Johnny Caps1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, 2020s, A Chorus Line, All That Jazz, Bert Rigby You're A Fool, Booze Boys & Brownies, Deborah Geffner, Exterminator 2, Falcon Crest, Guitar Lessons, Legs, Passions, Photography, Stage, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Theater0
I was first introduced to the work of my latest interview subject, Deborah Geffner, when I saw an unlikely duo of movies for the first time in the 00s, Bob Fosse’s magnum opus All That Jazz and the Cannon exploitation classic Exterminator 2. When I came across the trailer for Exterminator 2 on one of the Drive-In Delirium Blu-Rays put out by Australia’s Umbrella Entertainment, I noticed Ms. Geffner in the trailer, and I decided to reach out to her about an interview. With the help of her manager, Sharon Holleran, we spoke back in May, and now the interview is live. I hope you all enjoy getting to know this versatile talent.
Say hello to Deborah Geffner!
Deborah Geffner: Hi, Johnny. How are you doing?
Johnny Caps: I’m doing good. I have my questions ready to go.
Deborah Geffner: Great. So, before we start, I was looking at Pop Geeks. How do you choose the people you’re going to interview and the people you’re interested in?
Johnny Caps: My interests in interviewing can be sparked by several things. For example, I might see a movie trailer, and certain elements or actors might inspire me to track them down on their IMDB pages and see what else I might recognize them from.
Deborah Geffner: Got it. I was looking at your website. It’s an eclectic group of people that you interview, really interesting interviews. So… grateful and honored to be in the group.
Johnny Caps: Well, I certainly thank you very much for the compliment.
Deborah Geffner: Sure, absolutely. You’re welcome.
Johnny Caps: Alright, so to start off our interview, had you always wanted to be a performer, or did you initially have a different career goal when you were younger?
Deborah Geffner: I don’t remember ever not wanting to be a performer. I always say to people coming up who ask me for advice, “If there’s possibly something else you can do, do it!” (laughing). This is a terrible profession to be in, but also so wonderful, and I never remember wanting to do anything else.
When I was five years old, I was in a little drama class at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, which was actually quite a good theater with a children’s program. Carnegie Mellon University was doing a production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. It’s the King Solomon story where the two women come to the king and say, “This child is mine!” “This child is MINE!”, and he says, “Cut the child in half and give them each half”. And the mother who says, “No, don’t hurt the child – give her the child,” he says, “Aaah, that’s the real mother”. This is a Bertolt Brecht retelling of that story.
The little boy who had been rehearsing with them for several weeks, maybe a month, got the measles on opening night, and they called the Pittsburgh Playhouse in kind of a panic and said, “Do you have a child who could fill in?”. They said, “Oh, yeah. Debby can do it!”. (Laughing) So my mother put my curly hair under a headband, and I got to wear pancake makeup, and I wore my brother’s turtleneck in order to look like a boy. At five years old, this was absolute play to me.
I went there and learned these lines that I memorized to say with these other children at one point in the play. I still remember them. “Me, too, take sword”. “Me, too, cut off head”. And I met my “mother” who took me around the stage during the play and told me what to do. I was onstage practically the whole time. She told me to put cookies on a tray. We were pretending to bake and weave cloth, and then, when they were supposed to pull me apart, each was to take an arm and pull, and then the true mother let go of the arm…And at the end of the play, after I’d had all this fun, everybody applauded, and I thought, “Oh, my god. This is what I want to do!” (laughing). I got to do it for the rest of the week.
I never found out what happened to the little boy, but that was it. I went, “This is the thing for me“. Then for a while, I wanted to be a ballet dancer, and I got into Juilliard to study dance in New York, but around the time I turned 21, I decided, “Okay, I’m too old to be a ballet dancer. I haven’t gotten into any of the major companies yet”, so I went back to acting.
Johnny Caps: That leads into my next question. One of your earliest stage roles was as Kristine in the legendary musical A Chorus Line. What are your favorite memories of acting in that show?
Deborah Geffner: Oh, my goodness. So many. The camaraderie backstage, the people that I’m friends with still…It’s always about the people, the people that you’re working with. When you’re working with talented – crazy-talented – people, that’s always wonderful and fun.
My big memory was my first night on the stage at the Shubert Theater. It took me a few years to get there. The very first musical I auditioned for was Seesaw, and I got cast in the chorus. It was a bus-and-truck company. I just recently found my diary from back then, and boy, I was young (laughing). After that I did some summer stock shows, and I worked my way up to Broadway. I got cast in Pal Joey on Broadway. While I was doing that, I auditioned for A Chorus Line – it was my second time auditioning for it – and I got cast as Sheila’s understudy, and I was incredibly excited.
In fact, they called me to ask, “Would you understudy Sheila in England?”, and I said no. Then I hung up and I went, “Oh, my god! I just said no to Chorus Line! What did I do?”, and then they called me back and said, “Would you understudy Sheila on Broadway”?, and I went, “Yes, yes! That’s what I want to do!”.
So I was learning Sheila’s part, and being myself and making everyone laugh. Meanwhile, the woman playing Kristine was homesick and wanted to go back to Los Angeles. They needed a replacement, and they said, “Would you audition for Kristine – on the line?”, and then I went, “Absolutely”. I did, and I had everyone laughing. They called me and said, “You’ve got the part of Kristine”, and I said, “Okay, but I still want to understudy Sheila”. They said, “Okay” (laughing), so anytime Sheila was out, I would go in as her understudy, and then someone would go in as my understudy.
So finally I was on the line as Kristine. That was actually my first time out on that stage. You go out there in the blackout, and you find your numbered place which is marked with glow tape. You’re facing away from the audience, and the lights come up, and Zach goes “Step, kick, kick, leap, kick touch. Moving on – turn turn touch down back step. again! Turn turn touch down back step. Okay, the whole combination facing away from the mirror from the top”, and you turn around and these lights hit you. It was like (Deborah gasps). It was like a police flashlight in your eyes. My visceral reaction was “Oh my god, I’m not supposed to be here!” (laughing). “I must have done something wrong!”
But there’s this audience out there, and we were playing to absolute full houses every night for the two years that I was in the show. I heard that roar, that cheering, that feeling. Then doing Kristine and having the audience laugh, getting laughs – these roaring laughs…It was just the best feeling in the world. So that’s my memory of my first night.
Being in that show was like winning the lottery at the time. We got free haircuts at Vidal Sassoon, and cast photos in magazines, and a spot in the I Love New York commercial. We would come out of the stage door after the show, and there would be people, like, 30 deep waiting for your autograph. It was New York at it’s best. Sparkling and glamorous and really, really wonderful.
Johnny Caps: That’s a fantastic story, and it’s lovely that you had that experience.
Deborah Geffner: I’m so grateful for it.
Johnny Caps: What do you think has made A Chorus Line resonate with audiences after all these years?
Deborah Geffner: I was thinking about that. I think A Chorus Line was maybe the original reality show. I mean, it was a scripted reality show. We’ve found out that all reality shows are, to some extent, scripted, but I think it was that feeling of reality, of stepping backstage behind the scenes to see what’s really happening.
When we would have our rehearsals, Michael Bennett, or whoever was conducting rehearsal…They would emphasize that we were not “performing” like a typical Broadway show. We weren’t in it to get laughs or perform a number. They really wanted us to keep in mind the reality that we were people who were auditioning for a job, and doing their best because they were auditioning for a job. When you would break out into singing, like Wayne Cilento singing “I can do that! Hey, I can do that!”, it’s just out of an excess of enthusiasm that you break into those songs. So the songs did come in, but they wanted everything to be real – in service to getting the part.
And that’s what I was thinking. It was the first reality show. It billed itself as a show about dancing, and that really pissed off Bob Fosse, because he said famously (laughing)…I can’t quote it exactly, but the first lines of Dancin’ were really a burn on A Chorus Line. “Down the street, they talk about dancing. Here, we dance!” (laughing), and it’s true.
We did – we stood around and we talked about dancing in A Chorus Line, and then, you know, every once in a while broke out into wonderful dancing. And there were great dancers in the show. But I think it was the reality of it – watching people get cut at the end and sob – that hit people like, “Oh, they’re real people like us!” Then of course, the irony is that everybody came out at the end in sparkling costumes and did the most fabulous finale ever.
Johnny Caps: That’s a very fascinating way of looking at it. Since you did mention Bob Fosse, that does lead me to ask: You made your big screen debut as Victoria in his magnum opus All That Jazz. You’re the third talent from that movie that I’ve interviewed after Alan Heim and Leah Ayres, so what was it like to be directed by Bob Fosse?
Deborah Geffner: Oh, you interviewed Alan! He’s so wonderful. Here’s the thing about Bob Fosse. He made everyone look better than they were. He had that genius in him. He cared so deeply. I believe he cared more than anyone else on set.
I would see him sitting on set and I would think, “Oh, he’s taking a break“, but he wasn’t. He was busy. He was planning twelve steps ahead. And everything mattered to him, absolutely everything. We went into the final number in All That Jazz, Bye Bye Life…
Johnny Caps: Oh, yeah. That was an epic.
Deborah Geffner: Oh, the film is incredible, especially watching it now, watching it over and over and seeing new things each time, but that final number was epic. We went out there to Purchase College to film, and they had dressed the set, and he didn’t like it. He went, “Mmm, no, no”, so all of the cast and crew waited for days while he had them redesign and re-dress the set. All that Mylar everywhere? That was his idea.
He had his hand in everything – the costumes – the makeup. The two dancers playing the ventricles of the heart on either side of Ben Vereen in that final number were Ann Reinking and Kathryn Doby. Those had been two other dancers – wonderful dancers. They had learned this number. They had rehearsed and rehearsed. He wasn’t satisfied. He put in Annie and Kathryn. He knew they could perform it the way he wanted. They were sewed into those costumes. They couldn’t go to the bathroom (laughing). They had to have the costumes unsewn so they could go. They learned that number in one day… and performed it exquisitely. This is the quality of dancers they are. Such dancers. Such talent I’ve had the blessing to work with.
Bob made everyone better. He would do things over and over and over again until he was satisfied. The scene that I did with Roy Scheider where I’m in his apartment and I go, “You’re looking at my nose, aren’t you?” We did that particular scene, I would say, between 12 and 30 times. I lost count. It was a tracking shot, and the tracks would creak… There were technical issues each time. Then when they finally got everything right, and we had done it multiple times, he came up to us with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth as always. He was coughing as always. (Deborah imitates a smoker’s cough), and he stood and looked at us a minute, searching for the right direction to give us. Then he said, “Just (cough cough)… act better.” (laughing). And he gave us a look like he wasn’t sure if he’d made himself clear and walked away. We did. We acted better. The thing is you wanted so much to help him fulfill his vision, because it meant so much to him. He was trying so hard. He was always working harder than the rest of us.
Anything impossible he would ask his dancers to do, he would do first. When he asked Sandahl to fall off the scaffolding into the guys’ arms, before he even asked her to do it, he went up there and said, “Okay, now catch me”. He did the fall, and they caught him, so no one could say, “Oh, that’s too dangerous”. He had just done it! But that was also part of his way of being manipulative. And he was so manipulative.
During the rehearsal scene where I burst into tears, there was a shot that starts with Kathy Doby going, “a-5-6-7-8!”, and we start the combination, and Roy yells “Lay back, Victoria. Lay back”. He wanted a certain look on my face. Now there’s a backstory to that. When I auditioned for All That Jazz, I was in A Chorus Line at the time, and I was so proud of being in it. After I was cast, Bob invited me out to dinner one night to talk and get to know me. I said well, I’m doing the show, and he said, “Sure, we can go out after the show”. We went to Patsy’s, and Michael Bennett was there with a whole table full of people.
I was so proud that I was going out to dinner with Bob Fosse. I wanted Michael to see me. You know, “Look, I’m going out to dinner with Bob Fosse!” (laughing). Bob saw him as we went past. You know how you slap someone on the back? He didn’t just slap him on the back. He pushed him forward so his face was almost in his plate of spaghetti, and he went, “Hi, Michael. How are you doing?” I had no idea at the time that they were mortal antagonists. They were in fierce competition with each other.
Bob and I went to the table. We were sitting there talking, and this woman came by and said, “Excuse me. I’m so sorry to interrupt you”. She had a Chorus Line Playbill, and she asked me, “Could I have your autograph?” (laughing) I thought, “My god, if you knew who I’m with, if you knew who my dinner partner is.” She said, “I just saw you, and you were so wonderful. You were amazing”. I thought, “Oh, this night is getting better and better!” I signed it, and he said, “You were very kind to her”.
He maintained though that he had never seen me in A Chorus Line. His girlfriend, Ann Reinking, was playing Cassie at the time, so I thought surely he had seen me, and he said, “No, I never saw you in it”. I was terribly disappointed.
Anyway, back to this scene in the movie. Roy Scheider’s line was, “Stand on your right leg. Point your left toe. Drop your shoulder. Now that’s not hard, is it?”. Before we started, Bob came up to me and he said, “Oh, by the way, I did see you in A Chorus Line, and you were terrible”. He walked away and said, “Action.” (laughing). He got the look he wanted.
He would do anything to get the shot. When we were doing the big audition scene at the Palace Theatre, Erzsebet Foldi, who played his daughter, was sitting in the audience with Leland Palmer, playing his wife. In the scene, Roy leaves and says that he can’t see his daughter that evening. He’s sorry. He’s busy. Bob wanted Erzsebet to cry, so he had someone tell her that Bob was dying, and she cried. It was manipulative, but it was his way of getting the shot.
That’s what he was like (laughing). There are so many other things I could tell you about him.
Everything I did after that, I kept waiting for it to be as hard as what I did in All That Jazz, and nothing ever was. He always wanted to see all the dancing full out, all the time. Otherwise, he couldn’t get a clear picture of it. So we would be rehearsing a shot five or six times, and he would say, “Do it full out. I can’t see it”. His assistant director would say, “You’re going to wear them out. They’re not going to be able to do the shot,” but you just did it anyway. You did it for him because he was working harder, and it meant more to him than to anybody else, and he made you look better.
Actors think, “Oh, what’s my motivation?”. If you just listened to him, and you just did what he told you exactly… You know, he choreographed acting, and actors get very upset about that, but if you did it – he had better taste than anyone else – and if you followed him, damnit, he made you look good!
Johnny Caps: That’s definitely an amazing story of what he was like. To stay with All That Jazz, you stood out as one of the performers of the reprise of Take Off With Us. Do you recall what you were feeling during the shooting of that number?
Deborah Geffner: Um… a lot of pain (laughing). I remember specifically the end, when we were pounding on the scaffolding, I ended up with bruises on my arms from pounding so hard. It was difficult dancing. It was good, difficult dancing, and I was just hoping I was going to be as good as all the dancers around me because they were fantastic. Everyone worked so hard filming that number.
There was the stuff about the nudity. Originally, Sandahl Bergman’s part was going to be done by another woman. She knew that there was going to be nudity, but she just wasn’t comfortable with it, and Bob couldn’t work with it, so he brought Sandahl in. She was in Dancin’ at the time, and, I mean, you can’t get better than Sandahl. She’s a blonde goddess, you know? Just incredible – gorgeous dancer. So again – professional dancer, came in, learned the dance in a couple of days, and was glorious.
Johnny Caps: That was definitely a standout number. It really did reflect the physicality and sensuality of Fosse’s work.
Deborah Geffner: Yes.
Johnny Caps: I have to ask: Have you kept in touch with Sandahl Bergman or any of the dancers from All That Jazz?
Deborah Geffner: Yes. Occasionally, Kathy Doby, who was much more than Bob’s dance assistant, she was one of his dancers in Cabaret, she was in everything… Occasionally she’d get a bunch of us Fosse dancers together, dancers from Pippin, and from Chicago, and from Dancin’, and from All That Jazz, and we would gather at her house, and she would make us quiche, and we would talk about Bob and just dish about everything.
Sandahl’s wonderful. She’s really such a lovely person. You had to be… the people that Bob gathered around him were all lovely, I think, because he needed people who could create his vision. He needed people who were selfless enough to subsume their own egos in the creation of his vision.
I don’t know if you know this story, but All That Jazz was held up for weeks because Richard Dreyfuss, who had just won an Oscar, was supposed to do it. He started working with Bob, and he started working like an actor works, questioning motivation and wanting to co-create the role. Bob didn’t work like that. He knew what he wanted, and he needed someone who could work his way. Richard quit, and he called up his buddy from Jaws, Roy Scheider. He said, “Okay. I’ve messed up. You need to bail me out. Will you take this part? I’m on the hook for all the expenses while production is stalled.”
Roy was a better fit. Roy was naturally athletic – he would run up steps two, three at a time – he could look like a dancer. He was no dancer. But Bob could make him look like the was. He filmed Roy sliding on his knees, doing all the things he could naturally do, and surrounded him with great dancers, and Roy looked like he was a choreographer and a dancer. They worked really well together. Roy was nominated for an Oscar for that.
I think that Bob surrounded himself with willing people, people who were talented and smart, people who were easy to work with, who were collaborators. And when you get those people together, they’re a hoot. So, yes, to answer your question, yes, Sandahl’s a very nice person (laughing).
Johnny Caps: That’s great to hear, and I’m glad that you have been able to develop those bonds with your fellow dancers. Something I’ve noticed about those who work in physical fields, whether as dancers or doing stunts, is that they develop a sort of second family among themselves. Would you say that’s accurate?
Deborah Geffner: Oh, I think that’s a very astute observation. Absolutely. Yeah, there’s a shorthand. There’s a looseness. There’s a feeling of ease among people who are used to working with their bodies.
There’s a feeling of family or closeness in any cast because you share these experiences. Plays – films – deal with heightened human feelings. They’re human experience at its most intense.
You’re living through these emotionally turbulent events together, and because you’re people, your emotions don’t realize, “Oh, this is just play-acting”. When you’re looking at a person with love in your eyes, and kissing them, your emotions go, “Oh, we must be in love, I guess”. That’s where a lot of people go wrong (laughing). Because you get that same person off-set, or out of the theater, or a month later, and you go, “Oh my gosh, who are you? You’re not at all that wonderful person who saved me, and carried me down the steps when I was dying. You’re just a regular slob, aren’t you?” (laughing).
Johnny Caps: Well, that’s definitely proof of how talented an actor can be.
Deborah Geffner: Yes. It’s a funny, funny profession but, I think that familiarity happens faster and more so with people who are dancers or athletes. I think it was a really astute observation.
Johnny Caps: Oh, thank you very much.
Deborah Geffner: You’re welcome.
Johnny Caps: Jumping from the big screen to the small screen, you played Terry Riga in the 1983 TV movie Legs, a movie about auditioning for The Rockettes. Knowing that some movies about dancers are more accurate than others, how accurate was Legs to your own experiences as a stage dancer?
Deborah Geffner: Legs was a novel experience for me. I had never been in The Rockettes, auditioned for The Rockettes, or desired to be in The Rockettes, and it was a movie all about the ultimate goal of dancing in The Rockettes. I was like, “hmm…” (laughing), but it was a fascinating movie to make. It was amazing to be with those women. They were very serious about being Rockettes, and they were very serious about their kickline.
I learned quickly, I mean, I was doing the kickline, and this woman said, “Do NOT press against my back!”‘. (Laughing) I was like, “Oops, okay”. She said, “We hold our arms just a quarter-of-an-inch away from each other’s backs”, and I said, “Alright”. They were very precise. It was fun being one of the three stars – one of the three featured Rockettes, and really wonderful working with Gwen Verdon. Oh, my goodness. She’s just one of my idols. She’s one of those people I wanted to be growing up. You know, Damn Yankees – all of those films…I just thought she could – well she can do anything.
Someone sent me a clip of her in Redhead the other day, and I was amazed. This woman can do anything. The precision with which she acts and she dances, and her quirky singing voice which she makes work for her…It’s just wonderful, so staring into those iconic eyes and doing this scene with her was like an ultimate experience for me. Here I was acting with Gwen Verdon, and she was so giving, and so kind and so sweet. I just love her.
Johnny Caps: Again, how lucky you were to work with such a great talent.
Deborah Geffner: Oh, yes, yes.
Johnny Caps: Just a brief side note: They do the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall every year, and I just find it interesting how you go from having these leggy dancers to them reenacting the Nativity. That always struck me as kind of a disconnect.
Deborah Geffner: (Laughing) The Radio City Music Hall show is the height of camp to me, even though I know how hard it is to do what they do. We had our premiere – the Legs premiere – at Radio City Music Hall, and I was in a flap about “What will I wear to the premiere?” (laughing), I borrowed this dress from a designer – this wonderful red dress with a red turban.
It was the most fabulous experience walking the red carpet at Radio City Music Hall. I was like, “Now THIS is glamour, darn it! Here you go, little Debby! This is what you were looking for when you were five and you were in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Here you go. This is the culmination of those dreams” (laughing). It was very Gloria Swanson.
Johnny Caps: Cool. To jump back from the small screen to the big one, you played Caroline in Exterminator 2. That was a Cannon Films release, and as such, the movie was executive-produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. I’ve interviewed quite a few Cannon Films veterans, and opinions on Golan and Globus are mixed, to say the least, so what did you think of them?
Deborah Geffner: (Laughing) Well, I’m really interested to hear what other people said. They did so many different films, and I know that there must have been different experiences. They’ve done some good stuff. Exterminator 2 was done by a first-time director. It was a very…Gosh, what can I say? “Interesting” experience (laughing).
I was happy to be working. I was happy to be starring in a movie. I had not seen The Exterminator, so I didn’t know Robert Ginty. He was about to be married at the time, and his mind was on that. I don’t think he was having a good time at all.
We were filming in a deserted warehouse in winter somewhere in New York City, and there was no heat, so for all of the dance numbers, I stood around shivering in down pants and a down jacket until it was time to take them off to film. (laughing). My teeth were chattering. I was freezing. It was not an easy shoot.
I look at it, and I think, “Boy, I could’ve done better, I think. If I had been working under better circumstances”. Then again, at the time I was thinking, “Well, at least I’ll get another chance to do the dance number”, but I would do it once and they would go, “Oh, that was so hard. We won’t ask you to do it again”. I was thinking, “Nononononono! We’re supposed to do this 30 more times – that’s what I’ve heard – until we get it right” (laughing). “And don’t you want to film it from other angles?”. I didn’t say that out loud, of course.
As a final note, I’ll just say that, in the movie that I shot, my character lived, but in the movie that was released, my character died. So that gives you a clue… (laughing). I saw the film for the first time with a good friend. I sneaked in incognito because I didn’t want to be recognized. So there we were, watching from the balcony, and suddenly there was my character dead, naked, face down in an X shape because Mario Van Peebles’ evil character’s name was X, and of course it wasn’t me, because I had never died. (laughing). I saw this naked, dead body, and I whispered to my friend, very perturbed, “That’s not my butt!!” (laughing). He later used that line in one of his plays. Years later I found out it was a guy that they used as a body double for me. So that was kind of flattering, I guess, (laughing) that my butt was that good that they had to use a guy. Or now I’m thinking, maybe they just didn’t have a woman available.
I don’t know, it was a very mixed experience. I don’t know how much of that had to do with Golan, or with Globus, or with the director, but it was definitely an odd experience. Unique.
Johnny Caps: Well, to stay with Exterminator 2, that was one of many 80s movies that portrayed New York City as a violent hellhole. Did you find it to be that during your time there?
Deborah Geffner: No, my goodness. New York City? Yeah, there’s violence – but there’s everything there. My experience of the city is that every creative person from every corner of the United States, maybe the world, is drawn to New York City, and gathers there in this huge, fecund jungle of creativity that just blooms and sprouts, and you wend your way through it in wonder.
To get noticed in New York City, you really have to grow up and be one of the tallest trees. It’s so fertile, it’s so rich, it’s so creative. And it’s so small! It’s tiny! It’s a little island, Manhattan. I mean now people are living in Brooklyn and The Bronx and all over, but when I was there, my friends were all living in Manhattan, and it was like summer camp. Anytime I walked down the street, I would meet three or four people I knew. I’d say hi. We’d stop and have coffee, or go to each other’s apartments and talk.
It was the most delightful place, and like I said, working on Broadway felt like you were royalty, you know? I had enough money to take a cab anywhere I wanted to go (laughing). What could be better than that? It was really a blessing, really a blessed time in my life, and I loved every minute of it.
Johnny Caps: That’s lovely to hear. Me? I really need to get over my fear of the city. I’ve been afraid of visiting there ever since my dad died when I was 12. He died of a heart attack on his way to his job in the city.
Deborah Geffner: Oh, I’m so sorry.
Johnny Caps: Yeah. He would take me to work with him when I was younger, and then we’d go to a museum or something. It was always fun, but then he died and I ended up with a mom who, to put it mildly, I was in a codependent and toxic relationship with because I have an autism spectrum disorder and she couldn’t understand that at all. Things were really rough between us in the 15 years between my dad’s passing and her passing. She took me and my brother into the city once in 2007 to see the Cirque du Soleil production of Wintuk, and I didn’t feel safe there even with her, probably because of how bad our relationship was. Now that they’re both gone, I think I really need to re-evalute my fear of the city.
Deborah Geffner: It’s an interesting place. It’s a wonderful place to work if you’re working, a wonderful place to live if you have friends there…I think the great resource of the city is its people, and yet there are some very toxic and dangerous people there. You really have to guard yourself. That’s the actor’s problem, being vulnerable and open, but also protecting your creativity…Well, doubly so in New York City.
Really, I understand anyone who has a fear of New York. Some of those fears are justified. I mean, it’s dirty, and it’s small, and it’s crowded, and when you’re depressed, it’s probably just one of the most awful places to be in the world (laughing). A dirty, cold February day in New York when you’re depressed? Boy, god help you.
I did have one friend in New York City – he played the lead horse in Equus. He must have been about 6′ 4”, big, blonde. I could walk through Central Park with him at midnight, and feel just fine (laughing). Safe. Nobody wanted to bother us. That was a new experience for me because you learn to be careful. As a woman, you need to be careful anywhere, but especially in New York. You carry your keys in your hand, and you look around. You’re always aware. But with David, I could just go anywhere, anytime, and I thought, “How lovely. This is how Central Park was meant to be enjoyed at night” (laughing).
There’s good and bad in New York City, I guess like anywhere, but more so. I do hope you end up going to New York and finding the good of it, and being able to enjoy the riches it has to offer, and I hope that we all get back to the riches it has to offer.
Johnny Caps: I’ll definitely consider it. To return to you, of course, you were a dancer in 1989’s Bert Rigby, You’re A Fool, which was directed by the late, great Carl Reiner. What are your favorite memories of working with him?
Deborah Geffner: I wish I’d gotten to work with him more. What a huge talent! I was also assisting the choreographer, my friend Yehuda Hyman, the friend I mentioned earlier.
I remember talking to Carl Reiner and the producer, and we were arguing for having all union dancers, SAG dancers, rather than the cheaper, non-union dancers. Because the lead was a wonderful performer, but not a professional dancer. And I said, “If you surround someone with wonderful dancers, they look like a good dancer”, thinking back to Roy Scheider. He looked at me and said, “Oh really?“, with the most perfect blend of politeness and sarcasm and I felt, (gasping) “Oh, my gosh”. I felt so embarrassed – so small. I was like, “I’m telling Carl Reiner about show business? I should be taken out and shot” (laughing). That was my sharpest memory of him on that production, but what a talented, lovely man.
I really wish I’d gotten to work with him more closely, but I was mainly working with the dancers. I got to work with Anne Bancroft. As I said, I was assisting the choreographer, and I helped teach her this dance, and that was interesting (laughing). They did the number together, and I saw something that she had done that wasn’t the choreography. I said, “Oh, that was lovely. Um, this is the step here”, and she said, “No. You don’t correct me. I’m the one who’s going to be doing this on film, and when I’m in front of the camera, I don’t want to be thinking, ‘Oh, I did that wrong’. I have to do it with total assurance, so you don’t correct me”. I said, “Yes, Ms. Bancroft” (laughing).
Johnny Caps: Alright. Jumping back to TV, you appeared on a few episodes of Falcon Crest, playing the character of Savannah Sharpe. What drew you to working on that show?
Deborah Geffner: (Laughing) They gave me the part. I auditioned and got the part. It was great to do, but it was just another part. I was very happy to be working.
Johnny Caps: Alright. Jumping ahead into the 00s, you played Dr. Carlyle on several episodes of the off-the-wall soap opera Passions. What was it like to work on a show like that which went for the campy and over-the-top?
Deborah Geffner: I don’t think they thought that they were being campy or over-the-top. I think that they thought they were playing it straight. There was no effort to be… I think the writing was campy and over-the-top, and when you get writing like that, the straighter you play it, the better it is.
What I do notice about soap operas, and I’ve been on several since, is the speed. It’s like working on an assembly line. You come in, and you have to know your lines. I honor those people who do pages and pages of dialogue a day. It’s not an easy gig. You come in, you know your lines, you get one shot, and if no one fell down, great, we’re moving on (laughing)! Okay!
There’s no effort to be campy, certainly not for me. You just say the lines, and the lines do the work.
Johnny Caps: Aaah. I apologize if I caused offense with my description.
Deborah Geffner: Oh, no, no, no, not a bit. It’s an interesting question because, you know, how do you play campy? And the answer is you don’t. You do the lines and play it straight. How do you play an over-the-top character? You say the lines and do the actions, and you invest in them as sincerely as you would in a straight dramatic role, but the situation makes it funny. It’s not at all insulting. It’s a very piercing question, I think.
Johnny Caps: Well, I do thank you for the compliments on my questions. To go to a rather unique project in your career, in 2009, you wrote, directed, produced and starred in a short film called Guitar Lessons. What did working on that project teach you, and mean to you?
Deborah Geffner: I loved working on that project. Here’s what I can say. If anyone wants to learn how to be a better actor, direct. Direct, edit, cast something. Work on the other side of the camera. I learned so much about honesty, about …just everything. Auditioning actors, I learned how difficult it is to be simple and honest and unafraid – how badly nerves can mess you up – and how much the person auditioning you wants you to succeed! The actor I cast to play the guitar teacher, Stefan Marks, is an amazing actor/director/writer/producer/singer in his own right. I mean, he’s far and away one of the most creative people I know.
The other actors: Art LaFleur, a wonderful actor, had played my husband in a long-running play, Bill W. and Doctor Bob, about the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous. Barbara Keegan, who played my best friend was also in that production. And then as my daughter, I cast my daughter, because I thought she had just exactly the right qualities. And she was kind of amazing. She was probably the most difficult to work with (laughing). She had no respect for me as director. I was just her mother.
Putting that all together was a case of relying on the universe – Higher Power, whatever you want to call it. You go, “Okay, this is what I’d like to do. What do you think, universe?”. You start to move forward, and it’s like the universe notices. “Oh, here’s someone moving forward. Let’s help her”. It’s like a ship moving forward, and a wake is created behind it, you know? People started to come in. A cinematographer, a producer, another cameraman…All these people just kind of filled in, and it was interesting and amazing.
I needed money to make this film, and a casting director called and said, “Would you please audition for this commercial?”. Usually your agent submits you for a commercial. This casting director was a huge All That Jazz fan, and called my agent and said, “Would she come in?”. I had the good fortune to audition, and eventually do this commercial, with Gregory Jbara, who’s had an incredible career on Broadway and TV and films. And he’s a prince among people – a really wonderful person. You know, often the more famous people are, and the more they’ve done in this business, the nicer they are, I’ve found. Well I got to do the tango with him!
I got the job, and they wanted to rehearse and shoot right in the middle of my five-day shooting schedule. This five-day shooting schedule (laughing) was built around my daughter’s Memorial Day school vacation, but I ended up figuring out the logistics and doing it, and that commercial made me the exact amount of money I needed to finish the film, so there’s the universe coming through. It was learning to rely on the universe. It was learning how to lead by listening, coming into some of my authority as a director, and that authority served me well as an actor later. You sort of spread yourself all over the project. I was producing, directing, acting in, costuming…Just sort of doing everything. That was one of the most creative, one of the most fun things I’ve done, and I kind of cherish it.
Johnny Caps: That’s fantastic.
Deborah Geffner: Thank you.
Johnny Caps: To go to 2014, you choreographed the film Booze Boys & Brownies, where you also played the character of Sharon Dubrow. Were you hired first as a choreographer or as an actress, or both at the same time, on that movie?
Deborah Geffner: I actually don’t remember. I was friends with Veronica Mannion, who was doing the same thing with her movie, directing, producing, acting in, writing the songs as well. We had been in acting class together, and she decided to do this movie, and she said, “Hey, would you…?”, and I went, “Sure”. I think she asked me to be in it, and then she said, “Oh, could you choreograph it?”, and I went, “Heck, yeah!”, so that was just pure pleasure. She was a really creative, delightful person to work with.
Johnny Caps: Alright. Speaking of choreography, when it comes to any project you’ve worked on choreography for, whether screen or stage, what moves that you put together made you step back once you saw them performed and say, “Wow, how did I come up with that?”.
Deborah Geffner: Oh, interesting question. I love choreographing non-dancers because I enjoy watching the way people move, and I enjoy finding the things for them to do that they naturally do well. I think non-dancers move as interestingly as dancers. I mean, dancers are great. You can tell them, “Do this”, and they’ll do it… You can give them anything, and they’ll figure out the way to do it. Well not a non-dancer (laughing).With a non-dancer, you say, “Step right, cross over with your left, step right”, and they go, “Wait, wait, wait. What?” (laughing). So you end up moving people around the stage. You just find out – you work with the music, with the project. It ends up being not so much: “How did I come up with that?” as how did they end up doing that?
Every project has its own style. I remember one rock musical that I did called The News, created by Paul Schierhorn. It eventually went to Broadway with a different cast and choreographer, but we did it off Broadway, and one whole number was a series of poses from a catalogue. I had seven days to do seven numbers (laughing). We started out, and they said, “How are you going to do this?”. I said, “Well, you know, God made the world in six days, and he rested on the seventh, so we have one more” (laughing), and it all kind of worked out.
I got the moves from watching them. When I saw something that looked great, I used it. I gave them things to do that were fun for them, and I think that’s it: What’s going to be fun for them to do, and what’s going to be fun for me to watch? I’m not a choreographer like Bob Fosse, or Michael Bennett, or Jerome Robbins, – one of the gods of choreography. I don’t have that in me, but I can look at people and I can tell what they’d like to do. And I can make it fun to repeat, and clean it up to where it goes with the music and is enjoyable for people to watch.
Johnny Caps: That’s definitely proof of your great talent.
Deborah Geffner: Aw, thank you. Very kind.
Johnny Caps: Speaking of your versatility, although you’re still performing, a direction your life has taken is that of photography. What drew you to being a photographer?
Deborah Geffner: My children. My daughters. I kept trying to take a good picture of my daughter when she was born because I just…Oh, I was so in love. I thought she was so beautiful, – I still do – and I kept trying to get that on film. One Christmas, my husband gave me a professional camera with a portrait lens, and I was so bowled over by the gift. I thought, “He saw what I was trying to do, and he went, ‘I’m not just going to support you, but I’m going to give you a boost in the right direction'”.
So I started out taking photographs of them. I’m drawn to faces. I’m not a landscape photographer by any means, or an action photographer, but faces – I do love portrait photography, and I’ve taken some pretty good headshots. I’m good at making people relaxed, because I’m a director and an actor, and I make it easy. I’m all about enjoying what you do. After taking photos of my kids for a while, I started taking pictures of friends, my daughter’s friends, students, trying just to be of service.
I learned from observing some really great headshot photographers. Mark Atteberry is the best I know, and then there’s a retoucher, Sam Tabrizi, who doesn’t just erase wrinkles and spots but also does this color correction that makes the photograph look real – makes it pop. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with good people, and I’ve learned a lot about light. It’s really all about where the light is, and how it hits the face. It’s not my main thing, but it’s enjoyable and it’s a pleasure when I can help people.
Johnny Caps: Alright. Well, you are really good at what you do as a photographer, as you are with your many other talents.
Deborah Geffner: Thank you!
Johnny Caps: To go to my next question, although mask mandates are being lifted and things are slowly getting back to how they once were, COVID-19 has made an indelible impact upon our lives. How has it impacted yours’?
Deborah Geffner: Boy. That’s a wide-ranging question. It’s forced me to confront how very fortunate I am, and the huge disparity between my life and the life of those that it has REALLY impacted. I was thinking about this. Before COVID hit, the rhetoric was, “Oh, this Tweet went viral”. Hate-filled Tweets would go viral. The word was “going viral”, and it was noted that a Tweet could race around the world in a matter of minutes or hours, you know? That’s a pretty new phenomenon. Someone talked about Tweeting something when they got on a plane, turning their phone off, getting to the other side of the Atlantic and by the time they got off the plane, people were in an uproar over it.
The COVID virus, for me, was a metaphor for this rapid spread of…I don’t want to call it hate, but evil. I think the only thing that will antidote it is kindness. I loved when we would go out and applaud for the first responders at 7:00 every night. Gratitude, kindness…I can’t emphasize enough how much I think that’s needed. Kindness to people whose skins are a different color, whose country is different, whose beliefs are different, whose orientation is different…Kindness to those who think differently than we do – to those who may have less and need a little more. It won’t necessarily heal the physical illness, but it will start to relieve the underlying mental turmoil.
If you can do what we’re doing here, talk to each other as people, you find the common humanity. You find that everyone is a person, and if you can get past that hatred, that hard part, to the humanity of the person, I think that’s what’s so needed. It hurts my heart, and yet I have hope that we will get there.
Johnny Caps: Oh, I agree with you. Kindness is the overriding principle I try and go by. I mean, sometimes people will try your patience. They certainly try mine at my retail job, but overall, I just try and be as kind as possible to everybody I come across.
Deborah Geffner: Oh, yeah. Good.
Johnny Caps: Two more questions. First, although you’ve danced with many amazing talents throughout your life, if you could put any dancers from throughout history on your dance card, who would you choose?
Deborah Geffner: (Laughing) What a delightful thought. Dance card…You mean to dance with?
Johnny Caps: Right.
Deborah Geffner: Oh, gosh. Well, the people who come up for me are like Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Rudolf Nureyev in his prime. I had the honor to see him dance with Margot Fonteyn, this ethereal figure. Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing with Natalia Makarova, who looked like she didn’t touch the floor, but just lighted on it like a butterfly, just paused there for a while and moved on. Gelsey Kirkland. Those are the ballet dancers. I think of them as the real dancers. Of course there’s Bob Fosse. No one danced like him. The control, the precision, the neatness, the sharpness, the genius of his moves. Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera…These people are stars in the firmament.
When I came out to Los Angeles, in 1980 or 1981. I was walking north on Canon Drive in Beverly Hills, and coming south was Fred Astaire (laughing). The way he walked was exquisite. I’ve heard he was like this all the time. He was in a jacket and a cravat, and just the way he walked…I mean, songs played as he passed (laughing). Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers…I used to watch their movies, and I tried to model my dancing on her wonderful poses and her beautiful shoulders and fluidity.
As far as people I would dance with, you know, if you go on my Vimeo page, you can see a tango I did with Yehuda Hyman that he choreographed to a Sondheim piece. He’s one of the best partners I ever had. He’s about a foot shorter than I am, but any time I danced with him, I felt absolutely secure in a way I don’t think I’ve felt with any other partner. He just has that core strength and poise. I mean, he can throw me around and I’m never off-balance. I never feel worried. He’s a perfect partner, and he makes me laugh so hard…A wonderful choreographer, and a very talented dancer.
Justin Ross is a dancer who was in A Chorus Line. He played Gregory Gardner, and he was hilarious. Sometimes an understudy would come in and we would switch places in line in the finale because the tall people were closer to the center. I would move over a space and I would find myself right beside Justin. When I danced in the line next to him, it was like dancing in his wake. He would do a step, snap, and I would step, snap along with him. I would adopt his timing and some of his sharpness, and I danced better than I’d ever danced (laughing). His timing was so precise. My body would go, “Oh, I’m dancing with Justin”.
Those are some of my favorites. I’m sure there are others I’m missing. I’m sure I’ve skipped over some wonderful dancers, but that’s just a few.
Johnny Caps: Well, I know you would do amazing work with any and all of them.
Deborah Geffner: Thank you.
Johnny Caps: Oh, no problem. I now come to my final question: What’s coming up next for you?
Deborah Geffner: I have a screenplay that I’m writing. I got interested in my 1975 diary of this tour, and I spoke to a person who was on the tour with me. He had an entirely different experience on this tour, and I thought that would be really interesting. Like Gene Kelly in Les Girls. If you remember that old, old movie, he was on trial for something, and three women came up and told the story from three different perspectives. I thought of going back and telling this, where all of the events are the same, but it was an entirely different tour for each of us. Since it was in the early 70s, it would be an intriguing time period to try and capture.
I did some work recently on a TV series, but I’m not allowed to say which one until it comes out. I’ve got some YouTube videos that I’m going to be putting out…Just different things. I’m glad to be creative and free to do whatever I want, and I’m grateful for it, and always grateful to work with other good people. I’m available. Hire me! (Laughing)
Johnny Caps: Well, that’s fantastic to hear, and that does it for my questions. I thank you again for taking the time out of your schedule to speak to me.
To follow up on your first question to me when we started the interview, I was actually inspired to reach out to you because I recently purchased my first Blu-Ray player, years after everybody else did (Deborah laughs). One of the things I purchased was this All Region Blu-Ray from an Australian Blu-Ray company called Umbrella Entertainment. It’s called Drive-In Delirium. It’s a series of movie trailer compilations…
Deborah Geffner: Oh!
Johnny Caps: …And one of the trailers on there was for Exterminator 2.
Deborah Geffner: Interesting.
Johnny Caps: I saw that, and I saw a couple of clips of you in there. I thought, “Wow, she looks good!”, and then I went onto IMDB to look up more information on Exterminator 2. That’s how I came across you, and then I looked at your IMDB page, listing your work, and I thought, “Wow, she must have some interesting stories”, and I must say you certainly do.
Deborah Geffner: Oh, well, thank you so much. I’m grateful that you found me, and to get to know you, and to get to know Pop Geeks, I found it very interesting. I enjoy your work. I’ve enjoyed talking to you so much.
Johnny Caps: Again, it was a great honor to talk to you. You are a very versatile talent, and you’re definitely great at all the things you do.
Deborah Geffner: Oh, thank you. How lovely. Well, good talking to you, and have a wonderful rest of the day.
Johnny Caps: Likewise.
Deborah Geffner: Thanks.
Johnny Caps: See you later.
Deborah Geffner: Bye bye!
Johnny Caps: Bye!
I would again like to thank Deborah Geffner for taking the time out of her schedule to speak to me, as well as Sharon Holleran for helping to connect us.
For more about Deborah’s work in entertainment and photography, you can visit her official website.
Coming soon to the Flashback Interview are conversations with actress/burlesque dancer/pet care expert Stephanie Blake, writer/actor Bruce Vilanch, and Ve Neill, winner of three Academy Awards for Best Makeup.
Thank you as always for reading, and I’ll talk to you all again soon.