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Conversations with Elizabeth Wilson — Part V

BK: Did you ever want to play Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into NIght?

EW: There were very few roles that I wanted to play. I never felt I was right for O’Neill. I think I felt it was too steeply emotional. That was a tough place to go.

BK: It was a place that Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards liked to go.

EW: Yes. They did so much O’Neill. I think the people who have been successful with O’Neill need to go into a dark place. What’s interesting about both Colleen and Jason is that they both had such humor and brightness. But I think part of that was that they were able to expose such darkness in their work.

BK: How did you meet each of them?

EW: Colleen and I bonded right away. She was warm and friendly. And Jason I met in 1962 when we did the Hugh Wheeler play Big Fish Little Fish. John Gielgud was a riot when we did the play. He was a terrible director. He did not give anyone notes. “Take one more step over here….” I told this at Jason’s memorial tribute. Noel Coward came to Baltimore when we played it there and his notes were so good.

BK: Was Jason agreeable to work with?

EW: I found him vey easy. I knew him in the beginning, when he was drinking. But I never thought of him as complicated. Just was very truthful.

BK: There is something about his quality of acting that always makes me think of Spencer Tracy—how it rolls out in a similar way.

EW: Aha! That’s right. They’re not ‘actors.’ Oh, yeah.

I think that the great actors shared so much in their work that was so personal, and I don’t think they realized they were doing it, sometimes. So much of it was private that made their work electric. I think that all the greatly talented people in the theater who were actors—there’s so much that’s dark and bright—have to decide with each role where to go. When I was working on a role that made me go to different places, I don’t think I ever thought about going there. I jut knew it was going to happen. It was a secret. I think the talented people are full of secrets. When I was teaching at HB [Herbert Bergof] Studios in New York, I used to say, “DON’T TALK ABOUT IT! The minute you talk about it, you take a little notch off.”

When Jason and I did Big Fish, Little Fish, Betty Bacall was living with him. She was such a major star, and she got pregnant and they got married.

BK: I just read part of her autobiography. The sense I had was that she is deeply insecure.

EW: Absolutely.

BK: And it seems to me she can only surround herself with famous people.

EW: Absolutely. She once said to me, “Everyone just thinks of me as Mrs. Humphrey Bogart, and I was a widow at thirty!” She’s an interesting woman. I think I told you that Waiting in the Wings was a nightmare trip for her, because there was Michael Langham, who’s a sonofabitch, and there was Rosemary Harris, who is a great actress, and there was Betty Bacall. Langham would send everybody out of the room and coach Betty. It was a terrible experience.

BK: You’ve done several television series over the years, but none ran.

EW: Yes, I did East Side, West Side, with George Scott. And Doc, with Barney Hughes, which was done by Mary Tyler Moore’s production company. And then a very interesting series in 1986, Morning Star, Evening Star. We did about six shows, and they closed it.

East Side, West Side was filmed up in The Bronx. Wonderful studio, and we filmed on location a lot, too. And it was great, because so many New York actors like Alan Arkin, were in it. We worked on location in Harlem and all over the place. We had wonderful directors.

BK: It was acclaimed by critics, but it couldn’t find an audience.

EW: Just didn’t click. It was filmed the year Kennedy died. Cicely Tyson was in it, and George Scott wanted her to become more involved, and again, African-Americans had to sit in the balcony! Cicely barely spoke on the show—the part she played, I mean.

Doc was very commercial. It was filmed in California. Mary Wickes was in it. She was a dear. She had an apartment way up high, and she would invite Barney Hughes and me to dinner every Sunday. She was special.

BK: You mentioned that you had trouble with your part in You Can’t Take It With You (Broadway, 1983) because you were being asked to play yourself.

EW: Yes, Ellis Rabb, the director, wanted me to play myself. I didn’t know how to do that! Who am I? But I did it. And when he was happy with what I did, he handed me a piece of paper that said “STAR.”

BK: Let’s talk about a ground-breaking play you did in the early 1970s that a lot of people don’t remember, though it was big news at the time: David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones. You won the Tony. Such a stark, disturbing play.

EW: That was an extreme trip. Here was a woman in denial. She and her husband were in denial that the Vietnam War was happening, that their son had come home blind. It was bad. Painful. Jeff Bleckner was a good, hand-on director. There was a scene where he wanted my son to rape me. The set was rough, because it was all stairs, a house with three floors, designed by Santo Loquasto, that wonderful man from Yale. The rape scene took place in my bedroom, and Jeff said, “Elizabeth, what would happen if your son is home, and he’s on a cane, and he rapes you with his cane?” I said, “Can I go home and ask my mother?” My little joke. He throws me on the bed and puts the cane up my leg. “Hey, Mamma! It’s me!” Oh, brother. That was rough. Particularly because in those days we did five shows back to back—two Saturday, two Sunday. The two sons were wonderful: Cliff DeYoung and David Selby. I had a big crush on David Selby!

BK: Did people in the audience ever boo?

EW: They were mystified by it. We weren’t sure it was a success. We knew it was a powerful piece. But they would boo us. Not every night. People would come backstage and not even speak. That war was just so…

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1 Comment

  1. Howard Mandelbaum

    February 4, 2018 at 7:04 pm

    Hope the interview goes on forever! What fascinating, intimate insights. Incidentally, LET ME HERE YOU WHISPER, the 1969 television play by Paul Zindel, which boasts outstanding performances by Ruth White and Elizabeth Wilson, is the subject of controversy due to similarities to THE SHAPE OF WATER.

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