Her stage career comes full circle
NEW YORK — It's admittedly an unlikely scenario: An actress who turns down roles. But Joanna Gleason believes there are some parts for which she is simply wrong.
That certainly hasn't been an issue with her role in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," a rollicking musical adaptation by Jeffrey Lane and David Yazbek of the film comedy. Gleason was nominated for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her work as a free-spirited divorcée opposite John Lithgow.
This is her third Tony nomination; she won for her work in Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods" in 1988. Filmgoers may know her from such movies as "Hannah and Her Sisters," "Crimes and Misdemeanors," and "Mr. Holland's Opus," and television viewers have enjoyed the parade of urban-smart, career-driven characters she has played on programs such as "Love & War" and "Bette."
In an interview backstage in her dressing room at the Imperial Theater, she reflects on a career that has taken her from New York to Los Angeles and back again. "That's why my résumé isn't much longer," she says. "People send me scripts and I say, 'Don't you realize? There are so many other women who would be much better in this role.' "
The choices Gleason has made over the years, however, have built a distinguished career, ranging from Broadway, starting with Cy Coleman's "I Love My Wife" and the landmark dramas "The Real Thing" and "Joe Egg," and continuing with memorable performances on television and in film.
This personal decisiveness led her to choose another role nearly 15 years ago: active motherhood.
"I'd been going back and forth between New York and California, and finally said 'Enough of this!' So I made a commitment to my son and to myself that I would be with him until he was not only ready to go off to college, but until we were really mother and son, and we'd reached a point where nothing could drive a wedge between that relationship. He was 12 at the time, and we had to repair some of the past."
Television work, which allowed for a more normal workday, took over her career, although she still made the occasional film.
"When you come from New York to L.A., you get two 'chits.' One is the 'newness chit' - 'Oh, you're newly arrived from New York!' and you can spend that one for a year or two. The second is the 'Tony Award winner chit.' That one is good if they'd seen the show, but after the first year, or after the first television show you do that fails, that one doesn't matter either."
During that time, Gleason says, she struggled to suppress her desire to find challenging creative outlets.
She inherited that drive from her mother, who had established a career as a radio actress in their native Toronto before the family emigrated to the United States, and from her father, legendary television game-show host and successful producer Monty Hall.
"His work, his whole life, was being in front of an audience live, without a net. I think he showed me how to be comfortable being in front of people. He made it a safe place for me to be," she says.
Once her son, now the lead musician in the rock group All Hours, had established himself, Gleason took another look at her life. Now married to actor Chris Sarandon, who has grown children from a previous marriage, Gleason realized, "I was losing my spirit in California." Her remedy: directing.
"I commented to Diane English, who produced 'Murphy Brown,' that I was interested in learning how to direct, and without skipping a beat, she said, 'I'll make it happen for you.' And she did. I got to sit in control booths, stand with the camera operators, learn editing - all of it - and I wound up directing some episodes of a series I was on called 'Oh Boy.' "
Other directing jobs followed, including stage plays.
Her strikingly focused but vulnerable attorney guest role on NBC's "The West Wing" fostered new opportunities with dramatic parts, and she hopes more will follow.
Fourteen years had passed since she headed to the West Coast, and her yearning to return to the Broadway stage felt risky, with its eight-shows-a-week schedule and the added grind that musicals bring with them.
"But could I do it?" she wondered. Although she keeps to a strict regimen and looks a decade younger than her age, it was still a challenge to commit to that schedule.
The nod she received from the Tony Awards committee with her nomination has been a boost. In typical fashion, however, she is willing to cede the spotlight this time.
"It would be extraordinarily thrilling to win again, but, you know, I've won already, and I've won most of the other [theater] awards, so I feel like I've already gotten what I hoped for, by coming back. What's been most rewarding to me is the reception I've gotten from people. When you work on television or in a film, the work survives, but in theater, your work only lives in people's memories, and I am moved beyond words that people have remembered me. I thought I had disappeared."
To Broadway audiences, it's as though Gleason never left.
• The 59th annual Tony Awards, which will be hosted by Hugh Jackman at Radio City Music Hall in New York, will be broadcast on CBS from 8-11 p.m. on Sunday.