In All Fair-ness
Delighted to be in Kansas City for another New Theatre Restaurant production, Morgan Fairchild has also savored working with Hollywood greats.
Morgan Fairchild enjoyed her first run at the New Theatre Restaurant so much that she's back for a return engagement.
"I had such a great time when I was here before," Fairchild says of starring in Murder Among Friends at the New Theatre in 2014. "A lot of the local people were just wonderful — John Rensenhouse and Victor Raider-Wexler and all these different people that had a wonderful time."
This spring and for a portion of the summer, Fairchild is one of the five members of The Dixie Swim Club, a play by the popular writing team of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten. Fairchild has known New Theatre co-owners Richard Carrothers and Dennis Hennessy (who directs her here) since 1972, when she was in a tour of Last of the Red Hot Lovers that helped open Tiffany's Attic just a stone's throw from the Country Club Plaza.
"Dennis and Richard, they treat you like a queen. They're great to work for, they're easy to work for, and they're really, really nice guys," Fairchild says as she sips a can of Coca-Cola between rehearsals. "All these years, they've stayed really, really nice guys. So it's a joy to come here. The audiences are very supportive and generally laugh at most of the stuff we hope they'll laugh at!"
Working in theater brings things full-circle in a way for Fairchild, known to millions for portraying many a sultry, conniving seductress and alluring socialite in film and television. Her credits read like a history of 1970s and 1980s network TV: a recurring role on Mork & Mindy, a season of Falcon Crest, a Golden Globe nomination for Flamingo Road, guest appearances on The Love Boat and Magnum, P.I. Fairchild started in the theater when she was 10. She and her younger sister, Cathryn Hartt, worked in different theaters as kids, but especially at Theater Three in Dallas.
They learned just as much by observing as they did by working. And few performers had a more profound influence on Fairchild than Laurence O'Dwyer.
"My sister and I would just watch in the wings — any show we were ever in —we just stood in the wings all night and would watch Larry work," she says. "Because he was that brilliant.
"A lot of people over the years would ask who the best people were you ever worked with. And I'd always say, for comedy, it's Robin Williams and Larry O'Dwyer. You've never heard of Larry O'Dwyer, but he's as good as Robin Williams. He's that fast, that inventive, that crazy."
Fairchild would have a front-row seat to Williams' craziness when she was on Mork & Mindy. She guest-starred on an episode of Happy Days in 1977, and whenever she was on the Paramount lot, she would stop by and say hello because she loved the cast so much. On one such occasion, Henry Winkler asked her, "You have to be anywhere?"
"Good. Stay and watch this kid work."
It was Williams rehearsing his Mork character for the first time. Nine months later, Fairchild's agent called her about the series Garry Marshall was starting that would become Mork & Mindy. Her agent had reservations about it, but she saw Williams was a genius and said, "Don't tell Garry I'd work for free to work with Robin Williams."
Fairchild would get the part and was able to show off her improvisational skills.
"We're doing a read-through, and it's very funny, and then we start blocking. And I quickly catch on that what happens is, you start with a script, and Robin just goes," Fairchild recalls. "And a lot of it is his nightclub act or whatever he's been working on. Everybody just stands back and watches him go. Robin would run out of material eventually, but he would never admit it. Howard [Storm, the director] would say, 'OK, let's back to the script!'
"We got up to do my bit, so he throws something out. And I threw something back at him. So he looks at me and he throws something again, and I throw something. And finally, he came over and grabbed me and threw me in the air and said, 'Mama, you're one of me!'"
Throughout the 1980s, Fairchild would be ubiquitous in primetime soaps and miniseries. North and South, a highly rated Civil War miniseries from 1985 and 1986, had an all-star cast that included Fairchild, Patrick Swayze in his big break, and Elizabeth Taylor, with whom Fairchild shared a flight to the set on producer David L. Wolper's jet. But her first big miniseries was The Dream Merchants from 1980 about the early days of the film industry. The protagonist in that star-studded cast was a young Mark Harmon, who would be her on-screen husband in Flamingo Road.
"The fun thing was to work with Vince Sherman, the director, who had a big affair with Joan Crawford, and directed all these Crawford movies. To me, the fun was all the legends," she says. "You would get your wardrobe, and you would look and see it was made for Gary Cooper, because they all had their names in there whoever it was made for. The silk muslins — if you're a lady into fashion — were amazing. Because it goes from 1912 to 1928, it was very fun because we went through all the gossamer, organza, the big hats, lots of lace, all that kind of stuff, right up into flapper stuff where I'm doing a Charleston on a baby grand."
Fairchild has shared the screen with many leading ladies of old Hollywood, like Shelley Winters, Jane Wyman and Natalie Wood. But she did the pilot of Aaron Spelling's ABC series Hotel just to work with Bette Davis.
A couple of times, Fairchild would be at big galas where she and Davis sat at the same table, only for Davis to smoke all night and ignore her. When Fairchild presented at the 1982 Academy Awards, there was Davis again backstage, smoking away and ignoring her. So there was some trepidation when they were shooting the Hotel pilot on location at Hancock Park in Los Angeles.
"All I'd heard is she hates working with other women, she's very difficult, she's always ready before the crew has it lit, always like, 'What are we waiting on? What are we waiting on?'" Fairchild says. "And certainly, that had been my experience watching her sit there puff on cigarettes backstage looking like she could chew nails."
But when Fairchild introduced herself, she could hardly believe what she heard. In a pitch-perfect Bette Davis impersonation, Fairchild says Davis told her, "Oh yes! We met at the Valentino Awards."
"Now, she didn't speak to me all night," Fairchild says. "I said, 'I didn't think you'd remember.' I start to walk away, and she says, 'And I've got something to say to you!' 'Yes, ma'am?' 'You...are marvelous!' And I'm like, 'Uh, uh, thank you so much!' I come back, and she goes down this whole list of everything I've ever done on film or television."
Davis wasn't well enough to be on the show after the pilot was made, and in a real-life All About Eve scenario, Anne Baxter replaced her. But Fairchild and Davis stayed in touch and had long chats on the phone, reinforcing the connection she had with the actresses before her.
"It's like what Bette said: You're the one that's like us, that has the glamour and the acting chops," Fairchild says. "And I would always find, because I was totally professional, all the older actors that worked with me always liked me. Because I was on time, I knew my lines, I did good work, and I was always ready.
"I've been so fortunate to work with so many people over the years of all different kinds of generations. In my business, you just consider yourself very, very lucky to have either met or worked with a lot of these people."
If you're of a certain generation, you know Fairchild best from Old Navy commercials and as Chandler's novelist mom, Nora Tyler Bing, on the hit NBC sitcom Friends. When she appeared on the first season of the show, she was impressed by what she saw.
"Nobody ever knows it's going to be a pop-culture phenomenon. What I saw is that the work was good," she says. "I saw that the potential was there, that the ensemble work was good. Sometimes you have a sitcom where there's one person who just jumps out and becomes the star and that's it. In this case, each of them was very good individually with what they were doing, but also the ensemble work was very good."
Think of The Dixie Swim Club as a Southern all-female stage version of Friends with similar ensemble work on display. "Of course," Fairchild says, "I'm the self-centered, egomaniacal one who fancies herself the sex symbol.
"I think a lot of the audience will identify with these characters. They've been friends since college, they get together every year to stay in touch and catch up and give each other advice on whatever's going on in their lives. Everybody knows someone like one of these characters, or they are one of these characters. But I think people will really get a kick out of it because of that shock of recognition. And some of it deals with the aging process, because you follow these ladies over several decades of their lives, just sort of seeing how they handle it. I think everybody can find something in there that they like."
The Dixie Swim Club runs through July 2. For tickets, call (913) 649-SHOW or visit newtheatre.com.