InDepth InterView: Anita Gillette Talks BYE BYE BIRDIE, 30 ROCK, Birdland, Golden Age & A Career Retrospective
Today we are talking to a celebrated comedienne and actress known for her decades-spanning career on screens and stages large and small - from making her Broadway debut in the original Jerome Robbins production of GYPSY on Broadway in 1960 to her many musical roles throughout the 60s in CABARET, ALL AMERICAN, JIMMY, KELLY, CARNIVAL!, MR. PRESIDENT to name but a few to her countless game show and variety show appearances following that such as on MATCH GAME and TO TELL THE TRUTH all the way to creating an unforgettable character in Norman Jewison's iconic MOONSTRUCK in the 1980s, as well as her subsequent oft-Neil Simon-written stage work CHAPTER TWO, THEY'RE PLAYING OUR SONG and BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS included; not to mention Woody Allen's DON'T DRINK THE WATER; who, now, enjoys playing Tina Fey's sweet and daffy mom on NBC's 30 ROCK and, most recently, appeared in Nora & Delia Ephron's LOVE, LOSS AND WHAT I WORE as well as in the Playwright's Horizons premiere production of THE BIG MEAL Off-Broadway - a true one of a kind, Anita Gillette. Analyzing her fifty-year career and sharing candid stories of her relationships with some of Broadway and Hollywood's brightest talents - Jule Styne to Ethel Merman to Irving Berlin to Burt Lancaster and beyond - Gillette paints a vivid portrait of the tail-end of the Golden Age on Broadway and the heady game show days of variety TV in the 1960s and 70s, while also shining a light on her lauded stage work with Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and many of the great comedy and musical writers of all time. Additionally, Gillette and I discuss her current essaying of the role of Mae Peterson in the new Reagle Music Theatre production of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams's classic BYE BYE BIRDIE in Massachusetts as she looks towards opening night tomorrow and relates her joy in participating in a production that has some behind-the-scenes help by her loving granddaughter while yet another attends their theatre summer camp. Plus, Gillette's observations on sharing a soundstage with Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, Elaine Stritch and Buck Henry for a recent 30 ROCK shoot, filming Marg Helgenberger's final scene on CSI, reflections on her own most fondly remembered film roles, hilarious memories of appearing in some short-running flops as well as in some big hits; all about her upcoming series of master classes titled "Life In The Business", her return to Birdland with her concert show AFTER ALL, her role in an upcoming Ed Burns film, FITZGERALD'S FAMILY CHRISTMAS and maybe even a role in a new Alexander Payne film, NEBRASKA - all of that, all about attending the Diamond Jubilee celebration in the United Kingdom, and much, much more!
More information on Anita Gillette in the Reagle Music Theatre's production of BYE BYE BIRDIE playing July 13-22 is available here. You can visit Anita Gillette's official website here.
Spread Sunshine All Over The Place
PC: How many appearances did you make on game shows over the years? You have a whole generation of people my age who know you primarily from re-runs of all those great old shows, I am sure you are aware.
AG: Oh, I know, I know! I have no idea how many, though - I did a lot of those shows; a lot! [Laughs.]
PC: It was an era onto itself.
AG: It really was. You know, it was really just an opportunity for young people to get sort of noticed and seen on TV. And, if you knew how to actually play the game and you liked the game, which I did, then it was all a great experience to have. I really did start in game shows way back with WHAT'S MY LINE, back when I had only done a TONIGHT SHOW or two.
PC: How did they approach you to appear on the show?
AG: Well, Mark Goodson's office asked if I would fill in sometime on WHAT'S MY LINE after they saw me in that, I guess. So, I did - I filled in for Dorothy Kilgallen; I filled in for Kitty Carlisle on TO TELL THE TRUTH…
PC: Classy dames!
AG: Yeah! And, when I filled in, they liked what they saw, so they started using me as one of the regular game-players. So, if you were in with Goodson/Todman, you could rotate from one of their games to another - eventually, I even ended up doing some pilots for them, too. It was a good gig if you liked it, though some people thought it was all pretty stupid. [Laughs.]
PC: Entertainment is entertainment, is it not? It's all in the eye of the beholder.
AG: I never regretted ever doing any of it, myself - you know, some people thought that it took the class out of what you were trying to do; you know, you aren't going to be Cate Blanchett or Arlene Francis or someone like that if you did those shows.
PC: A moot point these days, anyway, no?
AG: Well, I sort of just did it all and that was that! I wanted to do all of it and that's what I did. Eventually, I got my career and name and reputation straightened out and everything, so I was happy that I did those game shows.
PC: Those shows continue to play, so you potentially get new fans every time one of the reruns airs.
AG: Right! Right. And it isn't that great!
PC: Those game shows are sort of prototypes for reality TV and the stables of stars that seem to be around today, don't you think?
AG: Yeah, but, I mean, in my day, it was difficult to even get from being known as a singer to being an actor, you know? People didn't cross over like they do now as much at all.
PC: Careers weren't as mixed-media.
AG: No. If you were a singer, they didn't want to know from a straight play. I had to literally stop singing - stop taking jobs in musicals - in order to really be considered an actor. And, I really wanted to act - because I think that's a big part of musical comedy; the books are so bad usually that you can't really be successful unless you are! [Laughs.] At least a lot of the time back in my day they were.
PC: That's so funny - but, unfortunately, quite true, too. You were in some flops - JIMMY and KELLY apparently had significant issues, to say the least - but you were also in the original production of maybe the greatest musical ever written, GYPSY, as well as in Hal Prince's original CABARET. Can you tell a flop from a hit when you are in one?
AG: Well, remember, I didn't originate the part in GYPSY - I came in after it had already been open a year or two; I replaced the girl who had replaced Lane Bradbury, who had been Dainty June. When Lane left, then her understudy took her part - Merle Louise; but she had her maiden name then - and so they brought me in to replace her when she left and that's how I got into the show. That was in the early 1960s and the show had already been running by that point, so I knew it was a huge success. I was very pleased to be a part of it and Merman was a great influence on me, too - she really was.
PC: At the time, THE SOUND OF MUSIC and FIORELLO seemed to be more well-received - both won Best Musical over GYPSY, after all.
AG: Isn't that amazing? Just amazing! I'm not sure what, but something was not even nominated for GYPSY - I don't remember if it was the book or the score or what. It's a fascinating thing - a friend of mine who knows all of these facts about Broadway said something to me about it recently.
PC: It wasn't nominated for either Best Score or Best Book, I don't believe.
AG: Can you imagine? Unbelievable! The fact that it didn't win Best Musical is one of the biggest mistakes ever, in my opinion. But, who needs awards anyway?
AG: You know, when I realized what awards were all about I suddenly realized, "Obviously, we know this is not about talent!" You know, if Merman did not get Best Actress for GYPSY then I am sorry, but that's crazy! But, anyway…
PC: How did you get involved in show business in the first place? Was there a particular performer that inspired you?
AG: Oh, no - you see, I grew up in Baltimore. I didn't even go to New York until my husband got a job there and we moved there! My mother and father wouldn't let me travel and I married very young, so I just never even dreamed that I would have a career in show business. I mean I did a lot of stuff in Baltimore, but that was it - and, I did one summer up here in Massachusetts at the North Shore Music Theatre to get it all out of my system.
PC: Did that work?
AG: Of course not! It was the completely wrong thing to do! It just made me want to do more theatre. The producer of the North Shore Music Theatre - the guy who used to run it - called me after that first summer and said, "Is Anita available to come back this summer?" And, my mother said, "Oh, Anita is married now and she moved to New York." So, it was a big decision for me, whether to leave Sloan-Kettering, where I was working at the time as a medical secretary - and my husband was across the street at Cornell Medical College, too; that's how I met him. So, that was the big question, "Do I go back up there and leave my job?"
PC: A big life choice.
AG: That was a big decision, but I decided to go back for a second season at North Shore. And, then, an agent saw me in a small part in ROBERTA and got me a job at the Papermill Playhouse - and the rest is history; that's the way it went.
PC: The Papermill Playhouse has been the starting place for many notable performers.
AG: Oh, yeah - and this was before it burned down! They rebuilt it, you know, many years ago, and that's what the building is now.
PC: What shows did you do there?
AG: I did Linda in PAL JOEY and I also did THE DESERT SONG - a small part, but she is a comedic part with a big song. So, I did two shows there and they were both good.
PC: How did that lead to GYPSY?
AG: Well, when I went into GYPSY was April of 1960 and I did the second round of summer stock the summer before that, in 1959. So, then, I got the Papermill gig and after that I did a little thing called Russell Patterson'S SKETCHBOOK which reopened a little theater that they had redone over on 42nd St. and I ended up winning an award for that show - the Theatre World Award. I was pregnant by then, but when I accepted the role in GYPSY I didn't know that I was pregnant yet.
PC: What obstacles did that pose - some costume problems at first, I'd assume?
AG: [Laughs.] That's right! That's right. You know, Ethel Merman is the one who saved my job on that! I tell that story in my one-woman-show; I tell all these stories. She really saved me.
PC: What's the title of your solo show?
AG: It's called AFTER ALL.
PC: What's the content of the show - the big hits and the best stories?
AG: Oh, yeah - I do a lot of stuff in it. I talk about my whole story and I do songs from the shows I did and I talk about Merman and Merrick and Irving Berlin and tell personal stories about all of them and all of that. For instance, one of the songs I do is "Nightlife" a completely different way than Charles Strouse has ever heard it done! And that's pretty much it - I talk about some of the movies, too; MOONSTRUCK and some others.
PC: Leslie Uggams had a great Irving Berlin reminiscence when she did this column. What was your relationship with him like?
AG: Oh, we were great friends!
PC: No way!
AG: Yeah - we became friends and that was really the best thing that ever came out of MR. PRESIDENT; my relationship with Irving. [Laughs.]
PC: What was he like, one-on-one?
AG: He was a very interesting guy - of course. He was prone to depression, though, which is why he and his secretary, Hildy, liked to have me come around and help cheer him up.
PC: You knew how to spread sunshine around even then! What did you two used to talk about?
AG: [Laughs.] We would talk about fishing - he liked to fish and so did I. We would talk about painting, too. I used to call him every year on his birthday and if I missed he would sure let me know it! [Big Laugh.]
PC: I bet!
AG: His secretary would always get in touch with me and then we would just, you know, talk about life! He was really a very nice guy.
PC: What a beautiful memory - talking about fishing and shooting the breeze with none other than Irving Berlin.
AG: Aww, isn't it just amazing? I am so lucky to have those kind of memories.
PC: Did you ever get the chance to work with Arthur Laurents?
AG: Well, he offered me a job once - in NICK & NORA.
PC: Did you turn it down?
AG: I did turn it down - and he got mad at me!
PC: Why so?
AG: Well, I didn't want to play second fiddle to Joanna Gleason, and, to tell you the truth, I didn't really like the show.
PC: Did Charles Strouse remember you from ALL AMERICAN or was he not elemental in the request to cast you in NICK & NORA?
AG: No, I don't think so. I think Arthur Laurents wanted me - he thought I would be good in the role. I just remember he offered me the job and I might have even auditioned, but eventually I turned it down and I think he thought that was an insult to him. He had a reputation for having a temper and all of that, but he was always pretty pleasant to me from what I remember.
PC: Was he around at all back when you were in GYPSY or had he pretty much moved on by then?
AG: I don't remember him being around too much, so, probably, yeah, he had moved on.
PC: Did you get to meet Jule Styne working on that?
AG: Oh, yeah - he was a lot of fun! You know, he was a bit of a groper, but he was all right! [Laughs.]
PC: Especially with a buxom young lady like you! He was quite a character, I've heard - always on the lam and running from bookies and what not.
AG: Oh, yeah - that's right; he was! He lived that kind of crazy life.
PC: Whatever it took in order for him to write those fabulous tunes, right?
AG: Oh, ain't that the truth! Ain't that the truth, kiddo.
PC: Did you ever get the chance to work with Michael Bennett?
AG: I did something with Michael Bennett - yes. I am trying to remember what it was - you know, I am not really a dancer and he used to really use the dancer-dancers, but, nonetheless, I have danced in almost everything I have done anyway. I don't consider myself a dancer, really - just an actress and a singer. But, I do remember that I did a benefit with Michael once - just a one night type of thing. He was wonderful to me - so fantastic to work with and so smart; just like Gower [Champion] and some of the other big ones I got the chance to work with over the years.
PC: What other major directors do you have fond memories of that leap to mind?
AG: Oh, well, Peter Gennaro was the best for me.
PC: What was he like?
AG: Well, he choreographed JIMMY and he was just fantastic - Joseph Anthony directed it; he did a lot of straight plays before that and that was one of his first musicals.
PC: In the late 60s producers seemed to bring in a lot of British directors to do musicals.
AG: You're right - they did.
PC: When he recently did this column, Ben Vereen said that HAIR signaled the "New Broadway" and everything after HAIR was the beginning of a new era on Broadway.
AG: Yes, that's right, too - I totally agree with him. That show switched it all around and the music world changed, too - they changed together. I mean, I think there were still some shows with the old Broadway songs coming, but the sound had changed. It was now permissible to do rock n roll instead of those old Gershwin, Berlin, Styne melodies and people were more interested in the new stuff. It changed everything.
PC: COMPANY was a very contemporary score for its time. Do you think that it is important for Broadway to sound current to keep an audience?
AG: Well, personally, I think it should keep the old classic sound, but I'm an old fashioned kind of girl. I think that we need to train audiences to appreciate Broadway for what it is, but who is going to come to the theatre anymore anyway? The only people that can afford to come are the tourists!
PC: It's too true - at least on Broadway.
AG: Or just people on expense accounts! That's why Manny Azenberg hung up his producing gear - he produced all those Neil Simon plays and everything, but these days he just can't take it anymore. I mean, there are people now who don't know who Neil Simon even is; or who George Gershwin was; or who Irving Berlin was!
PC: We're in a disposable age.
AG: I know, I know. It's so sad to me, but whatever - people in the old generation didn't like what Stephen Sondheim was doing back then, either, I guess.
PC: One way the standards are being heard is through GLEE and SMASH. What do you think of those shows bringing the old songs back like they do?
AG: Oh, I just love it! I love it. I think both of those shows are just wonderful and I love the fact they are introducing kids to that great music - I think it's really, really good. But, who knows if that will make them want to learn those songs? I know some composers who write in the old Broadway style and they never can seem to get the money to do their shows anymore. [Pause.] I think it's really dicey - very dicey.
PC: What have you seen recently that you enjoyed?
AG: Well, honestly, I haven't seen many musicals that I loved - there just isn't a whole lot of good stuff. I just did an Off-Broadway play with this wunderkind director - Sam Gold; and, boy, is he a wunderkind - and after doing that I think that Off-Broadway is the new Broadway for real theatre; I really do. I think that that is where we are going to be able to find real theatre in the future - I think that Broadway is and has been for a long time a commercial thing and it's hard to find stuff to really like for people like us who want good theatre. That being said, I must say that I was impressed with MEMPHIS when it came out - I liked the story and I liked the acting. I didn't go out humming any tunes or anything, but I enjoyed the show itself for what it was. I have to say, the last big one I really loved was NEXT TO NORMAL - actually, way, way back I did a reading of a play about a lady going nuts and I really loved that idea then, too! I thought, "Aww, this is just incredible!"
PC: What was the play?
AG: It was called LUCY'S LAPSES. It was a musical piece, actually - it had a really good book, too, but, unfortunately, it just didn't end up going anywhere.
PC: The composer of NEXT TO NORMAL, Tom Kitt, has done this column - he is so talented.
AG: My God, yes - the music was great in that. Alice Ripley just blew me away, too - just blew me away.
PC: She is so invested in her character - very method. What are your feelings on method acting in musicals - and elsewhere, for that matter?
AG: Oh, well, at my age, I'm through with all that! [Laughs.] The thing is, with me, being this age you can't even hide it anymore - with the internet and Wikipedia and everything; what's so shocking is how much they get it all right! [Laughs.] It's a little bit difficult to take when you are hurdling to the howling void of mortality, honey!
PC: That's so poignant - and funny.
AG: It's true, though! It's true.
PC: What was attending the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebration in the UK a few weeks ago like for you?
AG: Oh, it was just fabulous! Absolutely fabulous.
PC: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Gary Barlow's theme song, "Sing" was quite wonderful, I thought.
AG: Oh, it is! It was such a big event. The music was all gorgeous - the whole thing really was. You see, I have an English gentlemen friend and we exchange visits - we've been seeing each other for I guess about the last eight years. So, I go over there and then he comes over here and we alternate trips.
PC: How did you two get together?
AG: Oh, we were both widowed and we were set up by this couple we both knew.
PC: What a wonderful story.
AG: Oh, thank you! Yeah, he's my beau! [Laughs.]
PC: How very sweet.
AG: Yeah, we'll be visiting again this summer. So, anyway, his flat is right on the Thames, near the Tower Of London bridge, and, so, the queen was arriving, disembarking just two doors down from where his flat is and he has a terrace. So, we had a party with about twenty-five people, all gaping and in awe and, you know, [British Accent.] standing around with their videos capturing it all and whatnot.
PC: It must have been an amazing experience, particularly for a foreigner like yourself.
AG: Oh, it was just incredible! So many people - the Philharmonic playing under glass and all the chorus and all the bells ringing; it was just one of the most spectacular events I ever remember seeing. It made me cry - it really did; and I'm not even British!
PC: That's hilarious.
AG: The respect that they have for her - for the queen - is just astonishing! And, honestly, nobody does this kind of pomp and circumstance better than the Brits - they really know how to put on a show.
PC: How have you seen America change over the last fifty years or so that you have been in show business? Are we back to the conservative 50s again as far as you can tell?
AG: Oh, I don't know - I hope to God that we are not. It is such a shock to me what the Tea Party is trying to do - it's just frightening. And, then, you know, when Obama approved same-sex marriage it got this huge outcry and supposedly got Romney $2 million more from the anti-gay groups; it's all so terrible. I mean, if the Tea Party wins I think I'll have to leave the country - I just can't stand it! I won't be able to stand it. I really hope Obama gets voted back into office.
PC: It's so hard out there for people in their 20s these days with the economy the way it is.
AG: Oh, honey, I know - it's so terrible. I have a granddaughter who is 22 and she is pretty lucky and she had good grades so she got a good internship after college, but now she has to go back to school to get another degree and it's just so expensive.
PC: For a piece of paper.
AG: Yeah - and then what? What happens after that? It seems like you have to be some crook in the financial world to make any money or get a good job these days. [Sighs.] I don't know.
PC: One of your most recent New York credits was appearing in Nora and Delia Ephron's LOVE, LOSS AND WHAT I WORE. What was that experience like for you?
AG: Yeah, yeah, yeah - it's so sad about Nora. Joyce Van Patten and I spoke about it - unfortunately, I don't know Nora's sister Delia very well so I didn't call her to share my sympathies. It's so strange to me that she passed because I just saw them - she and Nora - in February or March when the show closed for good. All the cast got together - all the ladies who had ever done it -and it was a great party. I was so shocked when I heard that she had been sick with leukemia all this time. I had no idea.
PC: She had been so productive and busy in spite of it.
AG: Oh, I know - she just wrote a book! Darryl Roth said to all the ladies when he talked to us, "Enjoy today." That's what I say in my show, too - "Don't postpone joy." That's my message.
PC: Use it while you can, right?
AG: Exactly - we only have today. I mean, I really tried to be a little intellectual about my methods and all that stuff and I really don't do it anymore ever since I adopted that message! [Laughs.]
PC: Will there be a future for your most recent show at Playwright's Horizons - THE BIG MEAL - as far as you know?
AG: I don't think so, but I do think it will be done all over the place once they release the rights. It was a pretty incredible show - it got good reviews, but they were a little mixed on the big device they use in the play. Oddly enough, it was the young people in the audience who were used to multi-tasking and all the people talking at the same time that got it the best and really understood what it was about, I think.
PC: Why do you say that?
AG: Well, as an example, a group of high school kids came to a matinee one day from New Jersey and they got every… single… thing! Every one. You know, some of the older people would be going, "What? What?" but the young people all got it.
PC: What was the play about?
AG: Well, it took place in a restaurant and four generations of people were in it - not necessarily all in the same restaurant. Sam Gold directed the eight of us and it was pretty amazing - we were all onstage all the time for the whole play pretty much. It was very intense and also very sad, actually - but, also, very uplifting, too, in a way. It was about the circle of life and it affected some people so much - they were just weeping; I could hear them out in the audience weeping at one point where I was onstage alone some nights.
PC: It had a real effect.
AG: Yeah, yeah. THE BIG MEAL was a big piece for me - there are certain markers in my career; CHAPTER TWO was another one because I got a Tony nomination for that and a lot of people responded to that play and my part in it. John Guare's play was another play I did like that - for Joe Papp; my break-out from being a musical comedy person to a real actor. Then, by the time I did CHAPTER TWO, a lot of people who saw me in it didn't even remember I sang and had done musicals back then! [Laughs.]
PC: You at least got your wish of being taken as a serious actress!
AG: [Big Laugh.] That's right! That's right. I did. Exactly.
PC: So you look back on your experience with THE BIG MEAL favorably?
AG: Definitely. I think THE BIG MEAL was a big deal for me - especially to be asked by Sam Gold to do it without even having me audition; I did a reading of it and the day after I did the reading they called and asked me to do the full production.
PC: When was that?
AG: Oh, that was way back - maybe September; and they were asking me to do something in February! I remember thinking, "February?!" But, yeah, it was a very meaningful experience for me.
PC: What's next for you after BYE BYE BIRDIE at the Reagle this month?
AG: Well, I am going to be going back to Birdland starting on September 25 and I will be doing my AFTER ALL show again there. I will be doing the last Monday in September and the first Monday in October - two Mondays in a row. There's also a film I may be involved with coming up this fall, as well.
PC: What film is that?
AG: It's an Alexander Payne film called NEBRASKA and they are trying to get that all financed and put it all together now so we can do it in the fall.
PC: THE DESCENDANTS was a tremendous film, I thought. Did you see it?
AG: Oh, yeah - I thought it was just great. I did two auditions for him for this movie and then he came and saw me in the play.
PC: What is he like?
AG: He's just a really real, down-to-earth kind of guy. He appreciates actors, too, which I love - I have to say, I was really thrilled that he came to see me in an Off-Broadway play, too! [Laughs.] That was really good of him, I thought. He really loves actors.
PC: Any other upcoming film appearances we can watch out for?
AG: Yes. Eddie Burns directed a movie I just did - I play his mother and it's a really, really nice role. I filmed it in September and I think it is going to be in the Toronto Film Festival coming up; that's what Eddie was saying when I talked to him a few weeks ago. It's called A FITZGERALD'S FAMILY CHRISTMAS. I hope it will be coming out at the end of the year in time for the holidays. There are some fantastic actors in it with me, too.
PC: Another Christmas film and one of my favorite films of yours is A CHRISTMAS MEMORY.
AG: Aww, how great - I like that one, too.
PC: Do you have pleasant memories of filming that?
AG: I do - and working with Piper [Laurie] and Anna; you couldn't call her Patty [Duke], you had to call her Anna. And, also, Piper asked that I call her Rose! I was the only one who went by my own name on that one!
PC: That is so strange!
AG: It was! Piper is a real character, though - she did some movie tricks that I saw her do. You know, I'm no big movie star - and, so, every time I do a film I learn something. I love the way Eddie does things because it's all digital and it's all just one or two cameras and you just do it; it's incredibly fast and easy to do. So much of the time with big movies it's all this time spent with the lighting and getting the over-the-shoulder shot and the close-up and the reaction shots and all that - Eddie just does it and that's it; one take, maybe two. He encourages ad lib and all of that stuff, too - which is a great way to work, I think. But, with A CHRISTMAS MEMORY, that was back in the old fashioned camera days and it was a bigger budget, so it was much different.
PC: What was the trick she did that you observed?
AG: Well, in the big scene where we had the argument and she yells at me - [Southern Accent.] "You're still mournin' for that boy!" and all that - she really gave it to me; she let me have it. So, we did the coverage after the master shot and they saved her bit for the very end - when they cut away, they do me first and then her. So, she had done it so big in the master that I did it really big back in the reaction shot. So, then, we go back to her in the single-shot for the final reaction and what does she do? She takes it down really low and she goes, you know, [Sotto Voice.] "Speaking very low and subdued and like this."
PC: What sabotage - so you were almost over-the-top and hysteric to compensate and then the tables were turned on you.
AG: Yes! Exactly! [Laughs.] She didn't do at all what she did in the master - not one bit! So, then, in the edit, all the reaction shots are on her and not on me, of course.
PC: Another trick.
AG: Oh, yeah! That's what you do - you do something so they will focus on you in the editing. Anna told me that that's what was going on - if you underplay it the camera will end up on you once they edit it all together. I didn't know about any of that, though! Now I know.
PC: It's a subversive technique.
AG: Yeah, yeah - it seems to work, though.
PC: Movies are all about what happens in the editing room.
AG: It really is that way, I think - it's out of the hands of the actors, I'll tell you that.
PC: It must be frustrating to experience.
AG: Oh, God! Oh, God - when I did SHALL WE DANCE? I played this part of a lonely woman who was eventually nipping at the vodka, but if you don't see all the stuff leading up to that then you don't understand where she's coming from, which is what ended up happening. There is a scene where I am at the mambo class and I seem a little off - because the character is loaded - and they didn't leave enough of my stuff in there so you would even know she was nipping at the vodka or anything. It would have grounded it and added so much more to it. You know, in a play, you play the arc of it - and, in that case, the vodka stuff was shot before we even got up to that scene. They did keep the scene in right before the number I do with Richard - where we dance the little polka thing and we sing "Shall We Dance". They didn't keep the drunken mambo in, though, so it didn't pay off the way it should have paid off, which was a shame.
PC: What was Richard Gere like to work with on that?
AG: Oh, he was just wonderful - Richard is just wonderful. He is one of the best people in the world - the very best.
PC: Jane Krakowski just did this column and said that the final season of 30 ROCK is going to be fantastic. Will you be making another, final appearance as far as you know?
AG: Well, Don Scardino - one of the producers - said that he was going to try for me and Buck [Henry] to come back. I hope it happens. I haven't heard yet - we will have to see. I came back for Marg Helgenberger's exit on CSI, so maybe I'll be lucky again with 30 ROCK's last season. We'll see.
PC: Did you enjoy filming that emotional exit on CSI?
AG: Yeah - it was always enjoyable to work on that show and Marg is a great girl.
PC: What was working on the big "Mother's Day" episode of 30 ROCK like - especially acting alongside fellow Broadway leading ladies Patti LuPone and Elaine Stritch?
AG: Oh, we had a ball doing that - Patti and I really hooked up on that; we were really friendly. Elaine is a little hard to be around sometimes, you know, so that wasn't quite as much fun. Actually, at one point, she was kind of rude to Tina and I had to calm Buck Henry down because he was getting worked up about it! [Laughs.]
PC: Always a troublemaker.
AG: I thought Alec Baldwin was going to kill her! But, anyway… [Laughs.] I'm always the calming one in those sorts of situations, I've found!
PC: Do you enjoy working with Tina Fey?
AG: Oh, she is just fantastic - she is so sharp and so smart and always on. She just has such incredible intelligence in everything she does. I love every chance I get to be in something with her.
PC: Tell me about your other triple-threat 30 ROCK co-star, Jane Krakowski.
AG: Believe it or not, I worked with Jane on SEARCH FOR TOMORROW many, many years ago so we have known each other for a while - she was just a girl on that! She's such a wonderful performer - I love her so much and she's so great on 30 ROCK.
PC: Is it true that this new production of BYE BYE BIRDIE at the Reagle Music Theatre is a bit of a family affair?
AG: Yes, it is! My one granddaughter is working backstage in the crew - she is an artist and she really likes theatre; she actually won an award for being on the crew of the theatre at her high school. She is 15. She loves to paint sets and decorate sets and design for the stage - she doesn't want to be in front of the curtain, she wants to be backstage doing all that kind of work, putting it all together. And, then, my other granddaughter is only 12, but she is going to be in the summer camp - they have the Reagle Music Theatre Camp - and she is so excited about taking some classes and doing all of that.
PC: Theatre camp is the best - a lot of schools don't have strong theatre programs, or even any theatre program at all anymore.
AG: Oh, I know! They go to school up in Ipswich and theatre is a big deal up there in a lot of schools, so they are lucky.
PC: If you can make it in showbiz for fifty years like you have, it's all worth it, though, right?
AG: That's right, kiddo - you got it! [Laughs.]
PC: Are you looking forward to doing Mae's material?
AG: Yes - I love the role; it's a really fun part. Charlie Strouse gave me "A Mother Doesn't Matter Anymore", which they wrote for Tyne Daly for the TV version with Vanessa Williams and Jason Alexander. He sent me the music and said, "Use this." I think he will be coming up to see this production, too. When I talked to him about it, though, he said, [Whining.] "But, Anita, I'm 82!" and I said, "Have Barbara drive you up here! I don't want to hear it, Charlie!" [Laughs.]
PC: Mae in BYE BYE BIRDIE is undoubtedly a great role to celebrate your showbiz anniversary with - as well as the seminars you will be teaching up there, as well.
AG: Yes, they asked me to do a couple days of talks and I will do some master classes - I just love to work with kids and other actors. You know, to my kids and my grandkids I'm just grandma - we don't get to see each other enough since I live in New York, but they haven't seen me do a lot of theatre. My kids on the West Coast have seen me in more theatre - that's the problem with theatre, I guess, is that it's not all recorded and once it's over, it's over.
PC: What do you think of performances being captured live by videophones and ending up on YouTube, like the recent SPIDER-MAN incident?
AG: Well, honestly, I don't know what to think - I do know I am against people killing my residuals by copying movies and all that. There are a lot of people my age who can't work or don't work and who live just on their residuals, so I guess I am lucky that I am still working. So, I resent the dirty copies of movies and stuff like that - it's copyright infringement and depriving people of royalties. But, also, I feel like you can't stop it either - kids these days can do anything they want and they do. But, then, when I try to put up my clips from 30 ROCK on my website, they won't let me do that because of all the copyright stuff, so I guess I can't win! [Laughs.]
PC: It's a whole new age.
AG: Because of my grandchildren, I see how young people are so involved with these devices and I feel like they are missing out on parts of life - I mean, they don't touch! I like to touch a book and touch the pages - it just doesn't have the same feeling. And, furthermore, how do kids date these days?
PC: They don't - they hook-up.
AG: Yeah, they go to things all together and all hang out talking to each other on their phones - it's so strange to me! [Laughs.]
PC: What do you think of cellphones in the audience and all of the distractions that come with them?
AG: Well, usually, they are not allowed to use them - they are certainly not supposed to use them, but they do anyway, I guess. When I just saw A CHORUS LINE here at the Reagle Players they even made an announcement about texting because it is so distracting. [Pause.] It's a whole new world.
PC: What is Woody Allen like? You two did DON'T DRINK THE WATER together on Broadway, of course, back in the 1960s.
AG: Oh, Woody is just so shy that any of us hardly ever saw him. I remember years and years ago he did THE FRONT and he won an ACLU award. This was way back in the 70s and I was doing KNICKERBOCKER HOLIDAY with Burt Lancaster at the time.
PC: Anjelica Huston just did this column and sang "September Song" on SMASH, incidentally.
AG: Oh, how fantastic! Oh, wow - how great for her to do that. Burt sang that in the show, actually - he played that character; the Walter Huston part. Burt was such a wonderful guy - I loved him. He invited me to go to that ACLU award thing with him, where Woody Allen was receiving the award and he was being honored. So, when they announced for Woody to come up to the podium to accept the award, he passed right by the table where I was sitting with Burt Lancaster and he stopped - now, remember, I had spent all that time doing DON'T DRINK THE WATER with him, where I barely spoke to him at all; but he stopped right there and looked at me. The follow-spot was bringing him from his table all the way up the podium and he was following it and as he was walking up he stopped dead in his tracks at our table and he looked at me and said, "Anita, what are you doing out here?! Go home to New York! Don't stay out here!" And then he went up to get his award. [Laughs.]
PC: What a memory!
AG: Burt Lancester about fell over out of his chait he was laughing so hard! That was a really funny story - especially what Woody said.
PC: Tell me about working with John Patrick Shanley on MOONSTRUCK. Have you kept in touch? He is in a bit of legal trouble right now with an ex of his bringing him up on charges of abuse, apparently.
AG: Oh, really? I didn't know about that. Well, let me tell you a story: they had a screening of MOONSTRUCK a year ago at the Metropolitan Museum and they were supposed to have Olympia and Norman [Jewison] and John Patrick Shanley come and speak. Then, Norman became ill and he suggested to them that they get me, so they called me to see if I was available. I don't know why they didn't call Danny [Aiello] - I was surprised, actually, but whatever. So, anyway, I went and I was up on the dais with them and they were all so nice and it was a great night. But, Olympia once said to me when we were away from everyone else, you know, in her way, [Deadpan.] "He's a bad boy," but he was always so nice to me, so I'm not sure what she might have meant. [Pause.] It was a great part in MOONSTRUCK - Norman said it would be small but very important to the film, and, as it turned out, it was and it is.
PC: How do you look back on MOONSTRUCK as a film, now, twenty-five years later?
AG: It's a classic film - it will be shown forever, I think. It's the only movie I've done that I can go back and watch over and over again. I think it's hard to watch yourself a lot - because, as I say, I like to live today and not yesterday.
PC: Do you have other favorite films of yours? You've done so many over the years.
AG: I loved BOYS ON THE SIDE - it's too bad that they really didn't know how to market that movie; more people should have seen it. I loved Drew [Barrymore], and Herbert Ross was a great director. And, of course, BOYS ON THE SIDE also had [Announcer Voice.] "Introducing Matthew McConaughey."
PC: Have you gotten a chance to see him in MAGIC MIKE yet?
AG: Oh, I wish I could! I want to! I have to rehearse tonight for BYE BYE BIRDIE, though. If I find out where it is playing, I definitely want to go see it, though - he is just a nice guy; a total doll. I keep hearing about him in MAGIC MIKE so I'll have to go see it.
PC: What's next after your Birdland gig?
AG: Yeah, I am taking a little break after BIRDIE and re-learning my AFTER ALL show for Birdland and then I am taking it a little easy after that, I think. We'll see where my next job turns up - like always! I am not sure when or if we will be doing the NEBRASKA movie, so I am in a holding pattern on that. And, I have to pace myself a little bit with eight performances on BIRDIE - I really like the role and I really need to in order to do eight performances the way I like to do it, so I am gearing up for giving it my all.
PC: It won't be a problem - you are truly one of the Golden Age legends. Thank you so very much for doing this today, Anita. This was superb - what marvelous memories!
AG: Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you, Pat! This was so wonderful. All my best to you. Bye.
Photo Credits: Images #19 and #20 by Jan Nargi.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro