There Ain't Nothing Like This Dame

There Ain't Nothing Like This Dame Phyllis Newman's zest for life informs everything she does, including her yeoman efforts on behalf of women's health and well-being.
Phyllis Newman and her late husband Adolph Green.
Phyllis Newman and her late husband Adolph Green.

***

"I want to show you something," Phyllis Newman says, pushing herself out of a comfy corner of the sofa in her posh Central Park West duplex. "Jules Feiffer was over the other night, and he left this." With a dash of fanfare, she whips out of an oversized envelope some artwork — a high-kicking chorine in top-hat, tails and full strut.

"Isn't that sweet? He said, 'That's how you look to me.' I said, 'Okay. I'll accept that.'"

She follows the presentation with that ready laugh of hers — Eveready, you could say, given how long it has kept her going and kept her young. Four decades haven't dimmed Feiffer's Passionella, somehow — it has actually been that long since she stood by for, and eventually replaced, Barbara Harris in the original run of The Apple Tree, but when she laughs, she's that girl Kim Novak and Susan Strasberg went swimming with in Picnic. "Well, I still feel like a teenager. I guess everybody feels that way — inside — as they get older, but my head is still the same. I'm still very optimistic."

But nothing brings a girl back to earth quicker than a birthday. Hers is March 19, and, while she doesn't break out pen and paper to do the math — "I have to figure it out again because I don't keep up" — Phyllis Newman can take heart in the fact she will have outlived Edna May Oliver by 15 years. Her panel-show perkiness is in place. Newman will celebrate her 74th year of life — and her 22nd year of breast cancer survival — by hosting the 12th annual Nothing Like a Dame gala for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, benefiting The Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative of The Actors' Fund of America. These extravaganzas have raised more than $3.5 million that have served 2,500 women in the entertainment industry.

The event is like the Mickey-&-Judy shows once put on in the backlot barns of MGM (here, the "barn" is the Marriott Marquis Theatre) — with one major exception, notes Newman: "These are Judy-&-Judy-&-Judy shows" — an unbroken line of Broadway leading ladies.

She dreamed up this idea herself in 1995, a few years after her own cancer surgeries, when her assistant, an aspiring actress, was advised to get a mammogram and, lacking money or insurance to pay for it, opted to pass. Newman lent her the money and phoned the Actors' Fund to see if the situation could be fixed. It could with more funds, so she looked around and saw friends starring all over town — Carol Burnett, Carol Channing, Lauren Bacall, Glenn Close, Kathleen Turner, Uta Hagen. All said yes, and her show was born.

"I'm not a fund-raiser — that's not my talent," admits Newman. "I'm a fun-raiser. I know about putting together a show, and the more visibility you give something, the more it encourages people to do things with their health. I always wanted to do something, and I thought if I ever did, I'd like to attach my name to it because that gives the illness a name and a face. It means something to people when you can show them you can get through all this. When I had the first breast cancer, that was when Happy Rockefeller and Betty Ford came out and talked about it. I cannot tell you how much that meant to me. I'd get up every day and check the papers and say, 'Well, they're still alive.' It's how many years later now? They're alive, I'm alive — more than alive. We're functioning, well people."

Breast cancer claimed, at age 43, the great Judy Holliday, who entered showbiz in a nightclub act with Betty Comden and Newman's husband, Adolph Green. "Oh, that was horrible. I was around for that. Adolph and I went to visit her in the hospital quite a bit."

Newman had successfully auditioned to be Holliday's understudy in Bells Are Ringing: "That's how I got into The Golden Group" (Comden & Green and Jule Styne and other crème de la crème composer-collaborators). For all of her 42 years as Mrs. Adolph Green, much of the world saw her as the other woman — to Betty Comden — but that was perfectly okay with Newman: "I was lucky enough to have my own career. I never wanted to be his partner. I loved being his wife. I had no desire to even perform with him. Once or twice we did — at a benefit or something — and I couldn't wait to get off the stage. They had a style together. Betty was a straight woman, and Adolph was all over the stage — it didn't suit my style. They found out early on what worked, but also it was their natural instincts. Betty's was reserved, and Adolph's was Mr. Cuckoo. It was a wonderful team.

"Now, with Betty's passing, that's really the end of it. I always thought there'd be somebody that incredible around. Of course, I always thought it was going to be Adolph who would be there forever. Even into his eighties, he used to think everybody was older than he was — because he was a kid, too. He never grew up either so he always thought that everybody was so much older than he. People in their fifties and sixties he would look at as esteemed older citizens. It's now an era that has passed with Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne and Cy Coleman — all their collaborators, all that world that I was a part of."

So, long may you wave, Mrs. Cuckoo. You're impervious to birthdays. Have a happy one.