Interview by Letty Cottin Pogrebin
The Animated Transcript
Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a founding editor of Ms. magazine, writer, lecturer, social justice activist, and the author of ten books.
I was miscast in my first big part on Broadway. One night after the show, there was Mel Brooks wearing a merchant marine pea jacket. He looked striking in it. I said: “Hello, hello, how nice to meet you.” My goodness, you look so wonderful in that pea jacket.” He said, “Yeah, they used to call them urine jackets, but they didn’t sell.”
When I was 7-1/2 or 8 years old, my mother had a heart attack. This heavy-set doctor brought her home, told her some things while she was lying in bed. Then came out to see me. Then he grabbed me by the arm. It was summer, hot day and the sweat was dripping off of his face and falling onto my cheeks.
He said: “Don’t ever get angry with your mother because you might kill her.” He was not very psychologically oriented. But the other thing he said was: “Try to make her laugh.” And that was a huge thing although I didn’t realize it at the time. For the first time in my life, I tried consciously to make someone else laugh. I knew I was very successful when she’d run to the bathroom and say: “Now, look what you’ve made me do.”
When you please your mother by doing something, it gives you confidence that you can please other people. I think that’s where the courage to make people laugh came from, but I didn’t want to be a comedian. I wanted to be an actor. Maybe a comic actor, but an actor. That’s what got me into acting was putting on an act, because in life, I wasn’t funny and I felt on stage or in the movies, I could do whatever I wanted to. I was free.
When I was 18 and the hormones were raging and I was at school, University of Iowa I suddenly felt the overwhelming compulsion to pray. I must have prayed for 20 minutes or so. I didn’t know what I was praying about, but I was feeling guilty about something. The next day or two, it was 30 minutes. Then it was an hour, then two hours. To skip ahead to the end of the 7-1/2 years of analysis, I was so afraid to feel free to enjoy my own life if my mother was sick and suffering everyday of her’s. I didn’t think I had the right.
If you ask an actor: why do you want to act? I don’t think most of them know the real reasons. After 7-1/2 years of analysis, I have a fairly good idea why. My analyst said it’s better than running around naked in Central Park isn’t it?
I was offered the part of Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. When the director came to my house I said: “Well I like the script except when the audience sees Willy Wonka for the first time, I want to come out of the door with a cane and limp my way to the crowd. And they are like: ‘Oh, Willy Wonka, oh he is a cripple. Oh, my god, who thought…. I never knew that.’ And they quiet down, quiet down and Willy Wonka’s cane gets stuck in a brick and he starts to fall forward and he does a forward somersault and jumps up and the crowd cheers and applauds.” And the director said: “What do you want to do that for?” I said: “because from that time on no one will know whether I’m lying or telling the truth.” He said: “you mean if i say no, you won’t do the picture?” I said: “I’m afraid that’s the truth.”
If the bell goes off when I read a script I say I’ve got to do this, but the bell hasn’t gone off for a long time because I’m tired of movies that are just based on special effects, on the F-word and “you mother F” and the F-ing. I’m being very polite. But it’s the truth. I haven’t read anything that I really wanted to do for so long. Now, I find it’s much more comforting to sit in my study, write starting at 10:30 or so, come out after an hour and a half, get a quick kiss from my wife, make a cup of tea, go back in, write, come about for lunch go back until 3:30, quarter to 4 and then call it a day.