October 29, 2019: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
A most happy birthday to Jane Alexander who turned eighty-years-old yesterday. And with the same exquisite timing for which she is known as an actress, a few days prior came the announcement she would soon be starring in a new Broadway play, Bess Wohl’s Grand Horizons. Like so many others, my appreciation of this fine actress began fifty-one years ago, when in 1968, she created the role of Eleanor Bachman in The Great White Hope, the winner of that season’s triple crown: the Tony, the NY Drama Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Starring opposite the mighty James Earl Jones, in the role that finally made him a star eleven years after his Broadway debut, both he and Ms. Alexander took home Tony Awards for their performances.
Born Jane Quigley in Boston, her parents were most definitely outside the theatre profession — her father an orthopedic surgeon; her mother a nurse. But she received encouragement from both, after it was clear she discovered a love for performing while attending Chestnut Hill, an all-girl’s school outside Boston. Her education continued at Sarah Lawrence College, but a passionate desire to turn professional resulted in in her leaving before graduation. Quickly, she found herself working with such renowned companies as Second City in Chicago, Boston’s Charles Playhouse and the Arena Stage Theatre in Washington, D.C.
In researching some of those early credits, I came upon something in Alexander’s resume that puzzled me. As no actor wants to date themselves, or have a resume containing more than what can fit on the back of a headshot, things fall by the wayside. I read a claim that her Broadway debut came in 1963 and thought it must be a typo, as I always thought it had been with The Great White Hope. The Internet Broadway Data Base had nothing for Alexander before 1968 (though I learned some time ago that the site is often less than 100% reliable). My sleuthing took me to the short bio in the program for The Great White Hope that I have kept for half a century, and lo and behold, there it states Alexander “was last seen on Broadway in A Thousand Clowns.” That show opened in 1962 and closed in 1963, which makes the timing right, meaning she either replaced or went on as an understudy for Sandy Dennis, who had the sole female role. Again, there is no listing for her in either function on the IBDB site, but the truth will out!
The Playbill bio goes on to say: “A versatile performer, she has also sung and danced in musical revue at Upstairs at the Downstairs and on many of the leading television variety programs” (apparently another Alexander skill set of which I was unaware). Add to that the time she spent with Second City in Chicago doing improv, and you have reason to understand better how every aspect of theatre training helps define a fine dramatic actor such as Alexander (two Emmy Awards and four Academy Award nominations in addition to her aforementioned Tony among seven nominations). Though a revealing quote I unearthed from an interview she did with Playbill On-Line back in 2000 about her lack of formal training was telling: “I wish I had maybe gone to the Yale School or Carnegie or Northwestern. I don’t begrudge my liberal arts education, but at the same time, I wish I had more training and opportunities to meet my fellow actors at a young age… There’s a kind of confidence and skill that you develop at a very early age and I came in a little shaky. I know all actors come in a little like that anyway, but if I had more of a coterie of friends from acting school, I think it would have felt easier for me. I would have already had the training that I felt I needed and that took years to catch up on.”
I admire the honesty and vulnerability of that statement, and that she was already a seasoned veteran of more than thirty years, attests to the insecurities that can plague any actor at any point in their careers.
As a teenager, I saw her give wonderful performances on New York stages in (6 Rms Riv Vw) co-starring with Jerry Orbach; as Gertrude to Sam Waterston’s Hamlet, and First Monday in October with the venerable Henry Fonda, in his last Broadway appearance. In the meantime, her performances on screen in supporting roles in All the President’s Men and Kramer Vs. Kramer and a leading one in Testament; on television as Eleanor Roosevelt in two excellent TV films and in Arthur Miller’s Playing for Time opposite Vanessa Redgrave, gave further proof of her talents in all mediums. The 1970s and early 80s were extremely good to her.
Any discussion of Jane Alexander’s life in the arts must include the time she put her acting career on hold and took an appointment from President Clinton to chair the National Endowment of the Arts in Washington, D.C. From 1993 to 1997, she fought the good fight, although her timing might not have been at its usual best: “I went in there hoping to build the NEA, because I think the arts are so important in our society. And within my first year, I was facing Newt Gingrich and the 104th Congress who wanted to eliminate the entire agency.” Painfully, she had to make do with a 45% cut in funding during her tenure, yet no matter how hard so many try to gut it, the NEA continues to aid artists all over the United States with its important funding. Her book of her time at the NEA, Command Performance: An Actress in the Theater of Politics, is a must-read of those turbulent years.
A true Renaissance woman, Jane Alexander has dedicated her life in the arts to so many causes, including peace, wellness and wildlife conservation. She has served on the Boards of many charities, including the National Stroke Association and Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament. Though her early marriage to actor Robert Alexander ended in divorce, she enjoyed a long marriage and theatrical partnership with her husband Edwin Sherin, who was not only her director on The Great White Hope, but for many years, was a leading force as producer and director behind the Law & Order franchise. He died in 2017 at the age of eighty-seven.
I had the pleasure to sit with both for an afternoon when I interviewed them for my book Up in the Cheap Seats about their collaboration on The Great White Hope. I treasure that time and now look immensely forward to once again seeing Jane Alexander in December grace a Broadway stage (back where she belongs) when Grand Horizons opens at the Hayes Theatre.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.