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Coo, Coo, Ca-choo

Feeling Stuck in the Siren Role, Morgan Fairchild Makes the Most of It With 'The Graduate'

By Chip Crews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 19, 2005; Page C01


By rights Morgan Fairchild should stand at least six feet tall. The idea that all that temptation, all that menace, all that vixenly va-va-voom should be at home in a preposterously taut 5-foot-4 1/2-inch package must defy some law of science.

But there she is, live and very much in the flesh. And each of the aforementioned signature traits is in evidence in her current endeavor: starring in the road company of "The Graduate." She plays Mrs. Robinson, the sexy and frustrated matron brought vividly to life by Anne Bancroft in the 1967 movie. (The play opens here Tuesday for a week-long stay at the Warner Theatre.)

"It's nice to be thought of as attractive. . . . On the other hand, it curtails you somewhat, too": Morgan Fairchild at the Hotel du Pont Playhouse. Her next stop is Washington. (Jim Graham For The Washington Post)

Bancroft, you'll remember, was a lustrous-dark spider, having her wicked way with Dustin Hoffman's fly. Fairchild's version is, as implied, more of a blond fox. But then the stage version itself is far different in tone from the film -- lighter and considerably less subversive. That, she says, is because the play is based on the novel by Charles Webb, rather than the screenplay.

The story, set in California in 1963, is the same: Young Benjamin Braddock, just out of college and very confused about the world, has a life-changing encounter with the predatory wife of his father's business partner. Fairchild, 55, has given a lot of thought to Mrs. Robinson and her earlier days.

"She's living in that repressive society, and it's very difficult for her," she says. "I mean, this is pre-Beatles, it's pre-pantyhose, it's pre-pill, it's pre-Women's Lib, it's pre -- 10 years before Roe v. Wade. . . . She got pregnant and had to get married. . . . I think she just feels trapped. I mean, she's just like this bird fluttering against the wall and drinking to anesthetize the pain of her wings getting broken."

And hey, a drunken bird can get mighty desperate.

Having completed her matinee, Fairchild has settled in at a corner restaurant table to talk about the show and her career. Her pink zippered sweater, pants and dangling earrings contrast sharply with Mrs. Robinson's wardrobe, which ranges from a party dress that fits like candle wax to, well, nothing at all. "The Graduate" has at times been bloodied by critics, but that nude scene, performed on Broadway by Kathleen Turner, has made the play famous.

"I've had so many people come up and ask our crew guys or ask me after the show: Was I wearing a body stocking? And I have no idea why they think that. It's billed that way, it's in the contract: I have to do it nude. I'm not out there in, you know, little bikini thongs or a body suit."

Today's rather elderly audience took her altogetherness in stride. But that isn't always the case.

"You look out and see binoculars in the second row and it's a bit daunting to come out and do the nude scene," she says, laughing. "You know they're just looking for wrinkles and cellulite."

Fairchild can afford to laugh, because even up close she displays very little in the way of wrinkles or cellulite. Her body, in fact, is kind of amazing, which takes work when you're 55.

"As a kid I loved ballet, and I remember that Baryshnikov had said that he had to warm up an extra five minutes every year older he got," she says. "By now I'm up to, you know -- two hours of warm-up!" She laughs again.

Fairchild is a self-made woman, in more ways than one. She was born Patsy Ann McClenny and grew up in Dallas, and at 9 "I was a little fat pudgy kid with big thick glasses, and I was quiet and never said a word, you know -- teachers loved me, straight-A student."

The teachers may have loved her, but the other kids called her Fatsy Patsy.

Fatsy Patsy knew what she wanted, and in short order the glasses were gone. She went on a regimen of hard-boiled eggs and grapefruit, "which is not a fun diet," and the extra weight disappeared as well. "It was the first step in creating Morgan Fairchild," she says. "You have to be willing to think of yourself differently if you're going to make a transition."

That same steel has served her well in Hollywood. After a four-year run on "Search for Tomorrow" in the mid-'70s, she joined the ranks of the prime-time temptresses of the next decade on "Flamingo Road" and, later, "Falcon Crest." She's made her share of movies, a lot of them with titles like "Shattered Illusions," "Criminal Hearts" and "Even Angels Fall." Her guest appearances on multiple sitcoms -- "Murphy Brown," "Roseanne," "Friends," "That '70s Show," you name it -- have gained wide approval, partly for her willingness to kid her image. And then there was that series of Old Navy commercials and a stint last fall as a judge on a reality show called "He's a Lady."

But almost every time Fairchild pops up, whether on television or here in Wilmington on her way to Washington, on some level it's about sex.

"Well, unfortunately, honey, that's the way they see me," she says good-naturedly.

Well -- yeah. But then there's a reason that's the way they see her.

She continues: "The business of Hollywood, if you don't have other things going on, it will eat you up and spit you out. . . . If you take what those people and that social structure think of you -- if you let it govern your life -- you might as well just kill yourself." She laughs. "And so -- I don't. I've always had all these other interests and, fortunately for me, I've always had a brain."

Her other interests include medicine -- she's been a voice of sanity on the AIDS front for years, pointing out early that it was a disease, not a plague from God. She also is fascinated by paleontology and foreign affairs. (She's appeared occasionally on "Nightline," "Hardball" and "The O'Reilly Factor," among others, to parse current events.) And once in a while those interests will dovetail with an acting job.

Take "Gospa," a 1995 feature set in Bosnia in which Fairchild played a nun -- just think about that for a minute -- with Martin Sheen and Michael York.

"Going to Bosnia and Croatia during the war to play a nun," she muses. "The movie was about Medjugorje, which is a Catholic pilgrimage place over there in Bosnia. [We were] losing sound takes to the shelling. . . . I like doing things that people don't expect me to do. Consequently, you know, for me, I've actually got a kind of interesting life."

The American ambassador was very hospitable, she says, and the two became friends. "I got to go into . . . Serb-held territory, and stuff like that, which is always kind of fun," she says. "And so one day I said, 'You know, if you're going anywhere that I would be allowed to go, a refugee camp or anything like that, I would love to go.' And he was very sweet and called up and said, 'Well, you know, I'm going over into this no-man's land today, there's a big meeting of generals and stuff, and we can go to a refugee camp, and I can show you a couple of cities.' "

So off they went to a bombed-out village.

"And this Polish U.N. guy comes over, and he speaks English -- 'Oh, Morgan Fairchild, we have your series in our country -- what are you doing here?' And all these press people, because it was a meeting of generals -- 'Morgan, what are you doing here?' "

She got a view of war that day that was both chilling and privileged, and it sounds far less safe than, say, facing an audience in Wilmington.

"This is the kind of stuff I like to do," she says. "So like a lot of the other actors, when we're in Zagreb, you know, they'll be at the casinos every night, and I'm hanging out with the war correspondents to find out what's really going on.

"So you may not have seen the movie. I had a good time making the movie because I learned a lot."

Fairchild has long enjoyed the friendship of political figures, scientists and journalists, and she can be outspoken on national affairs. During last year's election campaign, however, she was relatively muted. This is because at one point she dated John Kerry. It must have been a while back, because she's lived with producer Mark Seiler for more than 15 years.

"Long time ago," she allows quietly.

But don't ask her how long they saw each other. She won't say, and the laugh that follows doesn't entirely cover an edge in her voice.

The next topic is another of her un-favorites: On its biography page, the widely trafficked Internet Movie Database quotes something called Celebrity Sleuth magazine on the subject of her measurements -- before and after implants.

"Uh-huh," she says, sounding vaguely amused. "Uh-huh. I have no idea how they would ever know, and I have no comment."

Whatever. Fairchild is a smart lady who knows her way around the movie business, and she's found ways to survive.

"Maybe the hardest thing is that you -- the very thing that sort of made you famous, that people in some ways think you are . . . is the same thing that sort of traps you so that they won't let you come read for, you know, something you might like to do. . . . So it's a bit of a gilded cage. . . . It's nice to be thought of as attractive and all of that. On the other hand, it curtails you somewhat, too."

As an example, "They won't let me read for 'West Wing,' just to play, you know, a normal person. Or 'ER,' to play a doctor -- the things I'm actually good at. I mean, I'm pretty good on foreign policy -- they won't even let me come read for that. They don't think you look right. I'd come in and read with my hair in a bun and my glasses and stuff with no makeup on. It's Hollywood."

Yes, it's Hollywood and, she well knows, in some ways an actor is a commodity.

"When I've got all the makeup on and all the spit, polish and glue together, I look fine," she says. "But I know what I really look like, and I'm still that same little kid under there. I don't think I look that great. I think I did a good job of creating Morgan Fairchild." Big laugh. "But I created her."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company