All of Boston—and beyond—is abuzz with the high profile, long-awaited stage adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s cult classic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces.
While star Nick Offerman has his name above the title, it is the lovely, illustrious Anita Gillette (who plays Ignatius’ mother Irene) that has captured my attention—and affection—and will no doubt do the same for other likeminded theater buffs.
Gillette made her Broadway debut in 1960 in Gypsy with Ethel Merman, starred as Sally Bowles in the original production of Cabaret, and scored a Tony nomination for Neil Simon’s Chapter Two. Are you obsessed yet? With over a dozen Broadway credits, she has worked with some of the most storied and influential people in show business. Even Tennessee Williams was enamored with her.
Perhaps best known as Mona in Moonstruck, her film and television credits include Shall We Dance, She’s the One, 30 Rock, Quincy, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and 50 episodes of The Johnny Carson Show.
Here, she opens up about how Merman saved her job, the future of Dunces, and being hand-picked by Neil Simon.
How did you become involved with A Confederacy of Dunces?
It was a complete surprise that came to me while I was coming across the ocean on the Queen Mary. I had worked with [director] David Esbjornson before, but I think one of the producers saw a rerun of Moonstruck and they said, “That’s who should play Mrs. Reilly.” I said yes almost immediately because, first of all, I had read the book a long time ago and just remembered laughing my head off all the way through. It’s been a while since I’ve done a real play. I was eager to get back on stage. I didn’t know it would be this difficult! [laughs]
How has the business changed since you first began acting?
Oh, wow. I don’t know how to really get into that. It’s changed. Unless it’s a commercial success like Jersey Boys, Beautiful, blah, blah, blah. But if you want to do a serious play, it’s very difficult to get funding for it and it’s very difficult to get audiences to stay still for it. Unless it’s in a very specialized place that still believes in this theatre—and thank God there are some—or you’ve got such a big star like we have. Nick Offerman is huge, he draws people like crazy.
What are the chances of something like Dunces moving to New York?
Well, they haven’t told us, but rumors are they’re working on it. I haven’t heard, and that’s an odd thing. Usually we’re hip to it.
If it moves to Broadway, it would be your first Broadway show in over 30 years. Why the break?
I got tired of doing Broadway. Every time I did a Broadway show, I stuck with it: I was the last one to leave. First of all, I was supporting two boys and I needed to keep the money flowing in. But the other thing was, I just get attached to roles and I just stay. I sort of wanted a break, I wanted a life. Then my husband got ill, he needed attention, and he died when he was only 57. That was a big blow. And so I moved to California and tried to do some stuff out there. I hated California, so then I moved back to New York in around 2001. There weren’t that many roles that I wanted to do. I don’t hustle the right people, either. I never did that. I had kids, and a lot of my friends who hustled don’t have kids and grandchildren. I made that choice and I’m damned glad I did.
You made your Broadway debut in Gypsy with Ethel Merman in 1960. How did you get started?
I had won the Theatre World Award for a little Off Broadway show, Russell Peterson’s Sketchbook.
They did! I think it ran a little longer than 3 days, maybe a week [laughs], but they did remember me! When I was heaving with morning sickness, some guy called me and said, “This is Daniel Blum, and I’m calling to congratulate you on winning the Theatre World Award.” They had pictures of me in the paper with this very skimpy costume, and anybody could find my name and number in the phone book in those days, and I said, “Listen buster, I don’t know why you’re calling me, but if you don’t stop I’m going to get my husband!” And then my agent called and said, “Do you know who you just told off?!” [laughs] When I joined the cast of Gypsy, I didn’t know I was pregnant.
Gypsy was already a hit by the time you joined the company.
Oh, yes. How I stayed in that show was a story, too. When I found out I was pregnant I let the producers and my stage manager know, because I had to do cartwheels and splits. My doctor said, “You’ve got to stop doing splits.” Since I used to go down and watch Merman in the wings every chance I got, she got used to me and I kind of endeared myself to her. When she heard that they were going to fire me, she said, “Oh, no, no, no! The kid stays in the show! Okay, so she can’t do the splits,” and then she looked at me and said, “But you can still do the cartwheels. The kid stays.” So, that’s how she saved my job and I will never, ever get over that. She was a nice woman, and people give her shit, but she was a great lady.
I’m sure [producer] David Merrick wouldn’t have been so accommodating.
No. That’s right. He wouldn’t have. My pasties were made of holly berries, and every time I opened my cape these holly berries, the more pregnant I got, would just be moving east and west! “Oh my god, I gotta get out of here!” That was when I finally got out of Gypsy.
But then it wasn’t long before you jumped right back in.
That’s right! Speaking of being remembered, Merrick remembered me. He and [composer] Jule Styne were there for my audition for Gypsy, and he said, “You’re the only one I’ve seen so far that could do both parts.” So that’s when he hired me for Carnival for Anna Maria Alberghetti’s understudy.
They had a falling out, right?
Alberghetti and Merrick, yes, I guess they did, but the truth of the matter is that she was in the hospital. I gave my notice on a Saturday night. She went to the hospital on Sunday. And I went onstage on Monday night. Merrick called everybody he knew that could write something about it, and I got a standing ovation. That was the beginning of me. I started getting all this publicity. It took a lot of guts to go on stage that Monday night. In the morning there were headlines: “Tonight a Star May Be Born.” Oh Jesus, oh my God, when you’re an understudy you don’t think of that.
Who is the most difficult person you’ve ever worked with?
Ray Bolger in All American. There are a couple of seconds, but he was the most difficult. He had my song cut. Mel Brooks writes farce, it’s that 3-feet-off-the-ground humor, you can’t get down and sing “Once in Love With Amy” to the audience, it’s not a nightclub act! He screwed up that show. [Time magazine theatre critic] Mel Gussow, he said: “Ray Bolger is as asthmatic old wheeze-bang.” He’s the only one that got it right!
And then came Sally Bowles in the original production of Cabaret. How did that change your life?
Big time. That was the beginning of when I wanted to be an actor. That’s when it started. I really wanted it, but nobody would touch me as an actor because I was a singer. In those days, if you sang, you couldn’t be a real actor. They would not do it, although Rex Harrison broke that rule by doing the opposite. If you talk to Barbara Cook, she’ll say the same thing. One time in the ’70s I went down to Joe Papp and I begged him to let me audition for a straight play at the Public. I didn’t want a straight play at some Off-Broadway theatre that didn’t count: I had a history and I had a reputation. I wanted a chance at a big, well-respected playhouse. That’s the one I chose, and he gave me a chance and I got Rich and Famous. That was the real first start of me being an actor. And then I did Travesties at the Taper, and Neil Simon saw me and remembered me when he put together Chapter Two.
And you got a Tony nomination.
Yeah! For straight acting!
That must have been really validating.
It was. It really was. I really felt good about that.
After Chapter Two, you went into two other Simon plays on Broadway: They’re Playing Our Song and Brighton Beach Memoirs.
All invitational! All invitational from him!
Do you look back on that as the Neil Simon era of your career?
Yes, I do. I think that Chapter Two was the epitome of my Broadway stuff, that and Cabaret. And meeting Irving Berlin on Mr. President. We became friends, and that was a major thing for me, being friends with him.
You were in Boston trying out Mr. President in 1962, and the morning after the reviews came out you walked through the Common with him discussing the bad reviews.
Oh, you know that story? Yes, well, we tried not to.
What an amazing story.
It is. Especially when he says, “Yeah, I know my songs are corny.”
You must have developed really good instincts about when something is working and when something is not. What do your instincts tell you about Dunces?
I think it’s like Moonstruck. When I got that script, I thought, “Jesus. This is either going to be the biggest hit or the biggest flop.” I’m feeling like it’s going to be so funny. These actors are so incredible. Chris, they’re just so, so funny! I think it’s going to be wonderful.
A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES. RUNS THROUGH 12.20 AT THE HUNTINGTON THEATRE COMPANY, 264 HUNTINGTON AVE., BOSTON.HUNTINGTONTHEATRE.ORG