Interview: Timothy Busfield and Melissa Gilbert Talk Stage, Screen, Sorkin, and Working Together

By: Jun. 11, 2014
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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."

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.