STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with Peter Weller (Frank's Home) and Lois Smith ("ER")

STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with Peter Weller (Frank's Home) and Lois Smith ("ER") This month we talk to Peter Weller, currently starring as Frank Lloyd Wright in Richard Nelson's Frank's Home at Playwright's Horizons, and Lois Smith, who just completed four episodes as a guest star on this season's "ER."
Peter Weller stars as Frank Lloyd Wright in Frank's Home.
Peter Weller stars as Frank Lloyd Wright in Frank's Home. Photo by Michael Brosilow

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Peter Weller may be best known as "RoboCop," the cyborg crime fighter that he portrayed in the 1987 film and its 1990 sequel, but the actor also could qualify as a Renaissance man. He directs (his 1993 short, "Partners," was Oscar-nominated), plays trumpet, is a professor ad hoc at Syracuse University in Florence, studies French poetry, and moderates the History Channel's "Engineering Empires." Says Weller, "I try to do it all."

How did Frank's Home come about? "They sent me the play in Italy [where he spends part of each year]. It sort of fit in with my métier, which is modern architecture — a pretentious hobby. I thought: 'This is marvelous, but I don't know if I want to go broke in the theatre.' But my wife had never seen me on the stage," and so her Mr. Right is playing the architect.

Was he aware that he'd be performing on a raked stage? "No. It's not easy at first, but you get used to it." Of course, he knew that the role contained several monologues. "They're entertaining as hell for me, 'cause I'm long-winded anyway." His research for the part of Wright (1867-1959) included reading "four or five books; spending days in his homes in L.A. and Chicago; and meeting with his grandson, Eric Lloyd Wright. I had entrée to all of his major works."

Did Weller ever meet Wright's granddaughter, Oscar winner Anne Baxter (1923-85), who played the title role in "All About Eve"? "No, but when I started on the stage in Sticks and Bones, she had replaced Lauren Bacall [as Margo Channing] in Applause," the musical based on "Eve." Born in Stevens Point, WI, Weller is the younger of two sons of an Army helicopter pilot and a pianist. Notes Weller, "Stevens Point is close to where Frank Lloyd Wright was born [Richland Center, WI]."

At ten, Weller was on the stage, "thanks to Robert Jani, who was in the Army with my father. [Jani] was in Special Services and wrote some musicals with my mother. He worked for Walt Disney and for Radio City Music Hall, but he also revamped the Rose Bowl Parade, started the Super Bowl's half-time entertainment, and coordinated Ronald Reagan's campaign for governor. He was a modern P.T. Barnum." An acting career became "the natural thing to do." However, like many who start young in show business, Weller would not want a child of his to begin a career so early.

Soon after his arrival in New York, Weller got a role in David Rabe's Sticks and Bones, and later appeared in the playwright's Streamers. "What a great writer. David Rabe was like a brother to me, although I haven't seen him in ten years."

Also among Weller's credits are two Tennessee Williams works: as Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire (at the Long Wharf) and as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Hartford Stage), his most recent stage appearance prior to Frank's Home. "And I worked with two great actresses, Shirley Knight [Blanche] and Christine Lahti [Maggie]."

On season five of "24," Weller appeared in 18 episodes as Christopher Henderson, a nemesis to Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer. Not having seen the series, I inquire if Henderson was killed. "Yeah, yeah. They all get killed." I suggest that it's similar to "Murder, She Wrote" (1984-96), in which friends of Angela Lansbury's Jessica Fletcher seemed not long for the world. "I met Angela Lansbury at the Theatre Hall of Fame [2007 ceremony ]. She's great! She presented to George Hearn, and I presented to Patti LuPone, whom I've known for years and years."

Is his most popular role, to date, Alex J. Murphy, who becomes "RoboCop"? "Without a doubt. I loved doing it. I'm happy I did [the two movies], and I'm happy I left." The filming of "Naked Lunch" conflicted with the making of "RoboCop 3."

Which roles have given Weller the most satisfaction? "Frank's Home gives me tremendous satisfaction. The movies ‘New Age' [1994], ‘Contaminated Man' and ‘Shadow Hours' [both 2000] gave me a lot of satisfaction. Directing gives me more satisfaction than anything else." Besides the short "Partners," Weller has directed episodic TV and "Tangled Up in Blue," which is scheduled for a fall release.

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Lois Smith, who just finished her fourth appearance as Gracie on "ER," enjoyed her role, especially her entrance and exit. "In the first one, I got thrown out of my nursing home for growing pot, and in the last episode [for now], I was being released from the hospital — again wearing my bright jacket, my Ugg boots and my tights: my darling costume from the first episode — and I say, 'I'm not going home, I'm going on a cruise.' And there’s Timmy [Glenn Plummer], who works at the desk [of the ER], with a limousine. I say, 'Only old people go on a cruise alone.' It was a really nice exit."

Continues Smith, "I was asked to do three, and they shortly asked me to do a fourth. Since I was going out [to L.A.], I also did a 'Grey's Anatomy' guest shot. They weren’t willing to bring me out and put me up, as 'ER' was able to do. Because of the holiday schedule, I just kept going back and forth, which was great for me. I didn’t have to stay in one chunk. I came back [to New York] for Thanksgiving, for about two weeks, and came back for Christmas for about three weeks. All together, it lasted about three months."

Last season, Smith's luminous performance in the revival of Horton Foote's A Trip to Bountiful earned her sterling reviews and several honors. She received the Best Actress Award from the Outer Critics Circle, the Drama Desk, the Lucille Lortel, the Obie and the Dramatists Guild Fund’s Madge Evans and Sidney Kingsley Award. ("That one has money involved.") Had the play transferred to a Broadway house, none of which was available, Smith would probably have added a Tony to the list.

Her first film was Elia Kazan's "East of Eden" (1955), the first starring role for James Dean (who had done small roles in three previous movies). "It was very exciting. It’s a film I still admire and treasure. It's an awfully nice film.

“In 2005, for the fiftieth anniversary, they did an 'American Masters' on James Dean. It dealt with the three films [including 'Rebel Without a Cause' and 'Giant'] he made that year. I was in that, and there were some clips of Jimmy and me — and not only from our scene.

"In recent years, I’ve been asked to be on panels when it’s been shown. It's hard to find a good print, but they restored a print of it. I’ve also been invited to tributes for Julie Harris [Dean’s leading lady]." Looking back, the gifted actress has some roles which have given her satisfaction. "Some things that stand out are not always the most prominent. There's a play I did at Hartford Stage — The Stick Wife — and there was Lyuba Ranevsky in The Cherry Orchard at Baltimore Center Stage. Surely Ma Joad [her Tony-nominated role] in Grapes of Wrath, directed by darling Frank Galati. It was my first time with Steppenwolf and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We had three different rehearsal periods, each one building on the one before. We traveled with it, and did it in London. It was a very special piece."

She has three films "in the can": the independent "Turn the River," "Killshot" and "A Dog Year." Comments Smith, "On a Monday, I worked [in rehearsals] with Meghan Andrews, who played the girl on the bus in Bountiful. When she was 11, she had played Ruthie in Grapes of Wrath. Now, she was a beautiful, very accomplished actress. The next day, I worked [in 'Killshot'] with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with whom I'd done a film, 'Holy Matrimony,' when he was 12. Those two things really warmed my heart. Much as there is a lack of continuation in the way we do theatre, still there is this community that exists. It was so generational and so warm and lovely. That was a real treat that happened to me last year."

Smith does a lot of play readings. "It's become a kind of industry of its own. It's a way for writers to be heard without theatres actually doing their plays. Some of them may get productions, and there’s talk of doing A Trip to Bountiful in Chicago." Brava, Lois Smith!

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Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com.

Lois Smith appears on "E.R."
Lois Smith appears on "E.R." Photo by NBC/Universal and Aubrey Reuben