Patricia Richardson [Interview]
March 16, 2013 4 Comments
For anyone who spent much of their evenings in the 90’s plopped down (probably on the ground) watching wholesome television sitcoms, the name Jill Taylor is synonymous with the idealisms of a perfect TV mom and wife on the hit sitcom Home Improvement. It is a role that is still considered viable and extremely important in the world of situational comedy, even after the “boom” of the strong independent working woman (who probably lives in a big city). But twenty years ago, it was all about Jill Taylor. The boss woman in charge of the household I always wished actually had four walls, and I lived right next door to one of those walls.
And the power of Jill is owned almost entirely to the brilliant acting chops of the one and only Patricia Richardson. And while she may be best remembered for being the wife who put up with the dim-witted but loving handyman portrayed by Tim Allen, her skills are undeniable, and she has proven as much even till this day. But before Home Improvement even saw its last episode, Patricia stunned audiences in her role alongside Peter Fonda in Ulee’s Gold. And when Home Improvement did indeed see its demise, Patricia jumped into the medical world on the strong running hit show Strong Medicine. And she is showing no sign of slowing down. This is why we were so honored to get a few (lengthy!) words with the legend herself, Patricia Richardson. Enjoy!
When playing a television mother for so many years, do you develop a sort of motherly attachment to the kids who play your family?
Yes you do develop an attachment , although they don’t need parental interference from set parents when they have a parent on the set with them at all times. Tim and I worried about appearing to have a “favorite” , or that interference problem, and we tried to avoid those pitfalls. But we did feel protective of them and enjoyed them tremendously as I think you can tell when you watch the outtakes. We tried to go to bat for them when they were renegotiating, when they needed more teachers or a space to play outside, ( my head got in the way of some thrown footballs a few times ).There was no place for them to burn off all of that boy energy except in the street outside the studio dodging the trucks and cars for a while. I don’t think people understand how hard it is for kids and their families who work on these shows. One parent has to be on the set at all times. That means they can’t have a paying job. That leaves the other parent to earn a living and deal with the other kids, if there is another parent. The family can’t live off the working child’s money. It is protected by law which is a really good thing. I once knew an actress whose parents stole all the money she made and ruined her credit while she worked as a child actress. So those laws are important. Anyway, the kids arrive at work way before everyone else and get into school. They might have to leave a test in the middle of it to come out and work/play with us, turn that on and off constantly and instantaneously all day long, and get right back into the school work on command. On the off weeks we have in sitcom land ,which are at least once a month, they go back to regular school where they are regarded the way all famous people are: as enviable Aliens. Yes, they are fortunate in so many ways, but when negotiating their salaries the studios say why should kids make much as journeymen actors? Well, they are not considering how hard they work, what it is costing them in terms of their young and fragile current and future personal lives, and what they contribute to the show. It is sometimes the same contribution if not more than the sometimes equally inexperienced adult actors they are working beside. The studio is also getting the parent at no pay. Anyway, you can tell by my overly long answer here that I did care about those kids, admired them and their families. I was really busy and hanging in there myself trying to work hard and raise my own three kids so there wasn’t time for much else. But they were amazing, fun, talented, smart boys, and have grown up to be wonderful men.
A thousand times yes , being on the same set is better. I’ve done long runs on plays too which can get tedious in a way that series work never becomes. But I believe actors do better, freer work when they feel safe and relaxed. Every set in every medium is a family. The longer the family gets to be together the more comfortable that environment becomes. The more relaxed you feel, the easier it is; everything flows. I have found and observed in other actors on my shows that being a guest on someone else’s show is hard. I’ve seen great actors really nervous working as a guest actor and felt the same way myself. Working on a movie only for a few days or a week can feel the same way. You don’t want to feel like the adopted child. Maybe it was a mistake? You should be sent back to the orphanage?
What was really great about Home Improvement and sometimes on Strong Medicine, also on The West Wing, was having the same directors. That is a super great A+ pay the good ones and keep them as long as you can if I were to produce good idea. The other one is this: at least one original co-creating producer should stay on the series until it ends. Look at most of the successful long running series and see how many still had one co-creator at the end. Only the creators care as much as the actors who are there until the end. Subsequent writers tend to come for the money and stay until they can get their own deals on their own babies. Creators care about their baby. If a creator abandons the baby only the actors are left to fight for the original vision of the creator on a daily basis and the baby they all loved . Very difficult position to put the actor in.
What sort of preparation did you do to perform the controversial role as Marilyn Monroe’s mother, Gladys Barker, in the mini series Blonde? What kind of research was involved?
I lived with a psychologist at the time who supplied me with a lot of material on different maladies. The trouble was it was difficult to assess what the diagnosis would be. In the book it appeared to be one thing, history says something else. History is somewhat unreliable as in those days psychiatry was less sophisticated and everyone sort of fell into a few convenient pools. Also do you pay attention to how it seems in the book or what history says? She seems to be low functioning Borderline or Bipolar in the book. By the time she gets hospitalized she would be heavily medicated. Marilyn was sexually molested , was Gladys? I found out about the job while traveling with my oldest son abroad and didn’t have a lot of time to prepare. I flew from Paris, to LA and on to Australia. I really loved doing that part. I was relieved when my partner’s psychiatrist friends were calling him after it was on the air and telling him that they thought I was really accurate at portraying the disorder I had chosen. That was very cool.
What did you find most interesting about Gladys Barker? What made you want to take on such a role?
All of the above applies to this question and also that I was always interested in Marilyn Monroe and didn’t know about her mother. I also was a fan of Joyce Carol Oates but hadn’t read Blonde. She came to speak at my kid’s school years later, after I did the mini-series. I thought about bringing the book and asking her to sign it. But I chickened out. I felt too shy to approach her.
Can you tell us a bit about the upcoming, and possibly controversy riddled, documentary Acceptable Limits, in which you are an executive producer for? How did you become involved and interested in such a subject?
I was always interested in Nuclear Energy , I have a relative who is a safety consultant in the Industry . So I have heard many stories and we’ve had many discussions about it over the last forty years. I ,in fact , have a charming picture of myself in a hard hat in front of a nuclear containment building being built back in the 70’s . This is clean energy in many respects – cleaner than coal if we can find a place to store it and a safe way to transport it. President Obama’s announcement of billions in federal funds for small, modular nuclear reactors shows us that nuclear- if executed cleanly and safely, can be more than beneficial to our country’s energy source.
I got involved with this film because my friend Cosmo Phiel needed money and I am interested in making more documentary films. I had already produced one with my friend Jodi Long , Long Story Short, which went to many Asian Film Festivals, won awards, is very entertaining and is on Netflix. This one is still a work in progress as time has gone by and the situation is evolving. After 2 years of countless interviews and hours upon hours of research , they have realized that this is a dynamic story that deserves to be told from multiple points of view. That is good storytelling. At this time they don’t feel that they have been able to represent certain key threads that they would like to tell in their story such as : the importance of clean , safe, nuclear for the future of energy production in our country, the role of NFS as the primary employer in Erwin, Tennessee where our story takes place and where a group of residents have been arguing against the 40 year license renewal of this local nuclear plant in operation since the 1960’s , the science of down blending HEU on this line ( It’s recycling basically ), or modern regulation by the NRC; what it is and how it prevents discharge/ contamination/ criticality. There were high levels of illness including cancer, as well as contamination in the food and water supply in Erwin. The activists pointed to tests by a University scientist from Arizona that showed trace amounts of enriched uranium and plutonium. A class action suit ensued and was later dismissed. The plant and its regulatory body point to a clean operating record since major improvements in the 1990’s and 2010. Closer examination shows that Eastern Tennessee has a long record of big industries coming in and releasing dyes and chemicals into the waterways. How can someone point the finger at one single company for releases that poignant if they’re considered to be within acceptable limits? Additional recent testing shows only trace amounts of enriched uranium. What is considered a safe amount of exposure? How are the acceptable limits set by the regulator, and what is the science those decisions are based on? This is what the film is exploring.
If you could star in a remake of any classic film from the golden age of cinema with a strong female lead, what would it be?
This is just a question I can’t answer. First of all , which golden age of cinema? LOL. My oldest son the Film Major and I had a whole discussion about this. He says now? He thinks it’s now. I disagree. I suggested the 70’s . He says oh that’s like 5 films. Then there’s the horror of doing a remake . Ugh. I am not a particularly confident person. Who wants to be compared to some brilliant person from THE GOLDEN AGE OF CINEMA. Whenever that was. And the idea that someone would let me star in any film at this point is so unlikely it makes me want to start whining a little.
My Dad died miserably over a long period of time of PSP, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. No it’s not a video game system. It is what they call an Atypical Parkinsonian Disease, because it looks like Parkinson’s without the tremor. He had that same frozen face with absolutely no expression, staring eyes, because they can’t look up or down, ( that is unique to PSP ), there are balance problems, they fall backwards a lot (another symptom unique to PSP) , their muscles spasm and become increasingly more frozen. I used to say Dad became “mummified” inside his body. We didn’t know how cognizant he was because he lost the ability to speak . He also had a lot of difficulty swallowing. The only way he could communicate was with a thumbs up or down. He had been a Navy Test Pilot , a fighter pilot who landed planes on aircraft carriers which he referred to as ” postage stamps”. That’s where the thumbs up and down came from . But really most of the time we had no idea what he was thinking or feeling. His laughing and crying sounded the same. He was hurt by a nurse at one point in the really nice, expensive nursing home where we had him despite the fact that we had a sitter in the room with him all day every day. They tried to cover it up, hid the injury even from his doctor , didn’t file an injury report which they have to do by law. We discovered after his death and the autopsy , which is the only way to confirm PSP, that he had been very cognitive , trapped inside of there for a few years, unable to move or communicate. He was misdiagnosed, as many PSP patients are, for many years . He probably had the disease for five years before it was identified correctly. The movie The Diving Bell and the Butterfly nearly killed me; that was his story . I am unable to express how terrible this time was. My sisters and I didn’t know about CurePSP when we were struggling to take care of him long distance for those years. I wish we had it would have helped us so much. I learned about CurePSP towards the end and they asked me to become their National Spokesperson and then I joined the Board of Directors. The organization has grown a lot over the years , has done ground breaking research and really expanded their patient and caregiver outreach. We funded the research that found the gene that established that PSP is a tau protein disease, a ” taupathy “, like Alzheimer’s and Traumatic Brain Injury. These proteins spread in tangles around the brain killing brain cells. Other brain diseases have other kinds of protein spreading infectiously in similar ways. Many scientists are now calling them all “Prion Diseases”. The figures for how many people in this country alone that are dying of brain disease, the trillions of dollars that it will cost in the coming years around the world, are staggering. There are no cures yet. There are beginning to be some treatments that delay symptoms, but there needs to be more attention and resources paid to this. The baby boomer generation is headed toward these diseases and it will be a heartbreaking disaster. It already is. There are people getting PSP in their 50s, even in their 40’s although that is atypical.
A man named Stanley Prusiner at UCSF discovered and named Prions when he discovered the infectious protein that was causing Mad Cow Disease. He won a Nobel Prize back in the 90’s because it was the first time they realized that disease could spread by something other than bacteria or a virus, through DNA. We are now working on trying to find a way to stop tau- clear it, or stop it from growing in the first place. Do we need it? Is it necessary ? There is really exciting and interesting research going on. CurePSP is unique in that as a small organization we can give our investigators money directly, they don’t have to pay a portion of what they get to the institutions that house them, there is no time lapse. Our Scientific Advisors have been really smart about where to put the research money.
I recently got back to New York and found the Valentine one of my sons had made for me. That was sweet.
Where you as touched by Patricia’s tales of PSP and her part in the fight to cure it? Find out how you can help out at the link below: