Polly Holliday Walker County native Polly Dean Holliday (1937- ) is a highly successful actress and 1970s popular culture icon. She spent much of her early acting career erasing any remnants of her Alabama accent, yet it was a southern twang and a popular southern catchphrase—”Kiss my grits!”—that made her famous as waitress Florence Jean Castleberry on the television series Alice and its spin-off Flo. A winner of two Golden Globe awards, she was inducted into the Alabama Stage and Screen Hall of Fame in 2000.
Born in Jasper, Walker County, on July 2, 1937, to Ernest Sullivan Holliday, a truck driver, and Velma Mabell Holliday, Polly grew up wanting to be an actress. Holliday’s parents divorced when she was a child. She lived with her mother in Jasper in a house that was once an Army barrack and spent one day a week with her father. She travelled with him as he delivered lumber and stopped at dozens of roadside cafes and truck stops, where she encountered many of the feisty, gum-chewing waitresses who would later shape her most famous character.
Holliday entered Alabama State Women’s College (now the University of Montevallo) in 1955 and excelled in theater, with leads in Medea and The Lady’s Not For Burning. She graduated with a degree in piano in 1959, earned a master’s in music education from Florida State University in Tallahassee in 1960, and then taught music in the Sarasota public schools. She spent her summers performing with a repertory company at Sarasota’s Asolo Theater, an eighteenth-century Italian playhouse that had been disassembled, moved to Sarasota, and reassembled. Holliday spent ten summers at the Asolo, playing a variety of roles, from Shakespeare to contemporary works. Her time in the Asolo taught her how to be a professional, and she noted in interviews that the actors might play up to five roles in one week.
Cast of Alice Holliday moved to New York in 1972 and landed a few roles in commercials for cereal and laundry soap and a small part in the soap opera Search for Tomorrow. In 1975, she appeared in four little-known television movies and films in supporting roles: The Silence, The Catamount Killer, The Distance, and W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings alongside Burt Reynolds. But her big break came in 1974 when she acted in the off-Broadway production of All Over Town, directed by Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman was so taken with her that he secured her a role in his next film, All the President’s Men (1976). Holliday played a small but memorable role as a secretary in the Florida State Attorney’s office where Hoffman’s character finds a link between the Watergate burglars and Pres. Richard Nixon. It was Allan Shayne, the casting director for the film, who recommended her for the breakout role of her career: Florence Jean Castleberry, the smart-mouthed, man-hunting waitress with big orange hair at Mel’s Diner in the television situation comedy Alice. Ironically, Holliday had been working to lose her southern accent in order to avoid typecasting. But in this instance, it was an asset. For her audition, Holliday recalled that she exaggerated her normal Alabama accent slightly and that one of the producers fell off his chair laughing in response.
Integral to the character’s appeal were Flo’s accent, attitude, and signature catchphrase—”Kiss my grits!”—but the orange hair (a wig made for her by the show’s wardrobe department) put the finishing touch on the persona. All the waitresses she had met on the road with her father wore some variation of the same type of server’s uniform, and so their individualism came from their hairstyles, which set them apart and made them memorable to Holliday and other customers. Holliday channeled their mannerisms, especially the way they skirted the line between flirtation and seduction to ensure a good tip and a return customer. Holliday also has stated that Flo’s constant man hunting was a reflection of her distant and complicated relationship with her own father. At the height of her success, she earned close to $25,000 a week, but she continued to live as she did prior to her fame. She drove an older-model car and remained in her small apartment furnished with rental furniture near the studios at Burbank, California. Her modest upbringing taught her to live well within her means, and her years in repertory theater taught her to live minimally.
Holliday’s success on Alice from 1976 to 1980 caused tensions between her and Linda Lavin, the show’s star, who bristled at the attention and acclaim given to Holliday. Earning Emmy nominations in 1978, 1979, and 1980, she won successive Golden Globes for best supporting actress in 1979 and 1980. Holliday left the cast of Alice in 1980 to head up her own show, Flo, earning an Emmy nomination in 1980 and a Golden Globe nomination in 1981 for best actress. She also participated in writing and producing the show, but it never garnered significant ratings and was canceled that same year.
Although Holliday never regained that level of stardom, she continued to work regularly throughout the 1980s and 1990s. She appeared in several popular television series, including The Golden Girls, The Equalizer, Home Improvement, and The Client. She also starred in several made-for-television movies, earning a fourth Golden Globe nomination for her supporting role in the television movie The Gift of Love: A Christmas Story in 1984. She also returned to the stage, appearing in a 1986 production of Arsenic and Old Lace alongside Jean Stapleton, who was known for her role as Edith on All in the Family. In 1990, Holliday saw her many years on the stage pay off with a Tony Award nomination for her role as Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In 1994, she appeared in a revival of Picnic and appeared in several off-Broadway productions in the early 2000s. In 2010, she played the role of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s mother in the Doug Liman film Fair Game, and she returned to the theater in a 2013 production of A Christmas Carol and a 2014 production of The Old Friends by southern playwright Horton Foote. Holliday has also been a popular lecturer for acting students in the United States. In 1985, she endowed the $1,000 Polly Holliday Scholarship Award, given out annually by the Southeastern Theatre Conference to a deserving high school actor in the Southeast.
Adelson, Suzanne. “Kiss What? Polly Holliday’s True Grits Are Positively Decorous Compared to Flo.” People, April 7, 1980.