Film, TV and stage actress Annette O’Toole began her journey towards a career in entertainment at the young age of just three years old.
O’Toole’s mother was a dance instructor and began teaching dance to her daughter at a young age in hopes she would take to it.
“By the time I was nine there was a girl in dance class I really looked up to and I asked her, ‘how could I get to be as good as her?’” O’Toole said. “She said to just show up everyday and dance. I was lucky that my mother owned the dance studio so I showed up for every class and danced. I would dance and do my homework in-between classes so I really did grow up at the dance studio.”
When O’Toole was 13, her family moved out to Los Angeles where she started working a little in TV.
“I didn’t get many parts, so I studied a lot,” she stated. At the age of 17 she began taking acting lessons.
“It was a few weeks before I turned 18 and there was this musical called ‘Promises Promises’ that was coming out from New York, so I auditioned for it and [Director] Michael Bennett cast me as one of the main dancers for this show that was to be at The Music Center in Los Angeles,” she said. “I had that job but I wasn’t quite keen yet.”
Annette then went into an audition for an episode of “Gunsmoke” and landed the role.
“I had to make a decision as I couldn’t do both because they overlapped,” she stated. “My mother was great because she allowed me to make the decision and she didn’t lean either direction, although dancing was certainly her life.”
According to O’Toole, she thought dancing was a short career and never saw herself becoming a great dancer.
“I’m a good one but will never be a great one,” she said. “So, I decided to do the guest appearance on ‘Gunsmoke.’ I did hope to still do dancing and some singing down the road still, which I have. Looking back I think it was the right decision to make.”
Despite being so pragmatic about her decision to act, O’Toole never foresaw having the level of success she’s attained.
“I just knew I loved dancing and I really loved acting,” the actress said. “I fell in love with acting like falling in love with a person and it has only gotten deeper! All I wanted to do was just work.”
O’Toole stated that she wanted to work with “wonderful people” and had, but she’s also worked with the opposite.
“I’ve worked with some not-so-wonderful people on projects that weren’t as good as I’d hoped but I just continued to work and meet more people and just continued to get better,” she stated. “My husband [Michael McKean] and I were talking about how lucky we are to get to do this and this past year was such a hard year for everybody and we couldn’t do what we do. All I’ve wanted to do was what I loved and I’m doing it so I’m very, very happy about that.”
In 1975, O’Toole went to audition for a film named Smile. She walked away with the part after imitating a dead cockroach for the casting Director.
“I had done a lot of TV but never done a movie before so I really wanted to get this movie,” she said. “Usually when you audition, you see the same people and get to know the other actors who come to these auditions but in this one I didn’t know anyone. I was watching all these girls go in and out the office auditioning and I thought I’ve got to do something to stand out.”
So under special talents on the form O’Toole wrote that she did impressions.
“I put I did a dead cockroach, Groucho Marx and a goldfish in a bowl which is all silly stuff I would do at home,” she said. “I walked into the office and the casting Director asks me right away to show him my impression of a dead cockroach so I did it! I threw myself on the floor and I made my hands and feet all crooked, stuck my tounge out and that was it.”
According to Annette, her dead cockroach impression fell flat, but still proved benefitial.
“It wasn’t that my dead cockroach impression was that great, it was that I was that desperate and she said [Director] Michael Ritchie was going to love me so I knew I was getting a callback,” she said. “So I went to see Michael Ritchie the next week and he says ‘Oh! You’re the girl who does dead cockroaches!’ He didn’t even have to ask me to do it! I threw myself backwards onto the couch and did the impression. He had me read for all these parts but ultimately cast me in the role he had already that I’d fit in well at and that was as a desperate contestant so I made a good impression with my desperation.”
Then in 1983 O’Toole got the role of Lana Lang in the Christopher Reeve led “Superman III” movie.
“I had been working with Chris and he was so sweet to me!” she said. “He was just so welcoming as was Margot Kidder! She was fantastic! I had been working with Chris as Clark Kent and not Superman yet and we were going to do the first scene with my character meeting him as Superman. I hadn’t seen him dressed up in real life yet. It was kind of dark on the sound stage and I walked by this figure and it said hello to me. I turned around and looked up and I had always loved Superman. I was a comic book nerd as a kid and I used to collect Superman comics and trade them at school but when I saw him, I’m not kidding, my heart just started going. I couldn’t speak and it was like I was really in the presence of Superman so there wasn’t much acting for me to do when he was playing Superman. I’d just look at him and be in awe.”
In 2001, O’Toole was cast as Martha Kent in the WB/CW series, “Smallville.” “Smallville” follows the life of a young Clark Kent before he becomes Superman.
After making the pilot episode with actor Cynthia Ettinger cast as Martha Kent, the producers and Ettinger mutually agreed the fit wasn’t right so they set out to get O’Toole.
“They had done the pilot and I was available,” she stated. “I got a call from my agent saying they wanted to talk with me about ‘Smallville’ and I thought that it sounded like something I’d already done and I’d already been in the Superman world so I didn’t know if that was something I wanted to repeat.”
According to O’Toole, “Smallville” producers asked her to look at the script and watch the previously filmed pilot.
“I had an opportunity that you rarely have in acting, which is to see a completed show and I watched it and knew I was sunk,” she said. “I loved it. When they told me the part was for Martha Kent, I said but Martha Kent is an old lady and they said this was a reimagining and the Kent’s would be in their 40’s raising a teenage Clark Kent. So I thought that was interesting and just loved it! I loved watching Tom [Welling] and Schneidy [John Schneider] and their portrayals of their characters so I went in and spoke to AL Gough and Miles Miller who produced it and loved them because they were great and I said yes.”
Despite loving her role on the series, it still came with its challenges.
“The only downside was having to travel back and forth to Vancouver for filming while my kids were middle school age and high school age,” she explained. “That was difficult but as John Glover [Lionel Luthor on the series] says, it’s the golden handcuffs. We went back and reshot the scenes with me in it and some other stuff because they had a feeling this series was going to be a big deal.”
O’Toole connected with the fact her character on “Smallville,” like her, was also a Mother raising a teenage child and Martha was also as devoted to her family as O’Toole is to hers in real life.
“As time went on for the series, it was a little frustrating that there wasn’t more for Martha to do,” she stated. “I was kind of just doing the same scenes over and over again. But that was okay because I was very happy to have the job and for the notoriety, I mean people had started to know me who had never heard of me before despite my past roles so that was nice. I loved working with John and Tom both. We all really loved our scenes together and it was always fun.”
During season five of Smallville, John Schneider’s character, Jonathan Kent, is killed off by way of a heart attack. This decision wasn’t popular with many fans of the series.
“It was really sad not to have him [Schneider] there,” Annette stated. “I really questioned the idea but they got rid of him. I don’t know why they did. You know decisions are made that have nothing to do with the actors and actresses and they have to keep going to work and do the same thing. Maybe I had a little more for my character to do afterward, which was nice, but it was sad to not have John there.”
Like any series that runs as long as “Smallville,” friendships were formed.
“I just loved my scenes with John Glover, like the story arc where Lionel goes blind and I’m working for him,” she said. “Then I really enjoyed The episode where the girl takes over my body [Spirit season 4, episode 18] and I have to dance to an Ashlee Simpson song. It was fun getting to break out of the Martha Kent role and do something different.
During season 3 of “Smallville” Christopher Reeve was cast as Dr. Virgil Swann but O’Toole didn’t get the chance to reunite with her former “Superman III” costar.
“The show flew Tom to where Chris was to do the scenes,” she stated. “I was so disappointed. I thought what a missed opportunity. I don’t know how they would have made it work but to have the chance to have the ex-Lana Lang and ex-Clark Kent / Superman together again, you just have to take it.”
After fulfilling her six year contract to “Smallville,” O’Toole departed as a series regular.
“I signed for six years and did that and that was enough,” she said. “The travel [back and forth] had taken its toll.”
Currently, O’Toole stars as Mayor Hope McCrae in the Netflix series “Virgin River.”
McCrae, the sassy, meddling Mayor of Virgin River, hires Melinda Monroe (Alexandra Breckenridge) to assist the town doctor, Vernon Mullins (Tim Matheson).
“Playing Hope McCrae is really fun,” Annette stated. “Even though she’s older, she’s a character that doesn’t have any answers at all. She’s a little selfish and self centered but she’s also very loving in her heart and I think that comes out more in the second season. We shoot in Vancouver and I stay in the same place I stayed when I was in Smallville. They have given me so much leeway to kind of shape the character. My character isn’t really in the books so unlike the other characters, we got to put our heads together to figure things out with Hope.”
Season 2 of the series ended on some cliff hangers and all O’Toole could really reveal was that if you enjoyed the first 2 seasons then you will love the upcoming season 3!
O’Toole also works with her Husband Michael McKean.They are Oscar nominated song writers for their song “A Kiss At The End Of The Rainbow.” The song was featured in the film A Mighty Wind.
With so much talent, it’s little wonder how Annette O’Toole has been so successful. In the end, she’s just doing what she loves to do.
What a wonderful interview! Really enjoyed her rendition of Martha on Smallville. Really a shame that she didn’t get to meet up with Christopher Reeve. I do believe Erica Durance remembered my name the second time I met her because of Annette O’Toole. I plan to check out Virgin River for sure!
Agreed! That would’ve been a phenomenal reunion. If I remember correctly, Margot was also guest appearing on the series around this time. It would’ve been fun to see all three together again!
[…] Annette O’Toole (Martha Kent) joins Tom Welling and Michael Rosenbaum on the latest episode of their “Smallville” rewatch podcast, “Talk Ville.” […]