Holland Taylor was resplendent in a full length red fox fur coat. (I didn't ask her if it was real.) Once a struggling actress in New York in the 70s and 80s, she took practically any role that was offered to her just to pay the bills, including the lead in the infamous Broadway flop, Moose Murders. Now she is an Emmy Award winner (The Practice) and star of Two and a Half Men, one of the biggest shows on television, for which she has been nominated four more times. She's no longer struggling, if the fur is any indication, and she's ready to draw that Broadway paycheck again (for the first time in thirty years) in her one-woman show Ann, set to open at the Vivian Beaumont Theater on March 7.
"OOOOHH!" she gasped as she reached for a large Laura Helmer original attached to my lapel. "Look at that pin!"
The "Ann" in Taylor's solo show is the late Texas governor Ann Richards, who also had an affinity for large and gaudy brooches.
Written by and starring Taylor, Ann is an "affectionate portrait" of Richards, who rose to national attention with her keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. The female counterpart to Bill Clinton, Richards was famous for her wit, charm, and innumerable cable TV appearances. The cameras loved her. I spoke to Taylor about Richards, dirty politics in Texas, and her last stint on Broadway, Moose Murders.
What was your relationship to Ann Richards?
I had the relationship with her that many Americans had. When she became Governor, I was thrilled that she was elected. It was in Texas, which is a world I didn't know, but I was aware of this dramatic and thrilling story.
I think it was the spirit of her as a person that captured me. She became a star in my heavens and she was always going to be there. That was my assumption. When she died… I'm very good friends with [gossip columnist] Liz Smith who was her very good friend. For months, whenever I talked to Liz, she was very distraught because Governor Richards was so ill.
It was just so unbelievable that she would die. I rebelled against it. Some months later, I was still mourning and I thought, 'Why are you so upset?' And I realized that I counted on her. She made the world OK to be in. She brought a great deal of warmth and comfort into walking the planet.
The best politicians can do that.
Very few of them do. She, in a way, was truly a precursor to Obama. Her effect on people was very like his. She was a very unlikely winner. She came from a disenfranchised background. She was for, of, and by the people, a great progressive heroine. She wanted the world to be a level playing field for everyone. These were abiding feelings in her from a very young age.
In your play there is a harshness to her that is always buttressed by affection. Why is that?
This is very Ann. She also gave lots of people jobs well beyond what they expected to be given. Across the state she gave appointments, lifted people to positions that astonished them. She wanted to bring a wide range of people of every color and every stripe to represent the real demographics of the state in government. But she also had a sense of humor. A lot of it was bombast. She was very short-tempered because she was maddened by work. She didn't do governor the way that it was traditionally done, by a man who steps down from his career to have a more leisurely job as governor. She just about killed herself with that job.
Yet she wasn't reelected...
Ann had captured people's hearts, but Texas is a very macho state and it is a red state. When she was elected governor, a lot of people feel what tipped the scale were Republican women who were not going to vote for Clayton Williams [the colorful Texas oil man who once made this comment about rape: "If it's inevitable, just relax and enjoy it"]. Dammit, they were going to vote for the woman. And they were very happy with that woman, but they were still Republicans and a young Republican [George W. Bush] who was the son of a President looked at himself in the shaving mirror one day and said, 'I'm so pretty, I'm going to run for governor.' Her popularity was higher than ever, but she was still defeated.
Of course we all know from James Moore and Wayne Slater's book on Karl Rove, this was him cutting his teeth on how to run a campaign with no fingerprints. There were push polls where they would ask the question, 'Does it bother you or are you perfectly OK with the fact that so many of Ann Richards' staff are homosexuals?' This is real!
In rural churches all over Texas, there were flyers placed under the windshield wipers of the cars in the parking lot. The churchgoers would come out and find a flyer with a black man and a white man, naked from the waist up and kissing. And the caption was, 'This is what Ann Richards wants to teach your children.'
This show got its start in at the Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston. Did you have any trepidation playing a native daughter of Texas in front of a Texas audience?
Yes! Playing in her backyard? Are you kidding? I assumed I would do regional theaters. I never imagined I'd be playing Ann Richards in Texas.
It really was crazy. I thought, the dialect is completely foreign to me. I'm not a gifted mimic. I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, what are you doing?' But then I thought, ‘what would Ann Richards think if you passed this extraordinary opportunity by?'
And now you're in New York. Why is this the right time to bring this show to Broadway?
It's the right time because it's when it happened. People always ask me, 'Why did you take that job?' Well, because they offered it to me and I have to make a living just like anyone else.
It's been three decades since you've last been on Broadway...
Has it really been that long? No, it's been two decades...
Goddamnit, it's three! I could walk right over there and slap you.
Well, I have been in New York in the theater since then, but not on Broadway. I've been frantically clinging to my theatrical reality because it is so much more real for me. It's my natural habitat.
So tell me about Moose Murders.
Moose Murders was actually sandwiched between the workshop production and the off-Broadway production of Breakfast with Les & Bess, a wonderful play. We did that for about three months for thirty-five dollars a week. I knew about Moose Murders because stories had been floating around. I had read the script which I thought had very funny, totally kitschy dialogue. It wasn't a "play" and it wasn't anything I'd wanted to do. Then I heard that Eve had dropped out. They offered me the role.
I knew that it would close immediately, but I desperately needed the paycheck. I needed a couple of weeks of a Broadway salary. I had a really strong vibe that Les & Bess was going to go on and I would be free to do that once Moose Murders closed.
I only had a week to rehearse, but I thought, I can do anything for a week. The people who suffered were the people in the rest of the cast who had been there for six weeks. They were out of their minds.
Any backstage or onstage horror stories from the experience?
The worst moment I had in Moose Murders had nothing to do with the writing at all. The play ends with a blackout laugh line and it was not the strongest laugh line in the world, but it was the blackout that ended the play. You've seen those plays, where the line happens and the lights go out and the curtain comes down. This particular night, I delivered the blackout line and the lights did not go out and the curtain did not come down. The other actors all scattered to the wings and I screamed for them to come out. I put my hands out in the conventional gesture: we were going to line up and bow.
Are you happy to be returning to Broadway at the same time that your old Bosom Buddies Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari are appearing in Lucky Guy?
Yes, we've been texting. They made a video on my birthday and sent it to my phone. They are both so darling, really darling guys.
This is Tom Hanks' Broadway debut. Do you have any advice for him?
Enjoy the moment. Be only in the moment.