‘9 to 5’: Dolly Parton Memorized Everyone’s Lines — ‘They Thought That Was the Funniest Thing’

The first movie Dolly Parton ever starred in was 9 to 5 in 1980, along with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. Parton had plenty of TV experience, but the movies were different. The prepared professional that she is, Parton showed up to set the first day having memorized the entire script. Her co-stars got a kick out of that, but it ended up coming in handy throughout filming.

Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda during '9 to 5' 25th Anniversary Special Edition DVD launch party.
Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda | Chris Polk/FilmMagic

Dolly Parton had a lot to learn about film acting

Prior to filming 9 to 5, Parton was no stranger to being in front of the camera.

“I remember when I first started doing TV [in Knoxville], I was a little scared of the camera,” she wrote in her 2020 book, Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics. “One cameraman said, ‘Just follow those two red lights on the camera with your eyes and pretend that they are the eyes of somebody you know. Pretend you’re singing to a friend.’ So I kind of became friends with the camera. Because of all of my TV experience, I was more comfortable with cameras than most people.”

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But the movies are “a whole different world.”

“As far as lighting and standing on your marks are concerned, there’s a whole lot of stuff to learn,” she wrote. “And you’re not allowed to look at the camera, so I had to unlearn some things.”

The cast and crew of ‘9 to 5’ helped Dolly Parton learn the ropes, and she helped them, too

“Lily and Jane were very helpful,” wrote Parton. “Jane is the one who got me in the movie. She was thinking, ‘Dolly will get us the South.’ I told her later as a joke, ‘Well, I might get you some North and East and West, too,’ because I had a lot of fans.”

Other people helped Parton along the way in addition to Fonda and Tomlin.

“Jane said, ‘Don’t worry about acting,” wrote Parton. “Just be yourself. The director will tell you what to do, and you’ll learn.’ Dabney Coleman [who played Mr. Hart] taught me a lot, too. He’s a Texas guy, and we had a great connection. They all knew it was my first time in the movies, so they were all helpful. People are generous.”

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Parton “memorized the whole script.” The cast had a good laugh about that, but it ended up helping them.

“They thought that was the funniest thing they’d ever heard,” she wrote. “But it helped them, because I was feeding them lines when they didn’t remember theirs.”

‘I wrote ‘9 to 5′ in my head that way’

As many film actors do, Parton quickly found herself bored on set waiting between her scenes.

“The thing I hate about the movies is all the waiting-around time,” she wrote. “I realized early on that I had to do something besides just sitting there or going to the crafts [food] table. I did that and gained weight. Jane gave me good advice, so I said to myself, ‘Dolly, you’ve got to stop eating. They do scenes out of sequence, and you can’t go in the door slim and come out fat. You’ve got to watch what you’re doing.'”

So she did what she did best: write songs.

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“I would just take my nails and make them sound like a typewriter,” she wrote. “Off by myself, I would click my nails and use that sound as my music.”

She wrote the film’s titular song that way.

“I’d go back to my hotel at night and put down what I had written that day, playing my guitar and getting it on tape,” she wrote. “Over a long period of time, I wrote the song on my nails. I’m famous for that now. Every time I go on TV, I have to ‘play’ my nails like a typewriter.”