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Archive for the ‘Interviews & Profiles’ Category

INTERVIEWS & PROFILES

KAREN ALLEN (actress, May 2017):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-aP

BOB BALABAN (actor-director, June 2015):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-cB

ANNE BASS (Lantern Theater executive producer, March 2017):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bu

VALERIE BERTINELLI (actress, March 2017):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-b0

LORRAINE BRACCO (actress, Nov. 2009):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-2p

DIAHANN CARROLL (actress, Oct. 2008):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-2r

PATTY DUKE (actress, Sept. 2009):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-2x

SUSIE ESSMAN (actress, Dec. 2008):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-2A

JULES FEIFFER (author-cartoonist, April 2017):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-a8

CARRIE FISHER (actress, Oct. 2009):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-2D

TONY GEORGAN (Merrick Theater founder, Feb. 2016):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bX

SEAN GRENNAN (playwright, Nov. 2015):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-cc

BRUCE GROSSMAN (Cultural Arts Playhouse producer, March 2016):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bU

CHRISTOPHER HACKERT (playwright, May 2017):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bk

ALLISON JANNEY (actress, April 2017):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-aV

BILLIE JEAN KING (athlete, Jan. 2017):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-b5

TARMO KIRSIMAE (director, Feb. 2016):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bX

CHRIS LEMMON (actor-singer, Oct. 2015):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-cl

OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN (actress-singer, July 2017):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-aK

KELLI O’HARA (actress, Dec. 2017):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bq

JEFFREY SANZEL (Theater Three artistic director, Sept. 2016):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bG

ALENA SMITH (playwright, June 2015):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-cB

JONATHAN TOLINS (playwright, May 2016):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bM

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SOMETIMES A GRAIN OF SAND: Olivia Newton-John Reflects on Glory and Grief

by David Lefkowitz

(Note: this article was first published in July 2017)

“I’m waking up this morning
Grateful for the gift of one more day
The light of hope is dawning
It fills my heart and lifts my fears away.
Live on, live on.”
– “Live On” (Olivia Newton John)

When songstress Olivia Newton-John comes to mind, we tend not to think of words like grief or pain or endurance. After all, the English-born, Aussie-raised, American-minted beauty came on the music scene nearly fifty years ago with the looks of a Cover Girl model, the persona of the ultimate girl next door, and a voice any girl group would covet. From 1971, when her take on Bob Dylan’s “If not for You” zoomed up the pop and adult contemporary charts, through the early 1980s, when music critic Robert Christgau wrote, “Any heterosexual man who can deny `Physical,’ with its detonating blonde bombshell… needs his monkey-gland shot,” Newton-John led the kind of stars-aligned life of which mere mortals can only dream.

But the actress-singer is 68 now, and a lot can happen when you live long past your thirties. She married actor Matt Lattanzi, but they divorced after only nine years. Their daughter, Chloe, now 31, struggled with anorexia, drug-and-alcohol abuse, and a seeming addiction to plastic surgery. And though Newton-John has been happily married to businessman John Easterling since 2008, her previous partner, John McDermott, disappeared after a fishing trip and has been presumed dead—though reports that he faked his own demise and has been living in Mexico continue to surface. Oh, and let’s not forget The Big C. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992, Newton-John underwent chemotherapy and a partial mastectomy. After a decade and a half of being cancer-free, John learned in May that the disease had reappeared. She canceled a planned tour and instead will undergo radiation and “natural wellness therapies.” The news is especially sad because four years ago, her sister Rona succumbed to an aggressive brain tumor.

That last tragedy hit the singer especially hard. “I will miss her forever,” Newton-John then wrote on her Facebook page, “my beautiful, smart, talented, funny, brave sister.” At the time, Olivia was working on a Christmas album, which helped lift her spirits, but she eventually felt the need to reach deeper. The result is her latest musical project, “Liv On” (sic), a collaboration between her, veteran country tunesmith Beth Nielsen Chapman, and Canadian songwriter Amy Sky. All three turned to music as a way of understanding and coping with loss.

In a phone conversation with Newton-John (that occurred before her recent diagnosis), the new album often came to the fore, but she was also willing to share her thoughts about the many events of her life—good and bad—that brought her to this point. We began, of course, with music.

Olivia Newton-John: I’ve always found that music has been my way of healing. So I was writing a song for Rona and about her. I called Amy Sky to ask if she’d help me finish it. We talked about her just losing her mother the year before, and we realized that there really wasn’t music specifically for people going through loss and grief. So I said, “How would you feel about doing an album of these songs?” We talked about it and decided to invite Beth Nielsen Chapman, too. She’s a longtime friend of mine and fellow cancer “thriver.” Also, she was doing quite a lot of music at that time for people who were grieving. (I didn’t even know that; it just happened to be wonderful timing.) She wanted to join us on the record because she had lost her husband, 14 years before, to cancer, and wrote a beautiful, beautiful song called, “Sand and Water” that’s become kind of a classic. Elton John has sung it many times.

“All alone, I heal this heart of sorrow
All alone, I raise this child
Flesh and bone, he’s just
Bursting towards tomorrow
And his laughter fills my world, and wears your smile.”
– “Sand and Water” (Beth Nielsen Chapman)

So we all got together on three occasions and wrote new songs in my kitchen. And we talked about the different stages of grief. Grief is not something discussed in our society very much, but everybody goes through it at some point. We lose a relative or a friend or a pet (which has always been devastating to me). Or we move or we lose a friend or our circumstances change. There’s lots of areas of grief in life. We thought, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to write some songs that address those things?” So that’s how the album was born, and we’ve been touring it.

Was it cathartic to sing these songs in public and then hear audience members offer their personal experiences with loss?
Yes, of course. That was our intention making it: to bring some people relief and let them know they’re not alone. That song, “Live On,” for instance. I wrote it for my sister and as an inspirational song for my cancer-wellness and research center in Melbourne, Australia. When we did the tour, no one had heard these songs, so it was incredible to hear the wonderful reactions. We also did a Q&A. We didn’t know how that would go, but people raised their hands and wanted to tell us about what they’d gone through. They wanted to share. That’s really healing: when people can share their feelings and know they’re not alone.

Your sister’s death was tragic but a fairly common life experience. Was the grieving process different when you didn’t actually know what happened to John McDermott?
I don’t really like to discuss that because it’s very personal to me. But grief never goes away. We wrote a song on our album called “Stone in My Pocket.” It says that with grief—sometimes you carry it around like a boulder, sometimes it feels like a rock, sometimes it feels like a pebble, and sometimes a grain of sand. But grief is always there, and you learn to deal with it and live with it. All the different stages, and all the different people that you’ve lost are always part of that. Not to be too specific, but I’ve had a lot of grief in my life—as most people have.

Well, on the positive side, between new music, touring, and your philanthropic endeavors, you seem incredibly busy and healthy for someone nearing 70. Do you see that pace continuing for another 10, 20 years?

(laughs heartily) I like your optimism! But I’m very grateful to be here, and I think age is how you feel and not the number you put on it. And music is eternal, so as long as I feel like I wanna sing, and people still show up, I’ll do it. I have a wonderful marriage with a lovely home and animals and things, so I’d like to spend more time at home. But I really enjoy singing, and I get pleasure out of it and give pleasure to the audiences. So I’ll do it as long as it feels right, and when it doesn’t, I won’t.

And having beaten cancer 25 years ago, you must be pretty proactive about your health and diet?
My husband is an expert on homeopathics, so I take a lot of Amazonian herbs. John also has a dear friend who runs a clinic where I do DNA tests twice a year, just checking out my body. I also do a blood test about once a year—things like that. I try to keep my immune system strong, so that even with all the hard work that I do, I stay very healthy.

Does that include avoiding red meat and other “bad” foods?
I’m not totally vegetarian; I go in and out of that. My daughter is a vegan, but my body sometimes craves meat. I’ll go through phases where I don’t eat any, and then my body tells me I need it, so I will eat some. I eat very healthily, but I also enjoy myself. I believe that you have to have fun, and have a cookie or dark chocolate (which is healthy anyway!). Luckily, my indulgences are usually things that are fairly healthy. My mother was German, and she would feed us potatoes with the skins on and steamed vegetables. When I was a young girl, I’d say, “Oh, mom. This is so boring!” But now I’m very grateful to her for teaching me to eat well.

What about exercise?
I do what I can, though I’m often traveling. Plus my show is actually quite “physical”—not to be punny there. I do like to take walks, hike, play with my animals. I have a gym at home, so I’ll do that when I can. I have my own little workout that I put together, and I keep pretty fit. Still, I’d like to get into a yoga class, and I even used to do the hot yoga years ago, but I’m never home long enough to get into a routine. So I do yoga stretches that are very important for the spine as you get older.

It sounds like your health consciousness has been a long-term thing, even though you achieved success in the 1970s-80s, an era of excesses that were the opposite of healthy.
I stayed totally away from that. I went to Studio 54 a few times, and I used to go to clubs, but drugs? I never saw them. I think you find things only if you’re interested in them, and I wasn’t interested. I really wasn’t aware of it.

So maintaining a healthy lifestyle is one suggestion you might give an up-and-comer entering the music business. What are some others?
Finding your own style and not copying anybody else. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful producer and songwriter, John Farrar, who did most of my production. Also, finding great songs is so important. I was very lucky in my career to have John and Steve Kipner and Peter Allen. All Australians writing the majority of my hit songs!

“You never chase your dreams, they find you
Love, I know you; if you need love, it finds you, too
Don’t stop believin’, you’ll get by
Bad days, bad days will hurry by.”
– “Don’t Stop Believin’” (John Farrar)

It’s not as if you faced no setbacks early on. Just before you hit it big, you were part of a Monkees-like group that made one weird movie, Toomorrow, and then disbanded. Since you were only 22 then, was it a devastating blow, or did you simply move onward and upward without much regret?
Well, the group was me and three boys—an Englishman and two Americans—all of us put together by Don Kirshner, who put the Monkees together, and Harry Saltzman, who did the James Bond movies. It sounded great, and we made a movie, and of course it’s disappointing when you have things that don’t work, but that’s the only way you grow. But I was never gonna give up. Of course not! I was still singing and performing. All failures are disappointing for everybody, but you just keep going. One of the songs I do in my show is, “Not Gonna Give in to It.” You learn from a mistake, and you realize later that it was a big lesson.

Do you have any thoughts on the current pop music scene? Any artists who impress you?
I love Adele, Rihanna, Pink. I love a lot of people! (laughs) I was watching the [Grammy salute to the] Bee Gees special the other night, and everybody up there was so gifted. There have always been wonderful artists every era that I’ve witnessed. And now it gets more and more interesting and diverse as different kinds of music integrate together.

You’ve released nearly a dozen albums since 1990, though casual fans might still know only your work from the two prior decades. Are there more recent songs you wish were as widely known as the early hits?
Gosh. I’ve recorded so many songs, but I probably would say songs from the “Liv On” record because it’s the most current thing I’m doing. And the songs “Live On” and “Stone in My Pocket” would be the ones I’d want people to hear now because they’re where I’m at in my music at the moment.

“In every heart of those we touch
In every dream that means so much
Yes, I believe that all of us live on.”
– “Live On” (Olivia Newton-John)

SIDEBAR

OLIVIA ON THE CLASSICS

Let Me Be There
We did that record in England, I think. It was producer Bruce Welch’s idea to put that bass voice on there, which made it very original and clever. It’s a great song, and it started my career in country music—when I wasn’t even aware it was a separate category!

I Honestly Love You
A magnificent, beautiful love song that I’m lucky to still be singing.

Summer Nights
I just think of fun. Fun days filming with the girls. It was great.

Physical
That’s a song I put out and then got panicked because I thought I’d gone too far. But then it was too late—it went to number one so quickly! I tried to counteract it because I thought maybe it was a little too raunchy for me. I said to my manager then, “We need to do a video and try and make it more about exercise!” And that took it to even greater heights, so it kind of makes me laugh now.

Have You Never Been Mellow
That’s a John Farrar song. Classic, beautiful lyric, beautiful melody. I love singing that and still do it in my show.

Live On
A positive reinforcement of life.

*

BYLINE:
David Lefkowitz is an adjunct professor of English at the University of Northern Colorado. He also co-publishes Performing Arts Insider (TotalTheater.com) and hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) on UNC Radio. His short comedy, Blind Date, recently played at the Alliance Francaise in Chennai, India.

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In Bloom: Christopher Hackert Gets his Theatrical Wish

by david lefkowitz

(This article was published by Long Island Pulse in May 2017: http://lipulse.com/2017/05/24/christopher-hackert-moonlighting/)

 

Someone who gives floral arrangements names like, “Out of the Woods,” “Bursting with Glee!”, and “High Drama Roses” has an obvious theatrical streak, but for Christopher Hackert, true creativity begins after the doors to East Meadow Florist are locked for the night.  That’s when he ceases to be Patch magazine’s “Best Florist in East Meadow” and morphs into a dramatist with a growing list of local credits.

He’s a longstanding Playwright in Residence for the South Shore Theater Experience, and this month, and his latest comedy, The Texas Palace Taco Incident, arrives there in June. “It’s very out there,” laughed artistic director Deborah Cascio Plezia, who will stage the show. “It’s a sci-fi farce that starts at home and literally ends up at the taco palace.”

Hackert’s last comedy, Walter’s Wish, played at SSTE as well as at Northport’s Bare Bones Theater Company. That piece told of a husband and father who wants nothing more, on his 39th birthday, than to make his family disappear.  Then a genie appears.

For Hackert, Walter’s Wish was a departure because much of it is told in monologues.  When writing it, the scribe was unsure if it was even funny, but after seeing audience reaction to the world premiere staged at South Shore, Hackert took heart: “apparently, it’s pretty hilarious.”  In fact, the only revision he’s done to the play was one suggested by its SSTE director: moving the first scene of the second act to the end of the first. “It was something I’d thought about when I wrote it,” Hackert said. “So when I saw it, I said, `Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.’”

“The play happened very serendipitously,” he continued, “as do most of my plays. I start by writing the name of a character and a line of dialogue.  I answer with another name and another line.  Then I keep writing to see if it goes anywhere.  This one went somewhere very unexpected.  Not that it’s a `serious’ or `meaningful’ play because I’m the least serious, most shallow person you might meet!”

He’s also one of the most committed. As SSTE’s playwright in residence, he writes one full-length show plus a one-act each year. Somehow, all this activity doesn’t conflict with Hackert’s sensible day job, which he has held for 35 years. “My older brother worked for the original family of East Meadow Florist. Then I got a job here and eventually bought it from the son when he was ready to give it up.” Hackert has owned the business for two decades and often spends seven days a week at the shop. Nevertheless, over the past two years, for South Shore, he played the lead in 2015’s Anybody for Murder and penned the original comedies Ready or Not and `Til My Dying Day; while for Bare Bones, he starred in The Pavilion and Scapino, and wrote the one-act Don’t Forget to Write.

Asked how he finds the time for theater when he dwells amongst the thorns, Hackert, who has enjoyed writing since he was a child and readily admits his shows can be “a little silly or sitcom-y,” replied, “Even though I have to be here physically to answer the phones and take care of customers—since I own the place, when there’s downtime, I do whatever I want. Still, I tend to write better when I write under pressure and last-minute. So when I have false starts, I can pick them up and see if they mean anything or I’m always willing to throw them away and start anew.”

Walter’s Wish ran March 2-12, 2017 at Bare Bones Theater, 57 Main Street, Northport. (800) 838-3006, barebonestheater.com.

BYLINE:

David Lefkowitz hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) on UNC Radio, co-publishes Performing Arts Insider, and founded TotalTheater.com. His award-winning solo comedy, The Miracle of Long Johns (miracleoflongjohns.com), has played engagements in Colorado and New York City.

**************************

NOTES & BACKSTORY:

This piece was written for Long Island Pulse early in 2017 and scheduled to run that March, when Walter’s Wish was opening. The magazine delayed the story’s publication, however, so by the time it ran, it had to be significantly revised to put Walter in the past and Texas Tacos on the front burner. The version posted here is expanded from what was actually published in Pulse’s May 2017 issue.

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Karen Allen and the World of Yes

 

by David Lefkowitz

 

(Note: This article was first published in Long Island Woman, May 2017)

 

Before you even ask: yes, she still has those eyes and the smile.  They’re often on view in the new film by Alexander Janko, A Year by the Sea, in which Karen Allen plays a woman of a certain age on a journey of self re-discovery.  It’s a hejira that suddenly, but by choice, puts this long-married, well-to-do mother of two, alone, in a beach house on Cape Cod where she can observe the tides, the sea lions, and her own reawakening as a person.

With gorgeous location cinematography that belies the film’s low budget, A Year by the Sea, based on the memoir by Joan Anderson, is not so much a chick flick as a wake-up call to all people who are stuck in a rut and think that, at a certain point, life holds no more adventures.  For the film’s Joan, those include pumping her own water, making new friends, and the need to row herself to and from her cottage.  “I think I have rowed a boat over the years,” Allen says in our phone chat, “but I certainly wouldn’t consider myself good at it.  Also, I have a rotator cuff injury, so I was worried about those scenes.  But it worked very well for the character because in the beginning part of the film, she’s not really good at it, either.”  The actress does confess that in some of the long shots later on, the person rowing is actually one of the movie’s producers.  “We didn’t have a big stunt-person budget,” Allen chuckles.

As someone who may be most famous for a scene in which she’s dangling over a pit of snakes—Steven Spielberg even dropped a dead python on her head to bolster her screams—Allen had an understandably better time consorting with seals.  “Not that I have anything against snakes, but the day we spent on Monamoy Island on the cape where there were all these seals was enchanting!  They’re very shy, so no matter how gently I moved towards them—even if they had their backs to me—they could almost sense my approach.  Which was fine with me, because as beautiful as they are, they’re very powerful creatures.  I did probably get within 20 feet of them on land before they high-tailed it into the water.”

That said, the film is more about human relationships than aquatic ones, and the actress found parallels between her own life choices and those of her character.  “When I accepted this role,” Allen notes, “I had not been married for about 18 years.  I’m very good friends with my ex-husband and with the father of my son.  I have a fantastic relationship with them; we’re just no longer married and don’t live together, but we hang out together and do things all the time.  So I didn’t have the same dilemma in my life as Joan.

“But in her case,” Allen continues, “she felt as though she had lost her own voice, her own sense of productivity and forward motion.  She began to reassess her marriage, which I think happens to a lot of people.  I’ve been through it with a lot of my friends.  At the end of the child-raising phase and having those shared responsibilities and concerns, people really can find themselves looking at each other and feeling, `And you are . . . who?  We’re still together . . . why?’  At that moment, people either—and often do—leave relationships that have meant the world to them.  Or they really dig down and find a way to renegotiate, renavigate the relationship with the idea that they can discover things about themselves, and it won’t put the relationship in jeopardy.”

 

Most inspiring about the Year by the Sea story, says Allen, is Joan’s willingness to adjust.  “I don’t think we get to see that in films very often,” the actress notes.  “We see men leaving their wives for younger women or women leaving their husbands for younger men.  Those sorts of shenanigans!  But we don’t see mature people who really care about each other trying to figure out what they have to change and grow in order to deserve their relationship.”

Currently single, the actress has been trying to simplify her life.  She closed the textile company she founded in 2003, Karen Allen Fiber Arts, because she found herself “juggling way too many things,” and has been concentrating on directing.  Her short film, A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud, based on a story by a young Carson McCullers, is making the festival rounds.  “I’ve been directing plays for about 10 years,” says Allen, “but I hadn’t put my foot in the water of directing a film, which is a much bigger deal.  With plays, I work under the auspices of a theater, so I step in as the director, cast the play and work with a designer, but I don’t have to raise money and pull together a crew myself.  It’s a big commitment.  In fact, it took two-and-a-half years just to get to our world premiere.”

Despite the labor-intensive nature of moviemaking, Allen says she looks forward to her next project, a feature.  She says, “I think I turned to directing because I didn’t want to work just to work.  During fallow periods when I wasn’t finding a project I wanted to do, I felt I should be able to open up a much broader world of material.  There doesn’t have to be a role in it for me in order for me to have a lot of interest in it.”

Allen’s wider angle on the arts goes back to her early 20s, when a friend brought her to a performance by Jerzy Grotowski’s legendary experimental theater troupe.  Before then, she had “literally zero interest in the theater and acting.  I was a film lover just in my life, but film was something at a great distance.  I never had met an actor growing up.  I couldn’t wrap my mind around that being a job anyone could imagine themselves doing.”  However, post-Grotowski, Allen immersed herself in training: “reading plays, performing in plays, even producing and directing plays back then.  One of the first I ever did was by the wonderful writer, John Hawkes.  It was called The Innocent Party, and it was very interesting and surreal.  I also did a play that Sylvia Plath had written as a radio play, called Three Women. And I did The Player Queen by William Butler Yeats.

“Back then,” continues Allen, “I directed more out of necessity than choice.  We had an experimental theater company, and we’d develop our own projects both within and outside of it.  So we did our own sets, found our own costumes.  We all did a bit of everything.”

But then came Animal House and a little film called Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the boho, Illinois-born actress became everyone’s girl-next-door crush with a powerhouse punch.  Asked if appearing in two pop-culture classics kept her from being taken more seriously as an artist, Allen replies, “I don’t really know.  I think the film industry has a certain desire to put people in a box or create a stereotype.  I know that after I did Raiders, a lot of the film offers that came towards me were very similar in nature.  And that didn’t interest me.  I mean, I also did The Wanderers, based on Richard Price’s novel — and that was right after Animal House.  I did a more serious film called A Small Circle of Friends about students at Harvard during the late 60s.  But before Starman, I also went back to the theater for a year and a half and did two plays [Extremities and Monday after the Miracle] that challenged the living daylights out of me.  I was waiting for the right film to come along that wasn’t trying to capitalize on Raiders’s success.”  Allen stops for a moment, then laughs, “Maybe that was the wrong way to have a career—I think you’re supposed to capitalize on success!”

 Now at 65, Allen appreciates her level of fame but has also experienced the challenges facing performers who’ve moved past the girlfriend/glamour roles.  A Year by the Sea features many closeups of the actress that are compelling but not always flattering, which leads to the question of whether she, like far too many Hollywood cohorts, ever considered going under the knife.  “I am such a wuss,” she answers, “that the idea of letting anybody sticking a needle in my face, for any reason short of being in a car accident or if somebody cut my face, is beyond my wildest dreams.

“To me, it’s a personal choice whether people wanna have plastic surgery or not,” she continues.  “I often feel a kind of sadness or horror when I see it too much.  With Botox and those things, sometimes the real character and human quality of the face is lessened.

I like the way an aging face looks.  It’s not great for one’s vanity when you blow it up onto a screen, especially with these very unforgiving digital cameras that we have these days.  You notice every little sag.  But you just have to take a deep breath and say, `yeah, I’m not gonna look the way I did when I was 35.’  I know there’s a lot of pressure on actors and people in many professions to look younger, but for myself, I really do question the value that we seem to have within our culture.”

 

On the personal side, although certainly open to another serious relationship at some point, Allen puts no pressure on herself to find a partner.  “I’m waiting for the right person to come into my life,” she says, “but I’m not somebody who is uncomfortable being alone.  There are pros and cons to being on your own, but I don’t feel the need to be in search of a relationship because I have difficulty being a singular person in my life.  On the other hand, I would be delighted to meet somebody for the next phase.  It just hasn’t happened; I don’t know why.”

Though she still keeps an apartment in Manhattan, Allen makes her home on 28 acres in the small town of Monterey, Massachussetts.  She explains that New York City, especially after Sept. 11, 2001, became too challenging a place to live full time.  “My son’s 11th birthday was a few days after 9/11,” she recalls.  “We worked our way through it as a city and as a community, but it had a terrible impact on the film and theater world for quite awhile afterwards.  And simultaneously with that, I was discovering that trying to raise a child while working would be all-consuming.  My husband and I had separated, and I wanted to be a more present parent in my son’s life.  I had been working fairly consistently with a great deal of interest and joy for a good 20 years, so it just felt like a good time to take my son out of the city and move to the countryside.”

The actress adds, “For my son—when he was little and we would be in the country—it was the world of `yes.’  He would be outside, running—he could pick up an insect from the grass.  Everything was `yes!’  Then we get to New York City when he was four or five years old, and I’d be constantly running after him going `NOOOOO!’ and grabbing, like, a crack vial from the playground: `Oh my God, put that down!’  So do I want to live in a world of `yes,’ or do I want to live in a world of `no?’  I kept coming back to the feeling that `yes’ was the better choice.”

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MISC-ALLEN-EOUS

Do you have a diet/exercise regimen?

I wish I could say I do!  If I had my druthers, I’d do vigorous yoga every day and try to eat healthy and organic.  I do love raw foods: vegetables and salads, though I’m not a vegetarian right now.  So the reality of my regime and what I aspire to…there’s a little distance between them.

Favorite meal?

My son Nicholas [Nick Browne] is an extraordinary, French-trained chef.  In fact, he just won on “Chopped.”  He’ll make a fresh tomato sauce on pasta that’s better than anything I’ve ever tasted in my life.  He makes a Jerusalem artichoke soup that I love.  But you know what?  Every recipe, if you wonder where the turning point is…it always comes down to butter.

Favorite vacation spot
A place with beautiful, clean, clear, salt water.  I have a little fixation on the west coast of Jamaica in the West Indies because I went there when I was 18.

Read any good books lately?

Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, which I thought was breathtaking.  I’ve been reading and re-reading a lot of Carson McCullers and early Donna Tartt books.  I also read a lot of books on Buddhist thought because it inspires me.

What have you been listening to?

I love the band Dawes, and I’m a huge Van Morrison fan.  Also, David Gray, the blues, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Joni Mitchell, and on and on and on.  There’s a whole world of 60s-70s music that just sits in my soul from growing up during that period. And I know the words to every Beatles song ever written.

If you could go back and give your 20-year-old self a message, what would it be?

Don’t get so stressed out about things.  Relax and enjoy the ride a little more.  We have to take a deep breath and allow the space in ourselves to accept things, to let go of the anxiety that sits in us and prevents us from enjoying the moment as much as we should.

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 BYLINE:

David Lefkowitz is an adjunct professor of English at the University of Northern Colorado. He also co-publishes Performing Arts Insider (TotalTheater.com) and hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) on UNC Radio. His play, The Miracle of Long Johns, won the best non-fiction script award at the 2015 United Solo Festival.

 

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The Ceiling’s the Limit: Jules Feiffer Collaborates on a New Musical

A year ago, when East Hampton’s Bay Street Theater mounted a staged reading of The Man in the Ceiling, audiences were so taken with the musical that, in post-show talkbacks, they wondered aloud why Bay Street wasn’t doing a full-scale production.

Fast-forward to May 30-June 25, when the show, co-created by composer Andrew Lippa and legendary cartoonist Jules Feiffer, will officially premiere on Bay Street’s mainstage.

Feiffer’s 1995 children’s book, The Man in the Ceiling, told the story of Jimmy, a 12-year-old boy who dreams of being a cartoonist but faces apathy and even hostility when trying to follow that path instead of becoming an athlete. Asked if his own life paralleled Jimmy’s, Feiffer told Pulse, “It’s only autobiographical in terms of Jimmy’s emotions and sensibilities. Everything else is complete fiction. But his anxieties, doubts, the lack of support from his family—well, you can check my memoir, Backing into Forward, to get the true story, but Jimmy is based on how I felt and behaved as a kid.”

Turning a graphic novel about a boy cartoonist into a musical isn’t all that far-fetched—and not just because the 2015 Tony-winner Fun Home also focused on a protagonist who escaped to drawing for both refuge and redemption. A crucial character in the Ceiling novel and show is Uncle Lester, who writes musical after musical until, finally, he gets one on Broadway. How his show fares there is less important than the self-confidence and persistence that allowed him to dream big in the first place—a lesson not lost on Jimmy.

The Pulitzer-winning Feiffer added that when he was Jimmy’s age, he was already driven but didn’t know if he actually had talent. Of course, decades of doing panels for The Village Voice, not to mention Broadway plays (Little Murders, Knock Knock, Grown Ups), illustrations (The Phantom Tollbooth), and movie scripts (Carnal Knowledge, Popeye, the Oscar-winning animated short Munro), have shown the 88-year-old Feiffer to be an American master. “Age doesn’t matter as long as there’s work I want to do and the work is play,” he explained. “It’s hard play; you make a lot of mistakes and screwups, but I’ve always loved it. Now that there are so many things I’m physically unable to do, my youth is entirely based on my ability to draw and write stories better than I did when I was 20, 30, or 40.”

Nearly three decades younger than Feiffer, composer Lippa first came upon The Man in the Ceiling in 2000. “He was in the middle of finishing The Wild Party off Broadway at the time,” Feiffer noted. “He got interested in my book and invited me to see his show. I was expecting very little—because that’s my attitude when I go to the theater!  But I was blown away.  Every aspect just floored me.”

It turned out, though, that Lippa didn’t want Feiffer to co-write Ceiling. “He thought I was too old,” the cartoonist laughed, “I told him, `That may be true, but there won’t be a musical unless I write the book. So he reluctantly agreed.” The collaboration blossomed, however, when Lippa realized Feiffer wasn’t afraid of revisions. “I know the violence you have to do to your own work,” Feiffer said, “That’s part of the fun.”

Things got even better when Lippa’s childhood friend, director Jeffrey Seller—whose day job has included co-producing such musicals as Avenue Q and Hamilton—signed on.  That led to a 2015 workshop at Palo Alto’s TheaterWorks, which led to the Bay Street readings, which has led to the current world premiere. “From the beginning,” said Feiffer, “it’s been a joy.”

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This article was published in Long Island Pulse magazine in April 2017: http://lipulse.com/2017/04/24/pulitzer-winner-brings-tale-to-life/

 

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To the Oval Office from the Bunion Derby: Allison Janney’s Slow Rise to Stardom

by David Lefkowitz

(Note: This article was first published in Long Island Woman, April 2017)

 

When a woman stands six foot tall in flats, being noticed isn’t an issue.  Or at least, that would be the assumption.  However, it took Allison Janney more than a decade of underpaid toiling on New York’s Theater Row and taking television roles like Party Guest, Saleslady, Podiatric Nurse, and Gum Puller before the movies and her signature “West Wing” redemption arrived.  Of course, once C. J. Cregg became a living-room fixture, Janney was no longer just the tallest woman in the room; she was now among the most lauded, awarded (seven Emmys, two Drama Desks, three Tony nominations), and remarkable, as well.

For struggling performers early in their careers, having supportive parents and mentors can be crucial to survive the rough patches.  Janney enjoyed both in spades, as she explains, “My mother, who had been an actress, always said I was an incredibly determined young girl no matter what I tried to do.  So I guess in the back of my mother’s mind, she thought, `It may take awhile, but she’ll get there.’  And though my father was concerned about my financial situation and suggested I might wanna think about a fallback, he never said, `You can’t do this anymore.’”

As for mentors, Janney met hers at Kenyon College in Ohio: Paul Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward.  Newman, a class of `49 alum, directed the budding actress (class of `82) in her first play at the college.  “It was by Michael Cristofer, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Shadow Box,” Janney recounts.  “It was called — get ready for it — CC Pyle and the Bunion Derby.  It was about a marathon race.  Anyway, I was struck with how much Paul loved actors and acting.  He told me after one performance that if I ever needed a favor, I could call on him for it: `It would have to be very specific — so think about it — but I’m there for you.’  For me, that was like having a valium in my back pocket.  For those moments when I wanted to quit, I thought, `Is this the thing to call Paul?’  But I never called him on the favor.  Just knowing it was there gave me a lot of confidence.”

Woodward, too, proved an important ally.  “Joanne directed me in so many plays,” Janney says.  “She just encouraged us all to trust ourselves and remember a sense of `play.’   She was one of the loveliest of women.  And she provided us young actors with a place to read plays and showcase our talents at a time when we couldn’t get cast in anything because we didn’t have Equity cards.  But you can’t get your Equity card unless you’re in something.  It was this unbelievable Catch 22.  Joanne gave us a place where we could put on productions and invite agents and casting people to come see us.  She gave us a leg up, which certainly helped me stay in longer than I might have.”

That said, even with legendary stars putting the wind at her back, Janney had to call on her own determination to brave the stormy Hollywood seas.  She recounts her oft-told story about visiting the Johnson-O’Connor Research Foundation to take aptitude tests that would help her figure out if she was qualified to do anything else in the world besides act.  “I always came up short,” she admits.  “But it was one of those things where a job would come through right at the last minute — just before I was gonna buy a plane ticket to go home.  I guess I had a guardian angel with a sense of humor.”

The gods of theater must have been whimsical, too, since the first play Janney ever saw as a child wasn’t Peter Pan or Our Town, but Miss Margarida’s Way, a satire of authority gone mad as represented by a ranting and abusive schoolteacher.  “Yup, that play is the first one I remember,” Janney chuckles.  After that, she did do the requisite school stints in Fiddler (as Golde), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (as Domina) — “I was always playing men or older women because I was taller than everyone else” — and Oliver! (as Noah Claypole, the Undertaker’s Son).

Luckily, Janney’s pre-star years gave her more unusual and challenging assignments.  “One of my favorite things I ever did,” she recalls, “was a Nicky Silver play called Fat Men in Skirts at Naked Angels back in the day (1994).  It was really fun, and it co-starred Stanley Tucci, Marisa Tomei, and Matt McGrath.  I also did the movie Big Night (1996) with Stanley Tucci, and Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999), which is a hilarious mockumentary with a huge cult following.”

That same year became a turning point for Janney’s move from steadily working character actress to household name.  “I was out in Los Angeles filming American Beauty and Nurse Betty,” she notes, “and I got this call to audition for a pilot called The West Wing.  I wasn’t thinking of doing television, but my agent called me, and when I heard the show was by Aaron Sorkin and these other people, I was like, `Yeah, I’ve gotta go in for that.’”  Even after several auditions and callbacks, Janney was unsure about her status, since each time, she was asked few questions and given minimal direction or cues.  “Then I had to go in and test for the network,” she continues.  “I knew there were other women going up for the part and my chances of getting it were not great, so I just tried to look at it as research.  I told myself, ‘You’re gonna have to do this a lot [for TV], so it’s good to get this first one over with.’  But then a beautiful arrangement of flowers came to my room at the hotel I was staying in: `Welcome to the West Wing family, from Aaron Sorkin.’  I couldn’t believe it.  I jumped through a lot of hoops, but I ended up getting the part, and it changed my life.”

Janney’s life now involves a home in L.A., her dogs, her live-in boyfriend, and her co-starring role on a hit sitcom.  “I don’t have to audition a lot at this point in my career,” she says, “but I did for Mom because they wanted to make sure there was chemistry with Anna Faris and me.  I didn’t mind, since this is where auditioning can still be good.  It’s always nice, as an actor, to just get the offer.  But sometimes it’s good to audition and know that they know you can do it, and that they want you.”

The show’s sometimes dark subject matter — it follows a newly sober, single mom being helped and hindered by her mother, who is also a recovering addict — can hit close to home for Janney, since her brother battled similar demons and committed suicide in 2011.  The actress declines talking deeply about the tragedy but says about her role that, “depending on what the episode’s about…let’s just say I can access things in that world that are very real to me.  But it’s not a source of pain every day of my life.  I love doing a show that demonstrates to everyone there is recovery and hope and laughter.  That makes me feel really great — putting that out into the world.”

It’s the kind of positive energy Janney, who has described herself in previous interviews as unassertive and overly eager to please, derives from performing.  “When I’m acting,” she explains, “I definitely feel connected in a way that I don’t in many other areas in my life.  Somehow inhabiting another character and saying lines that have already been written out — there’s some sort of safety and freedom within the confines of the script and blocking that I find incredibly powerful.  I love it.

“Still, I always think I can do better,” Janney adds.  “I’m pretty hard on myself.  It might be a performance that I didn’t feel very emotionally connected to.  But when I’m connected, it feels right and comfortable and confident.  I don’t have to be judged for myself; I’m someone else.  It gives me freedom to be crazy and make big choices in ways that I’m a little more afraid to do in my real life.”

That might include fielding questions about her handsome boyfriend, Philip Joncas, a successful production manager who is (gasp!) 20 years younger than she is.  “We have a good sense of humor about our differences,” Janney asserts.  “There’s always room for a lot of laughter when I go, `Really?  You don’t know who so-and-so is?’  But it works.  We’ve been living together for about four years, we have a good time together, and we enjoy many of the same things.”

Marriage, however, will likely not be one of those things.  The 57-year-old actress, who had previously been in a two-decade relationship with actor Dennis Gagomiros, has long balked at the idea of turning relationships into legally binding contracts.  She notes, “If you don’t have kids, it’s not necessarily the greatest thing to do.  There’s a romantic notion behind marriage, but there’s also inviting the government into your life.  It’s just something I never felt the need to do and still don’t.”

Politics is another subject Janney approaches warily, even though she’s often expected to expound to because of her West Wing residency.  “Everyone assumed I was as smart as C.J. about politics,” Janney sighs, “which I’m certainly not.  I did something for Hillary; though, obviously, I didn’t win it for her there!  But I’ll tell you, after this election, I definitely have a responsibility to be more involved politically.  I’m not very comfortable speaking out about politics, but I will definitely lend my name and do whatever I can.”

Certainly, the toned and statuesque actress is doing what she can to maintain her energy and red-carpet glamour.  She goes for long walks with her three dogs and recently ordered a Peloton bike and added a gym — including rowing machine, weights and other exercise equipment — to her garage.  “My boyfriend is really great at leading me in a workout,” says Janney, “and I also have a Pilates instructor that I see.  I think it’s really important for me, as I get older, to stay in shape.  I find that it helps my mental health, too.  If I come home from a hard day at work and get in a hard workout, I always feel better afterwards.”

As for diet, the actress relies on sensible choices and moderation rather than any particular eating plan.  She laughs, “I try to stay away from our Craft Service table at Mom, which is always loaded with incredibly yummy things like macaroni and cheese and brownies.  I also try to eat small meals throughout the day — protein and vegetables mostly — every three-to-four hours, so portion control is a huge thing.  I can always have a piece of cake or a cookie, just as long as I balance it out with a workout or walking.    I’ve done that thing of, `No pasta!  No bread!  No carbs at all!’  It just becomes such a crazy way to live.  Why not just have a little of what you want and not go crazy?”

“Crazy” is also the word Janney uses to describe some of the choices she made when she was young and visiting the South Shore:  “I loved Long Island.  As a little girl, I used to go every summer to the Lawrence Beach Club.  It was a very happy place for me to come visit my grandparents in Cedarhurst.  Even now, I spend a lot of time out in Sag Harbor doing plays at the Bay Street Theater.  I have a dear friend who lives out there, too, and I visit her once a year.

“But my first boyfriend was from Levittown,” Janney adds.  “He was an actor, as well; we met at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City.  And we spent a lot of time out at his folks’ house.  He rode a motorcycle, and much to my mother’s chagrin, I would go out on the Long Island Expressway on the back of a motorcycle out to the Hamptons in the middle of the winter.  It was crazy!”  The actress laughs heartily, “Absolutely crazy.”

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ASKING ALLISON

What songs are you listening to these days?

“Sirens” by Monkey Safari, “Take California” by Propellerheads, and “She Came Along” by Sharam.  Also, from the Hamilton mixtape, Ashanti’s version of “Helpless” with Ja Rule.  It’s just beautiful.

What books have you read most recently?

Dave Eggers’s The Circle.  It’s a terrifying parable about where we could end up if we keep going the way we are with social media.  Also, Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird.  Great book.

Do you have a favorite meal?

Cacio e pepe, which is just a fancy way of saying pasta with cheese and pepper.  Pasta with any kind of cheese and butter and salt and pepper: it’s my crack.

Your favorite vacation spot?

I like a staycation.  I have my dogs, and I don’t like to leave them when I go away.  So sometimes I just like to be with my boyfriend.  Just us and the dogs relaxing at home.

If you could go back and give advice to your 20-year-old self, what would it be?

Go to the gym!  (laughs) And learn to meditate.  I tried to learn forever and kept avoiding it.  Finally, I was like, “Oh my God.  I can’t believe I didn’t do this before!”

What’s your all-time favorite theater experience as an audience member?

Seeing Balm in Gilead that Steppenwolf did many years ago at [off-Broadway’s] Circle Rep.  I just remember being blown away by Laurie Metcalf and Glenne Headley.  Also A Doll’s House on Broadway with Janet McTeer.

Is there an acting part you really wanted that didn’t go your way?

Conveniently, I erase those terrible memories out of my head.  But I did audition for Roz in Frasier.  The role went to my dear friend, Peri Gilpin.  But later I got West Wing, so everything works out the way it’s supposed to.  I keep my eye on the future because another door will open somewhere else.

*

BYLINE:

David Lefkowitz hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) weekly on UNC Radio.  He’s also an adjunct professor of English at the University of Northern Colorado and co-publishes Performing Arts Insider theater journal (TotalTheater.com).  David’s Long Island Woman interview with Lily Tomlin won a 2016 Media Award from the Press Club of Long Island.  The Miracle of Long Johns, David’s play, won the best non-fiction script award at the 2015 United Solo Festival.

*****

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Valerie Bertinelli: Taking Life One Dish at a Time

by David Lefkowitz

(Note: This article was first published in Long Island Woman, March 2017)

 

Rocco DiSpirito. Giada De Laurentiis. Rachael Ray. Valerie Bertinelli. One of these names may seem out of place in the annals of Italian cooking, but if you’ve been watching the Food Network the last year or so, you know that last name is as prominent as the first three.  Bertinelli, the spunky teen-turned-poster girl-turned-rock star’s wife-turned-veteran comedy actress is now well into her fifth season hosting Valerie’s Home Cooking, a celebration of comfort food with a Neapolitan bent.

The show’s theme and workable schedule make a fine fit for the Hot in Cleveland star, 57, who lives in the Hollywood Hills with her second husband, financial planner Tom Vitale.  Though a far cry from her tumultuous years with Eddie Van Halen, Bertinelli’s on good terms with her ex.  In fact, she has to be: their son, Wolfgang, has been touring with the Van Halen band since 2006 and is set to release his first solo record this year. Still, the ever-youthful actress, who attained instant stardom at age 15 when Norman Lear chose her to play Ann Romano’s good-girl daughter Barbara on One Day at a Time, is most content at home, enjoying her life, husband, creative pursuits, and, of course, cuisine.

Are you really five years in on Valerie’s Home Cooking already?  It seems like it just started.

Each season is 10-13 episodes, so they go quickly.  We’ve done four seasons in a little over a year.  Even in Hot in Cleveland, we did six seasons in four-and-a-half years.  TV is so different from when I first started!  In the summer, they’d show repeats, and then you’d come back on in September.  It doesn’t work that way anymore, and I’m still trying to get used to it! (laughs)

So how is your show different from other cooking shows?

They’re all a little different because they’re personality-driven.  For me, I’m bringing that Italian background: different things I’ve grown up with and the women who taught me how to cook.  Also, my relationship with my husband and us cooking together, and how we make a date night.  Plus the recipes that I’ve loved all through the years and recipes I come up with even today.  Things I think people would love because I love them.  It’s basically sharing my world with people who have known me for way too long to mention.

Did you become more Italian when you married again?

(laughs)  It certainly feels that way!  His love of cooking really inspired me, too.  He does an amazing chicken paillard — a pounded chicken with breadcrumbs.  And I’ll do the salad on top of it.  He’s really got grilling, cooking, and pounding chicken down to a science.  I still haven’t gotten that down, and I’ve been cooking longer than him!

So what’s your specialty?

My casseroles, my lasagna, my gumbo, my turkey chili, my meatloaf.  Comfort foods, basically.

Those all sound like dishes with 15 ingredients you can throw together because, no matter what, they’ll all balance out.

 (laughs)  Kinda.

I mean, even I can make a decent meatloaf.

You don’t make it as good as mine, I’m sure.

Whoa!  So what’s your secret ingredient then?

I actually add pancetta [cured pork] to my turkey meatloaf.  You get all the fun and the fat and the flavor from the pancetta.  But I like the taste of turkey more than beef.

I sometimes use ground lamb.

Oooh!  Some people don’t like the taste of lamb; I happen to disagree with them.  My lambchops are not to be beaten.  Sorry, I sound like I’m being braggadocious!

Well, you have a cooking show.  You should be making decent food . . .

I better, right?  I mean, growing up, I had my mom and my grandmother.  Then I came to find out that my great grandmother, Maria Mancha, was actually a cook in a summer home in Sanremo.  She had a gelato cart so that she could save her money and come to America.  Unfortunately, we never got to meet, but my grandmother, Maria’s daughter, taught me a lot of stuff.  And then my mother, who is English-Irish, cooked Italian like nobody’s business.  You’d think she was Italian.

Did you feel you had a normal childhood up till your middle teens?

I feel like I had a normal one after that, too.  I had a weird job that a lot of people saw me do.  But other than that, I had a really normal home life.  My parents didn’t treat my job any differently than they treated the boys’ football games and practices, or piano lessons and accordion lessons.  Everybody was equal in our home.

But during the day, were you being tutored rather than attending school with your peers?

The shooting season went only from August through February.  So we had a tutor on the set half the time, and I would go to school the other half.  I can’t remember completely; it was a very long time ago!

But you didn’t feel like a stranger disappearing and reappearing for months at a time?

It was definitely challenging.  But I did have the same girlfriends who went to the same school, and they lived in the neighborhood, so we’d hang out.  I had that consistency.  They were good buffers for people who might have thought, “Oh, she must think she’s all that because she’s on TV.”  Which was quite the opposite; I was an incredibly insecure young lady.  Still, it all felt normal to me.

Any regrets about not going to college?

My son Wolfie’s kind of doing the same thing I did.  He’s getting into the business right away and recording an album right now.  So you know what?  I believe in college.  Higher education is always beneficial.  And I still feel a little lacking even at this age because I didn’t have it.  But the great thing about education is that it never stops.  I read voraciously and love books.  I’m always learning how to pronounce words because I feel like I’m never pronouncing them correctly.  I’m always looking things up.  That’s the great thing about this day and age; you really can look up anything on a computer and learn how you like to learn.

But as a teen, did you still feel normal when you were thrown into the guitar-god vortex?

That’s always a hard question for me because I always felt like me, and I don’t know what life would have been like any differently from the life that I led.  Insecurity latches onto anybody.  It’s all about mind over matter and not buying into the negative voices in your head.  I’m still working on that at 57!  I don’t think that’s ever over.  But believing in yourself is really strong because no one else can believe in you until you do.  That’s what I keep trying to remember.

So how has co-parenting been with Eddie Van Halen?
Well, Wolfie’s 25, so we don’t co-parent.  Sometimes we’ll all go to dinner together, and Janie and Ed send us a Christmas card.  Unfortunately, I don’t send out Christmas cards.  I probably should.  But yeah, I mean, we live only a couple of miles apart.  We don’t make an effort to see each other, but we don’t make an effort to not see each other.  You know what I mean?  We usually get together for Wolfie’s birthday.

I admit to being shocked when I read that at the height of those crazy years, you did cocaine along with your husband, Eddie Van Halen.  Honestly, I figured your seeing firsthand what was happening to [One Day at a Time co-star] Mackenzie Phillips would’ve scared you straight.

It’s just the nature of human beings that they want to experiment.  Luckily, it wasn’t something that I wanted to continue on in my life.  But experimentation is part of it, and I think that’s why we have to be careful with our children and make sure they don’t have the crutch of leaning on drugs or alcohol or anything else that takes them away from reality.  But that’s just a fact of human nature, experimentation.

Did you ever become addicted?

No, I never had to have treatment.  It’s just not part of my personality.  I have this control issue; if I don’t feel I have control of a situation, it makes me uncomfortable, and I don’t do that anymore.  Drugs always made me feel like I had no control over me or myself or the situation.  I can’t tell you when, why, or how I stopped; it just didn’t feel good any longer.  And if it doesn’t feel good to me, I don’t wanna do it.

Is food kind of an addiction?

Oh absolutely.  The thing about food is that, unlike alcohol or drugs, you have to have food to survive.  So now it’s just finding a place for food where it nourishes my body, and I enjoy it.  And food is love for me; it’s been all through my family.  It’s just finding an even keel through that ocean.

Although you’re no longer their spokesperson, are you still a Jenny Craig member?

That’s been over for quite a few years.  Their food was very good, and they did help me very much with portion control and how much fruits and veggies to eat.  If you don’t have a lot of time, Jenny Craig is super-super good and nutritious.  But I enjoy cooking so much that I’m trying to incorporate the ideas myself.  For example, I’ll make the Jenny Craig breakfast sandwich on my own with the ingredients that I know go in it.  It takes a little more effort, but it tastes just as good.

Now, sometimes I will have a ribeye for dinner.  Not very often.  And then I’ll have just a big kale salad.  It just depends on listening to your body and the vitamins your body knows it needs, because once you start denying yourself things, that’s what you start to crave.  It’s the old saying: don’t think about the elephant in the room because then that’s all you think about.  So I don’t want to ever deny myself anything, but also, nothing is ever as good as that first bite.  So I’ve tried to teach myself to stop chasing that first bite.

And for you, the cooking is as important as the eating?

I just really like making my own.  It’s therapy for me.  It’s art for me.  I come from a family of artists.  My mother’s a painter, my brother’s a web designer, my other brother’s a photographer, and my other brother’s a carpenter.  We have a very artistic bone in our family.  I love to sketch and paint and do needlepoint, but my art is through my food.

But then does exercise come into play to balance the lifestyle?

Living in California, I’m super lucky because I have a dog, Luna, who has to go out and walk.  We live in the Hills, so it’s literally 1.2 miles all around our block.  And we have this beautiful Runyon Canyon and Fryman Canyon, so I can go hiking in their trails.  Also, I have an elliptical at home that I really love.  So I’ll get on that if it’s raining.

I’m trying to really be good, so when I get off the elliptical or get back from a hike, I’ll do a 15-minute stretch — my legs, especially, because I’ve noticed that the older I get, the body doesn’t move as freely as it used to.  My Achilles tendons get tight, so I really have to stretch those.  I then meditate for a few minutes after, and I just calm myself back down again.  It really does help.  And every so often, I’ll take a soul cycle class because they’re fun.  I like working out with other people in a group.

So you don’t mind being recognized as a celebrity?

I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 14 years, so people here know me only as their neighbor.  Not a lot of my friends are celebrities.  And again, it goes back to this being the only life I’ve led.

As an actress, are you comfortable watching your work from years ago, or do you get self-conscious?

It can be hard, because we change and grow and become so many people during our lifetime.  So we try to appreciate it for what it was rather than going, “Oh, why did I do that?”  Instead it’s, “Oh, well.  It’s just part of me.”

I can watch Hot in Cleveland and just hysterically crack up because I don’t even feel like I’m watching myself.  I’m just watching four funny women.  And when I watch my cooking show, it’s like, “Oh yeah, wow!  I guess I do know how to do that!” (laughs)

How did you meet Tom Vitale?

He was friends with my brother in Arizona.  We had gone to a wine dinner together, and we just got along famously.  It was `04, when the Red Sox were winning the World Series.  We kept leaving the table separately to go watch the game, and once we got up together, and he said, “Are you going to see the game, too?”  “Yeah!”  We kept getting up out of the ballroom to go to the bar next door and watch the game.

Had you ever thought you’d get married again after all you’d been through?

No.  Not at all!  I wasn’t even dating.  I figured I’d be alone and have 40 cats.  Now I have a dog and five cats and a husband!  The pets are all shelter animals that I was fostering and I couldn’t find homes for — well, I didn’t try very hard.  I found homes for about 15 cats, and four of them, I kept, on top of my 16-year-old, who has been around forever.

Speaking of aging, so many of your peers have gone the plastic surgery route.  Assuming your baby face ever changes, would you go there?

I’m never gonna say “no,” but look, I broke my foot.  And I was gonna have an operation for it, and it was so freakin’ scary to me.  So to have someone cut into my face. . .  More power to the people who can do it, but it makes me nervous.

Even small stuff like Botox?

Maybe I will.  I dunno.  I’m never gonna say never.

Since you’ve had two hit shows, viewers are naturally curious about your former co-stars.  Any thoughts or anecdotes about, say, Betty White?

Are you kidding me?  I love that woman!  I would move into her house in a heartbeat; I just adore her.  She’s a woman who lives her life in gratitude and patience and kindness.  That’s Betty.

Any fun stories about her?

Well, a lot of the stuff is so personal, but I’ve got one.  She helped me name my animals.  For example, we were having trouble naming our dog, and she said, “What are you thinking of?”  And we’re like, “We love the moon, and she’s so sweet.”  And she says, “How about `Luna?’  `Mia luna’?”  We’re Italian, so it was perfect.  She named our first cat “Nelson” because she always wanted to name an animal after Nelson Eddy.

Your thoughts about your TV mom, Bonnie Franklin?

It was really hard being at her funeral.  She taught me so much.  Like how to use your voice and stand up for what you believe in, but with kindness.

Norman Lear?

Again, using your voice.  Treating others the way we want to be treated.  Norman’s a powerhouse.

Pat Harrington?

Pat Harrington made me laugh.  He was the funniest man.  He taught me timing.  That’s the gift he gave me.

Last question: “Valerie’s Home Cooking” aside, what other projects are on the burners?

My cookbook is coming out in October 2017: “Valerie’s Home Cooking.”  Otherwise, some things on Food Network, but nothing acting-wise yet.  In fact, hmm . . . that’s getting a little like, “Hey, guys, I still act!”

 

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SMALL BITES

What’s the last concert you attended?

Other than seeing Wolfie whenever he plays, I don’t go to concerts much, but I did see Pink.

Favorite concert ever – not counting your son or your ex?

Elton John at Dodger Stadium.

What songs do you keep on your phone?

I listen to Pink, Adele, Lady Gaga.  Mainly female artists.  And as soon as I get Wolfie’s new album, that’s all I’m gonna play!

What do you enjoy on TV?

I was watching Stranger Things for awhile, but then it got so strange!  I like Samantha Bee’s show a lot, Full Frontal.  She just cracks me up and gets me fired up.

Favorite TV show of all time?

Friends.  I think I’ve seen every episode.  Phoebe was my favorite character because she said things that people don’t normally say.  Ask her, “Can you help us with this?”  And she’d say, “Oh yeah, I wish I could, but I don’t want to.”  She was hysterical.

Favorite One Day at a Time episode?

Golly, that’s a hard one.  When Barbara breaks her nose.

Favorite Hot in Cleveland episode?
All of them.  Okay, it might be the one where Joy shoots her son.  We all took on these English accents and could barely get through the scene for laughing.

Favorite vacation spot?

My home.  When I just cook in my own kitchen and relax with my animals, that’s a vacation for me.  Unless, of course, you want to send me to Italy.  I’m good there, too.

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BYLINE:

David Lefkowitz co-publishes Performing Arts Insider (TotalTheater.com) and hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) on UNC Radio. His play, The Miracle of Long Johns, won the best non-fiction script award at the 2015 United Solo Festival.

 

 

 

 

 

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