Katey Sagal, Holding Court On 'Sons Of Anarchy'
As Gemma, the fierce matriarch of the biker gang in the FX series Sons of Anarchy, Katey Sagal has shot and killed people, hit somebody with a skateboard, pulled a gun on a baby and done other horrible things. It's all part of the challenge of playing the character, Sagal says.
"She does things in the name of loyalty, which I relate to, but she goes way beyond anything I would do."
Sagal won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Gemma in 2011. According to the actress — who's best-known for playing the red-haired, sharp-tongued Peg Bundy in Married With Children — Gemma's character is not based on any real person in the biker culture, partly because it was so hard to find research on the subculture's women.
"It's a very misogynistic culture and I say that with all due respect," Sagal says.
Instead, she based Gemma on a variety of regal political figures.
"She's the queen of the organization, so guys in the club are respectful of her — she's sort of like their surrogate mother in a way," Sagal tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I think she pulls a lot of the strings behind the scenes, and she is privy to all the goings-on."
Sagal is also a singer-songwriter; before becoming an actress, she briefly sang backup for Bob Dylan and performed for a while with Bette Midler as a Harlette.
"I got the gig as a singer and then I had to dance like in high heels and in a mermaid fin, and all these kind of crazy things. I just never thought I would be able to do it!"
Sagal is working on her fourth record, which will be out soon. The fifth season of Sons of Anarchy premiered on Sept. 11, 2012.
On her husband, Kurt Sutter, writing Gemma with her in mind
"His idea came from meeting with our other executive producers who had wanted to do a movie in this arena. And he thought it would be a good television series, and so he wrote this world which sort of had a Hamlet arc about it, and there was definitely the mother of our Hamlet. And so he came to me as he was writing it, and said 'I think I have a part for you,' but he didn't really tell me what it was. And I didn't really know what it was until I actually read the script. But he did write it with me in mind, and then we were hoping the network would sign off on that. ...
"If you asked him, what he would tell you probably is when he came into my life, I already had two children, and he's their stepparent, and I was very protective of my children. ... He hadn't been around that kind of energy quite so much, so I think that's what was the springboard for Gemma. It was not so much the heinous things she does; it was that at her core, her motivation is her children, is her child. At any cost, she will protect him and her club."
On Peg Bundy's wardrobe
"When that character was shown to me, she was written to be very sloppy. She was supposed to be like this woman who never took care of herself and kind of was a couch potato. And I read the script and my take on it was, I thought there needed to be some sort of sexual energy between her and Al Bundy, because how could you talk to each other so horribly if something didn't happen that was wonderful also — even though he was always bemoaning that aspect of their relationship. So it was my idea to doll her up. I thought she should look sexy. ... So that was really my input to the writing, which I ultimately think made it a little more real and not so difficult to take. Because they were pretty tough on each other, those two."
On the conservative response to Married With Children
"Well, it was really an issue of censorship, and at the time we were very irreverent. And there was a woman named Terry Rakolta [who] tried to get us pulled off the air because she didn't want her kids to watch it. And our response was, 'Well, you change the channel or you put your kid in the other room.' It wasn't about stopping it; it was about you should be the parent and monitor your child.
"But she caused such a ruckus and tried to get sponsors to leave the show, that really what she did was like double and triple our ratings, and we ended up on the cover of The New York Times. I think it was after our third season where we were a hit, but we were still on the new Fox network that most people didn't have. I think like 60 percent of the country had it at the time — you had to have little rabbit ears on your TV to get it. And she did the exact opposite of what she had intended to do. So we sent her flowers every year, which I'm sure really pissed her off.
"I always had a struggle, which I still do, when you're playing a character and it's not necessarily your morals or your values. You're playing a character, but the way the media will sometimes ask you if these are your opinions, you know — they make you responsible for that, and I take issue with it because I don't believe in censorship. ... Married with Children was racy. It was sexist. It was a lot of things, but mostly it was funny."
On her father Boris Sagal's career as a successful director
"I didn't see him that much. You know, episodic TV directing is a very long and arduous job. You have very short schedules, short short shooting days, and you have to get lot of pages done. So my dad worked really, really hard. So I say that only to couch it — a lot of people think the show-biz family thing is very glamorous. I would say it wasn't. ... My parents were very artistic, but busy. The time I remember really seeing my dad and understanding my dad was when he would finally start bringing me to work with him. And then I was around that set environment, and I would see what was going on, 'cause it's hard to describe to a kid what your job is. It's hard to describe to anybody what that is, unless you actually see it ...
"Like I said before, too, I really wanted to be a musician; I had no aspiration at that point to be an actor. Part of me I think was rebelling against my father, because he used to say to me, 'You know, you could be actor.' And he said it to me when I was young. And I thought, 'No, I want to be a singer.' [Acting] didn't look glamorous to me at all — even when I met Elvis Presley, because my dad directed an Elvis movie. ... But I'll never forget, he brought me to the set. I met Elvis Presley. I was so not impressed. Now I would be. I was like a snotty little 12-year-old."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you still think of Katey Sagal as the dolled-up housewife from the series "Married with Children," which was a big hit in the '80s and '90s, you'd be surprised to see her in her current FX series "Sons of Anarchy." She plays Gemma, the fierce matriarch of an outlaw motorcycle club.
Gemma is willing to beat or threaten to kill anyone who threatens her family. Sagal's husband, Kurt Sutter, is the show's creator. He was also a producer, writer and director on "The Shield." Katey Sagal co-starred with Ed O'Neill and Christina Applegate in "Married with Children" for 11 seasons on the then-brand-new Fox Network. She's also the voice of Leila on the animated series "Futurama," and she was a member of The Harlettes, Bette Midler's backup group.
"Sons of Anarchy" is in its fifth season. Here's a scene from Season 3. Katey Sagal as Gemma travels to Belfast with her son and another member of the motorcycle club to find her young grandson, who's been kidnapped. They trace him to an adoption center run by Irish nuns. The nuns tell them that the boy has been given to a family for adoption but refuse to tell them who the family is. Gemma grabs a gun, starts yelling and ends up aiming the gun directly at the baby.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SONS OF ANARCHY")
KATEY SAGAL: (As Gemma) You bring me that baby, the kid. What are you doing?
CHARLIE HUNNAM: (as Jackson Teller) Mom?
SAGAL: (As Gemma) You know the story of King Solomon, right, sister?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Nun) Yes.
SAGAL: (As Gemma) If I was that mother, I'd rather have a half-dead kid than watch someone else raise my flesh and blood. Do you understand where I'm going with this? Now you've got to have done some kind of research on those scab parents. So we both know that this anonymous thing is (bleep). Now you are going to tell us where our grandson is, or I swear to God I will cut this baby in half.
GROSS: And what we're not seeing in the clip because this is radio is the horrified look on the face of Gemma's son and one of the other really hardened bikers who is in the room.
GROSS: Katey Sagal, welcome to FRESH AIR.
SAGAL: I just have to mention in that clip the most horrified look was on the baby because as we were shooting this, the actual take they ended up taking, it was, you know, the director's dream, but the baby completely flipped out and was crying, looking right at me. I mean, it was just horrific.
GROSS: Well, it must have been a weird scene to shoot because the baby was real.
SAGAL: It was a very difficult scene to shoot. It really...
GROSS: And you have babies; you really are a mother.
SAGAL: Yes, I really - I have three babies, and I, you know, it's been the challenge and the, you know, the very difficult part of this character, which is that she does things in the name of loyalty that I relate to, but she goes to means, you know, she goes way beyond anything that I would do.
GROSS: So what's the position as the wife or the old lady of the leader of the biker club? What power does she have, and in what way is she subservient to her old man?
SAGAL: Well, this is what I'll say before I answer that is that the character of Gemma is probably the most - we've taken the most creative license with because if you try to find research on the women in this subculture, it's very hard to find it. They don't - it's a very misogynistic culture. And I say that with all due respect. Everybody kind of knows that.
So there's not a lot written about the women. And so it's a little bit of different dynamic than other crime organizations, where, you know, I can just relate it to "The Sopranos," where those women sort of knew what was going on but just turned a blind eye, basically, and lived nicely and didn't really get involved.
Gemma tends to know everything. She knows what's going on. She's definitely - in this world she's sort of the woman behind the man. She - you know, and this is kind of what my husband, who writes the show, has developed her to be. She's not based on any real person in that world. But she's the queen of the organization.
So the guys in the club are very respectful of her. She's sort of like their surrogate mother in a way. And, you know, I think she pulls a lot of the strings behind the scenes. And she is privy to all the goings on.
GROSS: And not so much anymore now that...
GROSS: Yes, now that she and her second husband are separated and basically trying occasionally to murder each other, more or less, and her son is starting to pull away from her, too, because he realizes what trouble she's creating for everybody. So your character is losing her power and kind of, you know, smoking and drinking more.
SAGAL: Yeah, it's a long, sad road for Gemma right now.
SAGAL: She - it's an interesting thing to play because what happened - you know, her dream come true happened at the end of last season where her son became president of the club. She's really all about her kid. You know, that's the most important thing to her, and her grandkids.
So she gets her dream, her wish come true, but in the meanwhile, she's estranged from her husband because of his horrible behavior. So what happens to the mother-in-law? Here she is sitting on the outside. So what happens to her?
And, you know, what we see in this season is that she really falls apart because the club is all she knows. That is her world. Her backstory is that she left her family of origin and this became her only family. So it's been interesting to play this year, her lost journey. She's come back, though, I promise.
GROSS: I knew you from comedy, before seeing "Sons of Anarchy," and did you have to learn not only how to play this really tough character but how to do things like slug people?
SAGAL: Slug. Yeah, well, I did have to learn how to slug people. That doesn't come naturally. I'm trying to think of the times I - oh, there was one big fight scene where I did some of my own stuff. I like to do my own stuff as much as possible. So we have somebody who actually blocks the shot with you, and, you know, when you're seeing a punch, there's a camera shooting from behind you so that you're not following through with the punch, you're just seeing the illusion of the punch.
And, you know, you just imagine yourself, I'm sure we've all imagined ourselves taking a good wallop at someone.
GROSS: So do you ride, or does your husband, the creator of the show, Kurt Sutter, ride?
SAGAL: Yes, he definitely rides, and I do not. I'm even hesitant to get on the back. I really feel - because we live in Los Angeles, and I'm just not, I'm too afraid, and those three children of mine prevent me from doing dangerous things. So I don't, but he does, he does.
GROSS: You're OK with that?
SAGAL: That's the argument I lost. So I tend to - you know, I have no choice, actually. I have to be sort of OK with it. He's a very cautious guy, and, you know, he doesn't drive after long days on the set, and he rides when he's clear-headed.
GROSS: So your husband Kurt Sutter created "Sons of Anarchy." He was also a writer and an executive producer on "The Shield." Did he write the part of Gemma with you in mind?
SAGAL: He did. So he had - he came to me as he was writing it, and he said I think I have a part for you. But he didn't really tell me what it was, and I didn't really know what it was until I actually read the script. And then, you know, we were sort of hoping the network would sign off on that.
GROSS: It's interesting to think of him making the mother of his child such a really kind of crazy mother in the series.
SAGAL: Yes, you know, when he came into my life, I already had two children, and he's their step-parent. And I was very protective of my children, and I think for him, he hadn't been around that kind of energy quite so much. So I think that's what was the springboard for Gemma. It was not so much the heinous things she does, it was that at her core, her motivation is these children - is her child, - is to, you know, at any cost she will protect him and her club.
GROSS: I'd like you to describe your character Gemma's look on "Sons of Anarchy," and I'm curious if you've ever worn clothes like that onstage because you've sung - you know, you're also a singer, you've done a lot of rock shows, and I could easily see you dressing kind of like her when performing.
SAGAL: Yeah. I never actually did dress like her when performing, but absolutely. She has a rock 'n' roll thing about her. My idea for Gemma was I wanted to have those blonde streaks in her hair, which looked very much like a stripper on a motorcycle to me. She's all about the leather. She's got a lot of tattoos. She has those streaks in her hair. It's really fun, I'll tell you, to walk around dressed like that.
SAGAL: It's sort of empowering. I think it's the shoes. I'm not sure. But, you know, I don't wear those big high heels in my life, but when you wear them, you just feel very tall and powerful. You just do.
SAGAL: And it helps, it helps the, it helps the character to be in all that.
GROSS: It's funny that you should mention the high heels because in the TV series "Married with Children," you played Peg Bundy, you know, a wife and mother who doesn't really like to do housework or take care of the kids or do much of anything except shop.
GROSS: And she's always kind of teetering around on high heels, taking these little, mincing steps.
GROSS: She almost looks like a dog walking on two paws, with the other two paws held up because she has her hands kind of held up like that.
GROSS: So it's two really different versions of walking around on high heels.
SAGAL: Yeah, but her wardrobe was equally as important.
GROSS: It was. Yes, describe it.
SAGAL: Well, when that character was given, was shown to me, she was written to be very sloppy. She was supposed to be like this woman who never took care of herself and kind of was a couch potato. And I read the script, and my take on it was I thought there needed to be some sort of sexual energy between her and Al Bundy because how could you talk to each other so horribly if something didn't happen that was wonderful also, even though he always bemoaning that element of their relationship.
So I - it was sort o my idea to doll her up. I thought, you know, she should look sexy - probably my own vanity involved there, too. I didn't want to play such a sloppy character. But, you know, she should look sexy, she should be, you know, kind of - those kind of shoes make you walk a certain way.
So that was really sort of my input to the writing, which I ultimately think made it a little more real and not quite so difficult to take because, you know, they were pretty tough on each other, those two.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Katey Sagal, and she plays the matriarch Gemma in the FX motorcycle club series "Sons of Anarchy." She was Peg in the '80s sitcom "Married with Children." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Katey Sagal. She stars in "Sons of Anarchy," and a lot of people know her best from "Married with Children." Let's hear a scene from "Married with Children." And this is a scene, it's your birthday, and you're at home sitting on the couch with your husband Al, who's played by Ed O'Neill.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MARRIED WITH CHILDREN")
ED O'NEILL: (As Al Bundy) Hi Peg. How 'ya doin'?
SAGAL: (As Peggy Bundy) How am I doin'? It's my birthday, and you have the audacity to ask me how I'm doin'? The best years of my life are over. And the worst part is I spent them with you.
(As Peg) By the way, Al, am I still attractive?
O'NEILL: (As Al) Peg, you're still the same knee in the groin you were when you were 16.
SAGAL: (As Peg) I don't believe you. You didn't say it with feeling. You are an insensitive hog of a man.
(As Peg) Ooh, I've got to do something to shake these birthday blues. I know, give me money. I'm going to shop till you drop. Oh, by the way, Al, this does not get you off the hook for a present, and this year I want something different.
O'NEILL: (As Al) Well Peg, I only know how to do it one way.
SAGAL: (As Peg) And one day maybe you'll get it right. No, honey, this year I want something that lasts longer than three minutes.
GROSS: That's my guest Katey Sagal with Ed O'Neill in a scene from "Married with Children." So I'm just not sure where to start with that scene.
GROSS: So let's start with the laughter. Was that shot before a live audience, and was the laughter sweetened?
SAGAL: It was always before a live audience. We had very rowdy audiences. My guess is they didn't sweeten it because they had enough, but maybe they moved it around. I'm not quite sure the process. But we had uproarious laughter in our audience when we did that show.
GROSS: So in that little clip that we heard, there were at least two sex jokes without using sex words in them, and I remember "Married with Children" kind of got into trouble with media, you know, conservative media watchdog groups because of the sexual allusions in it. What are some of your memories of that?
SAGAL: Well, it was really an issue of censorship, and at the time, we were very irreverent, and there was a woman named Terry Rakolta, and I'll never forget because we sent her flowers every year because this woman tried to get us pulled off the air because she didn't want her kids to watch it.
And our response was, well, you change the channel, or you don't - you know, you put your kid in the other room. You know, it wasn't about stopping it, it was about you should be the parent and monitor your child. But she caused such a ruckus and tried to get sponsors to leave the show that really what she did was, like, double and triple our ratings, and we ended up on the cover of the New York Times.
It was really - I think it was after our third season, where people were - we were a hit, but we were still on the new Fox Network that most people didn't have. I think like 60 percent of the country had it at the time. You had to have, like, little rabbit ears on your TV to get it. And she did exactly the opposite of what she had intended to do. So we did, we sent her flowers every year, which I'm sure really pissed her off.
But, you know, "Married with Children" was racy, it was sexist, it was a lot of things, but mostly it was funny. It was funny, and I think it had a place.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about your singing career that preceded part of your acting career, in which you became well-known. You might have already been acting when you were singing. But why don't we start by hearing you sing.
SAGAL: Oh, sure.
GROSS: OK, so this is "Son of a Preacher Man" and your version of the song, a song made famous both by Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin. Your version of this was used in the first season of "Sons of Anarchy." Do you want to explain what was going on as this played?
SAGAL: I don't remember.
GROSS: Thank you.
SAGAL: You'd have to tell me. I don't remember which episode it's in. I sing a song every season, and they put it in different episodes. So I'm not sure which - what was going on. And then it's all on the "Sons of Anarchy" soundtrack, which does pretty well on iTunes. I just recorded something for Season 5 that will be in the finale.
GROSS: Oh, can you tell us what the song is?
SAGAL: I wonder if I can. You know, my husband has us all sworn to secrecy every turn.
GROSS: Yeah, I won't - I don't want to ruin your marriage.
SAGAL: So, I don't think I can.
SAGAL: I don't think I can.
GROSS: I don't want that crime in my book.
SAGAL: No, I hear you.
GROSS: So this is "Son of a Preacher Man," and it's sung by my guest Katey Sagal on a soundtrack of "Sons of Anarchy."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SON OF A PREACHER MAN")
SAGAL: (Singing) Billy-Ray was a preacher's son, when his daddy would visit he'd come along. When they'd gather 'round the parlor talking, that's when Billy would take me walking, through the back yard we'd go walking, then he'd look into my eyes, Lord knows to my surprise that the only one who could ever reach me was the son of a preacher man. The only boy who could ever teach me was the son of a preacher man. Yes he was, ooh, he was, yeah, he was. Alleluia.
GROSS: That's Katey Sagal singing, who plays Gemma on "Sons of Anarchy" and is also known from her role, her starring role in "Married with Children." When did you start singing?
SAGAL: I've been singing since I was a very small child for real, and my mother taught me how to play the folk guitar when I must have - I was probably 7, 8. And she had this old folk guitar that Burl Ives had given her. My mother had been a singer in the USO shows, she had a radio show when she was a kid.
And so she taught me folk music, and it was really, as a kid, it was sort of my way into a social life. I was sort of very shy and kept to myself, but I was able to sing, and I had a pretty big voice. And so I started then, and when I was about 13 years old, I started writing music.
You know, I was listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell and The Rolling Stones. Just a whole, different, you know, everywhere kind of music. And that was really what I wanted to do when I grew up, was to be a singer/songwriter.
And it still - you know, to this day it's still more the heart part of me, I would say. Like I just, I love to play music.
GROSS: So for a while in the '80s you were a Harlette, one of Bette Midler's backup singers. So here's what I'm wondering: Can you sing just the harmony part of one of her songs?
SAGAL: You know, I don't know if I could. I could probably do the dance moves if I, you know, kicked up my heels in here. That was like the hardest job I've ever had in my - even to this day, I would say.
SAGAL: You know, Bette Midler, well, she's fantastic, and she has a work ethic like nobody's business. So - well, first of all, it was the combination of having to sing these very intense harmony parts, you know, charted parts. There was a lot of '40s kind of Andrews Sisters music. And at that time, when I was a Harlette, you were more a singer than a dancer.
I've seen her show recently, and the Harlettes are more dancers than singers. So what she would do is I got the gig as a singer, and then I had to dance, like in high heels and in a mermaid fin and all these kind of crazy things that I just never thought I would be able to do it.
And then rehearsed, she would rehearse all the time. I mean, she was so diligent about performance, and, you know, she wouldn't just make us rehearse, she would rehearse, too. So it was actually, it was like I never really went to - I dropped out of college, so she was like a college education for me - between her and Etta James, who I also sang with for a year or so.
It was really - you know, they were both just so meticulous in their own ways about what they were doing. So but the Bette job - she was a taskmaster, I would say.
GROSS: Katey Sagal will be back in the second half of the show. She co-stars in the FX series "Sons of Anarchy" as Gemma, the matriarch of an outlaw motorcycle club. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Katey Sagal. She costars as Gemma, the matriarch of an outlaw motorcycle club in the FX series "Sons of Anarchy." In the '80s and '90s, she played Peg on the sitcom "Married With Children." Before starting her acting career, she was a singer-songwriter - still is - and she was a backup singer for Etta James and with Bette Midler's Harlettes.
So I read that you also sang backup for Dylan but that he fired you.
SAGAL: Yes. He fired me. He fired me and I would - but I always put it on my resume because it's so interesting to me.
SAGAL: He - I was 19 years old, I think, and my friend used to hang out at his house. And she said to me he needs background singers and we sang together. So she brought me down to the rehearsal, me and this other girl and Bob hired us on the spot. And he hired us without even really hearing us. I mean it was really sort of weird. So we would have these rehearsals with Bob Dylan and I worked with him for a couple of months. And then right before the tour he fired all three background singers and half the band. But it was such a, you know, it was just amazing to stand in the room and sing "Just Like A Woman" with Bob Dylan. It was really amazing and kind of scary.
GROSS: Did you know why he fired everybody or half of everybody?
SAGAL: In hindsight I'm sure I was doing a terrible job. I think I was so intimidated to really speak or say anything. I think that I was in the wrong register in my voice and I think he just wanted something different.
GROSS: And one other background singer question. You did back up for Gene Simmons on a solo album of his in the '70s. Was he nicer to you than he was to me?
SAGAL: What he mean to you?
GROSS: Oh, he was very obnoxious to me when he was on the show.
SAGAL: Oh. That's a drag. You know, Gene...
GROSS: It made for interesting listening.
SAGAL: Gene Simmons got me my first record deal...
SAGAL: ...on Casablanca Records. And he was always a big supporter of me.
GROSS: Oh, how nice.
SAGAL: Yeah. And that's how I sort of got onto his solo record, is we had sort of a personal connection for a minute. But basically it was, it was this weird set of circumstances, where I met him and it turns out the band I was in at the time, there was a guy in it that he'd gone to college with. So he came to the rehearsal and before I knew it we were in Neal Bogart's office on Casablanca Records.
GROSS: The head of Casablanca. Yeah.
SAGAL: Correct. Yeah. And we got a deal. That's when Donna Summer was there and Kiss had just been there and just started there. So it was a - Gene is - Gene was very important in my work world.
GROSS: Oh, nice to hear that.
SAGAL: Yeah. I'm sorry he was mean to you.
GROSS: That's - it's really fine. We got a lot of mileage out of it, believe me.
SAGAL: Not totally shocked, but...
GROSS: You grew up in an entertainment business family. Your mother was, I believe, a writer and director?
SAGAL: A writer and a director and a singer. Yes. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And a singer. And your father was a director.
GROSS: It was look - I IMBD your father and I couldn't believe what I found there. He, like, directed like every...
GROSS: ...every TV show in...
GROSS: ...in like the late '50s and early '60s. "M Squad," "Johnny Staccato," "Mr. Lucky," "Playhouse 90," "Peter Gunn," "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "Dr. Kildare," "Mr. Novak." I'm just, that's just like the bottom part of his IMDB part.
GROSS: It goes on and on. But, you know, and I don't know how many episodes of the shows that he did, but these were really important programs. Did you grow up with shows that he directed?
SAGAL: Yes, I grew up watching "Dr. Kildare," "Man From Uncle." I didn't see him that much.
SAGAL: From that IMDB you'll see. You know, those were the days, you know episodic television directing is a very long and arduous job. And, you know, you have very short schedules, you know, short shooting days and you have to get a lot of pages done. So my dad worked really, really hard. So I say that only to couch it and a lot of people think the showbiz family thing is very glamorous. I would say it wasn't. You know, it was very - it was wonderful, you know, my parents were very artistic and - but busy. You know, the times that I remember really seeing my dad and understanding my dad was when he would finally start bringing me to work with him. And then I was around that set environment and I'd, sort of, see what was going on. Because it's hard to describe to a kid what your job is. You know, it's hard to describe to anybody what that is, you know, and - unless you actually see it.
Here's a funny story. My dad was a Russian immigrant and my grandmother, to the day she passed on, she never understood what he did for a living. And, you know, there was just no describing or explaining being in the television business. Of course, she didn't speak English very well either.
GROSS: Being on the set with him when he was directing TV shows, was that fun? Did it seem magical or did it seem like ah, work?
SAGAL: It got pretty much like ah, work after - pretty quickly. I'll remember though, I was, like I said before, I was kind of a shy kid. And the minute I told my fifth grade friends that I could get - you know, girls - that I could get them on the set to meet Richard Chamberlain...
GROSS: "Dr. Kildare."
SAGAL: "Dr. Kildare," I was, you know, suddenly like the belle of the ball of the fifth grade - in the fifth grade. So it definitely served its purpose. I saw the intoxicating affect show business can have on people. I saw that early on.
GROSS: Did it have that intoxicating affect on you even though your father was directing the shows?
SAGAL: You know, actually - not. I was not that impressed. And, you know, like I said before too, I really wanted to be a musician. I had no aspiration, at that point, to be an actor. Part of me I think was rebelling against my father because he used to say to me, you know, you could be an actor. And he said it to me when I was young. And I thought no, you know, I want to be a singer and so I didn't really - it didn't look glamorous to me at all. Even when I met Elvis Presley because, you know, my dad directed an Elvis movie.
GROSS: Oh, which one?
SAGAL: And - he directed a movie called "Girl Happy" with Elvis and Shelley Fabares. And you can IMDB that one too. But I'll never forget, you know, he brought me to this set. I met Elvis Presley. I was so not impressed. Now I would be.
SAGAL: I was like a snotty little 12-year-old. You know, I was just sort of, you know, whatever. Not my deal.
GROSS: So your father was killed on the set of a made-for-TV movie that he was directing called "World War III." And I think he was, he accidentally was killed by a helicopter blade? Do I have that right?
SAGAL: Mm-hmm. Yes. He walked into the blade.
GROSS: Do you know what happened?
SAGAL: Several things happened. He - really what happened, was he left his script in the helicopter and they were shooting second unit. He was high altitude. He was, knowing my dad, he was probably was in some sort of agitated, didn't get my shots stage. You know, he just was, you know, he was very involved with his work. We have since, you know, there was a safety regulation that we have since added to these helicopters. We had a big lawsuit with the helicopter company because it used to be you could get out of the helicopter before the blades had shut off. So he literally got out and lost his balance, went back to get his script and that was, you know, he walked into a blade. And pretty much passed, you know, was definitely passed out and was passed on very soon after that, as soon as they got him off the mountain. high altitude
GROSS: Well, just taking the knowledge of how something really tragic can happen on a set...
GROSS: ...has it affected how you deal with things when you're on the set and you are assured, no, no, it'll be fine?
SAGAL: Well, I'm super cautious. I - you know, the things that go on on "Sons of Anarchy," a lot of the physical stuff doesn't really involve me. I mean there's a lot of motorcycle stunts and all kinds of potentially dangerous things that go on there. And, you know, luckily we haven't had any horrific events, you know, from all that. And, you know, working on a set with a lot of action, they take enormous precautions. You know, there's just enormous precautions. You know, any time you fire a gun on a set there's, you know, five people showing you that it's blanks. There's hollering to the crew, fire in the hole, so that everybody knows a gun is going to be shot. There's just constant vigilance around that.
So, I mean for me personally, I tend to be kind of a scaredy cat. You know, I don't like heights. I'm not as bold as Gemma, for sure. So I do know that's colored by what happened to my father, but I think what has colored me by what happened to my father - and my mother also died when I was young - is I have an early sense of mortality, which ultimately leads me to great appreciation for what I have right now. Because I am well aware that this is not a journey that is without an ending. You know, I know that it's finite. And I knew it young. I knew it when I was very young. So I think there's a different experience when you have that, when you lose your parents young I think that you, you just have a different view of the world and a different perception.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Katey Sagal and she plays the matriarch Gemma in the FX motorcycle club series "Sons of Anarchy." She was Peg in the '80s sitcom "Married With Children."
Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Katey Sagal, and she stars as Gemma, the matriarch in the biker club in the FX motorcycle series "Sons of Anarchy." She also played Peg on "Married With Children," the sitcom in the '80s.
So let me get back to "Sons of Anarchy." There are scenes in the series that are very violent. If you weren't in the series would you find it too violent to watch?
SAGAL: Well, you know, I might. I'm trying to think of the violent shows that I watch that I really - you know, I also love to watch "Boardwalk Empire," also a very violent show.
SAGAL: I love "Breaking Bad," very violent. And there are certain moments when I have my fingers over my eyes. But to me it's not about the violence. If the storytelling is compelling and the violence is not gratuitous, then, you know, I love Quinton Tarantino's films. You know, I just watched "Inglorious Bastards" again. You know, there's...
GROSS: Oh, that's such a great film.
SAGAL: Ah, such a great film, and so violent in the right kind of way. I don't even know how to say that, you know, in that which I think "Sons" has that same kind of pulpy, sort of, violence but with a wink to the audience. I mean it's, you know, it's not - it's scarier to me to watch reality television, actually. You know, some of those like scary things people do on there.
GROSS: Nevertheless, I'm sure you don't want your children to be watching "Sons of Anarchy" yet and to be confusing the mother you play, Gemma, with their real mother.
SAGAL: Right. Well, they do watch it. My older ones do.
GROSS: How old are they?
SAGAL: He, they're 18 and 16.
GROSS: Oh, well, OK.
SAGAL: Yeah. They're old enough. I mean I never let them watch "Married With Children." They never watched it. In fact, when they used to come to the set to visit me I'd make sure I had the wig off when they came to the set. You know, I didn't want, I just didn't want that to be the reality of their mother. So, but "Sons of Anarchy," they do watch. My 18-year-old daughter just loves it and loves Jax, and... And they're able to make that distinction between mom and Gemma.
GROSS: Do you get any feedback from people who are actually in motorcycle clubs?
SAGAL: Oh yes. I have quite - we have quite a following. My husband jokes that we're like their soap opera. That's how they look at it.
SAGAL: And, you know, we - we do a lot of biker rallies. You know, it's a community that it's very charitable. You know, the biker community is very charitable. So, you know, we've shown up at rallies. We have technical advisors on set that are actually club members. We've gotten, you know, big kudos from the bigger organizations and their so proud of us. And, you know, I'm on the cover of biker magazines, which I never thought I would be. That's my whole new audience. And they've embraced it, which I think is a really good thing.
GROSS: Well, Katey Sagal. Thank you so much. I really think you give a terrific performance as Gemma in "Sons of Anarchy." Thank you for talking with us.
SAGAL: Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: Katey Sagal costars as Gemma in the FX series "Sons of Anarchy." On our website, we have an audio extra with Sagal talking about her role as Leela in "Futurama." That's at FRESHAIR. NPR.org.
Coming up, we talk about Hurricanes Sandy with Dr. Radley Horton, a leader of the Climate Science Policy Team for the New York City Panel on Climate Change.
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.