STAGE TO SCREENS: Mercedes Ruehl, the Macy-Mamet Connection and Remembering Brad Sullivan

By Michael Buckley
January 11, 2009

This month we speak to The American Plan's Mercedes Ruehl, look at William H. Macy's history with David Mamet, and bid farewell to actor Brad Sullivan.

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Fans of Mercedes Ruehl are in for a triple treat: Her Broadway opening night (Jan. 22, at the Samuel J. Friedman), as Eva Adler in the Manhattan Theatre Club production of Richard Greenberg's The American Plan, is book-ended by TV appearances a guest-star stint as a judge on "Law & Order" (Jan. 14, NBC, 10 PM ET), and playing Janice Lever, mother of Jake (Adam Kaufman), in "Loving Leah," a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie (Jan. 25, CBS, 9 PM ET).

What attracted Ruehl to the role of Eva? "She's very strong. There's a lot of meat on the bone. German Jews saw themselves as superior to any other Jews in terms of cultivation and education and background." One of Eva's lines refers to the resort clientele: "It's good to stay in touch with the lower life forms."

Produced twice at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1990 (in January, again in December), with Joan Copeland playing Eva, the play which, says Ruehl, is "very well written; funny, sly, ultimately very touching" is set in 1960, at a Catskill-Mountain lake resort (with a final scene ten years later). Directed by David Grindley, it has a cast of five: Eva, daughter Lili (Lily Rabe), their companion Olivia (Brenda Pressley), and two young men, Nick (Kieran Campion) and Gil (Austin Lysy).

Native New Yorker Ruehl has a history with the Catskills: "I know the area very well. As a girl, my mom [a teacher] went there every summer. When I was a child, I did, too. One of my great uncles married a German woman who turned a big farm into a guest ranch. Both my mom and my dad [an FBI agent] grew up in the Bronx. I grew up in New York City and Scranton, PA both places my dad was posted, two years at a time. My mom's family was Irish and Cuban; my dad's, Irish and German. My last name's German."

Still, a German accent was one of the challenges in playing Eva. "And the language itself; you're speaking as one who's learned English as a second language, so there's grammar, and the awkward placement of words in sentences. She also has a certain manipulative quality that has to be deft, not heavy-handed.

"It's a wonderful cast," declares Ruehl, who's especially praiseworthy of Lily Rabe. "Working with Lily is lovely. She's a very, very responsive and talented girl a hundred percent present, which is harder than it sounds."

(For those who may not know, Rabe is the daughter of Jill Clayburgh and David Rabe. Her previous Broadway credits are Steel Magnolias, for which she earned a Drama Desk nomination, and Heartbreak House.)

Believes Ruehl, "You should be an actor, only if there's nothing else you can be happy doing." Early childhood is when she knew that she could be happy as an actor. "It probably started as a bid to get attention, but it morphed into something much, much more."

Growing up, she admired many actors. "I'd be afraid to tell you a few, and leave some out. The first time I saw a Broadway show I was in grammar school, I guess it just blew me away: Tammy Grimes in The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

"A couple of years later, at the Olney Theatre, in Olney, MD, near where I lived at the time, actors from Catholic University which had a very distinguished drama department during those years put on summer stock. The Catholic University graduate students were some of my favorite actors. That's where I saw my first Tennessee Williams Streetcar Named Desire, and my first Edward Albee: Sandbox and The American Dream. [She's appeared in many of the playwrights' works.]

"Early in my career, when I wanted to remind myself what great acting was, I would take a look at Simone Signoret in 'Ship of Fools' and Greta Garbo in 'Camille.' Those performances were so completely inhabited that it would bring me back into myself again.

"In college, I saw Zoe Caldwell do The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie [on Broadway]. Isn't she wonderful? I'm a great admirer of Zoe's. All of this gathering storm of strong actors and strong plays made me even more aware that this is what I wanted to do. Each of those performances is still indelible in my mind."

Still indelible in my mind is a Lost in Yonkers scene, where Ruehl, as Bella, crossed stage right to stage left, delivering a few lines of dialogue, to try to make a point to her domineering mother (Irene Worth).

Though the action lasted only moments, each was pure magic, as she moved the audience from laughter to pathos. While playwright Neil Simon and director Gene Saks deserve credit, it ultimately was Ruehl's expertise that made the scene fly. Like the Wright brothers, her flight was brief, but quite memorable.

"Bella's character came to me in a dream," states Ruehl. "She just showed up one day. That was one of the oddest experiences in my life. Working with Irene [Worth] was just great." Fortunately, they both reprised their roles in the film version. Kevin Spacey who (like Ruehl and Worth) won a Tony for the comedy, was not cast in the movie. Richard Dreyfuss played Spacey's role, as Bella's brother, Louie. "At the time," explains Ruehl, "Kevin's star had not ascended to the zenith it's in now.

"Thinking back, it's ironic. Kevin [who since has won two Oscars] was extraordinary! Dreyfuss was wonderful, too!" (At the present time, Spacey is directing Dreyfuss in Complicit, a world premiere that opens Jan. 19, at London's Old Vic.)

Ruehl's other awards, thus far, include an Oscar and Golden Globe ("The Fisher King"), the Clarence Derwent (Other Peoples' Money), a Drama Desk (Lost in Yonkers), Outer Critics Circle (Lost in Yonkers; The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?), and Obies (The Marriage of Bette and Boo, Ensemble; Woman Before a Glass).

Except for Bette and Boo, Ruehl's honors followed her success in two back-to-back 1988 releases. "My first major movie role," she recalls, "was as the mother [to young Josh, whose character turns overnight into Tom Hanks] in 'Big.' I remember watching [Hanks] in the scene where he first sees himself, as an adult, in the bathroom mirror.

"He did at least 12 takes, Every time, he did something different; every time, believable. I was astounded by his level of concentration: Boy, that's really a superior practitioner of this craft!

"Right after that was 'Married to the Mob' my first really big film role." She almost lost that role, however, due to another roll: "Down a countryside knoll. I was obviously trying to impress some young man in my 'toujours young, toujours gai-ety.' I ended up, cheeks to toes, with a case of ravaged poison ivy.

"Then, I got stuck in a traffic jam, and was late for the first reading. The director, Jonathan Demme, called me and asked, 'Do you really want to do this?' I said, 'I really do.'" She played Connie, jealous wife of mafia boss Tony "the Tiger" Russo (Dean Stockwell). Claims Ruehl, "It turned out to be one of the most fun shoots I've ever been on before, since, ever."

To date, which experience, has brought Ruehl the most satisfaction? "You get satisfied in different ways. Of course, Lost in Yonkers; certainly working with [director] Terry Gilliam in 'The Fisher King.'

"The screenplay [by Richard LaGravenese] was witty, more or less perfect one of the few I ever worked on that didn't have to be retooled, or re-doctored. And it was satisfying working with that particular group of actors [Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams, Amanda Plummer, David Hyde Pierce].

"Doing Medea at the Denver Center the Robinson Jeffers translation [of Euripides], the one Zoe [Caldwell] did on Broadway was maybe the first truly satisfying thing in my career. Zoe came to see it. Last spring, working on [artist] Louise Nevelson, in Edward Albee's Occupant, was powerful. By and large, doing Edward's work just swings you out on a big old learning curve."

Married to artist David Geiser, their son, Jake, is 11. "He's seen me in a lot of movies," his proud mom tells me, "and has seen just about every play I've done [since he was born]." I can't resist asking how he liked The Goat. "He was only four then. He came with his dad, and watched bits of it, when I came on. He wasn't very interested. Jake's become a very good theatregoer, at a very early age. He's very quiet and attentive.

"Recently, I did Viva La Vida! [by Diane Shaffer], at Bay Street [the Sag Harbor, NY, theatre]. It was about [artist] Frida Kahlo. I'll probably be doing another play there this summer Dinner [a dark comedy, by Moira Buffini], which was very successful on the West End."

Is there a difference between portraying fictional characters such as Bella, Medea, and Serafina (The Rose Tattoo) and those who lived: Louise Nevelson, Frida Kahlo, [art collector] Peggy Guggenheim (Woman Before a Glass)?

"On the premise that all art is autobiographical to a degree a dancer's, a violinist's, clearly a writer's an actor's art is autobiographical. You bring part of your own story to any part you play, and weld it to the story of the character written by the playwright.

"When you're playing a real character, you have one more autobiography to respect. [Laughs] Three tributaries are flowing into the river such as Nevelson, Albee, and yourself. All three egos have to be served, or else the character doesn't really come alive."

Among her TV work, Ruehl appeared as station manager Kate Costas on five episodes (1995-96) of "Frasier," and "like every other actor in New York, I've done some 'Law & Order' shows." She's also played the mother of Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) on "Entourage." Ruehl's "talking about doing two films in the spring [The American Plan ends a limited run March 15], but neither one is set."

Ruehl points out that the title, The American Plan, refers "to the opulent menus of the Catskill hotels in the '50s and '60s. Resort guests got three meals a day [part of their room rate] all you can eat, all day long." In a funny sequence, Ruehl's character recounts, in great detail, how a guest consumed a large repast. For theatregoers, The American Plan provides food for thought and lets them see Mercedes Rule!

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William H. Macy
photo by Aubrey Reuben
Next door to the Friedman is the Barrymore, where David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow revival is playing. On Jan. 13, William H. Macy returns to Broadway, after a 21-year absence, to play producer Bobby Gould in the Hollywood-set dark comedy.

Macy co-stars with Raul Esparza (Charlie) and Elisabeth Moss (Karen) for the final six weeks (through Feb. 22) of the run. He succeeds Norbert Leo Butz, who took over, on very short notice, for Jordan Lage (a Mamet vet and understudy for Bobby and Charlie), who stepped in, on even shorter notice, when the mercurial Jeremy Piven ankled the play.

Few actors have Macy's history with Mamet. It includes seven films that the playwright either penned or directed: "House of Cards," "Things Change," "Homicide," "Wag the Dog," "State and Main," "Spartan," and "Edmond," plus two for TV, "The Water Engine" and "Oleanna." The actor also played the President of the U.S. in an episode of the Mamet-created TV series "The Unit."

Also, Macy's done four Mamet plays Off-Broadway: Prairie du Chien, Oleanna, American Buffalo, Bobby Gould in Hell (part of a double bill called Oh, Hell), in which Treat Williams played the character Macy now portrays. For Oleanna, Macy received an Outer Critics Circle Best Actor nomination.

Going back further, Macy took Mamet's theatre course at Vermont's Goddard College. Together, they (and director Steven Schachter) founded Chicago's St. Nicholas Theater. They started New York's Atlantic Theater Company, and were "godfathers" to Manhattan's American Theater Company.

Non-Mamet credits include "Fargo," for which Macy earned an Oscar nomination. A three-time Golden Globe nominee, and nine-time Emmy nominee, he won as actor and co-writer for 2002's "Door to Door." The cable movie also earned Macy a SAG Award and a WGA nomination. He's appeared in and co-wrote (with Steven Schachter, who directed) a number of other TV movies.

Lincoln Center's 1988 production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town is Macy's only previous Broadway appearance. It marked Jordan Lage's Main Stem debut.

As a stage director, Macy's credits include Boys' Life (for which he received a Drama Desk nomination), The Three Sisters, and The Joy of Going Somewhere Definite. The casts of all three featured Jordan Lage, and among the players in the latter two was Neil Pepe, who directed the current Mamet revival.

Felicity Huffman, Mrs. Macy, was his student at the Atlantic Theater Company. They have two daughters: Sofia (8) and Georgia (6). An Oscar nominee/Golden Globe winner ("Transamerica"), she's an Emmy/SAG Award winner for "Desperate Housewives." In the original 1988 production of Speed-the-Plow, Huffman succeeded Madonna.

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Farewell to a Friend: Actor Brad Sullivan, whom I knew many years, died of cancer New Year's Eve. Sullivan (1931-2008), a Chicago-born Korean War vet, enjoyed a successful career that included stage (six Broadway plays, five Off-Broadway), many movies, and dozens of TV appearances, not including his two series roles: As Zollicofer Weed, a coach, in "I'll Fly Away" (1991-92) and Father Leo, a priest, in "Nothing Sacred" (1997-98).

Kevin Anderson, who starred in the latter, also appeared with Sullivan in the 1989 Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams's Orpheus Descending (later televised). Anderson played the male lead, Val Xavier; Sullivan was Jabe, the husband of Lady Torrance (Vanessa Redgrave).

Sullivan's movies included "The Sting," "Slap Shot," "The Untouchables," "The Prince of Tides," and "The Fantasticks" (in which he and Joel Grey played the fathers). Sullivan's last role was in a 2000 "Law & Order" episode.

His Broadway debut was in 1977's The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel. For Working, Sullivan earned a Drama Desk nomination as Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Other Broadway credits: The Wake of Jamey Foster, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, On the Waterfront.

Brad liked to share stories about his films. After shooting "Ghost Story," Fred Astaire's final film, Brad recalled that, during on-location meals, the legendary performer (who seemingly ate little) always encouraged Brad to take food from his plate.

Speaking of "The Untouchables" scene where Al Capone (Robert DeNiro) circles a table of mobsters (one of them, Sullivan) and suddenly bashes-in an offender's skull with a baseball bat, Brad was astonished that the actors' tuxedos (seen only from the waist up and splattered with fake blood), each cost $1,500.

Unlike some "Prince of Tides" colleagues, Brad got along well with star-director Barbra Streisand. But he was never quite sure if the contents of a can of dog food that Kate Nelligan (playing his wife) served him was the real thing. Brad said that an actor should never question a director, and that it had tasted okay, whatever its pedigree.

Whenever I interviewed an actor who had worked with Brad Sullivan, he or she liked the man, and admired his talent. That's how I shall remember my friend. Bravo, Brad!

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Various and Sundry

The only TV reality shows I enjoy are ones where awards are handed out. "The Golden Globes" airs tonight, Jan. 11 (NBC, 8 PM ET); "The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards", in two weeks (Jan. 25, TBS/TNT, 8 PM ET).

Might Meryl Streep take home two Golden Globes as women with distinctly different habits in "Mamma Mia!" and "Doubt"?

Which (if either) political figure will win the Globe voters' popular vote: "Milk" (Sean Penn) or Nixon (Frank Langella)?

Could Clint Eastwood score twice, not as an actor-director, but as a composer for "Changeling" and as one of the "Gran Torino" title song writers?

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Kyra Sedgwick, up for two SAG Awards (her sixth and seven nominations), won a Golden Globe as "The Closer" two years ago and is in the running again (her sixth time) this year. She starts her fifth season as Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson, Jan. 26 (TNT, 9 PM ET).

Frances Sternhagen, who plays Sedgwick's mom, Willie Rae, is a three-time Emmy nominee (twice as Cliff's mother, "Cheers"; once as Bunny MacDougal, "Sex and the City"). In 2008, the seven-time Tony nominee/two-time winner (The Good Doctor, The Heiress) celebrated the 60th anniversary of her stage debut. We wish a very Happy (Jan. 13) Birthday to Ms. S!

Tony Award winner James Earl Jones receives this year's SAG Life Achievement Award, the latest of his honors. May the force remain with him. Congratulations, Mr. J!

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It's great to have Julie Andrews (well, at least, her voice) back on Broadway. Andrews, who speaks the Queen's English in "Shrek 2" and "Shrek the Third", does the (Broadway Theatre) pre-curtain announcement for Shrek the Musical. (I'm a pushogre for anything that she does.)

Of course, Andrews and Shrek star Sutton Foster share the character of Thoroughly Modern Millie, which the former created on film, and for which the latter earned a Tony Award.

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Starting previews Feb. 3 (opening March 1, at the Nederlander) is Guys and Dolls, the 1955 film version (on DVD) of which starred Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra, Vivian Blaine.

Sinatra, who played Nathan Detroit, had wanted to play Sky Masterson, but lost out to Brando as he had, a year earlier, with "On the Waterfront". (In the Elia Kazan autobiography, the director explains that the "Waterfront" producer, who had chosen Sinatra, later opted for Brando, the bigger box-office name.)

Gene Kelly was considered as Sky, and Grace Kelly for Simmons's Golden Globe-winning Sarah. Blaine reprised her Adelaide stage role after it was declined by Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe. For the film, Frank Loesser cut five songs ("A Bushel and a Peck," "My Time of Day," "More I Cannot Wish You," "I've Never Been In Love Before," "Marry the Man Today"), and added three new numbers: "Adelaide," "Pet Me, Poppa," and "(Your Eyes Are the Eyes of) A Woman in Love."

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Golden Globe/Emmy nominee ("Roots", available on DVD), Leslie Uggams plays the legendary Lena Horne in Stormy Weather (title of the song that Horne introduced in the 1943 film of that name), at the Pasadena Playhouse. Previews begin Jan. 21 toward a Jan. 30 opening.

Uggams, a Tony nominee (King Hedley II), won the award for Hallelujah, Baby! playing a role that had been written for Horne, who departed the project after a dispute with the musical's librettist, Arthur Laurents.

Incidentally, Horne's granddaughter, Jenny Lumet, whose parents are Gail Buckley (Horne's daughter) and (ex-huband) director Sidney Lumet, received the New York Film Critics Award for her "Rachel Getting Married" screenplay. (The movie's star Anne Hathaway is in the running for Golden Globe and SAG Awards.) At the NYFC event, Horne's daughter said that her mother (now 91) was doing well.

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Congratulations to Michael Sheen, whom I interviewed in last month's column, and is a superb David Frost in "Frost/Nixon": He's received an OBE (Order of the British Empire). Acknowledging the "huge honor," Sheen (who played Tony Blair in "The Queen") said, "It'll be nice to meet the real Queen at last."

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Patrick Swayze stars in "The Beast" (A&E, Jan. 15, 10 PM ET). Thrice up for Golden Globes ("Dirty Dancing," "Ghost," "To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar", all DVDs), Swayze's Broadway credits include Grease and Chicago, as a replacement Danny Zuko and Billy Flynn, respectively.

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Will Ferrell, the "SNL" alum, turns legit (Feb. 5, at the Cort) in You're Welcome America. A Final Night with George W. Bush.

Ferrell, whose movie credits include "Anchorman" and "Elf" (both on DVD), has an on-line teaser, in which he (as Bush) invites potential theatregoers to "buy a ticket, come to the theatre, sign a loyalty oath, be strip-searched, and join me for a special night."

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Two former Golden Globe nominees Maggie Gyllenhaal ("Secretary," "SherryBaby", both on DVD) and Peter Sarsgaard ("Shattered Glass", also on DVD), who are partners and parents of a two-year-old daughter, are in the Classic Stage Company production (previews Jan. 17, opens Feb. 12) of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya.

In the title role is Denis O'Hare, recently a regular on "Brothers and Sisters". The Tony (Take Me Out) and Drama Desk (Take Me Out, Sweet Charity) winner is in the current (and upcoming) movies: "Milk," "Changeling," "The Proposal," "Edge of Darkness".

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Like O'Hare, Off-Broadway vet (a four-time Drama Desk nominee) Paul Sparks is in "Edge of Darkness" and was part of the Take Me Out company (understudy for three roles). Sparks, whose current films include "Rachel Getting Married," "Deception," "Synecdoche, New York", makes a Main Stem debut in the Roundabout production (Jan. 25, American Airlines), Hedda Gabler.

"Weeds" star Mary-Louise Parker plays Ibsen's heroine, considered "the female Hamlet." She's an Emmy/Golden Globe ("Angels in America"), Globe ("Weeds"), Tony/Drama Desk (Proof) winner, who has two upcoming movies ("Howl," "Solitary Man"). Dating back to 1898, this is the 19th Broadway turn for Gabler.

She's also been the subject of movies (three silent, three foreign, the British "Hedda," not on DVD, for which Glenda Jackson received an Oscar nomination), and 12 TV adaptations. Two versions (with Ingrid Bergman, 1963; Diana Rigg, 1981), are available on DVD; two (1954, '62) starring Tallulah Bankhead are not.

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Kate Burton, a Hedda Gabler Tony nominee (also The Constant Wife, The Elephant Man), stars as Miss Moffat (Jan. 9-Feb. 8) in the Emlyn Williams play, The Corn Is Green, at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company. (A Daytime Emmy winner, "Notes for My Daughter", Burton's been up twice for an Emmy for her "Grey's Anatomy" role.)

Cast as student Morgan Evans is Morgan Ritchie, Burton's son, who appeared (at 8) as Morgan Edwards in "August" (1996), which starred his mom. Ritchie's granddad, Richard Burton (1925-84), also made his professional debut in a play (Druid's Rest) by fellow Welshman Williams. A seven-time Oscar nominee, eight-time Globe nominee (he won for "My Cousin Rachel," "Equus"), Burton received an Emmy nomination for his final role, playing Kate Burton's father, in the 1984 miniseries "Ellis Island".

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Upcoming "Law & Order" guest stars: Jan. 14 Mercedes Ruehl, Dallas Roberts ("The L Word", on DVD); Jan. 28, Robert Iler (AJ on "The Sopranos"); Feb. 4, Rue McClanahan ("The Golden Girls"), Peter Friedman (Twelve Angry Men, Ragtime), Kathleen Chalfant (Angels in America, Wit).

Sarah Hyland is a guest star (Jan. 13) on "Law & Order: SVU". Former child actor Hyland, whose credits include Molly (TV's "Annie"), Audrey at age 8 ("The Audrey Hepburn Story", both on DVD), and Jackie Bouvier (Grey Gardens), more recently was a regular on "Lipstick Jungle", also on DVD).

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Six-time Golden Globe/eight-time Emmy nominee Valerie Harper (who won five times total as "Rhoda") stars as Tallulah Bankhead (1902-68), through Feb. 15, in Looped, at the Ciullo Centre for the Arts, in West Palm Beach. Harper, who made her Broadway debut in Take Me Along, plays opposite Chad Allen in the play about an eight-hour looping session to record a single line of dialogue.

It was Bankhead's last movie, filmed in England as "Fanatic", but released in America as "Die! Die! My Darling! (1965, on DVD). Bankhead was upset that the title change tried to trade-in on her trademark "Dahling!" a term she used to address everyone.

A Broadway star (Dark Victory, The Little Foxes, The Skin of Our Teeth), Bankhead's best-known film was the Alfred Hitchcock classic "Lifeboat" (on DVD), for which she won a New York Film Critics Award.

Among her TV appearances, Bankhead memorably played herself on "The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show" (in December 1957) and appeared as the villainous "Black Widow" in a March '67 two-part "Batman" episode. Told that her portrayal must be campy, the star informed the producer, "Don't talk to me about camp, Dahling. I invented it!"

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.