Fans of American actress Melora Hardin who associate her exclusively with her characterization of Jan Levinson-Gould — Michael Scott’s stone-faced manager and sometimes lover, on the smash NBC series The Office — may be surprised and delighted to discover several exciting facts about the history of her career. First, her work stretches back many decades, into her primary school years, encompassing everything from Disney movies to prime-time series dramas of the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s to commercials to acclaimed feature films; she directs and edits films as well. Second, Hardin moonlights as an accomplished and gifted singer/songwriter — a nightclub chanteuse known for sultry cabaret-style numbers, who has issued a number of acclaimed albums of her own material, including Meloradrama and Purr. And finally, this comedian’s wit extends far beyond her crack-comic onscreen timing. A parodist who loves to play with her own image, Hardin runs her own website, with a series of funny-sexy (yet inexplicit) cheesecake photos that serve as throwbacks to the peek-a-boo erotica days of the mid-’50s while subtly parodying and calling attention to those setups.
Given both of her parents’ long tenures in film and television (her father is character actor Jerry Hardin and her mother is acting coach Diane Hill Hardin), drama came preternaturally for Hardin, and she commenced work as a child star at age six. One of her earliest assignments involved plugging Peak Toothpaste on a television commercial; she later joined the ensemble cast of a live-action children’s program on NBC (circa 1977, at age ten) called Cliffwood Avenue Kids, which (as late-Gen X television babies may recall) typically aired during early weekday evenings after The Flintstones. A series of failed pilots ensued for Hardin, beginning with the late-’70s drama Thunder and encompassing over a dozen others over the next two decades.
Hardin debuted cinematically at age 11, with a high-profile role in the goofball Disney comedy The North Avenue Irregulars, opposite Susan Clark and Cloris Leachman and directed by Hogan’s Heroes vet Bruce Bilson. She followed this up with many additional roles in A- and B-list features throughout the ’80s and ’90s, but while her work shone, the films themselves often failed to catch fire; her resumé includes such forgettable fare as Iron Eagle (1985) and Soul Man (1986). A number of pictures, however, marked happy exceptions: Hardin contributed a small onscreen singing role to the fine Disney period adventure The Rocketeer (1991), and several of her songs highlighted the film’s soundtrack. She also appeared in Clint Eastwood’s enormously underrated, oft-humorous 1997 crime thriller Absolute Power (as Christy Sullivan, the homicide victim of Gene Hackman’s lecherous president), and made a solid contribution to the satire Thank You for Smoking, opposite Aaron Eckhart.
Hardin fared particularly well on television, with single- and dual-episode appearances over the years in such dramas as Little House on the Prairie, Quincy, M.E., and Murder, She Wrote. The Office, of course, represented a watershed moment for Hardin. Adapted skillfully by Greg Daniels from the British series of the same name by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the NBC sitcom follows the colorful employees of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company’s Scranton branch — led by one Michael Scott (Steve Carell), a sweet-natured but desperately lonely and outrageously uncouth manager. Low-key, iconoclastic, and unconventional, the program eschewed a laugh track and underplayed (to the nth degree) every one of its gags, relying on a bevy of character eccentricities to procure laughs. The episodes had Hardin (as Michael’s manager) typically playing straight man to Carell’s goofball, and saw the unlikeliest of employer-employee romances blossoming between them over the course of the first two seasons. Thanks to an extraordinary cast and crew, The Office instantly shot up to qualify as one of NBC’s highest rated new series after its March 2005 debut; many proclaimed it as the funniest American sitcom since Seinfeld.
Meanwhile, Hardin continued to hone her craft in other arenas. She first helmed the regional theatrical production of friend Adria Tennor’s one-woman show Strip Search. Tagged as “Love and a 12-Foot Pole,” and authored by and starring Tennor, this colorful yet surprisingly touching seriocomedy recounts the tale of a woman who undertakes a journey of self-discovery and ultimately finds her dying passion in strip dancing classes. Hardin then directed and edited an independent film entitled You that husband Gildart Jackson scripted. The motion picture stars Jackson and both of Hardin’s parents, as well as Joely Fisher and The Office’s Kate Flannery.
In 2006, Hardin returned to big-screen work, signing with Fox Atomic and Tapestry Films to co-star in the Tom Brady-directed sports comedy The Comebacks. The film relays the story of a football coach (David Koechner) commissioned to whip a down-and-out football team into shape.