The actress and comedian Rose Abdoo has a notable list of TV and film credits spanning four decades, but she says her career really began long before she even knew what a credit was.
“My mother recently found a drawing that I did when I was very young,” Abdoo says. “I think I was in first grade, and it’s a self-portrait, and underneath it just says in huge letters, ‘I am funny.’ ”
Abdoo laughs, which she does frequently as she joyfully dives into her life growing up in Southfield, starting with a bit of trivia she came across as a kid one day in the library. “I read that Southfield had more telephones than any other city in the United States, and I thought that was so cool,” she says. “So I told my father that my sister and I needed our own phone.”
Her dad didn’t go for the idea.
Born at Hutzel Women’s Hospital in Detroit, Abdoo and her older sister, Lucia, were raised in a tidy, well-kept home located across the street from Saint John’s Armenian Church near Northland Mall, between 8 Mile and 9 Mile roads.
“I lived in a very tight-knit subdivision called Magnolia,” she says. “All the parents and kids knew each other, and it was just idyllic. There was always a July 4th parade and Halloween parade, and we had our own little red schoolhouse.”
Peter Abdoo was a budget analyst for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and his wife, Mary, was a homemaker.
“But she’s the most creative person,” Abdoo enthuses. “She could paint and sew, and she made clothes. She was the lady in the neighborhood that all the mothers would come to when they needed a dress fixed or wanted something beaded. And she threw amazing luncheons. My mother’s house was the one everybody wanted to get invited to.”
On many of those occasions, little Rose was the oh-so-willing center of attention. “My parents would, on purpose, ask me in front of their friends, What do you want to be? They thought it was so funny to hear a 7-year-old say, I want to hold a microphone and either be a tour guide or wear a trench coat and be a foreign correspondent.”
Once she got to Southfield High School, Abdoo figured the quickest route to either career would be a gig at the school’s radio station.
“So I worked at WSHJ,” Abdoo says. “I did the headlines at noon. I also started to audition for the school plays. I did all the plays, and I won the senior awards for the most talented girl and the funniest girl in the class.”
When she arrived at Michigan State University, her first choice was a major in telecommunications. “I thought, I gotta get back to this newscasting thing,” Abdoo says. “But there’s 46,000 kids at Michigan State, and you had to wait in line for like three hours just to get a computer punch card for a class. I looked over at the theater table and there was never a line, so I just kept taking theater classes. So I say this career chose me, because I didn’t want to wait in line.”
Abdoo graduated in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in communications. “I had so many theater credits from waiting in all those long registration lines,” she says. “I stayed at MSU for two years after I graduated. I was accepted into the Master of Fine Arts program and did 25 shows with the MSU Performing Arts Company.”
Her performances caught the eye of the chairman of the theater department.
“He told me I had a face for stage because I had such expressive features,” Abdoo recalls. “He also said I should find someone I love and do what they do. It seemed so simple. I loved Gilda Radner and Lily Tomlin. And then I found out they were both from Detroit, and that made me love them more. And I read that Gilda did comedy at a place called Second City.”
Founded in 1959, Chicago’s Second City Theater has been the renowned mecca of improvisational comedy for generations of performers, and Abdoo wanted to be one of them. She moved to Chicago in 1986 and enrolled in classes at the Second City Training Center.
“We call Second City the Harvard of comedy,” Abdoo says. “There’s no better training you can get, and my teachers were the big heavy-hitters back in the day, who studied with all the people that really invented the art form of improvisation. I remember my first teacher said it’s not about being funny; it’s about being true and real, and reacting in the moment.”
Abdoo got a job to cover her rent and improv classes, and it turned out to be the perfect place to hone her improvisational skills. “It was a real estate company at the top of the Hancock building,” she says. “I worked for five partners, and they caught wind of the fact that I could imitate different people.”
That unique skill had an immediate and significant impact on Abdoo’s daily office duties.
“Most of the time they would set me up in this office nobody was using and just have me crank- call their friends,” Abdoo says, giggling. “They paid me to do that, even during partners’ meetings, and then the whole office would come to Second City to see me in classes.”
Her classwork perfected Abdoo’s innate comedic instincts, and she was chosen to join her first touring company, along with an array of budding comedic superstars. “Chris Farley, Steve Colbert, Amy Sedaris,” Abdoo says. “There (are) no better people to play with.”
It was a thrilling moment in Abdoo’s career — but a difficult one, too. “My dad died after my first show with the touring company,” she says, “but he was so happy I found something I loved to do. He taught me if you find something you love to do for work, you’ll feel like you never worked a day in your life.”
Abdoo spent the better part of two years on the road with her troupe.
“You go to different cities and you get different suggestions,” she says, “and it’s so great because improvisation is about doing scenes based on what the audience wants to see. So you’re always coming up with situations, everything that occurs to you in your daily life, to use on stage that night and giving the people what they want to see.”
When the tour ended, Abdoo landed a paid position as a full-time Second City player, which led to her first big break in 1993. “The director Robert Zemeckis was doing a show called ‘Johnny Bago,’ about a guy who’s traveling around the country in a Winnebago on the lam from the law. So I was like, all right. I made a videotape and sent it in.”
In short order she was summoned to Los Angeles for an audition. “I (had) no credits,” Abdoo says, “and I thought, I’m never going to get this. But they picked me.”
The show was a flop, lasting only eight episodes, but Abdoo’s career took off, eventually requiring her to move to L.A. full time. She now has nearly 90 film and television credits and counting, including smash hits like “Gilmore Girls,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” and a memorable turn as a whacky interior decorator on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
But her career didn’t stop there. “I went in for what was a one-line audition and my agent calls me a month or two later and says, ‘You’ve been cast in “Good Night, and Good Luck.”’ I was like, Great, what’s that? And I find out it’s a George Clooney movie about the McCarthy era.”
What was supposed to be one day of work turned into a month. “So I’m getting to eat lunch every day with George Clooney, and he’s such a kind person,” Abdoo says. “Then the film was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award, so I got to walk the red carpet. I mean, that, to me, was a super highlight of my career.”
While Abdoo is quick to credit her Detroit roots for much of her success, it only goes so far. “I feel like the people that I meet here in L.A. say, ‘Wow, you Midwest people have such a work ethic,’ and I say, What does that even mean? You have to show up and do your best.”
For Abdoo, that boils down to a simple but consistent philosophy: “How you do anything is how you do everything. I learned whether it’s the tiniest little thing for a radio voiceover or a big giant part, learn the lines, have it down cold.”
That attitude has been a critical factor in Abdoo’s ability to thrive in a traditionally unforgiving industry as one of a precious few “women of a certain age” who keep busy in Hollywood.
“I’m 57 and very proud of the fact that I’ve been told I’m too young, too old, too large, too small, too short, too dark-haired, and too ethnic. I still enjoy auditioning. I still enjoy creating characters.
“I think because I grew up with a family that was so supportive of me, I thought, It doesn’t matter if these strangers don’t hire me; I’m not going to let all the rejection and the no’s get me down. Because you get a million no’s. To me, it was, alright, I wasn’t right for that part, but that doesn’t mean I’m not right for something. I feel every audition is an investment in the overall big picture of my career.”
A career that now includes her latest one-woman show, her third overall, called “Rose Abdoo and Rose Abdon’t.”
“My last name has caused a lot of problems with traveling (she’s of Lebanese and Dominican descent), and I talk about after 9-11, how things changed in this country and I had to very often be in a private room and be searched. I talk about racism in the business and auditioning for commercials, and people saying, ‘What kind of a name is that? What are you?’ And how people make judgments about your name and your skin color. Everyone has something in them that makes judgments about people, and that’s the theme of the show.”
After its premiere in L.A., Abdoo brought the show last November to the Jewish Ensemble Theater in Walled Lake. It was truly a full-circle evening for her and producer Ron Zate, whom she met in high school while producing shows for their drama teacher, Virginia Borts. She was in the audience that night and so was Abdoo’s first-grade teacher, Mary Anne Smythe — “my friend on Facebook to this day” — along with seemingly every relative and friend from her past, including her sister and mom.
How to sum it all up? “I once read an article about Colleen Dewhurst, who was a great actress I admired. She talked about having no master plan, just being open and riding each wave as it came. And I thought, Oh my God, that’s what I did.”