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The Unsinkable Tammy Grimes

The two-time Tony Award winner on her career, her colleagues, her unique voice, and her new show at the Metropolitan Room. logo
Tammy Grimes
(© Michael Portantiere)
There aren't many performers who can say they worked with Neil Simon and Lillian Gish once, Gower Champion and David Merrick twice, and Noël Coward on three separate occasions. She's Tammy Grimes, who began the 1960s in a show that would win her a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical (The Unsinkable Molly Brown) and ended that decade in a revival that would win her a Tony for Best Actress in a Play (Private Lives). Now, she's doing a new cabaret act at the Metropolitan Room on April 4, 5, and 12. I caught up with her on those very premises, right after we'd both seen Marilyn Maye's opening there last week.


THEATERMANIA: What will you be singing in your show?

TG: I'm going to do "Rose of Washington Square," which I did on one of my Columbia albums.

TM: Even though you're not from Washington Square?

TG: No, Brookline, Massachusetts. But it was really in New Hampshire, at our summer place, where I think I decided that I wanted to be an actress. We had this big attic full of grandmother's and great-grandmother's clothes, and we loved putting them on. Then we'd put on shows in the hayloft, where we loved jumping from the hayloft to the hay below.

TM: Good training for when you had to fly in High Spirits. When did you move to New York?

TG: After I attended Stephens College in Missouri.

TM: What made you want to go there?

TG: A bit of a mistake. I thought it was a Southern town, and I wanted to marry a Southern gentleman. That came from seeing Ashley and Rhett in Gone with the Wind.

TM: There's nobody who sounds like you. When did your realize you had a unique voice?

TG: Not till I got to New York, really.

TM: None of your friends, relatives, or teachers ever said anything about it?

TG: Ben Bagley liked it, and he put me in The Littlest Revue, an Off-Broadway show [in 1956]. I have to admit I didn't like the songs I had; I liked Charlotte Rae's better. I had a song where I sang, "His hair is wavy, his name is Davy," and another called "I'm Glad I'm Not a Man." Well, that one I liked, but I sang it very badly. I won't do those songs in the act, but I will do three from what my daughter Amanda [Plummer] used to call The Unthinkable Molly Brown.

TM: Because she couldn't pronounce it properly, or because she found the show unthinkable?

TG: She couldn't pronounce it. She was two or three.

TM: When she said, "Mommy, I want to be an actress," how did you react?

TG: I liked it better when she said she wanted to be a veterinarian. Then, when she found out that she'd have to inoculate animals in pain, she couldn't bear doing that, and she suddenly said, "Well, I'll be an actress." I couldn't believe it. I asked her, "Are you sure you want to follow in my footsteps? It's a hard road, babe."

TM: How did Noël Coward discover you?

TG: Roddy McDowall, a dear friend, persuaded Noël to come see me at Upstairs at the Downstairs. Before the show started, I shook backstage for 28 minutes. But afterwards, he came backstage and offered me the lead in his play Look After Lulu [1958], which I accepted, and then he asked me to do High Spirits in 1964.

TM: Any fond memories of your co-star, Beatrice Lillie?

TG: Yes, but she was really Amanda's favorite. Mandy used to call her "Belillie," as if her name were one word. They used to play together with Bea's Pekinese pup whenever I was on stage and Bea wasn't. Bea was so wonderfully childlike that when I told Amanda she'd have to go to school, she said, "But Belillie doesn't have to go to school!"

TM: How much did you crave the role of Molly Brown in 1960?

TG: I didn't. I was told by my agent to come by the Winter Garden and sing two numbers, so I got into my best dress -- a beige one -- and I met him to go there. As we were walking, I said, "I've read this script, and I don't want to do it. This girl is too dumb."

TM: There is something dumb about putting money in a stove for safe keeping. Amanda was right; she is the unthinkable Molly Brown.

TG: Exactly! But my agent grabbed my shoulders and said, "Do you want to be a star or not?" I told him I did, and he said, "She's only off-stage for seven minutes! Get the role!" When I got there, Dore [Schary, the show's producer-director] said, "What are you going to sing?" I said "Melancholy Baby," and they all laughed because they thought I was kidding. But that's what I sang.

TM: It doesn't sound very Molly Brown-ish.

TG: Then I sang "I Got Rhythm." Dore came on stage, had me read a soliloquy, and then said, "Would you mind dyeing your hair red?" It was blonde then. I said I didn't mind, but inside I thought, "Yes! I've got it!"

TM: Dore Schary is a name that every American knew, because he was one of the people Lucy Ricardo met on her trip to Hollywood.

TG: He was a wonderful man. I was so impressed that it took him no time to learn every single person's name -- every dancer, every hairdresser on the show. He gave me what a director must have to be a fine one: trust. He never told me to do anything, but let me do it. And when I was stuck, I felt free to tell him, "I just can't find it here." He'd talk to me, and somehow it'd all get worked out. When I lost my voice during the tryout in Philadelphia, everyone wanted me fired but Dore and the wonderful choreographer, Peter Gennaro.

TM: You wound up winning the Tony. Did you mind that you'd been placed in the featured category?

TG: Not at all. What I've always minded is that, in the whole history of the Tonys, I'm the one who forgot to thank anyone with the show. I just said "thank you" and left the stage. I should have thanked Dore, [composer-lyricist] Meredith Willson, and [book writer] Richard Morris.

TM: There was some talk, when Glynis Johns fell ill during previews of A Little Night Music, that you might be brought in.

TG: I talked to them and said, "Well, that character would not wear a red dress to a lawn party." Stephen Sondheim said, "I love that red dress, and that red dress is staying." And I knew I wasn't.

TM: Is it true that you were offered the TV series Bewitched?

TG: Yes. I vetoed the script they gave me. I told them, "This Samantha has all these powers? Well, then why isn't she stopping wars? Why isn't she fixing traffic in Los Angeles, saying to all those drivers, 'Just a second, I'll soon get you all home.' " They didn't see that and didn't agree with me, so it went to Elizabeth Montgomery.

TM: Do you regret that?

TG: No, but I used to wonder what would have happened if I'd done it. I probably would have done far more television and less theater. So it's all right.

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