I met Jill Clayburgh and her beautiful, talented daughter Lily Rabe at a Drama Desk Luncheon at Sardi’s a number of years ago. Actually, it was the year of “Doubt” because Cherry Jones was on the panel. I think it was about something like “What the Drama Desk Award Meant to Me as an Actor” because there was nothing but actors on the panel. Frances Sternhagen, John Lithgow, Cherry and others.
And Jill and Lily and I were sat next to each at this event which was quite lengthy I remember and the lunch came first.
Jill was talking about our mutual friend Amy Robinson, who went to Sarah Lawrence, as did Jill. They were both in Florida doing something together regardingwhat ended in the Bush/Gore mess down there. Was this before the election even? Were they trying to register voters? Oh, they were campaigning for Gore. That was it.
I was surprised, and Jill was saying about Amy “She’s STILL producing her movies. But you know, movies today are not like the movies they used to do (in the ’70s)” Which is putting it mildly.
Most recently Amy was one of the producers of Meryl Streep’s latest triumph “Julie and Julia,” but I knew Amy as an actress at LaMama, just having graduated from Sarah Lawrence. Amy was in the wild experimental troupe Grupo Bilingue with me in the VERY early ’70s, and had been Petlurah, Cossack in an Israeli play called “Toy Story” at La Mama, where I was the assistant stage manager! This was very early days!
Susan Haskins, now the producer/co-hostess of PBS TheaterTalk with Michael Riedel, was also a classmate of Amy’s from Sarah Lawrence, and both Susan and Amy were IN THE CAST of my first play “The Babs’n’Judy Show” at the WPA theater, directed by another Sarah Lawrence alum, Bob Plunket. It was a smash hit at the time and really launched my career as a playwright.
Amy played a talk show host(!) named Carmelita Pope, and Susan had a few lines as a “TV director”(!?!) Talk about prophetic!
Anyway alllll these Sarah Lawrence connections gave Jill and I plenty to talk about over that lonnnnng lunch.
Jill was taught at Sarah Lawrence by the same teachers that had taught Amy, Susan, Bob and also now documentary filmmaker Nancy Heiken who just had an international success this year with “Kimjongilia.” These were the great academic/experimental theater directors the late Will Leach and Jon Braswell.
I remember that Jill admitted that yes, she had participated in the Sarah Lawrence song nights, which was an evening of current pop standards sung by the undergraduate young ladies of SLU. Jill didn’t remember what song she sang. I think Carly Simon was a classmate. But NOT Yoko Ono.
Jill’s big film break, of course, had been getting the part of Carole Lombard, in “Gable and Lombard” which had launched her cinematically. She got particular praise for that portrayal, she thought, always being modesty itself, because people didn’t have a very strong view of Lombard, as they did about Clark Gable. James Brolin, believe it or not, played Gable!
She then went on to become the poster girl for the Women’s Movement in film after film that broke stereotypes of women’s leading roles in movies, probably forever, “An Unmarried Woman” being main among them. It shouldn’t’ve surprised me that Jill was registering voters in Florida. She’ll always be remembered as a seminal, political figure because of her great screen portrayls in the ’70s, which earned her two Oscar nominations.
She also told me that she got in to Show Business because her mother had been a secretary to David Merrick, the controversial Broadway producer, and so, she had virtually grown up on the Great White Way. And she and her mother both liked the universally despised Merrick. Her mother always took her to Sardi’s as a little girl. So she always associated Sardi’s, the legendary Broadway watering hole, with the happiest memories of her childhood. She knew the Sardi’s menu upside down and backwards, and knew all the nooks and crannies of it. We were having the Drama Desk luncheon on the third floor. I didn’t even know that they HAD a third floor! But Jill did. And she had been there many times.
Lily, her beautiful blonde daughter, was sitting between us at Sardi’s and had heard all these stories before. And I told Lily that she was going to get nominated for a Drama Desk Award for the play she was making her debut in that year. And she did!
Jill and I were soul-mates from that time on, and pen pals via email. She told me she NEVER answered the phone(!) but emails she always responded to. And as her work in this past decade kept shifting her back and forth between both coasts, emails were something she actively enjoyed doing. Since she never answered the phone!
She told me that when she was young, stalkers, etc. were a problem, but “not anymore” and she laughed, although she still never answered the phone.
Lily Rabe is as photogenic and as beautiful in her own way as her famous movie star mother, and of course, the great chronicler of Viet Nam, playwright David Rabe, was Lily’s father and Jill’s husband of many, many years.
Lily was playing Portia to Al Pacino’s Shylock in Shakespeare in the Park in NYC this summer, and she was terrific in it, as was the production as was Pacino. This was quite a serious dramatic breakthrough for Lily, who has consistently worked in New York theater over the past decade. She also, by the way, went to Sarah Lawrence.
I waited for her after the show to say “Hi” and congratulate her on this stunning success in Shakespeare, no less. But the security outside the stage door in the Park was kind of tight that night and I was saying “Hello” to two other friends in the show, Heather Lind, who just graduated from NYU and Hamish Linklater.
So when I didn’t see Lily emerge, I thought “Well, I’ll catch up with tales of her and her mom and dad later.” But that wasn’t to be…
The last time I saw Jill Clayburgh in person was after a performance of “The Clean House” at Lincoln Center. We had a long walk down Broadway in the moonlight. It was the year Penelope Cruz got nominated for Best Actress for the Spanish language “Volver” and we were discussing that. She was a member of the Academy, of course, because she’d been nominated so many times.
That silvery moonlit NY night was the last time I saw Jill Clayburgh alive, though we continued to communicate by email, and in recent years she was mostly in LA. I was shocked to hear that she battled leukemia for so many years. She never mentioned it. Never complained.
She was the epitome of “A Class Act.”
R.I.P. Jill. A great actress, a great lady, a great spirit, a great loss.
PS: I never had the great good fortune to have Jill as a guest on my program, but you can see her in a very nice clip that’s in Main Frame at www.youtube.com/theatertalk