Tammy Grimes
Tammy Grimes
Now playing Off-Broadway at the Arc Light, Wit & Wisdom is a Colleagues Theatre Company production comprised of writings by famous people on the subject of aging. Among the revolving cast members are such notables as Kitty Carlisle, Joan Copeland, Carmen de Lavallade, Sandy Duncan, Alvin Epstein, Rita Gam, Rosemary Harris, Dina Merrill -- and Tammy Grimes.

The inimitable Grimes looks marvelous in Wit & Wisdom, a project with which she became involved "because of the material. I thought it was very, very good. Getting older has a universal thrust to it; everybody thinks about it. As you approach your sixties, your concentration on life becomes more intense -- 'This day will not be done again.'"

Grimes has been a personal favorite of mine ever since I saw her in the title role of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a part with which she is indelibly linked. I still vividly recall Grimes singing Molly's opening number, "I Ain't Down Yet," in that distinctive honey-and-sandpaper voice, romping around the Winter Garden stage as the Hannibal (Missouri) hoyden -- wearing a battered pot as a crown and a blanket as a regal robe, using a broom as a scepter. The performance won her a 1961 Tony Award.

A second Tony came Grimes's way in 1970 for her work as Amanda in a revival of Noel Coward's Private Lives that co-starred Brian Bedford. I was interested to learn that Grimes credits Coward with having discovered her: He caught her cabaret debut at Julius Monk's Upstairs at the Downstairs and subsequently cast her in the title role of 1959's Look After Lulu, for which she won a Theatre World Award. Coward also directed her in High Spirits, the 1964 Broadway musical version of his comedy Blithe Spirit. "He was a kind man but brutally honest," says Grimes of Coward. "That was refreshing."

As Elvira, the first wife in High Spirits, Grimes did some onstage flying -- a topic she recently discussed with current co-star Sandy Duncan, who flew as Peter Pan. "After awhile, you actually think you are flying," she tells me. "You achieve that kind of fantasy. You take off and land on some pillar, and you forget that it's not you to have done it. It's hard work to learn to take off and land, but swinging in the air is heaven!"

With great affection, Grimes remembers Beatrice Lillie, who played the daffy medium Madame Arcati in High Spirits: "I never had a scene with her in the show, but Amanda [Grimes's daughter, Amanda Plummer] used to play with her between shows on matinee days. Amanda put her two names together and called her 'Bealillie.' One day, she asked me, 'Why is it Bealillie doesn't have to go to school and I do?' I said, 'Amanda, Bea Lillie is old enough to be your grandmother.' But she only saw the child in her. Bea would come to the house for tea, then go out back where the swings were and play with Amanda for an hour." Some years later, Grimes got to play Madame Arcati in a regional production of Blithe Spirit and considers it "the most joyful part I've ever played."

The middle child of three, Tammy Lee Grimes was born in Lynn, Massachusetts. ("Lynn, the city of sin," she jokes.) Growing up, she loved movies: "It was a world you walked into in the dark--and that was fascinating. My favorites were Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney." It was while at boarding school that young Tammy decided to pursue an acting career: "I played a lady-in-waiting in Victoria Regina. I said, 'Yes, your majesty; no, your majesty,' and I thought, 'This is the best place to be.'" (She had a bigger part in Room Service at school and then played Sabina in The Skin of Our Teeth.)

At Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, a fellow student was George C. Scott. "I learned a lot just by watching him," says Grimes. "He used to teach me how to make scars. I was always fascinated by scars; I thought they had such mystery and I wanted to have one. George taught me how to put spirit gum on my face and get it gooey with various paint colors."

Moving to New York, Grimes studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse, where she appeared in Tennessee Williams' This Property Is Condemned. "I did that play not so long ago for Food for Thought," she says. "I do a lot of those, happily." (The series of lunchtime readings takes place at the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park South in Manhattan.) Anita Loos saw Grimes at the Neighborhood Playhouse and cast her as the lead in The Amazing Adele, which closed in Boston -- "much to my relief," she recalls. "I realized that I wasn't ready to have that kind of responsibility."

Grimes's Broadway debut came when she understudied Kim Stanley as Cherie in Bus Stop and played the role for two weeks. ("I vowed never to be an understudy again.") Her Off-Broadway debut was at the Phoenix in Ben Bagley's The Littlest Revue, which also featured Joel Grey, Charlotte Rae, and Larry Storch. Following that, Grimes toured as Agnes Sorel in The Lark with Julie Harris. Returning to Off-Broadway, she played the Flounder (described as "a good-natured, awkward, sensitive prostitute" by Brooks Atkinson) in Clerambard, starring Claude Dauphin. Grimes played Moll in a New York City Center production of Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock and fondly recalls the legendary composer's guidance: "I'd never worked with someone who taught me how to sing a song -- where to breathe, where not to breathe. I was a very lucky girl to have worked with him. It was the best singing I've ever done."

She relates that, of all things, she sang "Melancholy Baby" at her audition for the part of Molly Brown. "I happened to be singing it for a television show that the Theatre Guild was producing," she explains, "and I went from a rehearsal for that to the audition at the Winter Garden." After she has finished singing, director Dore Schary came onstage. "He said, 'Would you object to having your hair dyed red?' I said, 'Of course not!'" Grimes describes playing Molly as "a track meet. I was only off-stage about seven minutes -- and, backstage, I worked twice as hard." She has warm memories of Schary and choreographer Peter Gennaro. Following the Broadway run, Grimes was offered the opportunity to star in the London production of Molly Brown or to do the show's U.S. tour, and she opted for the latter. (Debbie Reynolds played Molly in the movie version.)

Grimes's other Broadway credits include Rattle of a Simple Man, The Only Game in Town ("All the action happened off-stage; not always a good way to do a play"), A Musical Jubilee, California Suite, Trick, and Orpheus Descending. Off-Broadway, she was seen in Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been?, Molly, Tartuffe, Father's Day, Sunset, Paducah, The Waltz of the Toreadors, and Mademoiselle Colombe (for which she won an Obie). And she has numerous regional credits.

A 1979 Roundabout production of A Month in the Country marks the only time to date that Grimes and Amanda Plummer were in a play together. A Tony winner who's the daughter of Tony winners (Grimes and first husband, Christopher Plummer), Amanda is named for Coward's Private Lives heroine. Her middle name, Michael, is for her godmother, Michael Learned, whom Grimes met in Stratford, Ontario "when Christopher and I did some plays there at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival Theatre. Major parts were done by Christopher, and small parts by me. Michael was part of the company, as was her husband at the time, Peter Donat. She's a lovely woman." Asked how Amanda is doing these days, Grimes replies: "She's very well. She's moving back from the coast and wants to live in Brooklyn."

Grimes's most recent Broadway musical was the original production of 42nd Street, in which she played Dorothy Brock. "I loved doing 'Shadows on the Wall,' and I loved the company," she says. "We had a special bond due to [director-choreographer] Gower Champion's death. He left us a legacy -- the way he wanted the show to be done. We rose up to it every night." Tammy remembers producer David Merrick as "the Prince of Darkness and a true wit. I miss him terribly. I remember walking to the theater with him during the tryout run in Washington. We were walking through a series of garages. I said, 'David, don't you want to see the grass and the trees?' He said, 'No! I hate nature!'"

Grimes (center) and cast in a publicity photo for Wit & Wisdom
Grimes (center) and cast in a publicity photo for Wit & Wisdom
Interestingly, Grimes turned down the lead in the TV sitcom Bewitched, and she claims to have no regrets about having done so. "I think of what power it would have given me," she says, "but having done my own television series [The Tammy Grimes Show in 1966], I know what a grind it is. Even though you make pots and pots of money, it's a lot of work and very demanding. A small part in a television series is a desirous thing -- but only a small part."

A member of the Theatre Hall of Fame, Grimes has been happily married to composer Richard Bell for 32 years. "He built me a house in New Hampshire," she says. "We're an old married couple! Living is better for me now -- different, but better. Your perspective changes. Simple things make you happy."

Grimes is pleased to be part of such an extraordinary company in Wit & Wisdom. "Isn't it a lovely cast?" she enthuses. "Kitty Carlisle is an inspiring woman. She says that if she mentions herself now, she can't just say 'old,' she has to say 'very old.' Kitty's 92, and absolutely beautiful -- an extraordinary dame!" Asked if she might consider doing a one-woman show a la Elaine Stritch and Beatrice Arthur, Grimes replies: "That would be hard work!" She says that she would like to do an evening devoted to the work of a certain writer whom she declines to name but adds that she has no idea when such a show might come to fruition. "I'm working on it now," she says, "but I'm about as ambitious as a water buffalo!"