If strength is a measure of survival, Katey Sagal is a mighty oak wrapped in steel. The actress endured cancer, suffered the stillbirth of her first daughter and wrestles with almost obsessive thoughts of her mortality, a consequence of the deaths of her parents when they were young.
The public Sagal is known for playing the self-absorbed Peggy Bundy with big red hair and tight outfits on the comedy “Married…With Children” and for her Golden Globe-winning turn as the merciless matriarch of an outlaw motorcycle gang in FX’s “Sons of Anarchy.” Off screen, Sagal is clearly a resilient fighter.
Sagal, 64, has had more ups and downs than Peg Bundy’s mile-high bouffant hair. She tells her story, and tells it well, in her new memoir, Grace Notes (Gallery). The title is a reference not only to the demeanor with which this tough-as-nails actress appears to have endured her trials but to the style in which she tells her life story: in sparse, poetic vignettes rather than a long, conventional narrative. Reflecting on how she considered the approach to writing her story, she says: “I would need to do it my way, not a beginning, middle, and end recollection.”
Sagal is anything but conventional: A singer and songwriter, she has been a mainstay on the Los Angeles rock scene even as she rode the trajectory of her acting career. Her third and latest album, “Covered,” from 2013, features a duet with Jackson Browne. That her music persona and on-page deportment is so unlike most of her roles on the small screen is a testament to her acting chops.
Still, as Sagal relates in Grace Notes, it took a long time for her transition from performer to actor, at least in her mind. What that meant was that Sagal had spent much of her career in comedy, but dramatic acting was her golden ring.
Sagal’s big show business break came with her “Married…With Children” role on the then-fledgling Fox network. When the show ended in 1997 after an 11-season run, Sagal found herself typecast as the brazen and sarcastic Peggy Bundy. Though she hid all red hairs and erased any trace of Mrs. Bundy, the next three years, Sagal says, marked “intermittent employment.”
When the erratic period ended, Sagal got roles in television comedies, some more successful than others, including “8 Simple Rules,” a comedy but “much more reality-based” than what she had been considered for. “I was not goofy, eccentric, cartoonish or over the top in my role as Cate Hennessy,” she says of her “8 Simple Rules” character. “She was grounded and physically looked more like me than the characters I had played previously. It was a small crack in the opening of me exploring myself as a more dramatic actress.”
Tragedy struck at the beginning of the second season when John Ritter, Sagal’s co-star and friend, with whom she had worked on another project, complained he was not feeling well and was rushed to the hospital. Ritter, 54, died that night after his aorta ruptured. Sagal was devastated.
Rather than ending the show, producers decided to have Ritter’s character, the head of a family, die—a tightrope walk because the show was a comedy. The storyline thrust Sagal into dramatic acting, though certainly not the way she wanted. “Our real emotional lives…overrode any acting that was required to play those scenes of realization,” she writes of the cast, including the three actors who played the children of her and Ritter’s characters. “The show took on a dramatic tone, and my performance called for no acting at all.”
The loss revived memories of the death of her father, also at a young age. “Dad had died. John had died,” she writes. “Lines were blurred.”
Sagal later found the dramatic roles she longed for, first in the popular “Lost,” then, in a role written for her by her husband, Kurt Sutter, as Gemma Teller Morrow, the tough matriarch in a motorcycle-riding clan on the FX cable show “Sons of Anarchy.”
Tragedy and Wisdom
A feeling of mortality was a constant with Sagal. Her mother suffered from depression and died young of a heart attack. Six years later, Sagal’s father, a director of early television shows including “Peter Gunn” and “The Twilight Zone,” was killed at 57 in a helicopter accident on location.
Yet Sagal’s own vulnerability seems to have had little to do with that sense of mortality. Entire books have been written about how cancer survivors have overcome their illness. But Sagal treats her own thyroid cancer diagnosis, at age 28, a year after losing her father, with brevity, not to run from it but because she was too immature, and too fueled by drug and drink, for any serious reflection at the time. “My cancer was a wake-up call about the fragility of my voice. But nothing else.” She found sobriety when she started her television career.
The trials and tragedy in Sagal’s life, then her emergence into a wiser, sometimes better place, mark a recurring theme in Grace Notes. She suffered the painful loss of a late-term pregnancy but later found motherhood naturally and via a surrogate, for example.
Any parent considering employing a surrogate mother or adopting children will glean much from Sagal’s experience—at age 52—bringing her third child, Esme, into the world. Sagal’s descriptions of the events and mindset leading up to and beyond Esme’s birth are rich in reflective detail, a product of the maturity she now had but lacked during her bout with cancer.
Sagal lets us into her and her husband’s thought process when they consider private adoption, and the risk of not knowing the birth mother’s history. When the couple decides to pursue the surrogacy route, they embrace what might be seen as an emotionally healthy course of action should the pregnancy fail. First, they decide they will not go through the process again.
“If this was meant to be,” she says, “it would happen. If not, we were prepared to let it go” and take it as “a sign that we had enough family, and we would be satisfied.”
When Esme is born, though Sagal is physically disconnected from the birth, she is brimming with love and imagines the bonding process is what a new father must feel.
In Grace Notes, Sagal offers plenty of wisdom but no saccharine, clear-cut solutions. It’s a welcome approach. Sagal’s vulnerability as she deliberates over getting older, for instance, and her distress over it, is messy. But it is also candidly refreshing, and we eagerly wrestle with the issues along with her.
She says she walks, lifts weights, does yoga and does everything imaginable to keep her looks and body young. And her age is “only a number,” she tells herself. “But it feels more than that. It feels shameful to me. That’s the ugly truth. And taking that one step further, I am threatened by it.”
Invariably, Sagal steps out of the shadows. “I don’t know what to do about any of this. I know to be grateful. I haven’t died young. I have survived. And, thankfully, now that the milestone [of another birthday] has passed, and I’ve had a chance to reflect, I have a glimmer of something else. Something beyond.”
That something: wisdom. “It caught me off guard, how my experience could speak, how I could lead by my example, how I could love others by letting them be who they are. So did the realization that I’ve gained so much more than I’ve lost because of my” age. She ultimately welcomes that her age, her “number,” has let her step “out of discomfort long enough to bask in the gifts that come from being a part of a family of living, loving, wilting humans.”
There is no waste, no excess in Sagal’s spare narrative in Grace Notes. She has an uncanny ability to connect with her reader and say far more than the single sentence or even parenthetical phrase she employs. “Feel free to judge,” she teases readers, speaking volumes about how comfortable she is in her skin.
Another case in point: Anyone who has driven by his or her old junior high school knows that feeling of the once imposing seeming small and innocent when viewed from a grownup vantage point, as well as the meditation on the years gone by that comes with it. When Sagal describes driving by her childhood home in the Westwood section of Los Angeles—a cavernous “hacienda” when she was young but more of a “casita” from her adult view—we see our own old neighborhoods and feel how they’ve changed and withered over time. The nostalgia, joy and sadness are palpable, a credit to Sagal’s writing.
More important, Sagal’s is a compelling story of surviving the fire and baring no public scars, or certainly not complaints, while forging ahead. The joy emerges from the pages of Grace Notes in the rough edges. The wisdom is in the limitations and the efforts to surpass them. It is in Sagal’s journey, not the destination.
It is a gift to anyone with struggles—and that’s everyone—that Sagal hints she may tell more of her inspiring story in another volume. “There’s more, I’m sure,” she says. That’s welcome news indeed, coming from someone who has bucked the Hollywood trend by succeeding as a sexagenarian actress with vitality, beauty and the often harsh life experience to bring added dimension to the screen and wisdom to the masses.