By Greg Adkins
August 11, 2003 12:00 PM

In New York City in the late 1980s, no one doubted the talent of struggling actress Jennifer Coolidge—least of all Coolidge herself. In acting class, she recalls, “I thought I was Meryl Streep, and I had this bad attitude. I would do imitations of other people doing their scenes.” After noticing her caustic wit, a classmate suggested she try improvisational comedy. “The minute I started,” says Coolidge, “I knew it was right for me.”

These days you won’t hear any argument in Hollywood. From Legally Blonde 2 (she’s the simpleminded beautician Paulette) to this spring’s A Mighty Wind (she played a memorably loopy publicist) to the American Pie movies (Stifler’s randy mom), the 42-year-old comedy veteran has become one of the movies’ most reliable laugh getters. “She’s not just smart and funny,” says longtime friend Lisa Kudrow, “she can be sexy, and she’s not afraid to do out-there characters.”

Indeed, Coolidge has always been delightfully out there—even as a teenager growing up in Norwell, Mass. “One day she came to me and said, ‘Dad, I want you to be in this movie I’m making; you get to be the shark in Jaws,'” recalls her father, Paul Coolidge, 82, a retired plastics manufacturer. “She made this fin and strapped it to my back and made me swim underwater. She was always someone who went her own way.” But Coolidge hasn’t always used her talent for good. “When I was in boarding school, she’d call and pretend to be our mother,” recalls her sister Suzanne, 38. “She’d ask permission for me to leave—she can do anyone’s voice. We never got caught.”

After high school Coolidge eventually made her way to L.A. “I remember standing at the window of the hotel I was staying at, saying, ‘Look out, L.A., here I come,'” says Coolidge. “Then after a few years, I left town with my tail between my legs.” In 1988 she moved to New York City, where she studied acting and worked in an upscale restaurant alongside a then-unknown Sandra Bullock. After a year in New York, Coolidge decided to try her luck again in L.A. Following a series of roles in disappointing comedies, she landed her dream job in 2000, when Christopher Guest offered her a part in the largely improvised movie Best in Show. “[Being allowed to]] create your own dialogue and character,” says Coolidge, “that is the ultimate compliment.”

The single Coolidge now shares her Los Angeles home with three rescued pooches—Aussie, Dilly and Spanky—and admits to being an airhead in the kitchen. “I’ve lived here for eight years and cooked spaghetti once,” she says, “and it didn’t turn out right.” Not that she minds dining out: “When I’m having a bad day, I go to a restaurant and someone says, ‘I saw you in that movie, and you were fantastic.’ That makes it all worth it.”

FUNNIEST LINE: “You look like the Fourth of July. Makes me want a hot dog real bad.”

—Coolidge to a red-white-and-blue-clad Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde 2

MOST OUTRAGEOUS MOMENT: As a boozer mom in American Pie, she beds her son’s friend on a pool table.

SEE ALSO: Best in Show, A Mighty Wind

Greg Adkins

Rachel Biermann in Los Angeles and Nancy Matsumoto in Toronto