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The Untold Truth Of Melora Hardin

The U.S. remake of "The Office" is inarguably one of the most popular shows of all time. After airing for nine years, and jumping from one streaming platform to the next for the last eight years, it's perhaps the show the entire country knows the best. And out of 201 episodes, while there are dozens and dozens of favorites among fans, cast members, and crew, the Season 4 installment "Dinner Party" appears the most consistently as one of the series' best on lists and rankings, and has become a legendary episode in oral histories of the show.

An homage to the classic film "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", where a dysfunctional couple ostensibly holds their guests hostage, "Dinner Party" primarily relies on the skills of series star Steve Carell and one other actor: recurring guest star Melora Hardin. A longtime veteran of TV, movies, and theater, Melora Hardin's role as uptight corporate boss Jan Levinson was just the high point of a diverse and ongoing career. It's no wonder that the most-revered episode of one of the most-watched sitcoms of our time could depend so heavily on a guest star. But why did she look so familiar when she first appeared in the pilot? Who is the woman behind Jan? This is the untold truth of Melora Hardin.

Melora Hardin wanted to be a dancer

Born in 1967 to two actors, Melora Hardin perhaps grew up less enamored than bored by the showbiz industry by virtue of exposure. Her father, Jerry Hardin, has been acting since the '50s and eventually had a recurring role on "The X-Files" as Deep Throat. Her mother, Diane Hardin (formerly Hill), had a few minor roles before retiring to be an acting coach.

Young Melora, as she told The Ringer, wanted to dance instead: "I was a very serious ballerina. I would've told you as a child that I was going to be a ballerina, and that acting was just my hobby."

The sense of rhythm would come in handy later in her career in stage productions, although it would be sort of a handicap during a scene in "Dinner Party" in which her "Office" character Jan Levinson has to be bad at dancing. As she described in Rolling Stone's oral history of the episode, "I'm a dancer, but I really tried to just dance a tiny bit off the beat. It was so much fun to just be a little bit wrong."

At age 10, she starred in an NBC show with a horse

For a child that considered acting just a hobby, Melora Hardin sure had a lot of early success — in 1977, with only one appearance on the anthology "Police Story" to her name, she landed the starring role on NBC's "Thunder." As she explained on Brian Baumgartner's podcast, "I did a Saturday morning show for kids, when I was 10 years old, about a black horse I used to whistle at."

When her character, young Cindy Prescott, would whistle, Thunder the black stallion would ride from the wilderness to save her and her friend Willie from various dangers like forest fires and outlaws. A clear attempt to imitate the success of "Lassie," which was nearing the end of a 19-year run on CBS, "Thunder" aired on Saturday mornings and attracted some fans, but ultimately only lasted 12 episodes. This would begin a long string of potential big breaks for Hardin's career that didn't quite pan out.

Melora Hardin was too tall for Back to the Future

Even the most casual fan of the "Back to the Future" trilogy knows that there was more than one Jennifer. Main character Marty McFly's girlfriend was played by Claudia Wells in the first film, who then had to drop out for the sequels because of her mother's illness. The part was recast with Elisabeth Shue. But what most people don't know is that was the second time Jennifer had to be switched out — a young Melora Hardin was all set to play Jennifer as "Back To The Future" was about to be filmed.

Why didn't Hardin end up with the role? It was a ripple effect from yet another recasting. Michael J. Fox wasn't initially cast in the main role, with a young Eric Stoltz originating the part instead and Melora Hardin set to play Jennifer. But after five weeks of filming, the producers realized Stoltz didn't have the screwball comedic timing they were looking for, and the role went to Fox instead. Unfortunately, at five-foot-four, Michael J. Fox was significantly shorter than the six-foot-tall Stoltz. That meant the five-foot-five Melora Hardin would now be taller than her leading man, something that the filmmakers didn't think would look right.

Hardin vividly recalls getting the bad news on a call in her parents' kitchen. As she recounted to Wired magazine, "They said, 'Unfortunately we had to let Eric go and we think you're too tall for the new guy we cast. His name is Michael J. Fox, but you'll be towering over him. This has nothing to do with you, we think you're lovely.' I burst into tears."

She played Baby in the Dirty Dancing TV show

A few years after her near-miss with "Back To The Future," Hardin would land the lead role in a TV show reimagining of 1987's smash hit "Dirty Dancing." In the TV version, main character Frances "Baby" Kellerman is the daughter of the owner of the Catskills resort where the story takes place instead of a visitor, which makes it easier to set an entire season of episodes in the same place. 

It was the perfect role for Hardin, who got to draw on her ballerina skills: she went to the Joffrey Ballet in New York on scholarship when she was 13, while the show landed the same choreographer as the movie, Kenny Ortega. Hardin explained to Yahoo! News how she at first had to play down her dancing background for the role: "There's a whole section where everyone's dancing and I'm trying to catch the steps and I'm totally out of rhythm — everyone's going down and I'm standing up. It's fun when you actually do have rhythm to try not to have rhythm."

As a show based on a hit movie, "Dirty Dancing" seemed primed to be a success, but ultimately only ran one season of 12 episodes. Perhaps the success of "Dirty Dancing" on the relatively new home video format (it was the first movie to sell a million copies on home video) meant that viewers could just watch the "real" thing instead of a TV version. As Hardin put it, "Who knows why these things do catch on or don't."

She once took dance lessons from Patrick Swayze

Well before she was cast in the one-season wonder that was based on "Dirty Dancing," Melora Hardin signed up for a dance class at age 13 that was taught by the future star of the film: Patrick Swayze himself! As she revealed to "audible gasps" on The Late Late Show, "He would drive up every day to my ballet studio ... on his Harley Davidson motorcycle, with his skin-tight jeans, his leather jacket." He apparently left quite an impression on a class full of young ballerinas with his famous swiveling hips, as Hardin recalled, "I just remember watching his ass thinking, 'Oh my god, what is happening?!'"

Young Melora Hardin assumed she had left no impression on her instructor, but when she was part of a dance number at the 1989 Oscars, where Swayze was a presenter, she was delighted to find out that wasn't the case: "He remembered me! ... he was like 'Melora!' and threw his arms around me."

Melora didn't think The Office would be a success

By the time Melora Hardin was cast in the role of Jan Levinson on "The Office," she'd appeared in around a dozen pilots that either didn't get picked up or become successful, long-running series. As she explained to Brian Baumgartner on The Office Deep Dive podcast, "When you've been doing so long you start to get a pretty thick skin, and you get kind of wary about things." 

She was so wary that she even had trouble letting it sink in that "The Office" was as successful as it was. It was an entire year after the show won "Outstanding Comedy Series" at the Emmys in 2006 before she realized it, and it was her body that finally convinced her brain. When the entire cast of the show won SAG awards in 2007 for "Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series," Hardin told Baumgartner, "I had to walk around with that like 50-pound statue all night, and the next morning my bicep was so sore that I couldn't lift my arm! It was like literally I needed physical proof."

She's also an accomplished singer

Not content with only dancing and acting, Melora Hardin has certified herself as a genuine triple-threat by also singing over the course of her career. In 1991, she landed a bit part as a nightclub chanteuse in Disney's "The Rocketeer," performing a version of the classic "Begin the Beguine" that appears on the movie's soundtrack. She later played the ghost of a singer in the Disney TV movie "Tower of Terror," and self-released two albums of music before landing a recording contract for her 2010 album, "All the Way to Mars," a well-received collection of original songs and classic show tunes.

Her diverse skill set, along with her boost in notoriety after the success of "The Office," has afforded her many opportunities that make use of everything she can do: she starred as Roxie Hart in "Chicago," making her long-awaited Broadway debut in 2008, while a role in another famous musical, Fantine in "Les Miserables," even led to her "Office" character Jan Levinson getting the singing bug. Appearing on KCRW, she explained, "Mindy Kaling, who plays Kelly Kapoor on the show, she found out that I was doing that and she said, 'Alright, we gotta write something for you to sing, we've gotta get you to sing on the show.'" Soon after Jan sings Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man" to her new baby, as a hilariously inappropriate lullaby in the episode "Baby Shower."

She had the idea for Jan to get breast implants

Over the course of 42 episodes of "The Office," Melora Hardin's character Jan Levinson slowly unravels from a tightly-wound corporate overlord foil for Steve Carell's bumbling Michael Scott, to his emotional, manipulative, and relatively unhinged live-in girlfriend. The real beginning of that transformation, when Jan wins Michael back after a breakup with the help of a recent cosmetic surgery, was actually inspired by the actress herself in a conversation with showrunner Greg Daniels.

As Hardin told Rolling Stone, at the first year the cast of "The Office" was together for network upfronts, where the cast and creators of shows preview them for advertisers, "I turned to Greg and said, 'It's funny, I'm looking around at the females in our cast, and I'm thinking nobody in our cast has a boob job.'" That was apparently all the spark that Daniels needed: "His wheels just started turning in that moment. It was just so funny to see. That was when he thought, 'Ding-ding-ding-ding! Jan's getting a boob job!'"

"The Office" is famous for tailoring the quirks and eccentricities of its characters to the strengths of the actors playing them. It's clear they struck gold when they cast Hardin as Jan.

Hardin's proudest moment of The Office was smashing a TV set

It's no surprise that Melora Hardin's proudest moment from her time on "The Office" is from the episode "Dinner Party," which is all about her character's relationship with Michael Scott, and showcases some of the best comedic and dramatic acting of her career in the span of 22 minutes. It's a little surprising, however, that when The Ringer asked what her favorite Jan moment ever was, she brought up a stunt from the episode, not a scene of dialogue: "I'm quite proud of the Dundie hitting the television every time."

In the episode, as their arguing reaches a crescendo, Jan takes one of Michael's most prized possessions, a bowling trophy from the "Dundies" — an annual interoffice awards ceremony — and flings it right at one of his other most prized possessions: a laughably small flatscreen TV mounted to the wall.  In all her years on the show, Hardin is most proud of hitting her target every time she was required to do so: "We did it three times and I hit it every time. I think all the crew guys kind of had a crush on me after that."

Hardin's role on Transparent inspired her to make a difference

After her run on "The Office," Melora Hardin scored her first Emmy nomination for a recurring role as Tammy Cashman in Season 2 of "Transparent," and she credits the role with opening her eyes in a whole new way. In an interview with AwardsDaily, she opened up about how it gave her a new idea of what a television show can achieve in the world: "The characters and what we're doing in the world and opening up people's minds and hearts through laughter and love is so incredible."

While her character, the confident lesbian Tammy Cashman, only appeared in one season of the show's five-year run, Hardin holds it up as a model for the types of roles she wants to seek out in the future. "To be on a show that's stretching and challenging people to think differently and feel differently and to embrace the people who have been other-ized to me is really profound." She would eventually land a leading role on "The Bold Type," as a type of female boss that's compassionate, empathetic, yet still confident and tough: another sort of role she felt hadn't been seen before, that could influence real good in the world.

Her husband on The Bold Type is her actual husband

Fans of Freeform's "The Bold Type" know Melora Hardin as the unflappable, compassionate, and compelling editor-in-chief Jacqueline Carlyle. In five seasons, the show has also found time to portray Jacqueline's marriage with her husband Ian in a unique way — as one that shows how complicated and difficult a real relationship can be. It's thorny and complex without being melodramatic, and it likely has a lot to do with casting: Ian is played by Melora Hardin's actual husband, actor Gildart Jackson.

Her fictional counterpart's marriage turbulence was something Hardin herself pitched to the show, as she explained to Pop-Culturalist: "That particular storyline with Ian and Jacqueline was something that I've been advocating for a couple of years because I like the idea of seeing a long-term marriage where two people do love each other but they hit a hard patch. They hit a rocky road and we watch them deal with that with love, kindness, and communication."

She's directing a documentary about her own biggest fan

Not content to be an actor, dancer, and singer, Melora Hardin has also added directing to her long list of accomplishments. She directed an indie feature film, "You," that she worked on with her husband, as well as the "Snow Day" episode of "The Bold Type" in 2020. But for the last four years, she's been working on a personal project as well.

In a full-circle sort of way, she's working on a documentary that stems back to her time as a child star on the TV show "Thunder," which notably co-starred a horse. Unbeknownst to Hardin, a young woman named Hunter was a huge fan of the show in the brief time it was on the air. Decades later, as she told Exit 6, fate intervened: "40 years later, we met in person." Hardin was directing a music video for her friend Paula Cole, and needed a horse, and a producer connected her to Hunter, now a horse wrangler. "I went over to her house, walked through the door and she said, 'Oh my God, you were on my favorite kids' show when you were 10. This is the greatest day of my life'."

Their reconnection, and the way it helped Hunter through some healing that she needed to do, inspired Hardin to document the experience in a years-long personal project: "I think it's a beautiful and, I hope, inspiring story about healing, realized serendipity, about what it really takes to heal from trauma, about women holding women up, female friendship and female bonding, and art as a mechanism for healing."