Orangeburg has its first movie star. She is Shawnee Smith, who recently completed the leading role in “Saw III,” a psycho thriller. Last season she ended five and a half years as the lazy, empty-headed office clerk on “Becker” with Ted Danson.
Still far from 40, she is beautiful, and has 29 years experience in Hollywood.
Born in the Orangeburg Regional Hospital in 1969 to Patricia (Pat) Ann Smoak and James H. Smith of Columbia, her local grandparents are Charlotte Funderberk Smoak and the late B.O. Smoak Jr.
The Smiths had just returned home with their young son, Richard, from an Air Force assignment in Germany. The hostess at their officers club, a close friend, had the name “Shawnee.”
Five months later, the family moved to West Los Angeles, where James continued studies toward a master’s degree. No one knows if movie show business can infect an infant, but by the time Shawnee reached 3, she was singing and dancing along with TV music all the time. A neighbor encouraged her enrollment in the Art Linkletter School of Dance, where she studied for the next five years.
By this time Pat had divorced, remarried and moved to the San Fernando Valley, the location of Universal and Warner Brothers studios. Slews of show biz-oriented kids and their families lived in the neighborhoods.
It proved more than a good location for Shawnee. A new friend down the block, whose daughter had been making TV commercials, urged Pat to send her pretty child’s picture to the Herb Tannen Children’s Agency. Results came fast. After an interview, they suggested that Shawnee attend their “Commercial Workshop.” It was not free; parents paid the tuition.
Shawnee landed a job within six months, in an ad which required her to skip rope. With Tannen’s promotion, more commercials came, though not steadily. She had a small role in the movie “Annie” at 11, sang on the Merv Griffith Show at 12, then won a part in a full-length TV movie called “Not My Kid.”
At 15, she made more guest appearances and won her first stage role as an understudy in “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday.” During rehearsals, Richard Dreyfuss, the star, noticed her work and urged that she be given the leading part. Her shining performance won the Los Angeles Drama-League Critics Award that season, a prestigious prize. No doubt it was a giant step in opening the gates toward Hollywood stardom.
Other plays followed and also a movie with Ricky Schroeder (remember him?) called “Silver Spoon.”
Many important roles came after that in television and movies. Six years ago, she began a five-and-a-half year run in “Becker,” the series about an eccentric New York City doctor starring Ted Danson. Recalling Shawnee’s interpretation of the lazy, foggy, goof-off clerk can still bring you big laughs.
Pat regrets that there was not more time for her to enjoy childhood. Even schooling had to be interrupted occasionally.
But Shawnee has no regrets and truly loves the business. This spring, her two children, 7-year-old Verve and 8-month-old Jackson, plus a nanny, accompanied her when she traveled to Toronto to star in “Saw III,” a psycho thriller that will open on Halloween. She had good parts in the first two segments.
Back home, between films, she is relishing every hour with the kids around the small pond in front of their house. Nevertheless, career obligations come every day. With her manager and lawyer, close friends of many years, she confers, considers and discusses new scripts and promotional trips. Asked what she would most like to do if she had time, she snaps back: “Sit still.”
She does have fun with a group of eight or 10 longtime lady friends who call themselves “The Pajama Party.” Ages 23 to 75, they get together for lunch, shopping forays and birthday celebrations.
But, after the children, the career comes first. Asked “What is it about movie making that has always intrigued you?” she said, “I like the exploration of the human condition which tends to be a search of the soul. It gives you a license you don’t always get in real life. But it can also become crippling if you don’t hang on to reality.”
Shawnee will hang on. Asked about the business in general, she laughs out, “They say the only thing that is real about Hollywood is when the director calls ’Action’.”
- Retired editor and public relations executive Thomas Langford’s column is titled “Some Edisto stories.” Let him know if you have stories to share: 803-534-2097.