Come spend some time with me and Lee Grant, while we both enjoy an informal chat about her legendary career and life in general!
Jo: Hi, Lee? It’s Jo, how’re you doing?
Lee: Hi Jo!
Jo: What’s going on? How’s your day?
Lee: Good so far.
Jo: So hopefully it’ll just even get better now. [laughs]
Lee: Of course!
Jo: Are you ready to talk a little bit?
Jo: Ok, great! Um, God, I don’t even know where to start because I’m just really excited and very grateful that you’re spending time talking to me.
Jo: Um, so, before I start asking you any questions, I mean I guess I could just start asking you some questions. We spoke a little yesterday, and you know how much I love your work. I’ve just followed you for such a long time. And I’m kind of in awe of you, so I’m a little starstruck. [laughs]
Lee: Oh, good! [laughs] You’re so cute and I don’t think there are many people who would say that any more. So it’s yummy.
Jo: No, that’s not true, let me tell you, you’ve got fans! There are so many people who just adore you. You are memorable! You are a beautiful spitfire. You’re complex, you’re powerful, you’re evocative and very memorable. So don’t think I’m the only one. [laughs]
Lee: Ok, I give in!
Jo: Ok, you give in!
Lee: I give in, I am memorable!
Jo: You are memorable, you really really are. I mean, seriously, it’s like every time something would come on TV, a show or a movie, and I would say “oh, Lee Grant is in this!” I would get so excited. No matter what it was, I would watch it. If it was like a television program, even if I wasn’t familiar with the show or the film, I’d be like “well, Lee is in it, I’ve got to see this now!” So I’m going to start asking away and hopefully they’re good questions.
Lee: Where’s Wendy?
Jo: Oh, Wendy’s here, too.
Wendy: I’m actually here, Lee. Hi! I’m the technical person so I’m here to make sure everything goes ok.
Lee: Hi Wendy. Ok!
Wendy: And I do have a question for you at the end, too. I couldn’t resist!
Jo: The sociologist in her!
Lee: You know, I’m just glad to hear from you girls. You were so alive and interested and interesting when we met, and here we are, what is it 3 months later? You meet someone on an airplane and you see somebody and you sit and you talk for 6 hours and then you get off and you never see them again. So this is nice!
Jo: It was really amazing to just walk into this big room with all these people fluttering about, swarming about like a hive. And then to see you standing there [Lee laughs] and you’re like this legend. This utter legend, stuck in the corner of a room!
Lee: Yeah, and you know, I’ve been writing a lot. And that deserves it’s own story.
Jo: It does. It definitely does… To walk over and just talk to you like that—I wanted to grab a big pot of coffee and a couple of chairs and just sit. So now we’re doing it, really.
Lee: We’re doing it! And I have the coffee, too. I’m not sure it counts, though.
Jo: So, I’m going to just start asking questions. And I think I told you yesterday that I do these little setups because it helps me bridge to the question.
Lee: Whatever, just go honey!
Jo: You were in films with diverging mainstream audience appeal… showing the wide range and versatility of your acting such as In the Heat of the Night with Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger which dealt with racism. Valley of the Dolls became a cult pop sensation, and Plaza Suite where you were sublimely hilarious in Neil Simon’s timeless comedy at it’s best. What is it that makes you such a versatile actress?
Lee: Well, I was a very compelled actress. You know I was blacklisted for 12 years, and those were the years from age 24 to age 36. I couldn’t work in film or television because I was married to a writer who was called a communist and therefore I was asked to name my own husband in front of the Unamerican Activities Committee, and my loathing—I was going to say fear and loathing, but there was no fear. My loathing for that kind of activity and McCarthyism. You know, I can feel it in my stomach as I’m talking to you, it’s so great. It’s the feeling I have about Trump and that little lawyer Roy Cohn. You know, I was taken out of the acting system for the most important years of my life, I thought at the time. So when I came back, you know, they hired me for Peyton Place, and let me see, it would’ve been 1952-1964. Peyton Place at that time was the biggest television show in the country.
Jo: Yes, I just finished binge-watching it.
Lee: I went from near obscurity to being the bad girl—Stella Chernack—on Peyton Place which was seen by America three times a week. And not the same show three times a week. The appetite for it was so great that they did three new shows each week. So all of a sudden I was everybody’s bad girl. You know, and my hunger for work, for acting, for reestablishing myself, for getting back at the bad guy was so intense, that all the film or TV show had to say was “do you want to?” And I said yes. That was the title of my book, I said yes to everything. Yes, yes, yes because the appetite was unfillable, to work, to act. And with each part, you know you talk about my first movie, the movie that Norman Jewison directed, the one with Sidney Poitier and Rod Stieger.
Jo: Of course, In the Heat of the Night…
Lee: You know, when Norman interviewed me, he knew my background. This was a decade of intensely liberal filmmakers in Hollywood. Intensely liberal filmmakers. And the producer of Peyton Place, too. It was like they couldn’t wait to hire me. They couldn’t wait to make up for—and it makes me cry a little bit—all the years I didn’t work. Their generosity, their kindness, their focus, their need to say “you’re ok now, we got you.” And for them to see that as an actor I was ready to take on the kind of roles that they were ready to give me. And I was.
Jo: And with an extra fierceness. You probably had an extra fierceness to show yourself because you had this fuel, this anger. This impetus.
Lee: It wasn’t to sell myself, it was to act. It was to drop into that character and live that new life. After all I’m a method actress. And I was starved to act. So I just couldn’t get enough after wanting to act for all those young years. And I had to lie about my age because I was 36 when I got back in, so I got Mayor Yorty to change my driver’s license. We had no computers then so nobody would know. You know, it was like everything to get back that they took away.
Jo: Everything that they stole from you! You mentioned being a method actress…
When you act what are you tapping into, beyond the acting Method you studied, and beyond the imagination of little Lyova Rosenthal. You take words in the script and make them come to life like no other actor. Lee Grant has her own unique way of expressing herself. You bring a unique identity to each role. Did it come from starting out with Meisner, or teaching at Uta Hagen’s studio working with improvisation? Where does your genius come from?
Lee: It absolutely came from Meisner, because I was 17 when I went into the neighborhood playhouse. I was a failing high school student, and all I wanted were boys, boys, boys, and all I did was flirt, flirt, flirt. And when I went into that class and he gave me an objective. Jo, you know what an objective is—it’s to want something.
Jo: Oh yeah, yeah.
Lee: And the situation he set up with another boy in class was to get him out of the room, that he’d been a boyfriend and he wanted to get him out of the room. Well, this, there’s a Jewish word for it—a guerilla, a goomba, whatever it is, came out of me so this boy had no chance. The rage that I never knew—I never knew I had– this impulse, this fierceness, of carrying out that objective to get that poor guy out of the room. With my voice, with my hands, it overwhelmed me. It overwhelmed him. And my strength was born. My strength was born in that first improvisation at 17. And to be given the benefit of saying “I want to do this” and then within safe circumstances, which is the play, you get to carry it out. You may not carry it out in life, but in that room for that moment you can do anything because you have the objective.
Jo: That’s incredible. That’s an incredible background story. And I understand it’s like that moment, that epiphany when there it is, it’s born.
Lee: That was it. And that became my life. I that was it.
Jo: Well thank god for that because we’ve enjoyed the outcome of that.
Lee: Thank god for that is right! I could’ve gone any way, I could’ve been breaking up marriages.
Jo: Well, now I have a fun question—You are our favorite Columbo murderer… you were also in the Balcony with Peter Falk…
This is a 2 part question. You worked with Peter Falk in several roles, from plays like Prisoner of 2nd Ave, to an emotional episode of Ben Casey (you both gave a wonderfully passionate and heart-wrenching performance!), to the very post-modern The Balcony, and then, famously, as our favorite Columbo murderer the lady lawyer Lesley Willams in Ransom for a Deadman. What was it like to work with him? How did you end up working with him so much?
Columbo was one of those shows that was set up in such an interesting way because there were certain murderers who were ‘sympathetic’, and you were one of them. You could tell Columbo had a lot of respect for your character’s savvy. Did you enjoy playing cat and mouse with each other (like when you say to him “it’s always the jugular he’s going for” and then when you take him for that terrifying joy ride in your airplane and he doesn’t want to talk for a while, and you’re enjoying his discomfort)? How much fun were you both having on the set?
Lee: Oh, you’re so funny! [laughs]
Jo: And I promised myself I wouldn’t ask you about Shelley Winters (co-star in The Balcony), but maybe if we have time I’ll ask you about Shelley… [laughs](back to Peter Falk)
Lee: It was a good marriage.
Jo: That’s a good way to put it.
Lee: Yeah, it was a good marriage. All of the parts we played, or were thrown in to play together, since it certainly wasn’t planned. Peter was in it and I was hired, or I was in it and then Peter. And we found ourselves each time within a new situation with a new role to play with each other. Never the same role. And we were not friends.
Jo: You weren’t? Oh, that’s what I was curious about because it almost seemed like you had such a natural flow together.
Lee: I think that’s one of the things that worked for us. That we were familiar as actors and felt each other as actors, but we had no history that would get in the way of whatever that character was. Whoever he was playing went through many versions certainly, and in his big show, I was the enemy. So it was fun to attack him freshly in whatever character he was and whatever character I was at the time—friend, enemy, enemy, friend. And at each time find an actor who could spar with you, you know, fence with you.
Jo: And you did it so well. I mean it’s funny because with Columbo there are several instances in the series where there are sympathetic murderers. And Wendy and I both think that you’re one of them. You, and Joyce Van Patten, I loved her character. ( actually Lee was one of the more ‘ruthless’ murderers – maybe I just love her so much that I was on her side!)
Lee: Oh, Joyce is one of my best friends.
Jo: Ah, love her! And Ruth Gordon, we love the one with Ruth Gordon. If Ruth were here Wendy and I would try to get you three to sit and have lunch with us and celebrate the best Columbo murderers.
Lee: I would do it any time, to have lunch with Ruth Gordon any time. And Joyce is one of my three very very very very best friends.
Jo: We love her. She’s another one, we just light up when we see her. She’s so wonderful. That’s so nice to hear that you are such good friends. Tell her we said hi.
Lee: I knew Joyce Van Patten when I saw her on stage as a child actor. I saw her on stage when she was about 13 or 14.
Jo: Really? Wow, so you have a long history together.
Lee: We have a long history.
Jo: Awwww that’s wonderful. And it’s interesting that you both were that sympathetic murderer, and he really had that kind of respect for you. Because no matter what hell you put him through, like flying in that plane and making him suffer, you can tell he says, “don’t talk to me for a few minutes.”
Lee: Well the thing is also that I’m the worst driver in the world. I have no sense of direction. So getting me to fly a plane like I knew where I was going and I knew what buttons to push was such a kick for me.
Jo: Oh, that’s great! This is an interesting question and something I really wanted to know.…
Do you feel that your roles in non-mainstream films (pause) or television series like Peyton Place Do you feel like they were less constrained for you as an actor?
Lee: Than what?
Jo: Thank doing a major motion picture. The smaller television series.
I wish there were more roles for you like Stella Chernak, or the wandering mother/wife in the Neon Ceiling. Or Mrs Enders, the mother in the Landlord, or Marilyn Kim Novak’s neighbor in Middle of the Night. One of my favorites and you’re going to laugh at this, but sassy Edna from Storm Fear. They were very complex, and reflexive, and quirky, and substantive roles for women?
Lee: Wait, Storm Fear? (wonderful laughing hysterically)
Jo: Storm Fear directed by Cornel Wilde. It was that… ok I’m glad you’re laughing… I’m going to ask you about that now.
Lee: [laughs] Where did you ever get to see it?
Jo: Well I’ve seen most all your work anyway, but because I knew I was going to talk to you I started re-watching a lot of your films again because I just wanted to spend time with Lee Grant.
Lee: Oh honey, that’s funny.
Jo: Ok, I have my question about Storm Fear… this will make you laugh even more…
I get the sense Cornel Wilde didn’t give a lot of direction in Storm Fear. But Edna was a very bright light in an otherwise conventional heist movie. Edna was rough around the edges, likable, and kind. There’s a great scene where she’s walking in the snow, in her fancy boots and snow shoes, swinging her purse. And she says about her mink coat “if it gets left behind, I’m gonna to be in it.” And in the end, they leave Edna dying in the snow with her two broken ankles, a wad of cash, and her mink coat. We were so upset at the end for you! Is Edna still out there in the snow? What was your experience working on that film?
Lee: “I’ll kill ya!” Do you remember his reading of “I’ll kill ya!”? Cornel Wilde would say “ok, cut. Now listen to me Steve (Steven Hill), “I’ll kill you.” “I’ll kill you. Now you try it.” And Steve goes “I’ll kill you.” And Cornel would say “ok, you’ve got it Steve. Alright, and action!” And Steve would say “I’ll kill YA!” “I’ll kill YA!” [laughs]
Jo: [laughs] That’s too hilarious! So I suspected right… that you two did your thing and were the highlight of the film. There’s the great scene—you’ll remember this—where you’re walking in the snow in your fancy shoes. And you’re swinging your purse and you’re wearing the mink coat. And you say “If this gets left behind I’m going to be in it!” And that’s exactly what happens. They leave you dying in the snow with two broken ankles and a wad of cash in your mink coat.
Lee: [laughs] Falling down into the ravine.
Jo: You had fallen into the ravine. And Wendy and I are – I’m the kind of person, I yell at the television set—And Wendy and I were like “where’s Edna?” I’m like “what about Edna?!”
Lee: Thank you! Thank you! I needed that!
Jo: I’m like all upset, what are you leaving her down there in the snow for? Give some closure. Where is she? Rescue her! Dammit! Rescue her! She’s got broken ankles!
Lee: That is so funny.
Jo: But you were great in that. And those are the kind of roles that I really do love.
Lee: Well you know the thing about that is, historically speaking, that was an absolute crossover moment in my life, because I was still blacklisted. Cornel Wilde who was a really, really decent guy hired me as a blacklisted actress in an important part in which he wanted to introduce his wife, the non-actress, as the lead. With Dan Duryea, who is no small pickings. Dan Duryea is one of the great character actors of all time.
Jo: Yes, I love him.
Lee: Now Cornel hired me when I was still deep in the blacklist and nobody else would hire me. And we made enough money to have my daughter. She was conceived in Hollywood at that time because we had enough money to have another baby, and to have my baby, as I had two stepchildren. So you know it was a ridiculous thing, stomping in the snow with this big snowshoes and a black satin dress, and my blistered scalp because they dyed my hair from dark red to platinum blonde. So my head was all blistered. But bless Cornel Wilde. He did a remarkable and wonderful thing, and I had the most important thing in my life. Dina saved me through that whole blacklisted period. Having a little girl to take care of and to be there. And she was the best, the funniest, the sweetest, the most interesting. So she saved my life, and that came out of Storm Fear. I mean, it’s so interesting when you think about it.
Jo: It really is. And your performance is almost bright and glowing. There’s something emanating from Edna. I just love Edna. And maybe that’s what I was picking up on.
Lee: Oh yes, sweetheart. But having daughter Dina was the thing that held me together through the whole thing.
Jo: And she’s a hoot.
Lee: She’s the best. The best. I just came back from being with her.
Jo: I love that she’s in that episode of the Golden Girls when Blanche, Rue MacLanahan, keeps slamming the door in her face. It is just so hilarious. The comedic timing between the two of them is brilliant. I mean, she’s got your… she’s got the gift.
Lee: Yes, she does.
Jo: It’s in her genes. Ok, now we’ll move on and I’ll ask you another question—I’m glad we had a good laugh…
I loved the scene in Hal Ashby’s film the Landlord when you and Pearl Bailey are getting drunk on pot liquor, and you walk out with the ham hock in your bag. Mrs. Enders is such a fabulous character, did you have any particular inspiration for her character? Did you enjoy working with Pearl? And, do you have any great stories from that film? He’s a great director, and Mrs Enders is another fabulous character that you’ve played.
What was the inspiration for her character…?
Lee: Yes! [laughs] Well, my mother and my aunt, yes. And I had just finished doing In the Heat of the Night which was all about losing my first husband who died of a heart attack and Norman Jewison knew that and Hal Ashby was his editor at that time, so they knew that I would come in to do In the Heat of the Night with an experience that they knew I had, and Sidney and I really improvised that scene. But that’s how they knew me. And then as a friend they let me read The Landlord, and I said I can do that part and their whole image of me was of the grieving widow. And I said “let me just do it for you because that’s my mother, that’s my aunt.” And they told me that they had Jessica Tandy attached to it and I found some blonde wig, and I stood under the lights in the hallway so that I looked older. And I did it for them and they got it. And they gave it to me. So you know to go from the first, In the Heat of the Night, to Mrs Enders was just everything I ever wanted. To plumb both of those things. So it was just thrilling for me. First of all, the movie is a masterpiece. And it was Hal’s first directing job.
Jo: So it Was his first movie.
Lee: Yes, then he did the one with Ruth Gordon.
*Hal Ashby on the set of Harold and Maude with Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon.*
Jo: Wendy and I were sold on him after he did Harold and Maude.
Lee: Harold and Maude is one of the great masterpieces ever ever made.
Jo: It absolutely is…
Lee: And I wanted to do Ruth Gordon’s part, too. It shows you how hungry and stupid I was at the same time.
Jo: I wouldn’t say stupid.
Lee: Well, how hungry and ambitious.
Lee: Not ambitious, how starved I was. I was so starved that when you showed a piece of marrow bone, like Ruth Gordon’s part, I was like “let me have it, let me have it” but I never saw a piece of work as brilliant as her…
Jo: Oh yes, she is a whole other subject… she’s something else!
Lee: She is. She is to be worshiped.
Jo: I think so. But I mean so are you, really!
Lee: Oh, ok!
Jo: We’re worshiping you today! [laughs]
Lee: Worship away! [laughs]
Jo: Ok I’m going to ask you about Shampoo… I think there should’ve been more of you…
You won an academy award for Shampoo. We’re huge fans of the brilliant filmmaker Hal Ashby. People experience this movie as a 1970s, romanticized, sexual freedom film.
I experience the film as a deification of Warren Beatty’s insatiable sexual prowess running around with his phallic blowdryer. I just think there should have been a lot more of you. Do you think the film would’ve benefited from more development of the women characters and their sexuality? You also mention in your wonderful book that Warren Beatty tried to direct you and you almost quit the film. Do you think the film needed more of your vision and direction to bring the women characters more into focus?
Lee: Well I think there should’ve been more of me!
Jo: I think so!
Lee: I think there should’ve been a lot more of me in everything that I’ve ever been in. But unfortunately, there are other actors and there is a plot and there are other ramifications. So while I always think there should be a lot more of me, practically speaking it’s not the thing to do. I think that the woman I played was sound. I think her needs, her bitterness. The rejection of her within the Hollywood framework of that time. And that glowing gorgeous daughter played by…
Jo: Carrie Fisher.
Lee: She was the most beautifully white-skinned little girl, Carrie Fisher. And for me to be a mother who was hungry and rejected and to have that child right downstairs in the house. My character was just filled with conflict and unfulfillment. And all I seem to care about in that film was my coat and my hair and getting shtupped. And grabbing at whatever I could that would fill this emptiness. I hated Hollywood at that time.
Jo: But you were more interesting and intricate than Warren Beatty’s character. I didn’t find his character as complex as I did yours.
Lee: I don’t think that he intended to be… to be… you know, Warren wrote that with Robert Towne. A great, great, great writer. And the character he wrote was a very simple guy who likes to please. He likes to please everyone. He likes to please the Jack Warden character as much as he does with the women whose hair he does, his customers. He is guaranteed to please. Because certainly he’s not that attracted to me. Right before he goes to bed with me, my daughter seduces him. And you know one of the real arguments that Warren and I had in that film was that right before the scene when I come home and I go to Carrie’s door, and I’m expecting him to be there. I’m expecting him to go upstairs and make love to me. The day before we do that scene he sits me down at the table and he says “you know Lee, Felecia (which is the character I played), Felicia does not know when she opens the door to her daughters room that the daughter and him have…” And I was so enraged that he would tell me what to think before I open that door that I quit the next day.
Jo: I read that in your book!
Lee: Yes, I quit the next day. And of course he apologized and we moved on with the scene but I said “if you ever tell me what I’m supposed to think, I won’t be there.” But the thing was, that I opened the door and of course I knew that they had gone to bed. I mean, I’m no dummy!
Jo: Of course!
Lee: And my own need was so ferocious that it didn’t matter! And that’s the way I played that scene when I went upstairs. I kept on my coat. I kept on my curlers in my hair. I just pulled down my stockings and pulled him over to me. You know, it was my needs.
Jo: Right, yes. And it’s a powerful scene and a powerful role. And that’s why you won the Academy Award for it!
Lee: Well, you know I’d been nominated a lot of times.
Jo: Oh, I know.
Lee: So usually when you’re nominated and you don’t win then you’re just a thing in the way after that. At first it’s like “Lee, Lee, look this way!” And then when you don’t win, they want you out of the way.
Jo: That’s rotten!
Lee: But I knew even when I went up to get the award finally that I was now at the age where they wouldn’t hire me. That I was going into 50, and this was probably the last big big movie.
Jo: But it wasn’t.
Lee: Only one more.
Jo: What was the movie after?
Lee: Oh, the Jewish… the boat…
Jo: Oh, yes, Voyage of the Damned.
Lee: Yes, Voyage of the Damned.
Jo: I watched the scene where you cut your hair. It’s a very difficult movie for me to watch. And, I had a relative on the ship.
Jo: Yes, she was a child and she survived it. She made her way back.
Jo: Eventually she made her way to France and she is now a biochemist and a professor at Harvard. I lost relatives in the Holocaust but she was on the ship and I don’t have her name in front of me. This is terrible. My brother has been doing historical research to find our relatives and where we came from in a small town that is now part of Poland.
Lee: That’s where my father came from.
Jo: Yes, and it was Austria at the time.
Lee: We’re little strong Polish Jews!
Jo: Yes, yes, and we came to New York and it made us even stronger.
Lee: Oh yes.
Jo: We’re tough.
Lee: Something about us makes us tough.
Jo: And my mother was Russian.
Lee: So was mine! My mishpucha, honey! [laughs]
Jo: My mishpucha, yes! [laughs] That’s why I called you bubbie (short for bubbeleh-friend not grandmother) yesterday and then felt bad. I said “I’ll talk to you later, bubbie!” [laughs] And then I was like “Oy, should I have said that?”
Lee: [laughs] I’ll be your bubbie!
Jo: Oh, good, good! Ok, so now I’m going to ask you about Stella Chernack because we were talking about that bad girl you played. Again, you won a much-deserved Emmy for that. And I did watch the entire show, because of you and I knew you were in it. So I watched Peyton Place… now, Stella is amazing. An amazing character.
Again, you won a much-deserved Emmy for your portrayal of Stella Chernak. Stella leaves her working class background in Peyton Place to become a biochemist, returning when her brother gets into trouble. This is when the writing and the show were the most cohesive and well thought out. It’s one of my favorite roles. Stella is very complex and there are lots of layers to your performance. She is a bit of a Tennessee William’s character, even in the way she struts the dusty streets of the town. Did you channel any of that feeling in her character? It was an intense character study and one hell of a performance. What did Stella mean to you?
Lee: Well, the whole thing was like stepping into heaven. First of all, Stella’s an angry girl.
Lee: And I was an angry girl. And Stella was fighting the unfairness of the things around her. And I had been fighting. So this was a funnel through which all of Lee and Stella’s resentment and anger and feeling of unfairness in the world around her could go. It was like made for me.
Jo: It gave you a place to channel that anger.
Lee: It channeled it. It channeled everything. And don’t forget that I went from obscurity into America’s favorite program.
Jo: Right, and one of the greatest characters, I think. Very complex. She was angry but she was also very sympathetic. You understood where she was coming from, you know?
Jo: And that’s what I loved about her. That’s what you brought to the show. The show is really good. After you left, things just kind of went a little crazy but still I watched the whole thing. I love Barbara Parkins, and I love a lot of the actors on the show, too.
Lee: Barbara Parkins was given her first shot in that movie…
Jo: Yes, Valley of the Dolls
Lee: Valley of the Dolls, where I played Stella again as Sharon. You know, and Patty Duke. Those were their first shots after television. And of course it went down like a log.
Jo: The film is such a pop culture icon. I mean, people are fanatical.
Lee: That’s because it’s so bad.
Jo: Did you know that it was going to become a pop religious experience for some people?
Jo: It is, I’m telling you!
Lee: Because it’s so bad. [laughs]
Jo: But it is and it isn’t. I mean, yes, it is. [laughs] But it’s bad in a good way.
Lee: [laughs] It could be worse, but people embrace those things and raise them up.
Jo: I can see why. You do need that kind of alternative to the heavy stuff that’s out there. You need that counter balance of the delicious–
Lee: It was pop.
Jo: It was pop. And the acting was still good!
The name of your book is “I Said Yes to Everything.” And you did say yes to films like Visiting Hours, The Swarm, and Airport ’77— the last two big budget disaster films. I was sad you ended up floating face down in Airport ’77. Did you at least have fun making these films and working with actors like Olivia de Havilland and Jack Lemmon? Do you have any good stories to tell?
I watched you in Visiting Hours with the parrot.
Lee: Oh no! tisk tisk tisk! Don’t even talk about it!
Jo: Ok, I won’t talk about it. I won’t talk about Visiting Hours. We’ll bury it. Can I talk about the Swarm and Airport ’77 where you played Christopher Lee’s wife whose a lush?
Lee: Ohhh, absolutely! [laughs]
Jo: Ok [laughs]
Lee: Visiting Hours was what made me absolutely shut down as an actor and turn to directing.
Jo: I understand why.
Lee: You know, one of my very best friends, a writer, I took to see it in the movie house. And he wouldn’t talk to me on the way home—“you can’t need money that much.” And I knew that I couldn’t do…
Jo: Look, every actor has done that. Every single actor has done a movie like that.
Lee: Yeah, yeah. Well, Airport ’77– I loved doing Airport ’77.
Jo: Well, that’s what I was going to ask you.
Lee: I loved it. [laughs]
Jo: I mean, you ended up floating face down in the water. And again, Wendy and I were yelling “no!”
Lee: [laughs] Well I have to tell you I had it in my contract that I didn’t have to jump in the water. They had a double. But, when the water scene came up, 60 year old Olivia de Havilland raised her hand and said “let me be the first! Let me!”
Jo: [laughs] oh my god!
Lee: I was so shamed that when it came time for me to do it
Jo: You had to do it!
Lee: They said “well let’s get Lee’s double” and I went “no no no I don’t have a double!” I didn’t want them to know what a coward I was.
Jo: [laughs] So you did it.
Lee: So I just jumped! Because I wanted to be like Olivia, you know. She’s just so amazing.
Jo: Yes, she is.
Lee: What a hero Olivia de Havilland is. I mean, think about it.
Jo: We share the same birthday so every time it’s my birthday I always toast Olivia. Because, wow we have the same birthday and she loves cats.
Lee: I do too.
Jo: Oh, you do? I thought you were a dog person
Lee: Yes, we have 2 cats. But what a woman, what a spirit! Let me be the first, she said, climbing down from the rafters.
Lee: All through Airport ’77 she sat in the rafters with the lighting guys and chatted with them.
Jo: Do you know Wendy was a lighting designer before she was a sociologist.
Lee: Of course she was! Wendy the lighting designer sociologist, of course!
Jo: Same thing, right?
Lee: Same thing! Shed the light someplace!
Jo: Exactly, beautifully put. See, leave it to you. I have a few more questions, is that ok?
Lee: I’m just lying here on the chaise lounge in my nightgown as comfortable as somebody who just woke up.
Jo: That sounds lovely!
Lee: And having a wonderful time with you.
Jo: Oh good! We’re having a blast, too! There are several performances of yours I’ve never seen and that makes me upset because I’m a completist. I want to see everything you did. And in your book you write about the show The Defenders. I love the show, but that episode is unavailable. The particular episode that you did is not out, or not yet at least.
Like a few others, there are several performances of yours that I haven’t been able to see because they’re unavailable. For example, there’s an episode of The Defenders in which, as I read in your book, director Stuart Rosenberg lit you in a way that was your favorite. There was The Doctors and the Nurses, another incredible dramatic television series. And then there is the the motion picture An Affair of the Skin (1963) where you co-starred with the brilliant Diana Sands, who died tragically at 39. I would love to see your work in that film. Can you tell me about the film and about working with Diana?
Lee: I know, she was in… Raisin in the Sun.
Jo: Raisin in the Sun
Lee: Yes, and the other movie with Pearl Bailey… The Landlord
Jo: Yes! She was in the Landlord, too, that’s right. So you worked with her twice. What did you think of that film Affair of the Skin, because I don’t know much about it.
Lee: I don’t remember it. Vivica Lindfors was in it. And I just don’t remember it. I don’t remember what I did or anything.
Jo: Maybe somebody will find the film.
Lee: I hope not!
Jo: Ok, then maybe they’ll find a way to get it buried so it never comes out. Did you enjoy working with Diana because I love her work and I find it so tragic that she died so young. She was kind of one of the first Black women who had a much different kind of persona. She wasn’t doing the roles—well maybe Ruby Dee ( I forgot to include Cicely Tyson) did—but she wasn’t playing the maids and she wasn’t playing the nurses.
Lee: Well, also Hal Ashby didn’t get them maids and nurses to play. The Landlord was a brilliant script and it highlighted the difference between the Long Island whites and Harlem. And Bo Bridges, I mean he was astonishing in it. His sweetness, his openness. You know, that was a script for the ages. And I personified again that kind of closed-minded rich stupid mother.
Jo: Well, insulated maybe.
Lee: Yes, totally insulated. You know no idea beyond the house and the garden and the friends what life was about at all. And it’s such an astonishing piece of work.
Jo: Yes, it was. Did you get to work much with Diana in that?
Lee: Yes, well, we hung out. And after the film was over I gave a party at the apartment in New York, as we all stayed in New York, and Diana and I were sitting there waiting for Hal because we both had a crush on him. And his girlfriend, who he later married, at the time she would not let him come.
Jo: Possessive! Oh really [laughs]
Lee: So Diana and I sat and drank wine and talked about how mean she was and how much we loved him. [laughs]
Jo: Did he help you pick out clothes, did I read that right?
Lee: Yes, he did. In the Heat of the Night.
Jo: Yes, in the Heat of the Night he helped you pick out the clothes. He was the editor on the film.
Lee: Yes, yes.
Jo: Ok, you might not want to talk about this movie either, and if you don’t want to you don’t have to. But first, I noticed recently you did an interview for a documentary on Boris Karloff? You worked with him on “Even the Weariest River” on the Alcoha Hour. And I haven’t been able to see it. A lot of the Alcoha Hour and those dramatic television performances from the 50s are hard to get. But Boris Karloff is my idol. I’ve always said I wanted him to be my grandfather, because he’s the most gentle soul. And I met his daughter Sarah and she’s just wonderful.
You worked with Boris Karloff in 1956 on the Alcoa Hour “Even the Weariest River” it hasn’t been released so there’s no way to see it. I have to ask you what was it like to work with him? Do you have any stories about working with him?
Lee: Well, you know, I just remember that when I was blacklisted and he was playing on Broadway, maybe it was St. Joan, I don’t know but there was something so gracious and so magnanimous, and so grandfatherly, and beautiful about him. And he would always sign all my petitions. I was little girl who couldn’t work. And, you know, it was dangerous to sign petitions, you know you couldn’t work either if you did. And Kim Stanley and Maureen Stapleton were ones who were always working on Broadway and also signed my petitions. But you know I hadn’t remembered working with him in this television movie. I know they brought it to me, and the people in it… I was the only girl. And it was during the blacklist so the director had to be a very very brave guy. A very brave guy. Because I was the only woman and he cast me in it.
Jo: So you stood out.
Lee: Yes, it was with Boris Karloff and Christopher Plumber. It’s a terrible movie.
Jo: Oh is it really? [laughs]
Lee: Yes, but very interesting. I mean because it’s all packed. In those days you shot on set. There wasn’t a closeup. You kind of walked into the shot.
Jo: Right, it was live theatre, really, right?
Lee: Yes, it was shooting live theatre. So it had that kind of rushed feeling. But the story was meaningful, and I was just so surprised to see me there. And I’ve just forgotten a lot of what I did.
Jo: Well I didn’t even realize you had done something with Boris Karloff.
Lee: I didn’t, either. [laughs]
Jo: [laughs] Well, you know he’s so iconic, and thinking of you and him together is such an interesting confluence. Ok, so I’m going to ask you about a movie you might not want to talk about…
Lee: Which could that be?
Jo: Ah, The Mafu Cage?
Lee: [laughs] Oh, yes!
Jo: Because you worked with Carol Kane. She’s brilliant, she’s such a noodlehead. She’s just something else.
Lee: Yes, she is.
Jo: I thought that The Mafu Cage, directed by Karen Arthur, is a very primal and dark film. It seemed like a difficult and disturbing narrative for both you and Carol Kane to step into. It’s a psycho-sexual mine-field, almost filmed like a stage play, about captivity and dependency. It must have been a tough movie to film. Was it difficult for you two seasoned actors? Can you tell me what the process was like for you?
Lee: Oh, of course! Oh, I don’t know, there must’ve been some spare time to do it. And it was a woman director, Karen Arthur. And I don’t remember what year it was. But I know I thought, why not? It was Carol Kane, who was a delicious friend. And it was an absurd concept. You know, for her to have this relationship with a…
Jo: An orangutan maybe?
Lee: It was a gorilla, you know, Carol and the gorilla. So I mean it was absurd enough to say why not? It didn’t take very long and so it was like going to a bad nightclub, you know what I’m saying?
Jo: Yes! [laughs]
Lee: Oh, let’s go in there and see what happens.
Jo: Yes, dark and scary and there’s a little journey in there.
Lee: Yes, yeah. It was a why not, you know?
Jo: But the thing is it’s an interesting, disturbing film but there’s a lot in it. And your performances, you made it a good film. I think it’s a really kind of an unsung horror/ psychological thriller. I don’t think it’s a bad film at all, maybe it could’ve been a stage play.
Lee: The thing is that Karen Arthur conceived it and directed it and she got Carol Kane and me, and James Olson, to do it. Wow! I would like to be able to say that I did that. That I pulled it off and made that movie. So it’s really Karen Arthur’s triumph.
Jo: Yes sure.
Lee: And any time a female director—especially at that time—with that concept, to pull it off and make that movie. You know, my hat off to her!
Jo: Yes, absolutely! She did a really amazing job because I walked away from the film kind of speechless. And thinking about things, and when a movie sends you away thinking about something, speechless, you know that there’s something going on there.
Lee: Yes and don’t forget there were no women directors then. There were like 2 in New York and that’s it.
Jo: Right, that’s another reason to applaud the film, the fact that her vision was realized. It’s very good. And then, this is one is probably one of my favorite performances of yours, The Neon Ceiling, where you play the mother who leaves her husband and just drives into the desert. It’s a special film…
In the Neon Ceiling you play a mother who leaves her husband and just drives — winding up in the desert with her teenage daughter. It’s a very unusual and special little film co-starring Gig Young and Denise Nickerson, a talented young actress. Wendy and I were really enchanted by it. I found your performance as Carrie Miller profoundly moving because it was so un-selfconscious and powerful. At the risk of sounding contrived what was your inspiration for bringing that character to life?
Lee: Well first of all, that character was the part of me I never got to play.
Jo: In real life?
Lee: In real life, yeah. The part of me in my first marriage where my husband fault with me, that I wasn’t this enough, or that enough, or, or, I was never enough. And I wasn’t smart enough. And so that whole beginning with the husband that I run away from. Where I can’t do anything right, I can’t even shop for groceries…
Jo: It kind of paralleled…
Lee: Yes, yes, and I had a daughter. I had Dina. So Denise was Dina. And so if I could’ve known how to run away, in my early years I would have. And going into the desert… the desert was a very new experience for me as a person. I’d never been in the desert. And the peace. Sitting on the back porch of this gas station and just looking out at the desert became, it became a totally new experience for me. And something that I needed but didn’t know that I need. And there was an Indian tribe there who would come and ask for the lunch that we had every day. It was like the small remnants of like what 20 people didn’t eat. And a woman in the tribe who was leading the tribe became a mentor. So she was so strong and so calm. And the things that she asked for were so real. That she became somebody I admired and wanted to be like. And she gave me a puppy.
Jo: That’s right, I read about the puppy Nusski given to you by the Sioux.
Jo: Who was with you for many many years.
Lee: Yes, who came with us to New York. And Gig, he was so attractive and so hurt someplace.
Jo: I know, it’s so tragic.
Lee: He needed caring for. You know, and so did Denise in her way. She asked for it, he didn’t. And somehow me, tickled as I was, I felt a soul there that I connected with. And it was so beautiful and the writer created something that nobody else created.
Jo: Was that Carol Sobieski who also wrote for Peyton Place?
Lee: Yes, Carol Sobieski. She was extraordinary.
Jo: Yes, she’s a great writer.
Lee: She’s a great writer and I felt it was a privilege—a privilege of all the things I’ve done—being able to go there.
Jo: Yes, there’s something… I guess that’s what we’re doing, is witnessing a lot of your transformations on screen. We’re seeing, you know, you’re in the desert and you’re having this transcendence. And it’s coming through to your character, Carrie.
Lee: Yes, yes.
Jo: It’s such a beautiful performance. It’s so subtle and so quiet and so beautiful. And so painful.
Jo: You convey all of that and that’s hard to do and you do it. You just pull it off like nobody else could. And that’s the thing I love are these other women that you play, are these roles and these women that deserve to be looked at. And I’ve certainly been having a great time delving into your work.
Lee: And have you! Wow!
Jo: Maybe I’ve been digging too deep!
Lee: You’ve found things I’ve forgotten. That one I knew is just so special. It’s interesting because Frank who directed it—Frank Pierson. A very very close friend, too. He also, much later he did The Life of Roy Cohn.
Jo: Oh, Frank Pierson.
Lee: Yes, Frank Pierson. On HBO, and he called me then and he said “do you want to be Roy Cohn’s mother? Or do you want to be the one who was killed? The spy.” Anyway, he was the writer who became the director, because he had nothing to do with writing that, Carol wrote it. And he came to be the night before and said, “you know, I’d like to do some changes in this. And you know she really isn’t as good as all that.” And I said, “well, hire another actor. Because if you touch this script. (The Neon Ceiling) ” You know why would you do that? Why, why? And he said “oh, I…” and I said “you don’t like women. You don’t like women.” And in that particular incidence, he didn’t. And in everything else—because I worked with him many times—he’s a great writer and a great director—but this was too simple for him.
Jo: I know of his work and have seen a lot of it. So they kept it the same way?
Lee: Absolutely, he took it back. And we left the next day.
Jo: We just have a couple more questions. And Wendy wanted to talk with you. You know, I saw a scene you directed—we’ll get into your directing in a minute—I watched a scene from Tell me a Riddle with Melvin Douglas and Lela Kedrova that you directed. And just the little scene that I saw ripped my guts up. I just—
Lee: Mine too.
Jo: It’s so heartbreaking. I know that you’re a wonderful director and I know it’s probably not hard to direct Melvin Douglas and Lela Kedrova, but you absolutely created this poignant journey. But Wendy here is a sociologist who teaches social movements and she shows documentaries in classes and has used your documentaries in classes. And she wanted to ask you about the documentaries that you did, you know back in the day when they became movies of the week and there was a wide audience for them. And you started asking the socially relevant questions.
Wendy: Hi Lee, I teach sociology classes and I use documentaries all the time. So I’m always looking for ones that are good and well done. And I was really intrigued by the ones you did in the 1980s. The ones that really gave voice to marginalized individuals. So you did the film about poverty—Down and Out in America—which is still unfortunately relevant today.
In the early 1980s you started directing documentary films, specifically films that give voice to marginalized individuals way before others were doing so Down and Out in America (the poor, transgender individuals WHAT SEX AM I , women in prison who killed their abusive husbands in self-defense , the Willmar 8, etc.). Some of these were released as movies of the week to very large audiences. What led you to start making these kinds of documentaries? Were there social and political triggers?
Lee: Yes, unfortunately it’s still relevant.
Wendy: And it was also, to me, when it came out in the mid-80s, very much a response to Ronald Reagan’s trickledown economics. You can really see it situated in that.
Lee: You put your finger right on it.
Wendy: And I talk about that when I teach inequality so it’s good to give students that context and history. Then there’s the documentary you did in the 1980s on transgender individuals, which no one had really done yet.
Lee: Yes, What Sex Am I?
Wendy: The Women in Prison, the Willmar 8, about women bankers who went on strike and I cannot find that one anywhere but I would love to use it because I teach about activism and social movements so I’m always looking for things about activism and I couldn’t find that one anywhere so I haven’t seen it. I was just curious about what made you switch, to not just directing, but directing these documentaries about marginalized populations. Like what were the social and political triggers of that for you?
Lee: Well, you know during the early years and not being able to say anything. And even when I was in LA, I was careful about what I said about it. You know, I acted in things that said things. And I have a best friend, Marybeth Yarrow, who had been married to Peter Yarrow. And in her small town in Willmar, there were 7 women who went on strike at the bank because bank president there would have them train these boys in the bank, and then have them be the women’s bosses. So these little boys that they would train would suddenly tell them what to do and get a higher salary. So the women went out on strike. And Marybeth read that to me, and I had just been at AFI and had taken a women’s directing workshop. Their first women’s directing workshop. I said let’s go there and make a documentary. And that kicked open the whole tunnel. Her husband, Peter, raised like 30,000 dollars and went to Willmar. It was the middle of the winter. So cold that you couldn’t open your mouth to ask a question.
Jo and Wendy: [laugh]
Lee: I mean your mouth froze. And those 7 women were out there on strike in front of the bank. They could hardly walk it was so cold. And you know it kicked open a door in me that had said, don’t talk, be quiet. You know, save yourself, don’t talk, be quiet. And I thought you know, thank God, I can do this. I can get away with this. I can put it on film. Finally, I’ve found my voice. I have found my voice. And it just meant everything to me. Finally, I’d landed on my feet and there was no fear. So I was just starved for that. And I made one after another after another after another. I loved that I had to go all different places and open all kinds of doors. You know our second film was in the prison system
Wendy: Yes, we saw parts of it.
Lee: You know, what a revelation! I was free! I was free! I was really free of the blacklist finally! And not only that, I had tools that could fight the blacklist. I could show what the truth was.
Wendy: Right, which is why I love showing documentaries because it shows students individuals—gives voice to individuals—who I can’t bring to the classroom.
Lee: Right, exactly.
Wendy: Especially the women in prison film, I don’t think anybody was talking about whether or not women should be in prison for killing an abusive spouse in the 1980s no one was covering that. And Down and Out in America is also unfortunately still relevant but also shows how devastating politics was in the 1980s while we tend to misremember it as being some golden era in America, right? Well compared to what we’re living in now…
Lee: Well, I don’t know whether you were able to get hold of my Texas film?
Wendy: I don’t think so.
Lee: HBO was sued so it was only shown once.
Jo: Oh, about the children being taken away from their mothers…?
Lee: It was judges in Texas who took children away from the mothers and gave them to the fathers who were suspected of abusing them.
Jo: Oh my God! Wow.
Jo: You were sued for that?
Lee: HBO got sued, and that show was only on one time.
Wendy: I wonder if it’s in any college libraries someplace still?
Lee: I have it! So at some point I can lend it to you to make a copy of and you can use it.
Wendy: Oh that would be wonderful.
Lee: But also if and when this documentary thing happens in October and my films are shown.
Jo: Yes, the retrospective!
Lee: Yes, I can’t wait for the documentaries to be shown.
Wendy: And I have so many sociologist friends in and around NYC who would totally be there for it. We’re all big fans of well-made interesting documentaries.
Jo: And we’ll be there.
Wendy: Yes, I love to nerd-out on documentaries. Jo watches her classic films and I’m watching like 13th on Netflix…
Jo: Yes, she’s watching her serious and depressing documentaries. I mean, I’m just so dark because of what’s going on in the world in politics, because it’s like a Stanley Kubrick nightmare that you imagine would never happen in real life.
Lee: Yes, it’s so disturbing, this nightmare. It’s like having Roy Cohn as president, you know, because…
Jo: It’s dystopian…
Lee: Yes, and there aren’t words and there’s just no way to describe it… This is a nightmare.
Jo: And there’s a collective depression and angst that people are feeling in their lives.
Lee: And there is. It is.
Jo: And that’s what’s tragic and it’s America’s Id so then you’ve got the people that support him…
Wendy: I like to focus on—because I study social movements and activism—I like to focus on the activism.
Jo: Yes, she’s the glass half full person.
Wendy: Yes, I focus on the people making the change. That’s what my research is about and that’s what I try to teach my students to raise some hell. And voting. Because otherwise I’d just lose my mind.
Lee: Yes, all of us. I mean living within this screenplay, being a character within a screenplay that we loath and detest and want to get out of. And are trapped in.
Jo: Yes, exactly. That’s scary. Thanks for scaring us, Lee! [laughs]
Lee: [laughs] But it really has an effect.
Jo and Wendy: Yes, it does.
Lee: I mean, especially since we had Obama.
Jo: Yes, Well, is there an end in sight? When will we get out of this madness? We need relief.
Lee: Yes, it’s madness.
Jo: We need to be able to breathe again!
Lee: And I’m overwhelmed. It’s overwhelming. Everywhere I look is horror. And it’s not like oh this is something that really has been addressed, it’s not like we need to just shake this or show people… this is horror.
Jo: Yes, it’s organic horror.
Lee: And it’s death. It’s killing people.
Jo: If not only in body but also in spirit.
Wendy: And actually in body.
Lee: Yes, it’s killing people. All over the world. Yesterday I was listening to the television and Saudi Arabia hires African soldiers to kill other Arabs. Instead of doing it themselves they hire African soldiers into that Arab conclave that’s left—Yemen. It was like wow, hired professionals.
Wendy: We would just sleep better if we knew there were people in office trying to make things better instead of worse.
Jo: I just don’t understand it, how we got here.
Lee: We got here in a minute.
Lee: And watch out for this. I feel that the way Bernie Sanders treated Hillary Clinton…
Wendy: Oh yeah don’t even get me started.
Lee: It was the beginning of the end. Kicked open the door for Trump.
Jo: Yes. When I saw his scowling face at the convention, I wanted to smack him.
Lee: Bernie, yes. He was so abusive to her. And of course all my leftie friends are like “but Bernie’s the best, Bernie’s…” But look how he’s treating her. It was like how my communist husband treated me. Like she’s a dummy, she’s Wall Street.
Jo: Yeah, we’re in agreement!
Lee: And I think there was a democratic disaffection—20% of democrats voted for Bernie and that’s what pushed this bully…
Wendy: Yup, and we can thank them for the Supreme Court and a lot of crap.
Lee: That’s right. You’re the only ones who get it!
Wendy: There are others that get it, but it seems like we’re few and far between. There’s a lot of us who are not Bernie fans for good solid reasons. I’m happy Bernie’s light seems to be dimmer this time around and he’s not polling as well as he did before. People don’t seem as excited about him now.
Lee: I’m just worried about it.
Wendy: Yeah, like are we going to get our acts together on the left?
Lee: Yes, are we?
Jo: Oh, but we should not totally veer off into politics. We should close with a good film or acting question! I wanted to ask you about your performance in Electra. I was reading your book and almost peeing my pants laughing as you’re describing wearing that crimson red velvet gown? And it’s raining and you get drenched in the rain.
I read in your book about how you worked with Joe Papp on Shakespeare in the Park, playing Electra by Sophocles. I can visualize this powerful performance, the method training, that rainy day, you dragging Theoni’s Aldridge’s crimson gown, the heavy fabric soaked through across the stage. And there’s the audience floating away in the deluge as devoted as ever. You said it was the most risky, challenging role. Alfred Ryder a wonderful actor played Hamlet before this and his performance was televised, but it was a disaster, and it nearly ruined his acting career. Do you regret that your performance of Electra was not televised and recorded so that we could see it today? I would’ve loved to see you on stage, even in the flood.
Lee: And the whole audience is drenched!
Jo: And the papers are floating away, and you’re out there shouting. And the show’s ended and they’re still out there clapping in the rain.
Lee: Talk about a switch from bleak and bad, to emboldened and powerful playing Electra!
Jo: Yes, we needed some Electra!
Lee: Jo Papp gave me Electra and saw that I was ready to spew and all lessons he gave me, the teachers who came in to correct my language so that I was ready to take on that role. And to let go of all that rage and fierceness, under the cover of the state at Central Park. It was such a release for me to play that.
Jo: Yeah, you said it was a very risky role for you. Challenging.
Lee: Very. And he handed it to me.
Lee: And what a thing to do.
Jo: A gift.
Lee: Yes, what a gift. What a thing to do. The most powerful theatre man in New York and the most liberal and radical, and gorgeous.
Lee: Gorgeous, gorgeous [laughs]
Jo: He knew you could do it. So in your book you mentioned that Alfred Rider had done Hamlet. And when they televised it and it didn’t go over very well. Electra… It doesn’t exist. Do you regret that there is no visual evidence of that performance?
Lee: No, no.
Jo: I wish I couldn’t seen you on stage. Even in Prisoner on Second Avenue I wash I could’ve seen you on stage. So you’re really not sorry that they didn’t televise it?
Lee: No. No, it’s an experience.
Jo: It’s one of those moments it exists like a firefly.
Lee: It was a live experience. Like a marriage. And you know it lifted me.
Jo: So you’re laying on your chaise, did you finish your coffee?
Lee: Oh, it’s half finished. I’m still in my nightgown. [laughs]
Jo: I could talk with you all day like this!
Lee: I know!
Jo: What is a great way to end this?
Lee: What’s a great way to end this?
Jo: Is there something you want to talk about? That we didn’t cover. You’ve got such an impressive career in theatre, film, and television. On both sides of the camera. You’ve worked with amazing people. You have great friends.
Lee: How about Al—who’s the one was who was thrown out of office? Al Franken? How about Al Franken. He didn’t have a choice to leave but I want him back. And that’s what I want to write about.
Wendy: What are you working on for writing?
Lee: I’ve just been writing in spurts, just things that I have to get out of my system, as you can hear when I talk to you. There are things I have to spew, and get down on paper to get it out of me. And so what’s I’m going to do, I’m going to write about the stupidity and short-sightedness of getting rid of the only one in Congress that I know of who could go up against Trump and just demolish him, with his humor and his knowledge. That was the stupidest action that could be taken.
Jo: I was so mad at him for messing up because we needed him. And so mad at him for stepping down.
Lee: He was pushed out. He was forced out. Did you read that New Yorker article about the woman who came to his defense?
Jo: No, we haven’t seen that one.
Lee: It’s like 2 weeks ago. So you can read it.
Wendy: I’ll look it up. I keep more up on the politics stuff than Jo does. Jo likes to live in her classic film bubble.
Jo: I like to live in my classic film world and if I don’t… I’ll go mad.
Lee: Oh, I understand. And I’m sorry to break through that.
Jo: No, no. It’s fine. And I don’t want to give the impression that I’m not proactive. I do what needs to be done.
Lee: Oh, I’m not accusing you, I’m just opening my arms and pulling you into my world.
Jo: Oh I love your world, and I know that. And it’s Wendy’s world. I hear about it… all about it, and friends who are very active.
Wendy: And we have friends who go to the TCM movie festival and a couple years ago you were there and made a speech, and they were all tweeting and texting about it, saying oh my God, this is so awesome! And I was like, of course, it’s Lee Grant! And that makes her even more amazing that you would give this really political speech!
Lee: It does, girls, it just makes me more amazing! Every single day.
Wendy: Hell yeah! People have to speak out!
Lee: On that note, we will end this.
Lee: But I’ve had such a great time and I love you.
Jo: Oh, we love you too, Lee!
Lee: And I’ve had fun. And so we may not be still doing your thing, but we can still talk and still have a relationship.
Jo: We would love to stay in touch.
Wendy: And if you have copies of any of your documentaries, I would love it. If they would be easy for me to copy, because I would show them in class.
Jo: Maybe some day we could come into the city and have coffee with you.
Lee: Yes, maybe you can do that and take things and make copies, if you know how to do that. Because I don’t know how to do anything.
Wendy: Ok, I’m good with the technical stuff.
Jo: So next time, we’ll come into the city and do it.
Lee: Yes, we’ll do that. You’re both adorable.
Jo: Lee speaks truth to power and wants to be heard.
Wendy: Great, so we’ll be in touch.
Lee: Have a good day, girls!
Jo: Take care, Lee!
“The dichotomy of my genius status at home and my slightly below par status in the outside world gave me a sense of instability and unreality throughout all of my life about exactly who I was and what I was capable of. Could that be why I grabbed so ferociously at acting? Grounding myself in a structure that worked for me, the observant child?”
— And excerpt from I Said Yes to Everything -Lee Grant talking about Sandy Meisner and The Neighborhood Playhouse.
How do you start out a biography about someone who is a virtual legend?
When I attended the Chiller Theatre Expo I had the exciting opportunity to meet one of my favorite actors, Academy Award winner Lee Grant. This meeting turned out to be one of the great highlights of my life. While I’ve followed her work my entire life, after connecting with her, I began my exploration into Lee Grant’s life by immersing myself first in her incredibly honest and potent autobiography. “I Said Yes to Everything” is an expository journey written long-hand by Lee herself in classic black and white note books. It’s a well-written intimate portrait of a courageous and brilliant actor.
“Lee Grant’s I Said Yes to Everything is heart-stopping. More than just a show-business memoir or chronicle of the Hollywood blacklist era, it is a terrifying account of a gifted artist’s tumultuous journey—both personal and professional. You will feel every jolt of terror that Grant endured, wondering if you would have been as brave. Her triumph becomes our own. Readers of this gripping book will surely reach the final page shouting a victorious “Yes! To everything that is Lee Grant.” -Marlo Thomas
With every role Lee Grant undertakes —from stage to early dramatic teleplays, to television series and onto the big screen— she transports an inner truth and an understanding of the world’s pleasures, and too, it’s miseries. Never afraid to take risks, she turned a career that was at one time silenced, into a great triumph by reclaiming her place in Hollywood. She then forged her own road into directing, where her voice and compassionate vision helped marginalized people have their say as well.
This is the spirit of Lee Grant, a woman who kicked down the door, prevailed the madness of the blacklist and without settling. She become a formidable actress, director, a legend, and friend.
Reading about her incredible life story, I Said Yes to Everything, brought me closer to the actress whom I already admired and loved for so many years. It’s a reflexive reminiscence, at times brutal and at other times it evokes laughter. Lee Grant has a primal and candid sense of humor that is so invigorating to experience. And hearing it from Lee herself is life-altering and beyond meaningful.
I also reexamined a lot of her great work so I could surround myself with the essence of her talent. It not only fortified what I had already felt about her capacity to engage each role, I met several characters that I hadn’t seen before. And was completely knocked over by Lee Grant’s awe-inspiring performances. To have the opportunity to talk to someone you’ve known as an acting legend can make you quite star struck as you try to find your own voice without sounding like a fool. But Lee Grant is a real and raw person. She’s one of those people you meet by chance in life, striking up a wonderful connection as if you’ve known them for years. This is just another layer of greatness to an already great actor.
Lee Grant is one of the most expository of actors. She uses her distinctive voice, that moves along the walls of your mind like an elegant cat, with an expressiveness that brings to bear even the most subtle of gestures. She has an attentiveness to detail, and her extraordinary sensuality is deep-rooted with a swift and clever sense of humor.
As an actor, she brings and intimacy to her roles, complex, passionate sensual dynamic versatile, and authentic. A talent caught up in the net of the HUAC insanity that ruined lives, and literally took her act of belonging away in Hollywood and from an industry where time is essential in order to obtain recognition and primacy.
I suspected that Lee always put a little of her real self in each role. It turns out I was right as you’ll learn from our conversation about her performances. There is no one quite like Lee. Absolutely no other actor like her.
Lee with one of her original oil paintings.
Like David fighting Goliath, she kept her resilience during those dark years of the blacklist. She’s an actor who is truthful enough to bare her vulnerabilities, machinations, fears, fancies, the quirks and chinks in the armor— it’s all out there, and wonderfully bold and ballsy an individualist and unfailingly frank. She is fragile and fierce, honest, courageous and unwilling to be shut off or out.
The insanity of the McCarthy Era and fanatics like Vincent Hartnett tried to steal 12 years from Lee Grant. But she refused to be silenced. To this day she speaks truth to the powers that be. She has earned the right to be seen and heard. She’s a woman who has become a firebrand with her socially conscious lens as a filmmaker, documentarian, director, activist, writer and a mother to yet another gifted soul, Dinah Manoff. Talent and fierceness—it runs in the blood.
Lee Grant to me, is someone I’ll always regard with a sense of awe and respect. I’m incredibly honored that she allowed me a glimpse into her life and shared that sense of humor and her determination to be heard. And what a story she has to tell!