Conchata Ferrell

Award-winning actress and Marshall alumna Conchata Ferrell has a career that spans four decades and a zest for life that can only compare to the bold and humorous characters she plays.

By Carter Seaton

Conchata Ferrell

In 1969, a star was born at Marshall University when Conchata Ferrell appeared in the second Barfenon Review, a skit comedy and musical production presented during what was known as Impact Week. Cast by associate theater professor Chuck Billings as a "Mama Cass type," the role changed Ferrell's life.

"At the first laugh that came rolling across the footlights, my pores opened, and I felt like I came home," Ferrell says.

Now, as Berta in the award-winning situation comedy on CBS, Two and a Half Men, Ferrell seems to get all the best lines and has garnered her third Emmy nomination.

The list of Ferrell's stage, screen and television roles over her 40-year career covers six pages; from the beginning, critics predicted her success. Perhaps it was genetically predestined. Her funny-man father once rigged sound to a light pole in front of their home and broadcast farm animal sounds to passersby. Born in Loudendale near Charleston, W.Va. Ferrell grew up in Circleville, Ohio.

Former Circleville resident and current Huntingtonian Delores Underdonk says the Ferrells were the most entertaining family in the neighborhood. Underdonk lived across the street from Luther and Mescal Ferrell when Chatty, as she was called then, left West Virginia University and returned home. She recalls the talented Ferrell playing guitar and singing when she babysat for the six Underdonk children.

"She was somewhat of a hippie," Underdonk says, "but even then you could see she had a special personality."

Ferrell had gone to West Virginia University with plans to become a lawyer but, after two years, decided that it wasn't for her. She dropped out and worked odd jobs in Circleville, from waitressing to babysitting to working as a hotel desk clerk and on an assembly line. The assembly line sent her back to school, she says. Resuming her studies at Marshall, she majored in history education with an eye toward teaching. Although she took neither acting nor theater classes, she recalls trying out for a production of The Women because many of her theater friends were in it and she thought it might be fun. She wasn't cast, however. Among the friends was Huntington's Michael Fesenmeier, whom Ferrell calls "the funniest man I ever met." He was in the first Barfenon Review when they met, and they have been close friends since.

Conchata Ferrell

Shortly after graduation from Marshall, Ferrell left Huntington with another theater friend and headed to New York to join Fesenmeier who had moved there in 1968. As a member of the original Circle Repertory Theatre, he introduced them to the newly formed company. Gradually, other Marshall friends joined them, and, by the second year, an entire "Huntington contingent" was performing at some level in Circle Rep. Among them was Brad Dourif, whom Ferrell had met when she returned to see Marshall's third Barfenon Review.

In 1973, when Ferrell was cast as prostitute April Greene in the off-Broadway hit production of Lanford Wilson's The Hot L Baltimore, she began to make a name for herself. She reprised the role on television two years later for Norman Lear creator of All in the Family but the show was short-lived. A year later, in her role as Gertrude Blum in Edward J. Moore's The Sea Horse, Ferrell won Drama Desk, Theatre World and Obie Awards as best actress for 1974. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Ferrell, who now lives in Hollywood with her husband Arnie Anderson and daughter Samantha, says, "I've been a regular on five situation comedies before Two and a Half Men, made three pilots that never saw the light of broadcast air and guested on more sitcoms than I can remember." Indeed! Her credits include more than 100 roles, including 22 episodes as Nurse Joan Thor in the original television cast of E.R. from 1984 to 1985, 15 episodes as Susan Bloom on L.A. Law from 1988 to 1992 and 17 episodes of Teen Angel from 1997 to 1998.

What she leaves out, however, is her Emmy nomination in 1992 for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for L.A. Law and her 2005 and 2007 nominations as Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her current role as Berta in Two and a Half Men. She also fails to mention her memorable movie roles in Network, Mystic Pizza, Edward Scissorhands, Erin Brockovich and others, giving credit to those she worked with instead.

"All three young women who starred in Mystic Pizza Lily Taylor, Julia Roberts and Annabeth Gish were impressive on the set. They were all prepared, hardworking and devoted. Lily was inventive and theatre- trained; Annabeth was experienced; and Julia was loaded with personality. She was a kid of joy," Ferrell recalls. "But, when I saw the screening of the film, it was Julia's presence that knocked me out. The camera loved her. I remember saying to a friend, 'My God, she's a movie star.'"

While she has enjoyed working with many other actors including Judd Hirsch, Elliot Gould, George Clooney and Jeff Bridges, Ferrell says her favorite acting partner of all time was Slim Pickens. They played together on television's B. J. and the Bear from 1979 to 1980.

Conchata Ferrell

It's not surprising to note that of all the roles she's played, Ferrell's favorites are those most like the kind of person she aspires to be.

"My favorite roles are April Greene in The Hot L Baltimore, Susan Bloom in L.A. Law and Berta in Two and a Half Men," she says. "The three share a zest for living life to the fullest in the best way available to them. They all have a great sense of humor, do not take any crap and are survivors. Berta is a wonderful character to inhabit. She is bold, loyal, experienced and uninhibited. It is great fun walking in her shoes."

Gertrude Blum in the two-character play The Sea Horse is another character she loved. For Michael Fesenmeier, that award-wining performance by Ferrell stands out as his favorite.

Ferrell is often asked about her unusual first name. She answers that it was a tradition in her mother's family to give daughters unusual first names. Growing up, her mother also knew a girl with a similar name in Cabin Creek, W.Va. Many Italian and Irish families lived in that community, and Ferrell thinks it's probably her mother's version of the Italian name "Concetta." Because the name also means "she begins" in Apache, her mother may have named her better than she realized. With each role, Ferrell begins again and again to create a memorable character. That she's done it so often is a true testament to her talent. She says if she could have only one more role, she'd like it to be written for her by Lanford Wilson, creator of her first hit, The Hot L Baltimore.

"Speaking his words is speaking the truth with humor," she says.

If the past is an indication of the future, there will be many roles yet to come for Conchata Ferrell. And perhaps her best work is still out there. Stay tuned.

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