"It was born in me," Phyllis Newman says. "I had to perform. My parents told me that when I was three or four I would go out in the street and sing and bring people in to watch me in my apartment in Jersey City."
Newman, 79, has turned that genetic disposition into a long and distinguished career in theatre, film and television. In 1962 she won the Best Featured Actress Tony Award for the musical Subways Are for Sleeping — wearing only a bath towel for almost the entire show. She was nominated as Best Featured Actress in a Play in 1987 for Neil Simon's Broadway Bound.
In 1996 she founded the Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative, which is part of the Actors Fund. And in 2009 she was named the first recipient of the Tony Awards' Isabelle Stevenson Award for her humanitarian and philanthropic work.
Newman made her professional debut at age four on "The Major Bowes Amateur Hour," a popular radio show. She played Atlantic City, clubs and vaudeville, imitating Carmen Miranda. At nine she appeared in the musical You'll See Stars on Broadway at Maxine Elliott's Theatre. "There's never been a time I haven't been in some way doing almost anything onstage, in a club, on film or TV," she says. In 1952 Newman was in Ohio in her first year of college when she came to New York "to visit a beau. I saw there was an audition for a Broadway musical called Wish You Were Here," produced by Leland Hayward and Joshua Logan, who three years earlier had done South Pacific. "I auditioned, and they hired me. I wound up understudying the lead. I left school, and never stopped working."
Four years later, she was the standby for Judy Holliday in Bells Are Ringing. "It was where I met Adolph Green," the musical's lyricist and librettist. She and Green, the legendary theatre and film writer and lyricist ("Singin' in the Rain," "The Band Wagon," On the Town, Wonderful Town) were married for 42 years, until his death in 2002.
|courtesy of the Green Estate|
For Subways Are for Sleeping, even though her husband had written the book and lyrics with his longtime collaborator, Betty Comden, Newman "auditioned five times — the wife of the author. The producer, David Merrick, didn't want me. It was humiliating. But that's part of being an actress. I finally got the part."
On Tony night, her prime competition was a young actress from Brooklyn who had made a sensation in the musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale. "I was sitting next to Merrick. He said, 'I voted for Barbra Streisand.' That's how cruel he was. Then they announced my name."
In 1983 Newman came down with breast cancer. (Her memoir, "Just in Time: Notes From My Life," talks of her battle with the disease.) In response to her experiences she founded the Health Care Initiative, which helps women in the entertainment business who have received a serious medical diagnosis deal with the issues that accompany those ailments. In addition to funds, the initiative provides counseling, seminars and support groups. "It fills in the gaps," Newman says. "The initiative has provided millions of dollars to so many women."
The organization raises funds through its Nothing Like a Dame gala and receives grants from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and EIF Revlon Run/Walk for Women.
The future? "I'm a working actress. Just call me and I'm there. If necessary, I'd find a way to crawl. I love to work. There's nothing like being onstage."