Lydia Cornell became a TV sex symbol when she starred as blonde bombshell Sarah Rush in the ‘80s sitcom “Too Close for Comfort,” but once cameras stopped rolling, she was faced with a battle with alcoholism.
After the series came to an end in 1987, the actress found herself drinking champagne and cocktails every night, People magazine reported. It would take a terrifying moment after the birth of her son Jack in 1994 for the now 66-year-old to turn her life around. She never looked back.
Today, Cornell shares her story with others through her public speaking. She’s also been writing a memoir titled “Hiding My Brain in My Bra.” She spoke to Fox News about her arrival to Hollywood, filming her beloved sitcom and how she overcame addiction.
Fox News: How were you discovered?
Lydia Cornell: It’s funny, I had just graduated college. I would watch TV, track down all the names of every producer from every show and write to them. I told them I wanted to come to Hollywood and become an actress. I had this business degree, but still, I wanted to become an actress. It was really a lifelong dream. The minute I got to town, I was invited by an agent to a dinner party. I remember at the front booth of this fancy restaurant was Aaron Spelling. He was sitting with Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner. I was so starstruck.
Aaron asked me to come in and meet his casting director the next day. I did and got my first professional part on a TV series called “The Love Boat.” You might have heard of it. [laughs] My character was a girl in a bikini playing shuffleboard with just one or two lines. The makeup artist put so much blush on my face. I was so terrified the lines came out two octaves higher. I thought I totally blew it. But then Aaron gave me another part on “Charlie’s Angels.” I played a real estate broker who stood behind Shelley Hack. I ended up doing nine guest-starring roles for Aaron Spelling.
Fox News: How did you get the role of Sara Rush in “Too Close for Comfort”?
Cornell: It’s the funniest thing. I took a bus for my audition and it was raining in LA, which was unheard of. I was wearing this tight, cheerleader sweater. I’m already late – an hour late. Secretary goes, “Sorry, they’re finished.” I’m about to cry. [Creator] Arne Sultan comes out and he’s like “Hey, let her come in and read. She came all this way and she looks the part.”
I’m sitting there with four men in the office and the casting director. There’s a line in the script that says “Sara gives her dad a raspberry.” So I’m here picking up this imaginary raspberry and handing it to Arne. He goes, “What the hell are you giving me? What are you handing me?” I said, “I’m giving dad a raspberry.” He goes, “Oh my God, she doesn’t know what giving a raspberry means?” They all laughed so hard, tears were coming out. Meanwhile, I was turning red and shaking. So they all did it together and yell “It’s a Bronx cheer!” Then they went, “She’s perfect for the part.” It was a total fluke. They wanted me to come in the following morning.
Fox News: What surprised you the most about co-star Ted Knight?
Cornell: He was very strict like a dad. But I was so in awe of him because he was already an icon at this point. But he was also so funny. … We would do funny things on set. We all did. We all played with each other, like put a plastic frog in someone’s food. Innocent things.
On "The Merv Griffith Show," the whole cast was celebrating the 100th episode or something. They bring up [co-star] Deborah [Van Valkenburgh] and Merv said, “What’s Ted really like?" Deb, who’s so nervous, blurts out, “He’s kind of a kinky dad.” Merv goes, “What?” Then they go to a commercial break. Merv then asks, “What did Deb mean by kinky?” Me, also being so terrified, went, “Well, he likes to lift up our blouses and pop our bra straps every now and then.” [laughs]
I was just trying to be funny. I thought it was cute, like when you make a funny joke. And we all joked all the time on set. Ted never did anything serious like that. He was adorable, he was fun. We just loved playing good pranks on each other. He’s the last person you would ever accuse of anything terrible.
I remember glancing at Ted. It looked like the blood completely drained from his face. The whole room was dead silent. And Ted’s wife was sitting at the front row of the audience. Later, Deborah and I spent the night together and cried. We didn't know what could happen to us. The next day we were just shaking in his dressing room, waiting for him. When he finally came in, we said, “We were so sorry. We love you. Please forgive us.” He walked around like he was mad, but then just broke out laughing. He goes, “That’s OK, they cut it out of the show.”
Fox News: Do you remember the last time you saw Ted Knight before he passed away in 1986?
Cornell: Yes, we made up. We had some problems with each other. I was so new to the industry and he had been around forever. So we had kind of a falling out over that. But in the end, we were fine. I cried so hard at his funeral. We were all together, relying on each other for comfort. But I just couldn’t stop crying. We really loved him and he was like a father figure to us — a real father.
He could be strict. He could be difficult to deal with on set. He was old school when it came to his work. He would get frustrated when my whole face would take up a cover of some big tabloid. … But ABC forced me to be in these bikini posters and sequined bathing suits as a way to promote the show. So I promoted the show in bikinis. Ted got offended when I would get that kind of attention. But that’s how it worked to promote a show — cheesecake just worked.
Fox News: What do you think was the secret behind the show’s success?
Cornell: I think we all just had undeniable chemistry. We were truly funny. And we just loved each other. There’s a reason people are still fans of the show and it comes down to chemistry. What you saw was the real deal.
Fox News: You battled addiction after the show ended. What happened?
Cornell: During the series, we would go out every night and … drink like five bottles or something. [But after the show] I was just binge drinking. You lose control and you don’t know what you’re doing. I became a radioactive blackout drinker. It became really scary after I had my baby. I didn’t drink during the pregnancy at all, but after he was born, I couldn’t handle it. I drank until I passed out, blacked out. It was really scary.
I never really did hard drugs. I never liked marijuana. It made you eat everything. In fact, I remember in college ... we ate raw spaghetti dipped in Taco Bell sauce. We thought that was a gourmet meal. [laughs] But I haven't touched a drug or drink since 1994. It’s been a spiritual thing. Sobriety is a beautiful, incredible gift. And I truly believe it got me closer to God. Life now is always fresh and beautiful.
Fox News: Did you ever reach a breaking point?
Cornell: I had been up all night drinking straight vodka with a friend. My mom was coming over to visit with my uncle and I had to be dressed perfectly — my mother always took looks very seriously. I heard my baby crying and I didn’t have my nanny with me. I picked him up and changed his diaper. The doorbell rang and I was at the top of the staircase in this Beverly Hills townhouse holding my little baby Jack. I just went into a complete blackout.
I don’t remember anything to this day. I don’t know how I got to the bottom of the stairs. [My family] took the baby away from me. Just retelling this story makes me cry, but I do it in hopes it will encourage someone to seek help.
A month later, they did an intervention. They said, “We’re going to take your baby away from you.” I was devastated. But I still couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get sober. I wasn't ready, even after that. But a month later, I just found myself floating into the Good Shepherd Church in Beverly Hills for an AA meeting. There were a lot of women – wealthy women, dressed immaculately. I honestly didn't know what to expect. I don't even remember how I got there.
There was a woman at the podium who said, “If you’ve wandered into this room and you don’t know if you’re an alcoholic, remember this: Virgins don’t take pregnancy tests." And the room just roared with laughter. There was such a sense of joy. Then she asked, “Are there any alcoholics present?” My hand just shot up without my permission. A river of tears just flowed. I couldn’t stop crying. All these women came over and hugged me… I’ve never had another drink or craving after that again.
Fox News: Looking back, what was causing you to drink?
Cornell: I think there are a lot of factors that may cause someone to drink. I wonder if in my case, there were societal pressures. I was abused as a child — I won’t go into that right now, but it got to a point where I had to be beautiful and perfect at all times. I couldn’t be anything else. When you’re told that your only value is being pretty … alcohol becomes an easy way to numb the pain and put it all off until tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow I’ll deal with the pressure better.
Fox News: How do you feel about Hollywood today?
Cornell: Put it this way — a lot of people come to Hollywood thinking, “I’m going to be famous.” You soon realize fame lasts only as long as you're cute. In my era, if you were a woman over 35 or you gained a pound, you were put out to pasture. You have to be resilient to cope with all the rejection, chaos and superficial environment that is Hollywood. It’s not easy to live in Hollywood and survive, keeping your head above water and staying sober.
Fox News: How do you feel about sharing your story of sobriety today?
Cornell: I want to write a book on my recovery. I’ve had so many miracles. I don’t want to talk about religion too much because God is such a personal experience for each individual. But that journey to recovery, it’s like a resurrection where you come back to life and start anew. It is truly a miracle. And I hope my story can help others. If I could help one person overcome their struggles, then revealing my darkest moments is truly worth it.