K Callan:
Superman's Mother

by Michelle Erica Green

Lois and Clark's new life in reruns on TNT has eerie parallels with the life of K (shortened from Katherine and later Kay) Callan, who played Martha Kent on the series. A bit actress and drama teacher for almost ten years, Callan decided at age 32 to move from Oklahoma to New York and start over.

"I now know that was way too old," the actress laughs, but one senses that she's not joking about the hardships she and her three children endured. "I just ... got by - I made $6000 the first year." Still, she stuck with it, promoting herself until eventually she landed a movie role that got her noticed. If ABC had given Lois and Clark the same level of commitment, the show might still be around.

Callan is recognizable to genre audiences from her role in Deep Space Nine's "Rivals" as well as her lengthy film career, but many people don't realize that she's respected as an author among her peers as well as a performer. Her book on selling screenplays, The Script Is Finished, Now What Do I Do? is widely cited as one of the best resources for aspiring writers, and she wrote the first book on how to find an agent - a Los Angeles edition and, when booksellers demanded it, a follow-up volume for New York actors. She's also written a book for directors and another on giving interesting parties. She's not currently working on performing, in fact, because she's been revising the script book to get to a printer this month.

"I didn't get anything done last year, because I worked on my house," she says of her writing. "You cannot write with people stopping you all the time. You must close yourself off...it has to be an everyday, every day thing." Callan isn't bitter about Lois and Clark's cancellation, especially since she has so many other projects, but she sounds mystified over why the network let the show decline.

She points to the ratings, which were dismal for the final episodes: "ABC is in business - I can't fault them for [canceling the show]. What I would fault them for would be that, at the place where we faltered, ABC didn't do a lot of promotion to get us back the folks who had defected. From the beginning, they certainly never promoted us like TNT has been promoting us. For what reason, I don't know - we were there, we had to make money. I mean, Superman! Come on!"

The show had everything going for it when it started - a well-received script by Deborah Joy Levine, a skilled cast, and two very marketable, attractive stars who are stepping into A-list film careers. "There could not have been two more perfect people for those parts," says Callan of the casting of Lois and Clark. "They were so perfect for who they were, and they brought such resonance to what Deborah Joy Levine had written." She describes the cast as friendly, adding that she and Eddie Jones stay in touch and that Dean Cain called her after the cancellation and they had a nice conversation.

"Obviously, we travel in different circles - he doesn't come hang out at my house!" she says with a touch of regret in her voice, laughing that "We would all wish for a Dean, based on much more than just his looks, which we certainly understand! It's not hard to love Dean, he's just so loveable and warm and a sweetie-pie." She doesn't hold out much hope for a revival of the series because Cain and Teri Hatcher have so many other opportunities. Hatcher, who is expecting a baby, will be in the next James Bond film, while Cain has several film and television projects.

Was it hard for Callan to become Martha Kent? Not at all. "I have a son that I think is super," brags Callan, a mother and grandmother who notes that she has "the greatest kids in the world." She compares her interaction with Cain to her feelings for her son. "What happens in love relationships when you break up with someone and then you find someone new, you transfer a lot of those feelings from the old person, because you've undoubtedly picked somebody else with a lot of those [same] attributes. So my feelings for my son were always present when I was playing with Dean, and there's no acting - you just put yourself in that place, and it all just comes from there. My own background with my kids and how I feel about them and so on was totally present."

What about the complications of playing a character like Superman's mother, a role with earlier incarnations, who had been illustrated before in comic books and portrayed in several different movie versions? Callan says she based her Martha Kent on what Deborah Joy Levine wrote, "because she wrote a singular Martha that didn't have anything to do with those other Marthas, and what she wrote struck something in my brain that resonated through me and my life experiences, who I am, and the combination brought forth something that we were both real happy with." Though she denies being a fan of the comics, Callan remembers that she named her first cat Lois Lane - "so I must have been way into them and really looking to her as a role model, or something!"

Like most actors on series, Callan got little say in the character's development - "I would say that we could just write the four-letter word NONE," though she did bring in occasional wardrobe pieces, and quilts she was working on for Martha to sew. Callan notes that it is the job of an actor to make scenes work, even if they seem unworkable. "You do try to protect the character, particularly at the years went by and we had people who were never connected with the original creation" writing the series, but she was interested to note the extent to which the writers expected the actors to stay out of their business. She remarks, "I was interested about that, because I write, and I have in mind that if I were writing scripts and an actor brought something to me...[but] obviously they didn't think we were enhancing it!"

While she has nothing but praise for the talents of the series' writing staff, in particular John McNamara, Callan thinks they ran out of steam. "Truth to tell, after Deborah Joy left, I didn't think they cared about us very much - they needed Lois and Clark, and that's what they wrote. I felt the last year really that they just kind of wrote some words and said here, Eddie, you take part of them, and K, you take part of them. I didn't think they spent the time writing towards our characters."

Callan does not particularly fault television as a medium for her character's limitations. "[To] the real die-hard actors, the 'real' actors, the 'real' directors, whatever that means, the theater is the only place that's 'pure,' but the truth of the matter is that the writer has much more control in theater - management cannot come down and change things and say, 'We're going to change this.'" Nonetheless, television offers much greater visibility. "If you could give me my acting wish, it would be twofold," she says. "That I would get the privilege of working all the time, and that I could go do a film and do television and do theater and I would have wonderful roles to play, with wonderful people."

Do the limited roles for women bother her - the fact that so many actresses are in demand only because they're young and nubile? "There certainly are more of those roles for young women than any other roles, because the big money makers are action films, which are guys, so they just put a woman in every once in awhile with no clothes on," she laments. But Callan understands the impulse on the part of filmmakers...and she doesn't think audience has everything to do with it. "If I were a leading man who got to choose my leading woman, I'd be interviewing sex partners!" she admits. "That's not so bad - men aren't so much worse than we are. Obviously, you want to have somebody, if you're going to have all these smoochy-woochy scenes with, where you're going to have a good time. If I were a writer, I'd write something for Alan Rickman, I have a big crush on Alan Rickman!"

K wanted to be an actor as far back as she can remember, as a means of escaping her family life. The sister of what she describes as "a FAN with capital letters," she grew up sharing a room with movie star photos stapled to the walls. "She should have been the actor, because she was gaga!" Callan says of her sister, who became an anesthesiologist instead. "I am not. I would never have gone and asked someone for an autograph. Nor would I have kept all those pictures, because I was going to be that!" In her youth, she saw Betty Grable movies, mainly musicals and romances about the glamorous lives of actresses. K credits Esther Williams with teaching her how to swim, and says that Doris Day was her early idol - "because I went to Catholic school, so that was the headset - the stupid headset, I might add!" At the end of her sophomore year at North Texas University, she got a chance to act at Margo Jones' theater in Dallas, which reinforced her desire to perform professionally.

"[It] was in fact a world-famous theater, but I was too stupid to understand that!" Callan declares. "You have to understand how I grew up. My mother died when I was eleven, she was ill for three years - it was like a Fellini movie, she died at home, there were the aunts on their knees saying the fifty-four day novena with holy water, and me sleeping on the dining room table. It was horrible. So here I am, I have no background, I've had no raising, I had no mothering, no anything." So, pretending she was Betty Grable, Callan went to an agent and announced that she was a singer. The agent asked whether she'd be interested in singing for a hundred dollars a week at Shepherd Air Force Base - "which was more money than I'd ever heard of. And I said, 'I don't know if my Daddy would let me do that, I'm supposed to go back to school!'" Callan mimics. But her father was relieved not to have to pay for college, so she took the job. "It was a joke," she declares. "I was this little girl who was totally sheltered, who had gone to a Catholic school, and we go to the air force base, and I'm afraid to look at the guys!"

Callan returned home to take a teaching job, planning to go to New York as soon as she'd saved enough. But she fell in love with teaching, and with the physical education teacher from the nearby boys' Catholic high school. She married him, taught for eight years, finished her degree, "and did commercials and worked the car shows at the automobile dealers...anything you could do in Dallas in the theater." Only after she moved to Oklahoma, where her marriage broke up, did she finally decide that it was time to go to New York. She took her three children and lived on less than $10,000 for the first two years. "The third year I made $20,000, which was a huge amount of money, and, at that point, I started really being in the business," Callan recalls.

The genesis of Callan's book about finding an agent came from her own difficulties finding one for herself. "There were people who wanted me, but I didn't know how to choose," she says. She met with a prominent agent at William Morris to learn about the business and asked him to become her agent, but he announced that she was too old for the firm to take on - there were actresses who would be up for the same roles who had already won Academy Awards. Nonetheless, she persevered, and she declares now that "If you're entrepreneurial, you will prevail."

Callan describes the first book on agents as her equivalent of a graduate degree. "My son was getting a Ph.D., and my ex-husband had pursued a Ph.D., and I thought, this is something I want to know about, and I'm a writer, so I thought, I'm going to do this like my dissertation, and if somebody wants to buy it, fine, and if they don't, fine." She published The Los Angeles Agent Book herself and sold it in theatrical bookstores in L.A. and N.Y. on spec, but "it just began to sell like crazy because nobody had ever written a book like this before - particularly somebody who was working in the business." She traveled to New York to write an East Coast version of the book, and, by that time, script publisher Samuel French was distributing for Callan and wanted a book they could sell all over the world. She wrote How To Sell Yourself As an Actor, then books for writers and directors with similar themes.

Callan has written a handful of scripts, but realized when she shopped them around that she did not want to work as a scriptwriter. She says that she wrote the books because she really wanted to, but would not be willing to give up her performing career to pitch scripts, and it would probably have been necessary for her to do so.

The internet has opened up new avenues of interest and research for Callan. Lois and Clark got her online, when she and others became aware of the Friends of Lois and Clark, or the FoLCs, an internet mailing list and IRC group dedicated to the show. During the first year, a Warner Brothers employee who was on the list would print out comments and bring them to the set. "Which was good news, bad news, because there are people who could be really nasty," Callan notes. Still, the cast began to know some names over time, and felt very friendly to the list. They chatted with the group on a set visit, and Callan went to their dinner and spent the evening with them.

Though she's still disturbed at how nasty some of the comments got when the show's quality became uneven, she credits the fans with noticing the decline long before the producers caught on. "The fans really wanted Lois and Clark to get together...[but] the network had evidently said that the writers could not get them married. So the writers got what seemed to me to be a very clever idea, they had this clone wedding, which was a wedding which wasn't a wedding, and I think they would have gotten by with that if they'd gotten them back together sooner. But they did a whole story arc where they were not together, where she knew he was Clark Kent but she didn't know he was Superman, and the fans turned off in droves."

Still, she believes the producers may have listened to the Internet fans too closely. "The fans were wild - all they really wanted was Lois and Clark in bed. But we had a big audience, and parents would talk to me on the street and say, 'We love your show, but there's too much kissing. Kids don't like that.'" She thinks the fans may have tipped the balance, adding that if the writers won't even listen to the actors who know their characters, it makes little sense for them to listen to a vocal but tiny subsection of the viewing audience. "I think it's wonderful that there's such access, but it's such a tiny part of the market. I mean, Dean would go on [the internet] and he would really draw, but they'd only get 800 people. Can you imagine if you did a radio show and only got 800 people?"

Nonetheless, Callan says, "I do think fans of the genre--science fiction genre fans are the best, most plugged in, and smartest fans around, and I have great respect for the energy they send toward us, and I am most appreciative of it." She is known to another huge fan audience because of her guest appearance on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in the episode "Rivals." Callan says she enjoyed the audition process and the initial makeup sessions. "Even being there at four o'clock [in the morning], I found exciting and interesting. And even working until nine o'clock at night and needing another hour to take your makeup off, I found exciting and interesting...for day one, and day two. By day three...it was a great lesson for me, and it's not like I was a beginning actor, to figure this out!"

Callan says she realized that doing Deep Space Nine that "there's not enough money in the world for someone to offer me to be on a show like that!" She said she really understood from a gut level why lead actors, who have to be on the set for close to eighteen hours every day, get paid so well. "For the first time, I really understood about Dean and Teri," she added. "You can't pay people who carry the show enough money. Let's say you're on a show for five years - on a long-form show like hours, there's no life. There's no shopping for a mate - if you don't already have one, forget it. [And] whether you even feel like doing anything with that mate when you get home, I doubt."

That said, K adds quickly, she loved working with the cast of Deep Space Nine and was energized by the crew. "The makeup people and the wardrobe people are in a constant state of excitement, because anything they can imagine, they can do!"

It's fine with Callan if she's remembered by genre fans for her television science fiction more than anything else. "It is the most creative venue, all those science fiction shows," she concludes. "I loved it, I absolutely loved it."

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