A prolific performer on stage and television, actor-singer Linda Lavin has been a role model for many of America’s working women. After graduating from the College of William and Mary in 1959, Lavin began an acting career in Broadway and Off-Broadway plays, earning a Tony nomination for Last of the Red Hot Lovers in 1970. She made guest appearances on several television shows, then landed the title role for Alice, playing a widowed waitress with a young son. Soon after the end of her long run in Alice, Lavin returned to the stage, portraying an increasing number of strong Jewish characters and winning acclaim for them. Beginning in the 1990s, she began to play more Jewish roles on television, particularly Jewish mother types.
A prolific performer on stage and small screen, actor-singer Linda Lavin has been a role model for many of America’s working women. While her Jewish heritage has not always been the focus of her career, she has powerfully portrayed Jewish women whenever the roles have come her way—which they increasingly do.
Lavin was born on October 15, 1937, in Portland, Maine, to David J. Lavin, owner of a furniture business, and Lucille (Potter) Lavin, a singer and local radio show host. The Lavins were active participants in the local Jewish community. In 1959, Lavin received her B.A. in theater arts from the College of William and Mary. Soon after, she was struggling for success in Broadway musicals while becoming frustrated with vapid female roles. She switched to drama and found acclaim for her work, particularly a Tony Award nomination for Featured Actress in Last of the Red Hot Lovers in 1970.
Lavin is perhaps best known for her work on the sitcom Alice (1976-1985). She played lead character Alice Hyatt, a hardworking single mother and aspiring singer, in 202 episodes set in the greasy spoon where she labored to pay the bills. Lavin herself had singing aspirations from a young age. An apocryphal story has her singing “God Bless America” in her crib even before she spoke.
Soon after the end of her long run in Alice, Lavin found opportunity to return to the stage, portraying an increasing number of strong Jewish characters and winning acclaim for them. She played Kate in Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical Broadway Bound, for which she won a Tony Award for Best Actress and a Drama Desk Award in 1987, and Mrs. Van Daan in The Diary of Anne Frank, for which she was nominated for another Tony in 1998.
During and between her early successes, Lavin was twice married and twice divorced. She married actor Rob Leibman in 1969; they divorced in 1980. Two years later, she married actor Kip Niven and became stepmother to his two children. Citing Niven’s mental and emotional cruelty, she divorced him after a decade, in 1992. She has been married to actor Steve Bakunas since 2005.
Beginning in the 1990s, Lavin began to play more Jewish roles on television, particularly Jewish mother types. In 1996, she starred with Nastassja Kinski and Michael York in the made-for-television movie of Danielle Steele’s World War II-era historical romance The Ring, playing Ruth Leibman. More recently, she played intrusive Jewish mother Judy on the Mark Feuerstein-led sitcom 9JKL (2017-2018). In 2020 and 2021, she has made the most of the pandemic by taking on the role of wheeler-dealer agent Yvette Slosch in Yvette Slosch, Agent (2020) and Call Me Back: The Uncommon Wisdom of Yvette Slosch (2021).
From comedy to drama, from stage to screen, and from working-class heroine to Jewish mother, Lavin continues to make the most of her talents and to win applause and awards for them.
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