You can always tell an Armenian, Lucy Saroyan was told, because they have sad eyes. Smiling faces, probably, but sad eyes.
She is actually half-Armenian and half-Jewish, a combination which produced a tiny, light-haired, blue-eyed woman who notes without rancor that she is not nearly as beautiful as her mother, a debutante turned actress who married, in succession, William Saroyan, William Saroyan, and Walter Matthau. Lucy Saroyan has thus had a more unusual life than the average graduate of, say, Largo Senior High.
She was recently in Washington to talk about "Hopscotch," which is currently playing here, a caper movie in which she has a tiny part. The movie stars -- guess who -- Walter Matthau. Why was Lucy Saroyan -- for whom a suite, not just a room, was taken in the expensive Madison Hotel -- sent on a publicity tour? Because she has two famous fathers, of course.
"I know it seems a little ridiculous to be on the road talking about your fathers at my age," she said, without a hint of torment. After all, it works . . . And with the strike of the Screen Actors' Guild, which she supported, the only work open to screen actors was talking about themselves and the movies they're in.
And what is her age? She's far too sensible to say, since she could play anthing between 25 and 35. She lives in Los Angeles but does not jog, swim or tan.She smokes cigarettes and reads books. "I'm really a New Yorker," she explained.
The first time she knew her father might be famous was when she went to Northwestern College and was rushed for a sorority. "Or, we're so glad to meet you," gushed one of the sorority sisters. "I just loved your father's book 'Grapes of Wrath.'"
"Have you tried 'A Bell for Adano?'" Lucy says she replied, straightfaced. Her father said he didn't mind being confused with John Steinbeck.
In second grade, her classmates were asked to name their heroes. The other kids reeled off the usual "Abraham Lincoln," or "George Washington," but when the teacher came around to her, she answered clearly: "Willie Shoemaker and Willie Sutton."
The teacher was not amused.
She spent her six years at the exclusive Dalton School in New York, where compared to Harry Belafonte, whose kids were also in the school, William Saroyan or Walter Matthau (this was before he was a star) were nobodies. "We called him Handsome Harry," she recalled. "Every time he came to the school -- I personally did this four times in six years -- we'd find an excuse to go through the teacher's lounge to see him."
Her mother was 18 when she married Saroyan and he was 34. She divorced him in 1948, remarried him a few years later and then they divorced again, by which time she had Lucy and her brother, Aram. Twenty-one years ago she married Matthau, with whom she has a 17-year-old son. "Walter was a very stabilizing influence," Lucy said. "Before, it was my mother, my brother and myself, and we were really like three children bringing each other up. Then Walter came and made us a family."
Which is not to say that Father Saroyan was absent. He attended to his normal parental duties with great attention, such as telling great stories, taking his children to the racetrack, teaching his daughter to play poker, and making up reading lists. Lucy and brother Aram spent several summers in Europe with him, and she remembers the outside of the casino at Monte Carlo very well.
"I was too young to get in, but Papa called me his lucky piece so I stayed out on the steps -- sometimes until 5 or 6 in the morning. People would come by and see me and say, 'Oh, is Bill in town?" I remember being mad that Aram got to go back to the hotel and sleep. When Papa lost he would give each of us a crisp, new $100 bill, but we didn't get anything if he won. I, of course, saved the money and put it in my savings account."
She and Aram -- who is now a writer, having passed through a period when he wrote one-word "concrete" poems that actually were published -- learned quickly that at their father's house the hours between 8 and 12 sacrosanct, and under no condition were they to disturb his writing. They could fight and scream at each other all they wanted, but needn't expect any attention from him during those hours. They also learned not to look at what he was writing.
After her first year at Northwestern, she knew, as she always had, that she wanted to be an actress. Her father advised her to drop out of school and start her life in the theater. Her mother thought she should get her degree, and when she did drop out, quickly informed her that if she was old enough to make such big decisions she was old enough to support herself and live on her own. (Which she did, and now thinks was the best thing her mother could have made her do.)
She moved into an apartment in New York with a roommate, enrolled at the Neighborhood Playhouse, and got a job being Matthau's (by then her stepfather) dresser on Broadway in "The Odd Couple." She started getting work doing voice-overs, a lucrative trade for actors being the unseen voice on commercials, or dubbing the words for some model who had a terrible voice. She demonstrated several: her "cosmetic" voice, throaty and talking about make-up, and her "teen" voice, higher and talking about acne.
For seven years she was based in New York, earning her living in the theater, including Broadway ("Room Service"), off-Broadway ("I Dreamt I Dwelt in Bloomingdale's") and summer stock ("The Gingerbread Lady"). Then she moved to California, got a part-time job as a film library archivist, and started making the rounds. She got parts in "Blue Collar," playing Harvey Keitel's wife, and "Greased Lightning," in which she played "white trash." Her role in "Hopscotch," even though it was cut from four scenes to one, is a welcome relief from the "perky, bubbly" parts she usually is called for.
She played Washington in 1969, in "Ah! Wilderness!" at Ford's Theatre, and remembers going off between a matinee and an evening performance to participate in an anti-war march. "I got maced, and the cop wanted to take me off to jail," she said. "I convinced him to walk a few blocks to the theater so I could prove to him that I really was in this play and he shouldn't put me in jail. It worked, even though I had a very small part and you could hardly see me in the photograph."
Although she is the daughter and sister of writers, she has no intention of engaging in that craft for a while yet. For one thing, she doesn't want to write a book "in what I call the vomit genre," or what Bette Midler has called "Who I Slept With" books.
For another thing, she has not resolved the basic dilemma of a writer: how to write about what you know, and do it honestly, without hurting those closest to you, whose view of themselves may not correspond with the view of the writer, even if it's fictionalized.
She's had first-hand experience with that kind of pain, and it makes her wary. Her father wrote about her in a book (she wouldn't say which one) and it hurt her very deeply, even though he did not intend to hurt her. "He went on all these TV shows and apologized for it, but I just didn't want to talk about it with him. It wasn't accurate. My brother had been through this several times, and he called me before the book came out and said, 'Watch out.'"
Saroyan has since written an article about his daughter called "The Father of the Most Beautiful Girl in the World," which she loved, but the earlier hurt lives on.
"The only reason to be a writer is if you can't not do it," she said. "I don't feel that. But I do feel that way about acting. If you don't feel that way about acting, than don't do it. Live a real life."