First Q&A: Elizabeth Wilson

A veteran character actress reflects on 70 years onstage.


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I also remember how forward he could be. My niece, who's a wonderful girl—she lives in Florida now, and is an occupational therapist—she spent a lot of time in New York City, and came here when we were doing Eh? I just remember this tiny dressing room, and as we were leaving, going down the steps, she just happened to be walking in front of him—I'll never forget this—and he just took his hands and put them on her breasts. And we liked him so much, that was okay! She had a crush on him, too.

One of my favorite movies of yours, still, is Quiz Show. What do you remember about working with that cast?

I adored Ralph Fiennes. And Paul Scofield—oh my God, I had such a crush on him! We were directed by Bob Redford. I came on board after they'd been filming for a couple of weeks. Redford knelt at my feet and started giving me directions. It was scary; he'd say, "This is how I want you to say this line. And put your foot here when you do that. And I want you to move your head over here and say it this way." I thought, "What the f--k am I going to do? To follow such explicit directions—that's not being an actor." For several days he kept at me in this way, "Don't say 'poop,' say 'pooop.'" I finally complained to Ralph and Paul, and they said, "Don't worry. He did it to us, too. He'll move on to someone else. Just wait; be brave." They were right. But the first couple of days were awful. Redford is a man in need of command. 

I don't know what there was about Paul. We kept in touch; wrote letters to each other. He certainly was one of the great British actors—I know nothing about his personal life, but what a charmer! Certainly, one of the great British actors. And Ralph has done so well. Was that film a fair success?

Thinking back on it, it probably didn't do as well at the box office as it deserved to. Maybe it was a little too cerebral.

I've made 35 movies; the blockbusters were The Graduate and 9 to 5. I thought Lily Tomlin was great, but I didn't get to know Jane or Dolly that well. The Addams Family was fun, too. I thought Raul Julia was an angel, a charmer. I'd done a musical with him at Lincoln Center. My Addams character ended up having two to three accents combined; it was very strange. Sometimes, when a character isn't that strong, an accent helps to give them presence. You'll see the same effect with wardrobe sometimes; it's interesting.

Earlier, you mentioned working with Sanford Meisner. What made him special as a teacher?

In 1942, I had a friend—Frank Gregory—who said to me . . . I was at the Barter Theatre in Abington, Va. That was where I started out, like Gregory Peck and many others.

Ernest Borgnine also comes to mind . . .

The crazy thing was, Ernest Borgnine was our driver, nobody liked him very much. Even now, I can't believe his success—he was just a very ordinary, common guy. I was at Barter many years. But Ernie was, like, a joke who became a big star.

But anyway, I had this friend at Barter . . . I had wanted to go to the American Academy. And he said, "Elizabeth, you will study with Sanford Meisner. Luckily, the woman who ran the Neighborhood Playhouse at the time—Rita Morgenthal—came to Barter, happened to see me and offered me a scholarship. I moved into the Studio Club. I went to class the first day and auditioned for Sandy. He told me, "You have talent; now I'm going to teach you how to act." His technique was so internal. I belonged to the Actors Studio but didn't spend much time there, because that was so complicated it was just crazy. But Meisner's technique was so simple: When you read a part, you think, "What does this person want?" That's an action, and that's what Sandy believed was the core of acting. It changed my life. And oh, honey, was he a charmer! He was gay, and like so many gay men we knew, he married, of course. I adored him. Toward the end of his life he was running out of money, and I let him live in my apartment in New York. He was living there with a young man who was taking care of him. He was there one whole summer; I forget where I was at the time. I remember telling my sister at one point that I wanted to get back into my apartment but Sandy was still there. She said, "Don't complain. Remember, he is your god." And she was right.

I never knew Martha Graham. Sandy was available; Martha was a star. But I do remember what she said to me when I told them I was going to go overseas and perform with the USO: "You will be killed."[laughs]

IShe seems to have been direct like that. I remember talking to Joanne Woodward about her; she told me this story about going to Martha Graham for advice when she was agaonizing about how to play the lead in The Three Faces of Eve. Graham's attitude was something like, "Oh, just play it and stop obsessing."

That's right; Joanne studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse. I met Joanne when she worked on Picnic, because Paul had a small part—but he wasn't in the movie, either! Joanne was an understudy. That was when they met and began to see each other. She and I became friends. The play was at the Music Box Theater in Manhattan, and we dressed on the same floor. A couple of times Paul came into my dressing room—we had these big mirrors—and he'd sit in front of the mirror and talk to me. I'd look into the mirror and see those eyes; I've never seen eyes so beautiful. So blue. He was so good-looking, and such a sweetheart. He wasn't a star, just a very available, good man.

Your parents were not show business people. Where did the impetus to act come from?

I grew up in a very interesting household. My grandfather was German, and he came to America in 1870 looking for his brother. He never found him, and ended up settling in Grand Rapids, Mich. His name was Ferdinand Welter. He had two children: One was my mother, Marie. She fell in love with Henry Dunning Wilson, a tall, elegant man. He had come from a rich, grand social family, and graduated from Princeton. Anyway, we lived with my grandfather, who was very dictatorial. He was in real estate, and owned apartment houses and homes. So we lived very grandly; I grew up in a six-floor mansion.

My grandfather and my dad were always at loggerheads, and my father was rarely around. He had an affair. I escaped, psychologically and in every other way. When I was about 14 or 15, I used to sit on the sunporch at the back of the house, looking at magazines like McCall's and Ladies Home Journal. I'd look at the characters and tell myself stories. They would speak to me. And Mother was so savvy—she caught me doing that and sent me to a place in Grand Rapids that gave acting lessons. Then I ended up at Barter at 19 or 20. So, how did I become an actress? To escape. It saved my life.

My dad and my grandfather never really spoke. We tried to live independently of him for a time and moved to Detroit for four years; that was horrible. We even tried living in another house in Grand Rapids. But we always wound up living with my grandfather because it was so much easier—he had lots of servants. But I had to get away from that kind of environment. When my grandfather found out I wanted to be an actress, he said, "How will she make a living—on her back?"Because in the 1930s and '40s, actors were considered whores and prostitutes.

First Q&A: Elizabeth Wilson

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