Today’s Eight Eighties Questions interview is with Deborah M. Pratt. If you had to sum up her career in one word, it would be epic. To most 1980s kids, she will probably be best remembered for her crucial contributions to the much-loved sci-fi show Quantum Leap, where she was the co-executive producer, head writer, the voice of the super computer Ziggy, and she co-starred as Troian Claridge on the episode “A Portrait for Troian”. One of Ms. Pratt’s earliest experiences in show business was as a “Golddigger” on The Dean Martin Show, where she got to work with legendary singer and actor Dean Martin, along with an array of celebrity guest stars that included some of the most famous names in show business history. In addition to the many credits listed above, she is also a director, a producer, and a novelist. She also acted on many other popular 1980s shows such as: Airwolf, Magnum P.I., Gimmie a Break!, Benson, and Happy Days.
Special thanks to Deborah for taking time out of her schedule to answer today’s Eight Eighties Questions.
1. In the early days of your career you were a Golddigger on The Dean Martin Show, which featured guest appearances by some of the most legendary stars in the history of show business. What were some of your favorite encounters you’ve had with the different celebrities who appeared on the show?
The most exciting had to be that I got to work with Gene Kelly. I had loved him in everything I’d ever seen him do. Coming to Hollywood, being under contract right out of school and getting to work with an icon from one my favorite musicals, Singin’ in the Rain (I also worked with Donald O’Conner and Debbie Reynolds) was a dream come true. In the Golddiggers, I was one of the featured singers in the group with multiple solos on our road show and on Dean’s show as well as a featured dancer. I could dance, but I wasn’t a “hoofer”. That means I couldn’t tap my a-- off. I remembered when Gene walked into the room and everyone nervously crossed over to meet him, something possessed me to wait and when everyone had introduced themselves, I ran across the room, dropped to my knees and did a four-foot knee slide with arms open and a huge smile just like he did in, I believe, Singin’ in the Rain. He laughed and my silliness seemed to break the tension for all of us.
Gene wanted to do a big tap number with us. I was a fast learner but, like I said, not a hoofer. Robin Hoctor was a consummate tap dancer. She went on to work with Fred Astair on one of his last films. I digress. So we learned the routine and Gene said, “Alright ladies, tomorrow morning, show me what you got.” I panicked. We all worked hard on the routine but I wasn’t getting the ease and grace that comes with being a great tapper. Robin and Susan Buckner (Patti Simcox in Grease) came to my rescue and made me do it over and over and over. When we finally quit is was some ungodly hour of the morning and I took my tap shoes off only to see my toes bleeding. That was the moment I knew I was a real dancer. I had bled for my art. That day we showed up and danced with the amazing Gene Kelly. It was a moment to remember.
2. You made a very memorable appearance on Happy Days as the mysterious character Kat Mandu who enchanted both Fonzie and Richie. What was it like to work on that show?
It was a blast. I had been spotted at Harvey Lembek’s comedy workshop by Garry Marshall’s casting director. We were invited to create a character and come in to show Garry. I created a young high school, English girl whose father had been an American soldier over in London in WWII and I was brought to the States to live with my father. I was bringing the BEATLES to the Midwest, British accent and all. Garry liked me more than my character and said he had a character named Kat Mandu and would I do a guest spot on the show. I did and, because I was the only character in the history of the series to save the Fonze, they, and I, got the show’s highest ratings. Garry wanted to spin off Kat Mandu into her own show. I was on my way to comedic stardom. It was what he’d done with Robin Williams in Mork and Mindy, Lavern and Shirley, and Joanie Loves Chachi. However, Henry Winkler said, “No more spin offs.” The rest is history and I didn’t get my big comedy break. I did get Garry Marshall as a lifelong friend.
3. As the head writer of Quantum Leap, what was it like to take an idea for one of Sam’s leaps and turn it into a finished script?
It was an amazing, freeing experience. Unlike most shows, if the writer has a medical show, they always write a medical show for that series, or a cop, or lawyer, or whatever. Quantum was a writer’s and an actor’s dream in TV. I would write anything I wanted; drama, comedy, action adventure, mystery, historical or sci-fi. It was awesome.
4. You were a co-executive producer of Quantum Leap, which TV Guide named as one of “TV’s Top Cult Shows Ever.” What was it like to make a typical episode of the show?
Any episode starts with the characters and premise and we had very specific QL related rules that has to be followed. Beyond that it was where your imagination could take you. A writer would pitch me an arena and some characters. “We liked it,” I would say, “bring me a story.” From story it was broken down into acts and then beats, then you write the dialogue and bring me a polished script. You get notes from me, sometimes Don, the network and the Studio, It may take five to seven rewrites to make everyone happy. It would then go to production and we would attach a director, start casting, location scout, - every member did their specialty and it was like watching magic happen. The show would shoot in six or seven days. The editor would send a cut – more notes. Post meant spotting for music, sound effects and then mixing. After that – It was airtime! The whole process takes about three weeks once the script is approved.
5. One of the many episodes that you wrote was “A Portrait for Troian”, which you also guest-starred in. You were also the voice of Ziggy. What was it like when you got to experience the show as a performer in addition to your usual responsibilities behind the camera?
Let’s just say, I had new respect for Barbra Streisand and anyone who has to wear multiple hats. I had to learn lines and blocking to shoot a scene and then step off camera and do my job as a producer. I was very proud of myself. My only regret was I never directed an episode. I guess I’ll have to direct the feature film.
6. What was it like working with Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell?
They were, besides being great, funny, charming, supportive, talented actors, superb human beings. I couldn’t have asked for two kinder gentlemen with mega talent to write and produce for.
7. You’ve done so many things in the course of your amazing career, which also includes authoring the Vision Quest novels. What can you tell us about your current projects?
I have rewritten the first book of the Vision Quest and will be releasing it May 15th. I’m working on the second book and will follow with the full four, maybe five book series. The Atlantian VQ comes out May 15, 2015. Please come to the new site www.thevisionquest.com that day and watch what is happening.
I’m working to direct a wonderful film based on a short I directed for AFI (The American Film Institute). I have two erotic novels out, The Age of Eve and The Tempting.
And maybe, because it is an exciting world, I may come back and create something very special for TV.
8. What is one piece of life advice that you would like to share?
Dream big and never let anyone tell you can’t manifest those dreams into reality. Remember to only surround yourself with people who believe in you and support you. The universe wants to give you whatever you imagine. Every day, look in the mirror and tell yourself, I love you.