Dolly Parton
TV Guide
October 17, 1987
Dolly's New Series
'I Will Show the People Who I Am — Good and Bad'
By Susan Cheever

The folks at ABC have gambled $44 million on their rags-to-rhinestones star and she's just spoiling to prove them right.

      It's a steamy summer night in an industrial neighborhood of Inglewood, Cal., near the Los Angeles airport.  Under a twirling, mirrored ball, a dozen men and women in their 60s, 70s and 80s dressed in evening clothes are dancing to an old-timey band playing "In the Mood."  At the center of the Mayflower Ballroom dance floor, Dolly Parton, in a tight, white confection of a dress, giggles in the arms of a 77-year-old retired Canadian military officer.  To prepare for this segment of her new ABC variety show, Dolly — a non-dancer — has dutifully practiced the waltz and the fox trot with the show's choreographer.  But when the band breaks into a rumba, a piece a cake for the elegant, elderly Mayflower habitués, Dolly gamely goes along.  "That guy had me all over the place!" she says in her soft, Tennessee-mountain voice.  "I stepped on his feet; he almost broke my body!"
      Lately, in preparation for her show, Dolly, Parton also has visited the Los Angeles Zoo, where she asked children such questions as, "Why don't animals wear clothes?"; a Los Angeles firehouse ("How do you really feel when the alarm goes off?"); and Chippendales, a male strip joint.
      "She knows and love her audience," says Sandy Gallin, the show's executive producer, who has been Dolly's manager and partner for 13 years.  "She can mix with anyone from the homeless to royalty and be equally comfortable."
      Her audience knows Dolly Parton as the sharp-witted, sweet-talkin' mountain girl, who two most famous assets — usually on display in a tight, glittering bodice — definitely have been out-performed by her appealing singing voice, her nonstop energy and her remarkable business brains.  In her Marie Antoinette platinum wigs, with her cinched-in curves and painted-on pretty face, Dolly Parton is the Queen of Artificial in an age the worships natural.  She's a sexy dragon lady. . . who has been married for 21 years to a publicity-shy asphalt-paving contractor.  She's a diet freak who lives for days on Jell-O and Jolt Cola, but she likes nothing better than to kick off her snake-skin spikes and cook up a mess of turnip greens, corn bread and fried chicken for her dozens of nieces and nephews.  She's a real live star, with bodyguards, publicity agents, more than $200 million of net worth and upwards of 2000 pairs of shoes, but she prays every day, reads the Bible and gives millions of dollars of charity.  She comes on like a lady, but she throws obscenities around like a man.  She's just signed the biggest deal in television history — $44 million from ABC for Dolly — but when she breaks into a grin, she still looks like a mischievous little girl who has raided her mama's closet and makeup drawer.

      In her 41 years, this 5-foot-1 dynamo has had as many ups and downs as there are on the big rides at Dollywood, her personal amusement park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.  Raised in a two-room cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains, Dolly was a Grand Ole Opry performer at 12 years old, and at 18 she packed her cardboard suitcase, left her holler home, loving parents and 11 brothers and sisters, and lit out for the big time.  Within a few years she was a country star, cutting hit records and winning Country Music Association and Grammy awards, but her early partner and mentor sued her for millions of dollars after they split, and her husband, Carl Dean, was so elusive that a lot of people thought she had made him up.
      In 1980, Dolly smoked onto the movie screen with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in "Nine To Five," a comedy about secretarial life for which she also wrote the title song.  An Oscar nomination for the "Nine to Five" song and two more movies followed ("The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" with Burt Reynolds and "Rhinestone" with Sylvester Stallone).  But from 1982 to 1985, as she approached the age of 40, Dolly was devastated by a combination of heartbreak, major gynecologic surgery and a copyright infringement suit (she was found not guilty) brought by two songwriters who claimed she had stolen part of the theme for "Nine to Five."  Fifty pounds overweight, her third movie an embarrassing flop, forced by depression and medical problems to cancel concerts and appearances, she even thought about suicide.  "I said, 'God, I gave you credit for all the great things that happened to me'," Dolly says.  "I said, 'Where are you now?'"
      But Dolly Parton believes in God without depending on God, and she forced herself back into action.  This fall, looking better than she's ever looked, enjoying the success of her latest album ("Trio," with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt), thrilled with last year's opening of Dollywood, she's up for what could be her biggest hit so far.  Dolly is hoping, and literally praying, that her TV show will be more than just a comedy hour.  "I want it to be really uplifting, spiritually uplifting, at a time when people need to feel more confident about themselves.  At the end of that hour, I want people to feel so good that they'll want to see it again," she says, sounding as much like a preacher as a singer.  "The human spirit could use a good shot of what I hope this show is going to have."
      Dolly's positive attitude is remarkable in an industry that has seen a number of variety-show bombs in recent years.  "Everyone says variety is dead," Dolly says, with a laugh.  "Well, I say, 'If variety is dead, what are we doing here?  If variety is dead, we're all in deep s--t!'"  Whatever happens, Dolly has decided to give everything to the show.  She won't just do a good job; she will eat, sleep, and breathe the show.  "I'm gonna go at this as if it were the last show I was ever going to do," she says.  "I will lay everything on the line.  I will show the people who I am, good and bad.  If they want to see me without wigs and makeup, that will happen."
      The show will be as homey and jes' folks as Dolly herself.  She will take the crew on the road for special events, she will cruise the city toting her own mini-cam for "Dolly's home videos," she will visit people at home and in places like the Mayflower Ballroom for scenes that will be sort of country Candid Camera, and she will flirt with surprise guests in a weekly "Dolly's date" skit.  There will be talent tryouts and animal acts, possibly including "Dolly's dancing doggy," a terrier named Popeye; she's even mulling a "This Little Piggy" segment in which she'll talk with dieters and doctors about weight.  "I've been on every diet that's ever been invented," says Dolly, who is now down to 100 pounds.  She has lost weight by limiting quantities instead of giving up her favorite foods.  "I hate diets and I hate diet food," she says.  "Now I just say to myself, 'Go ahead and eat what you want, but don't eat it all, you big hawwg!'"  She jokingly contemplated having the whole show weigh in on camera once a week — an idea that may be met with less enthusiasm by her staff.  But Dolly has enough enthusiasm for all of them.  "I've never felt so right about anything.  I'm really gonna enjoy this show."

      For our interview, Dolly is wearing skin-tight black jeans, a black cowboy shirt, rhinestone-cuffed boots with heels so high she teeters as she walks across the dusty lot to the sound stage, a snakeskin bracelet, earrings and necklace, and a huge heart-shaped diamond ring that was a present from her husband.  (One of the few known details of their personal life is that she calls him "Daddy" and he calls her "Princess.")  "Imagine getting paid to have fun!"  Dolly may sound dippy, but in negotiations she insisted on, and got, total creative control.  "I didn't want to have too many chiefs and not enough Indians," she says, and Dolly will be the show's uniting center, singing songs and talking to the studio audience.  "This is going to be a program for the people who watch TV," she says.  "I don't care what the critics say."

      It doesn't matter what they say — there's no defining Dolly.  She's a prankster who will pull down her jeans to moon a pal in a passing car, and who, at her heaviest, dressed up in a Santa Claus suit to meet her sister at the airport.  Instead of playing down her weak points, Dolly focuses attention where she's strong.  Her glitzy dressing style is, she explains, an effort to enhance looks that are less than naturally beautiful.  They are also a reflection of her passion for excess.  "I like to take my negatives and turn them into positives," she says.  Dolly is a party girl who can stay up all night dancing, but after the party is over, when everyone else has gone to bed, she does her own best work — in the quiet morning hours between 3 and 6 A.M.  She composes with her guitar and a tape recorder, and at her most intense she will write for two or three days, living on snacks and caffeine, and producing five or six songs.
      If there's anyone who can bring a variety show to life, it will be Dolly, with her relentless positive thinking, her faith in herself and her high comic style.  "It all came from wanting more," she says of her success.  "I'll always be too much for some people, but I'll never be enough for me."  Dolly Parton has transformed her insecurities and her humble beginnings into the eccentricities of a star.  From the start, her best work has been done against the highest odds.  The chances that a pint-sized hillbilly girl could make it in Nashville were about as slim as that a country-music star could act along with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.  "I've just always had a big desire to do things," Dolly says.  "I guess I was too dumb to know that I couldn't do some things until later when I had gone ahead and done them."  Dolly is the biggest challenge yet for this lady who loves the impossible.  Odds-on it will also be her biggest success.