Michele Lee has been dazzling audiences on stage and screen for five decades, beginning with her portrayal of Rosemary in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and including her Tony Award-nominated turns in Seesaw and The Tale of The Allergist’s Wife and her starring role as Karen Fairgate Mackenzie on CBS’ long-running Knots’ Landing.
Now, Lee is back on stage through January 31 alongside Debra Monk, Tracie Ellis Ross, Katie Finneran, and Casey Wilson in the Off-Broadway hit Love, Loss, and What I Wore at the Westside Theatre. TheaterMania recently caught up with Lee to discuss the show, fashion memories, and future plans.
THEATERMANIA: You seem to be really enjoying yourself onstage. Are you or is it just good acting?
MICHELE LEE: This show is so amazing for me as an actor, because I look over at these four other women — who are so brilliantly talented — and they are finding new things, new nuances, performance after performance. I am having so much fun working with them. Of course, it may be the fact that we haven’t been together long enough to hate each other.
TM: One of things you have to do as the character of Gingi during the show is teach everyone in the audience how to draw. Are you artistic off-stage?
ML: Can I tell you something? When I directed television or film I would always draw my little storyboards with my stick figures — and I don’t know if it was the artist in me or the woman in me — but I would constantly put clothes on them. I haven’t told Nora and Delia Ephron [who authored the show] about that, but Nora is always telling me how well I draw.
TM: The show is made up in part of other women’s thoughts and memories and stories about their wardrobes. What story would you most want to tell about clothing in your life?
ML: Before I married my first husband, Jim Farentino, I went to this bar-restaurant one night in what I thought was the hottest outfit so I could get him to notice me. It was Jackie Kennedy time, so we had all those wonderful pill hats and I had a mink pill hat. I had a dark brown suede sleeveless dress with a white or cream silk blouse underneath it, and, of course, the high heels — we talk about heels in Love, Loss — that make your legs so high. I thought I was something else — and I was! And it worked.
TM: When you got married to Jim, did you make a big deal about your wedding dress?
ML: It was actually a beautiful white brocade dinner suit. I think the reason I did that and not a full wedding gown to the floor was because we got married quickly — and no, I wasn’t pregnant. I really remember my veil. It had a satin band with two flower petals, one on one side and one on the other, and the day I took the official photograph with Jim they were sticking up so it looked like I’ve got a white Mickey Mouse hat on.
TM: Did you dress differently when you got married for the second time, to Fred Rappaport, in 1987?
ML: Yes, I decided I was doing a “wedding.” And my wedding gown was one of the most gorgeous things you’ve ever seen. It was made by Margi Kent, who has a little shop in Los Angeles, and it had little seed pearls sown one at a time all over it. And because these were the Dynasty days — even though I wasn’t on Dynasty — it didn’t have traditional shoulders, but these two sort of elegant puffs on the top of these long, long sleeves. And it was white, because I was still a virgin. I think you can always be a virgin if you want to.
TM: What else is in your closet that you cherish?
ML: I have a wonderful Peanuts t-shirt and a wonderful Peanuts sweater that Charles Schultz gave me. And I’ve got everything they ever gave us with the words Knots’ Landing on it. The problem is I can’t wear it in public because then I become the shooting target. Oh, there she goes from Knots’ Landing, who is it? Oh, I thought you were Donna Mills. Oh forget it.
TM: Are you sticking around New York after the run of Love, Loss is over?
ML: Yes. Every year, Michael Feinstein does something on a well-known composer for ASCAP, and this year he asked me to do a concert of the music of Frank Loesser with him. So we will be at Carnegie Hall on February 10.
TM: Are you going to sing something from How to Succeed?
ML: I certainly will sing “I Believe in You.” I finally got to sing the whole song when we did the film, when Robert Morse and I are sitting on the stairs, and we actually did it in one shot. If you ever get a chance to see it again, you’ll notice how the camera crept around the two of us. And you cannot see one mistake in the whole shot.
TM: And now they’re talking about bringing the show back. Would you want to be part of that?
ML: Unless I get to play Finch, I don’t want to do it. Otherwise, been there, done it. But I do want to come back to Broadway in a musical soon.