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January 9, 2015

An Evening with Dame Diana Rigg

Were you at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre on Monday night January 5? If you were, you saw my one-on-one discussion with Dame Diana Rigg. A good time was had by us, and, I daresay, those in the sold-out house who seem to relish every line, straight line, punchline, and eyebrow-raise that the grand dame delivered. Bless Rebecca Paller for suggesting the event and making it happen, as well as Dame Rigg’s agent Lionel Larner who ensured she’d be at 95th and Broadway at the appointed hour.

Some of what I’ll relate comes from what Dame Rigg said on-stage, but a good deal springs from our interaction backstage before the event, questions from a virtual fan club of admirers she made during her two-year stint as Emma Peel on THE AVENGERS TV series and from her musings at the posh dinner that Kathy and Billy Rayner later gave in her honor.

In the film clips we showed to start the evening, she was seen brushing back her hair while delivering one of Helena’s speeches in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. This brought to mind what Lucette Lagnado wrote in a recent (and excellent) Wall St. Journal piece – that Dame Rigg brushed her hair back quite a bit in THE AVENGERS. Is this a trademark of hers?

“No,” she said. “It was a terribly windy and cold day. I was wearing very long knickers, but Peter Hall told me that they were showing and they were modern and he yelled ‘Take ‘em off!’ And I did.”

Yes, she can be candid. When recounting Sir Laurence Olivier’s performance in a 1983 KING LEAR (in which she portrayed Regan), she disclosed that she thought him too too aged even for the part that calls for an old man. Lest she be accused of trying to look better at someone else’s expense, she later revealed that Edward Albee didn’t admire her Martha in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? She did lament, however, that because he was at rehearsals, he should have told her what he didn’t like.

She also took responsibility for the failure of COLETTE, the 1982 Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical about Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954) that closed in Denver without braving New York. I pointed out it was a good idea for a musical, for it had the requisite big character (Collette was the first woman whom French authorities thought warranted a state funeral) as well as the necessary big events: a husband who took credit for what she wrote; another who was half-Jewish during the Nazi regime; another who was a musical hall performer, and throw in a Lesbian experience or two.

“I just don’t sing well enough,” she admitted. “I shouldn’t have done it.” She did express, however, that Jones and Schmidt are “romantics” and that Colette was a little too sexy in nature to profit from that approach.

Dame Rigg took time to give credit to grammar school teacher Sylvia Greenwood, who started her on the road to first loving poetry and then drama. “It’s always a teacher, isn’t it?” she asked rhetorically. (Yes, it always is -- which should result in their being more appreciated and paid what they’re worth. But that’s another story.)

Hence, Dame Rigg was already a distinguished Royal Shakespeare Company actress when she auditioned for THE AVENGERS. “Peter Hall was very angry with me for taking a TV series,” she said, aping his sneer.

When I mentioned that she’d appeared in 51 episodes, she established that she had no idea how many she did. “I don’t remember anything specific about episodes of THE AVENGERS,” she said. (There went my question on which episode was her favorite.) What she DID, remember, however, was that at one point she was being paid less than the show’s cameraman.

Still, she knew that by doing THE AVENGERS that she’d become a name that would sell tickets to her future theatrical ventures. Dame Rigg also suspected THE AVENGERS was a factor in getting her the role of Countess Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo in the sixth James Bond movie ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. She agreed that being cast as the only woman who could entice James Bond to abandon bachelorhood was in essence a lovely compliment.

Over the years, the press has stated that she and George Lazenby, the sacrificial lamb who was asked to succeed Sean Connery as Bond, had no affinity. Dame Rigg did pooh-pooh the alleged friction between them, but did note that “George was really a male model and I was brought in to add acting gravitas.” She also couldn’t recall his last name.

Lazenby wasn’t, however, the acting partner who gave her the most trouble. “Beethoven was,” she said. No, she didn’t mean Ludwig van, but a cat that was given the composer’s surname and the role of the pet in COLETTE. “Beethoven bit me and almost took off my finger,” she said. “And by the way, the reason he was called Beethoven is because he was deaf.”

We then spoke The Ultimate Avenger: Medea. Was playing a children-murderer difficult, given that she’s a mother (to actress Rachael Stirling)? Dame Rigg said “No” with a definitive swoop of her head. When I then asked if working with her daughter (in DR. WHO) made her inclined to give advice, her “No” was even more definitive. “You say ‘Darling, you were wonderful’ and leave it at that.”

Dame Rigg said that when she did MEDEA, she lobbied long and hard to have Euripides’ name in lights on the theater’s roof sign, but producer Bill Kenwright didn’t want to spring for the expense. “So I offered to pay for it, but” she said testily, “he still wouldn’t allow it.”

Perhaps Kenwright felt that touting the name of a single-named Greek wouldn’t make for good box-office. But this disclosure explains why, in her MEDEA Tony acceptance speech, Dame Rigg thanked Euripides before all others.

Before she finished her thank-yous, she acknowledged the staff and crew at the Longacre. I suggested that her early career as a stage manager attuned her to the heroic efforts from those backstage. “ASSISTANT stage manager,” she corrected. Yes, this Dame has no need to aggrandize herself.

Of course, I had to ask about FOLLIES, in which she played Phyllis in the show’s 1987 London premiere. “Stephen Sondheim asked me to do it,” she said. “We met when I was in the film of his A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC,” in which she played Charlotte, the scorned wife who agrees to help her husband’s affair run more smoothly.

“What I remember most about that experience,” she said, “was that Elizabeth Taylor would arrive at eleven o’clock, smiling and brightly saying ‘Good morning!’ to all of us who’d been on the set since six. This was a problem because during some of my scenes I had to wear the most heavy hat with a bird on it.” Whatever Dame Rigg’s reservations of the mega-star, she did have to admit that “Elizabeth was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.”

Back to FOLLIES: “Stephen wrote a very difficult song for me and Daniel Massey to sing – ‘Country House’ – and he didn’t get it to us until two weeks before we started performances.” She said this with such astonishment that I realized she hadn’t heard that this is par for the composing course for the always-tardy Sondheim.

I would have loved her to answer this question: “You also got a new eleven o’clock number, ‘Ah, but Underneath’ -- a striptease. Considering that Sondheim included the word ‘peel’ in the song, was he inspired by your being Emma Peel?” Alas, Dame Rigg didn’t know, and while I DO admit my reasoning is a stretch, hearing a “Yes” would have been terrific.

We even discussed THEATRE OF BLOOD, which I called “the most erudite horror movie ever made.” (Have you seen it? Vincent Price plays an actor who didn’t get a prize from the London Critics Circle for his season of Shakespeare, so he will now kill each critic in a way that the Bard bumped off his characters. Dame Rigg, portraying his daughter, helped.)

She took pride in the film, but felt even better that she was instrumental in getting Price together with co-star Coral Browne; the two married and stayed wed until Browne’s death 17 years later. “And it all started,” said Dame Rigg, “because I overheard Coral in the bathroom stall next to me expressing interest in Vincent, so I decided to do something about it.”

Finally, I mentioned that a line in the COLETTE script said, “If you can look back at your entire life, what would you keep and what would you throw away?” Whether Dame Rigg remembered what she’d said on stage a third of a century ago or was just being herself, I cannot say. But she did relate word-for-word what Tom Jones had Colette answer: ‘I’d keep it all.”

         — Peter Filichia



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