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Emmy-winner Manheim speaks at College

Liz Harter | Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Emmy-winning actress and best-selling author Camryn Manheim urged an audience at Saint Mary’s to stop living passively Monday night.

Her talk, entitled “Breaking the Rules: Don’t Take ‘No’ for an Answer,” brought together students, faculty and members of the South Bend community in the Little Theater on campus.

“You have to make [life] happen for you,” said Manheim, who starred as Ellenor Frutt on the former ABC series “The Practice.” “All my life, I had been waiting for my life to begin as though my life were way up in front of me, and I would eventually arrive at it.”

Manheim said her life would have been much different had she not taken charge of it.

“There were things that I wanted that no one was ever going to hand to me,” she said. “In fact, people actively tried to keep them from me.”

Manheim has constantly faced pressure from the acting community because of her weight, she said. When she attended New York University for her master’s of fine arts degree, she was told that she would have to lose weight or she would not be invited back for her final year at school.

“I took a form of diet pills – it was called Speed – and I lost about 80 pounds over the next year,” Manheim said.

Even though she thought she should be helping others by joining service organizations like the Peace Corps, she said she could make a social contribution through the arts by being a role model for younger girls.

After completing graduate school, Manheim used her knowledge of sign language to pay the bills working as an interpreter when she struggled to find parts.

“There wasn’t just a place for me,” Manheim said. “I was tired of being invisible. I was tired of being passed over. I was tired of being told to change who I was to be successful.”

Manheim caught the eye of casting directors when she wrote, directed and starred in a one-woman play called ‘Wake up: I’m Fat!’ That role led her to the office of David E. Kelley, the creator of shows like “Ally McBeal,” “Chicago Hope,” “Boston Public,” and, most important for Manheim, “The Practice.”

“I was told they were looking for a streetwise and sassy woman for the role of Ellenor Frutt,” she said.

After meeting with Kelley, she got the script and the description of the character Ellenor had changed.

“It no longer said streetwise and sassy,” she said. “It now said big, bossy woman walks in and takes over the room.”

Manheim said that after getting the role of Ellenor she fought against the stereotypes of being a big woman on television. She related a story of her first day on set where she was handed a coffee and a donut to introduce her character. “I freaked,” she said.

She couldn’t imagine being a role model for bigger women while the series promulgated the stereotype that a bigger woman wouldn’t be able to go about her morning without eating a donut.

“I turned to [co-star] Dylan [McDermott] and said, suppose I am your right-hand woman, don’t you think I’d be holding your files, your donut and your coffee,” Manheim said. “So if you ever get a chance to look back at that episode of ‘The Practice’ you’ll see me stuffing a donut into his mouth as we discuss a case walking up the steps. They’re small battles but big rewards.”

Manheim said she has learned during her life not to take ‘no’ for an answer.

“Somewhere it dawned on me that people were putting limitations on me, maybe because they were putting so many on themselves. I’m a fighter, a passionate and creative artist, a force of nature,” she said. “When I decided I had something to say, I declared it, loud and clear and people took notice and the tables turned.”