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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Deeper Dish with Ruth Buzzi

I almost fell out of my chair when actress-comedian Ruth Buzzi recently agreed to an interview - and Gladys Ormphby didn't even hit me with her lethal purse. I grew up with Ms. Buzzi, who became a household name as a cast member on the NBC comedy-variety show, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. From 1968 to 1973, she made us laugh on Monday nights - especially whenever she played her most famous character, Gladys, a drab spinster who was always hit on by Arte Johnson's dirty old man while sitting on a park bench. She would then hit him with her purse, causing many viewers - including myself - to erupt in a fit of giggles. And in 1973, Buzzi deservedly won a Golden Globe Award for her work on Laugh-In (she also received three Emmy nominations - two for Laugh-In and one for The Dean Martin Comedy Hour - as well as two Daytime Emmy nominations for The Berenstain Bears and Sesame Street).

The actress has also entertained us over the years on TV's That Girl, the daytime soap operas, Days of our Lives and Passions, and in such films as Freaky Friday (1976), The North Avenue Irregulars (1979), The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979), The Villain (1979), Skatetown, U.S.A. (1979) and Chu Chu and the Philly Flash (1981). She was even in the original cast of the 1966 Broadway musical, Sweet Charity, playing a receptionist, a woman with a hat, and the Good Fairy.

Inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 2002, today Ruth Buzzi is enjoying life on a Texas ranch with her husband Kent, three cats, five horses, two white swans, and dozens of cows, chickens, ducks and Guinea fowl. I am so thrilled and honored to have this lovely and talented lady here on the Dish to discuss her career and answer a few pop culture questions.

Let's begin with comedian Dom DeLuise. When did you two first meet and become comedy partners?
We met in New York City in the very early 60’s but worked together first in Provincetown, Massachusetts, playing local venues for the largely gay crowd. P-Town had already become a "gay mecca” and the audiences were sensational.

How did you and Dom come up with the idea for your comedy magic act, featuring you as "Shakuntala"?
Leo Bloom was a comedic New York actor who created “bumbling magician” acts. He asked me to work with him as his sidekick - a silent partner who just “grinned really stupidly” throughout the whole act. I saw a poster advertising an off-Broadway show called Shakuntala - with a beautiful, veiled Middle Eastern dancer - and loved the name, which I then chose to call my silent magician’s partner. I created my costume with veils and flowing garments and made the makeup a little screwy - I had fun with it - and “Shakuntala” was born. Simultaneously, Dom was working with a lady comic named June Squib, doing “Dominic the Great” - a bad magician who couldn't do any tricks correctly - with Squib as his silent assistant (but without the dumb smile).

In Provincetown, Dom and I were looking for material when he mentioned his magic act, and I told him what I had done with Leo in the past, so we decided the two of us should put our own magic show characters together and “Dominic the Great and Shakuntala” were suddenly created. We came up with all new bits for Dom’s magician, and my silent Shakuntala took everything in stride, grin glued on her face throughout the show. Audiences in Provincetown went nuts for our little team of two - they screamed and howled for more and more and more. It wasn't too long after that we were asked to do this act on The Entertainers, The Garry Moore Show, etc., and audiences would scream like rock star fans when we walked out in our costumes. It was so much fun, and Dom and I became like brother and sister for our whole lives. He called me on the phone nearly every day of his life until he died. His wife Carol Arthur was also a talented performer. She sang and did comedy, and she and Dom raised three fine sons that are just like nephews to me and my husband. And Carol is still among my closest of friends.

How did you get hired by Bob Fosse to perform in the Broadway musical, Sweet Charity?
My agent called me in New York, where I was very busy doing TV commercials and working in musical reviews and comedy sketches in clubs, such as Julius Monk's Plaza 9. The agent said I would be perfect for a "non-singing, comedy" part in a new Broadway play being done by Bob Fosse. I confirmed over and over the next three weeks that if I was going to be asked to sing, I would have to hire a piano player and get some music and start practicing. But he kept telling me, "Absolutely not, Ruth. I know this part. Bob Fosse does NOT want to hear you sing. Do not practice, do not worry, you will only have to go in and do a cold reading with his players. That's it!"

Well, the day came and I went to the studio. Bob Fosse was in the audience, the room was dark, and there was a spotlight in the middle of the stage. Someone handed me a sheet with comedic material to read - just a few lines. I was very nervous but decided to really throw myself into the audition and the reaction was great. Bob, Gwen Verdon, and the others in the room all laughed and applauded. I was standing there in the spotlight, smiling and feeling great about the audition, when Bob spoke from the darkened row of seats where he sat, "Ruth, can you sing?" I nearly flipped out! I was angry, visibly so, and I shouted, "Yes I can sing but my agent was adamant about the fact that I wouldn't have to sing! I'm not ready! I don't have sheet music, I don't have a piano player, I don't want to sing today! I need time to rehearse!" I must've been beet red with fury over my agent's misinformation. Fosse and company found all this very amusing. When he caught his breath and quit laughing, he said, "What songs do you know by heart? I have a piano player." I put my hands on my hips, leaned forward and shouted, "NONE!" This made everyone laugh even harder. He said, "You know 'Blue Moon', don't you? Everyone knows 'Blue Moon'." The piano player started a few chords, and I stared at Bob Fosse in disbelief until the room was quiet. Then I started singing "Blue Moon" - but because I didn't know the words, after the first line I just made up anything and everything. It was total gibberish and nothing made sense. They were in the aisles holding their sides, laughing. The room was in pandemonium over my rendition of the song. I was in great pitch, right on key, right on every note, but singing about giraffes, pirates, sailboats, anything. Bob stood up, waved his hands for me to stop, and said, "We'll be in touch with your agent. I need to go back to the script and think things over." I went home wondering what he had in mind - but I could tell he liked me.

When the call came through to my tiny walk-up apartment, I thought my wildest dreams had just come true...and they had. Bob Fosse had several character roles he wanted me to play in Sweet Charity, including the singing soothsayer fairy - and I never had more fun onstage in my life. One of the hardest things I ever did was to leave Broadway to audition for Laugh-In. Bob promised me any time I wanted to quit TV - or if the show got canceled - I could come right back to Sweet Charity. I worked on the number one show on television for the next six years, won the Golden Globe award, and Sweet Charity closed while we were in our second season.

What is your fondest memory of Sweet Charity?
Just working with Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon was heaven on earth. Every day was a pleasure. They were as nice as people could be. We used to go to lunch between the matinee and evening performances of Sweet Charity. The whole cast had to run fast down the stairs to lunch during the break. Dressed as the Good Fairy in a tall blue sorcerer hat, a huge powder blue dress filled out with crinolines, wings and everything - and carrying a magic wand - one day I tore down the stairs, tripped on my dress and fell down the whole flight of steps, rolling as I fell to keep from breaking any bones like a stunt person. I ended up sprawled at the bottom of the steps directly in front of Gwen Verdon’s dressing room. Her door was wide open and she heard the commotion and saw me sprawled out on the floor. She shrieked and the whole cast was terrified. Knowing I had to quickly let everyone know I was okay, I broke out in a very high, operatic musical note, perhaps a high E over high C! Everyone laughed and Gwen helped me up. Every time I saw her after that we laughed about it. She was a honey!

How did you become involved with Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In?
While in Sweet Charity, I got the call on a Friday night to go to Los Angeles to be in the Steve Allen Comedy Hour, a summer replacement for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The writers weren’t happy with the cast, the show was about to go on the air live, and they fired people at the last minute. The writers, Gail Parent and Kenny Solmes, told Steve Allen to call New York and get me there as fast as possible - could I be there Monday morning? I had to go to Bob and Gwen, terrified, to ask them what they thought about the opportunity. They were delighted for me and both told me I’d be crazy to turn down a TV series, so I hugged them goodbye and left, expecting to return when the TV show closed.

They flew me out from New York in time for the rehearsals on Monday. During the first week that I was in California doing rehearsals for Steve Allen and his wife, actress Jayne Meadows, I got another call from a friend telling me about Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In TV special that was about to be filmed as a pilot for a potential series. Timing was right because the rehearsals were not due to begin until the week after the summer series would end. So instead of heading back to Sweet Charity, I went to one audition before leaving for New York to resume my Broadway career.

I was very content working on Broadway and wasn't looking for another job, so I was rather cavalier about taking the audition for a TV pilot - even though it sounded like a hit from the beginning. Dick Martin and Dan Rowan were already packing rooms to the rafters everywhere they performed, including Las Vegas in the main rooms of big casinos. The producer, George Schlatter, already had a track record - he'd produced The Judy Garland Show and specials and had created TV events with his close friend Frank Sinatra, so he was "connected"! George asked me to come in and meet with him. I showed him some pictures of characters I had played including the one now known as Gladys Ormphby. In the picture I showed him, my character with the hairnet and drab clothing was standing in a New York Sanitation Department trash barrel which had painted on the front, "HELP KEEP NEW YORK CITY BEAUTIFUL." I had made this picture with a friend holding the camera, thinking it would make casting people at least laugh. I made myself as ugly and frumpy as possible to show my potential "type range."

What inspired you to create the character of Gladys Ormphby?
One of the parts I thought I could play was Agnes Gooch in Auntie Mame, so I created Gladys originally as Agnes - the frumpiest of secretaries.

Who were a few of your favorite guest stars on Laugh-In?
That’s tough because so many wonderful performers come to mind.

Joe Namath and John Wayne. Joe because he was the consummate gentleman and true professional. We heard he was coming and we were all excited. He had just led the NY Jets to a big upset victory in the Super Bowl, had posed in pantyhose for a magazine ad, and was voted Cosmopolitan's Sexiest Man Alive. We were bracing ourselves for working with a "non-pro" who was charming and handsome but probably couldn't act. To our surprise, he showed up knowing every word of the script. He followed direction and blocking instructions perfectly, had an incredible stage presence and was a very gifted and funny actor. Beyond that, he was a pleasure to know - and still is.

John Wayne because he was such a giant in the movie industry. I don't get starstruck easily if at all - but John Wayne walking onto our set made me gasp. Not only was he great with comedy timing, he couldn't have been more approachable and "human." In one bit, I had to hit him with my purse as Gladys Ormphby. The director Mark Warren never yelled "cut" quickly - he'd just keep the cameras rolling after the blackout or sketch to see what happened. Often very funny, usable things occurred spontaneously at the end of these bits when the pressure was off the performers, and they felt free to then ad-lib or do whatever they wanted. My bit called for me to beat John Wayne repeatedly with my purse, and I did - and did and did and did until after the bit was long over. Finally, I turned to Mark and said - not as Gladys but as Ruth Buzzi - "Please! I don’t want to hit this man anymore!" Mark waited five more seconds and yelled "CUT!" - and then John Wayne's big arms enveloped me in a generous bear hug I will never forget.

What is one of the funniest moments you had while performing on Laugh-In?
Jo Anne Worley and I were in full costume and makeup, sitting under a set of stairs waiting to go on and do our bit. We totally forgot how we were dressed and made up - we were just two buddies chatting. We somehow got onto the subject of electrolysis and hair removal and were deeply engaged in this intimate discussion when I caught the irony. I screamed: “JOANNE! LOOK AT YOU! LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT US TALKING ABOUT HAIR REMOVAL!” Jo Anne and I were dressed for our comedy bit as the Smith Brothers, two old gentlemen with long, long beards whose faces used to adorn the bottles of cough syrup bearing their name. We both laughed so hard we rolled out into the floor and people had to walk around us as we laughed that one off.

One of my favorite comedy sketches featuring you is from The Dean Martin Show, in which you play an inebriated New Year's Eve party guest who locks herself in a hotel room with Dean and Frank Sinatra. What was it like to work with these two men?
Two of the greatest guys I ever knew!

Deano would call me to visit with him in his dressing room. We'd sit there and chat, just before the taping of his shows. He wanted me to know he was totally relaxed with me because we never rehearsed with him. He always sent his musical conductor to be his stand-in and work with us in rehearsal. We never had a chance to work with him in advance on blocking or special maneuvers, but it was important to Dean that the material was extremely fresh so he could enjoy it to the maximum as he did it with us. He relied heavily on cue cards - as you can tell if you watch the videos. But he was such a pro it didn't matter that we had not rehearsed - he was great in everything he did. By the way, when he sang with the orchestra, it was fresh and always perfect in one take. I can't recall hearing anyone ever yell "cut" when he was in the middle of a song or a comedy sketch. Deano was wonderful to everyone around him. He would just as likely take up a conversation with the stagehand or grip or makeup lady as he would a guest star. To him, it seemed, we were all part of his life and equally important, and I never forgot to think that way when I was working.

Frank was everything you'd want him to be in person - and more. He was like a father figure to me in some ways. He took me under his wing when my first husband (finally) left and knew I would be having Christmas alone. He had his son Frank Jr. - with whom I had become close friends - call and insisted I come over and spend Christmas with him and his family. He showed up at our Las Vegas wedding reception and told my husband (the one I still have after 32 years!), "Kent, that girl you just married is like a daughter to me, and I expect you to take care of her. Do you understand?" I only had to bring that up a couple of times over the years. After Frank passed, we were at his daughter Nancy's house for a little reception. Frank Jr. did a magnificent job of speaking eloquently about his father with a great deal of love, and he asked guests to say a few words if they wished. My husband was the last one up, and he walked to the piano and played "Bridge Over Troubled Water" in memory of Frank. He then stood up and told the small gathering about the words Frank had spoken to him on his wedding day. With that, Frank Jr. said, "Well, Kent, you should know she's like a sister to me, and I expect you to take good care of her, too." We all laughed.

Both Dean and Frank were great pros. Check out the videos and be aware I rehearsed with stand-ins - their reactions were real!

Did you enjoy working on Days of our Lives (as Leticia Bradford in 1983) and Passions (as Nurse Kravitz in 2003)? And are you a soap opera fan?
I find soaps addictive and if I start watching them, I'm hooked in minutes. I was honored to have been asked to play in the iconic Days of our Lives, but the part involved working with a live adult male lion - and that was frightening. I love cats, but when they weigh 450 pounds and have three-inch fangs, I'd rather look at them behind a good barrier! The Nurse Kravitz role was so much fun. Videos of the psychiatric hospital scene are playing on YouTube, and I get comments from people who say that's one of their favorites.

Now let’s discuss some of your other television and film performances over the years. What’s the first thing that pops into your mind about:

That Girl (1967-68)?
Marlo Thomas is a dedicated professional with a big heart. She welcomed me warmly on the show. She even came to my surprise This Is Your Life taping with Ralph Edwards. I loved being her "best friend" on the show!

Your dramatic role on a 1976 episode of Medical Center?
Don Rickles and I both appreciated the director casting us "against type" - that is giving us the chance to play drama instead of comedy. Rickles went on to prove his genius as a straight dramatic actor on the big screen several times. I got a few shots but it's hard for directors to think outside the box and see that many funny people can play dramatic parts as well. I think one of the things we have to overcome is that nobody wants an unintentional laugh in the middle of a serious subject or scene, and they fear people will automatically expect comedy coming from people like myself. Some of Dom DeLuise's greatest career work was in serious parts. His role in Fatso with Anne Bancroft comes to mind. I played a gypsy soothsayer in Fallen Angels a couple of years ago - a totally serious and dramatic role of which I’m very proud, even though the movie didn’t go anywhere except to DVD.

Freaky Friday?
At the risk of being a little repetitious, Disney makes fun movies and makes them fun to make. North Avenue Irregulars, Freaky Friday - these were pure pleasure!

The Love Boat?
Art Baer, one of the head writers and a line producer on The Love Boat, was a neighbor in the Hollywood Hills with his partner Charlie Colarusso, who produced Dinah! with Dinah Shore. Art and Charlie were the best of neighbors - two wonderful men whom we loved so much. Art came to me with the idea about playing a ventriloquist, opposite Sid Caesar, and I liked the challenge. I had to really learn to work the puppet and talk without moving my lips. Well, on TV you can cheat a little. But I loved the job, and it was well-received.

How did you end up doing a music video with the rock group, The B-52s?
I love that group so much, especially the lead singer Fred Schneider III who now has another group called The Superions. At the time, "Love Shack" was the #1 song in the nation, and their manager called my agent and said they wanted us to come to their concert at the Hollywood Universal Auditorium. They gave my husband and me backstage passes, and we were their guests for the concert. There was a lot of press in the area before and after the show, and I think I'm seen in a fleeting span of a few seconds on their video.

I was featured more prominently in videos with "Weird Al" Yankovic and a fantastic group of young performers who had hit records under the name "The Presidents of the United States of America" back in the 90's. I did a comedy music video, "Get your Biscuits in the Oven and your Buns in the Bed", with the maniacal Kinky Friedman in which I played his wife. It was about 30 or more years ago - he and my husband are lifelong Texan friends and I love the Kinkster.

If you could go back and give your 19-year-old self a wise piece of advice, what would it be?
Marry the right guy the first time - at least I got it right the second time!

My favorite comfort food is:
Anything northern Italian! Probably if I had to choose one food it would be my mother Rena's homemade potato gnocci. But I could also eat Greek food every day. Ohhhh - heart be still.

I never miss a television episode of:
American Idol, Dancing With the Stars - and I love variety shows and specials whenever they appear, but they're almost harder to find than a whooping crane these days. Maybe they will make a comeback. Idol and Dancing are sort of variety shows, and look at the audiences they generate.

Three of my favorite movies are:
My Cousin Vinny, Midnight Express, and the first Godfather.

Joe Pesci is a flawless actor in everything I've ever seen him do, but I watched Vinny over several times and found something new to laugh about each time. What a script, what a cast, what a movie!

Midnight Express is a film that impacted me on a gut level, and it made me cry hard. Impeccable work by Randy Quaid and Brad Davis and everyone else in the cast. The story being true had an especially strong “punch” to it - and after the Academy Award nominations came out, I was shocked and appalled that Brad didn’t get nominated. I was out for a walk a few weeks later in the Hollywood Hills with my husband Kent when Brad came driving by in a Jeep with the top down. I yelled at him, and he yelled back, “Hey Ruth!” Not long afterwards I was in a gym in Hollywood studying with a great gymnast on the parallel bars, the rings, etc., and Brad was in my class. We greeted each other again, and I said, “I just want you to know I’d have voted for you if you’d been nominated. I think you got robbed!” He smiled and shrugged his head and drove away. I didn’t even feel like even voting when my Academy ballot came that year because I couldn’t write in Brad Davis for best performance by a male actor in a motion picture. He later sank into relative obscurity and died of AIDS, but Brad Davis will always be a great, great actor to me and Midnight Express one of the very best films I’ve ever seen.

And I have to say, how can you top the grandeur, the perfection, the music, the sets and the costumes of The Godfather by Mario Puzo and directed by Francis Ford Coppola? Did Marlon Brando ever achieve anything less than the pinnacle of greatness? He used to meet my husband and me (and a group of about 8 or 10 others) for dinner at Trader Vic's about once a week for a while back in the late 70’s/early 80’s. At Trader Vic’s in Beverly Hills nobody paid attention to celebrities - he was comfortable there because he was left alone. Brando was a quiet, reflective person who didn't try to dominate the conversation or steal the party. He'd just, mostly, sit there and watch people intensely - and then it occurred to me: He was studying people - that was his profession. He was an incredible listener. He just sat and ate and watched and listened. He reacted well to humor, but there was always a side of him one felt was busy at work, filing away people's behavior in an endless filing cabinet somewhere deep in his genius, actor brain. I loved the times we spent across a dinner table with Marlon. His work in The Godfather is etched in movie greatness history.

If I could have anyone in the world – living or dead – be a guest at my dinner party, I would invite the following people:
My dad, Angelo Buzzi, because he believed in me 100% from the beginning of my first aspirations, and he gave me the courage to fly to California at 17 (nobody in my family had even been on an airplane before that!) to go to the Pasadena Playhouse and study acting. Dad was buried the day my first big national television appearance aired on network television.

Dom DeLuise because he's always and forever my brother in my heart - and because I still owe him so many dinner parties,

Lucille Ball because I adored her as a kid watching her on black-and-white TV with Ethel, Fred and Ricky Ricardo. She inspired me so much. Later in life, working with her on Here's Lucy as a “friend”, the inspiration continued. She taught me a lot, not only about performing but about living. I miss her still.

What's next for Ruth Buzzi?
Work-wise, I would only be interested in a nice movie role - nothing else would even catch my interest. I'm happily out of the rat race, not auditioning for anything, not pushing anything, not selling anything - just having fun. We have a ranch with trails, huge trees, animals and lakes all ours to enjoy with privacy. I'm feeling wonderful and healthy and, even though show business was good to me and I did things I never would have dreamed possible - working with all my heroes - I guess it's true that I am, just now, really enjoying the very best years of my life. The bottom line is, I don’t want to know what’s next. That’s the fun of living.

Thank you, Ruthie, for getting Deeper with us here on the Dish. You can follow Ms. Buzzi on Twitter and become a friend on Facebook.


Jon said...

A truly wonderful interview with a winderful lady! Brilliant blog! Thank you. Jx

Anonymous said...

Great interview! But not one Lost Saucer question??? Surely you recall the Sid and Marty Krofft kids show from the mid-70s with Buzzi and Jim Neighbors playing androids? There were even half-chicken half-elephant creatures called (wait for it) chickaphants! But seriously, it was great fun to read!

Wayne said...

I love Ruth Buzzi. She's the best. Great interview!

Marc said...

Thanks, Jon, GG and Wayne - I'm so happy you enjoyed the interview.

As for The Lost Saucer, I don't remember watching it as a kid, so I just Googled "Saturday morning lineup 1975" and discovered what shows were up against it:

CBS had Scooby Doo, Where Are You? and NBC had The Pink Panther. I must have been watching Scooby.

Alan Scott said...

Ruth Buzzi has been one of my favorites ever since her "Laugh-In" days. It's great to see that she's still doing well.

Thanks for such a great interview with such a wonderful lady!

Marc said...

Glad you liked the interview, Alan!

Albert's Place Blog said...

Great interview! Ruth Buzzi is one of the most talented folks on the planet!