My wife loved Wendie Jo Sperber because of the TV show Bosom Buddies (1980-1982), the comedy starring Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari as suddenly apartment-less guys who dress up like women in order to stay in the exclusively female Susan B. Anthony apartment building. “She was sharp as a tack, always funny but real,” she says of Sperber, “and she had an excellent rapport with Hanks and Scolari. She was the only other person in the cast, other than the leads, who seemed to understand how the show could go beyond simple sitcom conventions. She brought a improvisational absurdity to the show’s humor, and she was a very physically brave comedienne, willing to throw herself with abandon into any situation.”
That last sentence reflects my appreciation for Sperber as well, but I never saw Bosom Buddies; I always loved her from the comedies she did for Robert Zemeckis in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. She had relatively little to do in the Back to the Future films as Michael J. Fox’s obnoxious sister, and even her brief appearance in Used Cars, as a driving student corralled into piloting one of a gigantic convoy of vehicles across the desert to come to the legal rescue of used-car salesman and would-be politician Kurt Russell, seemed more like a favor from Zemeckis to the criminally underused actress. But she really got a chance to shine as one of the Beatles-obsessed teens who strike out on a road trip to catch the Fab Four’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in Zemeckis’ directorial debut I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) and in Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (1979) (cowritten by Zemeckis with Bob Gale), in which she played a sexually aggressive USO girl who sets her sights on Treat Williams' psychotic army sergeant. (She was even too much for Belushi's Wild Bill Kelso!) Both roles feature the actress’s physical bravery, her sharp timing and her immensely likable and brash personality. My wife also brings up, in regard to Bosom Buddies, that Sperber’s weight was never the focus of mean-spirited jokes on the show—she simply was who she was—and I don’t recall anyone ever making an issue of it in Zemeckis’ films either. No one had to—she was a tornado, and she called enough attention to other things, like how funny she was, that the fact that she didn’t have the typical Hollywood starlet’s chassis was of absolutely no consequence to her, or anyone else, when she was on the screen.
Wendie Jo Sperber passed away on November 29 after an eight-year battle with breast cancer at the age of 46. In addition to her work in movies, she did numerous TV shows and appeared on stage in Wendy Wasserstein's Isn't It Romantic, starred opposite Ron Silver in As You Like It, and she received numerous Drama Critic awards as well. Sperber was diagnosed with cancer in 1997, and founded weSPARK Cancer Support Center in Sherman Oaks, California in 2001 to provide free services including support groups, information on the latest research and classes, and much more, to many cancer patients, whom she called “warriors,” their families and friends.