Anita Gillette and Penny Fuller: Who’s Who? You’ll Know at Their Revue:
Sin Twisters, October 2 and 9, at 54 Below
By: Ellis Nassour
Broadway and 86th Street: Tony nominee Anita Gillette crossed the street and was immediately recognized by a fan, who asked for an autograph. He produced a piece of paper and a pen. She signed. The fan gushed, "Thanks so much, Miss Fuller!" "Miss Fuller," said Gillette to herself. "Penny Fuller! Will they ever get us straight?"
West 44th Street, Tony nominee and Emmy winner Penny Fuller is exiting Sardi’s. Two of the Theatre District’s autograph hounds are eager for photos and autographs. She politely complies. As she walks away, one shouts, "Thanks, Miss Gillette!" Fuller gave a back-handed wave, then stopped, turned, and glared. "Not again," she murmured. "Anita Gillette! Will they ever get us straight?"
"It happens all the time," laughs Gillette. "We could probably go in and audition for each other. No one would know."
"On the street here and wherever we go in Los Angeles," adds Gillette, "we’re constantly mistaken for each other. It’s a bit hard to explain since one, me, is about three inches shorter. And one’s a blonde – that would be Penny, and I’m a redhead."
You won’t have any problem keeping them straight at 54 Below. Remember one’s a redhead and the other’s a blonde.
The savvy award-winning duo of dozens of Broadway and regional shows, screen, and TV fame have notebooks and headfuls of career anecdotes. "And it’s time we let them out of the bag," laughs Gillette.
They are October 2 and 9 at 54 Below [9:30 P.M. and 7 P.M., respectively] when they join forces for a hilarious and harmonious revue in song and reflections" that explores their long acquaintanceship that, more recently, has segued into a bonding friendship.
"Sin Twisters is a devilish spoonerism of a title," explains Fuller, "but quite apt and accurate." Gillette states. "Sometimes, I think we’re twin sisters. But, be forewarned, this isn’t one of those ‘And then I did that, and then that’ shows."
"Not at all," chimes in Fuller. "There’re songs we sang in shows and some we would have liked to have sung. It’s us as actors, women, marriage, becoming mothers. It’s also fun. We’ve certainly done our share of comedy."
"Penny was doing a show three years ago at the O’Neill," Gillette observes, "and got the idea of involving me. It was a blast and we’ve wanted to reprise it here since."
Reminiscing, Gillette and Fuller spoke of those that greatly influenced them.
"Ethel Merman, in my first Broadway show [Gypsy, 1959, replacement understudy in 1960 for June and Hollywood Blonde Thelma]," says Gillette without hesitation. "When I wasn’t onstage, I was in the wings watching. I never missed seeing her do ‘Rose’s Turn.’ She began to notice me, and we became acquainted. I loved her. She was wonderful to me. Something that’s rarely mentioned is that she was a great mother.
"In fact," she continues, "I don’t know if I’d be doing what I’m doing if it hadn’t been for Ethel. I found out I was pregnant not long after I joined the company and they were going to fire me. Ethel raised a ruckus and said, ‘No, you’re not. She stays!’ So, I owe at lot to dear Ethel."
Growing up in Baltimore, she explained that she was greatly influenced by her high school music teacher, Eleanor Turner. "I was the oldest of four and a girl. I hadn’t planned on college because we didn’t have the money. "Mom was a singer. I’m Irish and we had this old upright piano and we’ve have sing-a-longs, but it was Miss Turner who taught me about technique. Then, she gave me great parts, and encouraged me to follow my dreams."
Fuller feels she’s "one of the most fortunate people on the planet because I had four great, great instructors that included Alvina Krause, one of the great acting teachers; David Crane, who developed this technique to release actors from the terror of singing in front of an audience; producer, director, acting coach Milton Katselas [who studied under Elia Kazan and Lee Strasburg at the Actors Studio]; and actress and dramaturge Diana Maddox.
An incident Fuller still vividly remembers happened during the bows in Rex (1976; she played Anne Boleyn/Princess Elizabeth). "I was getting ready to move over for Nicol (Williamson) and heard this gasp from the audience. I couldn’t see it, but Nicol slapped Jimmy Litten a member of our ensemble. I reached behind and pulled him into the line to do his bow. Glen (Close) and I, actually, everyone was in shock. It took me days to find out what it was all about."
She assesses that Jimmy was overstepping boundaries between a chorus member and a star. "He was always saying, ‘Hey, Nick, let’s go out for this or that’ and annoying Nicol. Obviously, he didn’t know how explosive he could be. That night he made some smart remark and Nicol heard it and snapped. A couple of days later, I ran into Ethel and told her what happened. She let out this roar, ‘He did what? I would have slugged him right back!’"
There were career triumphs and disappointments aplenty.
In the latter category for Gillette, it was 1965’s Kelly, which had been hyped to the heavens by the time it opened. "I thought it was going to be great, a hit. Wonderful people were involved: composer Moose Charlap [Peter Pan] and actor Eddie Lawrence [Bells Are Ringing] on book and lyrics, Herbert Ross, a veteran of so many hits, was director/choreographer.
"It looked good on paper; then they put the show up and it didn’t hold up. They tried to fix it. When you try to fix something that’s broken, it doesn’t get any better. Then, came the firings. It got messier and messier until none of us knew what was going on. They were making changes faster than you could blink. It became famous as the most expensive one-night-only flop of that time."
For Fuller, it was not getting the role of Fran Kubelik in Promises, Promises, . "I auditioned and auditioned, but half the bunch wanted me, the other half didn’t. It was devastating and led me to head to L.A."
However, one door closes, another opens. She began a long career in TV, winning an Emmy for her portrayal of Mrs. Kendal in the adaptation of The Elephant Man, co-starring with Bette Davis in the TV movie A Piano for Mrs.Cimino , and in the landmark series China Beach ; and roles in films, such as All the President’s Men .
She recalls the pleasure of working in "an exceptional TV movie" with the very classy film legend Claudette Colbert and "delightful" Ann-Margret, The Two Mrs. Grenvilles adapted by Dominick Dunne from his novel. It was a delectable twist on numerous of Hollywood film noirs: chorus girl marries above her station only to be regarded with great disdain by her mother-in-law – and, after a dreadful and fatal accident [or was it?], great suspicion.
Gillette has been honored by none other than Tennessee Williams, who when casting a play told the producer that he "wanted talented women with a flair for comedy, like Anita Gillette, who could then turn around and devastated by what life and my prose was doing to them."
There were laughs, good times, and happy memories working opposite Jack Klugman , as his wife, in the long-running Quincy. Then, there came a horse of a different color series, All that Glitters , "which I thought would be a huge hit. It barely lasted one season. It was way ahead of its time in that it reversed the traditional male/female power dynamic as only Norman Lear could."
Her next foray on Broadway, in Neil Simon’s Chapter Two , won her a Tony nomination.
They agree that Tony nominations helped their careers, because, as Gillette remembers, "It brought me attention, and I had a good run in L.A. I played plenty of roles [Shall We Dance, Moonstruck], but never became a movie star. In my next Broadway show, I came in as a replacement [They’re Playing Our Song, 1979]. But no one every promised me a rose garden-"
"Indeed, not," adds Fuller. "I won the Emmy and didn’t work for a year! But don’t get me wrong, I love show biz! Later, I received nomination after nomination for TV movies and such, but that was it. The first time was the charm!"
Fuller returned to Broadway in Applause , opposite Lauren Bacall, winning acclaim and a Tony nomination as Eve Harrington. She has nothing but accolades and stories of Miss Bacall’s graciousness – the type of thing about Miss Bacall you don’t usually hear.
Then, in 1986, came another blow. "A show I loved that I’ll never understand why it didn’t become a hit was A New Brain at Lincoln Center."
It was by William Finn, directed by James Lapine, with Kristin Chenoweth co-starring, and Graciela Daniele directing and choreographing. "It was a bit ahead of its time, but audiences loved it. The critics didn’t. I came offstage second night and said, ‘If they don’t like this, I don’t know what they’ll like!’"
You can expect more tales out of theater school, such as Fuller talking about a "very different David Merrick" than we hear about; and Gillette on working with some "very interesting" co-stars at Sin Twisters, at 54 Below. The revue is directed by Barry Kleinbort, with musical direction by Paul Greenwood.
The cover is $35-$45 plus a $25 food/beverage minimum. Reserve at www.54Below.com. Day of performance tickets, if available, can be purchased after 4P.M. by calling (646) 476-3551.