For Anita Gillette, the role of Bridget Conway in Christopher Gorman's play A Letter from Ethel Kennedy is more than just a great part: Gillette was a close friend of Gorman, who died of complications of AIDS in May 2001. The highly autobiographical play is the story of a writer who tries to make peace with his parents before he succumbs to HIV disease. Directed by Joanna Gleason, the MCC Theater production co-stars Jay Goede, Bernie McInerney, Stephen Barker Turner, and Randy Harrison of TV's Queer as Folk.
It turns out that Gorman, who was a casting and production executive for CBS-TV, became a fan of Gillette's when he first saw her on Broadway in Jimmy in 1969. Now, ...Ethel Kennedy has brought back to the New York stage the scintillating performer who scored big as a star replacement in Carnival, Cabaret, and They're Playing Our Song and survived such high-profile disappointments as All-American and Mr. President, not to mention the notorious Kelly. Gillette received a Tony nomination and an L.A. Drama Critics Award for her role in Neil Simon's Chapter Two, and her film credits include Moonstruck and Boys on the Side. I spoke with her after the first few performances of her friend's play at MCC.
THEATERMANIA: It's great to have you back on stage. What was your last show in New York?
ANITA GILLETTE: I can't remember! I've done a lot of sort of workshop things; I did Moving Targets at the Vineyard. I guess it's been a long time since I've been in the city; I've been doing films and some television, trying to get more of that.
TM: How did you come to be involved in A Letter From Ethel Kennedy?
AG: I was a very close friend of Christopher Gorman. He was writing it in the workshop that he was doing--an AIDS workshop--and he wrote the part of the mother with me in mind. He also had been working with Joanna Gleason; she gave some voice classes, how to act a song and stuff like that. So Christopher wrote this play, which was then called False Positive. Joanna directed a reading of it and I was in it; I played the same part. Steven Weber was in it, too. We did that reading in '98 and then I suggested to Christopher that he send it to MCC. He kept working on the play, changing it and rearranging it. Meanwhile, I was going through my own hell because my husband died right after the reading. For a couple of years, I was just out of it--not interested in doing very much. Then Christopher died and, two weeks later, his play was optioned by MCC; Meg Simon, the casting director, had submitted it to Bernie Telsey. Christopher had retitled it A Letter from Ethel Kennedy. It's just a miracle that everything came together--that I was free, that Joanna was free. Well, we made ourselves free; we had vowed that we were going to do this play and now we're doing it.
TM: I suppose people should see it to find out what the title means.
AG: Yes. It's a very moving play. It's not about AIDS; that's one of the reasons, I guess, for the title change. It's really about family relationships, about a guy saying goodbye. He could be dying of anything. Audiences are sobbing by the end, but they also laugh a lot. It's a very balanced audience at MCC--not just a gay audience or anything. We're finally getting our teeth into the play and starting to own it. It's been hell, because there were four versions of the script that we had to cull from. There have been so many times when I've wished that Christopher were here so we could just ask him, "What do we do now?" But a very dear friend of his, John Matoian--who used to be the head of the Fox network and who worked with Christopher at CBS--is acting as his voice. John and Joanna and I and Steve Williams, the dramaturge at MCC, put our heads together to come up with the final version of the script.
AG: He saw me do Jimmy at the Winter Garden when he was just a kid. He told me that he came in from Long Island to see the show, then he went home and made everybody do the Walker walk; you know there was a song that went, "Everybody's doing the Walker walk..." I sent him an autographed picture when he was still a kid but he never introduced himself to me until he was situated at CBS. Then we became fast friends.
TM: You're playing Christopher's mother in the show. Did you get to meet her?
AG: Yes. She died in March, which was another very hard thing for all of us. I met the whole family; I really became involved in Christopher's life.
TM: A few questions about your career: You were a hit as a replacement in some really famous productions, but most of the new shows you did were flops or semi-flops. That must have been hard to take.
AG: I guess that's one of the reasons why I don't want to do Broadway very much anymore. Number one, I think I'm past the age where I get interesting parts. I'm not really a big fat character woman yet, you know? I'm sort of in between. I still look good for my age!
TM: Were you up for Morning's at Seven?
AG: They wouldn't even see me for that. I did a reading of it in Seattle with Mary Tyler Moore and Peter Michael Goetz, directed by Dan Sullivan...and not one of us got to do the show on Broadway. Not one!
TM: You were in the original Mr. President. Did you see the revised version that Gerard Alessandrini did?
AG: Yes, and I loved it. Wasn't it fun? Amanda Naughton was in it; she's a friend of mine.
TM: You said that you've been doing some film and TV recently. Tell me about that.
AG: I did a Law and Order last year, and two movies. So I'm working.
TM: I have to ask you what it feels like to be in one of the most perfect movies ever made--and I know I don't have say which one I'm referring to.
AG: Moonstruck is my pride and joy. [Director] Norman Jewison said, "It's not a big part, Anita, but it's an important part. You're going to be so good in it." It's such a classic! I'm very fortunate to have been in it. I don't think that anybody will ever consider me a great actress, but I thank God that I have a good reputation in the business. I'm happy with that.