DIVA TALK: Chatting with "Three's Company" and Miss Abigail's Guide Star Joyce DeWitt

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with "Three's Company" and Miss Abigail's Guide Star Joyce DeWitt
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Joyce DeWitt
Joyce DeWitt

Joyce DeWitt, who is best known for her work as the perky Janet Wood on the award-winning late '70s-early '80s sitcom "Three's Company," began her career in the theatre and boasts a resume that includes productions of Chapter Two; Sweet Charity; Damn Yankees; Middle of the Night; Star Spangled Girl; The Crucible; Medea; Tartuffe; A Hatful of Rain; Desire Under the Elms; Macbeth; The Mikado; Li'l Abner; South Pacific; The Man Who Came To Dinner; Peter Pan; Brigadoon; All the Way Home; A Month in the Country; The Tempest; The Impossible Years; Dracula: An Original Rock Musical; Stop the World, I Want To Get Off; and Same Time, Next Year. DeWitt, who was also recently seen in the critically acclaimed Canadian premiere of Dinner With Friends, is currently making her Off-Broadway debut in the title role of Miss Abigail's Guide to Dating, Mating, and Marriage! Written by Ken Davenport and Sarah Saltzberg, the production casts the accomplished actress as the "most sought-after relationship expert to the stars" and also features Mauricio Perez as "her sexy sidekick Paco." Earlier this week I had the chance to chat with DeWitt about her many theatrical outings, including her current Off-Broadway bow; that interview follows.

Question: Since we've never spoken before, let's go back a bit. Where were you born and raised?
DeWitt: Wheeling, WV. That's where I was born. My childhood was split between West Virginia and Indiana— half and half.

Question: And, when did you start performing?
DeWitt: When I was 13, I started working on the stage.

Question: Were there any actors or singers who inspired you at that time?
DeWitt: Growing up I was a total movie-holic, but I always wanted to play the role that Clark Gable was playing or Spencer Tracy was playing. I was really never interested in the parts that women were playing. [Laughs.] I found the parts that guys were playing were so much more interesting. [Laughs.]

Question: When did performing change from a hobby to when you knew this was going to be your career?
DeWitt: Oh, it was never a hobby. I wasn't even in school yet, and I knew what I was going to do. Of course, everybody just laughed at me. [Laughs.] I knew very early on.

Joyce DeWitt in Miss Abigail's Guide.
photo by Jeremy Daniel

Question: Was your goal originally stage or film?
DeWitt: I never even thought about going to Hollywood. It never even occurred to me. I started on the stage when I was 13; that was my home, and that's how I was trained. I had an enormous passion and love for it, so I was headed to New York. I was going to go to New York and starve and struggle on the city street until I got a job on Broadway. I did a summer-stock season in Chicago just after I finished undergraduate work, and one of the founding members of the department at the theatre at UCLA directed a play that summer in celebration of the theatre because he had designed it ten years before. He Svengali'd me — he literally, relentlessly kept saying to come to UCLA and go to grad school, and I kept saying, "No, I'm going to New York," and ultimately he twisted my arm far enough and hard enough that I said, "Okay, I'll come out for a quarter," [laughs] because UCLA is on a quarter system, not on a semester system, so I intended to go out for three months and then go to New York [laughs], but life sort of unfolded in a very different way.

Question: What happened while you were out there?
DeWitt: I did the MFA program and got my Master of Fine Arts, and I was cast in the lead in Stop the World, when I literally got off the bus, so to speak, although the truth is I drove my $50 car out there. [Laughs.] I had a '63 Rambler that I paid $50 for it, and drove it out to California, and after Stop the World, I was cast over and over and over again. I was given the opportunity to do my work continually. There was never a time when I wasn't working as an actor while I was there, so the time just went by, and all of a sudden I had a degree, you know? [Laughs.] And then I thought, I'll give it like six weeks — if I don't get an agent or a job or something, I'll go to New York — and each time something would happen. I'd get a really good meeting with a really good agent, or I'd get a Charmin commercial [laughs], one little thing, and then there were like six things that led directly to "Three's Company," one right in a row.

DeWitt with "Three's Company" co-stars Suzanne Somers and John Ritter

People had seen my work when I was at UCLA and had offered to help me when I was ready — in terms of meeting people in the business. When I was ready, they came through, and they introduced me to people, and one person to the next, to the next. I did an industrial film for Universal, and Reuben Cannon, who produces Tyler Perry's movies, cast me in this industrial film, and then a few months later, he was casting "Baretta," which was the number one show on television at the time, and he asked me to come in and read for it, and I was like, "Wow, thanks."… When it aired in September, the people at William Morris saw it and came looking for me, and then they showed it to ABC, and ABC said, "Well, it's really good, but it's not funny," because it was a drama — and they were trying to become the kings of comedy at the time. Shortly thereafter, they were auditioning for a girlfriend for the Fonz, because they were thinking to spin Henry [Winkler] off into his own series, and they were going to have a guest star of a girlfriend, and see how that worked, and spin them off — so I went and auditioned. Because he was such a huge star for television at the time, everybody from New York and Los Angeles were in that room when we auditioned. All of the VPs and everybody — anyone who had a say in casting for that part was there. Usually when you do an audition there's like the casting director, and maybe the director there — not always — and maybe one other person. You read with the casting director, even if it's a love scene with a guy and she's a girl, you're reading with her— it's very simple, sitting around a coffee table. But there's like 20 people in this room, and I'm like, "Oh, my Lord." So before I got home, literally, my agent left a message to call, and they said they are going to go a different way with the part, and I said, "Well, no kidding!" I'm in there with all of these women who are gorgeous with huge hair, and beautiful bodies [laughs], and I'm this little chubby, brown-headed person, and he goes, "But they want to pay you a lot of money not to work for another network until they find a show that you want to do."

Joyce DeWitt and Mauricio Perez in Miss Abigail's Guide.
photo by Jeremy Daniel

Question: That must have been a pretty nice phone call for you to get.
DeWitt: That was like, "Wowskies!" But being a very independent young woman, I was terrified that they would have control over me, and so it took me six weeks to agree. I'm at lunch with the vice president head of casting and I'm like, "Look. What if I tell you one day that it died in me? I don't know what happened, but the creative spark died and I have to go to a desert island [laughs] and find it again?" And she said, "I'll buy you the plane ticket. I'll take you to the airport." And I said, "If you mean that, I will sign your paper." So they sent me scripts and I would read them, and I was getting quite pressured to do another show that I didn't want to do. I met with the producer of "Three's Company," and went to a pay phone, because they had those in those days, called my agent and said, "Is this a good enough reason I don't want to do that [other] show? I want to do this show." He said, "Yes. That's a good enough reason." I said, "Okay, fine."

Question: I was looking through all of the theatre that you've done, and you've performed in so many shows. Is there any one particular production that stands out in your mind as your most favorite or greatest theatrical experience?
DeWitt: Well, one of the fun-est, delicious-est roles that I ever got to play was in Olympus on My Mind, because [the character] has absolutely no talent — she can't sing, she can't dance, she can't act, but she does them all because she was a showgirl at a lounge in Vegas and Murray the Furrier met her and loved her and married her. [The play concerns] an Off-Broadway play that can't open because they ran out of money, and Murray gives them the money as long as they put Delores in the show. [Laughs.] But they're stuck because all of these really good actors and singers are looking at her sideways because they had to put her in, and she's bad, but she's so happy, she's so over the moon that she's getting this chance, so she loves Murray so much for giving it to her. It's a very, very fun role to do.

In terms of my favorite experiences in theatre, that would be based on the times that I worked with people who were amazing. I just finished Dinner With Friends in Canada, and what an extraordinary cast, crew, everybody. Again, in Canada — in Toronto — in 1990, I did Leader of the Pack with an exceptionally beautiful group of people, and I am once again working with a stunning group of people [in Miss Abigail's Guide]. My co-star Mauricio Perez is so good, and he is so gorgeous to look at. [Laughs.] He's so talented, and he's such a giving actor, and when there are only two people on stage for the whole play, that's very important to have someone who is really available to you — not just as a character, but as a human being — because there's just the two of you out there trying to hold it up and make it happen, and then the staff and the crew. Ken Davenport has an amazing organization. He, to begin with, is a lovely man. He's a very talented writer — he and Sarah Saltzberg wrote this play — and it's very funny… It's sexy, and at moments, it is really touching and dear. There are moments where the audience is laughing so hard, they're wiping tears away, and other moments where they literally go, "Aw!" [Laughs.] It's a really good piece of writing, and he gathers together an enormously special group of human beings for staff and crew. Everybody is dear and sweet and kind, very professional, and good at what they do. Everybody.

Question: How did the role come about? Did they approach you?
DeWitt: Ah-ha. They came looking for me. I think possibly because of the publicity that we had gotten in Canada around Dinner With Friends.

Joyce DeWitt in Miss Abigail's Guide.
photo by Jeremy Daniel

Question: I know in Miss Abigail you get to break the fourth wall a bit. What is that experience like for you?
DeWitt: I'm not accustomed to breaking it the whole play. [Laughs.] There are customs and times in a play where you will have an aside, which I am very comfortable with. She deals with the audience as if they have come to one of her self-help seminars, because she is counseling people on "Dating, Mating and Marriage," so she is talking to the audience the whole play. That's a very new thing for me. I was very unnerved, actually, about taking the part because I am a stage-script actress — didn't really have background in standup comedy or improvisation or any of that, so I talked to Ken and Sarah about it and said, "This is not my forte. I am going into new waters here." They said, "No, we want you. We want your personality. We want you." And I went, "Oh, God. Okay." [Laughs.] And I said, "Is Mauricio… will he be continuing in his role?" And they said, "Yes." I said, "Okay!" [Laughs.] Because he is so wonderful — he really, really is Andrew — and man, is he beautiful. Gorgeous young man. Question: Was there anyone that you based Abigail on or anyone that she reminds you of?
DeWitt: As a matter of fact, it was a bit of a search because when I first read it before I saw it, I imagined her physically more like Julia Child, so I was wondering if they were going to want to like pad my butt… I saw her more mature than I am. [Laughs.] When you go to the text, she is a combination of Emily Post and Dr. Ruth, because she is quoting things from olden times on teaching contemporary couples the stuff that was written 20, and 30, and 40, and 50, and 60 years ago — to counsel them in their relationships. She really is very mannered in the sense of Emily Post, but she's also getting right down to it like Dr. Ruth… When I did Mama Rose, I didn't know how to play her, and I didn't want to take the part. I really got talked into it, and ultimately it was because my niece, who is my favorite person on planet Earth, who was studying at Sarah Lawrence at the time, she's always wanted to play Gypsy… I really didn't know how I would play her, do you know what I mean? I'm a very different personality and style than the women who have played her famously, and amazingly, but the simple truth is that the men who wrote that play did not like the woman they were writing it about. They did not respect her or have good feelings for her, so the play is colored by that, I think. Perhaps other actresses wouldn't, so I had to find a way to play her where she wasn't this cold, hard [woman]… but where she was driven by something deep in the heart, and ultimately it came to me, it was a place where she just wanted the best for her kids. She didn't realize she was a bit socially awkward and whatever — who does? — so she was just driven by the heart, constantly. The combination of those elements, which are a bit confusing — almost conflicting. It was opening night, and I just said, "Oh my God." It was a very difficult rehearsal process. I didn't get choreography until days before we opened. [Laughs.] So I thought I just had to remember what to do. Hit this mark, and hit this note. I just had to relax and let her come through and tell me who she was, and that's what happened. She came out, and the version of her I would do showed up on the stage that night. That's not something in your early days of acting that you have a lot of confidence to do. [Laughs.] In a rehearsal process you are studying the character and learning everything you possibly can about her from the text, and then there comes a point where she's solid enough that you can start to let your own personality infuse it ever so slightly and then you start monitoring how much can come in, what's too much, what will not be in full respect of the material, and that's a beautiful dance to do. I always say to everybody when going out on stage, "See 'ya on the ice." When you get to that point in creating the character, it's like being on the ice because it's so delicate and you always have to respect the character and who she's supposed to be in the story, because in the end we're telling a story, and it's your job as an actor to carry your piece of the story forward, and appropriately.

Question: When you look back at your career, which is pretty expansive, what are you proudest about?
DeWitt: Wow, are you talking about a particular role? I think maybe the proudest — I don't know that there is a proudest, but if asked to come up with one, it would have to be to have been a part of "Three's Company," and that's an easy one to say because if as an actor you are given the opportunity to create joy and laugher in the world — that's a great gift. Any actor would say, "Thank you, thank you, thank you for this part."... And if 30-some years later, it's still doing that? Basically, that's a fantasy you can't even make up. You can't even think of that one. It just shows up in your life.

Question: After "Three's Company" did you decide to take a break from television or did the landscape of TV change?
DeWitt: I decided I was going to take six months off. Hollywood is a very interesting place to deal with. [Laughs.] And having been a theatre person, I was quite surprised by the slipperiness of some people in Holly-weird. There was a part of me that just said, "If this is the way the game is played, I'm not sure I want to play it." I was just going to take six months off, and kind of reflect and ponder, and it evolved into nearly 15 years of traveling the world, and studying with the great teachers around the world, and studying the great religions of the world, and different spiritual teachers, and different spiritual concepts. I was sort of looking for a philosophy that was large enough to contain the good things that happened in your life, and the bad things — betrayal and things like that. I was looking for a philosophy that could allow all of those things in the same lifetime, and somehow that would make sense, and so it was a journey in searching, and you'd find in each different place, and with each different teacher, there's a little pearl to take forward, and eventually sort of an eclectic version of your own spiritual, philosophical belief system evolves all by itself.

[For ticket information visit www.MissAbigailsGuide.com or call toll-free (877) 9-MISS-ABIGAIL.]

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Mauricio Perez and Joyce DeWitt in <i>Miss Abigail's Guide</i>.
Mauricio Perez and Joyce DeWitt in Miss Abigail's Guide. Photo by Jeremy Daniel
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