The Unsinkable Dolly Parton

She's a working girl going from nine to five but she's doing a lot more than staying alive... she's a movie star

Dolly Parton on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Richard Avedon
Dolly Parton on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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There are few vistas more majestic than Central Park in autumn from the twenty-sixth floor of a Fifth Avenue apartment. Late-afternoon sunlight softly gilds ocher trees, and stray sunbeams shoot through the canyons between elegant apartment buildings on the far side of the park. My attention drifts to another majestic sight: Dolly Parton silhouetted against the windows of her apartment. Part of her beauty is external – the extraordinary body, alabaster skin and delicate features – but much of it comes from within. She turns, and with a dazzling smile and a little girl's voice asks what she can get me, then pads barefoot past her Claes Oldenburg painting to pour me a drink.

About four years ago, Dolly Parton was a country singer churning out one-nighters on the C & W circuit. Back then, Fifth Avenue was a movie fantasy to her and Oldenburg just a foreign word. In a few short years, she has turned her career around. Now she is hotly pursued by TV; she has a multimillion-dollar contract to play Las Vegas; and she commanded more than a million to be teamed with Burt Reynolds in her second movie, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, before her first one, Nine to Five, had even been released. If ever somebody figured out the American dream and made it work, it's Dolly Parton.

One of the lesser noticed of twelve children in a poor Tennessee family, Dolly began planning her escape to the world of money and glamour as soon as she heard about it. The minute she was out of high school, she was on a Greyhound bus to Nashville to try to be a country star. But girl singers – that's what they called them then – in country music were rare and generally regarded as so much flesh. Parton used her iron will, her incredibly seductive and powerful voice, her ability to write songs and her self-confidence and ambition to knock down the brick walls that stood between her and her goals. She also played up her beauty and her hourglass figure. She started to make secret lists of the fairy-tale futures she sought. She is a fiercely positive thinker, and her private lists worked like voodoo. Nashville never knew what hit it. She became a country star.

Still, Nashville wasn't enough, so she plotted her superstar map and left Nashville for Los Angeles and full blown pop management. Her husband, Carl Dean, a seldom-seen Nashville contractor, approved, and she set out to become superfamous. She deliberately made the kind of pop music she thought would gain her both a new audience and the power to do whatever she wanted. She thinks the strategy is working.

The test should come with her new album, Nine to Five. She wrote the title song for her first movie, in which she costars with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. "She was wonderful; she's so quick, so natural, dazzling, down-to-earth, bigger than life," Tomlin said of Parton. "She's just the quintessential . . .  whatever it is. She ended up giving me lines. You could have replaced Jane or me in a more satisfactory way, but once you got the idea for Dolly to be in her role, it would have been more of a disappointment to not have her."

It was, in part, Fonda's idea to make a movie about secretaries. Once she decided that it should be a comedy, she knew immediately that Dolly had to be in it. "I had never met her," said Fonda, "but I was really into her music. Anyone who can write 'Coat of Many Colors' and sing it the way she does has got the stuff to do anything. This was not a woman who was a stereotype of a dumb blond. I felt that she could probably do just about anything she wanted, that this was a very smart woman. We developed a character based on who she is and what she seems like. Did we coach her? No. Her persona is so strong, you get somebody mucking about with that and making her self-conscious, and it could be negative. Even though we're from different backgrounds and different classes, we're very alike in many ways. Dolly's not political, but her heart, her instincts – she's just on the side of the angels. Very often someone will wow you, but as you get to know them, the mystery wears off. One of the things that just flabbergasts me about Dolly is the amount of mystery she has. She's a very mysterious person."

Back in Manhattan at sunset, Dolly brings me a drink and sits back on her white cotton sofa in her skintight jeans and ready-to-bust, low-cut sweater. Even though she's only five feet tall – the heels and wig add almost a foot – she can take your breath away real quick. My first question is out before I can even think about it.

Are you ready to give it all up and run away with me now?
If you're ready – but let's wait and see how much money you make from your book!

You told me once you wanted to be a superstar.
Yeah, I did and I still do, and I think I'm on my way. It's not just a selfish thing; I've thought a lot about it, about exactly what makes me want to do it. I've always felt like everybody was born for a reason. Everybody has a purpose. Lots of people don't ever really find it, but I was luckier than a lot of people. I was born the fourth in a family of twelve, so I was kinda independent and really didn't have a lot of things pulling at me. I was always kinda free to think, and I had the opportunity to do more than I realized for a long, long time.

Anyhow, I worked in Nashville, where I did well and was known as one of the big country artists, but I still wasn't really selling any records.

Around 100,000 or something like that?
Yeah, I think Jolene, which I think was my biggest record at that time, sold like 200,000. So after takin' all that into consideration and knowing that I had the freedom to do what I wanted, that I had the talent to back it up – and I had more personality and guts than I had talent, I guess – I just tried to figure out what things were workable and usable and tried to combine them to make something special.

I'm certainly not your greatest writer, although I feel one of my strongest talents is songwriting. And as a singer, I'm just differen – I don't always hit true notes and all, but I'm a stylist. So I went all out and tried to find good management, which I did, and to record stuff that I don't particularly even like and am not even particularly proud of, other than the fact that it worked.

Well, to be frank, I didn't like your last few albums.
To be even franker, neither did I [laughs]! But, the thing is, it got me where I wanted to be. Now you will like, you will like the next one, because I finally got myself to a point where my personality was strong enough. And I got to the point where I could have a big deal in Vegas; I didn't want to work Vegas until I could go there as myself with good music, until I could have the power to draw people and also have enough power to say what kinda show I would do.

Movies were another thing I didn't want to do until I felt I was ready. Sometimes if you jump into something too quickly, you can screw up something that might have been good two years down the road.

Now, was this on one of your lists? You were telling me before about your lists . . .
I never really had a big desire to be in the movies, although I knew if my career went the way I wanted it to, Vegas and the movies and all that stuff would eventually come.

The main thing is, now I've got the freedom to do my music without havin' to worry about whether I'll make money or not, and because I don't have to worry about money, I will make more from it because it will be good. From here on out, I'll be involved in producing my own records. I wrote about half of the songs on the Nine to Five album. I wrote all of the songs for the one that will follow that. You know, people thought I had sold out: what's this piece of shit that Dolly's done now? Or what's this and that? I'm very aware of all that stuff. The reviews of the last four or five albums were not good, but I still knew that I was tryin' to accomplish the right thing.

Now I've got their attention; now I have to prove myself. Every day I feel like I'm just startin' my career. But yeah, it's on my list!

What is the price you have to pay to be a superstar?
Well, I'm not really sure, because I doubt that I'll even know it if I am. It's just that I'm tryin' to do everything I'm capable of doin' and have a perfect balance in my life – to be successful at my work, and at bein' a wife and a sister and a friend. I have to have all of those things in their proper place. I don't want to be a star if I have no life. I'm not willing to be like Elvis, who had no personal life. If I want to go out to a movie, I just go out to a movie. If I want to go out to supper, I go out to supper, because I happen to feel that I have no reason to be afraid of the people.

I've observed a whole lot since I've been in the business. I've seen a lot of people who panic at the thought of somebody runnin' after 'em on the street; instead of takin' it as a compliment, they take it as a threat.

If I can't sign autographs, I can always speak and be friendly and say, "I can't right now, I'm late for a plane." Because I do appreciate it. I don't believe we owe everything to the public. I think I have a right to my privacy, and I also feel that people have a right to the time I'm in public. That is their time; that is not my time.

So I provide for my own personal time a little differently than that: camping trips, traveling cross country in a station wagon, camping out with no wig and no makeup. I mean, there's always a way to do it if you want it bad enough.

I think one of the big mistakes celebrities make is that they think because they are so popular, it sets them apart and makes them like gods instead of just extremely lucky people. I really feel sorry for a whole lot of stars, and I hope and pray I never get that way. I don't really believe I will.

You won't go Hollywood?
I don't know what goin' Hollywood means; if it means goin' to shit, no. It's important to me that I accomplish things as a human being, as it should be to all people to accomplish all that they can without sacrificing other people. I didn't sacrifice the happiness of other people to get where I am. My husband likes the freedom as much as I do. He's got his own work to do, and he's glad when I'm gone a certain amount of time. We're not afraid that one of us is gonna run off with somebody else, because we couldn't find in nobody else what we found in each other.

Do you think you were ever in danger of losing your country base? That's something you should probably keep forever.
It's something I will keep forever. I don't jump to conclusions just because everybody else has – any time you make a move, it's gonna make somebody uncomfortable.

There were people in Nashville who hoped you would fail when you went to L.A.
But I would like to think that they cared enough to worry that I would get into trouble. That's what I prefer to believe. I never intended to lose my country audience. I knew that I had to get myself into a position to do what I thought I should be doin' for country music. I think I have now. For what few people I may have lost, I feel like I've gained thousands more.

Everybody can't like ya, and I know that. Everybody will not like ya, but I feel I have a lot of good fans, I have a lot of good friends. I think I'm as well liked as most any celebrity.

People take things as different signals, too. When you went back to Nashville to record, a lot of people said, "Well, look, she's learned her lesson."
They can interpret it in different ways, and they have the right to do that. But see, my interpretation was that this was the first time I had everything in order the way I wanted it to be. Anybody with any sense would know that I didn't have to go home to record. The sound I was lookin' for was a sound that lives in Nashville.

Was Nine to Five the first movie you were offered? Were you seeking scripts, or were they seeking you?
They were seeking me, which made me feel even prouder. This was not the first movie I was offered; it was the first one I accepted. If one I were to do on my own flopped, it would have been Dolly Parton's flop. That was why I was so picky – I hadn't found a script I thought was good enough. I was amazed at how little talent there is among the writers of Hollywood. But Nine to Five fascinated me, and I knew instantly that I should do it – I knew that it was a career move. And it fell together really well – just according to my lists.

I heard that Jane specifically wanted you for it.
She wanted me, and she wanted Lily. She said she was drivin' down the freeway, and a song of mine came on the radio, and she knew my personality, and she'd been a fan of my songwriting for a long time. She said she almost wrecked because it just hit her right in the face, to think what a great combination.

So it just seemed like the right thing to do. A lot of people were sayin', "Boy, I would l-o-o-o-v-e to see that. There ain't no way them three bitches are gonna get along! Can you imagine three women like that?!" And you know, we had the greatest time.

I heard that you memorized the entire script.
I did! [Laughs] It was so funny, 'cause I didn't know exactly what the movies were all about; I just knew that I would do it as good as anybody else. I just assumed they would start in the front and follow the story to keep up the excitement, so I memorized the whole script: my part, Lily's part, Jane's part, every part. But it really worked out great. I got a kick later when I saw how few lines they do a day and how they shoot out of sequence.

And of course, we got a lot of laughs out of it because – you know me and my tacos and all that I was terrible; I could go in the door skinny and come out fat, all in the same day [laughs]!

And it's funny how everybody gets into character. I've never had an acting lesson in my life. A lot of people probably say I should have, but I didn't feel that what I played was phony.

I was lucky in the respect that they had written it according to my personality; I carry a gun, and she carries a gun in the picture. She was really just me as a secretary, so I played it like that. I was playin' her everyday role, knowin' the kind of stuff the girls at the office go through – anytime you work in a big business there's so many demands.

Is this a message movie?
Not really. It's about women, but there's women and men in the office. I'm the executive secretary to the boss, and he's a real turd. He got where he was because Violet [Lily], who had been with the company for twelve years, had trained him, and she had never gotten a promotion because they felt that position should not be held by a woman, that men prefer to deal with men. So actually, a lot of people thought it was just going to be women's lib; I wouldn't have been involved if I'd thought it was gonna be a sermon of some sort. Not that I'm not for rights for everybody, I'm just sayin' I didn't want to get involved in a political thing. It's just a funny, funny show. I think it's very obvious what it's sayin'. It's mostly about this boss and these three women – not bosses in general or the plight of secretaries.

The boss is one of those lyin' kinds of people. He's always tryin' to make out with me and is tellin' everybody that he is, but behind the door – no, no! In fact he makes me sick. At the start the girls don't like me at all. I have to eat by myself in the lunchroom. Then at one point we all become friends, when I'm standing in the office, and Lily says something to him like: "Well, why don't you ask her if she's the one that this-and-this," sounding like I'm sleepin' with him or something. I grab her and say, "You hold on! Just a minute. What's this shit mean?"

He tries to push her out. Then she says, "Everybody knows you're sleepin' with him!" And then I just fly into him. That's my best scene, because I get so mad, and he just keeps on saying "naw, naw . . . ," then I march him around. And there's another time when I throw him on a chair and hogtie him and get my gun. It's really funny.

People weren't sure that you and Jane would mesh.
Yeah, but you see, we knew right up front that if I did the film, that didn't obligate me to make political statements, it didn't obligate me to do benefit shows for different people's causes. If I was goin' into it, it was because somebody thought I was good enough or had something to offer.

I happen to see a side of Jane that I guess most people don't. She is very intelligent but she is also very shy. She is just like a little girl. I tell you, I just fell in love with that side of her. We don't discuss what I believe and what she believes. But our friendship is strong enough now that if we ever did discuss it, I would tell her what I think.

What are all these things I've been hearing about you saying you're going to spice up the love scenes in Whorehouse because this is your chance with Burt Reynolds?
Oh, a whole lot of that is just being cute and funny. People make such issues out of everything.

When they started askin' for suggestions, I said I would like to see more of a romance. Wouldn't you feel like you wasted five dollars if you paid to see Whorehouse and you didn't see me and Burt kiss? I was makin' a joke, and I stuck to it – I'm not going to miss my chance to kiss Burt Reynolds. There ain't no way I'd do sex scenes. I'm talking about love scenes.

Is being a madam – your role in 'Whorehouse' – anything you've ever fantasized about? There's nobody in the world who would make a more elegant madam than you.
I've never fantasized about being a madam, but some of my best friends have been hussies or called whores because they are usually the most honest and open people. And even if they don't do it as a profession, I just relate to it, and I know myself and my personality, and I've often said – you know I have, even to you – that I honestly do look like a whore or a high-class prostitute, not even so much high-class, with the makeup and the bleached hair and the boobs and the tight-fittin' clothes and the high heels.

I can't wait. She was everything that I am, except that I'm not a whore. But if I hadn't made it in this business, who knows [laughs]!

What kind of stuff are you writing now?
I'm writing some awful good stuff. I wrote some of the lines in "Hollywood Potters" while I was doing the movie. I met so many people who were extras. They have big dreams, and they've studied and worked, and some of them are a thousand times more talented than I would ever dream about being. They would tell me different things, so I wrote a song. And it says:

Mothers hold on to your sons and your daughters
Should Hollywood claim them you'll hold them no more
For they'll become clay for the Hollywood potters
And there's no escape once they walk through that door
Some they go hungry, and some go insane
Some go to the bottle, and some to the vein
Some become users and some become used and some even make it
But most never do.
And it's Hollywood, Hollywood
Dungeon of drama, center of sorrow, city of schemes
Hollywood, Hollywood terrace of trauma
Palace of promises, dealer of dreams.*

The title of the movie was Nine to Five, and I knew that I could write a song about myself and my dad and my brothers and my sisters and my friends and the people who work nine to five. Working nine to five – what a way to make a living [sings]:

Tumble out of bed and stumble to the kitchen
Pour myself a cup of ambition
And yawn and stretch and try to come to life
Jump in the shower and the blood starts pumping
Out on the streets the traffic starts jumping
For folks like me on the job from nine to five
*

You've worked into the position you said you wanted to be in, where you are free to do just what you want. So what's your next five-year plan?
I guess I'll probably do real well in the movies, writing them and doin' the music for them. I think I'll probably become a huge recording artist because of all this other stuff, mainly because what I'll be doing will be worth buyin'. You know, it's quality stuff. What I've done was good for what it was, but now I'll be doin' the Vegas thing. I still want to do concerts – I don't want to ever just get into Vegas and movies. That does not take the place of my audience and my records and the concerts.

Will you still do the bus tours, the regular shows?
Yes, I hope so – I really miss the family, the band. I enjoy that, and I enjoy the real people who work all week, who save up money to buy your records and come see you at the show. I miss those people; they're the real thing. It's from them that I draw ideas to write about and creative commercial ideas for movies.

What's the most outrageous thing you've ever done?
The most outrageous thing? [Laughs] Boy, that could be a number of things . . . A lot of this stuff I can't hardly tell you about. Sometimes one of the great thrills is just to go ahead and do something nobody would expect me to do.

I have a real stubborn, mischievous streak. And I have a girlfriend, Judy, who thinks she is just as stubborn and as mischievous, but she backs down a little easier than I do.

So this happened while I was doin' Nine to Five. Judy and I were coming home one night; we'd been out to Lucy's El Adobe restaurant, and we'd had a couple of Margaritas. Judy and two friends of hers were in one car, and me and Gregg [Perry, her keyboardist-producer] were in his car. Well, Judy started doin' silly little things – they started givin' me the finger or something. Then it got to where we were trying to top each other. Judy thought she was gonna flash me; she started unbuttoning her blouse. Anyhow, I just pulled up my shirt and I flashed them with one of them. Well, they just about wrecked; they just about died because they thought it was so funny. So anyhow, they did something else, and the next time around, I mooned them [laughs]!

Judy was tryin' to top this, and I thought, "What else can we do?" I thought, "Now I know Judy. She's gonna think she can pull one on me; she's gonna really get one on me." So I thought, "I must take off all my clothes." And I thought, "Well, now how can I?" Because this next stop we were gonna make was a stop sign going toward the Bel Air Hotel. So I said, "Gregg, I'm gonna ask you to do something that I don't think anybody should ever ask another person to do. I'm gonna take all my clothes off – I have to – but you can't look. You've got to look straight down the road!"

He thought I was kidding. I said, "Now I ain't kidding!" I was getting upset 'cause I had to get this done real fast. I just had to do this, because I knew that Judy was gonna get out in her panty hose or something.

So I started takin' off my clothes. And I tell you, I had 'em peeled off. I had my clothes layin' on the side and I was just threatening Gregg at all times. All I could think of, mainly, was that stop sign, because I knew Judy was gonna get out in her panty hose or something. I knew she was gonna think she had really done something. When we stopped, I saw the door scramblin' open, and they were letting Judy out. She took off her pants, so she was gonna come out in her panty hose as if that was some big deal. So I waited, then I just casually got out. I opened up the door and I started walkin' around the car in the moonlight. Here I was, just Snow White – you know how fair my skin is. There I was, and I tell you, I thought the girls were absolutely goin' to die. I just did it real casual, and then I just flew back in the car.

And then it was like I was immediately exposed! It was like nothing had mattered until then. Then all of a sudden I realized I was naked. I was so embarrassed, but feelin' so proud that I had done it – that's the kinda stuff I'll do. Is that good enough?

* "Hollywood Potters" and "Nine to Five" by Dolly Parton, © 1980, Velvet Apple Music

This story is from the December 11th, 1980 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 332: December 11, 1980