Q&A: Penny Fuller

An actor for all seasons—and all stages, Fuller shines this month as teacher and performer at the O'Neill Theater Center's Cabaret and Performance Conference.


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Do you know what the theme for your show will be this year? What it will consist of?

Yes. But I get so scared every year because I think, "It's never going to be finished!" It's like an organism; it just grows and pulsates. It will be called "Lost and Found." So it's about the state of "lostness" and "foundness." Where have my travels, literally and figuratively, led me? We're still looking at songs to include—that phone call was just Barry saying, "I've emailed you another list"—let's see what he put in there [trying to connect with email] . . . Last year, I did a show with Anita Gillette, called "Sin Twisters," a play on twin sisters, because everybody always mistakes us for each other. Which is ridiculous, because we don't look at all alike. So the songs were kind of about how we're alike and how we're not alike. Then the year before, I did one with Tony Roberts, called "Fuller and Roberts Together Again, and Again, and Again"—because we've been in college together, we were in love together, we were friends together, we were in plays together . . . that kind of thing.

Why isn't this thing working? I am so not computer literate . . . Okay, here's Barry's message: "Do you know 'Sleepin' Bee'? I think that would be great for you. And I have a copy of 'I Don't Think I'll End It All Today.' I want to show you a couple of songs, 'Travelin' Light' and 'Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home'" . . . we may change all this but I'm giving you an idea.

I wanted to talk to you a bit about the rest of your career. You studied at Northwestern . . .

I did! There was a great teacher there named Alvina Krause, a little, tiny, scary lady who really separated the men from the boys early on. If you survived her, you could survive show business. But she was so inspirational, and she had a summer stock theater. If you were lucky, you would get to go there and do nine plays, with all the sets and all the scenery. I went for two years and played the great roles—she said, "You don't learn from 'Time Out for Ginger' as much as you do from playing Mary Stuart.

Then I came to New York, and the reason I got into singing was that in those days, you couldn't audition for a play unless you were in the union. But, you could audition for the chorus of a musical. I wasn't a good enough singer for the chorus—you have to really be able to sing to be in the chorus—but I could sing enough to do the "cute" parts, and that's how I started.

Probably the hardest part I had in my whole life was a tour of Toys in the Attic by Lillian Hellman. It was a really difficult role, and I was very young. We'd get reviewed every week, because every week we'd be in a new city. One week, it'd be "that sniveling girl playing the ingenue" and the next week, it'd be "the only worthwhile performance in the play is given by that young blonde slip of a girl." I learned that it's all an opinion, and just keep doing your work.

Then I took over Barefoot in the Park; I was Elizabeth Ashley's standby. So I got to do Neil Simon, and I learned all about comedy from him. Next was Cabaret, which everybody was auditioning for—I didn't get it. But later, when they had problems—because sweet Jill Haworth was sick and broke her leg or whatever—they asked me to stand by. For whatever reason, that part at that time . . . I just happened. I got to go on a lot; I became sort of infamous. In the meantime, I sprinkled in parts with Shakespeare in the Park, because that was my chance to do serious plays.

I tried for and didn't get Promises, Promises, so I went out to Hollywood. And I started doing more theater out there, and television. Then I came back to do Applause. After that, I went back to L.A. again and took a leave of absence from acting, and became a mother and doctor's wife for awhile, in Atlanta. That didn't work too well. So I went back to California, did a tour of The Elephant Man . . .

which was on television . . .

Yes, and I won an Emmy for that. I did a lot of television. I got to be what I was trained to be, a versatile actress. I was never in one niche.

You guested on a lot of TV series. What was your favorite experience?

"China Beach." It was written so well. It was written for actors. An actor will try to find a way to make a life for her character, around what's in the dialogue. I remember one scene where the mother I was playing was angry and bitter, but the script had her kneading dough. That's something an actor would think up as a bit of business for the character. But those writers were so good at thinking up such things.  And then there was a scene where the daughter and I have just come in from the father's funeral, in our black dresses, and we're hanging out sheets on the laundry line. So you've got the white sheets, the black dresses, and we can't communicate very well because of the flapping of the sheets. It was that kind of writing that was so thrilling to be a part of. And then there was this big scene with the mother and daughter, when we do have this moment, when we're out dancing, playing "Swing the Statue" in the rain. I mean, that's really interesting, and you can act better because you have three-dimensional characters.

Early in your career, you were also on "The Edge of Night!"

God! Yes, before you were born, I would think. I was Geraldine McGrath, poor little rich girl. My mother ran the dress store, or something. And the first time I was on,  it was live. Someone had stolen the cash out of the cash register, and my mother thought it was me. And the other actress forgot a line, and I said, "Mother, don't you want to know who took the money?"

Q&A: Penny Fuller

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