LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Margo Martindale always believed she'd be a sitcom star. She just didn't think it would happen in her 60s.
"I started in the theatre on stage in a lot of comedies and a lot of people kept saying, 'I know you'll have a sitcom,'" the actress recently told a gathering of international press.
Martindale, 62, shot several sitcom pilots that never got picked up. Then along came "The Millers," a new CBS comedy starring Toronto-born Will Arnett ("Arrested Development"). He plays a newly divorced TV reporter. Martindale and Beau Bridges play his freshly separated parents. It airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on Global.
It's not that the Texas native did not already have success in TV and films. Martindale has amassed an impressive list of credits and is one of those actresses people recognize by face more than by name.
Up until now, that is.
"It used to be people would stop me and say, 'Did you use to work at the post office?' And I'd say, 'No, but I played that person.'"
Martindale would explain that she was actually on television and people would tell her, "No, that's not it. You couldn't be an actress."
That's changed in the last few years, especially after she won an Emmy Award in 2011 for playing tough-as-nails crime boss Mags Bennett on "Justified." She also played recurring character Camilla Figg for three seasons on "Dexter" as well as KGB handler Claudia on the FX spy drama "The Americans," a series she'll still recur on despite her commitment to "The Millers."
She's four scripts into the second season on that show "and boy, is it fantastic," she says. "I hope I'm just as mean as I ever was."
Her TV success on both comedies and dramas comes after years of shining in small parts in movies. Martindale has played memorable roles in "Million Dollar Baby," "The Firm," "Lorenzo's Oil" and "Paris, je t'aime." On Broadway, she was nominated for a Tony Award in 2004 for her performance as Big Mama in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
Now her big challenge is saying no.
"People have offered me some lively things recently and I just don't see how I'm going to be able to do it, which has never been the case for me."
In the past, she says, her career was all about moving forward.
"Sometimes it wasn't great work, sometimes it was a little crummy part, but it doesn't matter, just keep moving forward and now it's paying off. It's good."
She's most excited about her next movie, "August: Osage County," a film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts. She stars opposite Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor and Benedict Cumberbatch. "I'm extremely proud of it," she says.
Working opposite Arnett and Bridges, as well as J.B. Smoove ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") keeps her laughing all day long, she says. Another big plus on "The Millers" is being guided by veteran sitcom director Jim Burrows. Working a multi-camera, studio audience sitcom was a new experience for Martindale, so taking direction from such an experienced hand really helped.
"The first few weeks were terrifying," she says, "because you're out there in front of an audience without a net."
Burrows, who has directed everything from "Cheers" to "Friends" to "Will & Grace," likes to "find" his actors rather than have them hit certain marks, and Martindale was surprised at how much freedom she has on the set.
One scene Martindale took a little extra time to rehearse was the somewhat creepy mother-son "Dirty Dancing" moment with Arnett in the pilot. Martindale jokes that one of the fun things about working so closely with Arnett is that "I like to look at him — and not always as a mother!"
For his part, Arnett feels very fortunate to be opposite such pros as Bridges and Martindale. "Beau and Margo blow me away every week," he says. "They bring such a funny and authentic energy and vibe to everything they do."
Martindale met Arnett's real-life parents on the set, a meeting Arnett claims was a bit "surreal." Martindale feels both Arnett and creator/executive producer Greg Garcia ("Raising Hope") see a lot of their moms in her Carol.
"I think both have controlling moms and I am a controlling mom in reality."
So much so that Martindale's grown daughter asked her mom if Garcia had met the actress before he wrote the part. "There are so many similarities that I'm not proud of," admits the actress.
Martindale was a big fan of the late Shirley Booth and always wanted to do a remake of Booth's early '60s series "Hazel." She was once told she came across as a combination of Hazel and Maude (played by the late, great Bea Arthur) and cannot think of a higher compliment.
"If you can steal from her," she says of Arthur, "do it."
Doris Roberts ("Everybody Loves Raymond") has also been a sitcom inspiration, not just for her performances, but for finding success on television later in life. The two shot a pilot that wasn't picked up last year.
"We got to be chummy and to be friends," says Martindale. "She's terrific."
"The Millers" has already been picked up for a full season, despite the stink raised by critics about Martindale's character and a flatulence storyline.
Get over it, says the actress. "It was only in the pilot, and I haven't farted since then."
Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.