Dolly’s one in a million. I have to be myself’
Other sisters m+ay look like each other, but when one compares Rachel Parton Dennison to her celebrated sis, Dolly Parton, it’s breathtaking to learn the physique is not unique. Rachel has the same sugar-candy blond hair, the same silvery shivers in her singing voice, the same sunny disposition tinged ever so lightly with Hee-Haw naughtiness. Now, in ABC’s sitcom spin-off of 9 to 5, she’s re-creating big sister’s movie role as Doralee Rhodes, the gumdrop of a secretary lusted after by a chauvinist pig of a boss. All of which raises the question: Does Rachel, at 22, have what it takes to follow in Dolly’s footsteps?
“I’m sure people will compare me to Dolly—it’s only human nature,” says Rachel, who at “a hundred and plenty” pounds and 5’3″ is three inches taller than her sister. Whether the TV version of 9 to 5 will measure up is still unknown, though the initial ratings were encouraging. Whatever the show’s fate, Rachel is armed against charges of nepotism. After all, it was not Dolly but Jane Fonda, Dolly’s 9 to 5 co-star and executive co-producer of the pink-collar sitcom, who brought Rachel to Hollywood. Visiting Dolly at the Grand Ole Opry last year, Fonda “discovered” Rachel, a singer-cum-cosmetician, troweling on her sister’s makeup for a performance. Recalls Fonda: “I asked Dolly’s permission to bring Rachel out to read for the part. As soon as she stepped foot on the lot [at 20th Century-Fox], everyone started calling asking who she was.”
Rachel’s decision to head West had not been easy. Traditional and deeply religious, all Rachel really hankered for was to keep house and make babies with Richard Dennison, 28, her husband of four years and a backup singer in Dolly’s band. They had just finished remodeling their four-bedroom frame house on six acres in Franklin. Tenn., decorating it in Early American style. “I just wanted to get barefoot, go outside and smell the dirt and the flowers,” recalls Rachel. “To tell the truth, I really didn’t think I’d get the part. But I also didn’t want to get old and think to myself, ‘My goodness, why didn’t you try that?’ So now when I sneak up around 30 and have my babies I can say, ‘Heck, I did it.’ ”
Plus, she adds, “I got it done by hard work. Luck don’t get you up at 6 a.m. and keep you on the set 12 hours a day for three months. I worked my tail off.” Rachel pauses, then glances at her behind and chuckles: “I wish.”
The baby among 12 children in the Parton clan (six girls, six boys, one of whom died in infancy), Rachel is the seventh to enter showbiz. Their father, Lee, is a retired farmer who scraped a living from a few acres in the Great Smoky Mountains and worked construction jobs on the side. As kids, Rachel and her siblings passed their days concocting songs while playing on the seesaw outside the family’s six-room house. Their mother, Avie, would transcribe the tunes and have the whole tribe sing them after supper. “Singing was like breathing at home,” remembers Rachel.
Her distinguishing passion was makeup; she was the only child in the first grade who routinely powdered and rouged. Then, at age 12, she spent the summer with Dolly in Nashville. “Before we knew it,” she says, laughing at the memory, “the summer was over. But we wasn’t through playin’, so Mama and Daddy said I could stay on with Dolly if I liked it so much.”
Leaving school after the eighth grade, she toured with her big sister, doing her makeup and singing backup for several years. At age 15, she says, she went onstage one evening and “right off I saw this new piano man and knew he was the fella for me.” Rachel and Richard Dennison (who later switched from piano to singing) got married when she was 18. Rachel gave up singing with Dolly and concentrated on her makeup work in Nashville while enduring a regime that had Richard on the road 250 days a year. Totally supportive of Rachel’s new career twist, Richard joined her in Hollywood for the three months it took to get the part and shoot four episodes. “Hollywood can be crazy,” says Richard. “Before Rachel even auditioned we talked about the price of fame. But we have a good solid marriage and home life means everything.” Says Rachel, who is finishing a demo tape with the idea of reviving her singing career: “I’m glad I didn’t try this before. I had to grow up first, to be secure in my marriage and myself. But now I’m ready. I guess.”