PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Anne Jackson

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Anne Jackson When Eileen Brennan recently withdrew from the upcoming Off-Broadway revival of The Madwoman of Chaillot, the producers called on another actress, one with as much, if not more, background in the classics, as well as someone who's played a fair share of strong, vibrant but delicate leading ladies, and someone who'd actually played the role of Countess Aurelia twice before. They called on Anne Jackson, who has spent the better part of six decades treading the boards — and isn't slowing down anytime soon.
Anne Jackson in The Madwoman of Chaillot.
Anne Jackson in The Madwoman of Chaillot. (Photo by Photo by David Rodgers)

When Eileen Brennan recently withdrew from the upcoming Off-Broadway revival of The Madwoman of Chaillot, the producers called on another actress, one with as much, if not more, background in the classics, as well as someone who's played a fair share of strong, vibrant but delicate leading ladies, and someone who'd actually played the role of Countess Aurelia twice before. They called on Anne Jackson, who has spent the better part of six decades treading the boards — and isn't slowing down anytime soon.

After studying at The Neighborhood Playhouse, Jackson made her stage debut in Eva LeGallienne's production of The Cherry Orchard. In 1946, rehearsing for an Off-Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' This Property is Condemned, she met fellow actor Eli Wallach, who was making his stage debut. They married shortly thereafter and since then, the twosome have appeared in eight Broadway shows together (Major Barbara, Luv, Rhinoceros, Waltz of the Toreadors, The Typist and the Tiger, Twice Around the Park, Cafe Crown and The Flowering Peach), three Off-Broadway plays, three films and innumerable regional, touring and TV shows. Apart, Jackson was nominated for three Tony Awards (Summer and Smoke, Oh, Men, Oh, Women and Middle of the Night), winning an Obie Award for The Typist and the Tiger. Meanwhile, Wallach won a Tony for Williams' The Rose Tattoo and appeared on Broadway in Mr. Roberts, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, Antony and Cleopatra, Teahouse of the August Moon and The Price. 1991 recipients of a Helen Hayes Award, the two recently appeared with their daughter, Roberta Wallach, in Anne Meara's Down the Garden Path at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse and Off-Broadway. Wallach and Jackson were also honored with the T. Schreiber Studio's "Life in the Theatre" Award in 2000.

PLAYBILL ON-LINE: Once again you're the Madwoman of Chaillot. Is third time the charm?
ANNE JACKSON: I've always wanted a third crack at this. I'd seen the play and went crazy for it. I wanted to play the Madwoman and I did, when I was 23. We did scenes at Lee Strasberg; Bea Arthur was one of the madwomen, and Vivian Nathan. I remember I went around knocking on doors because I was afraid to disturb the spirits... Many years later, I saw one of the last things Geraldine Page did at the Nevelson Theatre on Madison Avenue. I loved it, and I said in passing, `If you ever need a replacement, I'm it.' The producer said, `As a matter of fact, Geraldine has to do a film. Would you fill in for four weeks?' It was in about three weeks' time. I'd been on my way to do a cruise, but I said, `I will do it.' I studied it on the cruise and came back and did it — and loved it again. It was easier because I came in and the whole cast was already there and knew what they were doing. They told me where to move. And the show was already a success. And now this last time, the producer had called and wanted to know if Eli was available to play a prospector. He said no and added, `My wife did that play.' When Eileen pulled out of the show for I don't know what reason, they said, `Is Annie available?' I said, `Yes...' It's long ago so I have to re learn it, but it's wonderful, the way it just builds for the actor.

PBOL: Do you find yourself hearing echoes of the previous times you've played the role?
AJ: I come across things and say, `What did I do? What is this? All of a sudden I read a line and say, `Oh, that's why she says in the second act that thing about... It gives you a better sense of the character. I don't know what'll happen when I do it with other actors and relate to them. Of course, I'm older now, the right age for the Madwoman...
Everything happening today in ecology, politically to the world, environmentally — it's all connected to this play. You can't help putting Donald Trump's name in as the prospector, tearing down buildings, ruining the skyline. The Ragpicker says, `They're bringing back the old clothes because they're so much better than what they're doing today.' He's talking about old clothes from the 1920s or 1800s. We're talking about clothes from the 60s and 70s. It's like, wow. I pick up the phone to talk to you, I have to push six buttons just to hear your voice.

PBOL: True, but the explosion in technology in the past century has also allowed actors to try a range of disciplines. You did a lot of theatre, but you probably also got just as much on-the-fly training by doing live TV.
AJ: True, but I was trained in the theater. I was in it from 17-18 years old. My very first play was The Cherry Orchard with Eva Le Gallienne and Joseph Schildkraut. They were in their 50s and 60s, coming from English and European theatre backgrounds. My training was with these people, and the discipline of the theatre was very different. When I first got a film role, I was so out of my element. It seemed choppy. You just went in cold in front of a camera and played an emotional scene at the eond of the film. I certainly didn't know too much about movie acting. My first film was "So Young, So Bad" [1950] with Rita Morena, about young women in detention homes. Paul Henreid played a psychiatrist... When live television came, we would do it as we would do a play. I then began to get acquainted with the camera, but my directors were all Actor's Studio directors — Sidney Lumet, Fred Coe. We would do a play a week. We were able, as the Brits do, to go to Pinewood and do a film and do a play on the West End. American Actors have to fly from coast to coast to do that. Still, nowadays I think television is often darn good, and the acting is darn good. When they first started, they used mostly stage actors. It was like going on a tightrope without a net. There are famous stories about what actors did when they got onstage and things went wrong. PBOL: And I assume you have stories of your own?
AJ: I was doing one with Johnny Newland, who played a doctor who drank some kind of potion that gave him eternal youth. I was his girlfriend. In a scene towards the end of the play, he wants to give the potion to everybody. And then he went up. He crossed his eyes cause the camera wasn't on him. I started laughing and pretended I was crying, covering my face. The camera didn't know where to look, so they raced to the end.
I remember Marty Balsam did one with Eva Marie Saint sitting on a plane. She went up and said, "This is where I get off." He was left sitting there on a plane.
In theatre, I was doing Luv with Eli and Alan Arkin. Larry Blyden, a sweetheart, was going to replace Eli while Eli was doing a film in France, so he was in the audience watching. They used to throw water up on the stage. The water came up, and I was wearing boots with a rather high heel. I was also being friskier than I usually was. The water came up, the canvas came loose and my heel caught. I fell and broke the fall with my hand. It hurt but I had three or four minutes left on stage. I couldn't leave the stage. I played through the thing. At curtain, I stand in the middle between Alan and Eli. Alan squeezed my hand that I fell on. I went right down with the curtain. They sent a doctor back, and I was out of the play for two weeks. They gave me a sling. And Renee Taylor replaced me in it; she was very good in it.
Another story: we had a dog in Luv. The dog had given hundreds of performances and never missed a beat. An adorable little terrier dog. He'd put his leg up against the bench where Alan is sitting and supposedly pee on his leg. Alan tells about that in the beginning of the play. At the end, the dog is supposed to start chasing Alan. One night the little dog comes out. He suddenly sees the audience and runs offstage and we couldn't get the little dog to come back to do the curtain. We just brought the curtain down.
And then there was Rhinoceros, with Eli and Zero Mostel. You remember the blackout where nothing went on? No lights on Broadway? All the actors walked home in the twilight — except in my theater doing Rhinoceros. We had a special machine, so we could go on. I drank ice water before going up onstage. I had accidents. And then not a sound would come out of my vocal chords. I was using a higher voice than I use normally for my characters and my cords just went. It was awful.
But really the funny incidents would mostly happen in summer stock: `Excuse me, I'm going out to find the murderer,' I had a couple of those with John Carradine, where we just stared at each other.

PBOL: Not exactly a career highlight! Any other high and low points you'd like to share from your vast credits?
AJ: Well, the lowest was doing a play on the Rosenbergs. It was so painful. It was like a documentary. After I got into it, I really hated doing it. It was theatre realitee; newspaper agit-prop. Not one I was pleased doing.
For highlights, I most definitely loved playing Chekhov. I adored that! I opened in that as a young actress. I'm very dramatic anyway — otherwise I wouldn't be an actress. Others include doing Major Barbara with Charles Laughton and Burgess Meredith. I'd replaced Glynis Johns, who didn't get along with Mr. Laughton and left to go to Hollywood. That was fun because I wasn't very good in it. (I'm better when it's not an intellectual play.) And Burgess was wonderful to work with. When I finally got it after playing it for three-to-four weeks, then it just sang. I don't know if the audience was as happy with me as I was with myself.
Working with my daughters, Roberta and Katherine, has also been a highlight. Eli and I did Anne Meara's play, Down the Garden Paths with Roberta, and we did The Diary of Anne Frank with her, which was a very moving experience. My other daughter, Katherine Wallach, did Awake and Sing with me at the Actor's Studio, which was another highlight of my career. It was a play I'd never seen but had read but wasn't interested in doing it as a young actress. Then they were doing a series on Odets and I thought, `Oh, that would be wonderful for me and Katherine to do?' It was a very, very high experience. Catherine's in the latest Scorsese film, shot in Rome. She lives in Tuscany part time.

PBOL: Did you and your husband give any career advice to the kids growing up?
AJ: I always feel so guilty in not giving them more advice and being more helpful to them. But we just didn't believe in that. They were gonna have to do it on their own. [Laughs] I would have advised them to take another career. It's too hard. Stage acting is almost like making sandcastles. The ocean comes up, sweeps you away. There are no records for it When you see a performance you've given that's photographed or televised, it's just never the same. There's no substitute for live theatre, no experience like a full house and a play that you love.

— By David Lefkowitz