Her mother used to say that Sally Struthers was "born with funny," and when she dies, the actress wants her epitaph to read: "Here Lies a Clown."
"I come from the school of 'I Love Lucy,'" said Struthers, star of a touring production of the Broadway classic "Hello, Dolly!," which will stop at the Rabobank Theater in Bakersfield on Feb. 27.
Struthers is part of a long line of legendary actresses who have played Dolly Gallagher Levi -- from Shirley Booth in "The Matchmaker," the name of the original play by Thornton Wilder, to the musical's many stars: Carol Channing, Betty Grable, Martha Raye, Pearl Bailey, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin and, in the film version, Barbra Streisand.
Rather than be intimidated at the prospect of following such legends of the theater and screen, Struthers approached the role of Dolly like she would any other -- as an actress, finding out what makes the character tick.
"She's just so quick, her mind is so facile," Struthers said. "She's a manipulator, but her intentions are good -- she wouldn't do anything evil.
"I'm plumbing the depths of the parts of the comedy and the touching parts."
Struthers' breakthrough role -- for which she won two Emmys -- was as Gloria, the daughter of Archie and Edith Bunker on the landmark 1970s television sitcom "All in the Family."
The role required the actress to develop not only her comedy chops but her dramatic skills as well, owing to the show's forays into gritty topics like social injustice, politics and tense family dynamics.
Still, Struthers managed to find the time to establish herself as a singer.
"I've sung a lot but people don't remember," Struthers said. "I sang on all the variety shows of the 1970s -- Sonny and Cher, Carol Burnett, the Perry Como Christmas specials, the Bob Hope Christmas specials, so many."
While continuing her television and film career, Struthers returned to her first love: live theater, a passion that began in childhood, followed by two years of training at the Pasadena Playhouse Theater School. Her stage credits include Broadway productions of "Grease," "Annie," and the all-female version of "The Odd Couple," plus numerous productions for regional theaters and touring companies, including "Nunsense," "Always ... Patsy Cline," "The Full Monty" and more.
Despite her love for performing live, Struthers admitted musical theater is no picnic.
"No one calls 'Cut! Let's do that again,'" Struthers said. "You're flying without a net, and you have to save yourself a little for the next day."
Struthers recalled an embarrassing stumble during a performance of the musical number "Dancing" in "Hello, Dolly!"
"I fell onstage like Oregon timber," said the Oregon native. "Live theater is not for sissies."
But Struthers, who is grateful for her long career, has proved her staying power.
"I've just been so lucky. I have friends who are so much more talented than I and they're not working."
"I'm 66," she said. "How many women in their 60s get to play the lead in anything?"
Growing up, Struthers was content to make just her family laugh, but hearing the audience react every night is just as sweet.
"I want to make them laugh uproariously, I want them to be moved to tears, and I want them to feel moved to stand and applaud."
Humanitarian work has exacted a price
Struthers has spent almost as much time speaking out for poor children around the world as she has making people laugh.
"I've always said that for 35 years I've made myself part of the solution instead of part of the problem," Struthers said.
Part of the solution was being the spokeswoman for the Christian Children's Fund, known since 2009 as ChildFund, a sponsorship program whose intent is to help entire communities. Struthers said she felt it was her responsibility to take action.
"When you have a name that's known, you can't squander that. You have to do some good."
That "good" has included helping to wipe out hunger in several villages and setting up educational opportunities for children in others.
Although freely given on her part, the activist conceded her work has cost her.
In her travels to countries in Africa and Southeast Asia, she found it painful to see so much suffering. She said she also contracted hepatitis B during her work, and she has been threatened with violence.
"We were in Uganda," Struthers recalled. "We were accused of kidnapping a Ugandan child we were trying to help."
Struthers said guerrillas pointed guns at her and her companions.
"A Catholic priest was able to talk to them, and we were hurried away," Struthers said.
The impact on her health, safety and the need to take care of her own family caused her to step back from her role with ChildFund, but she has not abandoned her efforts.
She plans to join a group going to India in 2015 to help women there learn to run water purification plants.
"I've had some scary stuff happen, but I've also had the joy of seeing kids who got an education, kids who aren't hungry and those who have a chance at a better life because they are prepared for work," Struthers said.