The Untold Truth Of Debra Jo Rupp

Debra Jo Rupp will perhaps always be best-known for just two roles: Menopausal mother Kitty Forman on "That '70s Show" and Phoebe's age-inappropriate sister-in-law Alice Knight-Buffay on "Friends." But having racked up dozens of theater, film, and TV credits since beginning her acting career back in the early 1980s, there's more to this actor's talents than two recurring sitcom roles.

For one thing, Rupp has appeared in big screen comedy classics like "Big" and "Death Becomes Her." She's also received award attention for her portrayal of sex therapist Dr. Ruth, provided the voice of Mary Lou Helperman in the hit animated series "Teacher's Pet," and has even graced the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a recurring stint on "WandaVision."

But proving that she doesn't believe one of her most iconic characters is an albatross around her neck, Rupp will once again reprise Forman in the belated spin-off "That '90s Show" alongside her on-screen husband, Kurtwood Smith, in a new series for Netflix. To celebrate her return, here's a look at the prolific character actor's untold truth.

Debra Jo Rupp's first screen role was a topless dancer

Talk about a baptism of fire. The first time Debra Jo Rupp appeared on our screens was way back in 1980, and she played a topless dancer! Luckily, it was for daytime soap opera "All My Children," so she didn't have to bare much flesh.

In an interview with Soap Opera Digest several decades later, the actor recalled how terrifying she found the experience, but not because she was revealing skin. She explained she was nervous to be surrounded by such iconic actors. "I had never done television. I had done commercials, but that doesn't count; you are holding up cereal and talking about it. I had to work with Susan Lucci, Fra Heflin and Hugh Franklin. He had a really bad hearing problem. He just looked at you, and if you paused, he came in with his lines! Fra Heflin pulled me aside and said, 'Don't ever pause.' Oh, my God, the pressure!"

But that was nothing compared to what she felt when she returned to the show in 2005 to play a crazy drunk. In fact, she said that experience made her first stint look positively "luxurious." "We didn't even run through it! I was horrified. I'm backstage waiting to enter with Aiden [Turner], and I went, 'Oh, my God! How do you do this?' He looks at me and goes, 'You're like a veteran. You're a pro.' I said, 'Oh, I haven't done this. This is insane!'"

Playing a pirate changed her life

So what was the role that helped Debra Jo Rupp realize she wanted to pursue a career in acting? A Shakespearean heroine perhaps? Maybe a lead in a Chekhov play? No, it was playing a pirate in a school production of "Jack and the Beanstalk."

During her 2015 commencement address at the Massachusetts high school she once attended, Rupp revealed that she volunteered for the part as a shy 10-year-old in a bid to try and fit in, having only just moved for the fourth time. "How hard could it be to be a pirate?" she joked to the Masconomet Regional High School class (via Wicked Local). "I was not sure what versions of 'Jack and the Beanstalk' we were doing with pirates, but I raised my hand."

Rupp stole the show with her "shiver me timbers" performance and, as a result, found acceptance among her peers. She recalled, "I said to myself, 'I like this. I might have I found something that I am good at. I'm just going to keep this going a little bit and see what happens.'" However, the California native never envisaged that her passion would lead to a career. "I didn't think of becoming an actress then. I never in a million years thought I would be an actress. Nobody from Boxford was in the movies EVER, on TV or on stage, or if they were, they weren't very good."

Her parents didn't approve of her acting ambitions

To say that Debra Jo Rupp's parents didn't approve of her acting ambitions is something of an understatement. The pair even demanded that their daughter attended New York's University of Rochester specifically because it didn't have an acting program to distract her. Unfortunately for Mr. and Mrs. Rupp, the college then launched one her freshman year!

Rupp made the most of the opportunity, also becoming a member of a theater club in the city named Drama House. After graduating, she relocated to the Big Apple to chase her screen and stage dreams. Luckily, she doesn't bear any grudges toward her folks for initially standing in her way.

Speaking to Theater Mania in 2021, Rupp said, "I think they just tried to protect me, especially because I had a so-called weird look for an actress. I was like a little dumpling. In fact, they wanted me to become a CPA. But I knew I was good at acting and I loved it." The "That '90s Show" star later did eventually get the parental seal of approval, as she explained to the Los Angeles Times: "I do remember taking my mother to see 'Sweeney Todd' with Angela Lansbury on Broadway and that was when my mother said to me, 'I get it, I get why you want to do this now.' That was always a big marker for me, it was a big deal."

Debra Jo Rupp was horrified by her Friends debut

In one of those "Friends" storylines that probably wouldn't wash in the social media age, Phoebe's brother Frank Buffay (Giovanni Ribisi) starts dating, and eventually marries, the much older Alice Knight, aka his former home economics teacher. The pair spend pretty much their entire first episode together in a constant state of amorousness. Perhaps understandably, the woman who played the rather skittish cougar felt slightly uncomfortable with all the PDA.

Reflecting on her "Friends" debut 22 years ago with Entertainment Weekly, Debra Jo Rupp said, "The first episode we did, all we did was make out. I was horrified. I was absolutely horrified. Every time we got a rewrite in the script, there would be more making out! I would just go, 'Oh my god. Oh my god! I just gotta close my eyes and do it. What else am I gonna do?'"

Rupp revealed that her co-star, Ribisi, put her at ease, describing him as "such a sweet guy." But she also acknowledged that the imbalance in power dynamics would make her think twice about signing up for such a role today: "When I look at it now, I think it's just so weird that I never once thought about a teacher and a kid. Not once. Thank god, because I don't know if I would have done it [if I knew]!"

She was blackmailed into taking her WandaVision role

Okay, so the term "blackmail" makes it sound much more threatening than it was, but Debra Jo Rupp did have to be slightly coerced into accepting her role as Mrs. Hart, the wife of Vision's boss, in the super-meta Marvel hit "WandaVision."

In an interview with Collider about her five-episode stint on the show's first season, Rupp revealed that she was touted by director Matt Shakman, whose Los Angeles theater, the Geffen Playhouse, she'd just worked at. However, she found it hard to understand the ins and outs of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and almost turned down the role. However, once one of her relatives found out about the opportunity, they convinced her to sign on the dotted line.

Yes, "WandVision" fans have Rupp's great-nephew to thank for her being on the show. When Rupp told him about the part and that she wasn't sure she'd take it, he joked that he would never speak to her again if she turned it down. Luckily, this twisting of the arm worked in the actor's favor. "It's the most attention I've had in I don't even know, and it's like younger people," she revealed to Collider. "Well, it's all ages I guess, but it's a lot of younger people that I've missed and so it's been really nice. It's been really lovely for me, actually."

She has no intention of retiring

Debra Jo Rupp might have been constantly working since playing Eleanor in The Whole Theater's 1985 staging of "The Middle Ages," but even now that she's a septuagenarian, the actor has no intention of retiring from the world of showbiz.

In 2021, Rupp told Theater Mania that she'd actually been itching to get back to work following an enforced rest: "I was tired when the pandemic hit and it was great to take a break for a while. And then I got bored. Also, I turned 70 in February and you have not lived until you turn 70 in a pandemic roasting hot dogs in a freezing driveway. So, yes, I'm glad to be working again."

Rupp proved that she wasn't all talk when she accepted a part in "Boca," a comedy anthology written by Jessica Provenz based on a group of Florida senior citizens. However, this doesn't seem like it was the easiest return she could have made. "I love doing new plays, but this one is being rewritten every day, so that's been a little traumatic," she revealed to Theater Mania. "And 'Boca' being my first show after the pandemic makes everything different. On the one hand, it was really hard to be isolated for so many months with only my two dogs who I talk to incessantly. But then you come back to something like this, and you go, 'Wow, it's a lot of people to deal with.'"

The actor likes the simple life

You're unlikely to find prolific character actor Debra Jo Rupp painting the town red when she's taking a break from the stage and screen, for the actor likes nothing better than snuggling up at home with a good book.

When asked about her home life in Western Massachusetts by the Los Angeles Times in 2017, Rupp replied, "When I'm not working — though I usually am working, I'm fortunate — but when I'm not working, I get to lay on the couch and read a book and have fires in the winter. My favorite days are getting snowed in and it's kind of really ideal. It's just a really nice life."

Rupp, who has never married or had children, lives alone in the county of Berkshire in a property that she helped to design and build. And she couldn't be happier with her architectural efforts: "It's very New Englandy. I love it. I plan to grow old in that house. I'm a really big gardener, I have my two dogs, and my family is also a few hours away in either direction. Most of my good friends here are foodies, so there's a lot of eating. There's a lot of cooking."

Debra Jo Rupp and Dr. Ruth are kindred spirits

Debra Jo Rupp was showered with praise for her portrayal of the world's most famous sex therapist in the off-Broadway production "Becoming Dr. Ruth," picking up an Outstanding Solo Performance nomination at the 2014 Drama Desk Awards in the process. But, as it turns out, the actor didn't need to stretch her talents that much for the role.

When asked about the challenge of playing a person very much still alive by Broadway World, Rupp replied, "The real person part was absolutely terrifying. But I think we are actually very similar. We both have really high energy and we're both short. We spent our whole lives looking up. She's a little shorter than I am but not much. And we always kind of march around, and we're both kind of strong. I was able to find that immediately and that helped a lot."

However, there was one aspect of Dr. Ruth that Rupp found completely alien — her distinctive accent. "The dialect was really hard, though, because she's not from one country. That would be just too easy! It's a combination of four different countries. It took months to get comfortable with that," she explained.

She knows nothing about superheroes

Debra Jo Rupp may have appeared in five episodes of what many critics consider to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe's best small-screen offering to date, but she freely admits that you could fit all she knows about the superhero world on a postage stamp.

In a 2021 interview with Screen Rant to talk about her performance as Mrs. Hart in the first season of "WandaVision," the actor revealed that, although she used to read newspaper comic strips back in her childhood, comic books were a completely alien concept. "I'm the worst to try to get secrets out of from Marvel, because I don't know anything. I know nothing," she revealed.

Rupp proved she wasn't just attempting to be modest when she tried to explain her understanding of the MCU. "I knew Marvel, and I sort of knew superheroes. Like, I knew Thor. The Iron ... See, look at me; look at how pathetic I am. I'm so pathetic. I knew Superman and those people, but I did not know from Marvel. I thought Marvel was cartoons, and then I thought it was comic books. And that's what I knew. And I thought, 'Who's going to see these movies?' These are cartoons jumping off of buildings."

The actor once had a stalker

In a 2004 interview with the Cape Cod Times, Debra Jo Rupp made a revelation about something that would make most celebrities shudder: She now had her own stalker. But the "That '70s Show" actor appeared to be relatively calm about the whole situation. In fact, she even joked, "Of course, it's my luck that it was a very large woman."

Rupp did acknowledge that this development was "enough to keep me very aware of the people around me when I was out in public." However, the actor, who was promoting her performance in the Cape Playhouse production of "Noises Off," was keen to point out that her admirers are more sweet than intense, particularly those who run the site with the web address "I've actually met the women who put it together, and they couldn't be nicer. Of course, I often wonder how they get so many photos of me ... photos that I don't even remember being taken. Oh well."

It's perhaps a good thing that Rupp is so relaxed about being a public figure, as 14 years later, she revealed she was still recognized on a daily basis. The star told the Los Angeles Times, "Not as much as I used to when I was on 'That '70s Show.' But it's still doing reruns, each generation seems to find it. I can tell when a waiter in a restaurant recognizes me. They hear me talk and it's the voice."

She's enamored with Sterling K. Brown

Debra Jo Rupp added "This Is Us" to her already packed resume in 2017 when she showed up as social worker Linda on the second season of the timeline-spanning drama. And the actor appears to have developed a bit of a professional crush on one of its leads, judging by the effusive comments she gave to Looper.

Yes, Rupp couldn't stop gushing about getting the chance to share the screen with Sterling K. Brown, aka Randall, in the Emmy-winning series. "Sterling is ... it's like learning from the best. When you look into someone's eyes and you're interacting and he has his words he has to say, and I had my words that I have to say, when you look into eyes like that, it's easy. It's just so easy."

Rupp, who can technically count Brown as a Marvel Cinematic Universe co-star, too, following their appearances in "WandaVision" and "Black Panther," respectively, wasn't done there, either. She continued, "They say you're only as good as the person you're working with. Well, I don't think that I will ever get to where he is dramatically, because he's amazing. He's amazing, but I can aspire."

Debra Jo Rupp is super proud of the graduates of That '70s Show

From Ashton Kutcher and Laura Prepon to Mila Kunis and Topher Grace, few other teen comedies have spawned as many superstars as "That '70s Show." And the woman who played the latter's mother couldn't be more delighted that her on-screen son and his pals have gone on to bigger and better things.

When asked about her younger former castmates in a 2021 chat with toofab, Debra Jo Rupp replied, "I am so proud, I am like a proud mother of those kids and how they've lived their lives and how they've grown since the show. I'm just very, very, very proud of them." The Drama Desk Award nominee, who played Kitty Forman for eight seasons on the Fox show, also revealed that she still keeps in touch with several of the show's actors, including Donna's father Don Stark.

Of course, staying in contact with her "That '70s Show" castmates has been made a lot easier since several of them signed up to appear in the spin-off "That '90s Show." But having graced the super-meta world of "WandaVision," Rupp may find it harder to adjust to the traditional sitcom again. She added, "'[That] 70s Show' was a small little family ... the Marvel world, as I found out, is gigantic. It's a very complicated world. Sitcoms, not so complicated. There's a situation and hilarity ensues. In 'WandaVision,' nothing is as it seems I am finding out."

She auditioned nine times for Murphy Brown

From "Caroline in the City" and "Blossom" to "Family Matters" and "Empty Nest," and, of course, "Friends," "Seinfeld," and "That '70s Show," Debra Jo Rupp graced almost every TV comedy from the 1990s at some point. But there's one sitcom that simply refused to acknowledge her considerable talents.

In a 2019 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Rupp revealed that she auditioned for the Candice Bergen vehicle "Murphy Brown" on no fewer than nine occasions, but, incredibly, was turned down each and every time. Proving that the "if at first you don't succeed, try again" mantra doesn't always apply, the actor eventually said, "I'm not going in anymore because they hate me."

Rupp soon got a pretty decent consolation prize when she was cast as Frank Buffay's former home economics teacher-turned-lover Alice Knight on a show arguably nine times bigger than "Murphy Brown." And her role in "Friends" couldn't have come at a more crucial time: "It helped save my home because I was going through a really bad dry spell. One of the great things about being an actor is that it can turn around overnight and it can turn around either way. So the money was helpful and the visibility helped because right after that, I got three pilots, so it was like boom, boom, boom, and one of them was 'That '70s Show.'"

Lisa Kudrow helped to keep Debra Jo Rupp's mom alive

Turns out the "Friends" mantra of "I'll Be There For You" wasn't just for show. While speaking to Entertainment Weekly in 2019, Debra Jo Rupp revealed that her on-screen sister-in-law, Lisa Kudrow, essentially helped to prolong her own mother's life.

The actor explained how she started to suffer hardship in her personal life just as she'd bagged the most iconic role of her career, Frank Buffay's wife, Alice. "Around this time, my mother was diagnosed with a very fast-moving Parkinson's. She was living in Florida and it got to the point where I had [to] move her in to stay with me," she explained. After learning about Rupp's family troubles, Kudrow stepped in and facilitated an appointment with her neurologist brother in Santa Monica. 

Rupp recalled, "Basically, they kept my mom alive. It was just pretty amazing. Lisa did it because Lisa is just who Lisa is — just a kind person." But while she became friends with Kudrow during her stint on the NBC smash, the other cast members were a little more aloof: "There was no socializing. There was no chit chat there. They weren't like mean or dismissive or condescending at all. I also remember I was shooting when Matthew [Perry] was having his problems, but I did not know it at the time. That might have colored things a little bit. I don't know how it could not. [But] they were very professional."