Correction: An earlier version of this profile of actress Linda Lavin, in a reference to her meeting with the late lawmaker Morris Udall, incorrectly referred to Udall as a senator. The Arizona Democrat served in the U.S. House. This version has been corrected.
Broadway baby? You bet. Linda Lavin’s first Tony Award nomination came in 1970 for Neil Simon’s “Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” and she was in the running again last year — for the fifth time — as the star of Donald Margulies’s acclaimed drama “Collected Stories.” The best actress trophy was hers in 1987 for Simon’s “Broadway Bound.”
So it’s fitting for Lavin to be singing the showbiz anthem “Broadway Baby” in the Kennedy Center’s highly anticipated revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” beginning Saturday, even though she’s far better known as a TV queen. If you’re old enough, you know Lavin’s voice: raspy, wry and warm, the single mother with singing dreams slinging hash in Mel’s Diner, where another sassy waitress famously chirped, “Kiss my grits!” Starting in 1976 and lasting nine years, Lavin was Alice on the CBS sitcom “Alice.”
Making rounds all afternoon,
Eating at a greasy spoon,
To save on my dough.
“How I got into it,” Lavin says of this “Follies,” “was the last 50 years of my life.”
Lavin has, as another “Follies” lyric puts it, careered from career to career, which gives the petite, slender actress plenty to talk about (“I seem to be blabbing away,” she says after 45 flowing minutes). And now at 73, Lavin is enjoying another hot streak in New York. She followed last season’s “Collected Stories” with “Other Desert Cities” this past winter at Lincoln Center; the show and its cast (which featured Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach) may reopen on Broadway in the fall.
“I hear she’s going to fix ‘Spider-Man.’ She’s that good,” playwright Paul Rudnick quipped to a New York scribe as Lavin was winning raves and a Lucille Lortel Award (off-Broadway) nomination for her performance in “Cities” as a recovering alcoholic.
Funny: Lavin actually was in a superhero musical in the 1960s, “It’s a Bird . . . It’s a Plane . . . It’s Superman,” directed by none other than Hal Prince, the guiding hand on Sondheim’s glorious run of 1970s musicals that included “Follies.” Sondheim buffs know that Lavin was in “The Mad Show,” a 1966 off-Broadway revue that featured a ditty called “The Boy From . . . ,” a “Girl From Ipanema” parody by Esteban Ria Nido (a.k.a. Sondheim).
“Singing was first nature to me,” Lavin says, chatting in one of the plush rooms upstairs at the Kennedy Center. Her mother was an accomplished opera singer who sang with bandleader Paul Whiteman and Metropolitan Opera soprano Rise Stevens before settling into family life. Lavin herself had a nightclub act in the 1960s — she has one now, too, and a CD aimed for release later this year — and she had no trouble getting into the chorus of musicals as she sought a toehold in New York.
But singing was a trap. “I was desperate to get out of musicals and to get into plays,” Lavin says. “They had the attitude that if you were a singer, you couldn’t act.”
She got into plays, but then the theater dried up. “There was nothin’ for nobody in New York in the ’70s,” Lavin recalls. “So we all started looking westward for work.”
Lavin found “Alice,” and the pink-collar character “totally politicized me.” It was an age when mainstream TV comedies often doubled as consciousness-raising tools, and Lavin had been cast as a working-class and women’s issues archetype. “It was the best,” Lavin says as her memory unspools to a rally in front of the Washington Monument with Pete Seeger singing next to her, to walking with Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, to serving on a national commission that led to meetings with Rep. Morris Udall and President Bill Clinton.
The controlled cascade of thought eventually leads Lavin to compare the relaxed style of “Follies” director Eric Schaeffer to the empathetic manner of the kind of politicians she likes, the ones who listen closely to their constituents. “I’m only talking like this because I’m in Washington,” Lavin explains.
For a full hour, Lavin radiates tranquillity and happiness. It’s success, of course: Roles come to her, and TV forever eased her lifestyle. But a hard divorce in the 1990s led to personal reassessment and a new life in Wilmington, N.C., possibly the source of the plaid blouse with snaps that Lavin wears untucked. Carolina is where it’s at: Lavin and her third husband, Steve Bakunas, run a 50-seat community theater and renovate houses there, houses being “a deep, crazy, addictive passion of mine.” Next project: building a kitchen for entertaining, maybe with a bedroom in the back.
“Great life, wonderful life,” she says. And “Follies”: “I have a great song, I’ve got a couple lines, a great costume. . . . This is easy.”
Pressley is a freelance writer.