SECOND FLOOR OF SARDI'S: A Soft Drink (and Hard Truths) With Elizabeth Ashley

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21 Aug 2012

Elizabeth Ashley
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/Playbill

Since that heady start, Ashley's career has proceeded in fits and starts. She triumphed again a decade later in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Almost another decade went by before Agnes of God added another bold-faced credit to her resume. Things might perhaps have proceeded somewhat more smoothly had Ashley not repeatedly retired from the stage. "I've retired twice for years at a time," she said. "But when I'm not retired, I've tended to always work."

But even if she hadn't chosen to, say, make mid-career decisions like buying a boat and sailing around the world ("The only reason I came back for Agnes of God is I had run out of money"), it doesn't necessarily mean that she would have become a movie star, or racked up several more Tony nominations. Ashley has never cared much for the business or political sides of the acting world. She did her time in L.A. and, "in the immortal words of Chuck Berry, I was gone like a cool breeze."

"You have to understand, I was a tabloid queen before their were tabloids," she explained. "I was bathed in fire. I've never had a personal press agent in all my years in show business. I know that, in the show racket, if you buy in to even this much of that aspect of it, you eat the bear, or the bear eats you. I just had to escape the bear. I like the work. And quite often I like the people. I don't have any skills at networking or self-promotion."

Ashley in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Lately, the material she's been working with is top notch. Her current hot streak of employment has included not only the Vidal and Foote gigs, but also roles in plays by Tracy Letts and Edward Albee. She's come to be regarded as a treasured theatrical veteran, occupying a place not far from her colleagues Lansbury and Stritch. A nice recurring part in the David Simon HBO series "Treme" hasn't hurt her visibility. "I had to get this old before I was not considered the bad seed of the American theatre," she concluded.

As good as things are going now, she'd retire again tomorrow, and write the sequel to her best-selling 1980 memoir. "I'm a loner, and I always have been. I know people find that odd. I like people, but I like people best when I'm working with them. But I don't have chit and chat, as it perfectly obvious.

"I go out as little as possible. I feel like the United Fund. I gave. I was a night-stalking savage from one end of the planet to the other for about five decades. I have retired to the hall of fame with a plaque. I'm happiest in my bed, with my dog, my Kindle, my laptop, a remote control and a stack of books, and a telephone where I punch in a number, tell them what I want to eat, they bring it to my door, I give them money, I take it to my bed, share it with my dog, and I'm blessed."

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