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.
Marked by her tall, birdlike frame and whispery high-tone voice, Mary Gross brought a mastery of shy-girl delivery to her four-year stint at SNL and found her own corner to shine through the height of Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo’s raging popularity and the arrival of already-established stars like Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, and Martin Short. Given the turmoil taking place at SNL during the 80s – from production changes to writer strikes to several brushes with cancellation – it’s a feat for any lesser-known player to have survived beyond one season, and Gross did so while pioneering for the funny-lady-nerd contingent of the future.
The youngest of three siblings, Gross grew up in Chicago, Illinois and first wanted to be a high school English teacher before one of her workshop instructors suggested she pursue acting. By the time she decided to take an improv class at Loyola University at age 24, her older brother Michael was an already classically trained stage actor who would go on to gain 80s TV stardom as Steven Keaton on Family Ties. Performing at Second City soon after, Gross made her first television appearance on the Avery Schreiber Live from the Second City special in 1980:
After Ebersol returned to produce SNL at the end of the 1980-1981 season, he first hired Gross’s Second City collaborators Tim Kazurinsky, Robin Duke, and Tony Rosato, then fired Laurie Metcalf and Emily Prager before bringing in Christine Ebersole and Gross at the start of season 7. Gross became most known for her portrayal of Alfalfa in the Little Rascals sketches alongside Murphy as Buckwheat, lending her pale face, pixie haircut, and animated voice to the role nine times.
Gross scored as part of two recurring duos – with Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Latina talk show hosts Chi Chi and Consuela, and another with Tim Kazurinsky as the hopelessly repressed couple Celeste and Marvin. She also impersonated Dr. Ruth, Brooke Shields, Margaret Thatcher, Suzanne Somers, Nancy Reagan, Mary Tyler Moore, Marilyn Monroe, and Pee-Wee Herman and created an original character named Siobhan Cahill, a redheaded Irishwoman who reports on Irish events during Saturday Night News. During her first season, she also coanchored Weekend Update – then called SNL Newsbreak – with Brian Doyle-Murray.
Near the end of SNL’s 10th season, Ebersol took the show off the air for retooling, but critical notices and ratings were abysmal and NBC was about to pull the plug permanently. But Lorne Michaels agreed to return as producer with all new writers and cast members and saved the day, sans Gross and the rest of the 1984-1985 cast.
Gross was hot enough from SNL that she initially found steady comedy work in film: Baby Boom (1987), Hot to Trot (1988), and as assistant troop leader/spy Annie Herman in Troop Beverly Hills the following year. She’s had small television roles on Murphy Brown, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Six Feet Under, Malcolm and the Middle, and The New Adventures of Old Christine (starring her former cast mate Louis-Dreyfus), and she’s voiced characters for cartoons like Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, The Angry Beavers, Animaniacs, and Hey Arnold! She also had a small part in the 2003 Christopher Guest film A Mighty Wind, had a recurring role on General Hospital in 2008, and most recently appeared on an episode of Californication.
In the late 1990s, Gross lost hearing in her right ear due to Meniere’s disease and has since shied away from returning to stage work in Chicago despite encouragement from Tim Kazurinsky and her brother Michael. But in a 2011 Chicago Tribune interview she shared with her brother – who she considers her biggest fan as much as biggest competition – he reminded her of the fearlessness that got her started in comedy:
“I’m not buying that,” Michael says. “You were fearful when you went into those first improv clases at Loyola, but you went back. And I know all you have to do is tell the rest of the cast, ‘I’m deaf in one ear, keep that in mind.’ They work with you.””That’s true to a certain extent,” she says.”You have a gift,” he says, “and I’m sorry to this day that you don’t exploit it more and use it.””Get over it,” she snaps with a laugh.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.