Applause / Joanna Gleason and Chris Sarandon: Private lives, public faces
“You don’t know how you got onstage. You literally can’t feel your legs. It’s amazing,” said Joanna Gleason, about the night in 1988 she received the Tony Award as Leading Actress in a Musical for her performance as the Baker’s Wife in “Into the Woods.” The evening, as unreal as it was memorable, glamorous yet all too human, is a perfect metaphor for the acting profession where dazzle often outpoints craft.
“I didn’t think I would win,” said Gleason. “I was sitting in the audience pretty sure that Patti LuPone was going to win for ‘Anything Goes.’ But then Joel Grey and Bernadette Peters walked out for our category and I was thinking ‘maybe maybe maybe’ and ‘no, it’s not going to happen’ and then it did.”
Similarly, her husband, Chris Sarandon, did not expect to win. But, in his case, he was right. Nominated as Best Supporting Actor at the 1975 Oscars for his role as the transgender Leon Shermer in “Dog Day Afternoon,” he was up against a sentimental choice. “Everybody knew George Burns was going to win for ‘Oh, God,’” he said. “Which he did. I didn’t even have a speech ready.”
Over a casual lunch of shrimp and asparagus in their sprawling Fairfield home, the winter sun shining outside while workmen bustled about, we talked of living in Connecticut, of acting, of fame and of family, which includes his three children from a former marriage, her one and their Lucy, a black Lab mix. The couple, just off a weekend playing in A. R. Gurney’s “Love Letters” at Norwalk’s Music Theater of Connecticut, fell in love while in the notorious musical flop, 1991’s “Nick and Nora,” marrying in 1994, the third marriage for each.
They moved to Fairfield 12 years ago. “We just metabolically didn’t like California,” said Gleason. “We’d done a lot of television and done very well. But we missed the theater, we missed the East Coast. I needed to stop crying when the Times’ Arts and Leisure fall preview section would come in.”
They looked at many Connecticut properties before settling on the house they’re in, which dates from 1947. “This was about the 40th house we saw,” said Gleason. “It was in the dead of winter, very sad.” Said Sarandon, “The place was a mess. But we saw the possibilities.”
Counting themselves true blue Nutmeggers now, they support local libraries, do political benefits, take language lessons, patronize local doctors, visit friends. Gleason also enters local West Coast Swing and Tango contests (partnering with her instructor). On her docket is a screenplay she will direct. “It has a female lead and a great love for Latino music,” she said. “The film, and the club at its center, are called ‘The Grotto,’ after the miracle water of Lourdes France. Miracles happen.”
Born in Toronto, Gleason’s family name was Hall. “My parents (Monty and Marilyn) came from absolutely nothing, poor as church mice,” she said. “Slowly my father got a toehold into the broadcasting world, in Canada, then here. He hosted a cowboy theater but looked ridiculous in a flannel shirt. He stepped in for Jack Barry during the ‘21’ scandal, then did ‘Video Village,’ which moved him to Los Angeles where he hosted the show that made him famous, ‘Let’s Make a Deal.’”
Both parents died last year, her mother first. “It’s been rough,” said Gleason. “Dad didn’t understand why she died,” she said. “It was gradual. She became not conscious, just drifting away. She didn’t want to eat. They were in their separate corners, deteriorating, simultaneously. It was not easy for us to see them not relate to each other. When she was very near the end, dad had a heart attack; he went into the hospital because he didn’t want to be in the house when she died. And he wasn’t.”
Sarandon was born in West Virginia. “My immediate family is gone,” he said. “But I have relatives in various parts of the country. Originally, when my father came over from Turkey in the 20s — he lived in a Greek village — he eventually bought a restaurant in West Virginia. My mother was born here but her parents came from Greece. I spoke Greek at home but stopped when I went to school. I was in a small town, no Greeks there, and I didn’t want to be different, to hear the language, especially not in public.”
In his 60s, his father went back to the “Old Country,” leaving his mother without any resources. “But it was the beginning of her life, really,” Sarandon said. “She became a companion to Rita Hayworth, took care of Herb Alpert’s kids and of Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner’s kids in California.”
The gap between the personal and the professional, between triumphs and tribulations, what the public does and does not see, is especially acute with actors. They live a bifurcated life, using the self to create someone else, a public persona, without losing the self of who they privately are.
“When kids ask me about becoming an actor, I say ‘Go to school,’” said Sarandon who received his undergraduate degree from West Virginia University and his Master’s in Theater from Catholic University and is known for his Prince Humperdinck in “The Princess Bride” and as the voice of Jack Skellington in “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
“I tell them to not just go to acting school but someplace where you’re exposed to the world because you have to reflect the world as an actor. You are going to be the ambassador from Russia, you are going to be a stevedore. College exposes you to things. Otherwise, you become myopic.”
Gleason, who went to UCLA and Occidental College and who has taught acting for more than 30 years, added, “If you can’t identify with somebody who is not like you, what it is to play somebody you have no frame of reference about, a character that I hand you, I don’t want to work with you. It’s a fault of your imagination, you’re lazy and not intelligent, you’re not observing the real world. I think we’re losing empathy as a society, in favor of the pursuit of the self, the pursuit of the same. These kinds of people make it all the time.”
To consider every moment you’re not being in the spotlight as “downtime” is a mistake, said Gleason. “It’s not ‘downtime,’ it’s your life. What about the balance? I can’t equate talent and success anymore.”
On the red carpets, that dichotomy is especially apparent. For the Oscars, Sarandon turned down the studio limo in favor of a rented Nash Rambler. Then came the interview. “I’m talking about the art of film and my part and I’m hearing people going “Yay!. Yay!” And I think they’re cheering for me but what they were saying was “Sly! Sly!” for Sylvester Stallone. That put it in perspective.”
For Gleason, the red carpet interview focused on what it was like to work with Woody Allen. (She was in two of his films, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Hannah and Her Sisters.”) “You’re never going to be the most famous person in the room,” she said. “Theater people are diverse, from all backgrounds, from all over the world. There’s a love for each other, an admiration for each other. I love theater people.”
David Rosenberg’s column on the local theater scene appears monthly.