Actress Polly Holliday played one of the brassiest characters on network television in the 1970s - the sassy, fearless hash house waitress Flo on "Alice" (CBS, 1975-1985). The larger-than-life character was the first of many formidable women Holliday would play over the course of her four-decade career, though none would attain the pop culture icon status of Flo, thanks to her room-clearing catch phrase of "Kiss my grits!" For her scene-stealing role, the Alabama-born actress earned several major awards and nominations. Holliday escaped Flo's orbit by segueing into character roles in films and on stage, but the Mel's Diner waitress remained her most memorable character, earning her a spot in the small screen circle of eternal fame.
Born Polly Dean Holliday in Jasper, AL on July 2, 1937, she was the daughter of truck driver Ernest Holliday and his wife, Velma Mabel. She taught piano and music in her home state's elementary schools before deciding to change her focus to acting. Holliday moved to Sarasota, FL to join the esteemed Asolo Repertory Company, the largest repertory theater in the Southeastern United States. There, she built an impressive, decade-long résumé of stage performances before heading to New York City. There, she began landing roles on stage, including the 1974 Broadway hit "All Over Town." Holliday became close friends with the play's director, Dustin Hoffman, who helped her land a small but noteworthy turn as Ned Beatty's flinty secretary in "All the President's Men" (1976). The bit role helped to mint Holliday's screen persona as a woman of considerable presence, which eventually led to one of the most beloved sitcoms of the 1970s.
As played by Diane Ladd in Martin Scorsese's "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" (1974), the source material for the sitcom, Florence Jean Castleberry was a free-thinking, gum-snapping, trash-talking waitress at a roadside diner in Arizona. The series blunted the dramatic elements of the feature, instead making Flo a "broad" in every sense of the world, as well as comic sidekick for Linda Lavin's Alice and a good-natured adversary for Vic Tayback's volatile Mel Sharples. Flo's force of nature attitude soon overshadowed the other characters, earning Holliday two Golden Globes and three Emmy nominations. It also contributed to a brief spin-off series, "Flo" (CBS, 1980-81), which took the character to her hometown of Fort Worth, TX, where she opened a roadhouse. A ratings hit in its first season, it earned Holliday a fourth Emmy nomination, but a timeslot change shook off much of its audience, and it was unceremoniously cancelled in its sophomore outing. Holliday did not return to "Alice," where she was replaced briefly by the original Flo, Diane Ladd, and later by Celia Weston.
Holliday made two brief returns to series work in the early 1980s; she was cast as Eileen Brennan's replacement on "Private Benjamin" (CBS, 1981) after the actress was gravely injured in a car accident, but the show was cancelled before she could film more than three episodes. She also starred as a tough prison guard in "Stir Crazy" (ABC, 1985-86), a sitcom based on the 1980 Gene Wilder-Richard Pryor comedy of the same name, but the show was axed after only four months. Holliday found greater success as a character actress in features, most notably as the mean-spirited Mrs. Deagle in "Gremlins" (1984), who earned her come-uppance when the mischievous creatures launch her into orbit by souping up her chair lift. She also drew laughs as Sally Field's nosy neighbor in the comedy hit "Mrs. Doubtfire" (1993), a recurring role as JoBeth Williams' Southern mom on "The Client" (CBS, 1995-96), the head of the summer camp in the 1998 remake of "The Parent Trap" with Lindsay Lohan, and as Patricia Richardson's mother on "Home Improvement" (ABC, 1991-99).
Holliday's other home during this period was the stage, where she frequently played impressive matriarchs and other formidable women of a certain age. She was one of the murderous if kind-hearted Brewster sisters in a 1986 revival of "Arsenic and Old Lace," then earned a Tony nomination as Big Mama in a 1990 production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Other significant productions included the 1994 revival of "Picnic" and "The Time of the Cuckoo" at Lincoln Center in 2000. She also became an in-demand speaker and guest lecturer for acting students around the country. In 2010, she returned to dramatic fare as the fiercely loyal grandmother of CIA operative Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) in "Fair Game."
Cast (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Worked as a teacher of music in Sarasota FL public schools
Off-Broadway debut, "Wedding Band"
Acted on Broadway in "All Over Town", directed by Dustin Hoffman
Made feature film debut in the West German English-language psychodrama, "The Catamount Killing", directed by Krzysztof Zanussi
Played first major TV-movie role in "The Silence"
American feature film debut, "All the President's Men"
Joined the cast of the CBS Army sitcom, "Private Benjamin", when actress Eileen Brennan, playing the commanding officer, was injured; Holliday played a new commander, Major Amanda Allen
Played Captain Betty in the short-lived CBS sitcom, "Stir Crazy"; succeeded in role by Jeannie Wilson
Returned to Broadway to play Big Mama in the revival of Tennessee Williams's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"; received Tony nomination as Best Featured Actress in a Drama
Returned to series TV as JoBeth Williams' mother in the CBS drama "John Grisham's 'The Client'"
Appeared in the Off-Broadway revival of "The Time of the Cuckoo"