For a woman without children, I’ve played an awful lot of moms.
Back in eighth grade, I should have seen the writing on the wall when the girls in my class (all 13 of us) banded together to “let’s put on a show!” We decided to mount a production of SLEEPING BEAUTY in the school basement. I wanted to play the Princess (natch!), but Linda T.won that crown. I would have settled for the Prince, but the cape was tossed around the shoulders of Cindy D. (she had very short hair.) Me? I was chosen to play the mom. Yes, I know, she was the Queen, but a sting, nonetheless.
The show now cast, our all female production began unsupervised rehearsal in the St. Thomas school basement — a whole hour after lunch during school time; for two entire weeks. Unbelievable! A fierce baker’s dozen, we blocked and rehearsed with the zeal of a David Merrick. When the moment finally arrived, my performance as Queen for a Day was a royal success.
Throughout high school, I snagged a series of support roles. occasionally I was up for the lead, but my natural jack-of-all-trades ability kept me smack in the middle of character land. Any baseball coach worth their salt knows you never waste a good utility player. When our ingénue contracted mono during rehearsals for THE ROAR OF THE GREASEPAINT… I was plucked from the chorus to stand-in for “The Girl.” My heart swelled with excitement! But, she recovered before Opening Night. Not my Peggy Sawyer moment after all.
The summer following my sophomore year, I was in a production of West Side Story (see earlier post, MR SMITH GOES TO HIGH SCHOOL.) It was the most exciting thing that had ever happened in my life. Cast as Riff and Bernardo, the leaders of the rival gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, were two very hot, very popular guys. They had just graduated from the nearby boys high school, Bishop Guertin. I’d seen them perform on stage and swooned from afar. And now they were going to be treading the boards — with me!
These boys weren’t just cute, they were talented. I was beside myself. Twice. As rehearsals got underway, even in my smallish role as Rosalia, one of the Puerto Rican gang girls, I garnered a bit of attention. Oddly not because of my decidedly non-Puerto Rican coloring (this was summer stock, folks,) more because unlike half of our cast, I could actually sing and dance. In fact, I ended up choreographing several of the musical numbers. As far as I was concerned, this was turning out great!
To look at them, Bob and Joseph were pretty much opposites. Bob, a wiry ball of energy with a curly mop of dirty blonde hair, was perfectly cast as Riff, the cocky New Yorker longing to rule the streets. Joe, slightly quiet with a romantic sweep of dark hair, easily convinced you he was Bernardo, the smooth Latin lover — mysterious enough to have been born in another country. A little bit foreign, a little bit rock and roll.
When they started chatting me up, I was ecstatic. I knew it was more in the little sister than the “Gee, I’d really like to take you out” vein, but that didn’t stop me from hoping. One day, our conversation took a surprising twist.
BOB: “Hey, I know who you remind me of!”
ME: (almost afraid to ask but too thrilled not to) “Who?”
BOB: “Vivian Vance. You know her?”
Though at that moment I wished that I didn’t, I knew exactly who Vivian Vance was. We all do, I LOVE LUCY’s stalwart side-kick, Ethel Mertz.
JOE: “Yeah (shaking his head in amazement), you do look like Vivian Vance! Crazy.”
I tried valiantly to keep my face looking pleasant, but my smile stretched pretty thin. Here are these two hunky guys for whom I have, at minimum, an artistic crush, at maximum, a full-out heart flutter, telling me I look like a 45-year-old landlady.
BOB: “Of course, a younger Vivian Vance.”
JOE: “Way younger.”
I bit my tongue. Did they seriously think that helped? Apparently I was a better actress than I was aware of as neither picked up that my 15 year-old self found this comparison devastating.
From that day on I was “Viv,” clearly a term of endearment. After a while, I decided what the hell. She was a pretty funny broad. Then one day Bob came up with another one.
BOB: “Hey, I was thinking, you know who else you look like?”
About now I was wondering, “Couldn’t it just be me?” Instead —
ME: “No, who?”( silently praying that he went a little younger this time.)
BOB: “Angela Lansbury! Do you know Angela Lansbury? Hey, Joey, doesn’t Viv look a lot like Angela Lansbury?”
JOEY: “Oh, yeah. Definitely see that!”
I considered the statement. At that moment, I wasn’t exactly familiar with the actress. I had seen her on TV when they’d broadcast her movies, BLUE HAWAII and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. A movie actress versus a sitcom second banana (admittedly, a classic sitcom) — things were looking up.
As time went on, I learned much more about Miss Lansbury. One interesting tidbit, in both of those films, she was cast as the mother of men very close to her in age. In the MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, Angie was only 3 years Laurence Harvey’s senior and just 10 years older than Elvis Presley in BLUE HAWAII. I’m sure playing Mom to these gentlemen on the big screen made her feel totally sexy and alive. I can relate.
A few years ago, here in New York I found myself in an acting class with Brian, a guy I’d been very friendly with and pretty hot for in college. (Ed. Note, total lack of interest from his perspective.) We hadn’t been in touch in a while. As Brian got ready to perform a big dramatic scene, he asked that I sit in a special spot in the audience, front and center. I was touched, until he went on to say, “…because I want to make sure my Mom can see me!” The words were no sooner out of his mouth than his face said “oops, didn’t mean to say that out loud.” But there was no unringing the bell. I may have looked like I was watching Brian’s big scene, but I was really looking back on our 20-plus years of friendship to see that the guy I’d had a crush on in college viewed me as his Mommy substitute. Oh, goody-goody. Break out the pasties and grease up the dance pole, cause I’m feeling sexy now…
Over the years, I’ve heard a few more comparisons. Back in high school one night I received an excited call from a girlfriend. “Turn on Channel 5,” she panted. “Hurry up, turn it on. There’s a girl on Mannix tonight who looks just like you.” I was a desperate 14-year-old, eager to see herself through someone else’s eyes. I sprinted to our portable black & white and switched it on. “Are you watching yet? “Yes, yes, ” I assured her. “There she is…” my friend screeched, “…right there. The blonde. Doesn’t she look like you?” I held my breath. This girl was 1970s pretty. I stayed glued to the end of the program and digested the credits. The actress was Carole Lynley and I though I didn’t really believe what my friend had said for a second, I was entranced at the possibility. I floated on that for days.
Many years later, in 1986, I got a call one evening at my apartment in New York. It was another friend from college, Tommie. “Hey, have you seen the new Bloodworth-Thomason series?” (Tommie lived in LA and, working in television, she was on the inside with the breaking news and patois.) “What new series?” (I didn’t, and therefore, was not.) “Designing Women. You have to catch it. There’s an actress on there looks just like you. The two of you could be sisters.” I was ready for this. “Carole Lynley?” I smoothly inquired, the 15-year-old memory still fresh. “No, her name’s Jean Smart. New to me — tall, blonde, funny. My first thought when she came on-screen was, she looks like Dee.”
At this point in life I had a firmer grasp on me, so though I was definitely curious I wasn’t counting on a glimpse of Jean Smart to magically define me. But it’s still a kick to take a glimpse at how you appear to others. Guess what, Tommie was right. I do resemble Jean Smart. In fact, from then on she’s served as a professional touchstone for me. She’s fashioned a terrific career. I think she’s great.
Starting with that experience during West Side Story, I learned more and more about Angela Lansbury and her monster talent. I regret I missed her revival of GYPSY on Broadway but I know the cast album by heart. I came down to New York from college specifically to catch her in SWEENEY TODD. But her standby, Marge Redmond (Sister Jacqueline in the 1960s Sally Field TV series, The Flying Nun) went on for the matinée. I was terribly disappointed until the show began. Then, I was just in awe. Marge wasn’t Angie, but she was fantastic. Since then, I’ve been lucky to see Angela live on Broadway several times and have always marveled at how brilliantly she commands a stage.
When SWEENEY TODD was first making the rounds in summer stock, I was plucked out of the crowd during several cattle call auditions for Sweeney for no reason other than I reminded them of Angela. As a legit soprano, I couldn’t give them the sound they were after, so this resemblance never quite got me cast.
Later in life I chanced to read the biographies of both of my dopplegangers, Misses Vance and Lansbury. It was there I recognized a shared experience. Quickly skipping over ingénue to mother/matron/side-kick in short order was sometimes a painful career pill for all of us. I learned that Vivian Vance was a singer and accomplished stage actress (who knew!) She was almost too attractive for Lucy’s comfort, hence they dressed her down. Angela found leading lady status on Broadway but never managed to be the star of her own film. Just a bit later, bet she laughed all the way to that quaint little bank in Cabot Cove.
But here’s the truth, I’m totally delighted that as a 15-year-old, two hot guys thought I resembled these lovely ladies. Because I’m finally smart enough to appreciate that Angie and Ethel were real, sexy women living vital, creative lives. I can only hope I find as much joy, success and satisfaction as it appears they both managed to embrace.
I do confess to still harboring one Angie fantasy. For years I’ve wanted to pitch a film about three generations of women, with Angela as my mother, Drew Barrymore (another look-ish alike) as her granddaughter and, in case you haven’t done the math, me — the one in the middle. So any producers out there looking for a golden indie opportunity, Facebook me. I’ve got a couple of script ideas percolating.
Good old Carole Lynley? I lost track of her and her hot pants right after The Poseidon Adventure. But Jean Smart, she’s as busy as ever. And all I can say is “Rock on, baby. You remain an inspiration!”
Oh. My. God. Jean, I just had the most fantastic idea!! You and I could play sisters in a new cable series. What do you think? Comedy. Drama, you call it cause you do it all. And we know there are networks just begging for good programming and someone with a solid TV-Q. (That’s you, not me. But I’ll get started on mine as soon as I can.) I’m so inspired, I’m going to start the treatment tonight. So drop me an email and we can do lunch. I like the Olympic Diner around the corner. They know me so I can always get a front booth. And they make an awesome gyro platter — see you there?
[Ed. Note: Look what I have to look forward too!]