April 2, 1953 – April 5, 2005
by Mark Langlois
Debralee Scott was seldom off USA television screens in the years 1976-1980. The death of the comic actress at age 52 came as a shock to the friends and fans who adored her.
Debralee Scott grew up in Elizabeth, NJ and Shroudsburg, PA. At age 16, she joined her two older sisters in San Francisco and attended Galileo High School. She began acting in local theater and was cast in small roles in the films “Dirty Harry” (as a corpse) and “American Graffiti” (as Harrison Ford’s girlfriend: “Ain’t he neat?”).
Her older sister Carol Ann Scott married American Theater Ensemble’s artistic director William Bushnell, and became known as Scott (Scotty) Bushnell. Scotty worked her way into legendary film director’s, Robert Altman’s, team from a wardrobe assistant to associate producer and eventually became Altman’s most notorious gatekeeper in his 70’s heyday.
Debralee moved to Hollywood in the mid-70s and got an agent. At 22, she landed her major role on “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” as the lead’s promiscuous sister Cathy Shumway.
The soap opera satire by Norman Lear taped at KTLA/Sunset-Bronson Studios bordering Fernwood Ave – from which the show’s setting, “Fernwood,” was named.
Debralee hung out between scenes watching Donny & Marie Osmond tape their 1976 variety show on that same lot. She told a Rolling Stone mag interviewer that she wanted to deflower Donny but his equally virginal sister was always hovering. “You better believe she’s never been laid, are you kidding? That’s the way those Mormons are. They don’t believe in sex for pleasure – only to make babies. But if you’ve ever noticed, they sure have a hell of a lot of babies… They don’t like to f*ck but they sure like to make babies!”
She also appeared semi-regularly on Welcome Back Kotter as Rosalie “Hotsy” Totsy – a Brooklyn girl with a bad reputation.
A remembrance internet site (blogofdeath.com) posting from an old friend “Pete the Cat” said that “[Debralee] loved to wake up to Joni Mitchell’s “Twisted”. She would dance around wildly, singing along…to prepare for the day.”
Another old friend “Ted” from the Mary Hartman days shared on the site:”What was real about her was when the public came over for autographs at the table when we were out, she always introduced me to them.”
In 1977, she was one of 2 actresses considered for the part of Marty in the film “Grease” – but it went to Dinah Manoff.
When Mary Hartman/Forever Fernwood ended in 1978, Debralee stayed visible as a fun celebrity quiz show guest on $20,000 PYRAMID, SUPER PASSWORD and MATCH GAME.
She also appeared many times on The Merv Griffin Show. Debralee said that Merv always told her that she reminded him of a young Judy Garland (both fun-loving witty gals with overbites).
Debralee also sang “Bad Girls” with Twiggy and Pat Ast in the DONNA SUMMER SPECIAL (1980).
She was also cast alongside Doris Roberts and Donna Pescow in ABC-TV’s sitcom,Angie. The show fizzled after 2 years but it brought her onto All-Star Family Feud to kick ass with her brilliant mind and competitive edge.
In the mid-1980s, Debralee was also seen in the slasher film spoof Pandemonium and in Police Academy. By the mid-1990s, Debralee joined her middle sister Jeri Scott in the talent management business. Debralee represented actors at the agency: Empowered Artists.
During Summer 2000, Debralee and her former “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” castmates assembled at the Museum of TV-Beverly Hills for a retrospective panel and Q&A. Debralee warmly chatted with fans afterwards and took photos. I (Mark L.) was there and thought she was the coolest. She was spotted again at a December 2000 charity event held at the Conga Room on Wilshire Blvd. She was her friendly, delightful self and it was fun to watch people’s heads turn as she waited for her car at the valet stand. Everybody recognized that face, voice and auburn feathered hair – even if they couldn’t recall her name. Debralee just smiled, waved and drove off.
The following year, 2001, she became engaged to a NYC policeman named John Dennis Levi who worked for the Port Authority of NY and NJ. They had met 5 years earlier on December 15, 1995 at the Greenwich Village bar “Hogs & Heifers”. Debralee hit it off with the rugged, tattooed, Harley-riding man. They made a date to go to dinner. “It was love at first sight,” said Debralee.
Just over five years later in a Winslow, Arizona hotel room during a cross country trip, John proposed and she accepted. They planned a March 2002 wedding and she settled into John’s multi-unit home in Brooklyn where John had created a storefront beauty parlor for his mother who also lived in the building.
John reportedly took a call for overtime at 6am on Sept. 11, 2001 because he liked to spend weekends with Debralee. He was on duty when the first plane hit and he called her to check in.
Debralee received one more call from her fiancé as he headed to the WTC basement level to search for evidence. He perished with thousands of others that day when the twin towers fell.
John Levi’s visitation service was held at the D.J. Schaefer Funeral Home (4123 4th Avenue, Brooklyn) with his funeral Mass held the next day on December 15th 2001 at St. Michael’s RC Church (352 42nd Street, Brooklyn). He is memorialized in the 9/11 Memorial.
Debralee continued to live in the building with John’s elderly mother. She told the local press that they were finishing wallpaper projects that John planned to do. As families began submitting claims to the Victim’s Compensation Fund, Debralee told the press in December 2001 that the family was in dire need of financial help.
“I don’t need $150 million – I just need enough to get through the holidays and to get a new job,” she said. “I’ll take what they give me.”
In March 2005, Debralee moved to Florida to be with her retired sister Scotty who was ill with emphysema and heart ailments. Shortly after moving to her sister’s home on the south end of Amelia Island, FL – Debralee collapsed and lingered in a coma for several days. She awoke and was asked if she knew where she was. She replied, “Obviously in the hospital.” Doctors reportedly could not determine the cause of the coma and she was released for her 52nd birthday – 2 days later. Three days after that, on April 5, 2005, she went to nap and never woke up.
Though some Internet sites say a autopsy was inconclusive as to the cause of death, other sources say her drinking had escalated after John’s death – and she was battling cirrhosis of the liver.
The National Enquirer (May 2, 2005, p. 38): “Debralee had cirrhosis of the liver from her drinking,” said Joanne Priavity, mother of Scott’s fiancé.
Debralee was cremated. Her sister Jeri told the press that Debralee died of “natural causes”.
Debralee’s lifelong chum, actress Anne Lockhart (daughter of June), summed up her friend’s death this way: “The truth is, in spite of her disease, that sweet soul died of a broken heart.”