Stardom has clearly not gone to Jane Lynch’s head, or anywhere else in her imposing six-foot frame.
Sure, Lynch is wildly mainstream famous these days as the acerbic cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester on the hit series Glee, but as she wryly relates in this no-frills memoir, she spent the first three decades of her career plugging away in no-budget theatre productions, commercials, one-off TV roles and the occasional indie feature.
In the past two years, Lynch won an Emmy and a Golden Globe and met and married the love of her life. Meet the new poster child for late bloomers.
Happy Accidents is an impressive account of a life wholly devoted to the arts, in part because it’s pretty apparent that Lynch actually sat down and wrote the book herself (I’ve met her on two occasions and her Midwest mannerisms transfer exactly to the written word), but more so for the clipped efficiency with which she deconstructs her life and career. Sue Sylvester would approve.
There is no drama whatsoever in Lynch’s sunny memories of her middle-class childhood in the suburbs of Chicago, circa mid-sixties. Dad was a banker, Mom was a homemaker, and middle child Jane had perfectly healthy relationships with her brother and sister. Although Lynch admits to an overwhelming crush on Happy Days star Ron Howard in her teens, she knew from an early age that she liked the ladies.
Lynch carries the same insouciance through the recall of her introduction to the performing arts, which came in a high-school production of Godspell. Although comfortable onstage, she knew she was different and began numbing herself with copious amounts of alcohol – light beer being her beverage of choice.
And Lynch kept on drinking. She breezes through her years at Illinois State University, where she earned a theatrical arts degree, and her subsequent study of the classics at Cornell. A few fleeting crushes and flings with interesting women, but nothing serious. Following the lead of many young actors, she moved to New York, which lasted only several months. “I drank non-stop, gained weight and felt unsafe everywhere I went.”
Lynch matter-of-factly reveals how she came home to Chicago, overeducated and unloved and unhappy, until she discovered Second City. She instantly found her niche in improvisational comedy, and seized upon any chance to exercise her newfound craft. At one point, Lynch was hawking cubic zirconia rings and other goods on a local version of America’s Shopping Place, a cable version of the Home Shopping Network. Quite often she’d kill a six-pack on the ride home from her shift.
But in her late 20s, Lynch finally had momentum. A stint with the Second City touring company led to her playing the role of Carol Brady in the camp comedy musical The Real Live Brady Bunch, which became a hit and took her back to New York to appear in the stage version there. At 31, she decided to quit drinking (but immediately replaced the beer with NyQuil).
Following a speaking role in the 1993 film The Fugitive, and a few sage acting tips from Harrison Ford, Lynch was suddenly a bankable actress, living in Los Angeles and working steadily in TV commercials, which resulted in the biggest break of her career.
While shooting a spot for Frosted Flakes, she met the director Christopher Guest, who had already drawn acclaim for his mockumentary Waiting for Guffman and was mounting another comedy set in the dog-breeding world, titled Best in Show. Like Guffman, it was almost entirely improvised. “Only on a Christopher Guest movie will the set designer ask you what you think your house looks like,” she reflects.
Lynch offers similarly chipper recollections of her time spent on the Guest improv movies A Mighty Wind (as the unfortunately named folk singer Laurie Bohner) and For Your Consideration (playing a shrill entertainment reporter). More film roles followed, as did Lynch finally admitting to her parents that she was gay (they were not shocked) and finally shaking her nightly NyQuil habit.
Naturally, Lynch saves a full chapter for Glee in her first tome, but those readers looking for juicy insider material will be left wanting.
Instead of stories of ego clashes and infighting, Lynch deftly shifts the spotlight to her young Glee co-stars, including Chris Colfer, or Glee guest players, such as Olivia-Newton John and Carol Burnett (who wrote the book’s foreword). Rightful homage is paid to Glee creator Ian Brennan, the man responsible for such acidic Sue Sylvester bons mots as, “I never wanted children. Don’t have the time. Don’t have the uterus.”
Even more heartfelt is Lynch sharing her tale of love at long last and at first sight, which occurred when she bumped into psychologist Dr. Lara Embry at a lesbian-rights gala in 2009. They married a year to the day after they met and are currently raising Embry’s young daughter together.
The fact that Lynch has now found her happy place following years of struggle likely speaks to her sheer unsinkable optimism and what seems her basic inability to dish dirt.
At no point in the book does Lynch say anything negative about a single person – not the Second City producer who refused her request to move up to the main cast, not the women who rebuffed her affections over the years, not the Italian film producers who cast her in her very first film, Taxi Killer, way back in 1988 and never paid her (instead she speaks glowingly of the film’s star, Chuck Connors).
She even speaks fondly of infamous bad boy Charlie Sheen, with whom she worked on Two and a Half Men in her recurring role as his therapist. Her memory of Sheen is that of a “kindhearted gentleman loved by the cast and crew.” In today’s Hollywood, Jane Lynch is a rare bird.
Andrew Ryan writes on television for The Globe and Mail.