Saturday Night’s Children: Pamela Stephenson (1984-1985)
Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
During Dick Ebersol’s final year as producer, his 10-person cast included only three ladies — Second City vets Mary Gross and Julia Louis-Dreyfus and New Zealand-born UK star Pamela Stephenson, who holds the distinction of being SNL‘s first cast member born outside North America. Stephenson arrived with established fame from both the UK and Australian comedy worlds but strayed from the post-SNL career trajectory of most of her cast mates by retiring from acting only several years after her 17-episode stint ended.
Stephenson spent her years prior to SNL in her homeland of Auckland, New Zealand as well as Australia, where she attended the University of New South Wales and the National Institute of Dramatic Art. After graduating, she performed with the Sydney Theatre Company before snagging TV roles in Australian series Redheap, Matlock Police, Ryan, and Rush as well as UK shows The New Avengers, Within These Walls, and The Professionals. While she had a recurring role as Iris Reade in the UK series Funny Man in 1981, Stephenson hit it big when she joined the cast of the UK sketch show Not The Nine O’Clock News in 1979 alongside Rowan “Mr. Bean” Atkinson, Griff Rhys Jones, and Mel Smith, where she impersonated British TV personalities Angela Rippon, Jan Leeming, and Janet Street-Porter and also performed several high-pitched musical parodies like Olivia Newton John in “Typical Bloody Typical” (below). Stephenson also appeared in a string of films leading up to SNL like History of the World: Part I (1981), Superman III (1983), and Bloodbath at the House of Death (1984).
In Live from New York, Harry Shearer recounts Ebersol’s uncommon hiring technique that resulted in Stephenson joining the show in 1984 instead of SCTV favorite Andrea Martin:
Dick put on a pretty elaborate show. He got Chris, Marty, Billy, and I together and said, “Now guys, you know Mary Gross and Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] are coming back, and I want a third girl for that slot and I want you guys to help choose her.” Well, we went through this elaborate process of meeting people. Geena Davis met with us in the lobby of the Century Plaza Hotel. And Geena had just been on a couple of sitcoms and it was all quite awkward and uncomfortable for everybody involved. But it boiled down to Andrea Martin and Pamela Stephenson. And Marty, of course, had a number of ties with Andrea and really wanted Andrea there, and I thought, after we saw her tapes, that Pamela was an incredibly versatile actress and just brought something really different, so we tossed it back and forth and finally Pamela got it. To her everlasting dismay.
Despite the odd power play amongst the cast members, Stephenson used her foreigner female wildcard status to her advantage and impersonated 80s celebs like Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and Billy Idol as well as British actresses Joan Collins and Peggy Ashcroft. She also created one recurring character with Angela Bradleigh, a Saturday Night News correspondent from the BBC with an unintelligibly British accent. She appeared as herself in the segment several times too, like when she wore a pair of big moving breasts when host George Carlin anchored in 1984.
NBC briefly canceled SNL at the end of the season until Lorne Michaels returned the following year, and Stephenson returned to UK television in 1986’s Lost Empires (starring Colin Firth and John Castle) as well as Australian films Les Patterson Saves the World and Ghosts CAN Do It in 1987. By the early 1990s, however, she decided to leave acting to become a psychologist specializing in sexual psychology and hosted the Australian lifestyle show Sex in 1993. Since then she’s published several books — on travel, sex, mental health, and her husband Billy Connolly (who she met on the set of Not the Nine O’Clock News) — and has served as adjunct professor at both the California Graduate Institute and the Chicago School of Psychology. She currently writes a weekly column for The Guardian called “Sexual Healing.” While it may seem like a drastic transition from her silly SNL days, Stephenson’s career reaffirms that comedy and psychology are sometimes interchangeable — and if you ever need a reminder, just rewatch her animatronic boobs on Saturday Night News.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.