Sally Struthers is on the phone from Billings, Mont., where she's performing in "Hello, Dolly!" in weather that would freeze Dolly Levi's extremities, and it's clear early in the interview she isn't the type of performer who pumps up whatever role she's promoting as the culmination of her life's work.
She saw Pearl Bailey perform as Dolly Levi in an all-black version of "Dolly" in the 1970s — and she liked it a lot.
"But I honestly can't tell you that I wanted to play that role later on," she says. "I didn't have any desires on the role."
What she does have a great desire for, after decades in show business, however, is to perform. Best known for her Emmy Award-winning role as Gloria in the history- making TV series "All in the Family" and as Babette Dell in "The Gilmore Girls," the stage has always been a big part of her career.
She appeared on Broadway in the 1980s in such shows as the female version of "The Odd Couple" and "Grease." And recently Struthers has been doing lots of regional musical theater. Her recent credits include Miss Hannigan in "Annie," Roz in "9 to 5," Jeanette in "The Full Monty" and Mrs. Meers in "Thoroughly Modern Millie."
And several regional appearances as Dolly Levi.
Starring in a national tour of "Hello, Dolly!" however, requires a much bigger commitment than a regional theater run. The tour started in September and ends in April. It stops Tuesday and Wednesday at the Saroyan Theatre.
She likes headlining the classic musical, but all the hours of travel between far-flung cities? Not so much.
"The fun is playing Dolly, so I've decided I'm playing Dolly for free, and I'm being paid to travel on a bus all day."
At 67, she's earned the right to gripe a bit. Out of all the people involved in the production, including actors, musicians and crew, "I'm the oldest of all 54," she says.
Still, one of the amazing things about "Hello, Dolly!" — which this year is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its Broadway opening — is that it actually provides a prominent role for an older woman. The entertainment industry "wants every woman when she turns 40 to disappear," she says, so it's a big deal that Dolly is such a prominent presence.
"When you're in your mid-60s, and you get to sing seven songs, and carry a show, that's really something. It's a gift."
(She does not have kind words for the movie version of "Hello, Dolly!", which starred a 27-year-old Barbra Streisand in the leading role: "It's a joke, the way they cast it.")
As we chat, I sense that Struthers has been interviewed so much about "All in the Family" over the decades that she seems a little bored at pursuing that line of questioning.
But she perks up considerably when I relay a question from a friend of mine, who upon learning I'd be interviewing Struthers wanted me to ask: " 'Gilmore Girls': Greatest show in the history of the world, or greatest show in the history of the universe?"
Struthers lets out a long laugh. "Obviously, somebody who enjoyed the seven years of 'Gilmore Girls' as much as I did. I felt like 'Gilmore Girls' was some of the most brilliant writing I ever came across."
But TV series don't last forever, and Struthers is happy to reach new audiences on the stage.
Recently a fan recognized her on the street and asked: "Oh, it's so nice to see you, dear. Are you retired now?"
Struther's reply was short and sweet: "No, I've never stopped working."
"Hello, Dolly!," 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, Feb. 18-19, Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St. www.broadwayinfresno.com, (800) 745-3000. $33-$58
The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6373, firstname.lastname@example.org and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.