When I was a kid, I was the only girl I knew named Lara. Growing up in the ’80’s, there were not as many creative, unique names as there are today. I knew plenty of Katies, lots of Nicoles, and tons of Jennifers, but I had never encountered anyone else with my less common name. Then one day, while watching the opening credits of the popular family sitcom, Gimme A Break!, I saw the name of one of the stars flash across the screen: Lara Jill Miller. There was my name, shared with a real TV star, and I instantly felt my coolness factor go up a few points.
“Lara?” kids would say to me with a puzzled look. “That’s a different name, I’ve never heard it before.”
“Lara Jill Miller has my name too,” I started replying confidently. “She’s on TV!”
Like many people my age, I enjoyed watching Lara Jill Miller play “Samantha Kanisky” opposite Nell Carter for six seasons on Gimme A Break! The successful show and its cast members earned several Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, including multiple Young Artist Awards nominations for Miller.
As a fan of Lara Jill Miller growing up, it has been such fun to now see my own kids admiring her work today — through a different form of talent. Miller has become one of the animation world’s best-known voiceover artists. Her cheerful voice is heard in millions of homes with young children, breathing life into some of today’s most popular cartoon characters. Miller’s impressive resume includes roles as “Clifford” in Clifford’s Puppy Days, “Allie” in Curious George, “Henry” in Henry Hugglemonster, and everybody’s favorite boo-boo cuddler “Lambie” in Doc McStuffins. Miller has also recently joined the cast of Nickelodeon’s new cartoon The Loud House as “Lisa Loud.”
But this exemplary child star has had quite an interesting journey between her early career on stage and television and her current career in voiceovers. The Pennsylvania native left Hollywood after Gimme A Break! and returned East to attend college. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude from NYU, she went on to Fordham Law School (that’s right, Moms and Dads, Lambie is a lawyer!) Miller’s top-tier education and versatile talents have made her into a truly well-rounded artist.
I was so intrigued by Miller’s interesting story that I recently reached out to her, “from one Lara to another.” And let me tell you, this Lara could not have been more pleased to learn that the star I looked up to in my childhood is still worthy of admiration. Miller graciously agreed to share her fascinating experiences with me for What Lara Wrote, and in the process I got to know a lovely fellow Northeast girl who not only shares my name but also my love for children and kids’ entertainment. She is smart, witty, down-to-earth, and a real family person. She honestly has to be the sweetest person in Hollywood, with a refreshing humbleness and gentle nature that makes parents like me breathe a sigh of relief that our kids are in good hands with Lambie and Henry. And playing cartoon characters must defy the aging process, because she looks exactly the same as she did thirty years ago!
I’m certain you’ll enjoy Lara’s colorful responses to my interview questions, shared here in her own words. They are sure to bring a smile to your face, as getting to know her has brought to mine.
I understand your acting career started as a child on Broadway with Dick Van Dyke. That must’ve been so cool! How did a kid from PA get started in the entertainment business?
Actually, my career even started before Broadway. I started doing shows at a local dinner theatre in my home town in Pennsylvania. As the story goes, I had spotted what I thought was a picture of a carousel in the local newspaper (it was really a new theatre-in-the-round being built) and apparently I asked my parents, “What’s an ‘audition’?” Well…
I went. Got the part of ‘Gretl’ in the “The Sound of Music,” and then proceeded to do almost every show they produced there after that. I played ‘Baby Louise’ in “Gypsy,” ‘Nellie’ in “Annie Get Your Gun,” ‘Oliver’ in “Oliver” (got my hair cut short like a boy and was apparently so convincing they wouldn’t let me in the ladies’ room! — hot topic now, huh?), ’Shprintze’ in “Fiddler on the Roof,” ‘Amaryllis’ in “The Music Man,” and so on.
My whole family got involved. My dad supplied lots of costumes and props/materials from his pajama factory and even ended up in a few shows! My sisters too. And my mom took notes for the director. We had lots of cast parties at our house and at one, someone (Hi Kathy! and thank youuuuuu!) mentioned she’d read that they were having an open call in NYC for a new Broadway show – one that needed kids. And she thought I should go and tell everyone “what a real Broadway audition was like.”
So we went. Of course, so did about 800 other kids. First they had us sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in groups of 10, dismissed some and had us do it again in groups of 5. After hours and hours of this narrowing down process, it was down to just a handful of us. They ended up keeping 2 or 3 blonde kids (asking the rest if we’d be willing to dye our hair if replacements were needed; sure, why not?) for what would ultimately turn out to be Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit show, “Evita.”
On the way out I heard familiar music through a nearby door, stuck my head in and asked what was going on. “We’re auditioning for The Music Man,” they said. My response: “Oh goodie! Can I audition for THIS? I know THAT show!”
A short man came back to the door (who I’d later come to know as legendary director Michael Kidd) and asked: “Do you sing?” “Yep.” “Do you dance?” “Yep.” “Do you play the piano?” “Yep.” “Do you have a picture and resume?” “Nope.” “Do you have an agent?” “Nope.” “Do you have a manager?” “Nope.”
He asked for my phone number, which of course, wasn’t a great idea to give to a stranger so said my mom.
By the time we got home there was a garbled message on the answering machine, which sounded like a request to “come in the tomorrow to meet Mr. Mphrblrblemke.” Like I said, garbled.
We made the trip back to New York City the next day, and it turned out that unintelligible name was none other than…Dick. Van. Dyke! OMG! The guy from Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang! They had me do the songs from the show. Play the piano song from the show. Read (no, DID) the lines from the show… because remember, I had just finished doing it in Pennsylvania! I sang. I tap danced. Everything they asked.
Back at school the following day, I was called into the principal’s office for a phone call. When I picked up, it was my dad’s voice: “So, wanna go on the road, kid?” After I hung up, the principal’s secretary told me that in the future, I wasn’t allowed to get personal calls in the office. I responded (yeah, I really said this), “That’s ok, I’m never coming back!”
And guess what? I didn’t.
8 months touring the US with “The Music Man”, followed by a stint on Broadway. Through that I got an agent, and after a few auditions, a general meeting with a casting director – then a callback. Then a screen test in NY, after which they flew me to Los Angeles for another screen test and a network deal signing, and bam! I landed Gimme A Break!
Kind of a being at the right place at the right time thing!
Wow! You had some impressive stage experience before your start in television! But to so many of my readers you’re probably best known as Samantha Kanisky on Gimme A Break! Was starring in that show as fun as it seemed? What were some of your coolest memories or fun facts we may not know about the show and cast?
Yes! It truly was. First of all, I remember almost everything about the show. The set. The studio. Where I ate lunch (Denny’s.) It’s so imbedded in my brain, it feels like yesterday! I loved Nell Carter, she took me under her wing the moment I met her. She was my most frequent Denny’s partner!
I loved everything about doing the show. We rehearsed in rehearsal halls next to The Facts of Life and Diff’rent Strokes. We taped on the same sound stages as Three’s A Crowd and People’s Court. (I used to see the people come off the stage crying after Judge Wapner yelled at them…)
I was tutored on the set. A lot of people ask what it was like: missing school, dances, prom, football games. Well, I traded that for things like the Emmys! Some of my favorite memories are the silly little things: I used to count how many hookers I’d see on my way to the set on Sunset Blvd. I used to love when the touring companies of other Broadway shows stayed at my hotel and we’d play together at the pool. I loved all the vegetarian meals I ate with the Phoenix family (Yes, those Phoenixes and yes, that’s why I’m still a vegetarian today.) I adored going to play Ms. PacMan at Denny’s with Nell!
Not such fun memories: My on-set hair dresser burning my hair with a curling iron, until my head was smoking! Breaking my
finger, rib, and toe doing beach gymnastics with all my “Circus of the Stars” friends (one of the BEST things!), and having to still tape the show while pretending nothing hurt.
Sounds like you have a lot of fond memories of growing up in the business. You’re so grounded, and you’ve had a long, successful career in an industry that often changes people. I really respect how down-to-earth you are. How did you manage not to head down the dangerous road of so many child stars?
First of all, thank you. Life on the set was MY normal. And I have to say, I was REALLY normal. Boring even. I never did drugs, drank, or smoked. Nothing. I sure knew where to find it all. But when people think it’s “Hollywood” that does in child stars, I don’t agree. If I was going to get into trouble I knew darn well how and where to do it and whom to do it with. I of course can credit my parents and older sisters for raising me right, but there does come a time in your life where you make your own decisions and determine right from wrong, based on your principles. But also, I really do think it’s having a good, grounded family. I mean, I was not the breadwinner for the family – as some child actors are forced to be. Sure there were pressures of learning lines and being on time for work, but heck, I LOVED it. It was like one big great hobby that I just HAPPENED to get paid to do!! I traveled home a lot during the show’s hiatus. And I didn’t take it all for granted. Because boy, did I hear a lot from my dad: “It’s like winning the lottery kid! It only happens once.”
After Gimme A Break! wrapped, you returned back East and attended NYU. Was that a tough transition to go from TV star to college kid?
A little, actually. First, I deferred for 2 years because I was still doing the show – so I was a little older than the other freshmen. Also, I had applied to only NYU because it’s where my friend Jamie Gertz applied, and it was kind of the only one I knew about. And if another series came along, I figured I might not ever go! But there I was.
I only kinda/sorta fit in. Okay, NOT. I didn’t smoke or drink or party. I went home to Pennsylvania every weekend instead of going to bars. I went to bed early and woke up early and played tennis with some old neighborhood folk on the top of the gym at NYU. But I made friends, some who I still see today and who visit me in CA – now with their KIDS!
So after NYU you went on to Fordham Law School and became an attorney licensed in NY, NJ, and PA. What made you choose law and what was your time in the legal field like?
Honestly, I went to law school primarily because I didn’t know what else to do. I felt sort of scared or immature to venture back out to L.A. just to audition, and perhaps end up being an out-of-work actor. I liked a good challenge – and law school seemed to be a worthy goal.
When I finished law school I thought, ok, no more show biz, I’ll move home to PA (and the NJ Bar was the only one that you could take along with PA.) I passed and went back to my NYC apartment and said to myself: “Myself, what are you DOING? You want to live in New York! Right?” So I took the NY Bar the next summer and after passing, stayed in the city. I worked part-time at night at a huge corporate law firm – their most over-qualified legal assistant in charge of closings (and cookies.) The night staff was filled with dancers, actors and writers, which only fueled the latent showbiz bug still inside me. So during this time I continued to audition, do commercial voiceovers – and even did a few out-of-town summer stock productions.
How did you end up back in Hollywood?
One cold snowy winter day a friend said I should come back out for pilot season. Don’t say it twice! She did.
“I really think when I’m old I’m going to have to wear a Medic Alert bracelet that says, “I WAS LAMBIE, DARN IT! I NEED A CUDDLE!”
You soon started enjoying a lot of roles voicing animated characters. Was becoming a voiceover artist something that always interested you or how did it happen?
Nope. I had never even known about it really. I had done TV commercial and radio voice over spots in NY, but never even thought of it as a career in and of itself. I came out for on-camera work, and out of one random meeting ended up landing my first voiceover gig! My shoebox full of commercials on cassette tapes were cut & pasted into a reel, which landed me an agent. And the rest, as they say, is history!
You’ve used your talent to bring characters to life on some very successful cartoons! What has the success of playing Henry Hugglemonster and Lambie been like for you?
Henry was nominated for best pre-school show and Doc nominated 3 times for best writing, but alas, no wins. Doc did win a Peabody though and I have my statue proudly displayed!!! (And while we’re on the topic, Curious George won an Emmy the year I played “Allie,” and SciGirls has won 2 Emmys! I’m “Izzie” on that.) Anyway, I have been so honored and humbled and blessed and…gosh, I run out of words to describe just how happy and grateful I am to be on these shows! Doc is changing the world, I think. Not kidding. I really think when I’m old I’m going to have to wear a Medic Alert bracelet that says, “I WAS LAMBIE, DARN IT! I NEED A CUDDLE!”
As a mom and a social worker, I’m always impressed by the way Lambie and her friends on Doc McStuffins teach about important things in life on an age-appropriate level… from managing emotions to families adopting babies. How have you noticed the positive impact of the show’s message?
It seems the whole world has noticed! And all that credit goes to Chris Nee (Hi, Chris!) the creator of the show. But truly I hear it all the time from parents and kids: being brave, eating properly, learning about patience (and patients!) And I’ve heard it from doctors and nurses, too! To think a cartoon can have that much impact! Have you heard of The Artemis Society? They started calling themselves ‘We Are Doc McStuffins’ – a group comprised of hundreds of black women doctors… a movement, I think, has truly been started. I’ve even heard little boys that are now saying, “Mommy, can a boy be a doctor, too??”
That’s amazing! You’re part of history with these shows. So tell me about the process to record an episode of a cartoon. What’s a typical day in the studio like for a voiceover artist?
Well, for original animation shows like the ones above (different than anime, where we loop the voices in a show that’s already been created) there’s usually a 4 hour session to record an 11 minute episode (although occasionally, like when I did “The Life and Times of Juniper Lee” – it’s a 22 minute show.) Most of the time the cast is there, but some shows we all record separately. In fact, for Doc, believe it or not, we’re never in the booth together. We stand (or sit) there in front of the mic with the earphones on (when singing), and make funny faces, gestures, act silly and do what we all LOVE to do and perform our hearts out!
You voice several different characters from different cartoons. Do you ever mix up their voices or their trademark expressions?!
No, actually. They’re all really different and I even have different sorts of motions and body language for them all. The closest I get to mixing them up is when I wear my Nickelodeon shirt to a Disney record or my SciGirls shirt to Curious George!
When you voice a character for a show, do you also have to record its voice for other formats, like toys, apps or Disney World stage shows?
Yep. That’s me on all the cuddly toys for Lambie. We do those at different sessions at different studios. Although there have been a few toys where they just pull the line(s) from an episode and use them on the toys. And yes! That’s me on the Disney Junior – Live on Stage show!
I’ve told you how much Lambie’s voice makes my son Jack smile! You make millions of kids so happy with your characters…What have been some of your best experiences doing such popular children’s work?
Really it’s that I get to do what I love and get paid to do it! I mean, it’s such a joy to get to do this thing that I think I was born to do! And I adore the shows with songs, because singing is really a great love of mine. What an honor to make people smile and sing and be happy. And warm their hearts. And make a difference in this world. Even if I am just a cartoon.
You’ve had so many great accomplishments. Is there anything in particular of which you’re most proud?
Here’s the corny answer – staying so happy and close to my family. Throughout the years, I know you’ve heard a lot about child stars, and their trials and tribulations. I sort of feel like I lived in utopia and I feel very lucky for that. I am most proud of just being able to change course, and pursue my dream, again! And succeed. I love what I do. And I hope I can continue to be proud of all the projects to come!
So, to you – the other Lara – thank you for taking the time for this interview; I’m honored. To the people reading this, thanks for taking the time to read my silly, stream of consciousness way of writing. I write like I talk. Which, is why it’s a good thing I’m not a writer and I get to read other people’s scripts! I hope I’ve brought a smile to your faces. Keep watching the shows! And give Lambie cuddles and Henry hugs to all your kids and loved ones. xo
Photos courtesy of Lara Jill Miller.