“It’s the character that’s the strongest that God gives the most challenges to.”
Bonnie Hunt’s father, Bob, shared that belief with her when she was a teenager enduring a difficult time, and it has stayed with her all her life: from her early years as a nurse in a hospital’s cancer ward, through the highs and lows of her career in Hollywood as an actress, writer, director, and producer. And when the greatest challenge to Bonnie’s faith occurred following her father’s sudden and unexpected death at age 50, a message from heaven arrived like a guiding light to move her toward a brighter future. Today, she remains a person dedicated to the love and selflessness she learned from her big Catholic family in Chicago, all of whom continue to inspire her.
Bonnie is familiar to anyone who has watched her classic films, such as “Cheaper by the Dozen,” “Jumanji,” “Jerry Maguire,” “The Green Mile,” etc. She wrote, directed, and co-starred in the beloved movie “Return to Me.” She has voiced numerous characters in Pixar movies, including Dolly in the “Toy Story” franchise. She has also been the pioneering creative force behind numerous TV sitcoms, as well as the daily talk show “The Bonnie Hunt Show.” And most recently, she co-starred in the Emmy nominated mini-series “Escape at Dannemora.” But it all began for Bonnie in her hometown of Chicago where she honed her storytelling talents by observing her dad Bob, mom Alice, and six brothers and sisters.
During a recent interview on “Christopher Closeup” (podcasts below), Bonnie told me, “When you grow up in a blue collar neighborhood, there’s those summer nights on the front porch of the house and everybody stopping by and talking. You see the storyteller, whoever that is in the crowd, and a lot of times it was my dad telling a story and everybody listening and hanging on to every word and laughing. You see how healing and comforting and joyful it is, and you go to bed as a kid feeling the power of that.”
Watching “The Andy Griffith Show” as a family was also influential because Bonnie got to see her parents relax, laugh, and forget their troubles while enjoying a story to which they could relate and learn something from characters who were “genuine, dimensional, and charming.” TV and movies were not just fun diversions, she discovered, but they could be “cathartic and comforting.”
Family was the center of Bonnie’s life back then. Her father Bob worked two or three jobs to get all the bills paid, while her mom Alice took care of the kids. At the heart of everything were love and faith. “I still envy my Mom’s faith,” said Bonnie, “because it’s unwavering and beautiful. It’s a wonderful thing to have as a guide in your life.”
Alice Hunt also made sure to instill good values in Bonnie and her siblings by making a list of guidelines she called “The Teen Creed.” Each child, before his or her 13th birthday, was given a card with the following list, which they had to memorize – and which Bonnie recited during our interview because she still uses these guidelines to make personal and business decisions:
■ Don’t let your parents down; they brought you up.
■ Be humble enough to obey; you may give orders some day.
■ Choose companions with care; you become what they are.
■ Guard your thoughts: what you think, you are.
■ Choose only a date who would make a good mate.
■ Be master of your habits or they will master you.
■ Don’t be a show-off when you drive; drive with safety and arrive.
■ Don’t let the crowd pressure you.
■ Stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.
On the front of the card, Alice wrote “Do everything with love and respect.”
Bonnie recalled her mom saying, “I can’t be with you all the time. You’re going to have to make your own decisions and choices. Just think of these things. Use these guidelines. If you look around you and you’re not impressed with the people you’re with, you’re in the wrong crowd.”
One place in which Bonnie was definitely in the right crowd was at the hospital where she volunteered as a candy striper beginning at age 13. “I couldn’t get enough,” she said. “We would read to the patients who couldn’t see, or we would help feed the patients that couldn’t feed themselves…I remember feeling good in my heart that I could make a difference in someone’s day.”
At age 14, Bonnie wound up in the hospital herself as a patient following a car accident. In pelvic traction, she was feeling sorry for herself, until her dad told her, “It’s the character that’s the strongest that God gives the most challenges to.”
Those words helped Bonnie because “I felt like it meant I was strong. I was expected to be strong and that made me stronger.”
The experience also helped further Bonnie’s interest in becoming a nurse, a career goal she pursued just a few years later. Despite wanting to be a storyteller in Hollywood, Bob Hunt convinced his daughter to stay put for a while and give nursing school a try. He said, “If you want to be a storyteller and a writer, you have to live life in order to write about it.”
Bonnie followed his advice and was newly into nursing school at age 18 when the unthinkable happened. Bob suffered a heart attack in the family home and died. He was only 50 years old.
Though decades have passed since then, the pain of that loss remains fresh in Bonnie’s mind and heart. “It was one of those dark days,” she recalled. “The finality of it. Dad was there so healthy, strong, protective, vibrant. And then suddenly, just gone.”
Bonnie endured near-total despair. She couldn’t bear to see anyone laugh or smile, and she felt angry at God, asking, “How could you take our dad?!” She also decided that she would quit nursing school. Her motivation for that career died with Bob.
When Bonnie told her mom, Alice convinced her to at least go back to school for one more week in honor of Bob. Not wanting to add to Alice’s emotional pain, Bonnie agreed. One more week, but that was it.
On her first day back, Bonnie almost regretted her decision when one of the nursing instructors took her aside and said, “You know, Hunt, you’re not the only person whose father ever died, so you’ve got to buck up and know that you’re here to take care of the patients. You can’t put your problems on them. You can’t be telling people what’s going on in your life.”
Though Bonnie accepted these orders without complaint, inside she felt bitterness, sadness, and pain at the heartlessness of the instructor’s comments. Bonnie couldn’t wait until the end of the week arrived, so she could tell her she was quitting.
Then, the time came for the nursing students to be assigned the patients they would care for. Though there were hundreds in the hospital, Bonnie was directed to a man named Mr. O’Brien. After she introduced herself, he cheerfully called her “my Bonnie lass” and told her he was “doomed” because he had terminal cancer.
Bonnie was taken aback by how casually he spoke of his own impending death, but Mr. O’Brien explained, “I feel lucky to have cancer…I’m Irish, and there’s a lot we don’t say to our families. We’re kind of stoic. But now I’ve been able to tell my boys how much I love them and tell my bride…I had a friend who died really suddenly, and he’d always talk about his kids as his greatest accomplishment. He didn’t get to say goodbye, and I’m getting that opportunity.”
Bonnie was charmed by the fact that Mr. O’Brien kept calling his wife of 40 years “my bride,” but at the same time she experienced deep sadness because there was so much she never said to her father. This interaction was bringing that home.
Bonnie got to know Mr. O’Brien better over the next few days, and developed a real affection for him. When she learned he worked at the Board of Education, which was where her father had worked, she decided to break the rules her instructor had given her.
Bonnie closed the door to Mr. O’Brien’s room and told him that her father works at the Board of Education. (She was still talking about him in the present tense.)
“What’s his name,” asked Mr. O’Brien.
“Bob Hunt,” she answered.
Mr. O’Brien reached out and touched Bonnie’s arm, saying, “That’s the man I’ve been speaking about.”
Bonnie and Mr. O’Brien cried together about the loss of Bob and this unlikely connection between the two of them. She decided she couldn’t leave Mr. O’Brien, so she stayed his student nurse until his death a few months later.
Bonnie told me, “When I look back at my life, becoming a nurse defined me in so many ways and gave me a more thoughtful approach to my life. And patients gave me a deep perspective. I really believe in divine intervention because I think my dad got to heaven and said, ‘Don’t let her go to Hollywood! Don’t let her leave nursing school. Can we find anyone within a five mile vicinity that could stop her?’ Somehow, they found this one patient out of 500. I mean, I was assigned one patient!”
That connection also helped Bonnie begin to resolve her anger at God and her grief in general. She said, “Anybody that’s experienced great loss, whether it’s instant or…somebody with cancer…the loss is so deep that anger is part of the emotion – and getting to acceptance is part of the journey. Definitely Mr. O’Brien was a bridge. Until this day, whenever I experience great sadness, and I tell this to all my nieces and nephews and anybody that might need help, when I’m in my darkest moment, the thing that helps me the most is to help someone else.”
Following her experience with Mr. O’Brien, Bonnie helped many more cancer patients as a nurse in the oncology ward for the next several years. But she also started pursuing her goal to be a storyteller and entertainer by joining the Second City improv comedy troupe. Not only that, but Bonnie brought the troupe to the hospital to perform for the patients, as well as do benefits. “It became this beautiful crossover of these two worlds,” said Bonnie. And once again, she met another patient who redirected her life.
This one was named Rudy, and he told her to go to Hollywood and pursue her dreams. Bonnie responded that she couldn’t do that; she would just fail at her attempts to be an actress.
Rudy told her, “The biggest regret of my life is that I feared failure. I want you to look me in the eye, take my hand, and tell me that when I’m gone, you’ll go to Hollywood and you’ll fail many times. Go, give it a try.”
Bonnie agreed to Rudy’s deal and headed for the west coast when the opportunity arose after his passing. She said, “I went to Hollywood and I’ve failed many times. I’ve had the perspective of cancer patients to help me through those times and keep all that Hollywood stuff in perspective…You get up and brush yourself off, but you do your best work. You do the next right thing. You keep going forward. It’s about the experiences and the friendships you gain along the way. Through every experience, every show that’s been canceled, I’ve maintained these incredible friendships and bonds with people that make your life richer and better. It’s not only about the success.”
One of the relationships Bonnie treasured was with actor and comedian Jonathan Winters. How did they get to know each other?
After playing the toothpick-dropping waitress in “Rain Man,” Bonnie was offered a role on the TV series “Designing Women” after Delta Burke left. It would have paid her a huge amount of money and generated lots of publicity. But around the same time, she was offered a role on another sitcom called “Davis Rules.” Though it would pay less money, her parents would be played by two actors she greatly admired: Jonathan Winters and Audrey Meadows.
“Davis Rules” only ran for 18 episodes, but Bonnie treasures the experience and remained friends with both Winters and Meadows until they died. Winters, in fact, came to be a father figure in her life. She turned to him for support while going through her divorce and calls their friendship “healing,” as she does her friendship with the late Robin Williams with whom she worked in “Jumanji.”
Another instance in which Bonnie followed her heart was with the TV series she created called “The Building.” Still available on Youtube, the comedy holds up, but the show only lasted for five episodes. Bonnie recalled, “[The network] wanted to continue that series, but they wanted me to let go of two of the cast members and replace them with two people that the network had on hold. When I said I can’t fire my two friends, they said, ‘Well, we have to cancel the show.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ I don’t know if that was the right thing to do. Hopefully your friends would still love you and be okay with it.”
But between “The Building” and her next two series “The Bonnie Hunt Show” and “Life with Bonnie,” she became a pioneer in television history as the first person to write, produce, direct, and star in her own primetime sitcom. She received encouragement from TV legend Carl Reiner who told her, “Just go do it. Be the storyteller. Drive the ship.”
Bonnie eventually did the same thing on the big screen: writing, producing, directing, and co-starring in the feature film “Return to Me,” a romantic comedy with a sense of innocence and goodness at its heart, as well as a depth of character and soul. Film reviewer Steven Greydanus summed the story up this way: “[Minnie] Driver plays Grace, who is gravely ill from long-term heart disease; [David] Duchovny plays a grieving widower whose wife died in a car crash, providing (unbeknownst to either of them) the new heart Grace needs.”
In addition, Grace’s grandfather is played by Carroll O’Connor, making it the actor’s last role before his death. Bonnie had grown up watching “All in the Family” with her father, so getting O’Connor to be a part of her movie was a dream come true. But it almost didn’t happen.
At this point, O’Connor had suffered the devastating blow of losing his son Hugh to suicide caused by drug addiction. When Bonnie initially contacted him about reading the script, he indicated that he was tired, sad, and had enough money that he didn’t need to work. O’Connor was so wrapped in grief about his son’s death that he would often leave tapes of the TV show they were on together – “In the Heat of the Night” – running in his house just to hear Hugh’s voice.
Bonnie felt deep compassion for the elderly actor and decided it wouldn’t be right to pressure him to do the movie. He decided to read the script, though, which she saw as an honor in itself. After reading the script, O’Connor called Bonnie and scheduled a dinner with her to talk – though he said he still wasn’t interested in working again.
As they shared a meal, recalled Bonnie, “We were talking about the different scenes and moments in life, about loss and faith and praying and getting through hard times and believing in something bigger than ourselves. And at one point he just looked at me and he said, ‘I think I’m going to do your picture.’ And I remember driving home and having to pull over because I couldn’t stop crying. He said to me, ‘And I’ll make it through.’ I think he was already feeling not 100% healthy and there were a couple of nights that I was in an emergency room with him when he wasn’t feeling well. He had some challenges physically, but he knew he had me on the set as a nurse.”
O’Connor did make it through the film and gave a witty and wise performance as a character who was based on Bonnie’s father. And appropriately, she gave his character the line in the script that she had learned from her dad so many years ago: “It’s the character that’s the strongest that God gives the most challenges to.”
Bonnie said, “Oh my gosh, Tony, I can’t tell you how many times in the many years since I wrote and directed that movie that people come up to me in a grocery store or a party or a gathering and say…how much those words meant to them if they were going through a hard time and they happen to see my movie late at night on cable or however it came across their path. That is so meaningful to me. That is such a gift that comes back to you.”
Another gift in Bonnie’s life was getting to helm a daily talk show called “The Bonnie Hunt Show” for two years. It may have been a departure from her acting work in one sense, but at the same time, the attitude with which she approached her audience was the same. She explained, “I wanted the chance to connect with an audience on a daily basis, bring some comfort into the house as best I know with humor and accessibility and relating to the trials and tribulations of life. I feel so lucky that I had the opportunity to do that show.”
That show also gave Bonnie the opportunity to highlight the woman she most admires in this world: her mom Alice.
Alice had been a singer in her youth, but gave up her career to care for her family. She never lost that star quality, though, so whenever Bonnie would have her on the show, Alice was “natural, adorable, and funny.”
Bonnie said, “Mom inspires me by her resilience, always maintaining her sense of humor. She is a very loving person, tolerant, accept[ing]. Nobody was not accepted in our house. Mom always found a way to relate to somebody or comfort someone. Every time any of my friends went through a breakup or a heartache, they would end up at our house talking to my mom. And you know, there’s a quiet acknowledgment when you’re that person, especially when you’re a mother and a wife in that era. You are accomplishing so much in one day that no one really knows about…[Mom had] seven children, a husband, her own siblings, two sisters with rheumatoid arthritis that she was checking in on daily…her own mom who she took care of. She took care of my dad’s mom, who moved in with us. My mom was making sure that she was comfortable every single day, never had a bed sore, making all of her meals. We’d go in and sit with grandma at the end of the day, but my mother was there all day. And so, whenever [I’m] having a bad moment, I can look to my mom and think she did all this without acknowledgement or accolades. She just did it.”
Alice’s selfless and giving nature spread to all her kids, including her son, Dr. Kevin Hunt, who co-created a charity called Medical Aid to Northern Uganda (and who has been a guest on “Christopher Closeup” several times discussing his work).
“Kevin and I used to work in the same emergency room together,” said Bonnie, “and I could see the love my brother had for people and what we get from it. We learned that love is its own reward. Kindness is its own reward. Are you disappointed sometimes by human nature and people’s reaction? Absolutely. But 90% of the time, you’re comforted and rewarded by it. And with Kevin, you can see the joy and fulfillment he gets from going to Uganda and helping these people…They’re hoping to get a CT scan machine this year, so if anybody wants to go to Manugiving.org and even post five dollars, it’ll get them closer to getting that CT scan because they need help there.”
Ultimately, Bonnie Hunt has been a light to many people through her work, through her relationships, and through her many charitable endeavors, including volunteering as a patient advocate. She has a giant heart and the kind of strong character that God admires. But like everybody, she experiences times of darkness when she needs to find some light herself. So how does she do it?
Bonnie concluded, “Life can be so overwhelming and sometimes it’s hard to get out of bed. But the only thing I can do is say, ‘Just do the next right thing for the next hour and also try to help someone else in your darkest moment.’ As hard as it is – and I have some really dark days, I have some real sadness and it comes in waves – but you have to know that wave will recede and you’ll be able to dry yourself off, look up to the sun, and do something good for the next hour, even if it’s just watching an old great movie or reaching out to a neighbor or stopping to pet a dog or volunteering someplace. It helps lift us up.”
(To listen to my full interview with Bonnie Hunt, click the podcast links below):