July 2017 - Cover Story: Picking the Brain of Cindy Pickett
On a cool January morning, I got to meet the mother of all movie mothers. Known as the matriarch to the mischievous fellow Ferris Bueller, Cindy Pickett solidified her place in 80s cult movie history as Katie Bueller in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. As excited as I was to meet the woman who played one of the coolest movie characters on the planet, I also appreciated Pickett’s work as another mother in a made-for-television movie that still touches my heart to this day, I Know My First Name Is Steven. Even though these two movies (released in 1986, and 1989, respectively) truly showcase Pickett’s acting chops, the acting bug bit her years before.
The daughter of director and drama teacher Cecil Pickett, acting was in her blood. Pickett started strong in her career, landing a role on the legendary soap opera Guiding Light as Jacqueline “Jackie” Scott Marler Spaulding. “It was a dream job,” Pickett says. “Good pay, wonderful scripts, and amazing talent. A 15-year-old Kevin Bacon was cast at the same time, and Jobeth Williams, who had been a friend of mine in Houston, also was added to the cast. The writers had an uncanny knack for writing our personal history into our character, which gave them more depth than the usual sappy material on the other soaps. It was the perfect training ground for a theatre actor going from projecting to the last row in the theatre to the intimacy and simplicity and necessity of less-is-more on film. When it was our story line, we would have to memorize 30 pages of dialogue a night! That was a great challenge from having weeks to prepare in the theatre to an overnight “candles in the bath” memorizing session and not knowing your blocking until you were on set and ready to shoot. But what that did was make the actor more vulnerable and the emotion more spontaneous, which is something so important, even necessary, for close-ups and the life and truth of a character on film.”
Pickett stepped out of her comfort zone in 1980 when she appeared in the erotic film Night Games (Jeux de Nuit), finding herself doing several nude scenes. Although the film didn’t boost Pickett’s career at the time, she doesn’t regret the opportunity. “With Night Games, it was an opportunity to work with a legend on, yes, not so great material, but I didn't care,” shared Pickett. “I got to travel to the Philippines and work with an international crew. Remember, I was still fresh from Texas, college, and regional theatre. Growing up in the theatre, I was not shy about my body. How many times did we have to all dress in the same dressing room!? Modesty does not belong in the arts. Plus, I had never travelled outside of the country—and to get paid for it?” Not shying away from nudity created a proud moment in her career, leading to other opportunities. “To work with a Svengali and to have my name tagged at the end of 'Bardot, Deneuve, Fonda...Pickett!’ I did a very tasteful layout for Playboy. The West Coast editor became my friend, and she let me pick out some of the shots for my personal use, which I use at these conventions. I put [shots of myself from] Ferris Bueller on one end of the table and [from] Playboy on the other—they are my two best sellers!”
Pickett found herself flourishing in other roles, including Kay Stayner in the television mini-series I Know My First Name Is Steven, the story of Steven Stayner, who was kidnapped at the age of 7 by child molestor Kenneth Parnell and who returned to his family at the age of 14. The mini-series was riveting, and Pickett passionately played the part of Steven’s mother, Kay. She remembered her time on set. “I had given birth to my son, Shane, six weeks before when they offered me this wonderful role,” said Pickett. “I still had my baby weight and wasn't really ready to work. But when I read the script, I knew I had to play this woman, who kept the faith he would come home, long after everyone else had given up. She and I became friends as we did many interviews together. She was very powerful in her quiet strength. I got to know her whole family—they would visit the set—and Steven did a cameo at the end of the movie playing the cop who brings him back to our house, after being gone for 7 years. I'm sure you know it ended in tragedy, this fable. Steven bought a motorcycle with the money he got for selling his story, and, not too long after our movie aired, he was hit by a car on a rainy night on that motorcycle and killed. As an actress, it was a very emotional experience as I had just had a son, and the thought of him being abducted made the experience and the feelings very real, which is what you must find as an actress—the truth.”
Many actors strive to have that one role that will memorialize them. For Pickett, that movie is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. She is remembered as the loving mother of America’s favorite misunderstood misfit. The experience on set was a loving one, and Pickett remembers it fondly. “Ferris Bueller has been invited into the national archives. How many actors can say they have been in a film that has been deemed a national treasure! When we made this delightful, and in the end, important movie, we had no idea that it would be the John Hughes film that would rise to the top and turn into the cult classic it has become. All of Hughes’s movies were fun and captured the teen angst that kids today can still relate to. To me, that is the definition of a classic: endurance, relatability.”
Pickett was always impressed with Hughes’s talent, who seemed consistently able to tap into the mind of the American teenager. “John had some kind of insight into the pulse of that generation, and Ferris embodied the best: the hope of how to be positive and live in humor and push the envelope a little, to manage and maneuver through that minefield of adolescence. The last line says it all, ‘Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.’ That was not the final line that was written in the original script. I think it is something John came up with as we were shooting.” In addition to Hughes’s ability to understand and reflect the generation’s youth through his writing, Pickett also deeply respected Hughes’s directorial prowess. “He loved ad-libbing if it worked. We had that freedom, and he always encouraged his actors to bring something fresh to a scene. He was a genius.”
Working with the cast, Pickett recalls, was a comfortable, gratifying, and even luxurious experience. “As far as being on the set, the kids mostly stayed together after work, but in the Bueller house, there was a pool table, and when there was a long lighting set up or at lunch, we would all migrate to that pool table! It was an easy set, with a perfect cast, and everyone got along. On Fridays, the caterer would always make a grand meal with lobster and champagne. It was magical in every way—the ‘windy city’, great cast, brilliant script, even more brilliant director.” Not only was the cast tight, Pickett fondly remembers Hughes joining them offset for some nights on the town. “On the weekends, sometimes we'd go dancing, and John would go with us. He wouldn't dance but loved being with young people— he was so young at heart. The girls would all dance together, and he would just watch and walk us back to the hotel.”
While working on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pickett got more than a phenomenal acting experience. She also met her future real-life husband. “As you probably know, Lyman Ward, who played Mr. Bueller, and I met and started dating while we were making the movie, and eventually got married and had a couple of kids of our own. When my son was around 8 years old, he turned to me after we had watched the movie a million and one times and said, 'Mom, why didn't you name me Ferris?'”
Pickett continues working, finishing up projects Stark Trek Equinox: The Night of Time, Opus of an Angel, and Rose, which was filmed here in New Mexico. She counts her blessings every day that she gets to wake up in the morning and do the work she is passionate about. When it comes to life, she looks to her famous movie as a mantra. “I feel very blessed to have been a part of the experience that was the making of this classic [Ferris Bueller], and I do believe and live by that last line: ‘If you don't stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.’” She is living by those words every day.