Wednesday, February 6, 2013
Deeper Dish with Gregg Marx
I confess that I had a bit of a crush on Gregg Marx back when he played Tom Hughes on the daytime soap opera, As the World Turns. The handsome, hunky actor appeared on the show from 1984 to 1986, and he won a Daytime Emmy Award for his performance in 1987. I was disappointed when he left daytime television, but he's always remained a fond memory - and I, of course, selected him as one of the 50 Hottest Hunks of Daytime Soaps a few years ago. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn recently that Gregg is coming to Chicago next week (February 14 & 15) to perform his musical tribute to Cole Porter, What Is This Thing Called Love?, at Davenport's Piano Bar & Cabaret.
Since his days as a daytime heartthrob (he also played David Banning on Days of our Lives from 1981 to 1983), Gregg has been pursuing his passion for singing and becoming one of the country's top male interpreters of the great American songbook (he was praised by Cabaret Scenes magazine in a 2011 review for his "lush, honey-tinged voice whose beauty can break your heart"). He is also a highly regarded voice-over actor, and he was the announcer for the Dr. Phil talk show for three years.
I am delighted to have the groovy and openly gay Gregg Marx here on the Dish to discuss his career and answer a few pop culture questions.
Let’s begin with What Is This Thing Called Love? What was your inspiration for creating the show?
Cole Porter. I do a monthly gig out here at a place called Maggiano's at The Grove, and I was finding that so many of the songs that I was selecting - just because I love them - were Cole Porter songs. And it occurred to me that it would be an interesting thing to do a show completely of his music. So I started reading all about him. I read a couple biographies and the more I read, the more I was fascinated. He was quite an extraordinary talent. There's just something about his music that I gravitate towards so I thought, "Well, I'm just going to honor that" - and it developed into an entire show.
What are a few of your favorite Cole Porter songs that you will be singing?
I love "Night and Day" - that was one of the first Cole Porters songs I learned. "So In Love" from Kiss Me, Kate is gorgeous. "In the Still of the Night" is incredible. And I discovered one that I had not heard of before - it's not one of his famous songs. It's called "Why Don't We Try Staying Home?", and I do that in the show as well. It was not a matter of finding enough songs to do - it's been a matter of "we can't do all of these so we have to shave it down" because he was quite prolific.
Have you performed in Chicago before?
No, this is going to be the first time.
Have you been to Chicago before?
I have been to Chicago. My sister Tracy lives in Wheeling, and I've been there to visit her a couple of times over the years. But my time in Chicago has been very limited so I'm excited.
What made you decide to come to Chicago with this show?
It seems to some extent like the next logical step because I've done the show in New York and San Francisco and L.A. But the real inspiration was my sister, whom I don't get to see her very often. So it was a perfect excuse to go and do the show somewhere where I could see her and she could see what I've been doing.
Now let’s go back to the very beginning. Did you always want to be an actor and singer?
I always wanted to be a singer, but I sort of fell in to acting. I had planned to be a lawyer, but toward the last part of my tenure at college, I started questioning that. It became apparent to me that what I was drawn to in terms of the legal profession was the theatricality of like Perry Mason. It wasn't so much that I loved the idea of the law. At the time a girlfriend of mine said, "You have this great voice. You should be a newscaster." So I started pursuing that, and I applied to and got into USC Broadcast Journalism School. But in very short order I realized I didn't want to be a journalist, but I liked the performing on-air aspect of it. And one thing led to another and somebody asked me if I was interested in doing commercials and I said, "Sure." I have a number of friends who knew from early on that they wanted to be an actor. I never did. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy it. I just didn't have the fire in the belly for that - but I always did for the music. I took voice lessons for about 15 years because I loved singing, but I didn't really think about taking it out into the world. It's the closest thing to me. It's the thing that means the most to me that I do. So I found I was very reticent to take it out into the world because if you put it out there, people will like it, people won't like it. It leaves you very vulnerable, and I didn't really want to take that chance. So it took me a lot of years and a lot of people saying, "You're ready to do this", to finally convince me to start doing it and I couldn't be happier. I once took a Stella Adler summer workshop out in Los Angeles, and I remember her saying to this rather large assemblage of aspiring actors - "If you don't have to do this, you shouldn't be doing it." And I remember feeling - "Well, I don't really have to do this" - but that's how I feel about the music. It's like breathing. It's very, very personal, and something I really get tremendous satisfaction from doing.
Now did you start singing in public after you stopped acting?
Yeah, I had been pursuing the lessons and working on it all on my own. And after I came back from New York from As the World Turns, I was sort of on people's radars - certainly for daytime and a little bit for nighttime - and started going to auditions and not really wanting to - just kind of going through the motions. And as that faded and receded in my consciousness, the music became much more. There was more time and energy to focus on it. So it took me awhile, but I finally made the leap and thought, "Okay, I'm taking it public."
Was Days of our Lives your first professional acting gig?
Basically, yeah. I had done a couple of commercials.
And how did you get the role of David Banning?
I went in and auditioned - and from that initial audition to the producers. It actually surprised me because it happened rather quickly. I was in this mix - there were about six or eight of us - and they went to the network and I was sort of stunned that I got it because I had only been in acting class for a year or two. I hadn't thought about being an actor that much so I wasn't doing productions in high school. I wasn't a drama major in college - and since I had shifted gears so quickly and so radically, I was kind of surprised. A lot of my initial time on Days was spent catching up - learning. Somebody saw something they liked and hired me, but in a certain way it was like on-the-job training for me. So it was kind of nerve-wracking but it came together fairly quickly.
Now you left Days in 1983 – was this your decision or story-related??
It was kind of both. There are times when your storyline is front and center and there are times when your storyline recedes. So I was feeling kind of wasted because my story at the time was kind of like I would come in and pour a cup of coffee and leave. There wasn't a lot going on. And I went to the producers and said, "I'm not happy doing what I'm doing", and they said, "We don't really have anything else for you to do right now." So I think the writing was on the wall. So we parted ways and then I was picked up by As the World Turns about a year later. That was kind of a rough year because actors are always wondering where their next job is going to come from.
Now who were a few of your favorite co-stars on either soap?
My very favorite of all is Hillary Bailey Smith, who played my wife Margo. But I also loved Patty Weaver - we were married and then divorced on Days and had little baby Scotty. And also Philece Sampler, who played Renée who I was married to at one point. God, I could go on and on. Lanna Saunders, who played my Aunt Marie, was an amazing actress. Of course, Susan and Bill Hayes.
So you still keep in contact with some of your old co-stars?
I do. Philece and I are still in touch. And Hillary and I are still good friends. Whenever she comes out to L.A., she gives me a call and we try to get together. I have really fond memories of working with her because #1 - she's a wonderful actress - and #2 - she's a very generous actress. I really feel my game was upped by working with her. So professionally I really adored her - and we just had so much fun. We were just laughing all the time.
You had good chemistry together.
Yeah, we did. When I got the job, I asked if I could have her number and I called her and I said, "Hi. This is your new husband. When I get to New York, I want to take you out to dinner." So we went out and we just had a ball. There was this instant rapport. That's the thing I missed the most when I left the show - the joy of working with someone where it's kind of effortless. Even if it's a tough scene, there is a sympathetic vibration that you have with another actor, and it just made it a joy.
I was homesick. I told Bob Calhoun our producer that I wanted at the end of my contract to go back to L.A. And he said, "WHY?" - he was a pretty much dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker - and I said, "I miss my family and my friends. I wanna go home", and he said, "Okay, we'll hold the role open for you for awhile because we're hoping you get to L.A. and hate it and come back - but we can only do that for about nine months story-wise." And true to his word, he did and they checked with me and I said, "Thank you, but I'm staying here." And that's when they cast Scott Holmes. So it was my decision - even though that was just at the point where things might have changed. I had an Emmy in my hand and I had a fairly successful run and I could have parlayed that into something I suppose - but that wasn't where my heart was.
So you just decided to leave daytime television at that time?
Yeah. I actually had a meeting with The Young and the Restless at one point with Bill Bell, who basically said, "You tell me and we'll write something." From an actor's perspective, I was in a pretty enviable position. And I kept saying "No no" and eventually I started paying attention to what was going on and said, "Well, maybe you need to investigate why you're not pursuing this stuff" - because I had opportunities, including going back to the show. But I just decided it wasn't what I wanted to be doing. And I had at the time - and still do - a parallel career doing voice-over work, so I had the luxury of being able to say "I don't want to do this other thing" and still have an income.
In 1989 you starred in the West Coast premiere of the gay comedy, On Tina Tuna Walk – now were you openly gay back then?
Openly is a relative term. People that knew me - absolutely. But coming out is a process, so doing the play I think was a piece of my process.
When did you come out?
Well, again, it's been a process of moving through a lot of stuff. When I lived in New York, certainly my friends knew, but I didn't really discuss any of that with anyone - including the people I was closest to like Hillary. When I look back now, I really did enjoy my time on As the World Turns. However, I think I could have really enjoyed it a lot more had that degree of authenticity been something I could access at the time. As close as Hillary and I were, when I actually told her, it was kind of like "Why didn't you tell me three years ago?" But there were a number of reasons. It was at a time when there was no Will & Grace - there was no gay marriage on the horizon. I became very good friends with Vince Liebhart, who cast me in the show. When I would go back to New York to visit, we would have lunch or dinner, and I remember sitting with him in this little cafe down in the Village on one of my trips back a few years after I'd left the show. I said, "Things are kind of changing in terms of people being able to be more open about who they are", and he said, "Not in daytime." Now that was probably 15-20 years ago, but I was surprised because I thought things were moving - but they moved in that respect really slowly. That was just something you didn't want to publicize. You're the stuff of primarily women's fantasies, and there were many people in the business I think who felt that it wasn't possible - if you were known as a gay actor - to play a straight role, which is kind of ridiculous. But the lines between fantasy and reality - especially in the daytime world - get blurred. You're out in the public and people will call you by your character and expect you to answer. In hindsight - with what I know now - I wish either I had been more courageous or less worried about what people would think. I think it would have freed me up - as a person and as an actor. Acting is all about opening up and exposing yourself, and that is completely juxtaposed and antithetical to covering up and hiding and concealing. I really do think that I did some good work, but I could have done even better work if I'd been able to access all parts of myself more openly. I think I'm able to do that now with the music because I've come to a different place in my life, but also it's a different experience.
Since you are the grandson of Gummo Marx, one of the legendary Marx Brothers, I'm curious to know if you saw much of your great-uncles while growing up.
My dad and my mom divorced when I was a year old, and I lived with my mother so I would see them only when I got together with my dad and that side of the family. All the brothers, including my grandfather, had houses in Palm Springs, and I would go down there usually Easter vacation and around the holidays - Christmas, Hanukkah and all that. So I certainly spent a good amount of time with my grandparents, and inevitably during the time I was staying with them, there would be dinner at Harpo's house or Groucho's or we'd all go out to Don the Beachcomber. I would also caddy with my grandfather because they lived on a golf course - Tamarisk Golf Course in Rancho Mirage, which they had actually built because the Thunderbird Club - which was the big club at the time - was anti-Semitic. So a number of Hollywood types - my uncles included - built Tamarisk, and they all had houses around the golf course, which I thought was kind of cool. But I was really young so I didn't spend a lot of time with my uncles.
If you could go back and give your 19-year-old self a wise piece of advice, what would it be?
My favorite comfort food is:
Frozen yogurt and pizza.
When I was growing up, I never missed a television episode of:
I was not a television junkie. I never got addicted to shows. I was too busy outside playing and doing other things.
Today I never miss a television episode of:
I'm a freak for Downton Abbey. And Breaking Bad. I used to kind of look down my nose at people who were addicted to television shows because I never was. The closest I got was The West Wing years ago, but I could take it or leave it. Now I'm literally on tenterhooks wondering what's going to happen on Downton Abbey - and I cannot wait for Breaking Bad to come back. And Homeland. For me there is definitely now must-see TV. There is a tremendous amount of good TV on right now, and I remember not that long ago hearing somebody talking - I think it was on public radio - about how television is what movies used to be. Certainly when I was in daytime TV, there was this hierarchy - there's daytime TV, there's nighttime TV and then there's movies. And I think that's definitely to some extent gone by the wayside.
Speaking of movies, what are three of your favorites?
Cabaret was always one of my favorite movies. And Casablanca would have to be up there. And not that it's such a spectacular film, but I remember when the first Star Wars movie came out, it blew me away. Now you go and there's CGI everywhere, but when that mothership came across the screen and my seat was rumbling because of the THX sound, I was mesmerized. I tend to like more serious fare, but that was a watershed kind of experience for me. It was like "Wow!" I just couldn't even believe it.
The very first record album that I purchased with my own money was:
Meet the Beatles!
If I was stranded on a desert island for a year, I would want to listen to:
It would have to be all kinds of music, which is what I've got on my iPad and my iPod. Definitely classical music and vocalists like Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, that era.
If I was asked to choose the Sexiest Man Alive, it would be:
I generally don't agree with the People magazine selection. You're going to laugh at this - I would - Steve Buscemi because he's amazingly magnetic and sexy even though he's not traditionally good-looking. I think Javier Bardem is incredibly sexy. See, a lot of times for me you can't just separate it out from the work they do or how they move you as a performer. Who else? Timothy Olyphant, definitely, and those Hemsworth boys. Narrowing it down to one - if I have to - Mr. Olyphant would win - at least this morning.
If I could have anyone in the world – living or dead – be a guest at my dinner party, I would invite the following three people:
Albert Einstein, Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin.
What’s next for Gregg Marx?
Well, the music is continuing on. We'll be doing some more dates of the Cole Porter show, and I'm also working on a new show, which I'm not telling anybody about yet because I think it's a great idea. And the voice-over stuff, thank goodness, continues so that's really great. There's a luxury in that because it doesn't matter if you're tall, short, what color your eyes are, old, young - none of that stuff that is so important when you're an on-camera actor. All that matters is what comes through in the voice, which is actually kind of true with the music as well. I hope within this next year to go into the studio. I've done some demos but I haven't done a full-on CD, and I would really, really like to do that.
Thank you, Gregg, for getting Deeper with us here on the Dish.
Gregg will be performing What Is This Thing Called Love? at Davenport's (1383 N. Milwaukee Ave) on Thursday, February 14, and Friday, February 15, at 8 pm. There is a $20 cover charge and two-drink minimum - but in keeping with the spirit of romance, Gregg will be offering a special 2-for-1 Valentine's Day admission on Thursday. For reservations, call (773) 278-1830 or go online at www.davenportspianobar.com.