'League's' memorable Marla continues to affect viewers

Welcome to Questions of Characters, the column that puts a name to some of the most familiar faces in movies and on television, the stage and commercials who either hail from Chicago or have spent enough time here to consider it home.

Name: Megan Cavanagh

Chicago connection: Born in Chicago in 1960 to parents Jim and Rita on Nov. 8. Raised in River Forest along with her four siblings, Cavanagh went to Oak Park and River Forest High School, graduating at 16 in 1977. She attended Rosary College in River Forest (now Dominican University), graduating in January 1982.

Career overview: She got the acting bug at 4: "We were singing 'Puff the Magic Dragon' at a pre-kindergarten performance. I was Puff in a big dragon costume, and my job was to skip back and forth, and I could see through my big dragon mouth — especially the sixth-graders — looking terrified. I had so much power in that moment I knew this was what I wanted to do the rest of my life." She appeared in a memorable high school production of "Oklahoma" with classmates Dan Castellaneta, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Kathy Griffin. After graduation Cavanagh worked at several fondly remembered Chicago theaters, including the Body Politic, Victory Gardens and Absolute Theatre, doing anything and everything (house-managing, working the box office, understudying) and performing as much as possible. She joined the comedy troupe New Age Vaudeville in 1984 and performed with them until 1987. In 1988 she moved to Los Angeles and found work in commercials.

Cavanagh's big break came in 1990, when director Penny Marshall cast her in the comedy "A League of Their Own." She made an instant impression with her portrayal of Marla Hooch, the so-called "ugly girl" who outshines several members of the all-female baseball team. She had numerous supporting parts in film comedies following that success — "Robin Hood: Men In Tights" and "Dracula: Dead and Loving It" for director Mel Brooks, "For Richer, for Poorer," "Junior," "That Darn Cat" and others. Cavanagh has also had a busy voiceover career, most notably as the voice of Judy Neutron in the Oscar-nominated animated film "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius," the subsequent television series and several TV movies. On TV, Cavanagh has had roles in everything from "Home Improvement" to "Exes & Ohs." Cavanagh also has a thriving stage career and is currently touring the country in "Menopause: The Musical." She lives in Hollywood with her partner, Anne Chamberlain. Megan's son, Brendan, is 19 and majoring in Mandarin Chinese and international affairs at college.

Q: I'm going to guess that Marla Hooch is the character you are most often recognized for.

A: That is correct. To this day, every day. People say, "You look so much like that girl from that movie" or they just come right up to me and say, "You were Marla Hooch." A lot of them add, "You're so pretty in real life." That's very sweet when they say that. I get a lot of "That movie changed my life" from young women. So many of us don't feel like the pretty one or the popular one. It's brought up beauty issues in society for a lot of people. I am working on a documentary dealing with this issue. I have had entire teams of softball players of young women who watch it. The amount of people who love this movie astounds me. I went to a baseball signing with some of the original players at a tournament, and there was literally a line about a mile long. They are so emotional about it.

Q: Which actor(s) would you nominate for the Character Actor Hall of Fame?

A: I would nominate Margaret Rutherford, who I adore. I love Helen Mirren. I really like Melissa McCarthy. She's genius. I think Sarah Silverman is genius. Some of the young women coming up right now in comedy are so refreshing. Kristen Wiig, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler are all so brilliant.

Q: What's an archetypal character role you have played often?

A; I've played lots of character-y roles, but I play average gals who are looking for love a lot (laughs).

Q: What's a character part that you would like to play?

A: Where do I begin? I've always wanted to do an Irish sister part in "Dancing at Lughnasa." The character-ier the better. I like to play women who are somewhat not liked that make you feel sorry for them.

Q: Most unusual character/costume/location/prop?

A: I had to wear a crocodile outfit when I played the crocodile in "Peter Pan." I helped my mom make it. I had to wear a Santa Claus suit in "Robin Hood: Men in Tights." It was extremely warm. When I went to the audition they told me to stuff clothing in my sleeves. I went out and got a Santa suit from a rental shop and went completely dressed as the character. I put my hair up and I walked in the door to meet Mel (Brooks) as the character, and he hired me on the spot. It is a very dicey thing to do, but it worked out. I would love Mel Brooks to do this as a musical. I would love to do this onstage. Hey Mel, I'm ready!

Q: Has being from Chicago helped in your career?

A: Yes. Chicago is a very well-respected theater town. Having that on my resume has given me a deeper sense of what kind of actor I am. Also, I really think after traveling the United States these last nine years with "Menopause" I really have grown to appreciate who I am because of where I grew up. I'm generalizing here, but to me Chicagoans are a very real, warm-hearted kind of people. There's no B.S., no pretension, you get what you get. I think that's very well respected — especially in the film business.