NEW YORK — What in the world is that sweet-faced senior Kathleen Freeman doing in the middle of a show where six men take their clothes off?
The musical, "The Full Monty," by writer Terrence McNally ("Ragtime," "Love! Valour! Compassion!") and composer and Broadway newcomer David Yazbek, has been a hot ticket on Broadway since last fall. After letting out a hearty laugh, Ms. Freeman proclaims, "What I'm doing is having the time of my life!"
And her life has been filled with exciting times. She started in film in 1948's "The Naked City," later working in more than 100 other features. Her television career stretches from 1949 to today. Altogether, she has etched a place in entertainment history.
"As a child, I soon got into the act, singing with my parents, who were in vaudeville," she says. "Then, when I was at UCLA, a terrible thing happened." Recruited into a college production, "I got onto the stage, said a sentence, and got a laugh. I was hooked. That was a period in Los Angeles when there was a lot of wonderful theater. And that particular show - Charles Chaplin directed it."
In the audience was actress June Havoc, who helped the young Kathleen venture to New York. "Her sister, who was in Europe at the time, married to a Spanish painter, had a mansion on the East Side, where I had a guest bedroom on the third floor," Freeman says. The sister was famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.
Freeman eventually got noticed. Her comedic gifts contributed to some of early TV's classic comedies, including "Topper," "Life with Elizabeth," "Meet Millie," and "The Red Skelton Show." During the next five decades, her expressive face and signature voice popped up in guest spots or recurring roles everywhere, from "The Donna Reed Show," "The Lucy Show," "Lotsa Luck," and "Hogan's Heroes" to "Growing Pains," "Mama's Family," "Golden Girls," and "Party of Five."
Her film career includes classics such as "Singin' in the Rain," "The Blues Brothers," and 10 movies starring and directed by Jerry Lewis.
One of the Lewis movies most studied by film students is "The Ladies' Man," which she classifies as "a brilliant movie, and it still works." Lewis built what was at the time "the largest film set ever on the Paramount lot, a three-story building.
"There were all these objections" about problems with lighting and sound, she says. "So he lit every single room separately, and did the same thing with the sound. That was a real technological feat. We could go from room to room, seamlessly. People throw the word 'genius' around so loosely - but he was [one]."
"Here, in this show, I'm working with a brilliant company," she says of the cast of "The Full Monty," which was adapted from the popular British film.
Freeman plays Jeanette Burmeister, a retired piano player who volunteers to help the out-of-work laborers turn their idea of creating a strip-show routine into a reality. Her role "was not defined when I auditioned" in May of 1999, she says. Having already moved the production from readings and workshops in New York to the start of rehearsals at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, the "Monty" creative team couldn't seem to find the right actress, although every other role was cast.
Finally, one actress recruited for the part told them, "I can't do it, but I know someone who can," Freeman says.
"And when I read for them, they were [laughing hilariously], which I hadn't experienced in the theater since my early days. Nobody had ever done the material the way they wanted." Originally, the role was small, but writer McNally zeroed in on her during rehearsals. "He'd go away, and come back two hours later, and hand off a few pages to me with this delicious stuff!"
Her character becomes deeply involved with the out-of-work men. "She says, 'I'm the seventh Monty.' She upsets her own life to work with them full time because she doesn't believe her life is over, at all. And that is a wonderful message for an audience. Get up. Get out. Let's go!"
The Broadway hit is not her first foray into musical theater. "I toured in 'Annie,' and in 'Woman of the Year,' with Miss [Lauren] Bacall. But this is the first time I'm originating a role." And eight times a week, she blows them out of their seats with her riotous "Jeanette's Showbiz Number," which stops the show.
Freeman laments the current TV fare, where "writers disregard anybody over 50, so they've disenchanted people over 50 from even watching television." Her experiences include working with many of TV's female pioneers, including Betty White in "Life with Elizabeth." "She was wonderful to work with."
Looking back at the women she has appeared with, such as Lucille Ball, Carol Burnette, and Roseanne, she observes that "they were all very aggressive about what they do." Of the current crop of TV actresses, she gives a nod to "that gal who plays Ray Romano's wife, Patricia Heaton. I think she's very good."
And where did Freeman acquire her unique style of comedy delivery?
"From God," she answers, modestly. "And I'm serious. I've had it all my life. I can be funny. And I believe I was put here to do this."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor