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BWW Interview: Stockard Channing on Her Road to a Tony, Emmys and More!

Screen Actors Guild Foundation and Broadway World have partnered for filmed Conversations Q&A series to recognize and celebrate the vibrant theatre community in New York City and the union actors who aspire to have a career on the stage and screen. The most recent conversation featured Broadway legend Stockard Channing, moderated by BroadwayWorld's Richard Ridge.

Below, she discusses her path to winning a Tony Award, how she ended up on The West Wing, and so much more!


So after some time in LA you came back to New York?

After that I felt like my life really began. When I went to Williamstown and did Joe Egg, I wrote three letters to the three producers I knew and one of them was Arvin Brown, who ran Long Wharf at the time, and he said we are going to do Joe Egg with Richard Dreyfuss this summer. And I said, 'Really?!' and I did it. Then I went to Long Wharf and had huge lovely raves from the papers. It took us four years to get it on Broadway because Richard didn't want to do it and Jim Dale ended up doing it and it turned into a wonderful thing- short lived but wonderful. I felt like my life was back on track.

You won a Tony Award for that?

Yes, I did.

You had a lot to do with bringing it to Broadway, didn't you?

We all did. I remember Johnny Lithrow saying to me at the time, "It's a mandate, and of course you are coming." Everybody thought everybody else was doing it. I did march into Shubert's office myself and said, 'We are just closing in a week, don't you guys want to do it?' I was shameless. Jerry and Bernie sat there and said, 'Well my dear, you know you could win a Tony for this?' and I went 'Kenahora.' [Laughs]

I was shameless and I went skittering back to Manny Azenberg's office, who set the whole thing up. He's there with all his orchids and I'm sitting there going, "I need to go." The phone rings and he said, "Yeah, I think it definitely would go don't you Bernie? Yeah, oh wait a minute." Suddenly it was afternoon; I went running back to the theatre saying, "I think we did it!" It was like out of some horrible Hollywood movie 1935 and we did it. They went for it.

Let's get into Six Degrees. You received an Obie Award, the Drama League Award and numerous other nominations. The Tony nomination, an Oscar nomination for the brilliant portrayal in the film... What did that role mean to you?

It was like four years of my life starting with Mitzi, then going to the Beaumont and then we went to London and then we did the movie. It was all with different cast members. It took about four years.

But it started like it would be six weeks?

Yes.

And it was sort of being rewritten as you went along?

I realize I could be mushy by saying I don't know what my motivation is going to be here. It had to be clean and then it came to me. Remember there was a wonderful actor, and he said, 'Oh my friends came and they loved you.' I said what do they like about her because I realize my own background I was thinking Upper Park Avenue, he said, 'she tells the truth.' Bingo! That was it. I realized you can be as ladidah as you like but that was the thing about Ouisa was a honest, honest soul, a pure soul.

Your portrayal of a sophisticated world-weary Vera Simpson in the recent production of Pal Joey was one of the most glorious musical theatre performances. What did taking on that role mean to you?

Well a lot, just singing that damn song. I loved it. So when Paul Gemignani and I worked on it and Joe [Mantello]. He said he didn't want it sort of laddadada! He wanted that chamber thing. So we thought, what had just gone on? She just had sex with the gorgeous young man. I said, 'I can really sing guys. I can sing really loud and big' and he said, 'No you have to sing it soft' and sometimes my voice would crack. But it was real of what she was going through it was like this little monologue of her mixed feelings about her insecurities.

You received three Emmy Awards throughout your vast television career. You are known to millions of fans for your betrayal of first lady Abbey Bartlet on The West Wing. How did The West Wing happen for you originally?

I was in Canada making a movie and I got a call from my agent saying we are talking about this part in, West Wing and I had just seen the pilot on the television in the hotel room. It was like October or something and they had just gone and I said that's a great show and sent me the script. I had very little to do in it. I said, 'that was a waste of chop.' I was going hiking; I had six days off from this movie. I was going hiking in Canada; I had a duffle coat and my boots. I was in Calgary changing planes and I got a call saying, 'Don't get on that plane, we will work this out. We can do this.'

I got in the other plane and I went to LA. No rehearsals or anything. They poured me into this ill-fitting evening dress. I said, 'What am I doing here?' Martin [Sheen] was in a white tie and tails, sneaking a cigarette behind the set. I said, 'Hello, hi have we never met? Nice to meet you.' They came and said 'They are ready for you now.' We got on top of a stairway. It was a state dinnera and there were hundreds of extras. I asked him, 'How long have we been married?' Someone yelled, action and we went down the stairs and we went back to the top. Then they say take two, at the top of the stairs he says, 'We've been married thirty-five years and have a grandchild. I say, 'What?'

It turned out we had great chemistry. There were a couple of moments where we loved it, the ratings went up. Aaron [Sorkin] and I had lunch and he said, 'You know, I am thinking of making you a doctor.' I said 'Okay.' He said 'I wrote the teaser and I made Bartlet have with a cold. I think you are his doctor and I think he has MS.' I said, 'Really? Okay I don't know what to say to that.' That's where the seed of the plot line came from. Where she holds a secret and later loses her licence, that's how Aaron's brain works.

I love how it started out as a little guest spot.

If he had probably written the teaser after lunch, it never would have worked that way.

Click here to watch the full interview.

Channing was recently seen on Broadway in Other Desert Cities directed by Joe Mantello, for which she garnered Tony and Drama Desk nominations. Receiving the Tony Award for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, she is also Tony-nominated for her roles in Pal Joey, The Lion in Winter, and John Guare's Four Baboons Adoring the Sun, The House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation, for which she also received an Drama League Award, Obie Award and an Olivier nomination for the London Production, and was subsequently nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe reprising her role for the 1993 film version.

Other stage credits include the musical version of Two Gentleman of Verona, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Little Foxes, Hapgood (Drama Desk Nomination), Woman in Mind for which she won a Drama Desk Award, The Rink, The Golden Age, They're Playing Our Song and Love Letters which she premiered off-Broadway. Channing's first major television role was in Joan River's The Girl Most Likely To. Since that breakout she has accumulated a total of 13 Emmy nominations and three Emmy Awards, including those for her television roles in "Jack", "The Matthew Shepard Story" and "The West Wing", the latter two also garnered her two SAG Awards. She can currently be seen in a recurring role on "The Good Wife."

Her first leading role on the big screen was in Mike Nichols' The Fortune opposite Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson for which was was nominated for a Golden Globe. Among her other films include Sweet Revenge, The Big Bus, Practical Magic, The First Wives Club, Moll Flanders, Le divorce, Up Close & Personal, Heartburn, Where the Heart Is, Smoke (SAG nomination) and Grease, earning a People's Choice Award for her performance as bad girl Rizzo. Channing received a London Film Critics Circle Award and an AFI Best Actress nomination for The Business of Strangers. Currently Stockard Channing is on Broadway in Terrence McNally's It's Only a Play.


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