Known for playing Casey Chapel Davenport on the NBC sitcom Wings, Amy Yasbeck has more than 10 movies and dozens of TV roles under her belt. She also attracted public attention when her husband (and sometimes co-star), actor John Ritter, died unexpectedly from an aortic dissection in 2003. The actress steps off as Grand Marshal at the NAMI Collier County Walk (nami.org) in Cambier Park March 23. She talked with NI during a break from the set of the Web show she is starring in about her Southwest Florida connections, her work with the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health, and the important work NAMI does in our community.
How did you discover Naples?
I first came to Naples in 2002. My sister Ann lives in Fort Myers, and we went down to Florida to see her. My late husband, John, and my daughter Stella and I went to Disney World, and then we went to Naples and stayed at The Ritz-Carlton, where we went parasailing. Stella was four years old, and it was terrifying. I don’t know if we were allowed to do that, but we did it. And it was beautiful. Then we traversed the Tamiami Trail to visit my sister. It was on that trip that John read the script for the show 8 Simple Rules. At first he read it and said, “Yeah I don’t know; it could just be the same old ‘the dad is dumb, the kids are smart… ’” We talked about it all the way to my sister’s house in Fort Myers, and we talked about it at dinner. My sister Ann kind of talked John into doing it. It was a beautiful show, and all that was Naples-related.
I have only been there two other times since. My other sister, Patty Pike, lives in Bonita Springs, so yes, we always end up in Naples, Napling it up. There’s always a Neapolitan portion of our trip.
How do you like to spend your time here?
I’m a lot about the outlets. And just food, whatever new restaurants are popping up. My sisters are experts at finding them. My dad was Lebanese, so we’re half Lebanese, and there’s always some great Middle Eastern food. My sisters have already ingratiated themselves so everybody knows them by name. They’ve kind of taken Florida by storm.
There are a lot of people in Florida who are from Ohio and Michigan, that’s where our relatives are all from. I totally get why everybody’s comfortable there, because it’s the same kind of Midwestern hospitality in Naples. It’s so welcoming.
Tell us about your involvement in the NAMI Walk.
My sister Patty has been involved with NAMI for a number of years. Our mother, Jane’s grandmother, was bipolar. My sisters and I, even though they are a little bit older than I am, it was the pre-understanding mental illness era, and it has become so much more of a national discussion and an open topic to really be able to embrace and talk about. But when we were growing up and our mother was ill, we were learning it on the frontlines and in real time.
Sadly, for my mother’s generation a lot of the medications for depression and bipolar disorder, it was like they were guinea pigs. Even though it is still a very hard disease to treat, and it’s very individualized, back in the ‘60s, ‘70s and early ‘80s there weren’t a lot of the medications that there are now. But like anything else, once the taboo is kind of tamed, and the more things come out into the light and the real conversation can be had, it’s very helpful. Organizations like, and especially NAMI, help families and support groups of people with mental illness, those who really need to have the conversation. Sometimes when an individual is in the grip of confusion and isolation of mental illness, the families are the ones who need to reach out.
Sometimes it’s impossible to be there physically and completely for the person who is going through it. So families reach across to other families, and you might have more in common with someone you’ve never met before than with the people you work with or your best friends. You are linked heart to heart with the only ones who can understand where you are if you have someone in your family with mental illness. NAMI’s been so … they put the NAMI in phe-NAMI-nal!
What are you working on now?
Webisodes for AOL.com, called Little Women, Big Cars, about carpool moms. We premiered last summer. It did so well, the producers said, “Okay another round of those.” Which is really fun, because I’ve been working in this business for TV with studios and networks, and this is a thing apart. For all of its faults, which is they are still getting their legs under them of webisodes—how people are compensated. All the unions and the contractors are going, “Wait, wait, wait, so it’s a movie or a thing? Or how many plays, then do you get a residual?” So while are reps are fighting it out, I think the brave among us are saying, “Let’s see.” There was a time TV was like, ugh! Nobody would do it because it was not a big movie screen, and then all the movie people started saying, “Wait a minute…”
I am working with Kristy Swanson, Julie Warner and Anita Barone, who’s hilarious. It’s directed by Melanie Meyron, who won an Emmy Award for Thirtysomething as an actress. She’s a director now. The show’s about soccer moms. We all have husbands or exes, or whatever. And it has Ed Begley Jr., who is fantastic; I keep working with him, accidentally. I love him.
It’s amazing. I look around and the crew is at least 50 percent women, which you really don’t see. In webisodes, for some reason, there are a lot women in their 20s and 30s, young women heads of departments, and doing camera and lights. It’s getting way more balanced.
I also played the mom on webisodes that are on Hulu.com, called The 4 to 9ers, people who work from 4 to 9. It’s sponsored by Subway. They do it so effortlessly, they don’t show people making sandwiches and stuff; the kid on it just happens to work at Subway. It was directed by Jamie Widdoes, who was an actor in Animal House, and he’s directied all the episodes of Two and a Half Men, and he directed all but a couple of the 8 Simple Rules.
I run the John Ritter Foundation for aortic Health and the John Ritter Research Program in Houston. There’s a lot going on with that. I may have the opportunity to go to Athens and speak, I just found out. I’ve spoken at Yale and the Mayo Clinic.
I have a couple of things that I’m writing. Did you get a copy of my book [With Love and Laughter, John Ritter]? It’s a book about John, but that’s a different kind of writing. And pilot season is coming up … if the Oscars and Emmys are like homecoming, this is like prom. It’s like, “Will I be invited to do a pilot?” It’s a BIG deal. That’s when the scripts come to you and you look through them to see which you want to go out for. I always feel excited, that there’s going to be something in there that I fall in love with.
What’s your favorite role so far?
I think it was Maid Marion [in Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights]. I was working with not just Mel Brooks, but Richard Lewis, Dave Chappelle, Tracy Ullman, Cary Elwes… Every day, it was “Okay, take off your chastity belt and go home,” and I would say no. I’d change into my jeans and just kind of hang around and get people coffee and watch Mel direct. It was like one of those things, when you’re in high school, it’s that last month, and you try to slow it down. It was really fun, playing Maid Marion, it was goofy, the dress-up part of it was exciting. I was a skinny, 30-year-old redhead playing a British buxom brunette virgin.
Any roles you dream of tackling?
I’ve done some dreamy stuff; I worked with Mel Brooks twice; don’t know how you can get better than that.
You are so great at comedy; would you like to do more dramas?
You are an actor, you do it all. The trick is to find the humor in the drama and the drama in the comedy. Nothing is strict down one side or the other. I would love to do more dramas; you do get pigeonholed, but there’s always chances to break out. Now that everybody’s got a camera, everybody’s a director and everybody’s a producer, and new media … there’s a lot more content out there for actors. Now it’s more democratic.
Any hidden talents few know you have?
I can shoot baskets over my head backwards. It’s very impressive. You walk up to where, it’s best if it’s a bunch of boys playing, and you are wearing high heels and dressed like a mom. You just turn your back to the basket and look once, then never look back and throw it over your head. For some reason, it almost always goes in. It makes me feel like I’m in my own little movie.
What do you enjoy in your spare time?
My lovely boyfriend Michael Plonsker and I love to go to the movies… the old-fashioned dinner and a movie, and then in the movie you have the chocolate and popcorn dinner. Just to go into the movie, into that darkened temple… I just love it.
We also take his big Rhodesian ridgeback and my little poodle—we’re in Southern California, we take advantage of the weather—and just walk. He lives closer to the beach than I do, so we are always at his house. Stella, Michael and I just walk those dogs till all of our paws get tired.
What recent film do you recommend?
Life of Pi! You have to see it 3D; it gets my highest award: “the no-pee movie.” I didn’t even remember until the credits that I had had three Big Gulps of blue Slurpee. The book is great; it’s different from the book only in that it hits the perfect thing where it honors the book enough that you don’t feel ripped off because you read the book, but it’s almost like if you were reading the book instead of through reading glasses, through kaleidoscopes.
If you were not in acting, what career would you have chosen?
I could at any time switch to being a kindergarten art teacher. If I go to a grown up party, eventually I’ll run into their kids and I will always be sitting somewhere, drawing or showing them how to make 3D letters.
Anything else you would want us to know about you?
I just started, and it’s just baby stages right now, an art website, called the John Ritter Foundation Gallery (fromtheheartgallery.com), where artists are going to be able to sell their original art and/or prints with a big hunk of proceeds going to the foundation. Right now it’s just friends and family of John—he knew a lot of artists. My sister Ann Reece’s work is on there. She’s amazing with nature watercolors. I was like, “Hey, girl, I know you are having fun in Naples at the art shows selling those, but why don’t you sell a couple online for me?”