Linda Purl
Linda Purl
Pop culture enthusiasts know Linda Purl as a mainstay of network television, with more than 30 made-for-TV movies to her credit plus Happy Days (she played Richie Cunningham's girlfriend in the first season and Fonzie's love eight years later), Matlock (as Andy Griffith's daughter), and such short-lived adventure series as Robin's Hoods and Under Cover. But there's a lot more to Purl's résumé than the latest movie of the week. For years, she has crisscrossed the country doing theater: The Real Thing at the Mark Taper Forum, On a Clear Day... at the San Bernardino Civic Light Opera, The Threepenny Opera, Johnny on a Spot, and The Baby Dance at the Williamstown Theater Festival, The Road to Mecca at the Long Wharf, and many others. A frequent nightclub headliner, Purl's solo recording for Varèse Sarabande, Alone Together, caught the attention of the creative team of the musical The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. As a result, she was tapped to play Aunt Polly in the show, which opens on Broadway on April 26.

These days, almost all traces of the glamorous star Rex Reed called "the epitome of poise and polish in a size 4 gown" have been tucked away beneath Aunt Polly's bonnets and high-necked dresses. Purl's first act solo, "When That Boy Smiles at Me," has been eliminated; but her second act ballad, "This Time Tomorrow," is one of the show's prettiest songs, and she is a talented addition to the Broadway musical scene. As she chatted with TheaterMania about her upbringing in Japan and her lifelong love of theater, Purl paused a few times to share whispered asides with her six-year-old son, who has joined her in Manhattan for the run of Tom Sawyer.

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THEATERMANIA: How are you adjusting to the demands of a big Broadway musical?

LINDA PURL: Oh, it's thrilling. It's a bit like being shot up to the moon because of the layers of preparation that are involved in something like this. It's sort of like a bolero--it starts slow, in rehearsal and with the encyclopedia of research that [director] Scott Ellis gave us, and then the design elements are folded in. We had a nice preview period in New Haven. Now the creative team is fine-tuning it, pulling the show into focus.

TM: It's not easy to find the right tone for a family musical.

PURL: No, but one thing I think that [book writer] Ken Ludwig and [composer] Don Schlitz have captured is a spirit of innocence. The show appeals to children for obvious reasons; but, for adults, it sort of brings your own child alive, if you'll forgive the New Age vocabulary. It's renewing, in a way. It has a spirit of fun, but there's also a sophistication about it. Ken has looked at the story of Tom Sawyer through the eyes of an adult, which allows the adult characters to be fleshed out a bit more than they are in the book. You see Aunt Polly as a complex person. She's a spinster, devoted to raising Tom and his brother, but she has longings and dreams of her own.

TM: How did you get your start as a performer?

PURL: I had a pretty unusual introduction to the theater. My father's mother had been an actress, so he grew up on the road in the early 1900s. It was a great childhood and, although his career was as an engineer, he kept his passion for the theater and brought it into our home. Dad was in business in Japan, and I spent my childhood in Tokyo. It was a small foreign community in the '60s and my parents were involved in the arts, so I met people from the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Bolshoi, artists from all disciplines. An Italian sculptor lived with us for about six months, and so did a dancer from Texas who was studying kabuki. I remember meeting Harold Clurman at a dinner party at our house. I took all those experiences for granted, as children do. In my growing-up years, theater never had anything to do with career or ambition; it was just something that our family enjoyed. One summer, instead of going on vacation, we did summer stock at home. The living room was converted into a theater and the bedrooms were dressing rooms. Our "summer season" was Three Men on a Horse, The Show-Off, and For Love or Money. As a child, I started working in the Japanese theater, which was easy for me because I spoke the language and the commercial theater reproduced Western product. [Purl played a Japanese-speaking Louis in The King and I, among other roles.] But, in many ways, I was a gimmick in Japan. And I wanted to see how I'd do in my native culture, competing against other blondies.

TM: Does it bother you that you've done so many demanding theater roles and yet you're primarily known for your work on TV?

PURL: Not at all. I'm very grateful to television. It's the medium that has given me the ability to go off and do these wonderful roles in regional theater for two, three, or four months at a time. It's the only reason I could afford to do that.

TM: Isn't it funny that your Happy Days boyfriend, Henry Winkler, is also on Broadway right now [in Neil Simon's The Dinner Party]?

PURL: It's extraordinary! Within a couple of blocks are Henry Winkler and John Ritter, the divine Danny Davis in The Invention of Love, and Gregory Harrison in Follies. These are all friends from L.A. who have stayed alive in the theater while they were working in television. Gregory has done theater for the last 20 years at least. I don't think Henry did; but, of course, he went to Yale Drama School. When I was doing Happy Days the first time, which feels like it was in 1902 [actually, 1974], I remember him saying: "I really want to get back to the theater at some point." So it's thrilling to have him and John Ritter, one of the best actors in America, here in New York.

Linda Purl in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Linda Purl in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
TM: New York critics weren't kind to your two previous starring vehicles, The Baby Dance and Getting and Spending. Did that sour you on the idea of working here again?

PURL: Oh, no. From my subjective point of view, both of those were good experiences. My best girlfriend, Stephanie Zimbalist, and I commissioned The Baby Dance, co-produced it, and were able to do it in four venues over a period of two years. I did Getting and Spending, a play I dearly love, for six months altogether at the Old Globe and on Broadway. It's thrilling to do a play in New York because the audiences are so appreciative. They're theater lovers and very good listeners.

TM: Is your family settling in for the run of Tom Sawyer?

PURL: I'm divorced, but my son is with me. And my ex-husband, who is a writer, is in and out of town a great deal. We have a superb relationship and have managed to keep our family unit somewhat together. But I have to say that [relocating with a child] is very hard. Before taking this role, I had to draw a long breath, because I wasn't sure if it was the right thing to do. Once you have a child, it's not "your turn" anymore. I've had my son on the road with me since he was five months old; the Yellow Pages have become my best friend in terms of finding gymboree and music classes from Connecticut to North Carolina to Kentucky to South Africa. He has brought me into communities in a way that I would never have experienced otherwise. But it isn't easy. When you work in the theater, you're not there to put your child to sleep and do cuddles and bedtime stories and all those precious things. I talked to a lot of my mommy girlfriends about this job, and they all said, "This is the best time to do it." The older a child gets, the more hands-on you need to be. And the good side is that my son is getting the tremendous experience of living in New York City. We've found a marvelous kindergarten.

TM: Has he seen the show?

PURL: Four times. The last time he saw it, he said, "Mom, it's getting better." [laughs] He can do all the roles now. I'm thrilled to have him hang out with me at the theater. But, at the same time, I think: "Oh, no--another generation shot to hell!"