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In appreciation: Cindy Morgan, almost famous, never a pushover, was forever Lacey Underall in ‘Caddyshack’

Christopher Borrelli
Chicago Tribune

Cindy Morgan, daughter of Chicago, now permanent resident of the movies, died last month. She was 69. It’s OK if you’ve never heard of her. She was never a brand-name actress. Or a character actress, flitting in and out of roles, vaguely familiar. She was more like a lot of actors in movie history whose names never appeared above titles. She had medium-sized parts in a couple of well-known movies that never faded out from our heads, and therefore, she never really faded, either. She became like that random stranger in the background of a family vacation photo, incidental to the memory, yet having been in the right place at the right time, forever a part of the family.

Cindy Morgan was born Cynthia Ann Cichorski in Bucktown, in 1954.

Her mother was German, and her father was from Poland and emigrated to Chicago during the Great Depression. After graduating from Northern Illinois University with a communications degree, she mailed out two sets of resumes, some as Cynthia Ann Cichorski, some as Cindy Morgan. Only Cindy Morgan got interviews. Cindy Morgan was sharp and sly and knew how to impress, and Cynthia Ann Cichorski was never heard from again. A few years after kicking around radio and TV stations in Illinois, Morgan left for Los Angeles. She wanted to be in commercials. Maybe even movies. She had no acting experience, yet, eight months later, she auditioned for a comedy.

“‘Animal House’ on a golf course” — that’s how producers described it.

They asked Morgan if had any acting experience or training. She told them she studied at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, though, in reality, Morgan wasn’t sure where the Goodman was. She read for the role of Lacey Underall, the niece of the founder of a snooty country club. The part was small. She was eye catching, more or less. A temptress.

She was hired to smolder, little more.

Except, the way Morgan played Lacey Underall in the movie — her first movie, eventually titled “Caddyshack” — she was sexually nonchalant, confident, smart, skeptical, funny, slinky, tough and indelible. It was more of an achievement than moviegoers knew. The film, made by Harold Ramis, was often improvised and cobbled together, one stoned, hungover day after the next. Asked by Chevy Chase’s bachelor what she does for fun, Lacey says “skinny skiing.” Then adds, “going to bullfights on acid.” She held her own alongside Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight, Bill Murray.

She died alone at her home in Florida, less than an hour from the Fort Lauderdale golf course where “Caddyshack” was mostly filmed. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement it’s unclear when she died, but the reason was likely natural causes.

Her career never did soar.

Though she landed movies and TV shows less than a year after leaving Chicago, though she became the face of Irish Spring soap commercials, by 1982, during an appearance on “The Tonight Show” to promote the Disney adventure “Tron,” even Johnny Carson didn’t remember she was in “Caddyshack,” then only two years previous.

“Yeah,” she replied, deadpan, with a bit of Lacey, “I was ‘the girl,’ again.”

Morgan played the girl in “Tron.” It would be her last major big-screen appearance. She almost got Kim Cattrall’s role in “Police Academy” and almost got Linda Hamilton’s role in “The Terminator.” But no. Instead, if you watched a lot of junk TV in the 1980s, you saw her occasionally, in “The Love Boat,” “Matlock,” “Falcon Crest,” “The Fall Guy,” “Vega$,” “CHiPs,” usually playing “the girl.” She had champions. Doug Kenney, who co-wrote “Caddyshack” and “Animal House,” was convinced of Morgan’s potential for transcending one-note femme fatales. He asked Warner Bros. to screen “To Have and Have Not” for her, so that she could study Lauren Bacall and fine-tune her verbal pingpong. Less than a month after “Caddyshack” opened, Kenney fell to his death in Hawaii.

Morgan — who attended Mother Theodore Guerin High School in River Grove (then an all-girls school, now closed), and was working late in her life on a memoir titled “From Catholic School to Caddyshack” — was rarely comfortable playing a seductress. She stuttered so much at NIU that she was initially placed in a speech class. In Chris Nashawaty’s definitive history, “Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story,” the author compares Morgan’s first scene, at a pool, wearing a black one-piece and high heels, to Jayne Mansfield “swishing and shimmying” in “The Girl Can’t Help It.”

And yet, after the movie became a classic and Morgan was sought by fans and journalists, she would point out that, when that film was shot in 1979, she was legally blind without contacts, a bad swimmer and afraid of heights (but dove from a ladder).

She radiated glamour, laced with a native Chicagoan’s self-deflation.

In another life, she might have been Jennifer Lawrence. As a teenager, for work, Morgan soldered snowmobile circuit boards at a Stewart-Warner manufacturing facility in Chicago, a job she landed because her father was a plant manager. She was a straight-A student at Mother Theodore, yet, uneasy at how few women attended an open house at Illinois Institute of Technology, opted for NIU. She started out as a “weather girl” for a Rockford TV station, but was so bad, she told WGN radio, that after a newscast, her boss would take a Sharpie and write “Pacific” and “Atlantic” on the maps.

Her confidence grew once she returned to Chicago and settled into WSDM-FM (later WLUP “The Loop,” now WCKL). She spent five years as a morning drive-time DJ and engineer, until one day a station manager called during her shift: Overtime was being eliminated. She hung up and, while a record was spinning on the turntable, walked out.

She headed to Los Angeles, certain she would find herself among true professionals — serious filmmakers and intimidating cinematographers and only the finest screenwriters.

She found herself making “Caddyshack,” a seat-of-the-pants production she described as “a wrap party, every night,” a hedonistic ‘70s bacchanal. As she told Nashawaty, the morning after Murray’s first day of shooting, she and Murray woke up naked on a beach.

That job, a defining event of her life, was rough.

Without her knowledge, producers invited Playboy to the set to photograph her nude scenes; though still in her 20s, working in Hollywood for the first time, she refused to play along. She also said that after Chase insulted her lack of experience, the two had to be coaxed into scenes together. Even after being hired, she was unsure if she was staying: producers really wanted Bo Derek or a young Michelle Pfeiffer for the role.

What details there are of her death are lonesome. Morgan was last seen alive just before Christmas. She had a roommate who returned home on Dec. 30 and reported a foul smell coming out of Morgan’s bedroom, where police found the actress dead. Details on surviving family were not immediately available.

Sad as that sounds, she always had appreciators. She spent years as a familiar face on the comic book and fan convention circuit, signing autographs, happy to regale fans with behind-the-scenes gossip. She knew, that if the fans happened to be middle-aged men who could quote “Caddyshack” all day long, she was seared into their memories. She liked to say that they would approach her, a woman of a certain age, but soon an image of Lacey Underall would come into focus and Cindy Morgan was almost famous again.

©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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