STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with Jekyll & Hyde's Hasselhoff and Wildhorn and Betsy Palmer

STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with Jekyll & Hyde's Hasselhoff and Wildhorn and Betsy Palmer This month's column features David Hasselhoff and composer Frank Wildhorn and TV and stage actress Betsy Palmer.
Betsy Palmer.
Betsy Palmer.

This month's column features David Hasselhoff and composer Frank Wildhorn and TV and stage actress Betsy Palmer.

David Hasselhoff, who made his Broadway debut in the Frank Wildhorn/Leslie Bricusse musical, Jekyll & Hyde, played the dual role for the last three months of the run. A performance taped for Pay-per-view (that since has been released on DVD) comes to cable TV, airing Dec. 7 (9 PM/ET) on HBO Signature and Dec. 28 (4:45 PM/ET) on HBO plain.

"Overall, I was very pleased [with the result]," says Hasselhoff. "I had an amazing supporting cast. When you're surrounded by a great team, it makes it very fulfilling. Certainly, there are things I'd like to do over, but considering we didn't do any overdubbing, I think it came off pretty good.

"They taped several performances, in case something went wrong, but we opted to not piece it together. We wanted it to be as if you were seeing the show live. If you can't go to Broadway, this is as close as you can get. I put my heart and soul into the Tuesday performance [the week of taping]. They told me [after the curtain], 'That was only a rehearsal.' I said, 'What? By Saturday night, I'm going to be singing like Rod Stewart.' I tried to pace myself. Usually, by the end of the week, your chops are a little tired, but we went with the Saturday night performance."

Hasselhoff was offered Broadway roles in The Scarlet Pimpernel, as well as the most recent revivals of Grease! and Annie Get Your Gun. Commitments to his "Baywatch" TV series prevented him from accepting the first two. "Annie Get Your Gun and Jekyll & Hyde were offered at the same time. Growing up, I did a lot of shows in my friend's basement in Atlanta, and one of them was Annie Get Your Gun. So I knew it. When I saw Jekyll & Hyde on Broadway, I decided to go for the one you could sink your teeth into." (Might Hasselhoff be eyeing Frank Wildhorn's new musical, Dracula?) After a few preview performances, Hasselhoff "got together with Frank Wildhorn, and found him to be very supportive, very gracious, very giving. He gave me his feedback and notes and some very good hints. I also studied extensively with my vocal coach, Trish McCaffrey, who taught me a lot of technique that I'd forgotten over the years of just doing pop music occasionally and recording. It's a big difference when you have to do 14 songs a night."

For Hasselhoff, the part of Hyde "was easy—compared to trying to find who Jekyll was. Anyone who's done the role can tell you it's insane. It involves a lot of running through corridors and under the stage, and a lot of hair [referring to the characters' wigs]. The first week, I kept turning to the stage manager's assistant, who was running with me, and asking: 'Am I Jekyll? Am I Hyde? Who am I?' He'd tell me, and I'd be thrust on the stage. Once I was onstage, I was okay.

"My [younger] daughter, Hayley, really enjoys theatre. I think she'll follow in my footsteps; it's what she wants to do. She came to the show quite often. In the 'Confrontation' number, when you sing the two characters at once, I'd be looking around the theatre for my daughter, 'cause I'm still a dad. So, I really had three characters going at once." When J&H closed in January 2001, the actor "was just beginning to make the show my own. But they stuck to the decision to close; they had run their course."

Admits Hasselhoff, "I still sing the songs in the shower. My daughters yell, 'Dad, the show's over!' I actually purchased all the wardrobe. So far, I've only worn it on Halloween. [Laughs] I've had offers to do [the musical] in Australia, and I'm entertaining ideas of bringing it to London, where it's never played."

Prior to the West End, however, the congenial actor may find himself a "Wandrin' Star." He notes, "I have been offered Paint Your Wagon, which is going to be on the road for about six months, and then going to Broadway. I'm still trying to work out the logistics. The [Lerner & Loewe] score is a beauty; I think it's a winner."

The only son in a family of five, Hasselhoff was born in Baltimore. He decided on an acting career at age seven, after seeing a production of Rumpelstiltskin, and first found fame as the frequently bare-chested doctor, Snapper Foster (1975-82), on the CBS-TV soap opera, "The Young and the Restless."

Prime-time success followed in "Knight Rider" (NBC-TV, 1982-86), playing renegade cop Michael Knight, who used a verbose vehicle (voice of William Daniels) to chase criminals. Hasselhoff then starred as L.A. lifeguard Mitch Buchannon in "Baywatch," which started on NBC in 1989, and was canceled after a season. However, it found a new life in first-run syndication, where it became a huge success. "We believed in it, and took on several jobs. The best part was owning the show and not having a studio telling you what to do.

"On network [TV], it had been sort of a murder-of-the-week. I said, 'Nobody's going to want to come to Malibu, because everyone gets killed.' [Laughs] We changed it to light entertainment with a message. It was about saving lives, not losing them—and had heart, humor, and action [not to mention beauties in bikinis]. We lasted 11 years." A 1994 People magazine article stated that the series was then "the most-watched show on the planet Earth...viewed by a billion people in 140 countries." A 1995 spinoff series, "Baywatch Nights," had Hasselhoff's character trade his trunks for private-eye attire. "It lasted 44 episodes. I think the world got a little over-Baywatched."

Presently in Calgary, Hasselhoff's shooting "a new comedy, 'Don't Call Me Tonto.' I play a retired rodeo cowboy, who gets involved in a 'Smokey and the Bandit'-type chase." His wife, actress Pamela Bach, and their daughters, Taylor, 12, and Hayley, 10, are joining him "for Thanksgiving and some skiing. There are little parts [in the picture] that my girls can play. They've both worked on 'Baywatch.'" Also upcoming are "a two-hour movie for Fox, 'Baywatch Reunion,' which will be on in February, and a major motion picture, in which I'll reprise the role of Michael Knight."

His "Knight Rider" role is the one that's given him the most satisfaction. "Not a day goes by when someone doesn't yell, 'Yo, Knight Rider!'" But David Hasselhoff says, "My biggest challenge was playing Jekyll & Hyde. I think there will be a time when I'll be able to do it again."

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Frank Wildhorn describes Jekyll & Hyde as "'the little engine that could.' Right now, there are 16 productions around the world. I just returned from Europe, where I attended second anniversaries in Vienna—it's in a theatre where Mozart opened shows—and Spain. I love hearing [the score] in Spanish; it sounds so sexy!"

Adds the composer, "At the moment, Leslie Bricusse and I are in pretty serious talks with a studio about a movie version. Jekyll & Hyde is so special, because it was my very first theatre experience. It was also the first for Linda—my wife, Linda Eder—and my music team. We were kids; we didn't know what we were doing. It all started in 1990, at the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas, under the auspices of [Alley's artistic director] Gregory Boyd, who directed it and helped us put it together. Now, it's 2002, and millions have embraced it."

How does Wildhorn like the DVD/cable version? "Honestly, I thought they did a terrific job. It was beautifully directed [by Don Roy King], and David Hasselhoff was wonderful! The whole thing was cool. But at the same time, I can't lie. I had very mixed emotions. I so much wanted Linda and the original cast to be able to do it. Do I want to hear anyone other than Linda [sing Lucy's songs]? How can I and Leslie Bricusse not feel sad that the people who made it a hit were not involved?" (Actually, seven members of the original Broadway company appear in the DVD.)

Next up for Wildhorn is Camille Claudel. "It's Linda's new project. We just finished a very successful workshop, and Clear Channel [Entertainment] will take us to Broadway. Then, end of summer/beginning of fall next year, we start the national tour of Dracula. Please God," notes Frank Wildhorn, "it will be as successful as—and follow in the footsteps of—Jekyll & Hyde."

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After returning to the Big Apple for the 50th anniversary (Jan. 14, 2002) of the "Today Show," on which, from 1958 to '59, she was a "Today Show Girl" (as female co-hosts were then called), Betsy Palmer decided to move back to New York, where she enjoyed a prosperous TV and Broadway career.

Chatting in her Upper West Side digs, the affable actress observes, "For a little girl from East Chicago, Indiana, my life has been touched by a lot of interesting people." On the first of November, Palmer turned 76, though source books have her three years younger. "When I made my screen test," she explains, "the man in charge changed the year of my birth to 1929." Part of her summer was spent starring in a production of The Foreigner in the Berkshires, and she would like to do more stage work.

During television's Golden Age, Palmer acted in numerous live dramas, including the Paddy Chayefsky classic, "Marty" ("Philco Playhouse," 5/24/53). She recalls, "Rod Steiger [as the lonely Bronx butcher] kept wanting to cry, and [director] Del Mann would say, 'Let the audience cry for you.'" With James Dean, whom Palmer dated "for about nine months," she appeared in "Sentence of Death" ("Studio One," 8/17/53), and she played the prostitute, opposite Jackie Gleason, in William Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life" ("Playhouse 90," 10/9/58). "I adored Gleason. Some people expected Jackie was going to be difficult, but he wasn't." Palmer preferred live TV: "When tape came in, they'd re-do and re-do scenes—until all the freshness was gone."

There were also countless game-show appearances, including "Masquerade Party" and her ten years (1957-67) on "I've Got a Secret." Says Palmer, "That created a double-edged sword." While the exposure made her a popular summer-stock attraction ("They wanted to see me in the flesh"), the identification cost her at least one Broadway role. "Frederick Knott wrote Wait Until Dark for me, but Fred Coe [who produced the 1966 thriller] said, 'No, she plays games on television.' They went with Lee Remick. I did get to do it later [on tour] for a whole summer."

Once a student of Sanford Meisner's (in a class with Grace Kelly), the dedicated actress recalls the teacher's advice: "'Look and see, listen and hear. That's what one does, if one is going to be in the moment.' Theatre is life in the moment—everything's alive and on fire."

Among her Broadway credits are a few short-lived comedies (such as Roar Like a Dove), a couple of lengthy runs as a replacement (Cactus Flower; Same Time, Next Year) and the role of Alma Winemiller in Tennessee Williams' Eccentricities of a Nightingale. "Blythe Danner had done it on TV [in 1976]. It's Tennessee's reworking of Summer and Smoke, which had made a star of Geraldine Page, who, incidentally, directed me in my first one-act [play] at school." Palmer did a production of Eccentricities in New Hampshire, and the director invited Williams. "He brought Tennessee to my cottage. We had a glass of wine and smoked a joint. [Laughs] We had a wonderful time getting to know each other. Later, Tennessee told the director, 'I like this girl so much. What am I going to say if she can't cut it?' The next night in my dressing room, there were two-dozen roses [from the playwright].

"After the performance, Tennessee was the first one backstage. He put his arms around my shoulders and whispered in my ear: 'Baby, you busted my balls!' That's when he decided to mount the play for Broadway. We opened [in Nov. '76], and the critics took him to task for reworking an old piece. It broke Tennessee's heart."

She associates certain career events with two of the first movies that Palmer and her brother, Jack, were taken to see: "Treasure Island," with Jackie Cooper, and "The Good Earth," starring Luise Rainer and Paul Muni. "My first TV job was 'Hollywood Screen Test.' They teamed an unknown with a known [actor]. I played opposite Jackie Cooper. My first summer-stock play, Biography, starred Luise Rainer, and my first pre-Broadway tryout was as a Cockney barmaid in Home at Seven, starring Paul Muni."

In "Actor," his biography of Muni, Jerome Lawrence writes of Home at Seven, which closed in Syracuse, New York: "The supporting cast was good. Muni was particularly enchanted with a new young actress, the beautiful, bubbling Betsy Palmer, who was later to play in the film 'The Last Angry Man' with Muni."

"The Last Angry Man" (1959) is what she considers her most recent feature, dismissing "Friday the 13th" (1980), even though her role as the murderous Mrs. Voorhees in the low-budget horror epic nets Palmer "fan mail from all over the world." She claims, "There are two generations who wouldn't know my name if it weren't for that movie."

A need for a new automobile coincided with the offer to play her girl "Friday". The vehicle cost just under $10,000, and the part paid $1,000-a-day for 10 days' work. "I thought: Nobody's going to see this trash, and I'll have my car. Well, you know what happened." The movie made a fortune and spawned several sequels, some of which include stock footage of Palmer. "One used a mock-up of my head." She gets $15 a year in residuals, and jokes, "It probably costs them more to send me the check." Asked to do the latest chapter, shooting in Vancouver, she replied, "'I'll do it for a piece of the action.' [Laughs] Instead, they offered me $20,000. I declined."

Her gallery of musical portraits include Lorelei Lee, Anna Leonowens, Peter Pan ("Sandy Duncan was my Wendy") and Liza Elliott (Lady in the Dark). I tell Palmer that I fondly recall her Nellie Forbush, opposite Ray Middleton, in a 1965 New York City Center production of South Pacific, and at a Gala Tribute to Josh Logan at the Imperial (5/2/75), where she and Ray Walston performed "Honeybun." She also toured as the "Cockeyed Optimist," with Jean-Pierre Aumont as Emile de Becque. Among other musical roles: Vera Charles—"I was more right for Mame"—and Aunt Alicia in Gigi: "We toured almost a year, with Louis Jourdan in the [Maurice] Chevalier role."

Half-Czech in heritage ("My father was born in Prague; my mother was adopted and never knew her nationality"), Palmer was born Patricia Betsy Hrunek (RUE-nek). Following high school, she worked as a stenographer and took night classes at Indiana University. An aptitude test determined that she was artistic and should do something that involved people. Combining those results with the memory of teachers encouraging her to participate in school plays led Palmer to seek an acting career. Her father knew an out-of work actor, who recommended a teacher, but Palmer couldn't afford to take lessons. Upon learning that the instructor also taught nights at Chicago's DePaul University, she enrolled. "That's where I learned the Stanislavsky Method," she says. "I still work from inside to out."

The surname Palmer was chosen from a telephone book, and when Actors Equity already listed a Patricia Palmer (the first Mrs. Jerry Lewis), Betsy dropped her first name. She remembers "doing winter stock for six months in 1949. There were 11 of us, including Paul Newman. Back then, we called him P.L." Work as the resident ingenue with an acting company preceded her arrival in New York.

In 1955, she debuted on Broadway (The Grand Prize) and in movies. Delbert Mann wanted Palmer to reprise her role as the wife of the butcher's cousin in the film version of "Marty," but she was under contract to Columbia and studio head Harry Cohn scoffed, "Who ever heard of Paddy Chayefsky?" ("Marty" won the Oscar for Best Picture.)

John Ford, whom she "loved," directed her first two movies. In "The Long Gray Line," Palmer played the wife and mother of West Point cadets. She has fond memories of the film's co-stars: Tyrone Power ("so sweet and kind") and Maureen O'Hara ("a wonderful woman"). While making "Mister Roberts," she began to think that her characterization of the Navy nurse whom Jack Lemmon's Ensign Pulver seeks to seduce "was going to come across as lesbian, because Ford was making me so butch. He said, 'Palmer, just shut up and do it the way I'm telling you to.'" Her third '55 release, "Queen Bee," cast her as the sister-in-law of Joan Crawford. "She and I stayed friends till the end of her life. Recently, I was able to say that in a documentary [about the late star]."

Palmer's decade as an "I've Got a Secret" panelist was enjoyable: "It was live but required no preparation. [Producers] Goodson and Todman knew how to cast their game shows. Bill Cullen was 'Joe College'; Jayne Meadows was a glamour girl; Bess Myerson, who replaced Jayne, had been a Miss America; Henry Morgan was acid; and I was sweet." (Incidentally, Big Apple insomniacs who subscribe to Time Warner's Digital TV may watch Palmer on "I've Got a Secret," mornings at 5:20, on the Game Show Channel: 117.)

Of her year on the "Today Show," Palmer recalls, "You had to be at work at 5:30 in the morning. Everything was live in those [pre-tape] days. I loved working with Dave Garroway. The chimpanzee [the show's mascot] adored me, but hated Garroway—and Garroway hated him. David taught me how to interview people. There was a script, but David said, 'Listen to what the person is saying. If it's interesting, go with what's happening.' He was a remarkable man! Barbara Walters was working in the office; she probably had her eye on my job [which Walters eventually took over]. It was a full-time job, and I wanted to be an actress. Since I couldn't split myself, I chose to leave."

Asked her favorite stage role, Palmer usually responds, "The one I'm doing [at the time]—not all of them, but most. I loved Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Alma was very special. I enjoyed Cactus Flower very much, and I loved Same Time, Next Year.

"I did [Same Time] first with Don Murray, a short while with Monte Markham, and then with Charles Kimbrough, who became known from TV's 'Murphy Brown.' I loved working with him; we seemed to breathe together onstage."

Long divorced, following a 20-year marriage, she has an artist-daughter, Melissa, who lives in Arizona. Among the media, concludes the charming Betsy Palmer, "My preference has always been the legitimate stage. I love it! That's why I'm back in New York!"

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STAR GAZING: Linda Lavin, currently starring on Broadway in Hollywood Arms, plays a strong-willed mother in the Dec. 1 "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."

END QUIZ: Which of the following Tony Award winners played the Jewish mother in Paddy Chayefsky's "The Catered Affair" ("Goodyear Playhouse," 5/22/55. For the 1956 film, the mother was changed to Irish, and played by Bette Davis): a) Gertrude Berg; b) Shirley Booth; c) Thelma Ritter? (Answer: Next column, Dec. 22)

The Nov. 24 question was: Carol Burnett starred in two TV versions (1964, 1972) of Once Upon a Mattress. Which pair of actors appeared in both: a) Jane White and Jack Gilford; b) Shani Wallis and Elliott Gould; c) Bernadette Peters and Wally Cox?. The answer is A.

White and Gilford also created the roles of the Queen and King Off-Broadway. When the show transferred to Broadway, White remained, but the King was played by Will Lee. Shani Wallis and Elliott Gould played Lady Larken and the Jester in the 1964 TV-version; Bernadette Peters and Wally Cox had those roles in 1972.

—Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com and The Sondheim Review.