Television, Broadway and motion picture star Judith Light has certainly had more than just one life to live … in fact she has had several! The actress, who got her first big break playing the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold on the soap opera One Life to Live, and gained national prominence when her character, Karen Wolek, admitted she was a prostitute in a courtroom confessional, is still one of the greatest television moments of all-time.
Flash forward: Light conquers the world of sitcoms starring for eight years as Angela Bowers on Who’s the Boss with Tony Danza. What follows is a series of stirring performances in gritty made-for-television movies, guest-star turns and landing on the quirky LGBT favorite Ugly Betty! But there was a shift to the theatre that was about to happen for Light, which actually started several years back with her moving performances in Wit. More recently, she has starred in Broadway roles in Lombardi, and her Tony Award winning performance in Other Desert Cities. Now she is in currently in previews in a new play about to have its Broadway debut this month, The Assembled Parties. However, TV fans are still getting their fix of Judith each week in her powerful performance as the newest addition to the cast of TNT’s nighttime soap opera, Dallas!
Total chameleon? Workaholic? Smart career planner? Whatever the case, Judith Light has created her own unique path to success and staying power in an entertainment industry that can be unforgiving. And while Judith’s passion for acting and delivering top-notch performances has no bounds, her work as one of the LGBT community’s most fearless friends and advocates is a story all in itself. Light has been involved with many prominent and key organizations to help the cause for gay rights for years, and she has been outspoken when it comes to protecting and nurturing our community. Her compassion and understanding of the human condition has no peer. Frontiers chatted with Judith in between rehearsals for her newest play, to bring you this very special interview, which we found lively, but more importantly, awe-inspiring.
You were just honored a few weeks ago by the MCC (Manhattan Class Company) for your career in stage, film and television at their annual Miscast Gala in New York City! It was quite a turnout, and looked like a fun night! Were you shocked at all the stars and accolades bestowed upon you?
First off, they did a rap of my entire career! You have to hear this rap! It’s completely stunning. It starts with my career on One Life to Live. It’s brilliant and off the charts. My mouth was hanging open, and someone said to me finally, “You better close your mouth. They are taking pictures.” [Laughs] It was truly one of the highlights of my entire life. I truly don’t know how to describe it, and it was beyond words.
You now have become a staple of the New York theater scene! How did this next arc in your career occur after all of your numerous television and film roles? Why the decision to go back to the stage?
Back in 1999, as the story goes, I had finished Who’s the Boss. I had been doing other sitcoms and other television projects, finally my manager, Herb Hamscher, said to me at one point, “You know, you really have got to go back to the theatre. You have to change your life. You have gotten comfortable and not in a good way.” I pooh-poohed him, and I said, “What do you know?” [Laughs] Then, I got this audition to play an aging sitcom star. [Laughs] It was beautiful part and I said to Herb, “You know, I don’t think I should be playing an aging sitcom star.” He said, “Oh, I think it would be perfect for you.” And I go, “Are you out of your mind?” Herb said, “You are just afraid.”
He was absolutely right. I was completely terrified! At the same time, I had been going around the country and giving a lot of talks about how much homophobia was in this country, and how much the gay community inspires me because of the way they have been dealing with the enormity of the AIDS pandemic, and the courage of coming out and telling their families (not only that they are sick, and most likely dying, because those were the years of it) but that they are gay and this is who they are. I am watching the gay community rise like the phoenix from the ashes. I am saying these things about how they inspire me, and then I came to Herb and his partner and I said, “I am saying all these things, and I am talking the talk, but I am not walking the walk!” I am terrified to audition for a play? Not good, and not who I want to be.
So, I said the next thing that comes to me to audition for, I am going to do it. I don’t care what it is or where it is. The next thing we get a call from Bernie Telsey from MCC. He said would I come to New York to audition to take over the role played by Kathleen Chalfant in the play Wit. Now, you must be aware, that in this role you have to be bald and do full-frontal nudity, and go on the national tour. So, I would have to be bald for like a year, and travel around the country, after I had done it in New York and faced the New York critics. Now if you want to talk about fear and terror? But I said, I wanted to change my life and I wanted to listen to the guidance that Herb was giving me, because he has given me the best guidance of anyone ever in my life. I knew I had to do it. I knew it was the right thing to do, but I didn’t think they were going to give it to me!
And now look at you! You are a Tony Award winning actress, as well as a two-time Daytime Emmy winner having won the Best Featured Actress In A Play for your performance in Other Desert Cities at last year’s Tony Awards telecast. When they called your name, what went through you mind? Were you at all expecting to win?
Oh, my God! When you have had the course of a career that I have had, where you do things like a soap opera, and a sitcom, and you have to reinvent yourself, you have to find another way to relate in the world. If you are ever going to show people what you can do, and how much the theater means to you, you have to mean it and have to work your tail off to prove yourself to people. It is not expected that a person whose career has gone to those places would be a person who would end up winning the Tony! This is my way of saying to you, I did not expect it.
Now you are in previews for a brand-new Broadway play called The Assembled Parties, written by Richard Greenberg. What is it about?
It is about families and their dynamics and their relationships … love that is withheld … and love that is given. Relationships that are fraught with pain, and lack of understanding, and lack of communication, and the sorrow of the way things happen in life that one has great difficulty forgiving other people for, and forgiving oneself for. I play a woman named Faye, who is smart and has a whole life ahead of her, but because of one mistake in her life it will never be the same. We are currently in previews, and opening night is April 17th. It’s at a fantastic Broadway house, The Samuel Friedman Theatre on West 47th Street. Purchase tickets here.
Let’s now talk about your fantastic new role on TNT’s Dallas reboot! Why did you choose to play Judith Brown Ryland on Dallas? She is so creepy! [Laughs]
If you saw the character description, you don’t say “No.” We read the character description, and went, “Oh, my God!” The first writing sample was so exciting and thrilling to work on. The reason that I choose the way that I choose, is not only to satisfy my own creative interests. Certainly that is there, there is no question about it. But to me, theater, television and film, and art in general, are a way in for people to view their own psychology. Subsequently, I think it’s a way to talk about the culture, and who we are as human beings. Now I know those are lofty things to talk about, but I try to talk about them in a way people can relate to them. I can go do Judith Brown Ryland in my bathroom and it won’t make any difference. [Laughs] In people seeing a character like Judith Brown Ryland, who is so controlling and so angry, and needs to make the world the way she wants it, and the sorrow and the reaction that comes from that, maybe someone will say, “I see myself in that, or I see a relative of mine in that, and I want to make it be different.”
That Texas drawl of an accent you have as Judith Brown Ryland is subtle but so delicious! I am sure you are aware that everywhere on the internet, Dallas and Judith Light fans are screaming, “She is too young to play Harris’ mother! Judith and Mitch Pileggi (Harris) are not that far apart in age!”
All I want to say to people is: look at the film Manchurian Candidate. Angela Lansbury was only three years older than Lawrence Harvey when she played that part. I think people are forgetting and not understanding how young Judith Brown Ryland was when she had Harris. I know everyone is saying she is too young, and everyone is talking about this. I want to say to people don’t just look at it at the surface … go a little deeper as to why Harris and Judith are not that discrepant in age. It will educate the public to what this is really all about. And, why they in fact, chose me to play his mother, and why the dynamic between the two of us is so infinitely off balance. I appreciate that people think I look good, that’s so nice! [Laughs]
Let’s turn the page to your unwavering and constant support of the LGBT community. What did you think of how President Obama framed being supportive of gay marriage?
Bravo to him, finally! Thank goodness. I think what is important is that he finally said it. I think what he said in his inaugural speech was uplifting for the country, and the respect for this community which has for so long inspired me. I think it has been essential. I am looking to more continued support from President Obama.
Judith, your résumé and achievements and involvement in support of LGBT rights, awareness and advocacy is unparalled!
Thank you. It was not finding the time; it was needing to make the time. It had to be done and had to be spoken.
What was the turning point in your life? Were you decided you were going to work and align yourself with the LGBT community in such a passionate way? Was it through your friendship with AIDS activist and author Paul Monette? Or when you starred in The Ryan White Story?
It started very early on, when my friends in the theater and the film community were dying. I knew something was happening to people I love, and who I considered my family. I was not quite clear on what was going on. Then I did The Ryan White Story, and I heard Ryan giving an interview on set. He was talking about how people spit at him and called him a “fag." Almost in time lapse, and like pieces of a puzzle on a floor, they all coalesced together, and that is what happened in my psyche. I said, “Wait, this cannot be happening to my friends and my family, and I am not saying anything about it.” They are not just calling Ryan a “fag," they are not just spitting on Ryan, and they are doing that to my family!
Herb and I talked and he said, “We have to do something.” I said, “If I ever get some kind of celebrity profile, I want to find a way to make a difference.” He said, “I think this is what we need to be focusing on.” That is when I started talking about the community, and talking about how much homophobia there was, and still is in this country. I felt compelled to speak out. Then I read Borrowed Time: an AIDS Memoir. It was his most important book to me at the time and the issue, and it was written by Paul Monette. I was reading it and I turned to my husband Robert and I said, “I have to find this Paul Monette.” It turns out he was seeing the casting director of Cheers, Stephen Kolzak, who was a friend of mine. So I called up and said, “I am coming over for dinner, and I am bringing dinner.” Paul and I met, and I fell completely in love with him. Later, as Paul lay dying, he was writing his last essays. Robert, Herb and his partner, Jonathan Stoller, and I would all sit on his bed. So we became family, and when we did the AIDS Ride in 1995, we did it for Paul. What I kept seeing was a community that was turning whatever anger it had, into things that were incredibly valuable. I said, “You inspire me. I want to be a part of what you are doing.”
What do you think of where we are in this country now on gay rights?
I think we are moving. It is absolutely unconscionable that there are not equal rights in this country. I think we still have a long way to go. I don’t think we should be daunted by that. I don’t think we should find that futile. I think the people on our team now are extraordinary, and they are making enormous in-roads. I don’t want to call it a “fight." I want to call it a “blessed movement” of inspiring and courageous individuals.
A few weeks ago, the internet was abuzz again with posting the clips and scenes of the 34th anniversary of the ultimate soap opera performance of you as Karen Wolek in the Daytime Emmy winning courtroom scene on One Life to Live from 1979! What do you think about that performance, when you look back at it today?
I think dynamically for the culture, as we were talking about before, what it demonstrates is the need to have the courage to come out. When people see that they are moved by it, because against all odds, against every secret, against ever knowing that she will be rejected by her community, her husband, her friends, everyone in her life just about, she knows that she has to tell the truth about what she had done. And in doing so, it sets her free.
I think at a deep profound level which we all know and can feel, there is that oneness and connectedness. Karen’s omission on the witness stand is an ionic moment, because everyone understands that at a very deep profound level. It’s not only that performance; it’s what the moment in time symbolizes … something that everyone can recognize as a kind of bravery to support a friend that simply has to be done. It doesn’t just free the friend; it frees the person who was doing it, as well. You also have to understand, that was a year and a half of putting every piece of that story in place. When I came on OLTL they said to me, “We want to do the story from the movie Belle de Jour with Catherine Deneuve.” It was the story of this woman who was a prostitute during the day and was married to this man, and that was her life. They said, “What do you think of this story?” I said, “I think it’s brilliant.”
So they carefully laid in the pieces of that, and you have to look at the level of writing! People say, “Ech, Soap Operas!” Look at what they created! I believe it is one of TV Guide’s Top 100 Moments in Television. It is for the depth of the story, the writing of the story, the year-and-a-half of placing it in real time, and then having the courtroom scene being the culmination of it. I think that is why people still relate to it.
The show that gave you your start One Life to Live was canceled in 2011, and went off the air in January of 2012; only it has a second life to live! One Life is coming back online with all new episodes on April 29. What are your thoughts that his iconic soap is literally coming back from the dead?
I think it is so fantastic, and I am so happy for everyone. I am not just happy for the people on the show, because it was something that they had devoted themselves to for such a long time, but also the fact that the fans are the ones who really demanded it! They were the ones that put themselves on the line and put themselves out there, and they got what they wanted and what they deserved. It makes me so happy. You want for people to want what they have longed for, and what they have been devoted to. This is a demonstration of the power of the people.
With every role you have portrayed, and everything you have accomplished at this point in your career, when you are out and about in public, what do people come up to you and recognize you from the most? Is it, “Oh, Angela!” Or, “Oh, I loved you as Karen!”
It’s everything. I have this kind of an interesting demographic. [Laughs] I was at an event one time and there was this generation of women. The little girl pointed at me and went, “Mommy, mommy, Ugly Betty! Ugly Betty!” And then the mother went, “No, no, honey. Who’s the Boss!” Then the grandmother said, “No, no, One Life to Live, One Life to Live!” It was this lovely moment. There are people who will say nothing but “Thank you for your support of our community,” which always moves me.
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