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.
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 , 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?