Interview – Penny Peyser
Bruce Kimmel: Hello, Penny Peyser, and welcome to haineshisway.com, a jiggy site. You, Penny Peyser, have had quite an interesting career and have worked with many interesting people. But before we get to that, tell us where you’re from and when you first got bitten by the performing bug.
Penny Peyser: I hail (or do I hale?) from Irvington-on-Hudson, New York and the bug bit me when my daddy let me skip a day of school at age six to see “My Fair Lady”. I thought that Julie Andrews was way cool. Although in that decade “way cool” would have drawn blank stares. Or maybe I’m selling the fifties short.
BK: Did you do shows throughout your childhood? Take classes? And once you graduated from high school, where did you end up going to college, and what was your major and did you do shows there and have you noticed that this has turned into one of those confounded run-on sentences that has no end and no puntuation and quick, Penny, throw me a period or something to stop the madness. Whew, thanks. So answer all of those questions prior to the period.
PP: I definitely was drawn to theatrical pursuits in school. I recall singing out in elementary school the following lyrics. “And now I am 8, the feeling is great! My work is much harder ’cause I’m in third grade.” The crowds went wild. My first significant role was that of a swallow in “The Swallow and the Prince” – or maybe the Prince got first billing. I played a bird who was in love with a statue and refused to fly south for the winter in order to stay by his side…or on his head. I was supposed to kiss the prince before I dropped dead of the cold, but this was far too embarrassing for me so I air kissed him and threw myself on the floor, thus thwarting all the little creeps with cameras in the front row, hoping to catch me doing something yucky. Feel free to edit this Bruce, as even I am not following this thrilling tale. My triumph was in sixth grade when I decided to insert a musical number in our non-musical production of “Oliver Twist”. I was playing the Artful Dodger and couldn’t resist the opportunity to sing “Consider Yourself” along with a self-choreographed tap dance. Now that really brought the house down and imagine the director’s surprise.
High school – I was a theatre geek with a minor in field hockey. “Bye Bye Birdie”, “The Boyfriend”, “Born Yesterday” – wouldn’t you have loved to see me in the Judy Holiday role?
I majored in theatre at Skidmore College where I played the lead in Lysistrata – while still a virgin and knowing not of what I spoke. I transferred to Emerson College in Boston and continued my affair with artsy, experimental theatre. I was heavy into Sam Shepherd and performed in “La Turista” in my underwear with red body paint. My folks especially loved that one.
My first professional job was in the improvisational troop, “The Proposition”, where I learned all about trusting your fellow actor…as in DON’T. That was during my senior year at Emerson. Ok, now I’m lost in my own life story as I’m sure the reader is.
BK: All right, so there you are, Penny Peyser, young and extremely beautiful actress – did you actually move into the city of Manhattan or did you commute when you started looking for work. Tell us about being a young actress in New York in the 70s (the era, not the block) – it was quite different then than it is now. Did you do classes? Go on scads of auditions?
PP: I did move directly to Manhattan and secured the prerequisite waitressing job. In those days you could still make “rounds”, a term your average twenty-something can’t possibly relate to. I used to literally walk the halls with a bunch of pictures and meager resumes and try to convince some agent to take me on. My first agent was Martin Gage and one of his junior agents saw me out in the hall with I’m sure a very lost look on my face and declared, “I like her!” And so began the agent-actor dance. Prior to securing “representation” I did attend a lot of open calls for Broadway chorus jobs. That experience definitely put me in my place. Not that I’ve yet figured out what that is. After doing some commercials I got a job in the chorus of an Off-Broadway musical called Diamond Studs. This job also involved serving cocktails during intermission. I tried to pretend I was a totally different person while taking drink orders, as this aspect of the gig was humiliating. It was during this production that I discovered the joys (and entertainment value) of streaking. But I’ll save those details for my memoir.
BK: You can call your memoir The Joys of Streaking: The Penny Peyser Story. Now, tell us about doing Lanford Wilson’s HotL Baltimore. Was that fun? Off-broadway back then was very exciting and adventuresome, wasn’t it?
PP: Hot L was my first real Equity job and I was very proud of it. I had understudied two roles for a year in that production prior to taking over the lead. Circle-in-the-Square downtown on Bleeker Street was such an cool atmospheric theatre. There was supposed to be a ghost there but I never ran into it. I think only our more alcoholic cast members were prone to seeing him/her. I did the role of The Girl for a year and really loved the whole eight- a- week thing. It was a cocoon-like existence, the theatre being a real haven for me. Lanford Wilson’s star was on the rise at that point – but whenever he was a big low or his newest effort wasn’t going well, he’d come back to haunt the Hot L cast, sometimes sober, sometimes not. But I did get a kick out of meeting a playwright I’d admired so in college. Hey maybe Lanford was the ghost in the theatre…hmm. Yes, Off-Broadway was very fun, casual, and wild back then. I remember thinking how we really had a responsibility to the audience because they were paying $8!
BK: All right, so there you are, you did a well-known off-Broadway play – how on earth did you end up in All the President’s Men with Mr. Robert Redford and Mr. Dustin Hoffman? That was quite a coup for a young actress, and your scene in the film is really memorable. Tell us all about it. Hold nothing back.
PP: I have a commercial casting director to thank for that whole thing. Of course, being senile, I’m blanking on her name – but she sent my picture down in a stack of pictures to Isabella Halliburton who was casting the film. For some unknown reason, my photo and one other were selected and I was flown down to D.C. to audition. That would be unheard of today for such a small role. The other actress DIDN’T SHOW UP, (Yay!! Uh, I mean, too bad.) and that increased my odds. I narrowly avoided a nervous breakdown reading with D. Hoffman, the only movie star I’d ever cut out pictures of, and another nervous breakdown when I met Redford. I got that role because of my ability to improvise (thank-you, Proposition) and my understanding of the Watergate scandal, via my dad who was in Congress at the time.
I was stunned that I got the role and got to spend a day on a movie set with Hoffman, Alan Pakula and Gordon Willis. And of course my boss, Robert Redford stopping by to say “Hey, how’s it going?” didn’t hurt either. We shot on top of the Kennedy Center right in a flight path from National Airport. The sound mixer told me not to expect my scene to make it into the film because the noise from the airplanes was so intense. But…he was selling himself short and the scene made it, airplanes and all. Hoffman and I improvised most of the scene, which on paper was quite dry. It turned into this flirty kind of thing with dark political undertones. (what the heck did I just say???) I refer to it as the only sex scene in the movie.
BK: And a fine sex scene it was. After the film, Hollywood came a calling, and you were cast in Rich Man, Poor Man the television series. Or was it Book Two or Book Three or Book Eight. What book was the fershluganah Rich Man, Poor Man thing? How long were you on it? How was it to be on a hit television series back then? Tell us everything.
PP: I took out a loan from the Actors’ Credit Union (I was conveniently serving on the loan committee at the time) and came out to L.A. I got an agent, pretty much based on “All the President’s Men” and started the audition thing. After about three months I was hired for Rich Man, Poor Man Book II. The series had an instant following because of the huge success of the first one, which I think was the first novel for television. That was before the days of cable so the network audiences were exponentially bigger – and it was truly amazing (and frightening) to see how many people watched the show. It really was strange to be suddenly recognized everywhere I went. I must admit I didn’t have a clue about film acting back then.
BK: Tell us about some of the other TV work you did back then – TV movies, guest shots, etc.
PP: After RMPM I got a gig on the Tony Randall show, playing Tony’s daughter. That was shot at the old MTM lot and it was a hoot seeing Mary Tyler Moore herself at our tapings. After that I started doing a lot of guest spots and TV movies. “BJ and the Bear” was a memorable one for me because quite against type I ran around in hot pants, platform shoes and a southern accent. Actually, southern accents were a staple of mine for awhile there. “Blue and the Grey” and “The Girls in the Office” all required me to drawl in some fashion.
BK: Okay, y’all, now we get to your next film, the classic comedy, The In-Laws, with Alan Arkin and Peter Falk. You played opposite the gentleman who was the best man at my actual wedding, Mr. Michael Lembeck. First of all, I don’t think you were originally cast in the film – tell us who was and how you came to replace them. Hold nothing back.
PP: I auditioned for Arthur Hiller and actually had the audacity to think I was perfect for the role and that I was going to be cast. WRONG. Fran Drescher got the role – well, you can see that we’re almost identical. Anyway, I got over it – but several weeks later when they’d started shooting, I got a call around 6PM from a frantic producer, telling me I HAD to come to Warner Brothers immediately – that I was to replace Fran and be fitted for a wedding gown post haste. I was thrilled of course and ran over, dirty hair and all for my fitting. Apparently things hadn’t gone that well with Fran – something about her re-writing Alan’s dialogue. Anyway, not to dis Ms. Drescher at all – she obviously had a lot more vision for her career than I did. But I was very happy she was “let go”.
BK: It must have been a really fun set to be on. Do you have any fun stories about what went on and even if you don’t can you make some up?
PP: “The In-Laws” was a dream job, the kind that was so much fun it seemed like a vacation. Check out my June 2 article for the LA Times for more on my nostalgia for that movie. OR, I can just tell you that the beloved dining room scene where Peter Falk reveals his true craziness was hard to get through because of all the laughing, on and off camera. Alan could barely keep a straight face when Peter was talking about the tsetse flies.
BK: So, that movie comes out and is a smash. Before we move on to your next film, what in tarnation do you think of this remake.
PP: I couldn’t believe they were remaking a movie I was in – while I was still on this earth. “Shouldn’t I be dead?” was about all I could think of when I heard it was in the works. My friend Nat Mauldin was one of the screenwriters and used my last name for Albert Brook’s character as sort of an obscure homage to me. Great. Swell. I wanted to hate the remake, but couldn’t exactly. My husband and I actually laughed in places, but basically the film was a non-event. Brooks was funny as always, but there was no heart and of course Falk and Arkin’s performances are unbeatable and irreplaceable. The only thing that kept coming to mind re this new version was WHY?
BK: Okay, next up, movie-wise, is The Frisco Kid, with Mr. Harrison Ford and Mr. Gene Wilder. Tell us about the film a little and how it was to work with those gentlemen. The film didn’t do all that well – why do you think that is?
PP: Robert Aldrich directed that film and he wasn’t a man known for his comedy. The film was neither fish nor fowl and I think that was its downfall. Harrison Ford was very sweet to me. I was an Episcopalian struggling to do a Yiddish accent and not too confident. Gene Wilder was quite serious, as I remember. Over the years I’ve run into many people who actually liked the movie but didn’t see it when it was in the theatres. Mostly they saw it at their Bnai Brith. – See, I can’t even spell that. Bruce, you’re a Jew, help me out! I did get to kiss Harrison so it wasn’t a total loss.
BK: Out of all your TV movies and mini-series, I was quite partial to your wonderful performance in Wild Times with Mr. Sam Elliot. Did you like doing a western?
PP: I loved doing a western, although I was somewhat terrified of riding my horse. Probably what I loved was watching Sam gallop across the plains. I had it in my little head that I would do a slew of westerns after that. In fact I did…none. Too bad. I am theoretically a horsey kind of gal and I do like those hats. We shot “Wild Times” in Santa Fe which is still one of my favorite spots in the country.
BK: All right, Penny Peyser, it is somewhere in this time frame that you and I met. I was doing a musical comedy of my own concocting, called Together Again. I believe, if I remember correctly, that you saw the production at LACC. And then, when we decided to move it, you were available, and since I hadn’t enjoyed the person who’d originally played the lead, I cast you. Was that your first experience doing a musical? Did you have fun? I will tell our readers this – the musical had one really weird flaw and Penny pointed it out to me and pointed it out strongly and she was absolutely right and I changed it for the better.
PP: You nut! Of course that wasn’t my first musical. (Jeez did it SEEM like it was?, said the insecure actress.) I can’t for the life of me (senility again) remember what my brilliant suggestion was or what the flaw was in Together Again. Refresh, please.
BK: In the LACC version, my character had been pining away for your character for seven years. You pointed out that that made him quite an obsessive idiot and you were right. We changed it to one year of pining and voila, it worked ever so much better. Do you remember the night we played to three people? We were in some hell hole in Burbank and it was so depressing, but I think we went out and did the first act and then told the three people to go home.
PP: That night provided me with one of my favorite theatre/showbiz stories. The way I tell it is:
There were about the same number of people in the audience as there were in the show – 8, I think. And one of them was a heckler! When the first act curtain came down we stared at each other and someone – it was probably you – said, “What do you think? Act II or go across the street for chips and salsa?” The latter won out and as we actors beat a retreat to the Mexican joint, the stage manager informed the folks that we just didn’t’ feel like doing the second act and they could come back another evening or get a refund. This evening proved the point that the show mustn’t necessarily go on. I loved being a quitter.
BK: The next thing you did, I think, was a small role in Unfaithfully Yours with Dudley Moore. Were things beginning to get difficult in terms of your getting cast or were you taking things more slowly because you had a young child?
PP: Can’t answer that really. Having a child definitely changed my priorities.
BK: Then you got a great job, playing opposite Jack Warden and John Rubinstein in the CBS series Crazy Like a Fox. Tell us a little about that show and what you did in it.
PP: “Crazy” was a great job in that the people were nice, it ran for awhile, and it saved my butt financially. Otherwise, I was playing the Donna Reed of the 80’s. It seemed like every other line of mine was, “Would you like some pie/ham/sandwiches?” “You sure you don’t want any?” “Where are you going?” “Be careful!” and like that.
BK: But you did it very well. It was amazing because the show followed Murder, She Wrote and was a huge hit and yet, CBS in all their stupidity, ended up moving you guys to a different time slot, which really hurt the show. What did everyone feel about it, and how did it affect the morale on the set?
PP: I think we really got sabotaged. The brass at the network probably changed while we were running and they didn’t care about the show and essentially buried it in the schedule. I think they stuck us opposite Dynasty when it was at its peak. People were not happy, especially the producers who had busted their butts to make it work – and had. I think we would have run for years if they had kept us following Murder, She Wrote.
BK: While you were doing the series, you got to play Peter Pan at the Sacramento Music Circus. I know that the process there was not necessarily a pleasant one for you – how come? But I also know that ultimately you gave a terrific account of yourself in the show. Is that difficult when you’re not on the same wavelength as your director?
PP: Really, the director problem was totally responsible for my angst during that production. He (I won’t bother naming him) went out of his way to do all kinds of passive-aggressive things, including having Captain Hook take the final bow. In Peter Pan, no less!! We got off on the wrong foot and he was not interested in making the situation better. My favorite moment was being flown into a large piece of scenery on opening night in Act III. There I was, about to duel Hook and rescue the Lost Boys, and BANG! I knocked over the ship’s large steering wheel, narrowly missing some tykes. I “saved” the moment by ad-libbing , “So much for your ship!!” I got a huge hand and laugh and the audience relaxed and re-joined the show. The director actually spoke to me afterwards, complimenting my line and checking to see if I was alright. Lawsuits were all that was on his mind, I’m sure. He didn’t give a rat’s ass about me. (sob)
BK: You’d played Peter Pan once before, back East, in a production directed by Toby Bluth, with whom I’d worked way back in 1965. Was that a more fun experience? And, in both productions you were flown by Foy – did you love flying?
PP: Foy was the only company doing flying – insurable flying – at that time, and yes it was a blast. I’d say the New Hampshire production I did was much more fun because it was the first time doing a role I’d always loved and the atmosphere was joyous.
BK: You also did a night club act here in LA at the Gardenia. How was that experience?
PP: Scary. But I had a good director.
BK: Why thank you, Penny Peyser (yes, Virginia, I directed Miss Peyser’s act and she was wonderful). After Crazy Like a Fox got cancelled, you did a stint on Knot’s Landing that was fairly controversial I think. Tell us about it.
PP: My character on Knots was a rape victim. I don’t know how controversial it was but it wasn’t an overdone subject at the time. Maybe I’m kidding myself about that. But it did involve doing research at the Rape Crisis Center that was enlightening. I also got to sing on that series which was an unusual treat.
BK: You also did a movie with Mr. Charles Bronson, one of his typical films of murder and mayhem. How was that?
PP: I got to wear a terrific gown.
BK: And you were terrific in your terrific gown – very stately as I recall. You also did something with Miss Shannon Tweed, what on earth was THAT about?
PP: I had a college fund that needed…funding.
BK: Well, that is a fine reason to act in a film with Miss Shannon Tweed. In the last ten years, you’ve managed to do some TV films and guest shots, but I would imagine given the way TV and films are today, that it’s difficult for a woman who is no longer an ingenue to get good roles, and I know you have been active about trying to do something about it.
PP: There’s no question that opportunities for more mature women diminish in television and film. It is frustrating, given that most of us get better at what we do the older we get. I was involved for awhile with a nonprofit group called Actresses @ Work and we attempted to raise awareness about ageism in the entertainment workplace. It is a real issue but after awhile…ageism gets, well…old. You just have to keep plugging away and find projects that interest you and that you can initiate.
BK: Well, Penny Peyser, you have been absolutely delightful and we salute you with our official haineshisway.com beverage – Diet Coke, and also our official food, cheese slices and ham chunks. Do you have any final words for our Dear Readers?
PP: If you’ve made it through my meandering, kudos to you, Dear Readers. And I do hope to do more exciting things when I grow up.