The Midas Touch
For the multitalented Upper Darby native Tina Fey, everything she touches turns to gold
by Debra Wallace

Tina Fey has fond memories of her time in the Upper Darby Summer Stage, a Delaware County youth theater program where the acting bug bit her for the first time. She started as the night box-office manager and then sewed costumes, all while building her passion for performing—comedy, in particular.

While Fey is now known chiefly as an on-camera entertainer, her earliest behind-the-scenes jobs were more humble—and, at times, humbling. Whether it was making cheesesteaks at a suburban Philadelphia swim club or working long shifts at the YWCA after she moved to Chicago to start her improv career with the Second City comedy troupe, she never shied away from hard work.

Her nose-to-the-grindstone persistence has paid rather handsome dividends in the years since, as practically everything Fey has touched has turned to gold. Her trophy case includes eight Emmy awards, two Golden Globe awards and a clutch of hardware from the Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild of America. In 2008, she received the Associated Press Entertainer of the Year Award for her satirical portrayal of then-Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Two years later, she won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, becoming the youngest-ever recipient of the award. Her 2011 autobiography, “Bossypants,” became a New York Times bestseller.

Following in the footsteps of trailblazing female comedians Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, Fey, just 45, has already left an indelible mark on entertainment history. Over the years, the Upper Darby native has become a formidable force, a pioneer with big aspirations whose C.V. includes designations such as screenwriter, author, actor and producer. She has also earned a reputation for being a breaker of barriers, a creator of a remarkable body of work and a multitalented powerhouse who never forgot the meaning of the word hustle.

Despite all of the accolades, Fey is quite modest about her success. At times she seems downright bashful, especially behind her signature black rimmed glasses.

“I still don’t expect to be the person who says, ‘Let me consider my offers today,’” she says. “There are a lot of real movie stars in the world. I am still thrilled that anyone calls and asks me to do these roles.”

Besides her exceedingly busy career, Fey is a wife and mother. She met her husband, the composer and producer Jeff Richmond, while working at Second City. Together they have two daughters—Alice, 10, and Penelope, 4.

“Tina’s outward persona is so caustic, but she’s actually very shy and doesn’t like confrontation in real life,” says Richmond. “Our days off from work are simple and pleasant; we enjoy lounging at home and baking desserts.”

The juggling act between family and career, she confesses, requires considerable support and cooperation. “I try to take care of my children first, before anything else that I do, but I have a lot of help with that,” she says. “You take as much help as you can get and go to sleep whenever anyone is not looking.”

The sometimes-chaotic world in which she lives overflows with deadlines and obligations; in other words, it’s anything but perfect. Picture this scene from a few years ago: Fey is hiding in her laundry room, scrambling to finish a chapter for her upcoming autobiography. She just needs an extra hour or two, free from distractions, before heading back to work on her hit NBC television series. While it might sound like the opening for a TV sitcom, it is a true story plucked from the pages of Fey’s real life.

“With my book ‘Bossypants,’ I ended up doing a lot of writing on the set of ‘30 Rock,’ like 30 minutes at a time when they would turn the camera off,” she recalls. “Sometimes [at home] … I’d say to my husband, ‘Just take the kids for an hour and a half,’ and I would hide from all of them.”

Pals and Collaborators
Her success at Second City helped Fey earn a job with NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” in New York City, where she became head writer and created some of the show’s most memorable female characters. After “SNL,” Fey moved on to create an NBC hit of her very own, “30 Rock,” an offbeat sitcom about the backstage antics of a nighttime variety show, based loosely on Fey’s experiences at “SNL.” In “30 Rock,” Fey gave life to the show’s central character, an often beleaguered producer named Liz Lemon. Working alongside established talents such as Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski helped Fey hone her already sharp wit.

“The secret to creating great comedy is, when you are writing, to surround yourself with other people and write together,” she says. “That always helps. You must also trust your own instincts about what is funny.”

Fey’s big-screen experiences have been just as memorable as her work on the small screen, starting with “Mean Girls,” which she starred in and also wrote the screenplay for. Her other films have included “Date Night” with Steve Carell, “Admission” with Paul Rudd and “This is Where I Leave You” with Jane Fonda, as well as “Muppets Most Wanted,” co-starring Kermit and friends.

Close friend and “SNL” alumna Amy Poehler has been a key collaborator throughout Fey’s post-“SNL” career. Together they have made three films—“Mean Girls,” “Baby Mama” and, most recently, “Sisters”—and have co-hosted the Golden Globe Awards three times. Although neither of them has a sister by blood, their friendship suggests a sisterly bond. Poehler agrees: “Tina and I are chosen sisters; I think we are a chosen family.”

Quirkier, Edgier

So, what does Fey look for in a film role these days? Intelligence, truth and compassion, for starters—and a little quirkiness goes a long way.

“I am always enthused when I see a part where characters speak intelligently like adults, without robots and exploding cars and things like that,” she says. “I enjoy all kinds of jokes myself, but I think that it’s a nice change to have something with a real story at the center of it, a very human story that has a warm heart to it.”

Fey is now exploring her edgier side in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” a new dark comedy about a TV war correspondent who quite literally skirts gunfire while on assignment in Afghanistan and Pakistan. From Paramount Pictures, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”—military code for the term WTF—is based on a memoir by journalist Kim Barker, “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Fey’s co-stars include Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina and Billy Bob Thornton. Fey’s longtime writing partner, Robert Carlock, penned the screenplay.

Robbie (“The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Focus”) plays opposite Fey as another female TV journalist in the warzone. “It was fun creating a genuine friendship between Tina’s character and mine, whatever the dynamic is,” says Robbie. “To do that for the first time with Tina, I felt very lucky.”

Fey’s performance in the film has drawn high praise from her co-stars and directors alike. “Whiskey” co-director Glenn Ficarra describes Fey as “the funniest person I’ve ever met,” adding, “this movie also allows her to take her skills to a whole new level.”

Fey has a new quirky sitcom on Netflix, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” which debuted in March 2015 and starts streaming its second season on April 15. The off-the-wall show, which has great comic chops, follows the adorable lead character, a 29-year-old Kimmy (Ellie Kempner of “Bridesmaids” and “The Office” fame), as she adjusts to life in Manhattan after her rescue from a doomsday cult in Indiana, where she lived in an underground bunker for 15 years. Co-created by Fey and Carlock, the show also stars “30 Rock” alumna Krakowski as Kimmy’s upscale boss.

So what quality, if any, does Fey see in herself that mirrors Kimmy’s irrepressible spirit? “I think the survivor instinct and the optimism that she has. I always believe, ‘It’s going to be fine. We can do this.’ I identify with that strongly.”

If Fey’s stellar track record is any indication, her Midas touch isn’t likely to vanish anytime soon.

Photograph courtesy of Paramount Pictures