“Abbott Elementary” star Lisa Ann Walter has been ready for this moment. And actually, as someone who has been covering the TV business for a few decades, I’ve been waiting for Lisa Ann Walter to have this moment as well.
When I arrived in Los Angeles and first started covering television, it was summer 1996. I was a young 22-year-old kid suddenly thrust into reporting at events like the Television Critics Association press tour, where nearly everyone else around me was a crusty newspaper journo twice my age. (And lying to network execs by telling them I was 25 — apparently, I thought that made me sound seasoned?)
That first TCA was a boot camp in learning how new TV shows are launched, and I still vividly remember that freshman crop of fall 1996 series. In those hopeful months before September premieres, anyone has the chance to break out and go the distance. One of those sitcoms was ABC’s “Life’s Work,” starring a promising, brash, hysterical comic named, you guessed it, Lisa Ann Walter. She had already starred in a short-lived comedy for Fox, a midseason entry that didn’t get much attention. But this was the one that was going to be a hit, inspired heavily by her own routine as the working mother aiming to “have it all.”
ABC promoted the hell out of “Life’s Work,” comparing Walter to its established roster of superstar comedians fronting their own half-hours, including Roseanne Barr, Ellen DeGeneres, Brett Butler and Tim Allen. Walter would soon become the next big sitcom star. And then… the show only lasted a season.
But Walter tells me she was not deterred. “I just kept moving forward,” she says. The formula is hard, after all: “The right project, the right writer, if the people in charge at the studios listen to you — which in those days, it turns out they did not often listen to women,” she says.
Walter landed memorable roles in the films “The Parent Trap” and “Shall We Dance,” along with a steady gig of TV guest slots. And when it became harder to make ends meet with guest roles, she co-created a reality format, “Dance Your Ass Off.”
“There were absolutely times where I was on Zillow looking up houses in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and thinking, ‘Oh, I can move there and I can still work occasionally,’” she says. Instead, at the suggestion of her hairstylist, Walter dyed her hair red.
“I wanted to play a boss or someone smart,” she adds. And along came Melissa Schemmenti, the strong-willed Philadelphia public school teacher on “Abbott Elementary” that felt immediately tailor-made for Walter.
“This part came along in Abbott, and I go, there’s no one in this town that can do this like me,” she says. “This is mine. It’s believing it and then going for it. And having somebody on the other side that also believes it.” That was star/creator Quinta Brunson and the whole team over there, she says.
But according to Walter, there was one more difference to the “Abbott” alchemy: The fact that both she and Sheryl Lee Ralph are experiencing this new renaissance at the same time, on the same show.
“Quite often, there’s one part in a whole season on a network that maybe I’m right for,” she says. “But here, we get to play what people see in the wild: Women of the same age, the over-50 ladies who have been friends forever. That’s so gratifying. That they didn’t say, ‘We already have one. Can’t the other one be, like, 38? They can be best friends. But one should be younger and hotter.’”
Now Walter is now a star on the massively popular show on ABC — as had been promised way back in 1996. “It’s glorious,” she says. “The fact that fans love it, the industry loves it, teachers feel seen. It couldn’t be a more exciting thing to be a part of at this point in my life.”
Or you could simply call it the perfect culmination of her — wait for it — “Life’s Work.”