Full disclosure: I’m sorta fixated (in a totally sane, rational, nothing twisted … seriously … way) on McNally Sagal. This happened once before, with Kate Nelligan—when she had a career (I miss you, Kate!). But this is about McNally—”Criminal Minds,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Cold Case,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Pleasantville,” “The Negotiator,” “The X Files,” “Chicago Hope,” “Murder One,” “Blah, Blah, Blah”—Sagal. A totally groovy talent who is as cool and smart in real life as the characters she portrays on TV and film. And she’s played a ton of ’em!
It had to happen. Right? Surely you’ve noticed. When you look at the programming menu on your flat screen you feel less like you’ve just eaten at Chipotle (insert trending E. coli joke here). Yep! Something freakishly awesome is going down. Banish the bachelors and their roses! Chuck the ducks and their dynasty! Repeal the Real Housewives and their hedonism. It’s called, um, er, “scripted programming.” (Read that with extreme enthusiasm.) And it’s proliferating. With a vengeance. Sagal is right there. On a bunch of shows. You’ve watched her. She’s that presence with the pragmatic all-business-like persona who can’t help but obliterate everyone else in a scene.
“I did a lot of plays in high school, and I really enjoyed it,” Sagal recalls her start as an actress. “But when I told my theater director that I was going to major in acting for college, he said, ‘No, don’t.’ I was a really good student, and he suggested I go to the University of Michigan and medical school. I went against his wishes and majored in acting. It worked out just fine.”
It has indeed worked out “just fine” for Sagal. Within 2 weeks of graduating from Boston University (she later studied at RADA and The Groundlings) and moving to New York, she was on Broadway. “I kind of give my parents credit for this,” she stifles a snigger, as if she’s told the joke a gazillion times. “They paid for my college, but in the very last semester they put the tuition loan in my name. I said, ‘What’s that about? I majored in acting! I’ll never be able to pay that off! Ever!’ I was so upset. So when I got to New York, I thought, okay, I’d better get a job. Like really fast. Shockingly, I got ‘Amadeus.'”
After understudying the lead female character, Mozart’s wife, and then taking over that role in the play, Sagal headed out to do a ton of regional theatre, everywhere from the East Coast to Alabama and even the Anchorage Rep in Alaska. “I got to see a lot of the country,” she says. “I never had to do odd jobs between shows because I was fortunate to also have a career in commercials. I was able to keep going from job to job to job, and doing commercials as my sideline.”
After appearing in upwards of forty plays, as well as feature films including “Coneheads” and “Lord of Illusions,” as well as series television such as “L.A. Law,” “Get Smart” and “Murder One,” Sagal found something else she loved … so she married and raised a family. “I loved being on stage. I absolutely loved it,” Sagal enthuses. “But when I had my first child, I loved that more. I absolutely love being a mom. And it’s pretty hard in L.A. to do a play and be out every night while raising a family. So I haven’t done a play since I had my first child. I still have a sophomore in high school, but I could be ready to go back into theater really soon.”
Sure, but Sagal is so super busy with television, where would she find the time? Oh, she’d make the time! She says “Yes” to everything. Well, almost everything. And this is perhaps one of the secrets of her long and successful career. As an example, she recalls the day in 1995 when she was offered a small role on the hit legal drama, “Murder One.”
“It was at a time when I hadn’t been getting much work and I was starting to panic,” she recalls. “My agent got me a part on ‘Murder One’ but it was only four lines. He said, ‘Don’t do it. It’s too small.’ We had a disagreement about it.
“I did the show anyway. And then, that night they called and said, ‘Your call for tomorrow is 6:00 a.m.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m done.’ And they said, ‘No, you’re not done.’ I was confused. I went in the next day and they handed me this huge script and said, ‘You replaced the jury consultant. She’s gone. You’re in. Here’s the part.'”
A similar situation occurred when she landed a part on the hit FX series “Sons of Anarchy.” Sagal remembers, “My part was very small. I went in, did a couple little things,
and then they said, ‘How about coming back tomorrow?’ And there was another tomorrow. And another. I remember one day I opened my computer at home and read the script they sent and I yelped. I almost fell off my chair with excitement. My daughter came running to see if I was all right. I said, ‘Apparently I’m going to be covered in tattoos, and kidnapped, and tied to a pole, and I’ve got guns and I have to shoot someone.’ It was all great fun on that show.”
Sagal’s memorable appearances on “Sons of Anarchy” also served as a calling card and turning point in her career. One of her admirers was the founder of The Green Room talent management company, Alex Czuluger. He contacted her with a proposal. She remembers, “This guy, whom I didn’t know, called me and said, ‘We should meet, I think I can get you more work than you’re getting.’ I didn’t have any connection to him and I was like, who are you? [pullquote align=”right” cite=”Just show up! You never know what’s going to happen!” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””][/pullquote]
“He said, ‘Well, if we meet, you’ll know.’ We did meet and he said, ‘If you want to work, I can make you work probably ten times what you’ve been doing. I have a plan.’ And you know, I have been working like a maniac since we started a year ago. I can’t explain it. He’s amazing. I have a great spot on CBS’ ‘Criminal Minds,’ and now I’m on another show, called ‘Secrets and Lies,’ for ABC. The season is ten episodes and I’m in eight. And it’s a really fun part. It’s exciting to be doing big hit shows!”
In addition, Sagal just completed an episode of ABC’s award-winning political thriller, “Scandal,” which she describes as “The hardest I’ve ever worked! But it was a blast. It started at 6:30 in the morning and we hit the ground running. I had 15 pages of fast-talking super smart dialogue. I had to be on my toes with the star, Kerry Washington, who was in every scene with me, and who was awesome and generous. It was so much fun.”
And fun is what Sagal is all about with her career. “I am amazed and pleased that I was able to basically put my career a little bit on the side burner and raise my family,” she says of her journey. And while she doesn’t think it’s very noteworthy to say, what makes her happiest is her family. “Really, bar none, my family is what gives me absolute joy. I put my focus on my kids. I had to get them into college. Now I’m thrilled to be working more than ever.
“My father, who was a plastic surgeon and felt passionate about his work said, ‘The main thing in life is to find your passion, then you’ll never feel like you work.’ He was right. I found mine. I tell people, stick your neck out for whatever your dream is. I would recommend that you die trying. You have to try. Give it your best shot. Then you can sleep at night.”
“Die Trying.” Great name for a new legal procedural series! Hello, TV writers and producers! There’s your title and your star, McNally Sagal. Now, go create and write the show!
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R.T. Jordan is the author of a bunch of novels, including “The Polly Pepper Mysteries” series.