Saluting the Flagg

By Curt Chapman
Staff Writer
Posted 5/5/07

FAIRHOPE — She’s long been considered one of America’s favorite redheads, alongside the likes of Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball and Chuck Norris. Well, maybe substitute Mark Twain for Norris and you’ll get the point.

Now, Alabama native and …

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Saluting the Flagg


FAIRHOPE — She’s long been considered one of America’s favorite redheads, alongside the likes of Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball and Chuck Norris. Well, maybe substitute Mark Twain for Norris and you’ll get the point.

Now, Alabama native and part-time Fairhope resident Fannie Flagg is getting some well-deserved accolades. The writer, actress and comedienne was recently honored by the readers of The Birmingham News as the state’s top pop-culture icon, beating out notables such as Harper Lee, Jim Nabors, Winston Groom, Tallulah Bankhead, Hank Williams Sr. and Jimmy Buffett.

“It’s fabulous,” Flagg said earlier this week. “I was very pleased.”

Asked how she felt about edging out so many other well-known folks who also have an Alabama connection, she added, “You don’t like to beat anybody, but I was thrilled because it was my home state — thrilled beyond belief. There were so many people who deserved it so much more than me, but no one could appreciate it more. I burst into tears when I heard about it.”

Bob Carlton, Birmingham News senior reporter, said the premise of the poll followed the same format as the NCAA basketball tournament held in March. To do that, the newspaper selected 64 people from the fields of stage and screen, books, music and television, with 16 running in each category.

“We had readers go online to vote for who would win in each round,” Carlton said. “She beat sixth seeds, first seeds and third seeds.” Readers were given two days to vote in each round, he said, and the results were announced last month.

Flagg sent Crazy in Alabama author Mark Childress packing in the first round, and it was virtually nothing but net from there.

Carlton said, “We thought Courteney Cox (Arquette) would go further than she did, but Sela Ward beat her.” The dissolved country band Alabama’s defeat was also a surprise, he said, having lost to Williams Sr. 46 to 54 percent.

For the record, Williams earlier knocked his rowdy son, Hank Williams Jr., out of the competition, 65 to 35 percent. But, Flagg then dashed the hopes of Williams Sr.’s fans when she garnered 57 percent of the final vote to his 43 percent.

“We thought Harper Lee (author of To Kill a Mockingbird, who Flagg squeaked by near the end at 53 to 47 percent) might win the whole thing,” he said. “There were a handful of surprises along the way.”

No one was more surprised than Flagg herself. She said, “It tickled me to death. I don’t think anything’s tickled me more. I first heard about (the poll) when I was up against Harper Lee, then they called to say ‘you’re up against Hank Williams.’”

Flagg said the honor means much more to her than her Academy Award nomination she received for co-writing the “Fried Green Tomatoes” screenplay because of the love she has for her home state and its people.

She was born Patricia Neal in Birmingham to William and Marion Neal on Sept. 21, 1944. She moved with her family to Gulf Shores while she was in the fifth grade, and attended Foley Grammar School and Foley High School. The Neals later moved back to Birmingham where “Patsy” graduated from Ramsay High.

Flagg currently splits her time between her Eastern Shore home and a residence in Santa Barbara, Calif. She said, “I’ve been coming here every year of my life. I remember when the only restaurant in Fairhope was Julwin’s.”

Many know Flagg for her best-selling books, including Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!, Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man (originally titled Coming Attractions), Standing in the Rainbow, A Redbird Christmas and Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven, while others fondly remember her for many appearances on television, in movies and on the Broadway stage.

She co-hosted “Candid Camera” with the late Allen Funt, was a panelist on “Password,” filled in many a blank on “Match Game” and played comedic television roles in “The New Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Harper Valley P.T.A.”

Flagg also appeared in the movies “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “Rabbit Test,” “Crazy in Alabama,” Stay Hungry,” My Best Friend Is a Vampire” and “Grease.”

Both her father and paternal grandfather were projectionists in Birmingham theaters. Flagg said, “I grew up going to the movies with them, then I got into live theater when I was 15.” Among her later credits was the Broadway production of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”

Flagg was also a nurse for the 10 minutes it took to film her single scene (“It’s the first day of school and already my castor oil is missing.”) in the screen version of “Grease,” opposite Olivia Newton-John.

She said, “A friend from Alabama wrote the screenplay and asked me if I’d consider playing either a school nurse, a librarian or a teacher. I’d always wanted to be a nurse, so I agreed to play (Nurse Wilkins) if I could keep the costume.” With the deal made, Flagg walked out of the soundstage still wearing the uniform.

“I went to dinner and surprised some friends at Chason’s, who were there for a birthday party,” she said with a laugh. “I walked up to (the birthday honoree), put my hand on her shoulder and said, ‘I’m sorry, but they need you back in the home.’”

Does Flagg prefer live theater over movies and television or vice versa?

“I like them both,” she said. “But with theater, you have to live very frugally and can’t get out during the daytime because you’re giving nighttime performances. Writing is the favorite thing of anything I’ve ever done.”

Flagg’s work has always portrayed Alabama in a positive light, and it’s intentional. She said, “I’ve turned stuff down that was detrimental to the state. In “Fried Green Tomatoes,” they were people who got along and were kind to each other. The movie went all over the world, and many ask if people are that nice in Alabama and I say, ‘they are.’”

She added, “I was in New York in the 1960s and people were so unkind about my home state.” Flagg countered that, however, by promoting Alabama in appearances on NBC’s “Tonight Show” during the Johnny Carson era.

Flagg, who was inducted into the Alabama Stage and Screen Hall of Fame in 1999, said the paperback of Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven is being released in about a month. Her earlier novel, A Redbird Christmas is being re-released in hardcover, and a film version will soon be produced by the team that brought “Fried Green Tomatoes” to the screen.

Flagg was recently at the Irondale Café in Birmingham to tape a segment of a Random House DVD about books. The restaurant was the basis of the Whistle Stop Café depicted in her popular 1988 novel.

But, don’t expect to soon see a new book by Flagg at your corner bookstore. She said she’s taking a short break from writing and other pursuits, a stark contrast of someone who began acting at such an early age, and who had her own local television program when she was only 18.

Meanwhile, the Golden State might be where Flagg earns a living, but Alabama is where she comes to unwind.

“California is very nice in terms of that’s where I work,” she said. “The people are very nice, and the weather is great year-round, but it’s not home. It never will be.”

She smiled and added, “I come back home two or three times a year. I like to relax and sit on Mobile Bay. I like to go shopping, and eat all the good food you can’t get in California.”