Michael Learned: On the Road With 'Miss Daisy'
Television viewers will continually associate Michael Learned with her role on the long-running series called THE WALTONS. In that show she was a weekly visitor in homes across the country for eight years-and now thanks to the internet, she's recognized in many other countries for her portrayal of the Walton clan. The actress, however, has a strong background in theater and is currently touring in DRIVING MISS DAISY-a role she fully enjoys.
Speaking by telephone, Michael Learned proves to be a delightful conversationalist. Of course, the first question to come up is how such a charming lady was given a name traditionally associated with males? Born of eccentric and charismatic parents, Learned says, "Think of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda meeting the Waltons", the actress comes up with two explanations: her father (who worked for the CIA) told her that if she was a boy he would have named her 'Caleb' but since she was a girl he decided to call her 'Michael'. Her mother's version is that she was named after Michael Strange, the poet who was married to John Barrymore. The actress comes up with her own theory about her name, though. She says, "After a couple of martinis they though it was cute." She admits that her name was a source of embarrassment to her during her childhood, but now it doesn't seem to bother her.
Born in Washington, DC, Learned grew up in Connecticut and Europe and attended a boarding school in England. She traces her interest in theater to her experiences at the boarding school. "I went there because I was interested in ballet but I won the Drama Cup and my teacher told me that I wasn't a particularly good dancer and suggested that I go into drama. I did. I great training and learned about proper breathing while studying Shakespeare and mime. All the groundwork was being done before my body was really formed. It was wonderful."
She continues, "I got married very young and put my career on the back burner for the most part because that's what you did in those days. I've never been a pushy, ambitious type of person anyway. For a long time I was a wife and mother but in Canada I did some work for the CBC. That was back in the days when they did Moliere live. It was extraordinary. My husband, Peter Donat, and I moved to San Francisco to join ACT. It was the highlight of my professional life. We were a professional company and did the classics. We'd be rehearsing one play by day and another one at night. It was just great. It was a company that truly supported the actor. Not many of those companies exist."
Learned was going through a divorce from Donat and had three children to support. "My agent had been trying to get me interested in this part but I didn't think I was right for it," she explains. "I had just played PRIVATE LIVES as well as Cleopatra in ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA and I didn't see myself in the character of a farmwoman. Patricia Neal had played the part in the Movie of the Week version and didn't think we were the same type at all. Mostly, I was just scared of Hollywood but I had no money and three kids. I didn't even read for it. I just tested with Ralph Waite and Richard Thomas and that was great because I just played off of them. Four days later my agent called and told me I had the part. I became the 'Mother of America' at what was probably the lowest point in my life. It was a gift. It was truly a gift. It got my kids through private school and changed my life."
When asked whether her association with THE WALTONS had a positive or negative effect on her career, Learned pauses a moment and says, "It's both. As far as a film career, it hindered me. As far as the theater, it's given me a recognizable name. I was certainly typecast for a while on television because I was always being cast as the 'compassionate mother' or whatever. That's not true now. Certainly in the theater I've been getting to do all sorts of wonderful stuff so I can't complain. I'm booked until the end of the summer and I'm working all the time. I'm grateful that I have a theater career because television isn't kind to you when you're over forty."
Looking back on her career in the theater, Learned feels that she has the fondest memories of a production of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE which Ellis Rabe directed in San Francisco. "Rabe was a dear friend and an excellent directoR. Ellis knew more about theater in his little pinkie than most of us will know in a lifetime."
Recently Michael Learned performed in an Off-Broadway play called THE OUTGOING TIDE. It wasn't her first time playing Off-Broadway because her very first role was at the Fourth Street Theater. This time she was at the Fifty Ninth Street Theater and the play was well received. "Its subject matter was of a man who decided to take his life rather than descend into dementia," Learned says. "The playwright, Bruce Graham, somehow found ways to make it both funny and poignant. A lot of people were deeply moved by it. I think this is the kind of play that will be done all over the country. Edward Albee came to see it and came back stage saying, 'Why the show was closing?' It may be brought back to another Off Broadway venue but I don't see it working on Broadway. I could be wrong. I don't think I'll be part of it, though. It's a harrowing play to do every night and it struck pretty close to home in several instances. I found that I felt much better when it was over."
The actress is very much looking forward to doing DRIVING MISS DAISY, though. You see, Learned finds that her grandmother was very much like the title character. "She had a relationship with her chauffeur and he was a man named Ambrose Lewis. He and my grandmother had a very intense relationship. She always rode in the back of the car. At the end of her life he bathed her, and took care of her and found her a home when he had a heart attack. When she descended into dementia, he was the only person she recognized. He was an amazing man. She'd fire him and then would run after him, begging him to come back. I suspect they were lovers but I was never sure. He denied it."
Performing Miss Daisy has an unusual effect on Learned. "I feel like I'm channeling my grandmother. She was a tough woman but fabulous. She spoke several languages and was amazing in every way. I have the privilege of doing it opposite an actor named Lance Nichols. I don't know if you've ever seen a cable series TREME which is about people trying to re-build their lives after Katrina in New Orleans. He's very good in that." The play opens in Jacksonville and then goes to North Carolina. After a short break she goes up to Edmonton, Canada for another stretch in the play.
It will be a true delight to see Michael Learned play Miss Daisy. The character is nothing like her role in THE WALTONS and certainly won't end with the cast bidding each other goodnight.