Remembering Jill Clayburgh

Special Features   Remembering Jill Clayburgh
 
Broadway stage manager Roy Harris shares memories about his friendship with late stage and screen actress Jill Clayburgh.

Jill Clayburgh in The Clean House
Jill Clayburgh in The Clean House Photo by Joan Marcus

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I met Jill Clayburgh in mid-August 2006, at the first rehearsal for Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House, which I was stage managing for a run in the Mitzi Newhouse at Lincoln Center Theater. She was playing Blair Brown's younger sister, Virginia, the woman who was fanatical about cleanliness (a role for which she got a Drama Desk nomination for best featured actress the following spring). I became a fan of hers in the mid-'70s through a number of films and several Broadway stage appearances. But I fell in love with her in 1978 when I saw her breathtaking performance as Erica in the film "An Unmarried Woman."

This is a role, which became one of the iconic female characters of that decade because of Jill's heartfelt, hilarious, moving portrait of a woman truly trying to find out who she is. When I saw it for the first time, she made me laugh uproariously, cry many tears, and wonder just what is the role of women in our world? That performance encouraged me to be a less chauvinistic man.

I could mention here so many other roles she played in the last 30 years because they were always real, greatly thought-through, and effortlessly spontaneous (seemingly).

We became friends, and long after The Clean House closed, we stayed in touch, emailing each other several times a month about many things, but especially details about our families — how her daughter Lily Rabe was performing Portia in Daniel Sullivan's production of The Merchant of Venice in Central Park this past summer (and now on Broadway), and news of my two new granddaughters, Addison Harris and Amelia Grace Glocker.

Clayburgh and daughter Lily Rabe in April 2010
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

A couple of years ago, we began going to the theatre together. I don't remember exactly how this started. But Jill would email asking if I'd seen a certain show. If I hadn't I would work on getting us tickets, and she would treat for dinner afterwards. Last fall (2009) we saw Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking and afterwards we went to Five Napkin Burger and began our tradition of burger-martini nights. Last April, we saw a press performance of Red and afterwards went to Marseilles, on Ninth Avenue, and had what I believe may be the best cheeseburger in the city, accompanied of course by a vodka martini (Ketel One, three olives, very dry, straight up). I will cherish those dinners because we got a chance to talk about our own lives. Jill listened in a way different from many people. I told her about a steep depression I'd fallen into some time ago, and afterwards she said, "I'm honored you wanted to talk with me about this." She may have felt honored, but I knew I could trust her discretion.

Twice in the last couple of years, Jill took part in my graduate stage management classes at Columbia. She talked about how she worked on a role, what it means to build a career as an actress, and answered many questions about what actors are looking for from stage managers. She was, as always, articulate, funny, self-deprecating, and thoroughly irresistible.

But what I remember most about Jill Clayburgh is her uncanny ability to get people to contribute money to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. In the fall of 2006, while we were performing The Clean House, the company took part in the fundraising drive for Gypsy of the Year. Each night after the show, someone in the cast — sometimes Blair Brown, sometimes John Dossett, sometimes Jill, sometimes all three — would make a post-show pitch to raise money for this estimable organization. We sold autographed Playbills, autographed window cards, and copies of the script signed by playwright Sarah Ruhl. Members of the cast would hold buckets after the show in the lobby of the Newhouse. No one did this more efficiently than Jill. She would say to a person leaving, "Would you like to contribute to Broadway Cares?" Most often the person would drop money in the bucket. But when they didn't, she would say something like, "Oh, you're not going to feel very good when you get home if you don't make a contribution. Your money will have someone suffer less, feel better, and hopefully recover completely." Without fail she got a contribution.

"Maybe the reason she was so good at this," André Bishop recently said to me, "was that she had been enduring her own health crisis for over 20 years." When I think of Jill standing in the lobby of the Newhouse with a Broadway Cares red bucket in her hand, a smile comes on my face, and my heart very happily skips a beat or two. Dear Jill, I will miss you always. You were truly one of a kind.

Vanessa Aspillaga, Blair Brown, Sarah Ruhl and Jill Clayburgh at opening night for <i>The Clean House</i>
Vanessa Aspillaga, Blair Brown, Sarah Ruhl and Jill Clayburgh at opening night for The Clean House Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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