Tony-winner Elizabeth Ashley, Co-starring in You Can’t Take It with You: A Life Not Always Well-Lived but She Wouldn’t Change a Thing – Part 1
By: Ellis Nassour
Elizabeth Ashley is one of the most acclaimed actresses of her generation. Born in Florida, but raised in the deep South of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Once she made the decision to come to New York, with her dazzling-some-have-said-seductive beauty, gorgeous legs, an aura of mystique, and a unique rapid-fire voice dripping with Southern Comfort and mint juleps infused with magnolias, she was quickly noticed and cast in major roles.
She fell under the spell of Sanford Meisner and he fell under her spell at the famous Neighborhood Playhouse. After being carefully groomed, he chose her to play Esmeralda in the mid-60s in the Playhouse production of Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, which began her love affair with Williams and his with her. He found her to be his "perfect Southern belle to play my Southern belles."
Miss Ashley made her Broadway debut in Dore Schary’s 1959 short-lived holiday drama The Highest Tree, which featured Robert Redford in his first original role; TV, making her debut in an episode of the anthology series The Dupont Show of the Month, Heaven Can Wait [not to be confused with the same-named Harry Segal play that became the film Here Comes Mr. Jordan, later remade as Heaven Can Wait – though it has unique similarities], co-starring opposite Anthony Franciosa, Joey Bishop, and Wally Cox], and Off Broadway [making her debut in 1967 in Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore opposite Marian Seldes, Stephen McHattie, and Amanda Plummer].
Her career took off like wild fire and Miss Ashley became triumphal on stage, and in film, and TV. Superlatives flowed like milk and honey: dazzling, seductive, outstanding, [possessor of the] loveliest pair of legs, entrancing, cosmically/dexterously comical, pert, captivating, profound.
On Broadway, she won a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Play for Phoebe and Henry Ephron’s 1961 comedy Take Her, She’s Mine, directed by George Abbott and co-starring Art Carney and Phyllis Thaxter. Less than a year later, she was Tony-nominated for Best Actress playing opposite Redford, directed by Mike Nichols, in Neil Simon’s nominated hit Barefoot in the Park. She landed on the cover of LIFE magazine, heralded as "Broadway’s brightest."
Then, while continuing to garner acclaim on the stage and working consistently in New York TV [with the likes of Jack Carson, Arlene Francis, Keir Dullea, E.G. Marshall, Ossie Davis], she was Hollywood-bound and bound for important roles.
In 1964 and 1965, she hit pay dirt in film adaptations of two best-sellers: Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers, nominated for a Golden Globe [she fell in love with co-star George Peppard, who became her second husband]; and Stanley Kramer’s film of Katharine Ann Porter’s Ship of Fools, nominated for Best Picture, in an all-star cast headlined by Vivien Leigh, Simone Signoret, Lee Marvin, Oskar Werner, George Segal, and José Ferrer.
She proudly says, "I was hot, and I was in heaven! It couldn’t have been any better."
Miss Ashley isn’t that easy to keep up with, as her mind runs on high octane on several subjects at the same time. An interviewer wrote: "Conversing with Elizabeth Ashley is a bit like being pelted by a South Louisiana hurricane." That said, she’s totally unassuming, considerate, not the least bit full of herself, and oozes with the charm that’s a throwback to her Southern roots. And, as you might expect, she’s quite opinionated.
"I’ve been in the show biz rackets for a while," she points out. "You can ask me anything, but be warned, I’ll answer, and usually in the spirit in which it was asked. I learned, for better or worse, that my most dangerous weapon is my mouth."
One for certain, Miss Ashley is a woman who knows where she’s been and makes no effort to deny where she is now.
For five decades, Miss Ashley has been in consistent demand in film, TV, and on Broadway — Tony-nominated for her Maggie in the 1974 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof revival. She later joined the cast of Agnes of God as Dr. Livingstone. Four years ago, at Playwrights Horizon, she performed in Edward Albee’s Me, Myself & I. Most recently, she portrayed Mattie Fae later in August: Osage County’s run and has had a most satisfying time in the recurring role of Aunt Mimi on the TV series Treme, set in New Orleans.
Miss Ashley is currently garnering huge laughs as Grand Duchess Olga in the madcap revival of Kaufman and Hart’s Pulitzer Prize-winning You Can’t Take It with You opposite James Earl Jones, Kristine Nielsen, Anna Chlumsky, Richard Thomas, and Annaleigh Ashford. We spoke between shows on a recent Wednesday at La Masseria, across from the theatre.
"I’m kind of a misfit in show business," claims Miss Ashley. "For instance, even when it might have proved beneficial, I never employed a personal press agent in my 55 years in the show racket. I don’t give a flying leap about all that image stuff. I’m just always been me. However, I’m doing this in person and between shows because it’s part of my job to do for what’s necessary for whatever show I’m in.
"In my role of the Grand Duchess Olga," she continues, "I’m slathered with pounds of make-up and eyelashes. It’s quite grotesque, especially a close range, anywhere except on the stage. Consequently, that’s the reason I wanted us to do a phoner. I wasn’t that excited about coming out between shows to do this [she flounces her bountiful hair about] because I didn’t want to shock anyone. Furthermore, if I take off my glasses, I’m blind as a bat, too. But you were insistent on doing this in person."
[True. The in-person interview is a thing of the past. But, doing a phoner, you’re not face-to-face with the personality you’re talking to. All you get are sound bites for 15-minutes. And, soon, you’ll see why interviewing Miss Ashley in person was vital.]
You keep retiring, but you keep returning. "Well, I had an extraordinary, wonderful, interesting, sometimes dangerous life. There were times I walked away, not that it was smart – not that I didn’t live to often regret it. Many found breaking away strange, peculiar, and awkward. Today, if you do that, the gossip of the chat room tongues is that you’re in rehab or undergoing plastic surgery, neither of which I’ve ever done."
Miss. Ashley lives in
New York near Union Square. She doesn’t lead an extravagant life and has never been too mindful of her public image. "The only thing I ever minded was the time in the 80s when there were massive savage rumors that I was on drugs. Being quite the disciplined person I am, that really pissed me off. This [pointing to her Margarita on the rocks] is as close as I’ve ever come. And I don’t mind taking a quick sip. Actually, I’m going to have a slew of sips!"
Miss Ashley admits she was dangerously reckless. Though she has some regrets, she doesn’t look back with regret.
It’s no secret, even to her, that she had a long ago reputation of being a rebel and "the black sheep of the American theater. In my younger years, when the rest of them [referring to stars too focused on their careers] were sitting in Sardi’s or in the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills waiting for calls from their agents, I was on a plane with The Who, having a blast with Roger [Daltry] and Pete [Townsend]. In my 30s, I circumnavigated the globe in my sailboat – twice. It was the best life ever."
Many found it odd when a star of her caliber just put her career aside "to go my merry way and live. In our capitalist world, that’s not mythologically fulfilling the American dream."
You can do things like that, she says, "When you have youth on your side. But that’s long past. However, when one runs out of money, one has to consider finding work. I’m 75. By the time one’s in their late 50s or early 60s, one’s just physically too old to do a lot of roles that might be offered. So, when the right role comes along, there’s the stage. And I have always loved the stage."
Success was intoxicating. "Winning the Tony when I was so young was a double-edged sword. It was exhilarating, but it made me crazy and led to a nervous breakdown. Mother, still strongly believing in discipline, told me that success and achievement have nothing in common. She said, ‘Success is a two- dollar whore. Achievement is a lifetime of built on character and integrity.’"
She has learned one of life’s hardest lessons, to face facts that are staring you in the face.
In terms of performing, she states: "I’m utterly in awe of great film actors, but no matter how good you are the camera only captures what you do, not what you feel and think. We’re fortunate in theater. We have audiences to bounce ourselves off of. As much I’ve enjoyed doing film and TV, I’m drawn to the intimacy of the theater. It’s the only thing in the show racket that I’m any good at. So why not return to the boards? And do I have to tell you the joy I’m having working in this wonderful farce with James Earl Jones and a supremely lovely cast?"
Some might be surprised to hear Miss Ashley claim that she’s a loner. "I always have been. That’s one reason I love the private sanctuary of the theater." After a long, reflective pause: "I know. Knowing me, that sounds truly alien and sort of antithetical to logic and my way of thinking. Considering my past, I’m shocked to hear myself admit that I’m old school now."
Miss Ashley wasn’t a theater kid. "I was never in the drama club or one of those kids running to audition for plays. I was a ballet kid. There was this great Russian ballet teacher, who moved to New Orleans so she could be in a warm climate. I studied with her. This wasn’t a toe tap school, but had rigorous training in the Bolshoi style. Mother thought it would make for good discipline. So, from age five to 17, every day when I got out of school, I danced. I wasn’t bad. I tried out for the Houston Ballet when I was 14.
"That training gave me some a kind of instinctive understanding of the physical sense of working in a contained space," she continues. "I was in my late teens into early 20s when I began working in theater. That discipline helped me maintain the focus and energy you must have."