By Suzanne Adelson
April 07, 1980 12:00 PM

In four seasons on the CBS smash Alice, Polly Holliday turned a wisecracking waitress (“Kiss my grits”), who shows as much tease in her walk as in her bouffant coif, into one of TV’s favorite characters. Last week she also turned her into an irresistible spinoff. The new series is called Flo, of course, and almost any other actress come into such sudden limelight would have wound up a royal pain in the grits. Yet consider this recent scene at an L.A. hosiery counter. “Aren’t you Flo?” the salesgirl asked. Holliday allowed that she was. “Hey, Louise,” the salesgirl yelled to a colleague. “This is Flo!” Louise looked up disdainfully. “Nah,” she said. “It can’t be. She’s too plain.” Holliday, 42, just smiled. “I’m really not like Flo in my looks or lifestyle,” she apologizes. “A friend once said to me, ‘Polly, you’re the only person I know whose idea of a good time is a nap.’ ”

The fact that Flo turned out to be such a sleeper caused one of the few ruffles in Holliday’s placid career. Flo’s emergence as the prima at Mel’s Diner purportedly upset Linda Lavin, Alice’s nominal star. Polly admits there were some “work tensions” on the set but nothing deeper. “People assumed that because Flo was very big that Linda must have her nose out of joint,” says Polly. “Well, Linda’s a bigger person than that.”

The question persists: How does stick-in-the-mud Holliday transform herself into good-time gal Flo? Well, Polly does smoke—”about three cigarettes a week.” She drinks—”very sparingly” or she gets headaches the next day. And on weekends she whoops it up bike riding, reading, working crosswords and playing Mozart on the piano. And, heyyyy, let’s not forget Holliday’s real blowout. “I love to go to the Laundromat,” Polly admits. “I get a sandwich and coffee and make an afternoon of it. That’s how I get my head together.”

As if that weren’t wild enough, Polly lavishes money on luxuries. Like her stunning 1972 Chevy. Or her regal rented apartment full of rented furniture right in the heart of madcap Burbank. “I’m a person of few wants and very few needs,” Holliday concedes. “I spent 10 years in repertory living with whatever I could fit into a VW, and I like to live that way.”

When it comes to men, anyone who plays Flo, that thrice-divorced truckers’ stop, must keep a lot of motors revving, right? Well, Holliday’s longtime and only love is a divorced New Yorker whom she hasn’t seen this year because of work pressures. “Many times I’ll wonder what I’m doing here with him back there,” muses Polly. “When we talk on the phone, which is about three times a day, I’ll ask him that. And he’ll say, ‘Well, your time [of fame] has come. Now you have to stick with it.’ ”

So Flo’s unbleached roots go back not to Polly’s behavior but to her childhood. Born in Jasper, Ala., Holliday was the daughter of a housewife and a trucker. A “daddy’s girl”—a big regret is that her father died before she created Flo—Polly used to ride with him during summer vacations. “We’d eat at truck stops, and there would always be a waitress like Flo with a joke ready,” she says. “The men would say all kinds of risqué things to her, but it was understood that it wasn’t serious, just a way to make everybody’s day happier.”

After a B.A. in piano at Alabama State College for Women and a post-grad year at Florida State, she taught grade school music before switching to acting with traveling rep companies. Her big shot came in 1974 when Dustin Hoffman (“The most generous person I’ve ever met”) directed her on Broadway in Murray Schisgal’s All Over Town. After it closed Hoffman helped Holliday get a cameo in his All the President’s Men. Then in 1975 that movie’s casting director suggested she audition for Alice. “I decided I wouldn’t dye my hair for the tryout,” remembers Polly, whose shoulder-length tresses started graying at 19. “And I just pushed my normal Alabama accent up a bit. One of the producers actually fell off his chair laughing.”

Remarkably, the role elevated not only Holliday’s income but also her sensitivity. “After I discovered theater, I became very abrupt with my people back home,” she recalls. “But Flo helped me fall in love with my roots. She’s so honest I became honest too.” Polly, who has never been out of the U.S., visits Alabama each summer for a clan reunion but has no plans for a family of her own. “My friend in New York likes to be alone and so do I,” says Polly. “So we haven’t gotten around to discussing marriage. I was reading about Meryl Streep, and I admire her so much for being able to tackle it all—a husband, a baby and a career. I don’t think I could do that. My work is my life.”