In October of 2014, I went to the Chiller Theatre convention in Parsippany, New Jersey. I met many celebrities there and got their autographs. One of those talents was Lesley Ann Warren.
That’s me on the left in the multi-colored shirt and Ms. Warren on the right.
When I was there, I gave her my contact info, telling her I would be interested in doing an interview with her.
The opportunity to interview her came not through Chiller, but through my friend Lee Gambin, who interviewed Ms. Warren for a book he’s writing entitled “We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals From The 70s”. With an assistance from Mr. Gambin, and additional assistance from Radius Entertainment’s John Scherer, I was able to interview Ms. Warren last week. I hope you all enjoy getting to know her better in the latest installment of the Flashback Interview.
Johnny: Hello, Lesley. This is Johnny Caps.
Lesley: Hello. How are you?
Johnny: It’s a pleasure to finally speak to you.
Lesley: Nice to speak to you, too. Sorry about last Tuesday.
Johnny: No problem. I understand perfectly. Let me just pull up my questions, and before anything, I already said it was an honor for me, but I mean it. When I first met you at Chiller Theatre, I didn’t think that a couple of weeks later I’d actually be speaking to a talent I admire so much.
Lesley: Oh, thank you, thank you.
Johnny: I’ll start this interview with the two questions I begin all my interviews with. First, what were your pop-cultural likes growing up, like favorite movies and music?
Lesley: I would say that “Splendor In The Grass” was one of my absolute favorite movies ever. Music? I listened to an artist named Laura Nyro. She was my favorite artist musically growing up.
Johnny: Okay. The next question is: What were your high school days like?
Lesley: I was studying ballet at the time. I was very intensely studying ballet, so my life in high school was really less prominent for me than the world of ballet I was engaged in, and also the Broadway shows I used to go to all the time…That’s where all of my energy went.
Johnny: Several Oscar winners were among your co-stars in the 1965 TV production of “Rodgers And Hammerstein’s Cinderella”, including Celeste Holm, Ginger Rogers and Jo Van Fleet. What was the best advice you got from them that you carried throughout your acting career?
Lesley: You know, honestly, they didn’t give me specific advice, but in watching them work, I was able to, through osmosis, take in what and how they worked, and that had a big impact on me.
Johnny: Your first credited feature film role was in the 1967 Disney movie “The Happiest Millionaire”. Having already done several TV roles, were you nervous about doing a major film like this?
Lesley: Oh, sure. It was a huge starring role and I was very nervous.
Johnny: I hope I word this properly. Meryl Streep, in presenting an award to Emma Thompson for “Saving Mr. Banks”, said that Walt Disney was “anti-Semitic” and “a gender bigot”. As a Jewish woman, did you find Walt Disney to be either of those things in your interactions with him?
Lesley: I did not. He was incredibly benevolent, very lovely, warmly inclusive. I never felt anything like that.
Johnny: I will admit that Walt Disney was something of an idol of mine growing up, and to work with him must have been amazing.
Lesley: It was incredible to work with him, for him…Absolutely incredible.
Johnny: You did another Disney movie a year later, “The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band”. It was said that Walt Disney Production was starting to spiral after Walt’s death. Did that have an impact on filming the movie?
Lesley: It didn’t feel like it was spiraling. It felt like everyone was experiencing a lot of grief and loss at his passing. It didn’t really lose its’ center for many years.
Johnny: Both “The Happiest Millionaire” and “The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band” were musicals made at a time when many of them were coming out and very few were finding success. If you had been working behind the scenes as opposed to on-camera, what would you have done to make these two musicals more successful?
Lesley: You know, I can’t answer that. I was 18 years old. I was thrilled and honored to have been chosen to be in them and under contract to Disney, and for me, it was a glorious experience.
Johnny: Jumping into the 70s, you appeared on “The Muppet Show” in Season 3. What were your favorite memories of working with the Muppets?
Lesley: Actually, it was all just a fabulous experience. You know, doing the ballet section was really, really fun for me and singing Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are”…It was so magical.
Johnny: I actually met Jim Henson a couple of months before he died. I was at Walt Disney World (strange how Disney keeps coming up), and he was filming “The Muppets At Walt Disney World”.He was a really sweet guy. He even did the voice of Kermit The Frog for me and my brother and took a picture with us.
Lesley: That’s fun. That’s great.
Johnny: I mentioned this when I met you at Chiller Theatre. “Victor/Victoria”, to me, was proof that you didn’t need an R rating to make a movie for adults. What drew you to that movie?
Lesley: Oh my God, Blake Edwards 100 percent. I was a huge fan of “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” and “Days Of Wine And Roses” and “The Pink Panther” movies, and I would’ve done anything he asked me to do.
Johnny: Was it difficult to get in and out of the voice you used for Norma Cassady?
Lesley: No. Suprisingly it wasn’t. I mean, I’m not sure why it wasn’t, but it was pretty easy for me and so much fun.
Johnny: Some have said that performance took its’ cue from Jean Hagen in “Singin’ In The Rain”. Would you agree with that?
Lesley: No. I didn’t actually think of Jean Hagen at all. I made up a story about Norma, which was that she grew up on the Lower East Side, and she grew up in a family of 14, so she always had to yell to be heard. She worked in Woolworth’s when she was a young girl and she read lots of movie magazines, and that her idol was Jean Harlow.
Johnny: Cool backstory. Another question I have related to “Victor/Victoria” is: It could easily be seen as one of the last great MGM musicals. The early 80s saw MGM playing around with their musical past, fusing the musical with the sex comedy in “Victor/Victoria”, interjecting big musical numbers into the serious drama of “Fame”, subverting tropes of their past musicals with “Pennies From Heaven”, and turning the musical into nightmare fuel with “Pink Floyd: The Wall”. Having started out in straightforward musicals, how did it feel to be a part of an era that challenged what musicals had been, and what they could be in the future?
Lesley: It was terrific. I think that Blake broke ground with that musical, because it had social portent. It also had political portent in a way, yet it was completely entertaining and funny and uplifting, et cetera, but he made some statements that were really important. I think that many years later, musicals like “Chicago” and the ones that surfaced after that have had much more freedom because of “Victor/Victoria”.
Johnny: I agree with that. The next question is: In 1985, you starred in “Clue”. One of the first movies to be based on a board game, many feel it’s also the only good movie to be based on a board game, as evidenced by the financial failure of “Battleship” and the critical failure of “Ouija”. What was your favorite part of working on “Clue”?
Lesley: We had a ball…We had an absolute ball. We really tested the patience of the director, Jonathan Lynn, because we were always laughing at each other’s antics constantly. You hear this a lot, but it was true: It was truly a bonding experience.
Johnny: I imagine it must have been. What do you suppose makes “Clue”, the movie, so popular almost 30 years after its’ release?
Lesley: It’s become a cult classic. It’s amazing. I mean, I’m not sure, but I have a huge fanbase of people from 20 to 35 who can recite every line in the movie, who are just “Clue” fanatics. It’s really great. Like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, it just became this huge classic.
Johnny: Like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, which also had Tim Curry in its’ cast, I’ve seen that there have been shadowcasts of “Clue”. Have you ever shown up for any of those?
Lesley: I haven’t, but I hear about it all the time because there’s a theater in L.A that usually does it around Halloween time, but they do it once a year.
Johnny: In the 80s, in addition to your acting work in film and on television, you had roles in several memorable music videos. For example, you co-starred with James Woods, Scott Glenn and Randy Quaid in the video for Bob Seger’s “American Storm”. How did you get chosen for that video and how did you enjoy filming it?
Lesley: I don’t remember how I got chosen for the James Woods one, but I did David Fincher’s video for (Aerosmith’s) “Janie’s Got A Gun”, and I was recommended by the woman who was doing the location scouting for it because she and I were friends. She talked to David Fincher about me, and he signed off on it, which was a fabulous compliment. I enjoyed doing those. They’re like mini-movies. They’re very creative and challenging. You have to fit into three minutes what you would fit into a whole film.
Johnny: Speaking of the video for “Janie’s Got A Gun”, did you have any idea when working on that video that David Fincher would become the major directing talent he is today?
Lesley: He had already established himself as a terrific film director, but nobody ever knows the scope of someone’s career, where it’s going to go, but he was so wonderful to work with and he had such a strong, powerful visual sense that I had complete faith and confidence in anything he wanted me to do.
Johnny: To move on into the 90s, in 1991, you co-starred in the Mel Brooks film “Life Stinks”. I think that’s one of Mel’s most underrated movies, showing a more serious side that we don’t see from him too often. What interested you about that movie?
Lesley: Again, it was Mel, because he was and is a comedy icon legend, and the role, it was a wonderful, wonderful role. It was also challenging for me in a way that I had never done that particular kind of broad comedy. I knew it was something that I could really be both afraid of and excited by.
Johnny: Speaking of “Life Stinks”, there’s a lovely sequence in that movie where you and Mel have a dance number to an instrumental of “Easy To Love”. You don’t say anything in the number, but your face expresses a great sense of joy, even in sad surroundings. Similarly, you expressed despair without saying a word in the video for “American Storm” and you showed betrayal and anger in the video for “Janie’s Got A Gun” without speaking. Is it easy to act with just the expressions on your face or is it hard to do?
Lesley: I don’t ever think about the expressions on my face. I think about the subtext. What is it the character is feeling and going through? That, then, is expressed through everything, my face, my body, all of it. I don’t focus specifically on that, I just focus on the reality of the moment.
Johnny: To get to my next question: Having gotten your film start with Disney, you returned to them a few times over the course of the past few decades, with a supporting role in the Hollywood Pictures release “Color Of Night” in 1994 and a recurring role on the ABC series “Desperate Housewives” in the 00s. How had Disney changed to you in the years since “The Happiest Millionaire”?
Lesley: Oh, radically. When Walt was alive, he was invested and involved in every aspect of the studio’s running, not just the animation, but the color of the ribbon in my hair, what was served in the commissary…He had a high bar for his studio and how he wanted it to be run. Many, many years later, when you lose the imprint of that visionary man, it becomes something different. It was much more run like the studios of today, which is much more from a business standpoint as opposed to one man’s particular vision.
Johnny: I’ve noticed that at the beginning of Disney movies starting in the 00s, whereas in the past it would say Walt Disney Pictures, now it just says Disney on the logo, and instead of saying “Walt Disney Pictures presents” in the credits, it just says “Disney presents”. It’s almost like they’re trying to erase Walt from the company. On a different tack, you’ve sung the music of Rodgers & Hammerstein and the Sherman Brothers, you’ve performed music by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse, you covered songs by Billy Joel and Donna Summer on “The Muppet Show”, and you’ve done music videos for Bob Seger and Aerosmith. Considering how diverse those musicians already are, what music would I be most surprised to find on your iPod?
Lesley: I listen to primarily R&B, and that goes back to Laura Nyro, who I grew up listening to in New York. She was a white soul singer, brilliant composer and lyricist, brilliant singer. She was very impacted by the groups that would stand on the street corners and sing acapella R&B. Those are really my roots that I love to listen to. I also listen to 40s music a lot, since my Mom was a singer in the 40s. She was at the Copacabana and they called her “Manhattan’s Newest Dream Girl”. I heard her singing those songs my whole childhood and young life, and I’m very, very moved. I love that music. I also think it’s brilliant lyrically.
Johnny: It definitely is from what I’ve heard of it. To my next question: Is the entertainment industry easier to deal with now than it was when you started out, or have things gotten harder?
Lesley: I think they’re different and they’re more difficult. I think that the economics of making movies has changed very, very much. We never had things like “modified low-budget” and low-budget films like we do today. Let’s just say I’m glad I got my start and I got most of my career when I did.
Johnny: On a lighter note, you’ve done several autograph conventions. At Chiller Theatre in October 2014, as I mentioned before, that’s how we met before the interview. What has been your favorite part of attending these conventions?
Lesley: I’m extremely moved by the fans that show up and express to you what they feel about the work that you’ve done and how it’s impacted their lives. It’s very, very moving, and it is the reason I have certainly done this career. To see it reflected back in someone’s eyes or in their expression or what they say is incredibly touching.
Johnny: When it comes to Chiller, I noticed there was a poster for the room that you were in. It was a poster of you, and it said, “Lesley Ann Warren: In My Own Little Corner”, that, of course, being the name of one of your most famous songs from “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella”. What I’d like to ask is: Is that the name of an autobiography you’re working on?
Lesley: “In My Own Little Corner”?
Lesley: Not really. I was going to do a one-woman show at one point and that was the poster for it. It’s something I definitely may return to. People have asked me to write something for years and years and years, but I’m not ready to do it.
Johnny: I have another question related to Chiller. At the most recent Chiller, you were next to Teri Garr, your fellow Best Supporting Actress nominee in 1983. If I ever interview Ms. Garr, I’ll ask her this, but first I’ll ask you: Do you think nominating Jessica Lange in the Best Supporting Actress category for “Tootsie” was stacking the deck against your performance in “Victor/Victoria”, Teri Garr’s performance in “Tootsie” and the other actresses who were nominated?
Lesley: I don’t know. I know that Jessica was nominated in both categories that year, for “Frances” and for “Tootsie”. It’s very hard to know what goes on behind closed doors. I’m thrilled that I was nominated. I’m sure Teri feels the same way.
Johnny: I definitely think that you performance deserved the nomination. Really, “Victor/Victoria” is a great movie. I’m just disappointed that the only Oscar it won was the Best Original Song Score Oscar. When I say that, I mean the songs were great. Don’t get me wrong. I just think it could have won a few more.
Lesley: Oh, yeah. I agree. I definitely agree.
Johnny: Finally, this is the question I end all my interviews with and it’s this: If you could go back to your youth with the knowledge that you have now, would you do anything differently?
Lesley: Would I do anything in my career differently?
Johnny: Just anything in general.
Lesley: Oh, sure. People that say they have no regrets? I don’t know about that. I have plenty of regrets, but those are all lessons in life that one learns, and that lead you to become the person you hopefully are in the present. That’s how I choose to look at whatever I may think of as a regret or a mistake or a wrong turn.
Johnny: I must say you’ve definitely been a very great person to speak to. It was an honor first to meet you at Chiller, and it’s also been an honor to speak to you. I really have to thank Lee Gambin for this, who interviewed you for his 70s musicals book. Without him, I wouldn’t have had the chance to speak to you. You’ve really been an amazing person to speak to.
Lesley: Thank you, thank you. You asked really interesting questions and I appreciate that.
Johnny: Thanks for everything, and thanks for the autograph, too.
Lesley: Take good care.
Johnny: You, too, Ms. Warren. Thanks.
I extend a tremendous thank you to Lesley Ann Warren for being a gracious interview subject, to John Scherer for helping connect me to Ms. Warren, and to Lee Gambin for getting the ball rolling in the first place.
Mr. Gambin’s book “We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals From The 70s” will be coming out in 2015, but you can preorder it at Bearmanor Media by following this link: http://www.bearmanormedia.com/we-can-be-who-we-are-movie-musicals-from-the-70s-by-lee-gambin?sort=pd.name&order=DESC&page=3
Thanks for reading. Who will be the star of the next Flashback Interview? Stay tuned to this website for more.