Oct 20, 2022

The Review Files: 'Topdog's' Fire Last Time

Larry Gilliard Jr. and Harold Perrineau in "Topdog/Underdog" at Center Theatre Group in 2004.

It's been a very Suzan-Lori Parks week for me; a few days ago I published my lively Q&A with her at American Theatre, and tonight my review of the new Broadway revival of her 2002 Pulitzer winner Topdog/Underdog went up at Vulture/NY Mag. I didn't catch this play in its original Broadway run, but I did see it when it came to L.A. a few years later. Below is my review for the Downtown News.

DOWNTOWN NEWS 
February 16, 2004

THEATER REVIEW 

 

A 'Topdog' in Top Form

Actors as Seductive as the Street Cons They Portray


By Rob Kendt

CONTRIBUTING WRITER

 

From the simple raw materials of three-card monte—a few crates and a board, cards creased like small tents and placed in a row—a seasoned hustler can turn his streetcorner into a kind of open-air palmist's den, as seductively intimate as a confessional or a peep-show booth. He might as well be stroking a crystal ball as he looks into his mark's eyes and unspools his hypnotic, reiterative patter.

 

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks manages a similar sleight-of-hand hustle with her brilliant two-hander Topdog/Underdog, now in a stark, stunning, roof-raising production at the Mark Taper Forum. Dealing with a seemingly small, stacked deck—two brothers, suggestively named Lincoln and Booth, reminisce and recriminate over a few nights in a tatty walk-up flat—she appears to show us her hand, all the while spinning out tangents and tricks that divert us from the high stakes on the table.

 

"There's just so much in the cards," marvels Lincoln (Harold Perrineau), a former three-card virtuoso drawn inexorably back to the street after trying to leave it behind. It's equally true of Parks' deceptively lean play, the best to grace the Taper stage in years; there are untold riches in its hilariously profane badinage, in its impish horseplay, in the unforced but undeniable mythic suggestiveness of its iconography.

 

Indeed, at times director George C. Wolfe's staging, with a bare bulb splashing tall shadows onto Riccardo Hernandez's stagey cutaway set, explicitly references the disreputable pleasures of the minstrel show. Political incorrectness doesn't begin to describe the giddy spectacle of Perrineau's Lincoln—whose macabre day job is to slather on whiteface and dress as his ironic namesake at an arcade shooting gallery—as he mimes alternative versions of Honest Abe's last moments in his Ford's Theatre seat. What annoyed theatergoer, after all, could argue that unwrapping a crinkly candy or taking a phone call in the theatre should be capital offenses?

 

Roll and Rock

Even when the staging isn't so openly presentational, there's an undercurrent of competitive showmanship in the tale of two brothers, abandonded in their teens by parents who just couldn't be bothered with family responsibilities anymore, who each turned to a variety of the hustle to get by: Lincoln to a three-card racket that ended in senseless violence, Booth to creative, even impulsive shoplifting ("I stole generously," he says at one point, laying out an impressive spread).

 

As these two stake out territory and settle old scores, Parks gets at one of the theater's great themes, perhaps its one great theme: the ways we all try to be the playwrights and directors of our own lives, to make sense of their alternately cruel and wondrous randomness by dramatizing them, by making scenes or games of them.

 

There's no scripting the vagaries of real life, though. And as this playful fraternal scrimmage inevitably turns to a life-or-death struggle, Parks tightens her grip and doesn't let up. It's here that Topdog/Underdog, for all its boasts and toasts, acquires a kind of primal tragic gravity. Parks turns a pedestrian political point—that there's no winning for these no-longer-young black men unless The Man allows it—into a universal whoop of despair worthy of Beckett.

 

Wolfe has a knockout pair of performers (somehow the word "actors" doesn't cut it) who handle Parks' virtuosic, free-ranging monologues, and lock into a believably well-worn camaraderie. As the older, wearier Lincoln, Perrineau hangs fire masterfully, keeping his cards close to his vest until he comes clean, and gets down and dirty, in the second act.

 

The strutting, fretting bantam Booth has the opposite arc, from manic to depressive. Larry Gilliard Jr.'s almost scandalously enjoyable performance in the role is indelible, and—like much about Topdog—is deceptively endearing. Gilliard is both a freakily dexterous, scene-stealing physical comedian—watch him apply cologne, or clear an elegant table setting—and a master of the scary slow burn. Not many performers have the range and control to play us like Gilliard—milking hysterical laughter one minute, then giving us a disturbed reverie of pin-drop intensity the next.

 

But then, that's also a signature trait of Topdog/Underdog. A good playwright can give us a great time at the theater; a great playwright can rock our world. Parks does both: She gives us a good roll before she rocks us.

Dec 30, 2021

Throwback Thursday: Rupert Everett & Richard E. Grant Dish and Declaim

photo by Gary Leonard

As I mentioned last week, going through old copies of Back Stage West, the actor's trade I ran from 1993 to 2003, I stumbled across this rollicking chat between two very funny, prickly Brits. The concept of the Actors' Dialogue was to facilitate an Interview magazine-style conversation between two subjects. Sometimes they required prodding. Though I was on hand for this exchange, these two were quite capable of prodding each other, as you'll see. Enjoy!

Back Stage West 


January 12, 1995 


On Hustling, Hubris, and Improvisation


Actors’ Dialogue: Rupert Everett and Richard E. Grant

 

Two Brits who appear in Robert Altman's fashion world send-up Ready to Wear met poolside at the Westwood Marquis Hotel to dish and declaim.


Rupert Everett, who plays the scheming son of a designer, made his first splash in film and stage versions of Another Country, since appearing in The Comfort of Strangers, Inside Monkey Zetterland, and The Madness of King George. Richard E. Grant, who portrays a preening dress designer, made his film debut in Withnail and I and has since appeared in Mountains of the Moon, How to Get Ahead in Advertising, Henry and June, L.A. Story, and The Player.


Rupert Everett: Were you in Henry and June—the one about Anais Nin?


Richard E. Grant: I played Anais Nin's boring American husband, who had a huge penis, apparently.


Rupert: I must have walked out by the time you were on.


Richard: I’m not going to slag off your films—the few that you have made. You come from a very, very rich family, you're upper class.


Rupert: So are you!


Richard: And very well-bred.


Rupert: And you used to have a plantation of slaves in Swaziland.


Richard: You went to the Central School of Speech and Drama and got yourself kicked out. The legend was that you got your first job at the Glasgow Citizens Theater by doing an audition for Hamlet playing Ophelia in a pair of pajamas, which so overawed us—


Rupert: It was Nina in The Seagull.


Richard: And you've never looked back, have you?


Rupert: I've looked back several times.


Richard: Meanwhile, I was very studious. I went to university, I got my degree, I fulfilled my father's requisite that I get educated as well as informed about how to become an actor. You just tchotchked straight onto the London Stage and won every award for Another Country.


Rupert: And now you're doing good and I'm hanging on by my fingernails.


Richard: Exactly. That's what I just said.


Rupert: Everyone gets their moment.


Richard: And you had 15 seconds.


Rupert: In America, you get huge fame and huge money, and I want it. And in England you get no money and infamy.


Richard: That's right.


Rupert: I mean, God forbid you should be successful in any shape or form. That literally is hubris.


Richard: But I think when you fail, it's much more heartening; they like that. Then you can come back broken-winged. If you fail in America, it's like having leprosy: People run away from you, because it may be contagious.

Which is why you hear talk about Julia Roberts at the age of 24 making a comeback.


Rupert: When did she do that?


Richard: Oh, a couple of years ago, when she took a year off.


You weren't cast in Ready to Wear, as I was, having worked with Robert [Altman] on The Player. You live in Paris, and you said, "If I am not in the Altman film, I will never be able to wear a frock and walk down the Champs-Elysee with my head held in pride ever again." So you literally badgered and cajoled and bribed your way—short of the casting couch—into this movie, built up your part, and have been ruthless and relentless about it ever since.


Rupert: I'll be very fair. You're the best thing in the film.


Richard: You're only saying that to try and stop me talking about your slanderous, philanderous way of needling into the film.


Rupert: Yes; it's been very effective. An actor has to hustle, I’ve realized this year. If you don't hustle, forget it. Because this was a film, I was told, I couldn't be in; it was cast. It was so important to me. I had this flat in Paris, and I couldn't possibly go on living in Paris if I wasn't in this film. It would be the end of my career.


Richard: Such as it was.


Rupert: I started hustling my agency, which is a very embarrassing thing to do, because you have to call them up every half hour. Well, [my agent] got me the interview, but only after I rang him for a week and a half.


Richard: Well, obviously, that's what I should be doing.


Rupert: It's so embarrassing, though. Because then they get so bored that the only way to make you stop calling is to get you a job.


Richard: Or fire you.


Rupert: Or fire you. But that's more work. They can't fire you for making 20 phone calls.


On American Actors


Rupert: Los Angeles actors can't do anything but skateboarding, really.


Richard: Considering that so many actors turn into directors, and everybody knows everybody, to hear you denigrate the rest of this honored profession as little more than skateboarders is something that—please, do not assign to me, but entirely at the door of Mr. Rupert Everett.


Rupert: No, I don't think all actors can skateboard; I certainly can't. London is world famous for its theatre; Hollywood is not at the cutting edge of theatre, is it? It's a place where movies are made. You can't have everything.


Richard: That's very diplomatic.


On Working With Robert Altman


Richard: You're given a character idea of who you're supposed to be, and what the scenes will be. And you also know in advance in the script who your character knows, doesn't know, likes, doesn't like. Then you're put into a given situation, and then react, and you come up with your own dialogue, and it's then left to—


Rupert: Your stuff is excellent. Especially, "Pret-a-go-go-go." That's a fantastic line.


Richard: "What lava lamps were to the ’70s, you are to the '90s. Go-go-go, pret-a-go-go."


Rupert: Very good moment, that.


Richard: Thank you, Rupert. In The Player, Bob said, "If you want to improvise and do stuff..." It's a combination. The writer has to give you the set-up to do it, because otherwise it would be complete free form. But once the sort of coat hanger, if you like, of the scene is set up, then you are encouraged, and given the responsibility to dress it accordingly. In other projects, you have to stick to the dialogue, and if the dialogue's not wonderfully written, you are desperate to improvise, and jig it up a bit, but sometimes people get very precious and think that they've written something in stone which you can't change. Sometimes, that's less than productive.


Why don't you wear socks? Don't you have very sticky feet?


Rupert: I was just rushing.


Richard: Where are you going?


Rupert: Nowhere.


Richard: Right.


Rupert: Where are you going?


Richard: To have lunch with Steve Martin.


Rupert: What are you talking about with Steve Martin?


Richard: He wants me to do his play [Picasso at the Lapin Agile] in London.


Rupert: You're going to do a play in London?


Richard: Yeah. It’s an hour and a half long, and it is by Steve Martin, so... 


On Approaches to Acting


Richard: Everybody wants to work, everbody wants to act. However they do it is such an individual thing.


Rupert: Nobody pays the blindest bit of attention to anyone else anyway.


Richard: Well, you're the quintessence of the self-obsessed thespian.


Rupert: All thespians are self-obsessed.


Richard: You have to be, just to survive.


Rupert: An actor could be being mugged while on his porta-phone with his agent and not notice.


Richard: It's true, that.


Rupert: We have egos like dogs colons. Which is, as opposed to human colons that go wrapping around like that, a dog's colon is just like a little squeeze box harmonica that goes "phew." That's what an actor's ego is like: huge and simple. And all-engulfing. So it doesn't really matter if you're using the Wang Ho method or Kabuki theater; nobody's going to notice except you.


What I think is irritating about actors is that basically they're exactly like prostitutes.


Richard: That's a boring thing to say, though.


Rupert: It's true. They always go on about "actor's sensitivity." For sensitivity, read: egocentricity. It's ego-sensitivity. They just want people to fancy them, basically.


Richard: It's a chronic case of, "Watch me, Ma."


Rupert: You want to be fancied; you want to be attractive.


Richard: You want to be watched, acknowledged.


Rupert: Attractive.


Richard: Well, speak for yourself. You were born with all the chiseled cheekbones; I wasn't.


Rupert: You know what this is going to come across like?


Richard: What?


Rupert: Two Portuguese hairdresser's assistants in Lisbon yappering away about their dismal prospects! I am going to write us a cop series.


Richard: Yeah, but you won't cast me.


Rupert: Why? 


Richard: Because you're so treacherous. Lauren Bacall called you "the wickedest woman in Paris."


Rupert: I asked you to be in a play [The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore] with me this winter. It was like offering Al Pacino a job: It took four weeks for you to say no. Unbearable! 


Richard: I had a part, a lead, in a movie, very well paid, in Prague for two months. Your offer was 175 pounds a week to do a play in Glasgow. Now, tell me which one you would have chosen in my place? 


Rupert: That movie will go straight to video, I predict.


Richard: It has about as much residue as doing that play in Glasgow.


Rupert: Darling, that play in Glasgow's going to come to London, it'll be off-Broadway, it'll be a movie before you can say—


Richard: —In your wildest dreams. It's an unknown—and quite rightly so—Tennessee Williams play.


Rupert: That's not true. It's a very, very good play. And you would have been magisterial in it.


Richard: You wanted me in drag.


Rupert: Not drag; she-man.


Richard: Who did you end up casting for it?


Rupert: An actress called Georgina Hale.


Richard: Exactly! Thank you very much.

 

Dec 23, 2021

Throwback Thursday: Mrs. C and Mrs. G

photo by Gary Leonard

I happened to have recently been going through old copies of Back Stage West, the actor's trade I ran from 1993 to 2003. This far-ranging and fascinating piece was in its very first free-standing issue, in February 1994. I was on hand to guide this conversation between two remarkable performers whose work I grew up on, but it's all their words. What a blessing to rediscover this. Enjoy!

ACTORS' DIALOGUE: Marion Ross and Charlotte Rae 


On the Middle West, Middle Children, and Acting Naturally 


Back Stage West, Feb. 10, 1994


For Back Stage West's first Actors' Dialogue—in which we get two professionals together over lunch to discuss their craft, their business, and their lives—we chose a pair of unassuming television icons, Mrs. Cunningman and Mrs. Garrett.


But as Marion Ross and Charlotte Rae discovered over a recent lunch at Alice's Restaurant on the endangered Malibu Pier, they have more in common than red hair and world-wide fame via syndication. For one, they've both starred in Happy Days: Rae in Beckett's, Ross in Garry Marshall's.


More importantly, over the years, they've built careers on the stage as well as the tube, raised families, been divorced, and sought out professional challenges even as they've settled into the security of success.


Marion: Didn't you do a musical with some of those Monty Python guys? What am I thinking of? A musical that you did, here in town. That was the first time I was aware of you. Before Into the Woods.


Charlotte: Was it Cole Porter's Out of This World, which they called Heavensent? That's the first time I came out here; I played Juno.


Marion: I don't think so. Because you are a musical star, right?


Charlotte: No, I'm an actress.


Marion: Or did you start in music?


Charlotte: I really have always sung. I started out in New York doing cabaret for a brief period of time. And that was wonderful. Everyone would come and see me—Jerome Robbins and everybody, they would come. It was the days of cabaret.


Marion: You mean in the Village?


Charlotte: Well, the Village Vanguard is where I started. Max Gordon—I'll never forget—I was there 14 weeks and I said, "Gee, Max, you think maybe, um, maybe I could have a little... raise?" I was making $150, that was my first thing. He said, "You know, I was thinking of changing the bill." I said, "Never mind, never mind."


Marion: I started under contract to Paramount when I was 22, and I got paid $150 a week. I'd been making $35 a week filing pieces of paper at Bullock's. This was in 1952. Here I was, a college graduate, San Diego State, with all kinds of honors and stuff. I had no skills, no way to earn a living, but I knew the alphabet. You knew the alphabet, you could file.


Charlotte: That's what I did. I worked filing and typing at this management consultant company on East 38th, and at night I worked in a saloon called the Sawdust Trail. That was my very first job, with Theresa Brewer; we used to stand on the bar and sing every half hour.


Marion: And what would you wear? A little Western outfit?


Charlotte: A gown. And right on the bar, they would roll in from the street, sawdust on the floor and ex-vaudevillians performing, singing waiters. My father came and started to cry because the cigarette woman tried to hustle him. And I had to reassure him that I wasn't a bad girl, that I was a reflection of him.


Marion: Where were you raised?


Charlotte: In the Middle West. Where were you raised?


Marion: In the Middle West.


Charlotte: Wisconsin.


Marion: Minnesota.


Charlotte: Well…


Marion: Well, there we are, isn't that something?


Charlotte: We're Middle Western girls.


Marion: Now, did you go to college?


Charlotte: I went to Northwestern.


Marion: Who all went to Northwestern when you were there?


Charlotte: Oh, there was Patricia Neal. And Jean Hagen—remember Jean Hagen?


Marion: Sure I do.


Charlotte: I always try to remember to mention her, because she's been gone for a while.


Marion: That's right, and that was a tragic story. 


Charlotte: Yes, but I'll tell you, she was so wonderful in Asphalt Jungle. And in Singin' in the Rain, when she played the silent movie star: "I can't staaaaand him." And Cloris Leachman, Bonnie Bartlett, Florence Stanley.


Marion: I was the only one from San Diego State that went ahead and made a career out of it.


Charlotte: You sure did.


Marion: Haven't we worked hard? It's very hard.


Charlotte: Yeah, and everyone thinks it's easy.


Marion: At my age now—I’ll tell you my age, I’m 65—I could quit. Not that I’m going to quit, but I could take the pressure off myself. Not that I’m tired, but it's a milestone that I think I have to get through. Part of me wants to quit. I’m giving myself permission to say—I won't, of course, but it's like, "Gee, I've worked hard." I’ve driven myself.


Charlotte: I find now that I'm at this point in my life, I just do the things I really find a challenge, that I really want to do. I want it all, I'm greedy. I want the work, but I want my relationships with my family and my friends. I don't wanna give it up anymore for just the work, although the work helps keep you alive, it's very important for the brains and the spirit.


Marion: Paul [Michael] and I just did Love Letters to raise money for the Pierce College Philharmonic Chorale. So, we had that little project to do. We're in business, the store is open, and stuff is goin' on. You create the business. It's quite an accomplishment to do what we've done. And we don't think about it.


Charlotte: We have to try to acknowledge it ourselves.


Marion: And give ourselves credit for it, and say, Whew, now you could ease up. Please enjoy what you've done. When I first had my children, I was so busy thinking about my career, and this baby was—not in the way, but a friend of mine said, "Don't miss this," meaning the baby. I thought, "Uh oh, I hear this."


Now, to have a life and have a home—I’m like you, I want it all, too. Early on in my career, down at the La Jolla Playhouse I was understudying Ricki Soma, who turned out to be the mother of Anjelica Huston. This was the first professional thing I'd ever done, and there was an old man who was having a lot of trouble remembering his lines. It was embarrassing and frightening to see that. Then I talked to other actors, and I found they lived in hotel rooms. It was like a cold wind to see what a price these actors had paid. I didn't want that. I made a choice right then—no, no. I'm not gonna be... What a price.


Charlotte: When I was in New York, the thing that made up my mind to come out here was the last play I did there, Morning, Noon, and Night, for Ted Mann on Broadway. It got brilliant reviews and very few people came, and I saw a woman in the front row fixing her lipstick before we finished the play. And I said, "What am I killing myself for? I wanna reach masses of people." I love the theatre, but to give up so much…


Marion: Now, let's talk about TV. So here we are, you and me. You must be known all over, everywhere—


Charlotte: The world. You, too.


Marion: Me, too.


Charlotte: It's amazing.


Marion: I went to Italy two summers ago, and people stopped me on the street: "La Mama de Ricki! La Mama de Ricki!" I think, how can they recognize me?


Charlotte: I was in China, and people from Malaysia said, "Oh, hello, Mrs. Garrett." I go to Israel—"Mrs. Garrett! Mrs. Garrett!"


Marion: How many years were you on Facts of Life?


Charlotte: Seven. They wanted me to go on and renegotiate after my seven years, and I just didn't wanna do it


Marion: You could walk away from all that money? Charlotte, did you ever regret that?


Charlotte: Never. It doesn't mean that much to me. When you come to my house, it's very cozy, very simple.


Marion: Plus, we don't do this for the money, do we? We don't, literally, do this for the money?


Charlotte: Oh, television, yes.


Marion: But it really still is not the goal, I don't think. Sylvie Drake said of your performance in the play Happy Days by—


Charlotte: Beckett, Samuel Beckett.


Marion: She just couldn't say enough wonderful things, how wonderful you were in that. I didn't see it.


Charlotte: It was a challenge. It’s called a Hamlet for women roles.


Marion: Was it difficult to learn?


Charlotte: Yes.


Marion: I would think so.


Charlotte: But I think Beckett will someday go alongside Shakespeare, I really do.


Marion: That's an interesting thing.


Charlotte: And people think that Beckett is so depressing, but first of all, he has great empathy and understanding—for a man, his feeling for women is quite wonderful. I felt that Winnie, even though at the end of play she's up to her neck, somehow her gallant spirit, her noble soul—she’s filled with hope. I was really glad to do that. You've done those things, too; you've done challenges.


Marion: I did that whole one-woman show about Edna St. Vincent Millay, A Lovely Light. I learned that in '88 when we had a strike and I had nothing to do. I would walk around the garden with the script in my hip pocket and learn it.


Charlotte: I saw it originally with Dorothy Stickney. There was group in New York called the Players' Club—it's still there—and they invited me to dinner there. Dorothy Stickney was so nervous; she was married to Howard Lindsey, and he showed me around the club; he looked a little like Teddy Roosevelt.


Marion: Was it the Players' Club that Edwin Booth started?


Charlotte: In Gramercy Park.


Marion: Now this is theatre talk! Oh! The only play I ever did on Broadway in my early days was Edwin Booth with Joe Ferrer. And we were taken to the Players' Club. I played Asia Booth; I had only one line: "How was John Wilkes killed?" "A bullet." As the weeks went on, on the road, going from La Jolla to San Francisco to New York, it got to be “booollet”—I would get more into that one word. "Booollet."


I went to New York and met Dorothy Stickney. She's like 92 years old. I went to her townhouse, and when you go in on the very bottom level, there's a little chaise and a loveseat that apparently was given to her by Lynn Fontanne. And when you go upstairs there's a portrait of her over the fireplace, a huge painting, as Mother in Life With Father. I was so moved to be there, that I was almost in tears—I was embarrassed, because I was so touched, meeting her. Photos of her friends are in the house—Helen Hayes, Katharine Cornell—I mean, it was the theatre that I wanted to be in, and it's an era that's gone. It was the days of the Theatre Guild. I remember my first year—I used to read Theatre Arts magazine cover to cover while I was at Northwestern University, and even in high school. 


Marion: So would I. I would go to the library in Alben Lea, Minnesota, and read the Theatre Arts magazine. There were schools listed, and I found a school in Minneapolis: Mcphail's School of Music and Drama. After the tenth grade. I got my mother to say, OK, I could go to Minneapolis. I worked for a family, took care of their children, so that I could take lessons at Mcphail—drama lessons. And I never wanted to go back to Albert Lea. The family said I could stay, and my mother let me. I didn't have any nice clothes, I didn't have any cashmere sweaters like the other girls did. And I never wore makeup and I never smoked cigarettes in the gym like the other girls did, cause I was gonna be different—I was going to be an actress. Isn't that something? Jesus.


Charlotte: When I was 16 I went as an apprentice to the Players in Milwaukee, and Morton Da Costa—they used to call him "Teke"—and Eileen Heckert were there. And I would go to classes, and then I would play small roles, like Dead Body, or Maid, something with a couple of lines.


Marion: Now how did you get that way? Was it your mother's dream? How did you get like you are?


Charlotte: I come from Jewish middle-class parents. My older sister was an opera singer, but she gave it up to marry a neurosurgeon. My parents probably couldn't afford to do anything except earn a living. But my mother had a wonderful voice. I don't know.


Marion: You had to have a tremendous drive to do this, or you can't stick it out.


Charlotte: I just felt that it was the only thing I could do. When men proposed to me my senior year in college, it terrified me because I wasn't ready for that son of thing. I didn't even know who I was. I really had to get to New York to sort things out—my values and so on. I think if I had lived in Milwaukee, I would have probably ended up in a mental institution, because I'm just not middle-class, I can't conform to that. Don't get me wrong, I go home and I visit my family, my friends. But if I had to live there, I'd go nuts. I really would. It's not my cup of tea. And they're so lovely. It's not that they're dull; it's that I would be bored. Of course, today they have a wonderful performing arts center in Milwaukee. They have a lot going on there now. So maybe, if the weather were better, I'd reconsider. 


Marion: Our little town of Albert Lea, Minnesota, which probably has 18,000 people, now has an Equity Summer Theatre, the Minnesota Festival of the Arts. Paul and I went back last April and did Love Letters and raised $13,000 in three performances for their theatre. The whole town stopped. There were billboards all over the banks, "Welcome, Marion," computer printouts across the windows. I said to Paul, "We gotta go in here, and we gotta get out as fast as we can." It's funny, but my whole goal in life was to get out of that town. I don't know where that comes from. 


Charlotte: Maybe it's because you wanted to survive.


Marion: My mother was a Canadian, a teacher, and she was quite an inspiring kind of person. I was raised with her saying, "You can be," "You can do," to have a large appetite for life, and to become somebody. Occasionally, I’ll talk to somebody and say, "Weren't you raised like that?" I was quite compelled to become somebody, and it was a mixed blessing. Part of me could sit down and cry any minute just thinking whatever it was I had to do. Even now, it's like, "Do I have to do this?" And yet I'm programmed for it. It's too late now; it’s a habit. "You can be." "OK, I will. I will, Mama. I will." And I’m the middle child, and I was the second daughter. So it's like, "Hello? Hello?" to get any attention.


Charlotte: Tell me about it. I’m a middle child too.


Marion: Yeah, so it's like, "Please look at me. Hey! Hey, guys." You know?


Charlotte: Yeah, you sound like me.


Marion: We have a lot in common, don't we, considering we don't know each other at all.


Charlotte: Not just the red hair and the Middle West. Being the middle one is quite something, 'cause you're not captain of the ship, like my older sister, and you're not darling cute.


Marion: Plus, my brother, who's 18 months younger than I, was a little crippled boy. He had a bad leg. I now realize I was the well child. Now I have great sympathy for the well child. Like when a family come would come to Happy Days with a child in a wheelchair, and the other sibling was standing there so politely and so quietly, I would say, "What's your name? How are you?" because I have a lot of empathy for that. My parents were wonderful, but I had no place for my needs.


One day I had my brother come out and we were painting this wall together with this roller, and we got kinda drunk on wine, and I finally told him my ambivalent feelings toward him. And I said I've finally gotten through all that, because if it weren't for you, I wouldn't be me, and now I'm so crazy about me, and what I am—if it weren't for you, this wouldn't have happened. I had to compensate. And all those emotions I use when I work.


Charlotte: One of my sons is handicapped, and I was very careful to have the one who was not handicapped get a lot of attention, and kind of separated them a lot so he wouldn't have to go through some of the bizarre experiences he would have to go through. I’m glad I did that, because now, he says, "He's my brother." I feel lucky that I didn't lay too much on him.


Marion: We've worked hard raising our children, building beautiful homes, sending them to college. Part of that was the motor for the career, as well as the loving of acting. I love acting, and acting is relatively... easy. You understand what I'm saying? Easy to do, because it is a natural thing to do. Even Brooklyn Bridge wasn't hard, although I loved concentrating, working so concentratedly on her. But once I found her, then it wasn't hard at all, it’s like something you love. I love to act. Right now, though, TV doesn't interest me very much. Does it interest you? I'm not very interested in being on a series, I'll tell you that.


Charlotte: No, I don't want another series. I'd like to do guest shots, or an in-and-out character once in a while.


Marion: I love the rush I get out of acting, I love the place I go inside me when I work. It's like having 20 different levels of yourself, like a complicated chess game, all going and all clicking at the same time. And you're alert and you're aware and you're in control, and all your techniques are working and you're trusting them, and you can pour that same coffee on that line from this angle—it's kinda thrilling to make all that work at the same time.


That's why, as maddening as film is—"Cut, please"—I think, "I can do that. You can say 'cut' to me a hundred times and I can do it. I can hit it in the same place and I can do it." And then sometimes when you're on stage, survive, now you've got a run going, and nobody's gonna be saying cut to you. But you've got other problems to accommodate, and it's taking all the problems like a giant puzzle and feeling all that wonderful stuff rush through your body.


Charlotte: I did a master class once, and the first thing that students say is, "How long did it take for you to make it?" It reminded me of when I was very young. I thought when I left Northwestern if I didn't become a successful working actress in one year I wanted to die. It's so funny, how young people have this concept that they've got to make it, but fast. I don't know what they mean by "make it," but I think they mean, you know, start getting to be 

successful. A lot of them have no technique, they just have a naturalistic way about them. I think it's good to develop a technique, and I think it's good for television series people to get on the stage. I think it's vastly important, because you can't just act natural all your life. There are other things to consider.


Marion: I'm very different from Mrs. C. I'm a professional woman, you know? I'm divorced. I'm a total opposite. I used to love to go to work on Happy Days, because that was the period in which I was raising my children. I was handling so much: divorced, alone, didn't have any money. I would go to work just to rest.


Charlotte: It was a vacation from life.


Marion: But it was hard at work, because there's a dynamic in doing a series. It looked like we were all playing; we act like we're playing. But underneath there, it's a tough, hard game. If you spoil your joke, it's taken away from you and given to somebody else. In fact, on a Monday morning they'd say, "Marion, read all the girls' parts." You know, we're all scruffy, we look terrible, it's Monday morning, but my heart would go bubba-da-bubba-da, because I was auditioning always for those writers. I would be as good as I could be reading these parts, and these guys would die. So gradually they would write my part better, because I would show 'em what I could do.


Charlotte: I was conscientious, too. There is no such thing as sloughing it off. You'd always get the script the night before, and you'd look it over so that you had a concept of how you were gonna work it, because that's what you do.


Marion: And you want to be the best you can. Occasionally, you will work with somebody who isn't prepared, and you think, what's blocking them? It's sometimes fear—not temperament, I see fear.


Charlotte: Remember Nat Hiken? He did The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where Are You? I was Sylvia Schnauser, this emotional Bronx housewife, married to Leo Schnauser. She was a riot. The thing was, Nat Hiken once said to me, "I love what you bring when we come to work. First of all, you know your lines. Second of all, you do such detail work, and very seldom do I see that." And he said, "Why is it that actors are dying for a part, they cry and cry, and then you give 'em a part, and then they don't know their lines, they don't come prepared?"


Marion: I used to tell kids who would be on Happy Days, not the stars, but some of the others who had lesser parts, and they'd wimp around about the size of their part, they'd pout a little bit—and I'd say, "You're here. You're in here. Make friends, be cute at lunch, be cute on the stage, be cute hangin' around—don't be sitting over here poutin'. You're in here! You got in the gate. If you don't belong, the policeman doesn't let you in that gate."


Charlotte: They didn't have any perspective.


Marion: At Paramount one time—this was like 1952—one morning in makeup, somebody introduced me to this lovely young lady, and she stood up, and up, and up, and up, and up, and she was so charming. It was Audrey Hepburn, and she was there to do Roman Holiday. I went right home—I bought two candy bars first and got right on the bus. I was always plump. And I wanted to kill myself. It's like they say the three things an actress must pay attention to are, Watch your figure, watch your figure, and watch your figure. It's sweet revenge to come to this age and have that not matter and still be here, isn't it?


Charlotte: I have photos of me where I’m beautiful and thin, and then I have photos of me where I'm beautiful and fat. Right now, for health, I really wanna take it off. And then the byproduct is that you have more energy. I’m sure it's been the same with you as it is with me, that weight has never kept us from getting work, because thanks to God and the talent we have worked with and crafted, we were always fortunate enough to be working, to try out for stuff and we'd get it.


Marion: My manager, Barbara Best, who has been with my career all these years, she would say, "When you feel that you're successful on an interview or something, what is it that people buy? What are they buying? What is it about you?" Like if you're a young actor, you'd say, "I have many sides," but if you could start to hone in on the one that sells well and show that that day. 'Cause an actor—part of the fun that I feel is to be able to lose myself in many roles, but if you're going to be a star, sometimes you're going to take that one saleable part and concentrate and develop that to the exclusion of the others. We don't wanna see Cary Grant or Clark Gable any other way, we want to see them just this way.


Charlotte: Or Spencer Tracy—they're wonderful actors, but they are persona actors. I find when I do my one-woman show, although I do many things with it, the narration is my persona.


Marion: Did you write this show?


Charlotte: It's a long process. It would have been much easier if I had taken the life of one person, but it’s not. It's my stuff through the years.


Marion: From the cabaret on?


Charlotte: Mostly theatre, cause I've done a lot of new theatre, a lot of stuff.


Marion: You're going to do it in March at Northwestern. How many performances?


Charlotte: Two performances—one for faculty and students, and one for them to raise money.


Marion: I would love to take Love Letters on a cruise. I’m ready. We have wonderful lives, don't we, Charlotte? Rich, wonderful lives.


Charlotte: Like I'm having my poker club on Saturday night. We put down a $10 ante.


Marion: What's the most you've ever won?


Charlotte: Once I won $17. I won't even put a nickel in a slot machine, but this is money well spent.


Marion: I would not gamble—I have never—I just gamble with my life.