“So what do you think about Barak?” asks Morgan Fairchild.
The question brings a Playbill On-Line reporter up a little short. The Mideast peace process was not on the checklist of things to talk about with the actress, TV Land on two shapely legs. Her new Off-Broadway play, High Infidelity, her first stage appearance in Manhattan since Geniuses in 1981, sure. “Falcon Crest,” maybe. Israel, no.
As he gropes for a suitable answer, she says, “Well, a few years ago, in my dressing room, I brought up the subject of Netanyahu, and the other women looked at me, like, what? Who?”
She gets this a lot. No one expects someone who looks like her (in the “Village Voice,” columnist Michael Musto rhapsodized about her “cotton candy hair, Barbie-doll nose, and impossibly sparkly blue eyes”) to have much to offer about global politics, but she does. And heaps on paleontology, too. Virology. A few other “ologies” not on the spellcheck program. Prions. When she retires for the evening, it’s with the latest book on Louis Pasteur, not a cabana boy.
“I was asked once if I ever got tired of playing bimbos, and I answered that I’ve never played a bimbo,” she retorts. “I’ve always played smart, manipulative women. Marilyn Monroe and Judy Holliday, who were not stupid, could play stupid really well, but I don’t do it well.” In terms of career longevity, what she does do well is combine the various sides of her persona. A pop icon in her prime-time heyday, thanks to a Southern-fried mix of sex and sarcasm, she continues to play off (and play with) that image while pursuing other avenues of public life, which is why you’ll find her story on A&E’s “Biography,” not E!’s “Mysteries & Scandals.” Born Patsy Ann McClenny, reborn as Morgan Fairchild when she decided to pursue an acting career, she insists that there is no division between the iron-willed vixen on the screen and the self-taught intellect in person. “The vampy side has always been a part of my personality, but there are a lot of parts within that personality. I don’t think women should be stereotyped. Growing up in Texas, you were either pretty or smart. Smart didn’t get you very far, because there weren’t too many job opportunities for women. I wondered why you couldn’t be both. Why can’t you be sexy and smart and a wiseass, and do all the other things that I like to do, speak on politics or viruses or whatever?”
To say that she “likes” to speak on these subjects is an understatement. Memo to the mayor: While Morgan Fairchild’s in the vicinity, suit her up, and send her out to spray Central Park for West Nile-bearing mosquitoes. She loves viruses. Not like she loved Mark Harmon on the “Flamingo Road” TV show 20 years back, but she has an undeniable passion for them. It’s an interest she’s put to good use since the appearance of HIV; AIDS activism is just one of the causes she’s immersed in. Campaign finance reform is another. One guesses she’d rather be in Philadelphia this week, dissecting the issues of the day with John McCain and her political reporter pals at the Republican National Convention, but instead she’s at work at the Promenade Theatre, dissecting John Davidson in High Infidelity.
In the show, she and her fellow tube veteran play a Presidential hopeful and his long-neglected wife, pulled off the campaign trail for emergency therapy at a Jersey Shore practice when their simmering marital woes boil over in public. Hijinx include pratfalls involving an inflatable chair and throw pillows on the floor (it’s the mid-70s), badinage of a mildly smutty nature, and the two stars cutting loose with some wild dancing as part of the cure. Strindberg it is not.
But Ellen Gordon, put-upon senator’s wife, is a suitable part for Fairchild, more upmarket than the Camellas, Magentas, and Satins she’s played, and a good test of her Texas grit. Infidelity has been a problem with the show: As Playbill On-Line reported on July 28, co-star J.C. Wendel bolted during previews, and the August 3 opening has been pushed back to allow replacement Jennifer Roszell more rehearsal time. “We’re going ahead with an opening night party anyway, as it was all scheduled beforehand, but that was a big blow,” she says of the defection. “Jennifer is quite wonderful and she fits right in. However, I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and I’ve never seen anybody do anything quite like what happened. It’s meant a great deal of additional rehearsal on top of our regular performance schedule. I was not very appreciative of it -- I’m trying to say this all very nicely…”
Nasty is what Fairchild does most nicely. It is her stock in trade, and an arch of an eyebrow, a come-hither gaze, and a glint of self-parody helped her win a Golden Globe nomination for “Flamingo Road” and an Emmy nomination for a “Murphy Brown” guest shot. The last attribute has come in handy: She sent herself up in the Eddie Murphy film “Holy Man,” and, most amusingly, co-starred with James Brolin in the film-within-a-film that climaxes “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure”. With a film and TV resume that includes “The Seduction” and “Point of Seduction,” plus “Deadly Illusion” and “Shattered Illusions,” not to mention “Test Tube Teens from the Year 2000” and “Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge,” a sense of humor is a good thing to have. “Going in with anything in show business, you just have to understand what you’re dealing with,” she laughs.
Dealing with the ups and downs of Hollywood is a perennial issue. “I’ve never played a doctor, which is what I wanted to be when I was a kid. Or a paleontologist -- when other girls were reading Nancy Drew, I was reading about Darwin. Or a lawyer -- I come from a family of lawyers, and I’m interested in that. Saving the world via medical research or going off to Gobi Desert to dust off dinosaur eggs is what I thought I might be doing when I was a kid, and I’d love to bring those interests to a show like ‘E.R.’ or ‘The West Wing,’ or a movie like ‘Jurassic Park.’ But nowadays, when there’s a doctor’s part, they cast it with someone who’s 20, and try to make it look like they’re old enough to be out of medical school and running the hospital -- which is hysterical. And if you look like I do, you can’t play that kind of intelligent, which I think is limiting of them. I keep hoping…”
And reading. She is a voracious bibliophile, consuming volumes on her consuming passions. Dino-flagellants, algae blooms, hantaviruses, and Peruvian cholera epidemics roll off her tongue. She came across AIDS very early on in the history of the illness (“I think just a tiny blurb in a magazine”) and has kept up with it. “I looked first at it as a medical issue, not as a social issue, because I was coming at it from a science point of view. There was something out there and we needed it to stop from spreading; unfortunately, I don’t think our government did a really great job of that in the Eighties.”
She spoke out about the disease, and the attendant homophobia, and critiqued other facets of Reagan’s America besides (she and Frank Zappa used to team up at anti-censorship rallies, and she is continually appalled by attempts to remove the teaching of evolution from textbooks and classrooms). She is a familiar figure on Capitol Hill, testifying about environmental issues and against rollbacks on Roe vs. Wade. “I have a lot of stands on a lot of political issues,” she laughs, before getting more earnest. “I’m very big on campaign finance reform. I still think most Americans aren’t aware of how the dumping of big corporate dollars and private donor dollars has totally corrupted the political system and taken it away from them. Until we find a way to control that kind of money, that money will control this country. You get the government you’re willing to fight for, and if you’re not willing to fight for stopping this, you’re going to get a government that is not the democracy we grew up in.”
“Did you ever read ‘The Coming Plague’?” she asks the reporter, who most recently tackled “All About ‘All About Eve’: The Complete Behind-the-Scenes Story of The Bitchiest Film Ever Made,” which, come to think of it, would probably pique her interest. No matter where she goes, however, one very down-to-earth subject always comes up: Her perfect skin. The secret there? “Formaldehyde,” she jokes. “Truly? Thank God I was always a reader rather than a sports person, because when I was young I didn’t spend much time in the sun. My mother always said, ‘At 20 you have the face God gave you and at 40 you have the face you’ve earned,’ and it’s true. The life choices you’ve made either pay off or catch up with you. I was walking down the street the other day and a truck driver yelled out, ‘Morgan, babe! You never age!’ which is the best endorsement,” she laughs.
Speaking of endorsements, it was time to catch a little C-SPAN from the convention before the Wednesday matinee. She has not yet seen her A&E “Biography,” but wishes it had aired last year, before her parents, recently deceased, passed away. “Mom would have gotten a big kick out of it. I know my dad was proud of me, but, in that way he had, he would have said” -- with this she assumes a full Texas twang -- "`Hell’s bells, why are they talkin’ to you for?’”
-- Robert Cashill