For years now, Ruth Williamson has functioned as one of New York Theatre's most dependable comic character actresses -- which is just the way she wants it. Williamson, who is currently starring in The English Teachers at Off-Broadway's MCC Theatre, grew up emulating such witty second leads as Eve Arden and Thelma Ritter and has gone on to play a variety of Ardenesque role in works such as The Good Times Are Killing Me, Little Me and The Green Heart (one of many projects done with her friend and frequent collaborator, Charles Busch). Williamson talked to Playbill On-Line about life as a eyebrow-cocking, wise-cracking sidekick.
Playbill On-Line: You did a commercial with Woody Allen. What was that?
Ruth Williamson: I've never seen it because it only aired in Italy. It was for an Italian food chain. [Allen] doesn't tell you anything. You barely speak. He saw me in The Good Times Are Killing Me Off-Broadway and called me in and said "You're right for the character." I played an Italian countess. How he got that from the woman I played in Good Times, I'll never know. He just sort of looked at me and said "OK, you'll do." I got to the set and it was Illeana Douglas and me and a lot of very dark, Italian-looking people. And all I had to do was eat chicken that had been colored blue and I didn't know why and he doesn't tell you. And the only direction I got from Woody Allen is "Could you feature the chicken more?"
PBOL: Was that one of those commercials that American stars do overseas, but wouldn't do here, in order to make a lot of money?
RW: Yes. They paid him just billions of dollars to make an Italian commercial. It must have been beautiful, because we were all dressed to the nines.
PBOL: What was it that made you get into the theatre?
RW: It was a couple things. I studied dance first, from the time I was three years old. I loved performing. And when I got into my teens I started to think more about acting. I think one of the things that swayed me -- which I have in common with my good friend [playwright and actor] Charles Busch -- is I like old movies and I was very much influenced by the characters actresses of that era of the '30s, '40s and '50s. My favorites were, in this order: Eve Arden, Thelma Ritter and Helen Broderick. They all had such extraordinary senses of humor and were so distinctly different. I thought, these women have intelligence and guts and savvy and I'd like to be them when I grow up. I started to migrate toward those roles in the theatre. I identified with those ladies.
PBOL: You were in the original Annie. Who did you play?
RW: I was first hired as an understudy for Miss Hannigan in the national tour in Boston and I stood by for Ruth Kobart. She actually became a mentor of mine -- another great character actress. Then she got rather sick and was out of the show for several weeks and here was this youngster playing Miss Hannigan. So, all the big guns from New York came up to make sure I wasn't ruining their show. Martin Charnin liked what he saw. First he had me stand by in New York for the Broadway company and then he sent me out on another national tour. I rode the Annie train for about as far as I could. PBOL: At this point in your career, you've accrued a lot of credits. But what was one project you couldn't wait to get off your resume?
RW: Oh, God! This is going to get me in a lot of trouble. I did a show at the North Shore Theatre up near Boston with the dubious title of Kiss Me Quick Before the Lava Reaches the Village. I was playing very much an Eve Arden character, so I thought this is so outrageous, so offbeat, it's got to be good. And it was a huge disaster. I don't think I ever put it on the resume. I knew I was in trouble when I got the theatre and realized that it was in the round and all my character did all night was asides. Now, you tell me, how do you do asides in the round? I was spinning. That was a ridiculous chapter in my career.
PBOL: On to more ridiculous chapters. What was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you?
RW: Oh, God! I don't get to talk about any of my triumphs?! Embarrassing....where to choose. Well, this is something I have great remorse about. I was doing the national tour of Annie and I realized I was faint. Things started to spin and I walked to the wings with the opening vamp to "Little Girls" still going, and got to the stage manager and said "Eddie, I think you may want to bring down the curtain" and passed out cold. I came to and there were paramedics working on me. But the one thing I do remember is all they really wanted to do was get that wig off me and put it on the understudy.
PBOL: Let's be fair. What to you regard as your greatest triumph?
RW: The best piece of theatre I ever did was The Good Times Are Killing Me. I was very proud to be a part of that. It was an extraordinary experience working with that cast and [author] Lynda Barry and [director] Mark Brokaw. But the thing that I've gotten the most attention for was the The Green Heart.
PBOL: Was that a good experience?
RW: Yes and no. It was disappointing. Because I had been in development with it for a couple years and I wanted it to have a much better life than it had. So I was not happy with the way it was mounted and I was not happy with its demise. But it was a great opportunity to do basically everything I do best and it just solidified my friendship with Charles Busch. In Charles' words, he understands my trip. So he knows how to write for me. It's such a luxury when somebody can do that for you.
PBOL: Do you have a dream role?
RW: Well, the one that comes to mind, that I've been aching to do, is Vera Charles [in Mame]. I can't believe I haven't played that. But truthfully, I'm known for musical theatre, but I really like being just an actor best. Even in the musical theatre, I think I'm thought of as more of an actor than a singer, which is exactly the way I want it.
--By Robert Simonson