EXCLUSIVE: I met Swoosie Kurtz for the first time in the brief lull between her first Tony nomination and her first win. Almost immediately I asked her to marry me. Didn’t matter that I was married at the time. Didn’t matter that we were somewhat blazed and not alone (everyone was blazed and as I recall, everyone of every sexual predilection was asking for Swoosie Kurtz’s, um, hand in marriage). We were young, the environment was bohemian, to employ a euphemism, and all proposals of marriage were distant memories by the next morning.
It was summertime at the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference, an intoxicating setting overlooking the Long Island Sound in the northeastern corner of Connecticut. Hard work began at dawn as amazing directors and actors like Kurtz worked for lunch money helping playwrights get new shows on their feet and young critics ripped them to pieces for sport. Sometime later, back in the city, we met for more serious purposes (a newspaper profile) and that was pretty much that until we reconnected a few weeks ago.
Kurtz, who begins filming the sixth season of CBS’s Mike & Molly in September (for midseason premiere), is in New York fixing up a new place on the Upper West Side, commuting between here and the other coast, where she lives with her mother, Margo, and celebrating the paperback release of Part Swan, Part Goose — An Uncommon Memoir of Womanhood, Work And Family (Penguin/Perigree). The title of this completely engaging book refers to Uncommon Women And Others, the 1977 Wendy Wasserstein play that brought stardom to a cast that along with Kurtz included — take a breath here — Meryl Streep, Jill Eikenberry, Ellen Parker, Alma Cuervo, Cynthia Herman and Ann McDonough.
Kurtz has a knack for keeping good company. She earned that first Tony nomination in 1978 for her performance in a revival of Moliere’s Tartuffe, during the same period she had been onstage in both Uncommon Women and Christopher Durang’s comedy A History Of The American Film. She didn’t win the Tony that first time around (though she did win a Drama Desk Award for the Durang). But her extraordinary career quickly took her from Broadway to movies (The World According To Garp and Dangerous Liaisons come immediately to mind) and, of course, television, where she has had more longterm commitments than some marriages, notably in Sisters, Love, Sidney, Pushing Daisies and M&M, in which she plays Melissa McCarthy’s mother.
In addition to writing smartly and candidly about her lives and career, Kurtz (with co-writer Joni Rodgers, though the voice and the intellect throughout are pure Swoosie) interweaves passages from My Rival, The Sky, Margo’s memoir of falling in love and making a life with Swoosie’s father Frank, who had gone from being an Olympics diving champion to poster-boy for WWII American heroism. Frank Kurtz was a celebrated, highly decorated Air Force Colonel who flew missions in his B-17D, which he’d named the Swoose (part swan, part goose) because he’d pieced it together himself from spare parts. Of course, the daughter who inherited that name has had, metaphorically speaking, parts to spare. Part Swan, Part Goose also serves as a loving tribute to Margo, whom Swoosie took under her wing beginning seven years ago, as she began receding into dementia. Mom is about to hit the century mark, and while she no longer travels with her daughter, they’re never apart very long.
DEADLINE: Do you remember getting the news the first time you were nominated for a Tony?
SWOOSIE KURTZ: Well, it was back in the day where we obviously didn’t have cell phones or anything like that, and somebody called me and said, “Well, I guess the Tony gods didn’t love you, I don’t think, because I just heard some of the nominations and you were not nominated for History of the American Film. I went, okay, cool, because that was the most recent thing I’d done that year. Then my doorbell rang in this brownstone, and I pushed the buzzer, and asked “Who is it?” And this accented voice said [Tonys producer] Alexander Cohen. Then this lovely man handed me this white envelope that had the Tony seal on the back, and it was addressed to Miss Swoosie Kurtz. It said Alexander Cohen and so forth…”happy to tell you that you have been nominated for your performance in Tartuffe.” That was the best way, because first you’re told, “I’m sorry, I didn’t see your name on the list,” and then you go, “Oh my God, I forgot about that, that’s the one I did in the fall.”
DEADLINE: Your next time was in 1981, and you won for Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July.
SWOOSIE KURTZ: That was astounding. I remember getting up and saying, “I now know what I’ve always suspected: There is a God.” It was so heavenly. One of the other nominees was Maureen Stapleton. Afterwards at the party she said, “Don’t you ever do that again.” Jessica Tandy was a nominee too. I was filming The World According to Garp at the same time and had random shoot days here and there that could fit in with the play and have me back to the theater. I was scheduled to work Monday, the day after the Tonys, which was just hideous because I had to be at NYU at 5:30 in the morning or something. No sleep that night.
DEADLINE: You’re a serious actress. What’s been the best part of having a Hollywood career?
SWOOSIE KURTZ: I’ll tell you: Doing Mike & Molly, I realized how much of my life I’ve spent on the Warner Brothers lot. Six seasons of Sisters, two seasons of Pushing Daisies, five so far of Mike & Molly another to go, plus several movies, other TV shows, pilots I’ve done. Whenever we have a break, I walk around the backlot and I go, “Oh, that’s where I got mugged. Oh my God, there’s the courthouse where I got divorced. There’s the church where I got married. There’s Georgie’s house down the street in Sisters. There’s where we sat for the funeral at Pushing Daisies.” It’s my second home. I’m walking around, and it’s just so cool. You just feel really safe on a backlot.
For the record, Swoosie Kurtz went on to earn Tony nominations in three more shows, the most astonishing of which — still vivid in my own memory — was in 1986 as Bananas in John Guare’s insanely powerful, humane The House Of Blue Leaves, and for which she won her second award. The others were the chilling drama Frozen, in 2004, and her last Broadway appearance for the time being, in 2007 in Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House.
DEADLINE: And today?
SWOOSIE KURTZ: Life today is very interesting, very full. I would’ve thought at this point I could sort of sit back and relax, right? And I’m so glad it hasn’t turned out that way. My life right now is a very precarious and dicey balancing act between staying ahead of my mother’s needs in L.A. and having my life. That’s by my choice. Because she’s been my best pal all my life.