The Flashback Interview: Gail Ryan
In the cover photo for this article, you’ll recognize Marie Osmond and Barbara Eden, but you may be wondering who is accompanying them. The third party in this picture is my newest interview subject, Gail Ryan. Ms. Ryan is an accomplished hairstylist with credits going back to the 1960s. She’s worked with talents ranging from Dean Martin and Bob Hope to Demi Moore and Jim Carrey to Benicio Del Toro and many of the professionals on Dancing With The Stars.
Along the way, Gail has won many awards for her work as a hairstylist, including a Best Makeup Academy Award for How The Grinch Stole Christmas. With the depth and diversity of Ms. Ryan’s work, I knew she would be a fascinating interview subject, and with the assistance of her fellow Oscar winner, and a former interview subject of mine, Ve Neill, we had the conversation that you’ll be reading today.
Say hello to Gail Ryan!
Johnny: Hi, Gail. Johnny Caps here.
Gail: Hi, Johnny.
Johnny: First of all, thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to speak to me.
Gail: Thank you, I’m excited to speak with you.
Johnny: Alright. I have my questions ready to go.
Johnny: So, as you told me in our introductory conversation, you initially had no interest in becoming a hairstylist, so for our readers, who led you into that field?
Gail: It was a girl who I went to school with, who had always wanted to be a hairdresser and wanted me to go with her to a beauty school, because she didn’t want to go alone. I had nothing to do that summer, so I said, “Okay”. I went home and told my mom, and she said, “You’ve got to be kidding me, you don’t even play with dolls.”
The teacher’s name was Jean Page, and she changed my life. After a few months, she came up to me and said I’m going to make a hairdresser out of you, if it’s the last thing I ever do. And she did.
Johnny: Also in our initial conversation, you mentioned that you got your start at NBC, working on, among other programs, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, so what are the most out-there hairstyles you can recall creating for that show?
Gail: Oh, my gosh. There were a lot of them, most I don’t remember. I was brand new and helped out working on the wigs. The first show I ran and can tell you about the hairstyles, is The Dean Martin Show.
Johnny: Oh, so what are your favorite memories of working on The Dean Martin Show?
Gail: It was so much fun because, every week, the finale would be from a different period. It could be the 1800’s one week, the 1940s the next, and the week after that it would be something else entirely. It was challenging, and really a lot of fun. He was such a nice man, and great to work with.
I also did The Golddiggers; which was a part of his show, and in the summer, they had their own TV shows. We would go to different locations and shoot dance numbers for the show. It was all new, and very exciting.
Johnny; When the Golddiggers went on their tours to military bases, did you accompany them on those?
Gail: No. I was just doing location shots for the show.
Johnny: Alright. Well, if you’re talking about variety at NBC, you can’t talk about it without mentioning Bob Hope, so did you work on any of his specials, and if so, what do you recall the most about working with him?
Gail: I worked on a lot of his specials. I was very happy to be on those shows. We also did a lot of period sketches and I learned so much about doing sketch television with the wigs and things like that. He was so much fun to work with. He was great.
I do have a story about it, which is really cool. My brother was in Vietnam at the time, and volunteering at an orphanage. My daughter, was in the Brownies, and her troop put a package together for the kids, with balloons and toothbrushes and all kinds of little things they might use. Bob Hope’s USO tour was going very close to where he was stationed and Bob Hope’s crew took our package to him.
Johnny: Aww! That’s wonderful to hear. I’ve interviewed quite a few talents who have worked with Bob Hope, and they’ve talked about his charitable spirit.
Gail: Yes, definitely.
Johnny: Conversely, did you ever have any involvement with Saturday Night Live at any point?
Gail: No, because it came from New York.
Johnny: Oh, okay. Right. I guess I was asking about that because, I mean, variety in the 70s was very diverse because on the one hand, you did have your Bob Hope specials, and on the other hand, there was Saturday Night Live. It was kind of strange that they were both on the same network at the same time representing two different schools of humor.
Johnny: As mentioned, some of your earliest credits were in the field of variety specials, so I would like to ask about some of those, starting with 1975’s Doris Day Today. What was it like to be working with a music icon like Ms. Day?
Gail: It was wonderful. She was lovely. I’m an animal lover, and so was she, so we had quite a lot of conversations about her work with them. It was an amazing opportunity to be able to work with her knowing all the stars she had worked with, the movies she had worked on, and the things she had seen and done in her life.
Johnny: How lovely. Another early project of yours’ was the 1977 special Once Upon A Brothers Grimm. Knowing that the tales of The Brothers Grimm were rather fanciful, albeit in a dark way, how did those tales inspire your work on that special?
Gail: Oh, my gosh, a few years ago I actually found a DVD of the show. I was freelancing at the time and was asked to head the hair department, so I had to create all the hairdo that helped bring alive the Brothers Grimm characters. Some of their stories were Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty. I know there were more but can’t remember them. The finale was Cinderella’s ball done in a Marie Antoinette style. I think I had, like, 40 wigs working in all kinds of styles from that period. Most of the hairdos were so tall that we used at least two wigs in each them.
I felt I was in way over my head, but I worked hard, and it came out well. Looking back on this show, it was one of the experiences that prepared me, and put me on the road to what I would be asked to do later in my career, although I didn’t know it at the time.
Johnny: In 1978, you were a hairdresser on the special The Carpenters: A Christmas Portrait, a special which featured, among other guests, Gene Kelly and Kristy McNichol. Do you have any memorable stories from the set of that special?
Gail: Only with Karen. She’s still one of my favorite singers. I think she has the most beautiful voice. Karen and her brother were just lovely to listen to. I actually did a couple of different specials with them, but I was their personal artist, so I didn’t have a lot to do with the other people on the show.
Johnny: Alright. Staying in the genre, you can’t mention 70s and 80s variety television without mentioning The Osmonds, whom you worked with on various projects in that timeframe. Were they really as wholesome offscreen as their stage image shows, or did you see a different side of them when working on their hair?
Gail: No, they’re exactly who you see. I started with Marie when she was 18. I still keep in close contact with her and with Donny, and they are just exactly what you see, the most wonderful people. They’re sweet, and they work hard, and I can’t say a enough about how great they are as performers and friends.
Johnny: Alright. A brief side note: I do have to say that I’m impressed by that recent album Marie released where she was singing opera. Who knew she could do that?
Gail: Yeah, I recently went and saw their show in Vegas, I was blown away at her versatility. We talked about her singing opera and she said, “Gail, my voice is just an instrument. You just have to learn to play that part of your instrument”. I thought that was an interesting comment.
Johnny: Definitely. Moving into the 80s, you worked on the fashion-themed drama Paper Dolls. What are your favorite styles that you created for that series?
Gail: Well, it was about high-fashion New York. The funny part of that series was, it opens with them in winter in New York but we were shooting it in summer. Everyone was in fancy shoes, high boots, furs and hats and after they worked for 20 or 30 minutes, the ladies would literally have to go and empty the water from their boots from perspiring so much.
Gail: They were good-hearted and worked really hard. I loved doing the series, but it wasn’t one of my favorite times in New York. if you know New York in the summer, the heat and humidity made it really hard to keep the hair beautiful.
Johnny: Perfectly understandable. Jumping onto the big screen, you were a hairstylist on the 1986 romantic dramedy …About Last Night. What made that movie so special to work on?
Gail: Demi Moore and Elizabeth Perkins were wonderful to work with. They were so young and such good actresses, it was fun to watch them work and made the shoot a lovely, lovely experience
Johnny: Absolutely. It’s an excellent piece. Going back to the small screen, you were involved in Dolly Parton’s 1987 variety series Dolly, so what are your favorite memories of working on that show?
Gail: She had her own personal stylist so I wasn’t involved with her. But there were a lot of the guest stars, which required a lot of wigs and hair styles. I also did the dancers, in variety, the dancers are always very important. They all work so hard, and it’s nice to see that with Dancing With The Stars they are getting recognized for the hard work they do. They didn’t get recognition back then, so I always love working with my dancers.
Johnny: Definitely. I’ve interviewed quite a few dancers of both stage and screen, and they really do work their asses off.
Johnny: Returning to film, as I mentioned in my introductory e-mail to you, my first exposure to your work came with 1988’s The Naked Gun: From The Files Of Police Squad!. What went into the creative process for your hairstyles on that movie?
Gail: You know, it was just a great movie, and Leslie Nielsen was such a funny man. I can tell you he was as funny off-camera as he was on, and he just inspired you to take it as far as you could take it, so we did.
Johnny: …And you did a great job with it. By the way, I know that others have mentioned it in interviews, but did he have that small machine that made fart noises when you working with him?
Gail: It was actually a little thing he had in his pocket. He would just squeeze it when talking to somebody, and you knew what was going to happen, so you’d just stand back and watch it happen, and you’d see him hit it and then go, “Oh, excuse me” straight-faced. (Gail and Johnny laugh) It was just hysterical to watch.
The funniest part about it, especially when we would start a new movie, after talking with the crew the first time, a week later a box would come, and all the grips and all the stagehands would have these little whoopie cushions in their hands. They’d be standing in groups like kids at a junior high school, squeezing their fart machines and just laughing (Gail and Johnny laugh).
Johnny: (Calming down) Ah. Okay, I’m here. Going back to television, you were a hairstylist for both the 1989 and 1990 MTV Video Music Awards, so do you have any outrageous stories to share from those ceremonies?
Gail: I did so many award shows. The MTV Awards were a great experience but some of the early things I did when I was at NBC included the Academy Awards, and to see Susan Hayward standing there, or Charlie Chaplin being there that night, watching these legends walk on stage was just amazing.
I started doing the American Music Awards starting in 1975 and ran that show until just a few years ago. I started Rockin’ New Year’s Eve with Dick Clark the same year and am still running that show today. I also ran the Golden Globes, the SAG awards, the People’s Choice Awards and many others. I worked on so many award shows, that what I remember is an overall experience of being there, rather than individual stories.
Johnny: I can only imagine. Well, I’ll have more questions about the Oscars later, but for now, spanning the mid-80s to the early 90s, you were a frequent hairstylist on Perfect Strangers. Of all the episodes you worked on, which stand out as particular favorites for your hairstyling work?
Gail: Bronson Pinchot is just a hoot. He’s really fun to work with; in one episode, we did him as his mother, I got a wig for him and watching him play himself and his mother in the same scene was very funny. Mark Linn-Baker was great. They were just so much fun to watch work.
Johnny: That’s, again, lovely to hear. Staying on TV, but in a different way, if I recall correctly from our initial conversation, you mentioned that you worked for many years with McDonald’s on their Ronald McDonald ads, so how did you get involved with that?
Gail: Greg Nelson, who was the make-up artist known for his clown makeup work, had just gotten the account and called me because I was known for my hair color work. When I got the wigs, they were purple and mounted upside down on the wig head, it was crazy. I took them home to work on them. The hair color was supposed to match the red of his clothes and makeup, after a few days, I was able to match them to the correct color.
McDonalds liked what I did, and I dyed and styled the iconic wigs, for the national Ronald McDonald for over 40 years. There’s kind of a funny side story that developed: It was my formula, and the joke was that Greg and I had a sort of bad marriage with McDonalds. They’d get mad at us when we asked for a raise, and then they’d try to get somebody else to do Ronald. They couldn’t match what we were doing, so they ended up giving us the raise. Everything would be fine for a while, until the next time. We were both with McDonalds for a very long time…Through three different actors who played Ronald.
Johnny; …And that leads me to ask: Why do you think McDonald’s has phased out Ronald McDonald from their advertisements?
Gail: I think the number of horror movies with clowns as the threat increased the number of children with a fear of clowns.
Johnny: I never thought about it that way, but it could be. Going back to the big screen, in 1994, you worked on the movie I’ll Do Anything. That movie started out as a musical before being shorn of all but one of its’ numbers, so how much of your work made it into the released version?
Gail: I was Nick Nolte’s personal hairstylist, so any changes in the movie did not affect what I did.
Johnny: You’ve worked with Martin Short several times, and one of those times was his guest appearance on Muppets Tonight. You’re the second Oscar winner who has worked on a Muppet project that I’ve interviewed, the first being Lois Burwell, who worked on The Muppets’ Christmas Carol, so what are your own favorite memories of working with The Muppets?
Gail: You know, I worked with them for many years. Although I never did their hair. I worked with them on variety shows back in the day, and again a few years ago. They’re always wonderful. They’re so creative, and they’re so much fun. I don’t know how those guys get in those positions in order to make those little guys come alive, but it’s amazing work. It really is.
Johnny: It certainly is. I actually met Jim Henson shortly before his passing, and he was definitely a class act. He even did the voice of Kermit The Frog for me and my brother.
Gail: Yes. They’re just very nice people to work with.
Johnny: Since you do mention variety, this sort of ties into your earlier work. In 1998, you were Ray Liotta’s hairstylist for the HBO movie The Rat Pack. As you worked with members of The Rat Pack during your time at NBC, how accurate was the movie to your experiences with them?
Gail: That was a great movie. I thought they did a good job. I loved working with Ray. I had done several things with him before, and what a nice man. Another loss to this business. He was just lovely, and I thought we did a pretty good job making him look like Frank Sinatra since he didn’t really look like him at all (laughing). It was fun, once the actors were made up, they went right into character, and spent the day that way whether they were in the scene or not. That made it fun and we all had a ball making the movie.
Johnny: Just to follow up, did you ever work with Frank Sinatra?
Gail: I never actually worked WITH him, but one of the specials I did was a special FOR him. He was actually sitting in the audience, and a lot of other actors were paying tribute to him, and I was backstage and I got to see all of that comradery and friendship. Again, those are my memories that I’m so lucky to have experienced, to have been there and watched. It was really great. I did the Sammy Davis Jr. Show, although I don’t think that’s on my IMDB page.
Johnny: I know I’ve been asking this a lot, but what was Sammy like to work with?
Gail: Sammy was Sammy. He was really nice to work with. He cared so much about everyone. He was just a gentle man, funny and wonderful. Again, I’m so fortunate. I didn’t know how fortunate I was to be there at the time.
Johnny: How lovely. Going back to the big screen, you also mentioned in our initial conversation that you weren’t initially interested in joining the crew of 2000’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas, so what led you to change your mind on that?
Gail: I’ll tell you a little story. Rick Baker’s, wife, was my second on Donny and Marie for years. So, I’ve known them for many, many years. When Rick got The Grinch, they were initially going to do prosthetic sprouting hairs for everyone, like out of the book, but Ron Howard didn’t want that. He wanted something different.
Rick was trying various things, when his wife, said, “You know, you might want to talk to Gail about it”, he did. I was happy to get involved. I did a number of test hair style for the various characters and Ron liked my work. When it came time to talk about money the studio offered me a little above scale. I felt that the amount of work required more, so I turned them down not realizing how many other hairdressers in town wanted the job.
I said, “I’m designing all these wigs. I think I should have a design fee”. There were many looks for each of the characters that needed to be developed. A massive undertaking.
They said, “Oh, well, we don’t know if we can do that.”
I said, “Well, then I can’t do it.”
After talking to Rick, they came back and said they would like me to do the movie and gave me a design fee.
Johnny: Okay. When I interviewed Ve Neill, I asked her about working with Jim Carrey on Man On The Moon, and she told me of how Carrey stayed in character throughout the shoot. Was that also the case for you working with him on The Grinch?
Gail: This was different because every orifice of his body was covered. His eyes, his mouth, his teeth, even his fingernails and his whole body…Everything, and he had a really hard time with staying in it all day, so when he was done, he got out of it as quick as he possibly could. I wasn’t where he was because he was in makeup and I was on a different stage, I worked with all the Whos.
Johnny: Oh, okay. How The Grinch Stole Christmas would, of course, win you a Best Makeup Oscar, so were you nervous on Oscar night, and do you recall how you felt when your name was announced as a winner?
Gail: I’ll tell you a story about it if we have the time.
Johnny: Oh, we have the time.
Gail: I was, first of all, thrilled that we were nominated. Because I had done so many awards shows, to be in the audience and maybe accepting an award was surreal. It was like, “I’m not supposed to be here! I’m supposed to be backstage!”. When they called my name, I got up and walked up on stage, but it was surreal to be doing it.
The story I wanted to tell you is, that was the year that they wanted to give a television set to whoever had delivered the shortest speech. Julia Roberts was nominated for Erin Brockovich and won, in her speech she said, “Keep your damn TV! I might not win another Oscar. I’m going to talk as long as I want”.
When Rick and I got on stage, Rick started talking, as he stepped away the music started playing us off. I had promised my crew I would thank them and walked up to the mike and the music stopped, and I was able to thank my crew.
I found out later, from the stage manager, that because I had worked with this crew so many times, that when the director saw me approach the mike, he said, “Turn that damn music off! She’s one of ours!”
Johnny: Aww, how lovely!
Gail: I said what I had to say, and went offstage.
Johnny: That’s a lovely story, and I’m glad you had that chance because, so oftentimes, winners in the technical categories tend to get the short end of the stick, on shows like The Oscars, so I’m glad you had that chance to say your piece.
Gail: Yes, and I’ll tell you another story about the Oscars if we have time, which was kind of fun.
Gail: I went to Elton John’s party after the Oscars, and Catherine Zeta-Jones came up to me. She said, “I just have to tell you that I was backstage earlier in the evening, and I kept hearing the crew going by and saying, ‘Did you see Gail’s dress?’ ‘Did you see Gail?’, enough so that I finally said to myself, ‘Who’s Gail?”. I just happened to follow you on stage after you won.” That’s when I found out who Gail was.
She said, “I have been to awards shows all over the world, and I have never heard a backstage crew go so crazy”. She said laughing, “I thought to myself, ‘Are we going to have to stop the show for this?’” The fact that she came up and told me that story, and the director stopping the music are the things that I remember about that night.
Johnny: Fantastic, and proof of how respected you are. That’s wonderful to hear. Going back to the big screen, you were the hair department head on Looney Tunes: Back In Action, which I think is a better mix of Looney Tunes and live-action than Space Jam was, so what was the easiest part of working on that movie and, conversely, what was the hardest?
Gail: I worked with Jenna Elfman, Heather Locklear and Joan Cusack and we all had a great time. There was one funny thing that happened, an elephant who had worked in a lot of movies had to have the makeup artists touch him up for the camera.
Johnny: Aah, okay. Well, we’ll go to a more serious credit. As with another interview subject of mine, Mark A. Mangini, you worked on the 2008 two-part biopic Che. How did you get involved in that project?
Gail: That’s my guy. That’s Benicio del Toro. I worked with Benicio for quite a while…I think for 13 or 14 years altogether. This was just one of the productions I worked on with him, so that’s how it came about. It was a challenging shoot. We shot in so many places in Bolivia, Spain, and Puerto Rico.
There were many different looks we had to use wigs, extensions and hair pieces. For some scenes we had to shave his head like a bald man to age him.
I have a funny story about shooting in Bolivia, too, that you might want to hear.
Johnny: Sure. I’d love to hear it.
Gail: We were shooting remote shots; on a tiny two-way road on the side of a cliff that dropped off forever. I swear to god, every twenty feet was a cross, and I found out that’s where people had passed away. We drove that thing all morning, and the driver wasn’t very careful. We stopped for lunch, and Benicio came up and said, “How are you guys doing?”.
I said, “I don’t know. This guy is kind of a crazy driver”.
He said, why did you tell me before? Come on, we’ll put you into a different car.
That settled me down, because he was a much better driver, but boy, was that a ride to remember.
I found out later when I got home that the road was called the “Road of Death.”
Johnny: I can only imagine. I mean, any place with a name like the Road of Death is definitely a nerve-rattler.
Gail: Yeah. If you ever get a chance, look it up on the internet, and you’ll see it. It’s really something. The drop-offs are hundreds of feet around the whole thing. It’s crazy.
Johnny: Ooh. Well, going from the serious to the more fantastical, you were a hairstylist on 2016’s Grease Live!, so what did you do differently from the hairstylists who worked on the 1978 film version?
Gail: Well, I think we copied them. We tried to make it look as much like that as we could with the actors and actresses that we were using. I think a lot of the people who did it back then, like John Travolta, had tons of hair, so it was easy to do the 50s jellyrolls and other things on them. We had to be a little more inventive.
Because it was being shot live, we had microphones under the wigs which we had to change. By the time we rehearsed it, it was like a concerto. Everybody had a place. When we made the changes, we’d take the wigs off, the sound guys would come take the mics, while the actors were putting wardrobe on, and then we’d do it the other way. They’d put the mics on, and we’d put the wigs on.
It’s amazing to do one of those live shows, it’s such a high when you’ve done it, and no one’s made a mistake, and it all worked, and now it’s over. I love live television because that’s where I started. I do Dancing With The Stars now, which is also live, so it’s a great feeling to know that you did something without any time to do it, and it worked, and nothing fell off or anything (laughing).
Johnny: Since you did mention Dancing With The Stars, it’s been on for many seasons, so of the seasons you’ve worked on, which have been your favorites in terms of the work you’ve done and the talents you’ve worked with?
Gail: I worked with Sharna Burgess. I did her for nine years. I’ve also done Lindsay Arnold and Peta Murgatroyd. I like doing the dancers because you can have more fun with what you create with their hair.
Johnny: That does go into my next question. We’re pretty much to the point where we’re living with it now instead of being impacted by it, but how did COVID impact your work?
Gail: Oh boy, it impacted our work. The first covid season that we did Dancing With The Stars was in September which was pretty early into the lock down. We had all these machines around us that blew purified air on us. We had masks on, and then we had these plastic visors that went over your eyes and face. We were tested every day, and we did it. We had to box every piece of our equipment separately, so you could only imagine how difficult it was dealing with hairpin and bobby pins. They didn’t want us to put those together.
Johnny: I’m glad that we’ve come out the other end, and while it will always be with us, at least we’re able to handle it better now.
Gail: I have to say that the company took really good care of their workers. I was not afraid because they were so thorough, and still are. Last year, they tested us two days a week when we did that show. We only worked one day, but they tested us two days a week, once on either side of it, to make sure we were okay. We still have masks, but we didn’t have to use the visor anymore.
Johnny: Yeah. I myself still wear a mask when I go to my retail job, or when I’m out running errands, but that’s a personal choice on my end, and I’m proud to say I haven’t gotten COVID yet.
Gail: Yeah. Me, too. I’ve been very lucky, and I still wear mine, so I get you.
Johnny: Yeah. To go to a bigger picture question, what advice would you give to someone looking to enter the field of hairstyling?
Gail: I think I would take as many classes as you could find from many different hairdressers. I’d read as many books as you can on period work. It’s a lost art, so if you really become good at it, you will have a really good career.
Johnny: Alright, and now I come to my final question: What’s next for you?
Gail: I’ll be going back on Dancing With The Stars in September. I have been teaching classes and will continue to share the techniques and tricks, that I learned from the hairstylist, when I first started.
For instance, how to do period work is becoming a lost art. There are simple things, like how the temperature of a curling iron and how you handle the hair can make a difference in the texture, which gives it a period look.
I have recently, started doing period background on projects, and in the process, I started re-using some of the artistry I learned. While on those projects, I’d have hairdressers come up to me and ask, “How did you do that?”, and I would show them. I take the opportunity to teach them, and it made me so happy to hear that “A-Ha!” when they get it. And then to watch them do it and it actually works, it’s very rewarding. So, I’d like to do more of that.
It’s really quiet right now, but hopefully in the summer or fall, it will get busy, and I can go back. I still want to leave a little bit more on the table before I go.
Johnny: Well, I know you’ll do an amazing job with it, just like you always have. That does it for my questions. I again thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to speak to me.
Gail: I hope I didn’t jump around too much. I hope it was a good interview for you.
Johnny: Oh, it was a very good interview, and I loved hearing your stories. That’s really all I have at the moment, but I will be in touch with you again soon, and I hope you have a good afternoon.
Gail: Okay. Thank you so much, Johnny. My pleasure.
Johnny: Send my best to Ve Neill. I thank her for connecting us.
Gail: Oh, absolutely. She’s wonderful. She’s one of the good ones.
Johnny: Yep. Well, until then, be well.
Gail: Okay, thank you. Same to you.
I would again like to thank Gail Ryan for taking the time out of her schedule to speak to me, and I extend a tremendous thank you to Ve Neill for helping to connect us. A tremendous thank you as well to Richard Donatone for his assistance to Gail in gathering the pictures you see in this interview.
Coming soon to the Flashback Interview are conversations with Oscar-winning makeup artist Kevin Haney, Oscar-winning hairstylist Anne Morgan, and actress/singer Tricia Leigh Fisher. Thank you as always for your readership and for your support.
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