Casting a new Light
September 17, 2007
The arc of Judith Light’s acting life has veered far from the normal. Light herself goes so far as to call it “an extremely unusual career – a lot of twists and turns, a lot of different directions.” Noted for three decades of work in lightweight TV – soaps, sitcoms and made-for-small-screen movies – Light emerged as a dramatic heavyweight in 1999, with her acclaimed portrayal of a cancer-stricken professor in the Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play, “Wit.” Not until this year did she make her big-screen debut, in the romantic comedy “Ira & Abby,” which opened nationally last week. Rather than her career taking its own uncommon course, it may be that Light has taken an uncommon approach to her acting. With these against-the-grain choices, she has steered her own path. It may have been more than a touch haphazard and risky. “I would say it’s not quite what I would have planned,” she ventures by phone, as she maneuvers her way around the streets of Los Angeles. But it’s hard to argue with the results, which she sums up as “pretty fantastic.”
At the age of 58, Light has a thriving career in television: She was recently nominated in the category of Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for her work in “Ugly Betty.” (She lost the Emmy, but was awarded a regular role as the alcoholic murderer Claire Meade in the hit series.) She is a recurring presence in another high-profile series, playing a bureau chief-turned-judge in “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” As a bonus, Light’s voice has also gotten a bit of a workout on TV: She voiced the character “Honey Chicken” on the animated series “Duckman: Private Dick/Family Man,” and played herself in an episode of “Family Guy” last year.Light’s stage career has carried on, with a 2005 role – again as a cancer sufferer – in the off-Broadway play, “Colder Than Here.” She is also building her filmography. Light follows her strong appearance in “Ira & Abby” with a leading role in “Save Me,” playing a Christian missionary trying to steer young men away from addiction and homosexuality. “Save Me,” directed by Robert Cary, of “Ira & Abby” – and with a screenplay by Light’s husband, Robert Desiderio – shows Friday, Sept. 28, as part of Aspen Filmfest 2007. Light, who is credited as a producer, Desiderio, co-producer Herb Hamsher and Cary are all scheduled to be in attendance. Light, Desiderio and Hamsher also have ties to Aspen: Hamsher, who is Light’s manager, owns a home here, and the three are co-owners of D19 restaurant.A native of New Jersey, Light went from the theater department at Carnegie Mellon University to regional repertory companies in Milwaukee and Seattle, to New York, where she appeared off-Broadway in Shakespeare and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” She made her Broadway debut in 1975 in a production of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” that starred Liv Ullman.That busy beginning was followed by a period where Light received fewer offers. More important, she says, her purpose in acting became cloudy. “I had no sense that what I was doing was serving anyone in any way. When you have a purpose, your work is better and your career is stronger,” she said. In what she calls “my own little temper tantrum,” Light considered an early retirement from acting.Around this time, she was offered a part on the soap opera “One Life to Live.” The common wisdom among those around her was that no work was a better way out of the existential doldrums than daytime TV. Light herself was initially reluctant, but ultimately decided to take the role of the emotionally fragile Karen Wolek.”It was something I never wanted to do. I had a prejudice against it. I looked down my nose at it. I knew people would judge me in some way. A lot of people said, ‘You’d better not do that,'” said Light of soap operas. “But I had to look at it in a different way. For my life, it was more appropriate. I was broke. I wanted to have a wider audience. I wanted to connect to people.”
Perhaps even more radical than accepting the role was the way Light dove into it. “I had to treat it like a theater piece. I treated every day like it was opening night,” she said. Rather than making her a laughingstock, her commitment earned admirers among her fellow cast members. “We were all working that way. Everybody was giving their all in that way. ‘One Life to Live’ just kept rising to amazing levels.”In her five-year stint on “One Life,” Light earned back-to-back Daytime Emmy Awards and a place in soap opera history. Her scene on the witness stand, revealing herself as a prostitute, is over-the-top, searing and hard to turn your eyes away from. It has become, apparently, an iconic moment in soapdom. Such scenes made fans of more than soap-watchers and castmates. In 1984, the year after she left “One Life,” she broke through in prime time, playing the advertising exec Angela on the sitcom “Who’s the Boss?” The show lasted eight seasons and lives on in syndication.Balancing out the comedy was a dose of the serious – or maybe the overly serious. From the late ’80s and through the ’90s, Light was the go-to girl for made-for-TV melodramas. She has portrayed a murderer, the mother of a murder suspect, and an attorney defending her philandering husband against a murder charge, in TV films with such titles as “Wife, Mother, Murderer” and “Murder at My Door.” The years in TV dramas became the stuff of comedy in the 2005 play, “A Lifetime Original Movie Starring Judith Light.”In real life, however, Light was not about to be pigeonholed. The melodramatic roles were building toward some memorable drama. In the late ’90s, casting director Bernie Telsey was looking for a lead actress for an off-Broadway production of Margaret Edson’s “Wit.” On the surface, it didn’t seem too far from the tragedy-stricken women Light had played on TV. The main character, Dr. Vivian Bearing, was the victim of stage IV ovarian cancer, and the play focused on how the illness transforms her from a fiercely independent woman to a more open person. But Edson’s play, which earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1999, used wit and metaphysical poetry to tell the story.Telsey had auditioned Danny Pintauro, who played Light’s son on “Who’s the Boss?” for another project. That experience brought Light to mind, and somehow Telsey saw her as suitable for the role. “People were surprised by that,” said Light. “Most people wouldn’t have thought of me.”It took a leap of faith by the actress herself to take the part. Light was settled into a comfortable niche on TV, and doing wrenching drama – onstage, where she hadn’t worked for 20-plus years – required an expansion of her boundaries. Light had done a lot of activist work on behalf of gays and AIDS victims (one of her early TV film roles was as the mother of 13-year-old, hemophiliac AIDS patient Ryan White), and she looked to them for inspiration.
“I kept looking at this community, and how courageous these people were,” she said. “I had always been safe, not courageous – and these were people who were coming out, living their lives with AIDS. I did it so I could be making a courageous step. So people could see me in another way, other than a soap opera actress or a sitcom actress. I was so afraid to do anything else. People began to recognize I was an actress.”Also whispering in her ear were her longtime managers (and part-time Aspenites) Herb Hamsher and Jonathan Stoller. “Herb said, ‘You have to do something that will change the way people view you,'” said Light, who earned the Helen Hayes Award for “Wit.” The play, in which Light appears bald, and occasionally naked, did the trick.”Save Me” presented another opportunity to expand. Five years in the making, the film features Light as a New Mexico missionary fighting the twin evils of addiction and homosexuality. It is a role completely against her type: Her character, Gayle, is rigid, moralizing and fanatical in her determination that homosexuality is a sin.”What was really important to us was portraying people who mean well, but are misguided,” said Light. “She is shown the power of love, the power of being yourself.”Light reveals that her model for Gayle was Hamsher’s mother. “She was so wedded to her religious beliefs that she convinced herself that what her son was doing was wrong,” she said.
Light adds that Hamsher’s mother has had a dramatic change of heart. It’s another piece of evidence that Light has accumulated, to demonstrate that beliefs can be altered, that boundaries can be broken. Light looks at herself too. Nowhere is there a model for a soap star making art of daytime TV, or turning a soap and sitcom career into a career as a serious stage actress, or as a 58-year-old woman having a range of acting options.”It’s interesting to look at a career like mine to see how things are changing,” said Light. “It’s much more open to women in my age group – not labeling them so much, but looking at the work and appreciating the work.”I think I’ve always known inside that there would be more for me. But I had to know I was one of those people who grow into themselves.”For a full Aspen Filmfest program, go to http://www.aspentimes.com/film.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org