Emmy and Golden Globe Award nominee Lee Meriwether is known for her numerous roles in film, television, and theatre. She was successively Miss San Francisco, Miss California and Miss America. Most know Lee as "Betty" in the highly successful CBS series, "Barnaby Jones" — for which she was nominated for both the Golden Globe and the Emmy — or as "Catwoman" in the original 1966 "Batman" movie with Adam West, Burgess Meredith, Frank Gorshin, Cesar Romero, and Burt Ward. Lee has had starring or recurring roles in no less than nine series, ranging from the first women's editor with Dave Garroway on the original "Today Show" on NBC to her three-year run as "Lily" on "The Munsters Today" for Universal. Some of Lee's successful series include: "Time Tunnel," "The New Andy Griffith Show," "Mission: Impossible," "The F.B.I.," "12 O'clock High," and "Dr. Kildare." Lee studied acting with the famed teacher Lee Strasburg, as well as dancing, singing, and fencing with some of the top coaches in New York.
Lee's beginnings in the entertainment industry include her first TV role – The Philco Television Playhouse with Mary Astor, her first motion picture lead – "The 4-D Man" with Robert Lansing, and her first professional stage appearance – "Hatful of Rain" with William Smithers and Lou Antonio. In addition to portraying "Catwoman," her noteworthy film roles include Andy Griffith's pregnant wife in "Angel in my Pocket," and Rock Hudson's southern wife in "The Undefeated." Lee "swam" with "Namu, The Killer Whale" and played the "man" killed by Kim Novak in "The Legend of Lylah Clare."
Live theatre, however, continues to be Lee's first love. Attesting to that fact is her long association with Theatre West, a professional actors' workshop in Hollywood. Recent national stage credits include: the female version of "The Odd Couple," "Last Summer at Blue Fish Cover" for which she received the Drama Logue Award for Best Actress as well as the San Francisco Critics Award, "The Business of Murder" with Van Johnson, Sondheim's "Follies" with seven former Miss Americas, a national tour with Anthony Zerbe and Roy Dotrice of "Country Matters" (Sex and Shakespeare!) and most recently productions of the musicals "Hello Dolly;" "Mame;" "The King and I" with George Chakiris; "I Do, I Do;" "A Little Night Music" with her husband, Marshall Borden, and the 20th Anniversary tour of Dan Goggin's "Nunsense" with Kaye Ballard, Mimi Hines, Georgia Engel, and Darlene Love.
Now Lee is making a return to the NY Stage with her adaption of "The Women of Spoon River: Their Voices from the Hill" in the 2012 International Fringe Festival from August 10-26 at the Soho Playhouse. Based on text by Edgar Lee Masters' Lee Meriwether conjures twenty-six women from Edgar Lee Masters’ SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY and brings them back to life in this one hour, one woman tour de force.
"The Women of Spoon River: Their Voices from the Hill" plays at the Soho Playhouse (15 Vandam Street). For tickets, click on the date you want to see the show. Friday, August 10 at 7pm, Saturday, August 11 at 5:30pm, Sunday, August 12 at 5:30pm, Tuesday, August 14 at 9:00pm, Friday, August 17 at 5:15pm.
1. Who or what inspired you to become a performer? I knew at an early age from the movies I saw as a child. It was a regular thing in our family, while my dad was playing golf, my mother would take us to a couple of movies and a couple of serials and a ton of cartoons. She'd sleep and we'd enjoy the movies. It was from those movies that I acted out scenes at school for the kids who didn't get to go to the movies all the time. So, I knew from early on that I wanted to be an actress, not so much in the movies, but that was the only outlet I knew at the time, but somehow I had a feeling I would never really be in the movies, and I'm glad I was wrong about that. Hahaha.
2. Who haven't you worked with that you would like to? Oh, there are so many that are gone I would have loved to work with that I admired growing up. I wanted to work with Richard Wood Martin more than anything. I did pick up his keys when he dropped them at Universal once. I was walking towards him and he dropped his keys and was pre-occupied with something else in his hands and I just jumped at the chance to pick them up and handed them to him. He said, "You're very kind." And that's as far as that went, never a chance to work together though.
I also wanted to work with Spencer Tracy and I came close to that as well. He told me that when he saw The Miss America Pageant the first year it was televised, a lot of people watching would have noticed, and because I had lost my father just before the pageant, and I had talked about him when they asked how does it feel and I just said "I hope that he knows and that he's proud." I met Spencer Tracy when they brought me through the Stork Club and out, but he grabbed a hold of me as I was leaving and he said to me "Come out to Hollywood and I'll be your father on or off the screen." Then one time I was sent by my agent to 20th Century Fox because there was interest in me for a movie and I said, "Oh, that's wonderful." I went there and Spencer Tracy was in the office and said, "Well, this isn't exactly me playing your father is it?" I didn't know what he was talking about, but then I found out we were to have an affair in the movie. The studio needed to test me for the film and the day before my test, they said you have to sign a seven-year contract, there's nothing more that can be done. I said, "But I'm an actress aiming to be one on Broadway. I want to be an actress in theatre." The studio said, which was the killing note, "If they are good boys and girls, we allow them certain privileges." I heard that and thought the way it sounded was not the right path for me, so I said I wouldn't sign the contract. I couldn't believe I said no to a test for a film with Spencer Tracy. But as it turns out, Spencer ended up not doing the film either. It was a big disappointment in my life, not getting to work with him.
Me: But we did get you for a theatre work so I think that worked out very well.
Lee: Oh, yes. It did.
3. You are bringing "The Women of Spoon River: Their Voices from the Hill" to the NYC International Fringe Festival. What made you want to adapt this anthology? What do you relate to most about it? Way back when I was the original understudy for all three women in the regional production that Charles Aidman developed. I loved playing all the different women.
Now, I've added several women to the show and I love playing them. It's a challenge and as an actor I need challenges that was all part of rehearsal. I thought it showed what life was like back then for women, the women who are taken advantage of, the women who are hurt, and all those women, and sadly, life hasn't changed much for them. The show is a way to bring their struggles to life.
4. What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing the show? I hope they have an evening of entertainment most of all. I think they might get kick out of some of the women and the take I've put on them. I hope they felt it was worthwhile for them to venture from their homes to come see the show and that it takes them away from anything else that might be bothering them.
5. What excites you most about having the show in the NYC International Fringe Festival? Just being able to do a play in New York. I've only had the chance to do one before and that was a very short time, for about a month, I did "Grandma Sylvia's Funeral" downtown. I LOVED it. It was great fun and now here's a chance to be in another one. Who knew it would be another one of my inventions...hahaha. I'm really looking forward to it. You never can tell when something might lead to something else.
6. What do you like and what challenges do you face in portraying so many different characters in the show? Everyone asks how I do this. I really don't know how I do it. I guess there are people inside me, obviously, that are screaming to come out. They come out with great ease because I've done them for so long or done different aspects of them. I even changed characterizations over the years that I've done this. Some have accents add to them, some have physicalizations or emotions that are different than when I first worked on them, and some have totally different voices. One gal changes almost all the time whenever I do her. She never seems happy with what I do, so she goes off her own...hahaha. It's really strange and I can't explain it. I also don't want to delve into it too much because I might become self-conscious about it. I stay away from analyzing them.
7. You are well known for your numerous television and film work as well as your theatrical endeavors. What do you get from your theatrical endeavors that you do not get from your film/television work? Television/film, you very seldom get a chance to rehearse the way you do with a play. It's usually weeks for the rehearsal period for a play and you're lucky if you get a couple hours ahead of filming to rehearse with the other actors. For film, you have to do all of your homework by yourself at home and I find that to be lacking. A couple of times I did work on movies for television and they did bring in actors early and we would rehearse whole scenes and I LOVED that! It was so seldom. And on a series, it was next to impossible to rehearse beforehand. You had to make time ahead of the schedule to get together with other actors. When I was doing "Barnaby Jones" with Buddy Ebsen, he liked to rehearse too. So, we would go off on the side and rehearse at least our scenes together. Then I would hold books for him on other scenes. He was amazing. He had a wonderful memory and would put his lines down immediately. He was so generous with his time with other actors, which was very unusual, but very dear.
8. What have you learned about yourself from being a performer? I've learned there's a strange lady inside me...hahaha. Performing has given me a platform from which I jump off of readily into other areas. I've done musicals and plays. I'm in the middle of rehearsing for "The Fantasticks" here in Los Angeles. We open on August 31, right when I get back from the Fringe. It's going to be quite a challenge, but it's going to be a really wonderful production and we have some very talented actors with us.
9. What's the best advice you've ever received? From my mother, "Just keep at it dear, just keep at it."
10. If you could dream about anyone while you sleep, who would it be? I so seldom dream which is so bizarre. If I could dream about anyone, I wouldn't mind dreaming about Daniel Craig or Hugh Jackman. There are a lot of actors I'd love to dream about, but I just can't seem to bring them at will. Oh well...
11. Favorite way to spend your day off? Well, you'd be surprised, but I love going to theatre. While I'm in NY, I hope to see at least four shows.
12. Favorite way to stay in shape? I like going to the gym. I go regularly about three times a week. I have to stay strong otherwise I wouldn't be able to do half the things I'm doing.
13. Favorite skin care product? Anything Estee Lauder makes, I've worn them for years. I remember finally being able to afford Estee Lauder when I was pregnant. I was saving money for it and I thought, "I'm going to take care of my skin while pregnant." Somebody told me it was good time to get in the habit of taking care of your skin while pregnant.
As far as make-up, Kevin Aucoin has a great line.
14. If you could have any super power, which one would you choose? I'd love to be able to fly or even be invisible for a while.
Me: Flying is my most popular answer
Lee: Oh I bet.
Me: Especially from people living in LA because of the traffic. They would love just to be able to get up and go.
Lee: Oh, wouldn't that be heaven, especially living here.
15. Growing up, I was a huge fan of "Batman." Looking back, what did you enjoy most about starring as "Catwoman" in the original "Batman" film? What was the best part about working Burgess Meredith, Frank Gorshin, and Cesar Romero, Adam West, and Burt Ward? The villains are the ones I got to work with the most. I tell you, when you have the opportunity to work watch true professionals with incredible work ethics building their characters and developing delightful, wonderful theatrical bits, it was a gift! Just the inventiveness of it all. Do you remember the scene in the movie in "The Penguin's" submarine when he had the cigarette and cigarette holder in his mouth and he says "Run silent, run deep" and his cigarette holder goes down, well he worked on that scene, I swear for an hour. He wanted to get it just right so when he uttered that line, the cigarette holder would fall just at the moment he wanted it to happen. It was just fabulous.
And watching Frank Gorshin getting out of that suit jacket, when he finally got the chance, he tried to convince the director, "I want to show underneath the shirt and everything about it." The director said, "No, no, no, come on, let's just do the scene." Well, Frank went off to the side and just worked and worked and worked to himself and then I watched him do the scene and when he came back in, he took off the jacket so smoothly, didn't miss a beat in all the dialogue and everything else, it was perfect. The director said, "All right, print." Frank got to do exactly what he wanted, but that was because he worked on it.
Cesar worked on so many different scenes, like with that little sparkly thing that goes zap in your hand, he worked on it over and over again, timing it out perfectly.
Adam West, I feel, is under appreciated in his talent. He played such a fine line of farce and comedy just on the edge like a tightrope. I find his performance amazing in that. He's such a good actor.
Burt Ward was so earnest and so young. He had that respect for guidance that you needed in that role and he developed that. He really did work on it, looking up to Adam and wanting to be like him and posing like him.
They were all so wonderful to watch. I learned a great while I was doing that film.
Me: I remember I got to see Frank Gorshin when he got to do the George Burns play, "Say Goodnight, Gracie."
Lee: Oh wasn't that wonderful. It was heaven. I got chills to during that.
Me: So many times I felt as though I was watching George Burns. He embodied him so well.
Lee: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.