A theatrical and sometimes solitary child who grew up in Georgia during the 1960s and ’70s, Decatur-born Jan Hooks spent summers and holidays at her maternal grandparents’ home in the small city of Cedartown, not far outside Atlanta. Throughout her adolescence, she often put on plays and skits there, but it was her barn-burning impression of Tina Turner that became a Thanksgiving tradition. Those mini-concerts featured Jan belting “Proud Mary” while whipping her hair and crazily gyrating. “It was absolutely amazing,” her cousin Susan Brown says. “That was always one of the things we had to have.”
Jan visited Cedartown at least annually for decades, well into her adulthood. In the fall of 2014, she returned for good. On October 17 — a year ago this month, and eight days after she died at age 57 in her upstate New York home — the former Saturday Night Live star was laid to rest at Cedartown’s Northview Cemetery in a plot next to that of her mother, Sadie. Come to say their final farewells, a group of 30 or so friends and family members assembled at the Lester C. Litesey Funeral Home, where Jan’s plain dark-wood casket was closed. Next to it, on a small table, sat a large framed portrait of Jan, surrounded by floral arrangements from her former SNL boss Lorne Michaels, the show’s staff, and her onetime boyfriend turned costar, Kevin Nealon. Later, at the cemetery, her brother Tom led graveside proceedings. “This service may be a little different than what you’re used to,” he said. “But hey, so was Jan.”
Almost from the moment she appeared on SNL in October 1986, after the then-decade-old program had nearly been canceled, Jan stood out as one to watch. Having already honed and showcased her comedic skills on many stages and screens — as part of Atlanta sketch group the New Wit’s End Players, the short-lived cable program Tush, HBO’s Not Necessarily the News, and as Tina the chipper Alamo tour guide in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure — she quickly established herself as one of the most talented and versatile cast members in SNL history. Over five increasingly celebrated seasons, Jan became well known if never breakout big for her comic timing and crackling impersonations of Tammy Faye Bakker, Nancy Reagan, and Kathie Lee Gifford, to name just a few. Revered SNL writer Jack Handey, the creator of “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer” and the segment “Deep Thoughts,” says he ranks Jan “with the top two or three cast members, ever.” A two-year stint as wide-eyed and dim-witted divorcée Carlene Frazier Dobber on CBS’s Designing Women came next, as did minor movie parts (in Batman Returns and Coneheads, among others). In a recurring guest role that lasted from 1996 to 2000 and earned her an Emmy nomination, Jan played Harry Solomon’s (French Stewart) floozy girlfriend Vicki Dubcek on 3rd Rock From the Sun. She also voiced Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu’s wife, Manjula Nahasapeemapetilon, in a half-dozen episodes of The Simpsons.
But Jan had an uneasy relationship with fame and show business that may have been most evident during her time at SNL, when her onstage confidence masked deep and nagging anxiety. “Sometimes if I see an old show, I think, ‘Boy, I was good!’” she said a couple of years ago when we spoke for my 2014 biography of her late friend and SNL colleague Phil Hartman. A stabilizing presence, Hartman was the “rock” who more than anyone else quelled her stage fright. “I mean, you can’t tell how shit-scared I was,” Jan went on. “And you know how they say, ‘Oh, everybody’s got the jitters,’ and then you get out there and you’re fine? No! I wasn’t! I didn’t like it! I don’t like roller coasters, and I don’t like circus performing. It’s just not my thing. The music was too loud. The people, the energy of it just made me very nervous.” It was, she added, “an awful, awful time. And I didn’t care. I didn’t want to be [famous]. I didn’t want to be on TV!”
Her friend Ann Hornaday, now movie critic for the Washington Post, says Jan felt ambivalent toward SNL and fame in general. “I feel like she spent half her time wishing her stuff would be cut, just because she was so anxious,” Hornaday says. “And yet, this is what she did the best. And when she did go out there, she killed it every time.” While Jan’s success on SNL led to other high-profile ventures, mostly in television, she never achieved the career heights she might have — that others thought she could have. Instead, she was a reluctant celebrity who worked only when she felt like it, allowed fate to plot her professional course, and in the end led an intensely private life away from showbiz. Her death took many by surprise.
Although she kept a small apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, most of Jan’s final years were spent in Bearsville, New York, a tiny hamlet within the town of Woodstock, where she bought a shabby 130-year-old farmhouse on 66 acres in the late ’90s, and which became her refuge. There, she watched and rewatched terrible old films (the worse, the better — she loved, for instance, The Oscar, featuring Frank Sinatra), drank untold gallons of Robert Mondavi Sauvignon Blanc (nicknamed Bobby Mo), rode her albino horse (also named Bobby Mo), and puttered around the property as her dark green 1983 Jaguar sat rotting in the garage. Two German shepherds, Frank and Kitty, kept her company until they died. An unabashed smoker, she purchased boxes of her favorite brand, Merit, on the cheap in neighboring Pennsylvania. Friends say they never heard her talk of quitting or using a nicotine patch, both of which she considered laughable.
Tom Chase, a Bearsville native who became Jan’s handyman and good friend, says she arrived there with the intention of chilling out more or less permanently, and working only enough to maintain her health insurance through the Screen Actors Guild. Jan would tell him, half-jokingly, “I was a star, baby!” But she seemed fine with leaving that world behind. “She was up there in Woodstock, on her own, which would drive me nuts,” Hornaday says. “I would just be climbing the walls. But she didn’t really mind it. She cultivated her solitude. She craved her solitude.”
Not everyone understood why Jan allowed her career to fizzle. Between 2002 and 2013 she did only four television episodes and one film. Two of the jobs were voice-overs. “She lived the life she wanted to,” Nealon wrote in a heartfelt tribute published on Time.com a day after Jan’s death. “To me, it seemed as though she was shunning Hollywood. She didn’t want to continuously have to prove herself. If she wanted to, I believe Jan could have been a huge star. But ultimately her privacy was more important.” Moreover, he now says, she “didn’t want to deal with all the B.S. that came with [fame]. It wasn’t worth it to her. Also, she was fighting her own demons … I think Jan had issues with a lot of different things, and there were a lot of different layers to her. But she certainly had the talent, and based on her talent alone she could have been huge.” Jan’s friend Bill Tush, with whom she worked on Tush (a.k.a. The Bill Tush Show) at Ted Turner’s pre-TBS cable station WTBS, believes she “easily could have been a Julia Roberts.” Achieving that, however, would have required considerable effort, and Jan “would blow off jobs all the time. Not auditions, but jobs.” As Tush remembers it, Jan was offered the role of the mayor’s wife in a 2003 television remake of The Music Man, but she couldn’t be bothered to attend a meeting about the role. “Naw,” she said, “I’m not going in.” (The director, Jeff Bleckner, doesn’t recall if Jan was in the running for that part, which ultimately went to Molly Shannon.)
Tush has no explanation for Jan’s indifference, only theories: “There are times when you’re drunk enough that you don’t give a shit. As a person who went through it [myself], you get to a point where you’re like, ‘I don’t want to do that. I don’t care about that.’” Jan’s drinking took a physical toll, too. Tush says a doctor even advised her to stop because of the liver damage it was causing, but she paid him no heed. From a financial standpoint, Tush adds, Jan was “in a situation where she didn’t need the work. And I think she felt she was a big enough celebrity that she didn’t need to do any more of that. But when she turned down that [job], I couldn’t believe it.”
Jan liked money and some creature comforts (spa days were a favorite indulgence), but they never ruled her life or career — never caused her to fight for the next job or another payday. “She didn’t seem that hungry,” Nealon says. “She moved out to L.A. and she was going through all the motions, but it’s almost like she knew she was going to make it. And I knew she was going to make it, and there was no desperation from her. She hated that side of actresses or actors that were so desperate to make it. I think there was a certain part of her that did not respect the business, because she saw it for what it was. It was so shallow and so ethereal and it didn’t really mean a lot, which is another reason I was attracted to her. Because here was this incredible ray of talent that didn’t even seem to try that hard.” As Jan told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1985, not long after Pee-wee’s Big Adventure premiered and she’d finished work on her next movie, Goldie Hawn’s Wildcats, “The timing of my life has been so incredible. If I manipulate it, boy, it all goes to pieces. I really rely on fate, and it means a lot of months of unemployment sometimes, but it seems to always come through.” By Jan’s own account, the previous year — following short stretches on ABC’s 1/2 Hour Comedy Hour and Comedy Break with duo Jamie Alcroft and Mack Dryden — had been “just desolate,” but then Big Adventure came along and things picked up considerably from there. She was soon hired by SNL. Unorthodox though it was, her passive approach worked fine for a couple of decades. Then Jan stopped trying and offers stopped coming. Mostly.
In the second half of 2009, while Jan was still rebounding from leukemia that had been diagnosed in February and treated in March and April (it went into remission that May), NBC and Tina Fey came calling. A devoted Jan fan, Fey wanted the actress she has described as “an idol of mine” and “just the funniest woman ever” to play Jenna Maroney’s trashy mom, Verna, on 30 Rock. The episode, titled “Verna,” was set to shoot in early December and air in February 2010. Jan was reluctant. “We called her and said, ‘Do you want to do this?’” Fey remembered in an October 2014 acceptance speech at Elle’s Women in Hollywood Awards, during which she dedicated her honor to Jan. “And she was like, ‘OK?’ She was actually a little shy about jumping back into the game.” Fey added: “It made me sad when she [died], and it made me mad at the time how available she was. Jan should have had a bigger career. Jan deserved a big movie career — certainly as big as Rob Schneider’s fucking career. She was a bigger star on SNL.” Hornaday thinks Fey’s comments, though well-meaning, were a bit misleading. “It’s not like [Jan] wanted all this and she didn’t get it,” Hornaday says. “It’s not like she had doors slammed in her face. A lot of times, she wouldn’t even get as far as the door [by] her own choice.” According to Jan’s nephew Jeff Hooks, “She was terrified to do [30 Rock], mainly because of age and weight gain and vanity and stuff like that. She also thought that maybe she had lost the edge or lost the touch, and that people were going to bash her.” But Hornaday never got the sense that Jan was bothered by her physical transformation, and Nealon agrees. He says that since Jan “didn’t really put that much importance on beauty,” her looks likely had little to do with her hesitancy about returning to work. “I think the characters and the work were more important to her, [though] I’m sure she wanted to look good. She would have preferred to be the Jan of the ’80s.”
30 Rock marked a comeback of sorts for Jan, after an eight-year period in which she acted on camera only once, in Martin Short’s flop Jiminy Glick in Lalawood. The hit comedy introduced her to a new audience while reacquainting her with legions of longtime admirers. But after a couple of well-received 30 Rock performances and a brief appearance in a scene that showed her burrowed beneath bedsheets on a November special titled The Women of SNL, Jan again shunned showbiz and retreated to Bearsville. There, she continued her recovery and occasionally drove to visit family in Atlanta and friends on Long Island and in Manhattan. But while New York City held less allure than ever, Bearsville had also begun to grow tiresome. “Even for somebody who craved solitude as much as she did, she was feeling a little too isolated,” Hornaday says. “She really just never found her tribe there.” Except for one more gig, a 2013 voice-over on The Cleveland Show, Jan never acted again — not even for fun.
In January 2014, Tony Award–winning composer and erstwhile SNL piano man Marc Shaiman called Jan to say that he and her former costar Nora Dunn were planning a reunion of the Sweeney Sisters. The wonderfully cheesy lounge act, dreamed up by Jan and starring her and Dunn, had spawned one of Jan’s most memorable SNL characters. The New York Pops were planning a tribute to Shaiman at Carnegie Hall, and the Sweeneys — hopefully with Jan — were slated to perform. “In character Jan and I knew exactly who [we] were without discussion,” Dunn later wrote on Facebook. “It happened on its own. As Liz and Candy we shared an uncomplicated bond and an enduring sisterly love. The fact that they became a hit was secondary to the joy of being them. We opened the Emmy’s in  and back stage we decided to chat with George Will and Sam Donaldson in character. They shunned us as if we were two backstage barflies trying to slut it up with a couple of genuine prime time newsmen. No one enjoyed something like that more than Jan Hooks.”
The reunion wasn’t to be. “I called and said, ‘What would be more brilliant than you girls singing “Clang! Clang! Clang!” [“The Trolley Song”] at Carnegie Hall, where Judy Garland first did it in her famous medley?’” Shaiman says. Jan waffled and asked for time to think it over, but Shaiman already knew the answer. “The writing was on the wall,” he says. “I gave her a month and called her back, and she said, ‘No can do.’ And I said, ‘That audience will love you! And we can put it in any key — do whatever you want to make you comfortable.’ But she just couldn’t imagine herself doing it.” Jan may also have been influenced by Hornaday, who expressed concern about Jan’s returning to the live stage in such a “high-stakes context” with “so much baggage and so much pressure.” “On the other hand,” Hornaday says, “I know it would have been wonderful and lovely, but she had so many misgivings.”
The same month Shaiman accepted his Carnegie honor and on the cusp of five cancer-free years, Jan discovered a bump the size of a pencil eraser on her throat. After an initial examination at Kingston Hospital in upstate New York, she was directed to the Dyson Center for Cancer Care in Poughkeepsie for more tests. Based on a biopsy of her tumor, Jan’s physician recommended she visit a larger facility — either Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center or Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City — to have the results evaluated. With Tom’s help, she booked an appointment at Sloan Kettering, where doctors explained Jan’s prognosis and treatment options.
As the weeks wore on, Jan’s voice grew increasingly hoarse, until it was nothing more than a low croak that she joked made her sound like the brassy, 1960s TV star Rose Marie “on testosterone.” Thanks to the iPad she’d received from Tom, who had also bought his technophobe sister her first and soon virtually useless cell phone earlier that summer, Jan quickly became proficient with email and began firing off elegant, witty, sarcastic missives to a small circle of pals. “I was just kind of floored at what a great writer she was and how articulate she was in her email letters,” Nealon says. “And I thought, Wow, this is a side of Jan I never saw before. I’d seen birthday cards and things like that, where she’d write a line or two, but these were from a really thought-filled, educated woman.” As revealed in dispatches to Wenzel Jones, a friend of Jan’s since the late ’70s when they did summer stock theater together on a Native American reservation in Livingston, Texas, she maintained a sense of humor despite her mounting misery.
August 9:1 They made me drink this red Kool-Aid stuff which, they say, makes me radioactive for 3 days. I was actually ordered to have no contact with pregnant women & infants. DAMN IT!!!!!
August 12: As if there weren’t enough to be depressed about. Cozi TV has stopped showing reruns of ‘The Real McCoys.’ I just loved Luke & Kate & Grandpappy Amos. Although I was kind of confused by the family dynamic. Little Luke was Big Luke’s brother and Hassie was their sister. Where were their parents? And why did they give their 2 sons the same first name??? Anyway, my point is… WHEN WILL GOD STOP BEING SO MEAN?????
August 14: I’m still trying to navigate my way around this necessary but heartbreaking device [her computer]. I am more and more embarrassed by my voice. I sound like Rose Marie on testosterone. So I must depend on this foul machine to communicate. Any help or advice would be appreciated.
August 16: Sorry for drunk dialing you last night. Wow! I am really feeling sorry for myself these days, am I not? I really SHOULD get out of this room.
August 16: As I told you, I ventured out today. I’m avoiding neighbors because I’m normally a pretty chatty gal, and it’s hard to lie about my creepy voice by passing it off as mere laryngitis when it’s actually CANCER!!!!!!! People get pretty scared of that. Gloomily yours, Jan’et.
August 17: As my throat and voice get more and more scary and painful, my dependence on wine and cigarettes increases. Oh the irony! The things that soothe you mentally and spiritually destroy you physically. It’s so unfair.
August 19: I actually was home when you called. Using my voice becomes increasingly more painful so I avoid the phone unless absolutely necessary. Therefore, I’m getting more dependent on the Magic Window to communicate. How’s that for irony?!! So let’s play through email. Tom’s coming in tomorrow night. Drs appt on Fri morn. Find out results of PET scan. Yikes!!!!!
The results weren’t good. The lump on Jan’s neck was growing, and doctors urged her to return in early September for more tests. “What they said, essentially, was that the tumor was not chemo-sensitive,” says Tom, who took notes throughout the ordeal. “So it couldn’t react to chemotherapy. The only recommended procedure was a total laryngectomy.” Besides rendering her voiceless, the operation would cause significant disfigurement. Those were outcomes Jan could not and would not abide. “It was not a cut-and-dried thing,” Tom says. “It was, ‘This is our recommendation, but there’s no guarantee that the cancer is not going to recur.’” In light of that and for other reasons, Jan chose to forgo treatment. Although she never really explained her choice, Tom got the impression that his sister “just had this extreme fear of being admitted to a hospital and a loss of control.”
So Jan faced imminent death the same way she lived life: on her own goddamn terms. She and Tom made arrangements with a hospice near her home in Bearsville, and prescription drugs — along with wine and cigarettes — helped dull her intensifying pain. When Tom returned to Bearsville on October 6 to meet with hospice workers (Jan’s “angels”) and assist in finalizing his sister’s will and trust, he noticed that her breathing had grown labored (an oxygen machine gave only mild relief) and she was sleeping much more than usual. She was also eating less than before, which hadn’t been much. Even liquids were hard to swallow. When hospice workers reviewed her medication, Tom says, they told him that Jan might have only days left to live. To make her remaining time as comfortable as possible, an adjustable hospital bed was installed in the living room downstairs (Jan preferred to sleep on the sofa), and a small wheelchair was brought in if she became too weak to walk.
Very early on the morning of October 9, 2014, after Jan and Tom had watched (as they usually did) Late Show With David Letterman, Jan arose and went to use the bathroom. When she emerged, Tom was in her wheelchair and rolling around while channeling Curly from the Three Stooges: “Woo-woo-woo!” Jan laughed. Seconds later, on her way back to bed, she staggered. Then her knees buckled and she dropped to the floor, limp. Tom rushed over and tried to lift her, but she was too heavy. “Come on, honey, get up,” he said. “Damn, you’re dead weight.” Unable to get her off the floor, he fetched a pillow and bedspread, eased her onto them, and waited for her to revive. She never did. A bit after 1 a.m., she stopped breathing. The oxygen machine was still going strong. “I couldn’t find a pulse and just thought, ‘Damn, this is it,’” Tom says. “So I held her hand, told her I loved her and promised to take care of things. And, of course, I wept.” When the hospice nurse on call arrived roughly an hour later, she officially pronounced Jan’s death.
“You knew it was coming,” Tom says. “My big fear was what the doctors were saying: This [cancerous bump] is going to keep growing, it’s going to close up the airway, she’s just going to rasp and essentially strangle and you can’t do anything — you can’t put a [tracheotomy tube] in. It was just like, Oh, my god, that would be awful. And that didn’t happen. Thank god that did not happen. She was laughing and sort of talking right up to the end.”
As word spread online that Jan had died, Tom and his cousin Susan, both Georgia residents, fielded questions from the press but kept details of Jan’s health and the cause of her death private — which only sparked curiosity about what might have befallen her. Soon newspapers, newscasts, and the Internet were packed with tributes. There was also an outpouring from heartbroken fans who took to blogs, social media, and comment sections to express their sadness and appreciation. “She absolutely brought Saturday Night Live out of its dark hole and paved the way for the strength of today’s women comedians,” one fan wrote. Famous admirers, including comic superstars Amy Poehler and Amy Schumer, joined in. “I was 15 years old when I first saw Jan Hooks on ‘SNL,’” Poehler said in a statement. “All of her characters spoke to me. She was one of the greats.” Schumer tweeted: “Jan Hooks made me laugh so hard so many times.”
Worried that paparazzi would descend on Cedartown for Jan’s funeral, Tom implored the family and friends who were invited to keep their mouths shut and refrain from divulging any details about Jan’s upcoming service. Even though the funeral home “publicized the funeral without permission,” much to Tom’s chagrin, nothing came of it and preparations continued for a private ceremony on the afternoon of Friday, October 17.
“She was a very spiritual person who loved her angels and saw relationships between things that the rest of us missed,” Tom said of Jan in his introduction at Northview Cemetery. “For example, butterflies and stars represented people she loved. So Jan was spiritual but not religious. She wasn’t antireligion, though, thank god, so we’re hoping for a smooth mix of both prayer and profanity today.” So Jan’s cousin Beth read selections from the Bible, and then Tom began his eulogy: “Fifty-seven years ago, a pretty little baby girl arrived in the world. Her older brothers were a couple of knuckleheads, but they were proud of their new baby sister — until they noticed that Mommy obviously liked the new baby best.”
At this point, Tom was joined by his son Jeff and cousin Susan.
Susan: “Stop making so much noise and go outside! You’ll wake the baby!”
Jeff: “But Mommy, it’s cold and it’s raining!”
And … scene.
Tom’s speech went on like that, with brief musical interludes, covering Jan’s childhood, high school years, and professional accomplishments, the latter of which were given short shrift. “We’re family, and we knew the real Jan, not just the performer,” Tom said. “Yeah, she had a lot of great attributes. She was brilliant, creative, and hilarious. But let’s face it, she wasn’t a saint.” (Here, Tom patted the lid of Jan’s casket and quipped, “Sorry, kid.”) “As gifted as she was,” Tom went on, “Jan could be moody, self-centered, isolated, or — insert your favorite adjective here. I was sad that she remained so secluded. Most of us haven’t heard from her in years. But you know, maybe we can learn a lesson from that. If you’re feeling bad or lonely, please reach out. There are a lot of people right here that love you.”
Now it was time to lighten things up and play with props, which included Jan’s local Emmy (she always complained about how cheap it felt), a pillow from her guest room embroidered with the words “Rebel Princess,” and a jar of Pace Picante salsa that recalled one of her first TV commercials. Tom closed this portion of the tribute by asking everyone to participate in a brief sing-along to Judy Garland’s version of “The Trolley Song” from the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis. As a young girl, Jan had often belted the tune from her bedroom as her brothers tried to kick down her locked door and make it stop.
Clang-clang-clang went the trolley!
Ding-ding-ding went the bell!
Zing-zing-zing went my heartstrings!
From the moment I saw him I fell!
When the applause and laughter subsided, the memories began. One after another, mourners told stories about Jan from childhood and holidays and travels. Tom recounted her reasons for staying single and shirking motherhood. When a nurse had broached the subject, he said, Jan told her: “If I had gotten married, I’d be in prison right now. If I’d had kids, I’d be on death row.” Concluding his comments on an upbeat note before the group filed off to a nearby “celebration of life” party, Tom asked them to “pause and concentrate a little bit” the next time they laughed, which would surely be soon. “Feel that extra little push that makes our laughter a bit more musical?” he asked. “That’s Jan. She’s laughing with us today.”
In a dramatic segue Jan might have appreciated, Tom then switched on a recording of “Proud Mary” that was queued up to Ike Turner’s slow, low “Rollin’ on a river” about halfway through, just before the song explodes in a flurry of horns and Tina’s driving vocals. A showstopper when Jan had performed it way back when, the tune was a fitting finale in more ways than one. The obvious musical allusion aside, its first verse could easily describe a woman who traded her sometimes-complicated life in lights for a simpler existence in the shadows, and who was at peace with that decision.
Left a good job in the city
Workin’ for the Man every night and day
But I never lost a minute of sleepin’
Worryin’ ’bout the way things might have been
Mike Thomas (@MikeTScribe) spent more than 14 years as an arts and entertainment staff writer at the Chicago Sun-Times. His work has appeared in Smithsonian, Esquire, and Salon, among other publications. He is the author of two books: You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman and The Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater.