BWW Interview: Timothy Busfield and Melissa Gilbert Talk Stage, Screen, Sorkin, and Working Together
Busfield notes, of the movie-of-the-week industry, that those productions "are one-offs, too. People watch them once on network, while cable movies show a hundred times, and then there's pay-per-view." The new television model, with limited-run series and split seasons, also affects viewer interest in one-shot productions.
When it comes to television and movies, Busfield has worked in both, often, and is known well for certain of them. Does he get the most recognition for THE WEST WING, THIRTYSOMETHING, or for being Poindexter in Revenge OF THE NERDS? "The strongest response I get is for Poindexter. Poindexter's my favorite. These days, nobody could see that I could play that. I'm glad I got it when I did. For older audiences, though, the recognition is for TRAPPER JOHN, MD; for our age group, it's THIRTYSOMETHING; for college crowds it's THE WEST WING and Revenge OF THE NERDS. Kids love that. We did a reunion for the actors. It's an enormous cult film; people go to showings of it and know every word."
And speaking of THE WEST WING, that show is hardly Busfield's first professional association with Aaron Sorkin. "I replaced Tom Hulce on Broadway in A FEW GOOD MEN in 1990, in the original run. Then Aaron saw me at the B Street Theatre in MASS APPEAL and he asked me to do his play HIDDEN IN THIS PICTURE [a one-act satire on filmmaking]. I said I'd do it if he did it, and he moved to Sacramento for a few months. He worked on it and we took it into rep with TALLEY'S FOLLY. I lived at his house when we were shooting THE WEST WING I think he's the best writer who's ever lived. I've worked with Neil Simon and other great people, and I think he's [Sorkin] the one who's going to go down in history. He's still not done writing for theatre. He's got so many ideas at work."
While Gilbert isn't as well-known for her stage work as Busfield is, she's had a considerable range of stage experience from THE MIRACLE WORKER to, now, STEEL MAGNOLIAS, and at forty-five she took on her first singing role as Ma Ingalls. She was fourteen when she played Helen Keller in William Gibson's play. "THE MIRACLE WORKER was an amazing experience. Everyone else in it was a stage veteran - Diana Muldaur, Patty Duke, everyone. It was terrifying for me. I was a kid; I had no process. I'd Bitten off more than I could chew. My mother took me to her acting coach, Jeff Corey. He plugged my ears, turned off all the lights, and basically threw me around The Office for an hour. It gave me the physicality the part needed. And Patty spent time talking to me about Helen Keller - even though I think she'd been told not to talk with me about playing her. That helped. It was such a physical play. But I've been lucky that I have yet to have a really bad experience on stage."
Television and stage have coincided for Gilbert twice - once with THE MIRACLE WORKER in 1979, and once with LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. In the latter, however, she moved from Laura, or "Half-Pint," to Ma. "That was weird. Going from Laura to Ma. Singing for the first time at forty-five. I started in the workshops. There are singers who act, and there are actors who sing - I'm an actor who sings. But the music was beautiful. In hind sight, the mistake was that they brought me in because it would sell, but it's a story about a girl and her pa - and they gave me the eleven o'clock number. I think it hurt the artistic integrity. But my son got to play in the ensemble the part my brother played on TV, and I stretched a lot. It was amazing." Does she have any war stories from the tour? "There are so many! A couple of them involved ambulances. We didn't know my back was broken, and I was performing - I'd go off in pain, and that was why, but since it didn't get caught at first, I just went back.
"Now, Detroit - that was good. The cast had split into the over-thirty crowd and the under-thirty crowd, which had a lot of children in it, and I was everyone's mom. The older crowd made it our mission to find all the local foods to eat everywhere we went. In Detroit the local food is the coney dog. There are two coney dog stands. We decided to compare the two places on the same day. I made the mistake of eating four coney dogs - two at each place - and then getting laced into a corset for my costume. And on top of that, of course, I had to sing."
She says that worse than hot dog overload has happened on stage, however. "I remember getting food poisoning when I was onstage in BUS STOP playing Elma. Fortunately I made it off stage to my dressing room. But when I got back it might have been five minutes later, and the cast was doing improv on stage to keep conversation going in the diner, while they were waiting for the waitress to get back. They wound up jamming buckets in the wings for me."
Although both Busfield and Gilbert have active independent careers, they are very close, with an agreement never to work apart for more than three months at a time. It would be a pleasure for audiences to see them together - can we expect that? Busfield and Gilbert are on their way to spend the summer working together in Wilmington, NC, but there's more coming up. "We're shooting a movie in Michigan in December. It's called SILVERDOME, about a former football player who's had repeated concussions, and the effect on his family. Then we'll mount TALLEY'S FOLLY, and I'm developing a TV series for both of us.
Busfield grins at Gilbert. "I watch her on stage and I see so much that people don't know about her. Her grandfather created THE HONEYMOONERS. She got raised around Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle, and all those vaudevillians." She nods happily.
It can't be avoided. Is she the next Gracie Allen? Gilbert smiles broadly at the thought, excited. "I wouldn't say no to that!"
Then Busfield smirks and confides the secret to their happy personal and working relationship: "She likes the Three Stooges! Finding a woman who likes the Three Stooges? That's like finding a man who likes SEX AND THE CITY." They smile at each other. Again.