Joey Bishop Show, The Dick Cavett Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Johnny Cash Show, Dinah!, and The Rosie O’Donnell Show.
Flagg got her first film role in 1970 in Five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicholson. The next year she appeared in Some of My Best Friends Are.
It was also in 1971 that she received an offer for her first series. Fannie says she stumbled into the role. She had been doing concerts and performing with stock companies. She was on the west coast and stopped in at her agent’s California office to meet the staff. A man came in and looked her up and down and then left. The next day she learned she was given the part of Dick Van Dyke’s sister on The New Dick Van Dyke Show. The man in the office the day before had been looking for someone who could pass for Dick’s sister in real life.
The New Dick Van Dyke Show was on the air from 1971 till 1973. Carl Reiner created the series for Van Dyke. Van Dyke was Dick Preston, a local talk show host. Van Dyke was signed to a three-year contract and given permission to film in Arizona where he lived. Hope Lange was his wife Jenny, Angela Powell their daughter Annie, Flagg his sister Mike, David Doyle was his boss Ted, and Marty Brill and Nancy Dussault were their best friends Bernie and Carol Davis.
The show began its life on Saturday night with All in the Family, Funny Face, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The series didn’t garner very high ratings, so the second season found the show on Sunday nights when ratings decreased drastically. Flagg was mentioned by several critics as being very funny in her role. Fannie credited Dick Van Dyke as her acting mentor, as well as one of her best friends.
Because Dick had a three-year contract, rather than cancel the show, CBS changed the structure. Dick gets a role on a soap opera, so he and his family move to Hollywood. They changed out most of the cast members so Flagg moved on. The show followed Here’s Lucy. The ratings improved significantly, but after the third year, Dick quit to go back to Arizona.
Throughout the 1970s, Fannie continued to get both television and film offers. She appeared on Love American Style, The New Candid Camera, Wonder Woman, and Fernwood Tonight. She was also in several films including both Rabbit Test and Grease in 1978.
During the 1970s, Flagg was a fixture on game shows. She is best known for Match Game where she usually sat next to Richard Dawson. With all the different versions of Match Game, she appeared in 529 episodes of the show. She is famous for wearing unusual tops on Match Game. It was while on the game show that Fannie received a note from a teacher who noticed a particular pattern in her misspellings on the show. She mentioned she might have dyslexia which is when Flagg first began to investigate and learn she did indeed suffer from the disease. When asked about two her costars on Match Game, namely Charles Nelson Reilly and Brett Somers, Flagg said, “Besides being hilarious, Brett and Charles were two of the smartest people I have ever known. On “Match Game,” they got such a big kick out of each other! They razzed one another and everybody else on the panel mercilessly, and they were particularly relentless on the people they really liked. It was never mean or hurtful, and they loved it when you razzed them back.”
She continued, “One of the happiest times in my life was in 1980 when I was doing “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” on Broadway, and Charles, Brett and I were staying at the Wyndham Hotel at the same time. Every day at around 4 o’clock in the afternoon they would come to my room for cocktails. Many is the time I would come home from after the show and they would still be sitting there having a good time. The only thing that changed was the position of Charles’ toupee.”
In addition to “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” Flagg toured with Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.”
Fannie continued her acting career into the 1980s. From 1981-1982 she took a role as Cassie Bowman on Harper Valley PTA starring Barbara Eden. The show was based on the hit song, “Harper Valley PTA” by Jeannie Riley. Sherwood Schwartz produced the first eleven episodes. The show moved around a bit from Thursdays at 8 to Saturdays at 8 to Saturdays at 8:30. Barbara played Stella, a mom who ignores Southern small-town standards by wearing mini skirts and speaking her mind. She reveals the hypocrisy of the other PTA members, making her a target of their comments. The show did not last long enough to accumulate enough episodes for syndication, but it occasionally shows up on independent networks.
Flagg was on The George Burns Comedy Week series and on The Love Boat three times. Her final films were done at the beginning and end of the 1990s. Her last movie was Crazy in Alabama in 1999 written by her friend Mark Childress.
She also had a cameo in 1991 in Fried Green Tomatoes, a movie based on her novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. She co-wrote the screenplay and received an Oscar nomination. The book is told in the past and the present by Ninnie Threadgoode and Evelyn Crouch who talk about the town of Whistle Stop, Alabama and the bonds the women forged in the 1920s and 1930s. The novel, published in 1987, was on the New York Times bestseller list for 36 weeks. This was her most famous novel, but it was not her first.
Flagg felt a pull toward writing as a child. She had written a play when she attended Catholic school. Because her father worked at the cinema, she had seen a lot of movies. She wrote a play about two career girls who lived in an apartment over the Copacabana nightclub in New York City. A man named Mr. Truman called and asked to come for tea. The girls assume it’s President Truman and go all out getting ready and inviting their friends. It turns out to be an insurance salesman. Her teacher phoned her mother to say the nuns were concerned because she used the word “martini” 16 times. Her mother had to explain that Fannie watched a lot of movies and the family was not sitting around drinking martinis every night.
She won first prize at the county fair for an essay titled, “Why I Want to Be Bald Headed.” She wrote it because she hated her mother braiding her hair so tightly every morning.
In the 1960s, Flagg wrote skits for a night club in New York—Upstairs at the Downstairs. She filled in for a sick actress one night when Allen Funt was in the audience. He invited her to become a staff writer on Candid Camera where she acted as well.
Flagg decided to attend a conference in 1978 to see Eudora Welty. She had to write a short story for a contest based on the word “childhood.” As Flagg tells it,
“I went to the grocery store, and I bought one of those spiral notebooks. I wrote a story called Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man about something that had actually happened to me in childhood,” says Flagg. “I wrote it as an 11-year-old child, and I thought that if they saw any mistakes, they would think I did it on purpose.”
Flagg won the contest. “I couldn’t believe it. I was thrilled, but at the same time I felt like such a cheat and a liar,” says Flagg. An editor there said that he wanted to talk with her about her writing a fleshed-out novel based on her short story. Flagg burst into tears and said, “I’m so sorry, but I can’t write a book.” When he asked her why, she replied, “Because I can’t spell.” Flagg says the editor looked at her like she was crazy and said, “What do you think we have editors for?”
She’s been writing ever since.
Fannie Flagg has found her niche. Since that first novel, she has continued to write, publishing ten books in all. Her most recent release was The Whole Town is Talking in 2016. In 2012 she won the Harper Lee Distinguished Alabama Author award and presented it to Fannie in person.
As an adult, Fannie collects lamps from the 1940s and 1950s. She loves going on cruise ships, which might explain her three appearances on The Love Boat. If you were a Match Game fan, it will not surprise you to learn that she loves wearing stripes with polka dots.
Fannie just seems like a delightful and fun person to be around. She is on my list of people to have dinner with. I have recently began reading her books and I love them. She writes about quirky, not strange, characters who seem true to life. It’s been fun getting to know a bit more about her life and career.