Two-time Tony Award Nominee Michele Lee (The Tale of the Allergist's Wife) made her mark on Broadway in the 1960s at age 18. After performing in Vintage ‘60, Bravo Giovanni, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and 1974's Seesaw (for which she was nominated for a Tony), she took a long hiatus from the stage, returning in 2001 with a Tony-nominated performance in Allergist's Wife. Lee, who has also acted on the big and small screen (including the 1997 mini-series Knot's Landing), was recently honored with the PBS Pioneers of Television Award at the Television Critics Association in Beverly Hills. TheaterMania sat down with the ever-youthful 70-year-old Lee to reminisce about the good old days, her favorite on-stage memory from How to Succeed..., and the possibility of a Knots redux.
You're a native Angeleno. When you were growing up, were you already dreaming about being on Broadway?
My parents were New Yorkers and I was conceived in Los Angeles. My father was a makeup artist to Clint Eastwood and Richard Chamberlain. I went to New York when I was 17 years old, [to do] a little review and came back to Los Angeles and did a little show called Bravo Giovanni. I went from there to How to Succeed in Business. I was discovered [for] the original show.
David Merrick [the successful ‘60s-era producer who was almost as famous for making headlines and enemies as he was for making Broadway hits], discovered you. What was he like when you met him?
I had a very good time with him because I was very young and I didn't know any better than to dislike the hand that feeds you. [Laughs] I had a good relationship with him. Hey, I was a kid. He used to come to my house, the same house I am living in today.[W]hen he was in town, [he'd] stop over and have hors d'oeuvres and drinks.
[Are there] any anecdotes [you'd like to share] from the show [How to Succeed' in Business Without Really Trying?]
I just remember in How to Succeed that Charlie [Charles Nelson Reilly] who everyone thought was so crazy -- and was a little crazy -- always became the serious, sane one when push came to shove. One night, at the end of the first act, we were onstage and smoke started coming into the back of the theater…when everyone was on stage for, I think, "Paris Original," or the big party scene. Smoke was billowing in the back. We didn't notice it at first but all of a sudden the people in the back of the theater started coughing, we heard the [alarms]…and people were starting to freak. It was Charlie who got downstage center and said, 'Alright, everybody there is a fire.' Very calm, ‘I'd like to repeat where the exit rows are and the exit doors. You'll find them to the left and right.' [T]his is Charlie. As it turned out, the restaurant next door was having a fire in the kitchen, and it was fine.
You did quite a bit of Broadway with two Tony nominations, one for Seesaw and the other for The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, then you are known for something you didn't get nominated for, How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. What do you get asked about most?
[People] talk about The Allergist's Wife and Seesaw -- my favorite…the most delicious role I ever had. The role in The Allergist's Wife was a wonderful role and it scared the shit out of me. That's a quote. She [the character named, oddle, "Lee"] was flamboyant and you didn't know where she was going and you didn't know if she was real or not. In Seesaw, I played Gittel Mosca and because it was a musical. I loved it more because I was able to do anything. I was able to use all parts of me that I don't get to use…the comedy and the singing and the dancing.
What shows have you seen recently that you really like?
War Horse. I saw it in London and here. Book of Mormon was beyond belief. I saw Death of a Salesman with Philip Seymour Hoffman and the guy who won the Tony [James Corden] for One Man, Two Guvnors was in the same [league] as Philip Seymour Hoffman. That show was so amazing.
Everybody loved you as Karen [in the television show Knot's Landing]. Would you do another series?
How much? [Laughs] Pay me so much money. No, I haven't done television for a long time. I used to sing in the earlier days on all those great specials, [like] The Carol Burnett Show, which I miss. The closest thing to it these days are all those [reality television] contests.