How do we love Suzanne Pleshette? Let us count the ways. She's best known as Bob Newhart's TV wife, but she's also beloved for her memorably campy turn as Leona Helmsley in The Queen of Mean. She even added pizzazz to the awful Good Morning, Miami as the glammy grandmother. In the just-released special-edition DVD of The Lion King II: Simba's Pride, Pleshette pounces on one of her meatiest comedic roles yet. She plays the purrfectly wicked Zira — think Cruella DeVil in lioness form. Here, she tells TV Guide Online about her wicked ways, her love of singing and her possible future on Will & Grace.
TVGO: How was it playing the big, bad villain in Lion King II?
[Laughs] Well, you know, I can't imagine why they thought of me for that, the sweet little thing that I am. I loved it! Are you kidding? It is great to play those kind of parts. [Zira] is kind of like the lion version of Leona Helmsley. I'm just the worst woman in the world. I am every child's nightmare mother.
TVGO: I thought you were scarier than Scar, the villain from the first Lion King.
I did, too. I was meaner than Scar. The funniest thing is that we had a preview screening where there was this beautiful little girl who was about 5 — a little angel with these red curls. She looked at me and she said, "You are my favorite." I said, "But I'm the bad lady!" And she said, "I know," with a big smile on her face. I turned to her father and said, "Start saving for therapy now."
TVGO: You sing in this movie. That's quite a hidden talent!
I love it. I got to sing with this huge orchestra. I do this lullaby that starts out sounding like it is going to be the sweetest lullaby in the world, and then turns [disturbing].
TVGO: What's the attraction to voice acting?
Well, first of all, it gives you the opportunity to do it full-out because you have to tell the story with your voice. And then, it is always thrilling to see the brilliance of the animators when they incorporate your own characteristics in the drawing. Suddenly, there I am as a lion. [The animators] were so cute because I said, "Normally, I get to keep the wardrobe." So they did a drawing for me — they gave Zira a French manicure and a satin bra and said, "We now call you Brazira." They made her look just like me. It was so cute.
TVGO: How long did you work on this?
I think this took two years. I did the voice, and then it went to be animated, and then it came back, and then [we] rerecord if something else is needed. After that, I did Spirited Away, which was a Japanese animated film. In that one I played twin witches, so that was really hard. But I love being over there [at Disney]. It is a second home for me.
TVGO: What else is on your plate?
Right now, I'm supporting my darling husband, who is doing a series for NBC. Tom [Poston] is doing [the midseason sitcom] Crazy for You, so when he works, I don't. I think he needs a wife then and the doggies need to have somebody home. My boy dog looks just like Simba. When they called me to do this, I had not seen The Lion King. So I sat with my puppy who looked just like Simba and we watched the movie, paw in hand, and cried through the whole movie.
TVGO: You and Tom were on Newhart together. What's life like with two pro comics living together?
[Laughs] It's funny, I'll tell you that. It is never dull.
TVGO: Any chance you'll return as Karen's mom on Will & Grace?
Yes! Whenever they ask, I do that. Originally, I was going to do the [finale] last season, but they had to completely rewrite it because Debra Messing couldn't be in the last segment, so I didn't get the chance to do it. I love doing that show. Although, now I'm a blond. I don't know what I'm going to do if I have to come back. But it is perfect that Karen's mother would have a different hair color every time she came on.
TVGO: Is the blond 'do for a part or just for fun?
I felt like it. Inside every brunet is a blond screaming to get out at least once.