BWW Interview: Timothy Busfield and Melissa Gilbert Talk Stage, Screen, Sorkin, and Working Together
Actors Timothy Busfield and Melissa Gilbert, recently married, are among America's best-known television actors, though both have a cut a wide swath through American acting as a whole. Busfield, who is known for his television roles in THIRTYSOMETHING and THE WEST WING, also starred in such classic films as Revenge OF THE NERDS on the one hand and in FIELD OF DREAMS on the other. He also created Sacramento's B Street Theatre, and appeared on Broadway in the first of his major projects with Aaron Sorkin, A FEW GOOD MEN. Gilbert, best known for playing Laura Ingalls in LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, has also starred in numerous television films and headlined the national tour of the LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE musical, as well as appearing Off-Broadway. While on LITTLE HOUSE, she reprised Patty Duke's role as Helen Keller in THE MIRACLE WORKER on both stage and screen (Duke played Annie Sullivan against Gilbert).
Gilbert is finishing a stretch at Totem Pole Playhouse in Fayetteville, Pennsylvania, one of America's classic summer playhouses, and Busfield is with her, getting ready for them to spend the summer filming in Wilmington, North Carolina as soon as Gilbert's play ends. It's a far distance from their northern Midwestern home in Howell, Michigan, where they've left the Los Angeles sprawl behind. Broadway World caught up with them at lunch at a historic inn in nearby Gettysburg, where they shared some thoughts about their careers, their passions, and the modern theatre and television scenes.
Central Pennsylvania can be rural, but it's still somewhat more populous than their current home, Howell, which boasts at most ten thousand people. What was the attraction of this quiet Midwestern town that's not exactly on the prairie? Busfield, raised in East Lansing, explains. "I wanted to make it easy to get in and out of the Detroit airport. Lansing, you have to connect everywhere. And I wanted to be on a lake. I was in Holly originally in a one-bedroom house. Melissa and Michael [Gilbert's son] loved it. Melissa said she'd make the move to Michigan, and we realized - we're commuters."
Gilbert adds, "And we wanted to be in a small town, too. We've lived in big towns our whole lives. It was time. And in Los Angeles, if you're not working at the moment, people ask you if you're okay like you've got a terminal disease. But when I'm not doing one kind of creative work - acting - I'm doing others. I might be writing. I might be making jam. I'm always doing some kind of creative work. Smaller towns can appreciate that."
Over his iced tea, Busfield expounds further: "I'd lived in LA, and by '86 I'd moved to Sacramento. I'd run back and forth. I'm not a fan of living in LA when I'm not working there. To the question of whether you'll work if you don't live in LA, the answer is 'yes.'" (Gilbert adds that she frequently auditions for various roles by sending videos, which can be taped in Howell as easily as in Los Angeles. She finds no disadvantage to finding work while living elsewhere.) Both are also interested in growing their own work opportunities, as well; they find it's time to create their own projects, not just work in or direct others' projects - Busfield has been behind the camera lately, as well as becoming Benjamin Franklin on SLEEPY HOLLOW's second season. They have plans for a theatre company, as well as taking up on incentives to use Michigan as a location for film projects.
We ask Gilbert to tell us more about the town of Howell that's become the Busfields' new home. She's excited by the most important fact - "We have four seasons! I adore having a change of seasons. It's a reset button. I didn't realize, living in LA my entire life.
"We're part of the area now," she tells us over her drink. "The hard part about moving was leaving my girlfriends and my kids living in LA. And of course, you have to re-establish your entire life when you make a major move. But everyone's been warm and friendly. We live downtown in Howell, which is really good. We didn't lose Power during the polar vortex, like the outlying areas. And there are people around you, which is comforting when you're the only one at home.
"It's a very gentle, peaceful existence. There are about 9,000 people; there are maybe five blocks of downtown. It's very rural." That she loves it is evident from her expression. It also makes us wonder how she feels about the towns she's working between in the central Pennsylvania forest the theatre is in. "You know there's no Whole Foods out here. But you know, farmers' markets! There are farmers markets in Howell, and there are Amish markets here - same thing, really. It's great to go out driving to different places for your food, not just run to a supermarket for everything." Busfield points out, truthfully, that there's no novelty to working in a rural area between two small towns when they live in a similar setting; it's different for actors who have spent years in Los Angeles.
The Busfields look at each other, smile, and touch hands as we ask about the restoration of Howell's historic opera house, which was one of the things that lured them to the town. Are they still considering basing a theatre company there? "We're waiting for them to renovate it!" exclaims Gilbert. "It's a fantastic space, but it'll take millions. It's one of the reasons we looked at Howell. We've offered to put on [Lanford Wilson's] TALLEY'S FOLLY to get attention to it."
Busfield adds that "we're going to do TALLEY'S FOLLY anyway. It's such a perfectly romantic waltz." Gilbert tacks on that, whatever its housing situation, they plan to go ahead with their theatre plans in the area.
Gilbert has said recently that her TV-movie work has declined. What's happened to the once-prominent made-for-TV movie? Surely Lifetime and Hallmark have made it an industry? "It's a combination of things. When the movie of the week first came around there were fewer outlets. HBO and cable started doing full feature films for television, and the small TV-movie dried up." Does she have any desire to expand her career by becoming a scream queen on SyFy, as Karen Black did by going into the horror repertoire on movies of the week? "I don't think I could do that!" she laughs. "That's Karen's territory, and it can stay her territory." She shakes her head, still amused. "I get a lot of requests to do Christian movies, which I decline. Movies that play for megachurch audiences. The scripts I've seen aren't very good." Gilbert, whose mother is Jewish and raised her adopted daughter as Jewish, adds that "Having good values also doesn't mean you're Christian."