“I realize that for many this doesn’t look like 78 is supposed to, but I don’t feel like 78 is supposed to, either. I’m healthy and I’m strong and I have tremendous energy, but I also love having a balance in life….I work very hard on being a spiritual and creative woman. Those are the most important parts of me — the physical not so much.”
Linda Lavin does not like to repeat herself. Maybe that’s why she’s a master at starting over, both in her life and career. After making her name on the New York stage, the actress-singer came to national fame as the title character on the groundbreaking sitcom “Alice” from 1976 to 1985. For her stellar portrayal of a single mom trying to make ends meet as a diner waitress, she picked up two Golden Globes and an Emmy nod, and became so synonymous with the struggle of blue-collar women, she was tapped as the spokesperson for the National Commission on Working Women.
Some 30 years later, Lavin made her debut on Twitter when she tweeted regularly during episodes of “SeanSavesWorld.”
I’m in your kitchen where’s the popcorn?
— Linda Lavin (@Linda_Lavin) October 4, 2013
These days, after stints as an actress in Hollywood and founder of the Red Barn Studio Theater in Wilmington, North Carolina, where 10 years ago she met and married the “love of my life,” actor-director Steve Bakunas, the 78-year-old is back in NYC, living in a pair of one-bedroom apartments on Central Park South. She’s busier than ever, alternating between stage and screen. Just this month, while starring as a multilayered matriarch in Richard Greenberg’s complex memory play “Our Mother’s Brief Affair” on Broadway, she found the time and energy to revive her autobiographical cabaret act, “My First Farewell Concert” (titled “Starting Over” in earlier iterations), with her husband on drums and her longtime musical director and neighbor, Billy Stritch, at the piano.
When quizzed about her past accomplishments during our phone chat, she doesn’t mince words. “Those things you read, you can reprint them. I don’t need to repeat them.” Fair enough. Much of Lavin’s success is due to the fact that she always looks ahead, not back, and embraces challenges and change.
“Starting Over” was the name of your club act and it’s seemingly the theme of your life, too.
Yes, I realized in putting together the show that that’s what I had been doing all my life — that my life was a series of increments of change and starting over. I’ve found that my life has been played out in periods of time and locations and relationships. I don’t know where I got the courage to change and take chances and walk into the unknown, but I’m always changing, always moving.
You could write a book!
I’m not interested in writing a book because I don’t want to sit around talking as I am right now! I don’t want to sell my life. My “book” is my nightclub act, that’s the way I tell my story. I also tell my story through the characters I play. They’re not just characters; they’re me exposing myself through them. It’s much more satisfying for me to perform than it would be for me to write.
You’re currently inhabiting a particularly compelling character in “Our Mother’s Brief Affair,” Anna. You’ve portrayed many unforgettable mothers onstage: in “The Lyons,” “Gypsy” and “Broadway Bound,“ for which you won a Tony. But while Anna is seen as cold and critical by her twin children, you also get to play her as a vivacious and desirable older woman.
It appealed to me to explore this character, a woman who finally gets to say to her children, ‘I was more than your mother.’ I wanted to say that for all the women out there who want to say it, or who define themselves as mothers and wives, and hold resentments about it. I’m not saying everybody does, but we all know that many do. I wanted her to have a certain innocence and sweetness, too. It’s easy to play a begrudging, critical mother, but that’s a caricature. A person is always more than just those things. What’s underneath that? That’s what I like to explore. Like a painting, you know, what’s underneath the colors? What is the substance of the person you’re looking at? It’s always a great honor and compliment when a playwright tells you that you found nuances and substance that they hadn’t thought of when they were writing it. I certainly feel a deep connection to this character.
When you played Alice, you were a champion of equal rights and pay, both onscreen and off. Recently, Jennifer Lawrence and other young Hollywood stars have been speaking out about the gender wage gap. What are your thoughts about the fact that women are still fighting the same battles decades later?
I’m thrilled that younger women are talking about the gender wage gap. It’s taken 25 to 30 years for them to grow into a position where they can wake up and notice that these were the things we were marching for and speaking out about in my generation. Good for them! It takes women of power to be the ones to do it. Hopefully they will also identify with working women who are not as celebrated or famous, who are still underpaid and lack equality.
As far as activism is concerned, that’s behind me, but I’m always looking for ways to connect with people who would use my voice to reach out to those women who feel abandoned and left behind by the system. It’s always, always going to be a struggle, and it needs validation and support and corroboration and input and commitment by women who understand that it is about them. It’s only when they get that it’s about them that they suddenly wake up and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. I didn’t get paid as much as that guy!’ On Alice, we did an episode called “86 the Waitress,” where Alice finds out Mel is going to hire a guy and pay him more than any of the waitresses. That was in 1976. So this is an old story and it goes back even further than that. Until women’s issues become sexy, they’re going to be fought with great difficulty. And they only become sexy when they hit home. Once they hit home, as they have for Jennifer Lawrence and Patricia Arquette and others like them, then there will be another burst of activity around it.
You make 78 look good. What’s your attitude about aging?
I feel many, many ways about aging. I’m horrified by it. I’m afraid of it in terms of the number that looks like approaching the end of life. As we’ve been speaking, I’ve been sitting all day indoors to keep warm, knitting a sweater for my two-year-old grandchild and recalling my mother, who used to spend a lot of her time up in Maine in the winter knitting beautiful things. She’s very much with me today because I rarely do sit still. I love what I do, I love working. I did eight shows on Broadway last week and two performances at Birdland in four-inch heels on top of that, and I feel very good. I realize that for many this doesn’t look like 78 is supposed to, but I don’t feel like 78 is supposed to, either. I’m healthy and I’m strong and I have tremendous energy, but I also love having a balance in life. I have good boundaries. I make careful decisions about whether to participate in projects.
It’s really about making life choices, you know, eating well, keeping active and trying to get rest. I’ve learned how to be peaceful, how to meditate, how to ask for help, how to take care and be mindful of elements in the world that could be damaging to my health. But I also credit good luck to my well-being. I’m very lucky and very grateful to have the financial wherewithal to live well. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I work very hard on being a spiritual and creative woman.
Those are the most important parts of me, the physical not so much. I’m not skating or skiing or running hurdles. I walk to work and I work on my spirit.
Top photo: Linda Lavin in “Our Mother’s Brief Affair,” photo by Joan Marcus