For 'Hot Tin Roof,' Two Theater Pros Still at Their Peak
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 13, 2004; Page N01
Acouple of well-traveled actors sitting around talking:
"We've known each other forever," says George Grizzard, gazing fondly at Dana Ivey. She smiles back from under a floppy white hat; it's a mild spring morning and the performers, in Washington to play Big Daddy and Big Mama in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" at the Kennedy Center, are sitting outside a coffee shop in Foggy Bottom. (The show started previews last night.) "But we've never worked together. I worked with her mother twice on movies, on 'Scarlett' and on 'Queen.' "
This is how Grizzard speaks, in constant references to productions and colleagues: Maureen Stapleton, Sir Tyrone Guthrie, Elaine Stritch and more, right up to his current co-stars in "Cat," Mary Stuart Masterson (playing that great, restless sexpot Maggie the Cat) and Jeremy Davidson (her brooding husband, Brick). Ivey's mother, Mary Nell Santacroce, was a respected regional theater actress -- "the queen of Atlanta theater," in her daughter's words.
Ivey says to Grizzard, "I don't even remember meeting you. I just feel like I've known you for years."
"Probably 30 years," Grizzard suggests. He's wearing a khaki safari suit and a pink oxford shirt, drinking iced coffee, chaser to a cigarette.
"Close," she replies. Ivey's blouse and beads are a matching shade of coral. There's a big blue John Kerry button pinned to that white hat.
Ivey and Grizzard have done what few actors manage to do: compile a lifetime of steady work on stage, screen and television. It was 1955 when Grizzard made his Broadway debut in "The Desperate Hours" with Paul Newman and Karl Malden, and more than 40 years ago that he originated the role of Nick in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (In 1996 he won a Tony as Tobias in Albee's "A Delicate Balance.") He met Tennessee Williams at the opening of the 1965 Broadway revival of "The Glass Menagerie." Stapleton played Amanda and Grizzard was Tom. "I said, 'I was so scared when I knew you were going to be here tonight and I was going to get to meet you, and here I am playing you onstage.' And he said, 'Oh, dahlin', don't evah play me onstage!' "
Ivey knows Williams only by osmosis, having played Williams roles in theaters from Massachusetts to Alaska. "I'm from Atlanta," she says, "so I kind of grew up with Tennessee Williams stuff all around."
She is probably best known for her Hollywood supporting roles, having given comically adroit performances as Congresswoman Libby Hauser in "Legally Blonde 2," as Sandra Bullock's unyielding leftist mother in "Two Weeks Notice" and as the suddenly openhearted bride of Cousin It in the movie "The Addams Family." Ivey's stage bona fides, though less familiar, are impeccable: She's fresh off a run doubling as Mistress Quickly and Lady Northumberland in the Lincoln Center Theatre's "Henry IV," is a three-time Tony nominee ("Heartbreak House" and "Sunday in the Park With George," both 1984, and "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," 1997) and a two-time Obie winner for off-Broadway work, and was the original Miss Daisy in "Driving Miss Daisy."
"The stage is certainly my home," says Ivey, even though she has appeared in big-budget movies at the rate of roughly one a year since the mid-1980s.
"But some people think you're out of work if they don't see you on television," says Grizzard, whose small-screen roles range from live performances in the 1950s to a "Virginia Woolf" knockoff on "3rd Rock From the Sun" written for him and Stritch, his "Delicate Balance" co-star. "They don't realize that there are all these wonderful theaters where you can do worthwhile work -- the big plays. You never get to do any big acting in films and television. But I've done Cyrano and Hamlet and Henry V. . . . I guess Benedick in 'Much Ado About Nothing' is the only big play I didn't get to do. I think I've done everything else I wanted to do. There's nothing left but Lear, and I sure don't want to do that."
Ivey says: "The stage is so much more about language than film or television are. It's the rare Shakespeare or language-oriented play that gets done as a film or television."
The language in the upcoming "Cat," a towering portrayal of hopes and lies played out against the specter of death, grew saltier with time. Director Mark Lamos (who acted twice with Grizzard in the 1970s, once at the Kennedy Center in Arthur Miller's "The Creation of the World and Other Business") is using the 1974 version of the script, which Williams revised with director Michael Kahn.
"We say [expletive]," Grizzard says by way of example, offering the ne plus ultra of earthy terms. "Words we didn't use in '55."
Grizzard was brought up in Washington from the age of 7, but he was born in North Carolina and returned often to visit family. Like Ivey, he's attuned to more than just the sound of southern characters, mere matters of accent. "I didn't believe her southernness at all," he says of Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara.
Ivey is simpatico on the point. "I remember seeing a production in Toronto one time of a southern play," she says. "It was 'The Little Foxes.' And people have a hard time, for instance, understanding the relationship of whites and blacks in the South. They make everything about masters and servants. They don't understand the nuances. It's very hard to understand if you're not from there."
As a child, Ivey was steeped in theater and made up her mind to act by age 6. Her mother taught theater and did a lot of amateur performing in the days before Atlanta's professional companies existed, and she successfully turned pro once the opportunity arose. Eventually Santacroce (who died in 1999) even took on one of her daughter's signature roles, playing Miss Daisy in a long-running production at the Alliance Theatre.
"We think," says Ivey, "it's probably the only time -- we don't know -- where a daughter has initiated a role and been followed by her mother very successfully. My mother actually was in it much longer than I was. I played it for about eight months, and she played it for well over a year in Atlanta. And her production went to Shanghai and to Moscow."
Grizzard pursued dramatics through high school, went away to college to study advertising, came back to Washington and got a regular job, while acting at night with amateur groups such as the Montgomery Players. (His memory as a D.C. performer stretches back to a production of Williams's "Camino Real" at Baileys Crossroads when the play was still a one-act; he recalls that it was on the bill with Williams's "The Case of the Crushed Petunias" and "The Unsatisfactory Supper" and that his pay at the end of the run tallied something close to $37.) He preferred acting to his 9-to-5 job, which he quit one Friday afternoon after what he calls "a little spat at the office."
"The Arena Stage had just started," Grizzard says. "So I went down and got an audition. The next morning, Saturday morning, I got the audition, I got the part. And on Tuesday I went to work as an actor. The timing was just astounding." He worked steadily at Arena from 1952 to 1954, back in the days when the company opened a new show every three weeks.
Ivey smiles through the telling and offers a quirky story of her own in which she hurriedly auditioned in a Manhattan hotel room for two Canadian women who were about to leave New York. (This was not long after she returned from London, where she studied theater for a year on a Fulbright scholarship.) "They sort of sat on a window ledge on one side of the bed," Ivey says, "and I auditioned -- I orated -- on the other side of the bed, in this narrow space between the bed and the wall. I did my set speech." She thinks it was Katharine's bit at the end of "The Taming of the Shrew," and Grizzard, smiling, is ready with a selection: "I am ashamed that women are so simple to offer war where they should kneel for peace."
Ivey was hired, and it led to eight years of acting in theaters all over Canada. Only after four seasons back in Atlanta did she return to New York, where she has been based for 27 years.
They both learned screen acting under pressure, on the job. Grizzard gives a dark laugh and trots out a pinched German accent as he recalls Otto Preminger's tutelage on the set of "Advise and Consent": "I was playing a hotshot young senator. I made my big speech in the Senate, and when I got through he said, 'Mister Grizzard, that is too theatrical. If you don't talk so loud, I have to come in close to see what you say.' And [Charles] Laughton said, 'That's how you get close-ups.' " Ivey's laugh in response has an air of complicity, a touch of mischief.
"I've never had to do very much on film or television where I've had to be very real," she says. The longer she talks, the more her southern heritage shapes her words. "All my stuff is supposed to be over-the-top comic stuff -- although I was told by a director once, rather cruelly, that this wasn't musical comedy. He didn't care for any of the stuff I was offering up for that part; it was not a happy experience for me. But in the theater, as George says, if you're in a scene, it's up to you to hold that scene, and to play it. And you are used: You feel used up doing the work. I don't think I've ever felt used up in a film or a television thing that I have done. I've never had parts that were big enough, that worked for a long enough period of time, that drove the action enough to feel like I really was used up."
"I liked the life out there," Grizzard says of Hollywood, "but I didn't like the work. I love George Scott's impression when he talks about the 17 idiots between you and the audience. Well, you do a movie, and everybody's cutting and changing and doing this and that, and you have no control of your work. I like to have the curtain go up, and you're in charge. There's nobody between us."
"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is revealing new dimensions to these actors as they rehearse. Ivey finds herself more attuned than ever to Williams's broad ruminations on life and death, while Grizzard is fascinated by the parallels between the vibrant, blustering Big Daddy and his drunken Adonis son, Brick. He also says he never quite understood that the bedroom setting of the play was formerly occupied by a gay couple.
"I don't know why that was never made clear to me," he says wonderingly.
Both Ivey and Grizzard saw the "Cat" that ran on Broadway earlier this season. They are not dogmatic about steering clear of or keeping up with other performances of roles they're going to play. Says Ivey, "I'm not going to cut myself off from great theater just because I might also be participating in it later on."
"And steal all you can," he says, grinning.
When they're not acting? Grizzard likes to garden. Ivey, he says, is "the world traveler of all time. Not many places she hasn't been."
"Yeah, there are a lot of places I haven't been."
"She just got back from Sri Lanka."
Ivey confirms. "In February I was in Sri Lanka. I love to travel."
They decline to confirm their ages.
"Certainly not," Ivey sniffs, looking baffled that anyone would care to know.
Grizzard dons a pair of aviator sunglasses; with his lean features and close-cropped white hair, he begins to evoke the steely resolve of the countless presidents, governors and judges he has enacted before cameras. The issue of age is a problem for actors: Producers, they say, get locked into certain ideas when they attach a numerical figure to a face. (That is why Jack Palance did those one-arm push-ups at the Oscars.) Grizzard uses that earthy term again to close the subject, putting on a bit of Big Daddy swagger. It's almost noon. Time to go to work.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company