Holland Taylor: The Mother of Them All
The Emmy-winning actress discusses her new play Mother, working with Tom Hanks and Charlie Sheen, and why she took the lead in Moose Murders.
"I don't think they're madly eccentric, just different in their own way," says Taylor about the family in Mother. "But I also think they have the kind of family dynamic that exists in all families; there's a certain kind of squabbling between the children and a certain kind of well-worn groove of bickering with the parents. Yet, there is unquestionably the bond of love that overrides everything in this family. I think the play shows how delicate the connecting lines are in a family -- how easily they can be frayed -- while there's ultimately enough strands to weave the kind of web that holds a family together. It's really wonderful writing."
Two other attractions of the project for Taylor was that it fit perfectly into her television hiatus, and the chance to work with her old friend, Buck Henry, who plays her husband. "Buck and I have known each other over the years. In my age group, you've either worked with, drunk with, or slept with everyone in Hollywood," she says with a laugh. "Buck was attached to the play before I was, and as I started reading it, I could only see Buck in the role. He's just sublimely perfect for the part."
Taylor began acting in the 1960s, making notable appearances in such Broadway shows as The Devils and Butley and working on a variety of soap operas, but gained her first shot of semi-stardom as Ruth Dunbar on the sitcom Bosom Buddies with Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari. "I remember calling my mother one day after we started, partially because I was freaked out by the entire experience of being in L.A., but also to tell her about Tom. I said 'This kid is just going to be the biggest star in the world," she recalls. "Tom was just phenomenally gifted; he was such a playful actor -- and yet his talent was clearly not just as a comedian. He appears so accessible so people think he's like everybody, and he's not like everybody else at all. Calling him an everyman is like saying Albert Einstein is an everyman. But he's a lot of fun and a very loyal and dear friend."
When the show folded, Taylor began a more bi-coastal existence -- and returned to the Broadway stage when she took over the lead role in the legendary flop Moose Murders after star Eve Arden left the cast. Admitting she knew the play was a stinker, Taylor says she had numerous good reasons for accepting the role. "I had been doing this Off-Broadway play, Breakfast with Les and Bess and making $35 a week, so I was living desperately on credit cards, and I figured I could get paid enough to get out of debt in a twinkling," she says. "They gave me a two-week out clause, and, well, you don't give the star that kind of deal unless you're pretty confident it' s only going to run for two weeks. And I thought by stepping in on short notice -- I think I had four days of rehearsal before the first preview -- I was letting the industry know I've got some gumption and can step up in a serious way if I have to. So to me, it had all these positives attached."
For the past two decades, however, Taylor -- who keeps an apartment in New York -- has worked steadily in Los Angeles, including her Emmy-winning role as Judge Roberta Kittelson in The Practice, Professor Stromwell in Legally Blonde, and, yes, the snobby Evelyn Harper, a part that has earned her three Emmy nominations. Is it fun to be that mean? "Sometimes, I can't believe what she's saying," admits Taylor. "I go to Chuck Lorre [the show's creator] and say, 'Evelyn's being satirical here, right?' and he goes 'no, no, no, no, no.' I'm fortunate that he keeps me apprised of the true depths of her bottomlessly bad nature."
Taylor also has strong praise for Sheen. "Like Tom, Charlie is another of those actors who makes it look easy, and it isn't easy. The naturalness with which he does everything is very hard to achieve," she notes. "He also has this remarkable ability to play to both the microphone and the camera, which is what you should do in television, whereas I, because of having years of stage training, tend to only play to the audience. And Charlie can time a laugh better than anybody I've ever known."
As much as she enjoys her TV gig, Taylor hopes to spend more time on the New York stage -- and she admits her future roles will probably bear a certain resemblance to her best-known ones. "I don't think I could play someone who is very weak, because it's so antithetical to who I am. I am a capable, independent woman and I guess that comes through in whatever I do," she says. "And the bottom line, frankly, is that I'm not Meryl Streep. I'm just not talented enough to play someone really different from my own nature. The tiger always has certain stripes."