Mildred Frances Cook was born in Abilene, Texas, to a father she calls “a great influence” and mother she calls a rural Auntie Mame. “She would take us places. We didn’t have money, but she would load us into the car. She just thought it would open our minds. I got to see the great artists of the day — Helen Hayes, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.
“I saw all the lights and the feathers and the glamour. I was 6 years old and I knew that I wanted to be a part of that.” She adds, “The only stipulation my family made was that I had to get an education.” So she attended Baylor University, graduating with a degree in theater and a master’s degree in Greek drama. “But I’ve managed to overcome it.” There, she had the experience of playing range, “from ingenues to crabby, old women.”
She went to New York, performing in summer stock for only a short while. One night, someone told her Lucille Ball was on the phone for her. “I said, ‘Yeah, right.’ It was Lucy. She had formed a little group of young people and they needed a comedienne.”
She flew to California on her one day off. She had no “routine,” but she told Ball stories about her mother and grandmother. “She liked me, luckily, and asked me to come out.” She expected only two months’ work on a live show on the Desilu lot, but she took a screen test and was put under contract — at Ball’s urging signing the name “Carole Cook.”
Cook appears Saturday night in her one-woman show, “Dress Up,” at Smothers Theater. In it, she tells these tales, and many others.
“Hopefully, it’s universal,” she says. “We’re not that different. I hope I strike a remembrance chord in people. Mostly it’s humorous, but hopefully I touch on things that mean something. We get through a lot of bad times with laughter.”
The show is directed by her husband of 35 years, Tom Troupe. She calls him the best actor she knows. Before she met him, she saw him perform in a Harold Pinter play. “He didn’t seem to be doing anything,” she says. “The end result was shattering.”
She soon met him at a cast party for that play. “There was an instant attraction,” she says. They went together for 1-1/2 years, then married. He had 10 groomsmen, she had one attendant — Lucille Ball.
“I was trying to look virginal at my wedding,” Cook recounts. “I tried to look like Grace Kelly, so I wore no makeup. Tom lifted the veil and he had no idea who I was. I was pure as the driven slush.” She says she called in chits for the wedding, coaxing designer Bob Mackey into designing that veil.
Although she waitressed in her early days, she says, “My husband and I consider ourselves very lucky in show business. Since we’ve been married, we’ve managed to make a living.”
Two years ago, the couple appeared in “The Lion in Winter” at Pasadena Playhouse, reprising the first play they had appeared in together, years before. “We love working together,” she says, although she adds, “When he’s my director, he tends to take shortcuts with me. He’s not as polite as he is with the other actors. But Tom knows what I’m capable of, so he will push me to places I’ve never been. I’ve never thought about divorce. But murder, yes.”
She says she’s been lucky, having played roles from Medea to Auntie Mame. She created the role of Maggie Jones in “42nd Street” and has been invited to recreate that role for the millennium revival of the show.
After Desilu, Cook worked under contract to Warner Bros. Her first film for them, “The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” in which she played Don Knotts’ wife, is being remade, which thrills her.
She asked out of the contract to star in the Australian company of “Hello, Dolly!” — the first person to perform the role after Carol Channing.
Good audiences helped keep her two years of “Dolly” fresh, she says. She would also get to the theater two hours before showtime, dress in her costume including corset and wig, and have tea. She also learned from the legendary acting teacher Uta Hagen to refresh her lines before going on stage, starting with Act II. “Then, you go onstage with Act I in mind.”
Also on a long run, she says, “Start doing less. Think of 10 things you do in a scene. An artist will do five, a genius three, and the genius will pick the right three.”
Since her “Dolly” days, she has starred in, among many others, “Auntie Mame” and in “Mame,” toured in the national company of “Steel Magnolias” and been featured in films (“Sixteen Candles,” “American Gigolo”) and recurring television roles (on “Dynasty” and “Cagney and Lacey”).
By way of advice to new actors, she offers the following: “If I can talk them out of it, I think I’ve done them a big favor. If they’re determined, nothing I can say will stop them.” She also says, “Really get down and study and learn to act. We’re born with talent, but we should study to become an artist.”
As a young girl, Cook felt like a misfit. “I wasn’t the May queen,” she says. “I was a sight laugh. That’s why I developed humor.” Her mother made their clothes, but didn’t make them well. She would warn her daughters, “Be careful when you sit down.”
When other girls were wearing pink angora and pearls, Cook begged her mother to make a black crepe dress with a long train — and a turban. “I wanted to be Lynn Fontanne.” She discovered she could be different, an individual, when she began studying theater at Baylor.
In 1995, Baylor University awarded her its Distinguished Alumni Award. She summarizes: “I left under a dark cloud, but with age I became an eccentric.”
Carole Cook appears in her one-woman show, “Dress Up,” at Pepperdine University’s Smothers Theater Saturday at 8 p.m. Telephone 310.456.4522.