Polly Bergen(Photo: Robert Milazzo)
Polly Bergen
(Photo: Robert Milazzo)
On a recent Tuesday evening, Polly Bergen and I both arrive at six o'clock at Studio 54, where the actress recently took over the role of Fraulein Schneider in the long-running revival of Cabaret. Since the backstage door isn't yet open, we enter through the front of the theater and proceed to Bergen's dressing room. Sans makeup, the attractive septuagenarian carries a pile of books; she's currently reading the top one, Deep in a Dream, James Gavin's biography of Chet Baker. "Here, make yourself useful," she says, handing me the stack. As the interview begins, Bergen doffs her wig, places it on a stand, and begins applying her stage makeup.

Last season, she earned a Tony nomination as Carlotta in the revival of Follies, her first Broadway musical in 42 years; luckily, she's made a quicker return this time around. "The main reason I wanted to do this," notes Bergen, "was because a lot of people thought I was Carlotta. They thought it was so close to me that it didn't require very much. Of course, I'm not Carlotta, though there are some things I could identify with."

Like Carlotta, Bergen has enjoyed a varied career that has encompassed films, stage, TV, records, and the business world. While still in her teens, she was signed by Hollywood producer Hal Wallis and did several pictures, "all totally forgettable. I was making a lot of money, but I walked away from movies. I was just awful; I couldn't bear it." Her early films included Westerns, such as Warpath and Escape From Fort Bravo, and three Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis comedies: At War with the Army, That's My Boy, and The Stooge. With Martin and Lewis, Bergen also did club dates and appeared at New York's Paramount Theater ("eight shows a day"). Later, she was a frequent guest on Martin's variety show. "Dean and I were very close," she says. "Jerry and I--no. Jerry was a mean bastard. Still is, I hear."

After leaving Hollywood, Bergen came to New York, where she studied acting with Lee Strasberg. "I came out of that a little bit more aware," she tells me. "When I was young, I thought you learned the lines, stood up and said them. The concept of acting was beyond my comprehension." She made her Broadway debut alongside Harry Belafonte and Orson Bean in John Murray Anderson's Almanac, a 1953 revue starring Hermione Gingold and Billy DeWolfe. "All I remember is that I sang one of my songs in a picture frame," she relates. "I was a portrait that came to life. That was before they had body mikes, and I had no idea how to project. I was putting the tone in the wrong place and causing myself injury. I had tremendous vocal problems, requiring major throat surgery." (Bergen left Almanac after a month.)

The turning point in her career occurred on TV's Playhouse 90. In The Helen Morgan Story, Bergen gave an Emmy-winning portrayal of that alcoholic torch singer. "I talk about it in my nightclub act--that my whole life changed one night in 1957," she says. "Up until then, I had been moderately successful. I was headlining at the secondary hotels in Vegas and making $5,000 a week. After Helen Morgan, I played Las Vegas for $50,000 a week." The television drama also led to Bergen's weekly variety show on NBC-TV and the leading role in a 1959 Broadway musical, First Impressions. Based on Pride and Prejudice, the show co-starred Farley Granger and Hermione Gingold. "Farley and Hermione were not singers, so I carried the vocal load of the show," Bergen says. "There was so much backbiting! It was a vicious, dog-eat-dog atmosphere. I'm a very hard worker but I'm basically easygoing. My sign is Cancer; I like to be surrounded by a warm nest of people. I'm very nurturing, sharing. I never try to take the stage from someone."

The notices for First Impressions were far from glowing: "One of the reviews said, 'Polly Bergen is about as period as Mickey Mantle.' I had it framed and put above my desk, because I learn more from bad reviews than good ones. I was a last-minute replacement for Giselle MacKenzie; I had three weeks to learn the score. The last thing I gave any thought to was that it took place in 1813!" The show ran 92 performances. "That experience was so horrific," she recalls, "and I assumed that was what Broadway was. I turned down a lot of stuff because of that. I should not have walked away; God knows, I'll never get rich doing Broadway, but it's really the medium that I love. The two experiences I've had since then [Follies and Cabaret]--with the exception of The Winds of War and War and Remembrance [both for TV]--are the two greatest working experiences I've ever had. The people have been so loving, so supportive, so non-threatening."

She regrets that Follies didn't run longer. "That was because of Ben Brantley [whose New York Times review was not favorable]. I don't say that in a mean or derogatory way, but I think if Ben Brantley had liked it, we would have stayed open. We never worked to anything but a full house. Everyone was paid scale, and when that contract was up, [the producers] were faced with the fact that they were going to have to pay us more. It was a business decision, but we felt an enormous amount of sadness when the show closed.

"Of course," Bergen continues, "out of that came this [Cabaret]. I felt that Fraulein Schneider was an opportunity for me to say: 'See, I'm not Carlotta and I'm not just a singer. I can play funny, I can play drama, I can play German.' People forget that this role was originally written for Lotte Lenya, so it's not a walk-through part; it's complicated and very draining. She starts off in control, strong, funny, but disillusioned. She falls in love, which changes her completely. But the man is Jewish, so she leaves him, and her life is crushed. I thought the part would broaden my horizons as far as future work is concerned. It was a very deliberate decision and I was lucky that they offered it to me.

"I had 11 days of rehearsal to learn 46 pages of dialogue, four songs, and a German accent," Bergen relates. "I was a basket case! Kander and Ebb write so brilliantly; their songs are scenes in themselves. I rehearsed with the assistant director and a stage manager, and I had a wonderful accent coach, Sarah Felder. I was very nervous: Do I learn the accent first? Do I learn the lines and then put an accent on them? They had the script written phonetically, but I couldn't read it. On my opening night, my accent in the first scene was so thick that I couldn't understand myself. The performance was about the accent!"

A pineapple for her: Bergen in Cabaret(Photo: Joan Marcus)
A pineapple for her: Bergen in Cabaret
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Bergen credits the Cabaret ensemble with getting her through the first week. "I had never replaced anyone before," she notes. "It was like being shot out of a cannon. But they've had so many cast changes that, to them, it's chopped liver--'Aw, another new one!' I had just sort of relaxed...and then all of the other leads changed! Suddenly, I was the old-timer." (Jane Leeves as Sally Bowles, John Stamos as the Emcee, and Hal Linden as Herr Schultz have recently joined the cast.)

Bergen is very fond of her new colleagues, and notes that Linden was in the original cast of Bells Are Ringing, a song from which ("The Party's Over") was a hit single for her. What she finds less than pleasing is Cabaret's "killer schedule." Performances are Thursday through Tuesday every week, with two shows on Saturday and Sunday; Wednesday is the only day off. "We can't attend benefits and other things that happen on Mondays," Bergen notes. "People say, 'Why don't you join us at Elaine's after the show?' I say, 'Are you out of your mind?!' And, on my day off, I'm lucky if I ever get out of my nightgown."

Of Irish descent, Bergen was born Nellie Paulina Burgin in Knoxville, Tennessee. "From the day I was born, I was called Polly," she tells me. "My mother had three very close friends: Nellie, Paulina, and Polly--who was her favorite." At 15, Bergen had her own radio program (as a singer) in Richmond, Indiana. That led to local radio and TV work, singing with bands, and "cutting demos for songwriters up and down Vine Street [in Los Angeles] at $10 a demo." Her movie contract followed. "You were paid a weekly salary and what they gave you was what you did."

In April 1955, Bergen appeared in the Broadway comedy, The Champagne Complex, co-starring Donald Cook and John Dall. "That was great fun," she says. "[Director] Michael Gordon decided that I had the potential to be a comedienne, so he worked and worked with me." The show lasted 23 performances. Eight years later, Gordon convinced Bergen to play the second female lead in the Doris Day film Move Over, Darling, a remake of My Favorite Wife. "I was sure that Doris would be a complete bitch," Bergen laughs, "that they'd be shooting me at six in the morning and she'd show up at one, that all of our scenes together would be played with the camera on my back. In walked this girl who was openhearted, kind, sunny, gentle. She was the sweetest woman I ever met in my entire life." Bergen also has praise for Robert Mitchum, who menaced her in Cape Fear (1962) and played her husband in the two miniseries of which she's so fond, The Winds of War (1983) and War and Remembrance (1989).

The mother of a daughter, a son, and a stepdaughter, Bergen is thrice divorced. ("If you ever hear that I'm getting married again," she remarks, "you have my permission to get a gun and shoot me in the head.") Her three-month contract (April, May, June) with Cabaret may be extended, depending on Carole Shelley's recovery from foot surgery. "There's some talk of my staying over," says Bergen.

In November 1999, Bergen played Joanne in a Florida benefit performance of Company. "It was my first time on stage in 35 years," she says. "I had not sung a note since 1969. I really wanted to do Joanne in Washington, D.C. [for the Sondheim Festival], but I'm probably too old for it." As for future possibilities, she is considering "a musical written for me and Karen Ziemba. It's basically two one-woman shows but the women cross over into each other's lives. We're hoping to workshop it at the end of the summer. I also got an offer for a revival that they're hoping to bring to Broadway. And I have a lot of concerts coming up, starting in September."

Finishing her makeup, Polly Bergen says: "All I need now is the wig." As if on cue, there's a knock on the door and she's handed Fraulein Schneider's tresses on a stand. As always, her timing couldn't be better.