Bebe Neuwirth never expected to become a TV star. But that’s exactly what happens when you land a scene-stealing role like Lilith Sternin-Crane on a show as big as “Cheers.” The Broadway veteran also won back-to-back Emmys for the part in 1990 and 1991. She went on to score two more Emmy noms and currently co-stars on the CBS drama “Madam Secretary.”
What was it like attending the Emmys for the first time?
I’ve always felt like a fish out of water in Los Angeles and in television. I was surprised by the nomination. When I found my seat, it was way way over on the side and quite a few seats from the aisle. I remember laughing to myself and thinking, “Well, this must be the darkhorse section.” There were really great actors there but we were thinking, “They’re probably not going to call any of these names.” We didn’t have easy access to the stage.
Were you prepared when they actually did call your name?
I have never had stage fright, I’ve been on stage since I was seven. I’m actually more comfortable on stage than off. Put me in a cocktail party and I’m terrified, but put me in front of 10,000 people I’m perfectly comfortable. Unless I’m me, and not in a performance. Calling my name and having me go up on stage and speak off the cuff — because I didn’t prepare anything, because, you know, why would you do that? — there was a little bit of terror. I can’t remember what I said, I’m sure it was a terrible speech.
You had already won a Tony at that point — how did the experiences compare?
Going to the Tonys was an out of body experience, very surreal and I can’t put it into words. But I can tell you that first time at the Emmys — it’s the same species but a very different animal. Very very different vibe, different kind of a building, different climate, very different community, although there are crossovers. I remember Scott Bakula was in my section and he’s a Broadway guy. It just somehow felt different. Mind you we’re talking about 1990. It was a very different award show then, I think they might be a little different now. There were no cell phones. Nobody was taking pictures of each other or themselves. If you wanted to take a picture of yourself you had to set that funny little button on the camera, leave it somewhere steady and rush around to the other side.
Did anyone who worked on “Cheers” give you any tips ahead of time?
Um, no. [laughs] I think the first or second time I guested on the show I happened to be out there during Emmy week, the awards were that weekend and they very graciously invited me to their Emmy party. The whole culture of “Cheers” was so wonderful and funny and sane, especially for a hit show, which I believe came down from the Charles brothers and Jimmy Burrows. That party was a clear-eyed view of not getting carried away with one’s own success. Some people get a little carried away. They become successful and think they’re the be-all end-all and it was always be that way. “Cheers” was a little more down to Earth than that.