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Katey Sagal broke through in comedy, but she broke out in drama.
She has been a cartoon, figuratively speaking (as the malpracticing matriarch Peg Bundy on Married… With Children) and literally (as the one-eyed Lela on Futurama). She has starred as one extremely territorial, badass pack leader (Sons of Anarchy) and played mother to main characters on some of your favorite comedies (That '70s Show, The Big Bang Theory, Brooklyn Nine-Nine). She has played a sentient, sinister smart-home system. She always has a side gig as a singer-songwriter. And even though their voices sound alike, Katey Sagal is positively, most definitely not Allison Janney.
In short, the 67-year-old actress has carved out an impressive career that has earned her critical respect and adoration from fans (though some are too intimidated to express it, as you'll soon learn). She swears that there is no career master plan in play here, but she loves to bounce freely between fare funny and fraught, even though in some ways she feels more comfortable in the latter. "Some of the biggest challenges I've had is when I was trying to cross over into more dramatic roles, as I never thought I was funny," she says. "I still don't think I'm funny. Everybody would always want me to be in these comedic roles. But for me, you just want to keep doing different things."
And the fact that she has been able to mix it up into her fifth decade in Hollywood is a an accomplishment she's proud of. "The biggest comment I get is, 'Wow, you're still working!'" Sagal says with a laugh. "I've started to say it to myself sometimes. I'm like, 'Wow, this is so great that I'm able to continue to be a working actor and still be interested in the roles that I'm getting to play.' I feel very grateful about that."
Her interest now turns to Rebel (premiering Thursday), an ABC drama in which she stars as a scrappy legal advocate without a legal degree — a character inspired by real-life consumer advocate Erin Brockovich. "The Erin Brockovich of it all was really intriguing to me," Sagal says. "I love the fact that she's a person of service, that she's a person that gives voice to people that feel they don't have a voice. I like playing a character that's aligned with my philosophy of doing the right thing. It was particularly intriguing to me at this point in life that she's somebody who gives back." Before Rebel gives back, Sagal looks back — by scientifically breaking down her fan base and explaining exactly how people on the street know her best.
Illustration by Anne Latini for EW
Sons of Anarchy (2008-2014): 27 percent
Sagal upended expectations and reinvented herself in the drama world with this gritty FX series. "It opened up opportunity, but it opened up creativity as well," she sums up. As manipulative, protective motorcycle club matriarch Gemma Teller Morrow, Sagal won a Golden Globe and a whole new generation of fans. Most of them approach her to rave about Gemma's resigned-in-the-rose-garden death and her dark scheming: "A lot of people talk about when I knocked Taryn Manning [who played Cherry] out with a skateboard and, of course, the way I killed Tara [played by Maggie Siff]. I mean, it's pretty gnarly." Still, others opt to keep their distance. "They're scared of me," she says. "I don't know that Gemma is as approachable as Peg. People feel afraid of Gemma. They think I'm going to really be a biker!"
Actually, this fan base has subverted Sagal's own expectations, extending far beyond bearded bikers. "Sons fans don't look like what I think Sons fans are going to look like," she notes. "I'll get PTA moms who love Sons, and I'll be like, 'Wow, that's great!'… Sons was basically a family drama, so it touched people in different ways. It had a bunch of different things that appealed to different people. But the women really seemed to [respond]. I always say my husband [Kurt Sutter, who created the series] writes women really well. Women really responded to that show — and not just because of Charlie Hunnam, even though that didn't hurt."
Gemma's legacy also lives on in Sagal's side gig as a musician. "I'll go play some club in New York or somewhere, and I'll look at the audience and there'll be all these women dressed like Gemma — the streaks in the hair, the biker look — so that's kind of interesting," she says.
Married… with Children (1987-1997): 26 percent
As the lazy, horny, bouffanted Peg Bundy, Sagal lounged her way to fame in Fox's outlandish, crude, quasi-satirical family comedy, popping Bonbons into her mouth and bon mots out of it. "When I first got that job, it was so foreign to me from the way I grew up that I was like, 'Who's gonna relate to this?'" she says. "I thought it was hysterically funny and completely irreverent. I didn't realize how many people would relate to it. I still think the overall reason people related to it is because it was funny. People liked to laugh. I mean, it made me laugh all the time. Ed O'Neill [who played Peg's coarse curmudgeon of a husband, Al] made me laugh all the time."
What do Married fans feel compelled to share with her? "I've had more comments about Peg [when] people will say, 'Man, those people lived next door to me!' Or, 'They're just like my family!" she shares. "The ones that really surprise me say, 'I watched you when I was 5.' I'm like, 'What? Your parents let you watch that show?'" Sagal says that the requests for her to slip back into Peg's classic whine have slowed in recent years, which is just fine with her. "People used to always say to me, 'Can you just say, Allll?'" Would she oblige them? "No," she deadpans. "It's such a blessing to have a job like that, but I'm an actor, so I don't want to keep playing that role. So for a while there, it would just be like, 'No, I want to move on!'"
That said, Sagal remains grateful that Married kickstarted her career (which began in earnest with CBS' short-lived Mary Tyler Moore sitcom Mary in 1985). "I learned so much, I really soaked up what was around me," she says. "Even though I had grown up around sets, because my parents were in show business, it was just a different learning experience. It made me want to be an actor, it made want to continue doing this. So, it gave me more than just a career, it gave me a desire."
Futurama (1999-2013): 11 percent
Sagal ventured into space — and into animation — by voicing a no-nonsense, all-kickass captain of the Planet Express ship on this brainy sci-fi comedy that amassed a cult audience on its journeys through galaxies far and wide. "The whole writers' room for Futurama were, like, scientists," Sagal quips. "They were way over my head, you know? So people that responded to that — it was a really an adult sense of humor." She's often asked to do Leela's "Hi-yah!" kick by fans, who she describes as "millennial, usually smart, on the geeky side — and I say that lovingly."
She speaks of her colorful character with even more affection. "Why I like Leela so much is that she's a badass but with the softest inside," she says. "She's vulnerable and just has that tough exterior. She can handle being the captain of spaceship and all that. But she really was this lonely little person inside."
8 Simple Rules (2002-2005): 7 percent
In this traditional ABC family comedy, Sagal played matriarch Cate Hennessy and matched wits with the universally loved John Ritter, who died suddenly while filming season 2. While she's still recognized for the role, "I don't know that it was necessarily because people thought Cate Hennessy was such an interesting character," she says. "I think there was the John Ritter of it and what a tragic situation that became. That's what people will talk to me about. I know for me, it was incredibly sad, and I was proud of the network for going ahead and telling the story in real time and not just pretending it went away."
When fans mention to Sagal "what a great actor he was, how funny he was," she's more than eager to reminisce about her costar. "I love to talk about John," she says. "What I loved about that job was John Ritter. John was an amazing person. I'll never forget when I had to audition for that job, I had to go in and read with John, and John whispered to me while I was in there, 'You're my favorite. You're the one I want.' Which was so, so sweet. But they were scared they were going to have Jack Tripper and Peg Bundy. They had to make sure that it wasn't going to be that. I was having to beat back that perception."
Lost (2005-2010): 7 percent
The island mystery series begat Sagal's transition into episodic drama when the actress guest-starred as Helen, the empathetic ex who got away from John Locke (Terry O'Quinn). She didn't just slip into the role, though; it was a hard-fought feat. "I'll never forget — after all my years on television, I had to audition twice for the producers, for the network, for everybody, to make sure that I was not going to come in there and be Peg Bundy, you know what I mean?" she recalls. "That kind of weight — I knew I could do it. It was just an industry outlook. They just saw me a certain way."
Some genre fans, though, would see her for the first time — or at least in a different light. "At Comic-Con, somebody asked me to sign their Helen baseball card," she says proudly. "So she was definitely in the pack. Lost was definitely a big step forward for me in terms of network television."
Shameless (2018-2019): 6 percent
Showtime's dysfunctional family drama welcomed Sagal in season 9 as troubled therapist Ingrid, who wanted to have a baby (or seven!) with Frank (William H. Macy). "I've gotten quite a bit of recognition for Shameless because people love that show," she declares. "That fan base is surprising. Rabid. It's across the board [demographically] — the same way Sons fans always surprised me." She surprised Shameless fans with Ingrid's antics. "I mean, she was really nuts, so that was super-great," Sagal says. "I loved the whole story line that she was going to be impregnated with nine babies or whatever that was — that was just crazy. And she wanted him to be the dad. The two of them together was interesting."
And it was a guest gig that she relished. "It was so much fun to be with Bill Macy," she gushes. "It was so much fun not to have worry about what you look like, because over there they don't even do last looks [final touch-ups for hair and makeup before the cameras roll]. They're just like, 'Go, just do it!' That was pretty liberating — being on television and not having people all over you about what you look like."
The Conners (2018-present): 6 percent
Sagal joined the Roseanne spin-off as Louise, an old high-school friend of Dan (John Goodman) who became his first girlfriend after Roseanne (Roseanne Barr) died. "I do have a lot of people really liking that," she notes. "In fact, as I'm doing Rebel, I keep hearing, 'Well, is she going away from The Conners?' And the answer to that is 'No, I'm not, I'm going to get to do both. If The Conners will have me back."
She is relieved that fans of The Conners (and Roseanne) have welcomed her into the family fold under tricky circumstances. (ABC canceled the Roseanne revival in 2018 after a racist tweet from Barr.) "I'm just glad that they were accepting of Louise," Sagal says. "I think that was a big step for the writers — and a logical step. I liked that they dealt with that realistically. I like that the fans like her, that they're not mad. There was part of me that thought people were going to be mad that there was somebody that Dan was interested in. Because I know there were a lot of people that were pissed off that Roseanne wasn't there. So the people that were accepting of having The Conners without Roseanne are very happy that Dan has a girlfriend — and she's kind of cool."
Smart House (1999): 5 percent
In this rather prescient Disney Channel movie, Sagal voiced the Alexa-ish PAT, who eventually materialized into corporeal form. Plenty of grade-school kids were introduced to Sagal through this role, chilled and thrilled by her performance. Now those fans are star-struck millennials. "If you were in the second grade when I did Smart House, you think I'm a rock star," she says with a chuckle. "I remember my daughter was in the second grade and every kid was watching Smart House. I've had child care come to my house and be gobsmacked because they're in the Smart House lady's house."
Which was probably equal parts joy and fear. "She was vicious," Sagal marvels of PAT. "She turned on everybody. I took my kids to the premiere, and my daughter — who'd never heard me yell — stood up at the middle of the premiere and started crying and just said, 'That is not my mom!' and went storming out of the thing. It was traumatic for her. I probably traumatized a lot of second graders."
Her music career: 3 percent
Sagal began her decades-long music career as a singer-songwriter in her 20s and in the '70s, living paycheck-to-soundcheck and serving as backing vocalist for a few famous artists. "I was a Harlette with Bette Midler, and people remember seeing me with Bette," she says. "Or they think that they saw me with Bette, because I looked like one. There were many Harlettes. I'd go on the road with her, I'd come off, I'd go on the road. I also sang with Etta James and people will remember that. It was a major, important part of my life, singing with Etta James, being with Bette." Can Sagal identify the music fans from the TV fans when they walk up to her? "It's the ones that have my solo albums," she quips. (She recorded three solo albums: 1994's Well…, 2004's Room, and 2013's Covered). "Anybody that comes up to me and says, 'I love your solo album,' they've dug deep!"
Sorry, she's not Allison Janney: 2 percent
People on the street often mistake Sagal's voice for Janney's, leading to undeserved praise. "I'm always confused with Allison Janney on the voice-over commercials she does," she notes. "She's the spokesperson for Kaiser Permanente, and everybody thinks it's me. People will be like, 'Oh, I heard your Kaiser Permanente commercial!' And I'm always like, 'No, that's not me. I wish that was me.'"