For Polly Bergen, an actress of infinite variety, life begins (again) at just past 70. In the 1950s, she ingénued in a few Martin and Lewis flicks, appeared on Broadway, and had her own television variety show. Then she took a 35-year detour away from song and dance and into drama. Her 1959 Emmy for The Helen Morgan Story jump started an acting career that would involve two more Emmy nominations (for The Winds of War and War and Remembrance) and myriad dramatic roles.
Though the Tony Award that La Bergen might have won for her performance as Carlotta Campion in Follies last season was hijacked by the Producers juggernaut, she--like the indomitable Carlotta--is still here. In fact, she's permanently moving back to New York from the West Coast during her six week run in Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues (through December 9) at the Westside Theatre. "I'd seen the show while I was in rehearsals for Follies and I adored it," she relates. "When the producers got in touch with my manager, the timing was perfect. It keeps me here while I'm moving."
How did the early demise of Follies affect Bergen and her fellow cast members? "Well, we were all in the dark on the closing," she tells me. "And none of us could accept other bookings because they're usually done at least a year in advance. I personally lost a full year of bookings." To take up the slack, she and director Richard Jay-Alexander brought a concert version of the one-woman show they've been working on to the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor. "It's called Act One, Sing Too and we've been adding and subtracting things," says Bergen. "I also flew out to do Jeffrey Katzenbach and Steven Spielberg's benefit for the Motion Picture Home Fund. It was fabulous; the auditorium there seated 700 and they sold 850 tickets. I sang 'I'm Still Here,' of course, which was a perfect fit for the event."
She's excited about the move back to NYC. "I've always loved New York; now I've packed up my L.A. condo and bought an apartment here," she says. "The worst part of the moving is my fashion overstock! But I'll finally be able to use a lot of the sweaters people gave me as gifts. L.A.'s idea of winter is a sweater with a jacket."
Though Bergen has played all sorts of roles, she doesn't hesitate to name her favorite. "No contest," she says, "Rhoda Henry in the two miniseries, Winds of War and War and Remembrance. It's unquestionably the best work I've ever done and the most challenging because she was so completely shallow that it was hard to care about her. I like to play unlovable characters and make the audience care."
The Vagina Monologues presents a new type of challenge for this multi-talented performer. Asked whether she prefers the word "vagina" or "penis," Bergen laughingly responds: "I've never been a great user of either word. But I remember that, in the '70s, I said 'penis' on a television show. Barbara Walters suggested that I replace her on Not For Women Only and we did a week on breast cancer. There was a discussion about various operations from lumpectomy--which was still rather new--to full mastectomy, and all of these male doctors said radical surgery was the only way to be safe. So I said, 'If it was your penis, would you cut it off so quickly?' " Touché!
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