6 years ago, when I was writing for RetroJunk, I wrote a popular article entitled “Some Of My Fave 80s Women”, where I paid tribute to women who impressed me with their pop-cultural output and their looks in the 80s. One of the women I wrote about was Ellen Foley, who made an impression on me through her short, but memorable, stint as public defender Billie Young on “Night Court”.
As a fan of retro culture, I also became a fan of her music, even attempting a few times to perform “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” at karaoke because I was a fan of Foley’s work on that song (I did Meat Loaf’s part and Stacey, the woman who ran karaoke, did Foley’s part). I failed at my attempts, but I never stopped being a fan of Ellen’s work. 6 years after I wrote about her in “Some Of My Fave 80s Women”, I got the opportunity to interview Ellen Foley. It was a tremendous honor to speak to her, and I hope you all enjoy getting to know more about her life and career.
Here we go!
Johnny: First off, I want to thank you for taking time out of your schedule to speak to me. It’s certainly an honor to speak to you.
Ellen: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.
Johnny: These are the two questions I begin every interview with that I’ve done. The first question is: What were your favorite pop-cultural likes growing up, like music and movies?
Ellen: I think I would go back to when I was in grade school. It was the Motown sound, in particular, The Temptations versus The Four Tops, and I was a Temptations girl. It then became Motown versus the English music. It was the Stones versus The Beatles, and I was always a Rolling Stones girl, which I still am to this day. I had a sort of funny amalgam of singers I loved. I loved Barbra Streisand. I remember playing her first record over and over and over again. Barbara Cook from “The Music Man”…I could never sing like her, but I loved it and still do. She’s incredible. At the same time, I was listening to Mick Jagger all the time, so it was an interesting melding of artists and styles. I loved Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix. Movies? I think the time that sticks out for me in movies the most was the Golden Age in the late 60s. My favorite movie back then was “Bonnie And Clyde”, but there was “The Graduate” and “Midnight Cowboy” and “A Clockwork Orange”, those are the movies that stick out for me around that time.
Johnny: My next question is: What were your high school days like?
Ellen: My high school days were fun because I went to a girls’ high school. In a girls’ high school, there’s less pressure. We wore uniforms. It wasn’t about make-up or boys. We just had a lot of fun. It was a school with a lot of really smart girls. There was a lot of humor and wit. I started really acting in high school. We had a great nun, Sister Blanche, who was the head of the theater, and I did a bunch of musicals. The plays were kind of sophisticated stuff, and then I would go to the boys’ high school and do musicals. I was able to do Adelaide in “Guys And Dolls” and fun stuff like that, so I had a really good high school experience. I had good friends, and it was a place where you could really show off your personality.
Johnny: Okay. That leads me to my next question. Had you always wanted to be an entertainer, or did you originally have other plans?
Ellen: No, I don’t think I ever had other plans. Actually, I sort of forget the fact that my mom got me involved in a theater group as a kid, sort of doing acting young. I think if you find out you have a talent for something early on, you’re pretty lucky. I never floundered around to figure out what I wanted to do, because I knew what I could do.
Johnny: You first collaborated with Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman on “The National Lampoon Tour”, according to the highlights sheet I was sent. Was it “Lemmings” or another National Lampoon production?
Ellen: No, it was after “Lemmings”. It was called “The National Lampoon Show”. “Lemmings” had more of a theme. It was sort of the fake Woodstock, and they had all the different imitators doing actual artists. The “National Lampoon Show” was a lot of different sketches, and we did it on the road and in New York. It was Bill Murray and John Belushi and Gilda Radner, so that probably gives you an idea of what kind of stuff it was.
Johnny: Speaking of Meat Loaf, you famously dueted with him on “Paradise By The Dashboard Light”. Now, was that song as difficult to perform as I think it was, or was it easy to do?
Ellen: No, it wasn’t hard. I mean, I was young, let’s face it. I was young, and I had a big voice and a big range. It wasn’t hard. I’d known it for quite some time since Steinman had written the record and had been auditioning with the material and working on it. Once you got into the studio, it was pretty much a piece of cake. I did it in one or two takes.
Johnny: You definitely did a lot better than I would have done, because I used to do karaoke, and I actually tried performing it several times with the woman who ran karaoke. I tried doing Meat Loaf’s part and Stacey, the woman who did it, tried doing your part. She was better at doing your part than I was at doing Meat Loaf’s part.
Ellen: That’s funny. It takes a lot of stamina, because it’s a very long song.
Johnny: Also in 1977, you were one of the stars of a show called “3 Girls 3”, alongside Debbie Allen and Mimi Kennedy. A rather short-lived show, what was your favorite memory of working on it?
Ellen: I got to sing some great songs. The producers of the show had worked on a lot of great TV, from “The Carol Burnett Show” to “The Golden Girls” to the Smothers Brothers, so they had a lot of Hollywood connections. We had tremendous guest stars. We had Bob Hope, Carol Burnett, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Flip Wilson, Steve Martin. That was totally exciting, getting to meet all those people and work with them. It wasn’t like just standing there and saying “Can I have your autograph?”. We actually got to work with them and do sketches, and so that was very fun.
Johnny: You made your film debut in 1979 as a performer in the “Black Boys/White Boys” number in the film version of “Hair”. Having also appeared as Sheila in the 1977 Broadway revival, which do you think was better to work on?
Ellen: It’s apples and oranges, really. I had a great time. Sheila was a great part. That’s when Gerome Ragni and Jim Rado, the authors, were involved. Tom Horgan, who originally directed it, was there. Doing “Black Boys”, if I had to make any kind of distinction, was really one of the top days ever for me, because it was a gorgeous Fall day in Central Park, dancing with these gorgeous guys and Twyla Tharp, who was kind of my idol and she still is, and Milos Forman. I mean, it was a blast, so everything has its’ fine points. That was just amazing doing it.
Johnny: That same year, in 1979, you released your debut album “Night Out”. Of all the tracks you performed on that album, which are the ones you would still have no problem performing today?
Ellen: Well, I still do “We Belong To The Night”, “Stupid Girl” and “What’s The Matter, Baby?”. I still do them in my live performances. I have no problem performing them.
Johnny: The only reason I asked is because I know that some artists, as they move on in their careers, they tend to look back to their earlier songs and tend to dismiss them.
Ellen: Sure, I understand. There are certainly things on all my albums that I would have no interest in doing anymore, but I still want to sing those songs.
Johnny: In 1981, you recorded your second album “The Spirit Of St. Louis”. On that album, you were backed by The Clash. Compared to “Night Out”, you only wrote one song on “Spirit Of St. Louis”. Had you written more for that album, or were you looking to take a break from songwriting?
Ellen: I think it was more that I was just putting myself in the hands of Mick Jones and Joe Strummer, to experience what their songwriting was about. I wasn’t making any conscious decision about whether or not I wanted to write songs on it.
Johnny: I know that, by most accounts, you were the inspiration for The Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?”, and I’ve seen YouTube videos of you performing it several times. I must say you do a great job with it, and so how did it feel to be the inspiration for such a classic song?
Ellen: I certainly can’t comment on that, because I don’t know. I never spoke to Mick Jones. He never said I was. I never said I was. It was everybody else who got that from somewhere. Maybe I am. Maybe I’m not.
Johnny: My apologies. I’m sorry.
Ellen: No, that’s okay. I’m not saying that to you. In the show now, I sort of say “It’s said that this song’s about me, and I can neither confirm or deny it, but bitches, I’m gonna sing it”. I was not offended by the question at all. It’s just that I’m not going to say “I felt great” or “I felt bad” about it. I mean, it’s fun for people to talk about it in that way. That’s kind of fun.
Johnny: Moving on back to acting, in 1982, you played Jacqui in the classic comedy “Tootsie”. Although the part didn’t have a lot of dialogue due to you saving your vocals for an album, it was memorable anyway. What were Sydney Pollack and Dustin Hoffman like to work with?
Ellen: How were they to work with? They were fine. I mean, I didn’t get to have a lot of interaction with Sydney Pollack, but it was fascinating to watch their process. It was fascinating to watch Dustin Hoffman’s process, the way Pollack could give him direction off-screen and he could just change his performance on a dime. It was fascinating to watch that.
Johnny: To go back to music, there was a 30 year span between your 1983 album “Another Breath” and your 2013 release “About Time”. What would you say the biggest change in the music industry has been between the release of those two albums?
Ellen: It’s not necessary to have a record label. I’ve created my own record label, and that certainly gives you a lot more freedom in terms of what you can put on your record and how you want to promote it and what you want to say. That’s a big difference.
Johnny: My next question is: I first saw your run on “Night Court” when reruns aired on Biography Channel in the mid-00s. Of all the female defenders on that show, I’d have to say that you were my favorite, even though you were only on the show for one season. Was there ever any talk of bringing you back for guest roles after you left the show, or was the split more acrimonious?
Ellen: It wasn’t acrimonious. It was just a clean split. That show was famous for having, like you said, I was your favorite, but among how many public defenders? They had so many people, and they just sort of moved on.
Johnny: I see.
Ellen: I wasn’t involved in any way after that season.
Johnny: I know that there are some people who have written “Night Court” fan fiction, in which they’ve had Billie come back and make appearances in Judge Harry Stone’s courtoom.
Ellen: Oh, really? Where could you find that?
Johnny: I saw some of it on this website called fanfiction.net, where authors who are fans of movies, TV shows, what have you, they come up with their own stories to continue to expand because they like the characters so much, and they come up with their own ideas. I actually used to write my own fan-fiction related to “Animaniacs” and “Pinky And The Brain” in the late 90s and early 00s.
Ellen: Oh, I loved that show. I loved them. Those were great. I’m going to have to check that out, the “Night Court” thing.
Johnny: Just be warned that there are a lot of stories, and so you’d definitely need to take some time to go through it.
Ellen: To go through it all, sure.
Johnny: Moving back to movies, you played Hildy in “Fatal Attraction”. My question is: Had you auditioned for the role of Alex Forrest, or was Hildy the part you wanted?
Ellen: No, I hadn’t auditioned for Alex Forrest. I mean, they had cast Glenn Close, so I auditioned for Hildy.
Johnny: I’m only asking because I do think you have a good acting talent, and truthfully, I think you would’ve been good in the role of Alex Forrest.
Ellen: Well, thank you. Thank you, but she was incredible. It was a really fun experience doing that movie. It was fun.
Johnny: In 1988, you played Theresa, one of the mob wives in “Married To The Mob”. I saw you post a picture from that movie on your official Facebook page recently, along with quite a few others from the 80s, and you seem to be ashamed by your hair in that decade. I think you wore it well, and I mean that, but how much of that shame is a joke and how much is real?
Ellen: Oh, no, that’s just a joke. I think it’s just cute. “Let’s just put up these pictures. That was crazy”. It’s not shame, it’s just a humorous way to approach that.
Johnny: I did like your work in that movie, small as it was. You’ve worked with some pretty great directors over the years.
Ellen: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
Johnny: I mean, Sydney Pollack, Jonathan Demme, and also Martin Scorcese, since you were briefly seen in “The King Of Comedy”.
Ellen: Right, just a little bit there. Yeah, I know. I always say “I had small parts in huge movies”, which is sort of cool.
Johnny: Personally, I’ve just been waiting for VH1 to get back to doing the nostalgia thing, and maybe doing a countdown of the 100 Greatest Movies Of The 80s. I could easily imagine “Tootsie” and “Fatal Attraction” landing on there, and maybe you appearing to offer commentary, but they seem to have moved on more to modern personalities and their troubles and foiblies.
Ellen: Well, maybe. Who knows? There’s always so much material, and they may have to circle back at some point, which would be cool.
Johnny: Moving into theater, you originated the role of The Witch in Stephen Sondheim’s “Into The Woods” during its’ run at the Old Globe Theatre. For a rock music performer like yourself, how difficult was it to handle Sondheim’s lyrics?
Ellen: You know, it took a lot of work, and there’s a lot of pressure for you to get it right. I mean, Sondheim was there, and I remember him saying to me at one point, he said “If you can get this, you’re going to be able to go do anything in musical theater. Gilbert and Sullivan”, he actually said. You’ll be able to do Gilbert and Sullivan, because you will have mastered the facility to do this kind of language.
Johnny: I know that while you didn’t originate the role in the New York production, you eventually did play it in 1989. What was the biggest difference between the run at the Old Globe and its’ New York run for you?
Ellen: There was some different material that was added, particularly a song that The Witch sang called “Stay With Me”, that was an amazingly beautiful song, which I have sung since then for auditions and in performances. It’s a song that The Witch sings to Rapunzel, her daughter. It’s so beautiful and it has so much meaning and depth and poignancy to it for me.
Johnny: I know that Disney is going to be doing the film version of “Into The Woods”, which I think is absolutely bizarre, considering how that’s like the antithesis of all of Disney’s versions of fairy tales.
Ellen: Yeah. I didn’t know it was Disney. Wow!
Johnny: Although I can’t say I’ve seen the musical, I do know the general gist of it, and I know that Sondheim is one who subverts the tropes of past musicals in order to make statements, and when I saw that “Into The Woods” was going to be landing at Disney, I was like, “Really?”
Ellen: Well, we’ll see. I’ve heard that Meryl Streep is doing The Witch. If I had to lose a part to anybody, it might as well be Meryl Streep.
Johnny: That is true that Meryl Streep will be handling the role, and I’ll actually loop back to that in a moment, but to go to your most recent acting piece, soon you’ll be seen as Laura in the independent movie “Lies I Told My Little Sister”. In terms of acting, do you prefer independent or mainstream films?
Ellen: Once again, that’s a really hard question. It depends on what you’re doing in it. This film was great because it was a very meaty role, and in terms of independent film, you just hope that they’ll get a distributor and it will be seen. Of course, the other movies, the mainstream movies, the other films I was in, were basically made by studios and they were going to get out there, so when you do an independent film like this, your hope is that it gets released. It was an excellent role.
Johnny: I certainly hope it does become big, because I read about all these independent movies on the Internet Movie Database, and they always have these amazing casts full of really good actors, and yet they hardly ever make it into theaters.
Ellen: It’s a huge gamble. It really is for the people who produce and make those movies, because they bankroll it themselves basically.
Johnny: To just go back to “Into The Woods” for a moment, as I mentioned, it is becoming a movie and I guess you pretty much already answered this, but did you audition for it?
Ellen: No, no. I did not.
Johnny: Basically, I know that film adaptations of Broadway musicals will have cast members from the stage versions appearing in small roles as a sort of nod to the legacy of the stage work.
Ellen: Yeah, but “Into The Woods” is a very small cast, so there would be no other role. I know exactly what you’re saying, and in a small cast like this, there would be no other role that they could just stick me in. Do you know what I’m saying?
Johnny: Yeah. To loop back to music, over the course of this interview, we’ve mentioned your musical output, and how you’ve been involved in different genres, from rock opera to punk rock to showtunes. What’s the one genre you’ve always wanted to tackle, but haven’t had the opportunity to yet?
Ellen: Wow, that’s a good question that I don’t know if I can answer. Genre of music, huh? I don’t know. I mean, I think I’ve done everything I’m capable of. I’ve sung Broadway, standards, rock and roll. I do some blues stuff. I’m not fond of jazz, and I certainly couldn’t be an opera singer. I’d love to always keep developing the things I can do, but I don’t think there’s anything out there that I haven’t done that I want to do.
Johnny: This is my last question, the question that I end every interview that I’ve done with, and that’s this: If you could go back to your youth with the knowledge that you have now, would you do anything differently?
Ellen: There’s some boyfriends I would’ve kicked to the curb a lot earlier than I did. The end.
Johnny: Well, I just want to thank you once more for taking time out of your schedule.
Ellen: Oh, my pleasure, John. Thank you.
Johnny: Something I’d like to bring up is I used to write for a website called RetroJunk, which is a site all about pop culture. In 2008, I wrote an article entitled “Some Of My Fave 80s Women”, where I paid tribute to women whose pop-cultural output and looks, admittedly, in the 80s made an impression on me, and you were one of them by virtue of your work on “Night Court”, which I truly did enjoy, and for 6 years later to be speaking to you is really an honor.
Ellen: Oh, thank you so much. That’s so nice to hear. Thank you. That you included me in there, that’s really lovely.
Johnny: It’s no problem at all, and it was nice to speak to you. I look forward to further communications most likely through e-mail, and I’ll also be sure to check out “About Time” as well.
Ellen: Okay. That would be great.
Johnny: Thank you very much, and I’ll speak to you soon.
Ellen: Okay, John. Thank you. Take care.
Ellen: Bye bye.
I would once more like to thank Ellen for taking the time to speak to me, and her press representative Hayley Jackson for setting this up.
You can visit Ellen at her official website: http://ellenfoley.com/.
You can also visit her official Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Ellen-Foley/43492125838
Thanks for reading. More interviews coming soon…