While Dirty Dancing fans are preparing to return to Kellerman’s with ABC’s May 24 movie starring Abigail Breslin, it’s not the first time TV has taken us back to the Catskills resort.
On Saturday, Oct. 29, 1988, just 14 months after the Patrick Swayze-Jennifer Grey film hit theaters, CBS premiered Dirty Dancing the series. Future Transparent Emmy nominee Melora Hardin starred as Baby, who, in this version, is the 18-year-old daughter of Kellerman’s owner Max (M*A*S*H‘s McLean Stevenson). In the summer of 1963, before she heads off to Mount Holyoke College in the fall, she returns to Kellerman’s to reconnect with her philandering father, who she’d chosen not to see after he and her mother divorced years earlier. She’s hoping for a job as a waitress, but Max hands her the title of talent coordinator — a position that had been held by dance instructor Johnny Castle (Patrick Cassidy), a 23-year-old from Jersey who spends the winter months as a mechanic.
Thirty years later, Hardin admits she doesn’t recall much about the one-season wonder (though she does have all the episodes on DVD). If memory serves, she owes the job to producer Steve Tisch, who worked with her on the 1986 C. Thomas Howell film Soul Man before turning his attention to the half-hour Dirty Dancing series. “I feel like he kind of just decided I was going to be Baby,” she says.
It was fitting, really, because Hardin, who’d grown up as a serious dancer — she went to the Joffrey Ballet in New York on scholarship when she was 13 — had a history with Patrick Swayze. When she was around the same young age, the studio in Toluca Lake, Calif. where she studied ballet decided to add a jazz class — and a pre-fame Swayze taught it. “I think he taught for at least six months or a year. Always arriving on his motorcycle,” she says. “I just remember the tight jeans — tight in the front and the back, I will just point out. His long ’70s hairdo. He just was so sexy and so warm and sweet. I remember being like, ‘Oh my God.’ I think my tongue was out of my mouth the entire class. What a lovely, lovely guy he was. Even then, he was with Lisa [Niemi], his wife [until his death in 2009]. They stayed together forever, and she was also a wonderful dancer and would come sometimes.”
Though Swayze (who remembered Hardin years later when they ran into each other backstage at the 1989 Oscars, where he was a presenter and she was in a song-and-dance number) wasn’t involved with the Dirty Dancing series, Hardin was thrilled that the film’s choreographer, Kenny Ortega, was also doing the show. Although she didn’t exactly get to work with him as much as Cassidy did: “I was really a better dancer than Patrick [Cassidy] was. That was kind of hard for me to play down, at first,” she says, “just because I really wanted to dance.”
Ultimately, she embraced it. In the series premiere, Johnny suggests Baby join the staff’s dance number for an upcoming show and throws her into a rehearsal to embarrass her. “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,” Hardin says. The trick? “Just like anything in acting, you have to think the way the character thinks and believe what the character believes,” she says. “I think people can’t hear the rhythm because they’re in their head too much. It’s just like there’s a whole school of thought, which I think is really true, that everybody is born able to sing. The reason they can’t sing is because someone’s told them along the way that they can’t carry a tune, or they can’t sing, or they shouldn’t sing. I think it’s the same thing with dancing; everyone’s got rhythm, they just have to feel it.”
Baby begins finding her groove soon enough, and yes, Hardin remembers the network being concerned about how dirty the dirty dancing got. “I think it’s really the first scene where Baby and Johnny dance together. I come in, in that pretty, flowy little dress. I remember loving that dress. And the dancers were all dancers that I took classes with, and it was pretty raunchy. They were, like, in there,” she says with a laugh. “They were grinding and dancing, and even the stuff Patrick and I did was pretty sexy.”
Although there’s real heat between Baby and Johnny — they even share a kiss in the second half hour, when he’s trying to convince her not to leave Kellerman’s following a fight with her father — Baby is quick to cool things off. At the end of the second episode, after she’s returned to appear in the group number, they’re back at the staff quarters dancing when Johnny asks if there might be a chance for them after all. “I told you, all I wanted to do was learn how to dance,” Baby says, leaving him.
In that moment, she means it. “I come out, and I’m kind of just in that kind of revelry of feeling good and dancing, and I do this big kick, and I’m wearing a beautiful dress and the dress goes up,” Hardin says. It’s one of her favorite moments. (And before you ask, no, as far as she remembers, she never did the famous lift with Cassidy during the series. She thinks that honor went to Constance Marie, who played Johnny’s dancer partner, Penny, who seems more jealous of Baby than Penny did in the movie. “They ended up dating in real life for quite some time after that,” Hardin says.)
Anticipation for the show’s debut was naturally high. “Everyone thought this was going to be a huge series,” Hardin says. So why wasn’t it? “I don’t know. I remember one critic not liking that I was not ‘Jewish-looking,’ because she’s supposed to be Jewish. I don’t know if that was the thing. I mean, I think the series was good. … Who knows why these things do catch on or don’t,” she says. “I did an amazing show [in 1983 with James Spader], when I was 15, called The Family Tree, by all the people who came from Family, which was like the biggest hit show with Kristy McNichol in the ’70s. And then this one was really, really good and had all the same elements that made Family such a big hit, and it was the same kind of thing — it was like six episodes and we were done. … I just think the business was really different. We didn’t have things streaming, you know? Everything came out on the time that it came out, and you either watched it or you didn’t.”
As Hardin revisits the experience now, she remembers it for the talented people she got to work with, the friends she made (including future Freaks and Geeks creator and Bridesmaids director Paul Feig, who played bellboy/wannabe standup comic Norman), and all the fun she had on set. “I had a kitten that I brought with me every day. He would ride on my dashboard to work and stay in my trailer,” she says. “He became the most amazing cat because he was so socialized in this really unusual way for a cat.”
Having co-starred in many series since — most notably as Jan on The Office and Tammy on Transparent — Hardin next appears in Freeform’s summer drama The Bold Type, premiering July 11. She plays Jacqueline, editor-in-chief of the women’s magazine Scarlet, inspired by former Cosmo editor-in-chief Joanna Coles, who’s now Chief Content Officer for Hearst Magazines. “My character wields a lot of power over everyone, but she’s really empowering of her young employees. She’s setting a high bar for them and expects a lot from them. She’s not cutting them off at the knees; she’s nurturing them and she’s holding them up,” Hardin says.
She believes it’s important for young women to see that dynamic on TV. “A lot of times on television, when you have a woman of power, they’re synonymous with ‘b***hes.’ That’s how people play women of power, and that’s because it’s been such a male-dominated medium,” she says. “I think the only way women’s stories are going to get told is for women to be telling those stories. Sarah Watson is our creator, and she’s passionate, and I’m passionate, about the show itself being a role model for young women. I would feel really excited if young people looked at me and said to their moms or their dads, ‘I want a boss like that.’ That’s what I want. [For them] to also know what’s right and what they should be aspiring to, and, as Sheryl Sandberg said, to learn to lean in, in a way that is right, rather than putting up with a lot of bad behavior that’s happened in the workplace for so long.”
The 1988-’89 Dirty Dancing TV series is currently unavailable on DVD in the U.S. ABC’s Dirty Dancing remake premieres May 24 at 8 p.m. The Bold Type premieres July 11 at 9 p.m. on Freeform.