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Louise Lasser

Louise Lasser

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Also Known As: Died:
Born: April 11, 1939 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: New York City, New York, USA Profession: Cast ... actor screenwriter acting teacher
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BIOGRAPHY

A dizzy comic presence in films and television in the early 1970s, actress Louise Lasser came to fame in "Take the Money and Run" (1969) and other early films by her then-husband Woody Allen before achieving stardom as a bewildered housewife on Norman Lear's controversial "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" (syndicated, 1976-77). Lasser's distracted, slightly anesthetized persona was perfect as the frazzled Mary, but the pressures of television soon drove her to abandon the series and plunge into an apparent psychological funk for several years. When she rebounded in the 1980s, an older, heavier Lasser segued into a string of neurotic matriarch roles, the best of which was as Ben Gazzara's damaged wife in Todd Solondz's "Happiness." Though she never resumed the heights of her popularity in the 1970s, Lasser remained one of Hollywood's most eclectic personas.

Born April 11, 1939 in New York City, she was the daughter of S. Jay Lesser, an author and tax expert, and his wife, Paula. Outwardly, her childhood was a privileged one, spent in a Fifth Avenue apartment and at prestigious schools. But her parents' private lives were marred by her mother's emotional instability, which led to a 1961 suicide attempt that was thwarted by Louise herself. Her mother vowed to never forgive Lasser for her actions, and after divorcing her husband, finally took her own life in 1964. The emotional turmoil of her early years would occasionally have a detrimental effect on Lasser's life and personality. She displayed a genuine talent for musical theater while a student at Brandeis, but left the school after three years due to depression. She would eventually study acting at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, as well as with noted Method teacher Sanford Meisner, while auditioning for plays.

In 1960, she began an affair with up-and-coming comedian Woody Allen, who was in the middle of his contentious relationship with his first wife, Harlene Rosen. Allen assured Lasser that he would split from his wife that year, but the couple did not formally divorce until 1962. During this period, Lasser began landing roles in stage productions, most notably on Broadway as Barbra Streisand's understudy and brief replacement in "I Can Get it for You Wholesale" (1962) and later in "The Third Ear," a 1964 improvisational revue written and produced by Elaine May. But Lasser hampered her own career progress by refusing to attend auditions and displaying a distinct dislike for performing in front of an audience.

In 1964, she made her television acting debut on the daytime soap opera "The Doctors" (NBC, 1962-1983). Two years later, she collaborated with Allen on his 1966 comedy "What's Up, Tiger Lily?" which featured new, comic dialogue dubbed over a Japanese spy film. The couple also married that same year, and Lasser became his first leading lady in "Take the Money and Run" (1969), a mock documentary that marked his debut as a director. By this point, Lasser's marriage to Allen had sputtered, though the couple would remain friendly after their split, and Allen would cast her in two subsequent features: "Bananas" (1971), where his nebbish hero joined a South American revolution to impress Lasser's social activist, and "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid to Ask)" (1972), where she starred in a Fellini spoof as a woman who could only achieve orgasm in public. Her work with Allen soon fueled more turns as character actress in feature comedies like "Slither" (1973), as the wife of low-rent bandleader Peter Boyle, and the occasional drama, like the U.S. production of Ingmar Bergman's "The Lie" (CBS, 1973).

By the mid-1970s, Lasser's career appeared to stall out in a string of episodic TV appearances. But in 1976, producer Norman Lear tapped her to star in "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," a spoof of daytime soap operas that developed a cult audience and critical acclaim. Lasser played the title role, an innocent and deeply detached housewife whose home seemed in a constant state of turmoil from family affairs, bizarre deaths, and unforeseen plot twists that pulled the show into surreal territory. A frequent subject of water-cooler discussions due to its frank subject matter, "Mary Hartman" blossomed into a syndicated hit, but the grind of production left Lasser feeling physically and emotionally worn out. At the end of the show's first season, she announced to the writers that Mary should have a nervous breakdown, which she carried out, in spectacular fashion, in an episode of "The David Susskind Show" (WNET/syndicated, 1958-1987). Lasser then exited the show at the start of the second season, which soon led to the show's demise. But its popularity did not translate into a career for the actress.

Lasser had gained a reputation as an offbeat personality for years prior to her "Mary Hartman" stardom, but the attention showered upon her in regard to the show appeared to leave her emotionally unmoored. A 1976 stint as host of "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) left the cast and audience baffled by her seemingly incoherent performance and backstage tantrums which resulted in the episode being pulled from syndication until 1981. That same year, Lasser was involved in an altercation with clerks at a Los Angeles boutique; when police were summoned, they found cocaine in her purse, which resulted in her enrollment in a rehabilitation program. Lasser attempted to parlay her status as Hollywood's latest "kooky actress" with "Just Me and You" (NBC, 1978), a breezy comedy about a free spirit (Lasser) and a neurotic (Charles Grodin) on a road trip. Though the TV feature, which she also penned, was well received, she was soon reduced to appearances in low-budget features and the ignominy of a bit part in Allen's "Stardust Memories" (1980).

Lasser continued to work in this reduced fashion throughout the 1980s, largely in character parts that played up her fragile reputation. She was Judd Hirsch's ex-wife on several seasons of "Taxi" (ABC/NBC, 1978-1983), and then shifted to "St. Elsewhere" (NBC, 1982-88) as Ed Begley, Jr.'s eccentric aunt before terrorizing Richard Mulligan as a wacky neighbor on "Empty Nest" (NBC, 1988-1992). Along the way, there were plenty of nervous mothers, like in the school musical drama "Sing" (1989), and oddball roles, like her fortune teller in "Sudden Manhattan" (1996). In 1996, she earned a rare opportunity to show her talents as Ben Gazzara's neglected wife in Todd Solondz's "Happiness" (1998), which earned her a shared National Board of Review Award for Best Ensemble.

The success of "Happiness" led to a slight uptick in Lasser's career, during which she essayed more hapless types in "Mystery Men" (1998) and Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream" (2000), where she played a neighbor of Ellen Burstyn. For the next decade, she maintained a presence in independent features and the occasional television episode while enjoying a second career as an acting teacher and theater director. In 2003, she surprised many by co-starring in the raunchy comedy "National Lampoon's Gold Diggers" with Renee Taylor as a pair of septuagenarian sisters who agree to marry a pair of greedy twenty-somethings in order to collect a massive insurance payout after murdering them.

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