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Rue Confessions

Golden girl Rue McClanahan chats about her new memoir and some of the stars with whom she has worked on stage and screen.

Rue McClanahan first became known to most of us as Vivian Harmon on TV's Maude and later starred as the unashamedly oversexed Blanche Devereux on The Golden Girls, working her way into America's hearts in the company of Bea Arthur, Betty White, and Estelle Getty. She has also appeared in such films as Out to Sea, Starship Troopers, and The Might Be Giants. But, like many other actors who achieved stardom in movies or television, she has had an impressive stage career with which most of her fans may be completely unaware.

She writes about that -- among other things! -- in her new memoir, the provocatively titled My First Five Husbands...And the Ones Who Got Away (Broadway Books). McClanahan's now in the midst of a publicity tour for the book that will include personal appearances everywhere from the gay club Barracuda in Manhattan (April 19) to the Zachary Scott Theatre Center in Austin, Texas (April 29), not to mention lots of stumping on TV. Here's what the lady had to say when I spoke with her recently.


THEATERMANIA: You're really making the rounds for the book. I'm sure you'll get a great reception at Barracuda. Have you ever appeared at a gay club before?

RUE McCLANAHAN: Yeah, but not in New York!

TM: Are you happy with the book?

RM: I am. You have to deal with editors and publishers about things you can or can't say, pictures you can or can't include. There are a few tiny mistakes in it. But, when all is said and done, I'm proud of it. Once you start reading it, you won't be able to put it down. Trust me!

TM: How long have you had it in mind to write a memoir?

RM: Oh, about 15 or 20 years. The title came to me first thing: My First Five Husbands...And the Ones That Got Away. Then I thought, "All I have to do now is write a book that can live up to that title."

TM: Of the men that got away, whom do you think of most often?

RM: I was really in love with John Patrick Hayes. He was a film director; we went together for four years when I was in my 20s. By the time he proposed marriage to me, I had already accepted a proposal from someone else. It was just a mess.

TM: Do you keep in touch with the other women from The Golden Girls?

RM: Actually, Betty and I keep in touch. Betty reaches out; she's not so private as Bea. Betty's coming to the book signing in L.A. Estelle would come if she had the wherewithal, but I'm afraid she doesn't. It's terrible.

TM: I understand that, for years, there has been a major rift between Bea and Betty. Do you write about that in the book?

RM: No. I think it kind of falls into the realm of mean gossip. Bea is open about it privately, but I don't know that she's open about it in print. Nobody understood the reasons for it, least of all Betty.

Rue McClanahan with Dustin Hoffman in 1969
TM: Your book has some great stories about and pictures of people you've worked with. Your first Broadway show was Jimmy Shine, with Dustin Hoffman.

RM: That was a hit because he was already a big star. He had just done The Graduate.

TM: You were an understudy in a Broadway play called Father's Day. It ran one performance.

RM: Yes, but Marian Seldes was nominated for a Tony. She was wonderful in it. Brenda Vaccaro played the other role. I understudied both of them.

TM: I was fascinated to read that you were a replacement in David Rabe's Sticks and Bones.

RM: Do you like that play? It was very hard to understand, because it's so symbolic. And it was boring for me because, mostly, what I did was carry plates of cookies in from the kitchen about 28 times. I did get to assist my son's suicide. Or was it a suicide? Is he going to live? It was never clear.

TM: You were also a replacement in California Suite. Was that fun?

RM: It would have been fun if I had been in it from the beginning and had rehearsed with everybody, but to come in and learn it all in a week was pretty hair-raising. I was only in it for a week while Tammy Grimes went off on vacation. That's something I'll never do again; but I will replace someone, as I did in Wicked. I got to rehearse for four weeks with Ben Vereen.

TM: Wicked is a phenomenon. What was it like to play Madame Morrible?

RM: It was absolutely the most exhausting job I've ever had. Oh, my God, those costumes! They weighed at least 30 pounds. I had so many changes, so many different wigs and make-ups. Then there was the raked stage, which is hard to get around on. It's hard on your legs, hard on your knees, hard on your feet. Most of the dancers were at orthopedists all the time.

TM: You've been in six Broadway shows, but you also did a lot of work Off-Broadway and around the country. Tell me about MacBird.

RM: It's Macbeth, but it's about the Johnsons [Lyndon and Lady Bird], and it's set right after the Kennedy assassination. Stacey Keach was absolutely smashing as MacBird. Bill Devane played the Bobby Kennedy character. And Cleavon Little was one of the three witches!

TM: You were in something called Crystal and Fox, with Brad Davis.

RM: That didn't run very long, but it was a joy. Will Hare was Fox, I was Crystal, and Brad played our son. We were itinerant gypsies in the Irish countryside, and he was hiding from the British in our wagon.

TM: I don't think I've ever heard you sing, but you've done several musicals.

RM: I sing about the same way I talk. I'm a bass.

TM: You were in an Off-Broadway musical version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

RM: When I did that show, I could dance and I could act, but I hadn't learned to sing yet. I hadn't had any voice lessons. My voice doesn't sound awfully good on that old record. But we pulled it off, we got good reviews, and we ran for 11 glorious weeks.

TM: You played Elsa in The Sound of Music.

RM: Yes! I did that and A Funny Thing... at the Hampton Playhouse in New Hampshire. But the show I really loved that I did there was After the Fall, in which I played Maggie, the Marilyn Monroe character.

TM: What have you got coming up? I've read that you're going to be in a new TV show this fall.

RM: Yes, it's called Ryan's Life. It's an hour-long comedy for the HERE channel, about a 15-year-old boy who's questioning his sexuality. I play his grandmother, the only person he can talk to. And I'm writing a musical. It's called Cobra Island and it's set in the '30s on a south sea island way out in the Pacific someplace. My writing partner is Jay Bradley. He did the arrangements for my first musical, Oedipus Shmedipus, As Long as You Love Your Mother. That was a big hit out in California.

TM: You've played several Shakespearean roles. You starred in Lettice and Lovage in Vienna, and you've played Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman. It certainly has been a rich and varied career. I vividly remember the speech you gave when you won your Emmy Award in 1987; you alluded to people who had tried to discourage you from acting and you basically said, "you know who you are."

RM: Right. And I said they would be in the book, long before I started the book. They're in there -- not by name, but I do tell the story!

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