Feature: Mindy Sterling wings it

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  March 6, 2003 at 6:52 PM
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LOS ANGELES, March 6 (UPI) -- Mindy Sterling, best known as Frau Farbissina in the "Austin Powers" movies, thrives on making it up as she goes along -- she is a specialist in improvisation.

Sterling -- the daughter of nightclub entertainer Dick Sterling -- told her dad when she was 13 she wanted to be a performer. He swung into action, signing her up for private acting lessons where she was required to study Shakespeare.

"He said 'If you learn Shakespeare, you'll be a great actor,'" Sterling said.

It didn't work out quite that way. Sterling said she was "hideous," and hates doing Shakespeare to this day.

Instead, she sort of traveled her own road.

After breaking in as an amateur in local dinner and community theater productions in Florida, Sterling came to Los Angeles and eventually hooked up with The Groundlings Theatre -- the legendary comedy improv troupe whose membership over the years has included Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz, Laraine Newman and Paul Reubens.

She taught for close to 10 years in Groundlings comedy workshops, where he students included Chris Kattan, Lisa Kudrow and Cheri Oteri.

Her work with the company led to the "Austin Powers" gig, the highest-profile gig of her career to date. Sterling said her friend and fellow Groundlings Theatre alumna Julia Sweeney recruited Mike Myers to do some Groundlings shows, so she already knew Myers and "Powers" director Jay Roach when she auditioned for the part of the freaky frau.

It turned out that Sterling's specialty came in pretty handy on the "Powers" set, as Myers encouraged the actors to wing it.

"Austin Powers" turned into a lucrative franchise for Myers, and significantly elevated the profile of Sterling's career.

"That raised the bar for me," said Sterling. "That put me in a different group of people, in terms of the business. I'm still the same person. I don't go to the parties. I'm pretty much a homebody. I don't own a home in Brentwood."

But, said Sterling, having a string of hits opened new doors for her in Hollywood.

"Everybody wants the hit," she said. "Everybody wants the person who appeared in that big movie."

Sterling -- whose credits also include beauty pageant mockumentary "Drop Dead Gorgeous" and the holiday blockbuster "Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" -- is one of the stars of the new comedy series "On the Spot," set to premiere March 20 on the WB.

The show is sort of a cross between John Cleese's British comedy "Fawlty Towers" and the comedy-improv series "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" It's set in a hotel, and studio audience members will toss out ideas that can change the course of the story at any time.

Sterling and Groundling Mike Hitchcock play a husband-and-wife lounge act at the hotel -- Fifi and The Professor -- who are so bad they become an attraction. Sterling said the characterizations are based on a Los Angeles act that packs the room where they play, despite their shortage of big-time talent.

However, at the same time they are ridiculing bad lounge acts, Sterling said they are trying to be respectful of what such performers go through just for the love of it.

"I respect people who do these kinds of things for a living whether they are good, mediocre or horrible," she said. "We're doing them -- and then some. We're so over the top. We're so wrong. We're so inappropriate. We're so bad we're hip."

In addition to maintaining her professional schedule, Sterling is also mother to an 8-year-old son, Max.

She has also volunteered to join the Screen Actors Guild Foundation's Book PALS -- Performing Artists for Literacy in Schools -- as a celebrity reader. She will read each week to a second-grade class in Venice, Calif.

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