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Spilled Milk: Stritch, A Memory of Elaine

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I met her in November 1988. She was guest-starring on an episode of a short-lived NBC television series called Tattinger's. A one-shot playing star Stephen Collins' mother Franny, a seen-it-all former Broadway chorus girl. Cinch casting. And among the first of the many guest-starring tough mama roles that became her bread and butter in the decades ahead.

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At the time I was a theatre guy trying to learn what I could about how television is made, hanging out on the set at the generous invitation of Tom Fontana, Tattinger's creator and exec producer. Elaine Stritch was a Broadway legend. Of a certain age, trailing a difficult reputation (drinking, obstreperous behavior, narcissism). She had recently given up booze and was trying to remake her career in the United States after a number of years living and working in England.

There she'd had a four-year run on a 1970s sitcom called Two's Company, playing an American author living in London, who needs to hire a butler and does. That was pretty much the show. Lightweight, a footnote even at the time, but that's where I first encountered Elaine Stritch, thanks to my dad. I was home from colliege and he'd stumbled across an episode of Two's Company being rebroadcast on PBS.

I could hear him calling from down the hall. "Bill! Come in here. You've got to see this woman."

He knew me well. I did have to see that woman.

The show was funny enough. But that voice. That timing. That delivery. Even in a middling British TV import, this was an actress who immediately established the most basic fact about herself: She would not be be ignored.

I knew nothing of Stritch's stage work that night but within a couple of years I was catapulted up to speed. As it did for many people all it took for me was hearing her historic recording of "The Ladies Who Lunch," from the original cast album of Stephen Sondheim's Company, a stark look at marriage in America, set to music. I was a rising junior preparing to audition for a college production of Company (I know, a college production of Company). But I was galvanized. There it was again. That voice. That timing. That delivery.

My infatuation became insatiable after the watching her steal the show from a boatload of Broadway stars in the PBS airing of "Follies" in Concert in 1985.

Again, utter flabbergastration. Not a word, but the only one that will do.

So when I spotted her pacing the soundstage of Tattinger's before her first scene was to be filmed, I had to introduce myself. If only to hear the words "Get away from me, you fawning stagestruck sycophant, can't you see I'm working?" hurled my way with that voice, that timing, that delivery.

But that's not what she said.

Once I'd introduced myself and told Elaine Stritch -- eloquently I thought, in as non-sycophanty a manner as possible -- how much I enjoyed her work, not as a mere fan but an informed connoisseur of her oeuvre, she stopped her fretful pacing. She smiled at me, hesitantly, seeming almost relieved. But only for an instant. That's all it took for her to clutch my arm as if trying to puncture a life preserver, and erupt.

"I have NO FUCKING IDEA how to play this mother. None! And no one will help me. Nobody. Not the director, not the writer, they're all too busy. I'm from the theatre, you know that, why don't they? I need backstory, history, some sense of who this woman is. How can they expect a performance from this," she said, rattling her script as if the dialogue were printed in dog shit.

"Who the HELL is this woman? Fucking television."

It was as if heaven itself had opened up and swallowed me whole. And then she was gone, called away by an assistant director.

Of course I watched her film her scenes. I wasn't about to miss my first chance to see Elaine Stritch perform live. Even if it was in an underwritten guest role in a television series that wouldn't last 13 episodes.

She was a total pro.

As Elaine Stritch was leaving for the day, she spotted me in the hallway outside the makeup room, called me aside and asked how I thought she'd done. I told her she was great.

"Bullshit. But thanks."

She asked if I'd mind doing her a favor. Her car was waiting in the parking lot and she didn't want to keep her driver waiting. She handed me a small envelope, told me it contained a $20 tip for her dresser ("Do you think that's enough?") and asked if I'd deliver it for her.

It was more than enough. Tipping your dresser is a theatre tradition rarely observed by TV actors.

After delivering Elaine Stritch's tip, I was walking through the parking lot, about to start the five-block journey to catch my subway at 23rd and 8th, when a black car stopped about 20 feet away from me. I didn't realize it until the window rolled down, and I heard that unmistakable growl:

"HEY YOU! GET IN HERE!"

That voice, that timing, that delivery. It was whiskey on sandpaper, aimed at me.

As I slid in next to Elaine Stritch she said, "It's too cold to walk to the subway." She instructed her driver to take me back to my apartment, wherever that might be, after dropping her off at hers on the Upper East Side. And for the next 15 minutes regaled me with stories from her career, every word of which I transcribed into my journal as soon as I got back to my apartment on 103rd Street.

The one I remember most vividly is her acid recollection of a failed TV pilot in which she been cast as Mary Tyler Moore's mother:

"Jesus Christ! Of course it failed! How could it not fail? Who's gonna buy ME as Mary Tyler Moore's mommy?! The fuck! They even shot a sequence of us riding a bicycle built for two in Central Park. Can you believe that, Bill?" (She'd remembered my name.) "Of course you can't. Who could? Me and America's Sweetheart. On a bicycle built for fucking two. Christ!"

We were never friends -- I'm not sure she had friends -- but I saw her several times over the years after that. A couple of backstage visits on Broadway ("A Delicate Balance" and "Showboat") and a memorable dinner one night in the Village at which she fed me a gigantic shrimp from her overpriced shrimp cocktail. "Want one? Of course you do. You like shrimp. I can tell by the way you're looking at it." Then she dipped it in sauce, reached across the table and stuffed it in my mouth.

Nice isn't a word you often hear associated with Elaine Stritch, but on that night in 1988 Elaine Stritch was nice. To her dresser. To her driver. To me. And I'm pretty sure to anyone else she encountered that day whom she sensed shared her frailty.

"HEY YOU! GET IN HERE!"

Rest in peace.

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