STAGE TO SCREENS: Cherry Jones of "24," Blair Brown of "Fringe," Plus Lansbury and Arcati

By Michael Buckley
08 Mar 2009

Blair Brown as Nina Sharp on "Fringe"
photo by George Holz/ FOX
Blair Brown tells me, "When people ask why I do television, I say it's to pay for my theatre habit."

Brown, who attracted a TV following in the title role of "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" (1987-91), for which she received five Emmy nominations (one-per-season), plays Nina Sharp on "Fringe," back from hiatus April 7 (FOX, Tuesdays, 9 PM ET — past episodes can be seen on fox.com). But Brown's really a Broadway baby.

"Doing eight shows a week, and the way a show changes every time is more intriguing than doing takes and going home." Her eight shows a week in Copenhagen brought Brown a 2000 Tony Award. She also directs, most recently (2007) at Playwrights Horizons, with A Feminine Ending.

"That was written by Sarah Treem, now head writer for [cable's] 'In Treatment.' We were working in theatre; now, we have lives in television. We keep trying to get together, which isn't easy. We keep calling each other: 'When do you finish [shooting]?' 'When do you finish?'"



Shooting Episode 17 as we speak, Brown points out, "The shows are self-contained, and the production values are like movies. It's sci-fi, but also works on an espionage and government level." Created by J.J. Abrams ("Lost"), Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci ("Star Trek," "Mission Impossible III," "Alias"), "Fringe" began when an airplane lands at Boston's Logan Airport with no signs of life. (How bad could the food have been?)

That, of course, was only the first piece of what's since become a much larger puzzle. "Each episode is a nine-day shoot, and we shoot to the end of April, in New York City," which also stands in for Boston and Washington, D.C.

Blair Brown with Joshua Jackson on "Fringe"
photo by Craig Blankenhorn/FOX
Other "Fringe" cast members are Anna Torv (FBI Special Agent Dunham), Joshua Jackson (Peter), John Noble (Dr. Bishop), Lance Reddick (Home Security Agent Broyles), Kirk Acevedo (FBI Agent Francis), Jasika Nicole (FBI Agent Farnsworth), and Mark Valley (Special Agent Scott).

Acting was not always Brown's goal. "I think I thought it was some sort of hobby. [Laughs] I'd finished boarding school, and didn't want to go to school, or into business — and I sure didn't want to get married.

"Well, I thought: I'll go to acting school. I can bide my time for a little while until I figure out what I want to do. I went to a school in Toronto, and very soon realized: Wow, you can make a living doing this! I thought I'd do classical theatre my whole life. I worked at Stratford, the Guthrie, the Shaw Festival — and then came to New York."

Directed by Joe Papp, The Comedy of Errors marked Brown's 1975 New York stage debut, "in Central Park [at the Delacorte]. Non-speaking parts in that were played by [then unknowns] Ted Danson, Danny DeVito and Linda Lavin."

Papp then cast one Brown as another: He chose Blair to play Lucy Brown, making her Broadway bow in the 1976 revival of the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill musical The Threepenny Opera, "with Raul [Julia, as Macheath]. His understudy was Kevin Kline."

She first worked with her Copenhagen co-star, Philip Bosco, when he succeeded Julia. "I love working with Phil. He blew me away in Twelve Angry Men. He should have won the Tony." (It was a sixth nomination for Bosco, who won a Tony Award for Lend Me a Tenor).

During the Threepenny run, Brown took over as Polly Peachum, "and, for two days, played Jenny. Everyone was sick, and Joe [Papp] made me do it on a dare. I'd left to go out to California for 'Captains and the Kings' [a 1976 miniseries], and fell in love with Richard Jordan [who co-starred as Irish immigrant Joseph Armagh]. We had just come back [to Manhattan] when Joe called.

"He asked, 'Do you know Jenny's songs?' 'Well, I heard them every night.' 'Could you sing them?' 'Maybe.' Ellen Greene [Jenny] was sick — and only two whores were left in the whorehouse. [Laughs] I went in at two in the afternoon, and Raul taught me the tango. I learned the dialogue really fast; fortunately, Jenny doesn't say much. We were never onstage at the same time, so I didn't know her moves. The 'beggars' would come out of the pit, and move me from place to place. I looked like a puppet, but it was a thrilling experience! Only someone young and foolish would do it."

Returning with Richard Jordan to California, Brown "did a lot more movies and TV," receiving Golden Globe nominations for "Continental Divide" and "Kennedy" (as Jacqueline Kennedy). Among her many movies: "One Trick Pony," "Altered States," and "Space Cowboys."

"Molly Dodd," notes Brown, "was a fantastic time. It felt like theatre, without eight performances, every week, and it paid more. So many wonderful actors became my friends." Those who appeared include Allyn Ann McLerie (the original Amy in Where's Charley?, played her mother), Nathan Lane, Victor Garber, John Pankow, J. Smith-Cameron, Samuel L. Jackson, and David Strathairn.

"After a year in California, [the series] came to New York for the other [four] years. That way, I could do theatre." One play was 1989's The Secret Rapture, by (her then-partner) David Hare. "I loved that play, even though [former New York Times critic] Frank Rich didn't. [Laughs]"

Blair Brown on "Fringe"
photo by Barbara Nitke/FOX
Living in New York also enabled Brown "to raise my son," writer Robert Jordan. "His father, Richard Jordan [1938-93], died of a brain tumor." I say that I was a fan. "He was good; wasn't he? Soon after that, Raul [Julia] died. The last time we spoke was when he called to say how sorry he was to hear about Richard [who had directed Julia, as Hamlet, at the Public Theater]."

Is there a role that's given Brown the most satisfaction? "My eyes are always cast forward, but I had a great time doing 'Molly,' and I loved every day of Cabaret. [Brown played Fraulein Schneider twice, from August 1998 to May 1999, and again from September 2003 to January 2004.] And doing The Dead, with Chris Walken and that extraordinary company, was a total love affair, every day."

Explains Brown, "Nina Sharp [on "Fringe"] is the face of Massive Dynamics [a billion-dollar corporation]. We've never met the man who's the CEO. We don't know why yet, but we're going to find out eventually." What lies beyond the "Fringe" series for the gifted Brown is also something that we're going to find out — eventually.

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Theatrical poltergeists may be running rampant through Shubert Alley. At one end stands the Booth, where the original 1941 production of Blithe Spirit played the last year of its run, while on the other end is the Shubert, home to the latest incarnation of Noel Coward's comedy (in previews, opening March 15) — with Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati, that rare clairvoyant: a well done medium.

"I didn't intend to come back so soon," admits Lansbury, last on Broadway (April-August 2007) in Deuce. "I didn't know that I'd ever come back. I did know that this [the Arcati role] was reason to make a fast decision."

Set in the late 1930s, Coward's "improbable farce" involves a sιance, conducted by the dotty Arcati, at the Kent, England, home of author Charles Condomine and his wife, Ruth. When things go amiss, a mischievous Mrs. — Elvira (his first wife) — pays a novel visit from the beyond.

Angela Lansbury
photo by Aubrey Reuben
Lansbury and I chat at a "meet-and-greet" press event, where she's in the company of her cast mates: Rupert Everett (Charles), Christine Ebersole (Elvira), Jayne Atkinson (Ruth), Simon Jones, Deborah Rush (Dr. and Mrs. Bradman), and Susan Louise O'Connor (Edith, the maid).

Madcap, madwoman, star-maker, pie-maker (Mame, Dear World, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd), Lansbury's earned four Tony Awards. Book-ending her stage success are careers in films and television.

A back-to-back Oscar nominee — for her 1944 movie debut, "Gaslight," and 1945's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" — she was nominated a third time as the malevolent mother of Laurence Harvey (in reality, only two years her junior) in "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962).

As mystery writer Jessica Fletcher on "Murder She Wrote" (1984-96), Lansbury became a TV icon, garnering 12 Emmy nominations (one-per-season). She also was nominated six other times — twice for hosting the "Tony Awards" (1987, '89) — but (amazingly) never won.

Connections exist between Lansbury and some past Arcati's. In "Dear Heart" (1964), she played a flighty divorced mother who loses long-time beau Glenn Ford to Geraldine Page (1924-87), Broadway's most-recent Arcati, a Tony nominee for the '87 revival (with Richard Chamberlain).

Lansbury, of course, immortalized Mame in the 1966 musical version of Auntie Mame. Last to play the latter on Broadway, before introducing her to West End audiences, was Beatrice Lillie (1894-1989), whose final Broadway role was as Arcati, in High Spirits, the 1964 musical version, which Coward directed. (In "The Letters of Noel Coward," he writes that it was intended for Kay Thompson to play Arcati — and Judy Garland, Elvira!)

The 1955 Danny Kaye comedy "The Court Jester" cast Lansbury as Princess Gwendolyn, whose servant, Griselda, was played by Mildred Natwick (1905-94), who originated Madame Arcati on Broadway (in November 1941), starring Clifton Webb. Natwick reprised her role in a 1956 CBS-TV presentation, which starred and was co-directed by Coward. In the book, he notes, "Millie Natwick was wonderful throughout."

Lauren Bacall as Elvira delighted Coward, but old friend Claudette Colbert (as Ruth) did not, due to demands about billing, salary, and camera angles. (Convinced that she photographed better from the left side, Colbert insisted on being filmed only in that profile.) In "Letters," editor Barry Day states, "Noel swore he would wring her neck, if he could find it."

In "The Court Jester," Lansbury's father, the king, was Cecil Parker (1897-1971), Britain's original Charles. Notes Lansbury, at the meet-and-greet: "I can hear him in every line. He must have been hilariously funny!"

Agatha Christie's sleuth, Miss Marple, has been played by both Lansbury, in "The Mirror Crack'd" (1980), and in four British movies (1961-64) by Margaret Rutherford (1892-1972), the very first Arcati (in the London premiere). But Dame Margaret's performance displeased Coward.

The playwright, who also directed the July 1941 London production, writes to a friend: "The audience love [Rutherford], because the part is so good," but "she fumbles and gasps...and throws many of my best lines down the drain." However, he admits, "She got a magnificent notice." Rutherford again played the eccentric psychic in the '45 film version, starring Rex Harrison.

Coward wrote the play during a five-day holiday in Wales, taking his title from a Shelley poem, "To a Skylark" (which begins, "Hail to thee, blithe spirit"). Though only one of seven characters, Arcati's the ace in the whole.

Angela Lansbury summons Coward's comic character eight times a week; Hail to thee, blithe legend!

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Various and Sundry

A fond farewell to Horton Foote, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who died on March 4, at 92. He also won Oscars and WGA Awards for "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962) and "Tender Mercies" (1983) — and both earned Best Actor Oscars for their respective leads (Gregory Peck, Robert Duvall). Foote frequently attended his plays, and it was always a pleasure to shake his hand, and thank him for a job well done. One of the nicest people I've interviewed, Horton Foote was a true gentleman.

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The new FOX series "Glee" (which previews May 19 and begins its run in the fall) features several stage actors: Matthew Morrison, Lea Michele, Kristin Chenoweth, Victor Garber, Debra Monk, and will have John Lloyd Young as a guest star. (Might Broadway have to start paying residuals?)

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Reminder: On March 14, HBO telecasts live the penultimate performance of You're Welcome America. A Final Night with George W. Bush, the Will Ferrell Broadway success. (This Bush lasts 90 minutes — thankfully, not eight years.)

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Kirk Douglas (now 92) stars in a one-man show about his life and career, Before I Forget, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (Culver City, CA): March 8 & 15 (2 PM), March 13 (8 PM).

In a 1989 interview, Douglas told me that "Lonely Are the Brave" (1962, on DVD) was his favorite among movies he'd made. "It's one of the rare times I play a nice person," he said. "I'm always thought of as an s.o.b."

Douglas' last Broadway appearance was in 1963's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He purchased the film rights, but couldn't get a movie made. Son Michael Douglas produced a picture in 1975.

Among its five Oscars were Best Picture and Actor (Jack Nicholson, playing Douglas' part). Claimed Douglas, "I made more money from that film than any I acted in, and I would gladly give back every cent, if I could have played that role."

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Anika Noni Rose is in a new HBO series "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" (which debuts March 29, 8 PM ET). Lorrell in "Dreamgirls", Rose won a Tony Award for Caroline, or Change.

Most recently on Broadway, as Maggie, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Rose is the voice of Princess Tiana (Disney's first African-American animated heroine) in the upcoming "The Princess and the Frog." Oprah Winfrey is the voice of her mother, Eudora.

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The Jonas Brothers: Nick (16), Joe (19), and Kevin (21), suddenly seem to be everywhere - in movies ("Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience") and TV (an upcoming Disney Channel series). The two teens also have Broadway credits: Joe (La Boheme); Nick (Annie Get Your Gun, Beauty and the Beast, Les Miserables).

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Craig Zadan and Neil Meron are up to bat with a remake of "Damn Yankees", the 1958 movie version of the '56 Tony-winning musical, for New Line. The plan's for "a contemporary feel on a musical that is firmly rooted in the 1950s." Casting, so far: Jim Carrey (as Mr. Applegate) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Joe Hardy). For the manager, why not Joe Torre?

Gwen Verdon reprised her Tony-winning Lola in the film. In a 1999 interview, Verdon told me that she was nervous about doing the picture: "George Abbott wasn't really a movie director. They brought in [co-director] Stanley Donen, who really directed it."

In their only screen pairing, Verdon and husband Bob Fosse dance the comic mambo, "Who's Got the Pain?" At the end of the number, Tab Hunter (Joe Hardy) says, "That was terrific, Fosse!" Verdon explained, "That was an ad-lib that they kept in." Producers thought that her Broadway partner in the number asked for too much money to do the movie. "Bob's fee," she said, "was a hairpiece, made by the 'Wigmaker to the Stars.'"

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Bridger Zadina, as a transgendered teen, did a memorable turn on the Feb. 17 "Law & Order: SVU". Last July, he played Arty in Lost in Yonkers, at Beverly Hills' Theatre 40. He's also an interviewer on "Movie Surfer" (Disney Channel). Bravo, Bridger!

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Tony winner (The Seafarer) Jim Norton, Kate Baldwin, and Cheyenne Jackson star in the season's final Encores! (City Center, March 26-29): Finian's Rainbow.

The first Finian, Albert Sharpe, played a pub owner in "Royal Wedding", a '51 MGM musical, starring Fred Astaire who, in the 1968 movie of "Finian's Rainbow," had the title role.

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Could three-time Emmy Award winner Tony Soprano win a Tony Award? James Gandolfini is in God of Carnage.

A veteran of Broadway's A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, he returns in a new play by Tony winner Yasmina (Art) Reza. (In previews, it opens March 22, at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre). Co-stars: Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis. Also, Gandolfini's in the remake of "The Taking of Pelham 123" (John Travolta, Denzel Washington).

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Almost a Tony: Elvis Presley was first choice to play the male lead in "West Side Story", the 1961 Oscar-winning Best Picture, but manager Col. Parker declined. (Presley later said that he regretted it.)

Other Tony contenders: Warren Beatty (tested by Robert Wise, who co-directed with Jerome Robbins), Bobby Darin, Anthony Perkins, Russ Tamblyn, Tab Hunter, Burt Reynolds, Troy Donahue, Richard Chamberlain, Gary Lockwood and Richard Beymer, the former child actor who eventually was chosen.

Beatty was then filming "Splendor in the Grass" (his screen debut), opposite Natalie Wood, with whom he'd become romantically involved. Wood volunteered to appear with him in the test. Result? Beatty's rejection and Wood's selection as Maria. (Possible Maria's included Audrey Hepburn, Suzanne Pleshette, Jill St. John). Wood and Richard Beymer wanted to do their own singing, but Marni Nixon and Jimmy Bryant dubbed their vocals.

Broadway's latest West Side Story (now in previews, opening March 19, at the Palace) is the first bilingual production, some lyrics translated into Spanish by In the Heights Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda. Nonagenarian Arthur Laurents (who wrote the book for the musical) directs.

In Laurents' autobiography, he notes, "Sales of the West Side Story cast album were minimal....Then the movie was released; we hit a jackpot. Songs previously dismissed as tuneless or f------ opera became pop hits: the whole country sang 'Maria'; the whole world sang 'Tonight.' The sound track album was a huge best-seller and continued to be year after year. I cleaned up and I didn't even like the movie."

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Guest stars on "Law & Order: SVU": March 10: Tony winners John Gallagher, Jr. (Spring Awakening), John Cullum (Shenandoah, On the 20th Century). (Cullum's currently doing double duty: On Broadway in August: Osage County, Off-Broadway in Heroes — but he's only 79.) March 17: Carol Burnett. March 24: Cicely Tyson.

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Guest stars on "Law & Order": March 11: John Ventimiglia (Artie Bucco on "The Sopranos"); March 18: Keith Carradine, J. Smith-Cameron, Matt Servitto (Agent Harris on "The Sopranos"); March 25: Jill Eikenberry, Edward Herrmann, David Rasche.

(Stage to Screens is Playbill.com's monthly column that connects the dots between theatre, film and television projects and people. Contact Michael Buckley at stagetoscreens@aol.com.)