Elaine Stritch: ‘I Didn’t Declare Retirement’

The legendary stage icon talks about her new documentary, '30 Rock' and not retiring

When I first see Elaine Stritch—the 89-year-old legendary stage and screen actress—she’s propped in bed. Although she’s been a New York fixture since the 1940s (and spent 18 years living in a room at the Carlyle Hotel), she recently moved to Michigan. But she’s back in town this week to promote her new documentary, “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.” Her trip will include a screening hosted by Perez Hilton, the film’s midtown premiere and catching a Broadway show (“The Glass Menagerie”) with her pal Bernadette Peters.

On this morning, Stritch has gone viral. She just appeared on “Today,” where she dropped the F-word on live TV. The film’s director, Chiemi Karasawa, tells her that she’s trending on Twitter. “What does it mean to be trending?” Stritch asks from her room in an Upper East Side clubhouse. I tell her. “Oh.” She takes a long pause. “Isn’t that good?”

Stritch, who is exhausted from waking up early (which is why she moved our interview to her room), is foggy about what she said. At first, she denies that she ever cursed. “In regard to what?” she asks. When I suggest it was an accident, she turns indignant. “No, I never say the F-word by mistake,” she says. “I do it on purpose.”

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In case you can’t tell, there’s no censoring Stritch. Her documentary is a celebration of her life as a showbiz icon. In it, she runs through the streets of New York with no pants (her trademark look), sings on-stage and curses like a sailor. Karasawa, a veteran doc producer turned first-time filmmaker, met Stritch because they shared the same hairdresser. She spent a year and a half following her around for an unflinching portrait that includes struggles with diabetes, alcholism and aging.

One of the many raw moments in the film is when Stritch continues to forget her lyrics as she prepares for a new show of Stephen Sondheim ballads. “I was 88,” Stritch says. “That’s late in life to be remembering your lyrics.” In another scene, she reads an old letter from a prickly Woody Allen, cautioning her not to be difficult if she’s going to sign on to his 1987 film “September.” Although she won a Tony for her 2002 one-woman show “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” her career spans both television and film, including 2005’s “Monster-in-Law,” 2000’s “Autumn in New York,” and guest appearances on “One Life to Live,” “The Cosby Show” and “Law & Order.”

During our talk, Stritch speaks in loud declarations. She complains that the rain puddles in New York ruined her brand new white shoes. Suddenly, there’s a loud clang on the other side of the room. “You should sit down for five minutes,” Stritch says to one of the five members of her entourage. “I was redecorating your room,” says the man, who later identifies himself as her interior designer. “I want you to see the fireplace from your bed.”

“God, I can’t believe it’s such a lousy day,” Stritch laments. “Isn’t it going to get better?”

Strich is doing her best to promote the film, despite her declining health. She has an infected leg, and she travels by wheelchair now. She’s thrilled about the documentary, which she’s  already seen three times. “Oh, I loved it,” she says. “I thought everybody did their job so well, which was no surprise to me, because everybody on this film is really, really talented.”

She claims the cameras don’t bother her. That’s an understatement. Like Lady Gaga, Stritch lives for the applause. “I get so happy whenever somebody approves of me,” Stritch says. “I just get a thrill.” She mimics a fans coo: “‘Oh, Mrs. Stritch!’ Say no more!”

One of Stritch’s recent reoccurring TV roles was as Jack Donaghy’s mother on “30 Rock.” Both Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin, a producer on the documentary, are interviewed on-camera about her pizzazz. When asked if she liked doing the series, she answers abruptly, “No.” Is she serious? “I want broader comedy than that,” Stritch says. “I never had a question in my mind about Noel Coward’s humor. I knew there was a basic humor in Noel Coward that was healthy and funny and fast. And the melodies were funny and fast. Oh, I loved Noel Coward with a passion.”

She’s also close with Sondheim, whom she considers a friend. She says when they met years ago, he made a pass at her. Even now, Elaine is something of a flirt. (She lost her husband, actor John Bay, to brain cancer in 1982.) In the documentary, she talks about the time she went on a date with a young John F. Kennedy. James Gandolfini makes a posthumous appearance to tell a sweet story about his first encounter with Stritch.

“I don’t want to talk about Gandolfini, because I’m too emotional about it,” Stritch says. “I haven’t gotten over it yet. It just broke my heart. Oh my god. And he was just starting out. To see ‘The Sopranos,’ it would have meant some kind of an exit for a great actor, and it was just his first big part.” Stritch says the only time she raced up the stairs of the Carlyle was to catch an episode of the HBO series.

Even though she’s not currently attached to any projects, Stritch says she’s still looking for good material. “A new play that I’ve never done before,” she says. “Or I can settle down in Michigan and do a revival of a play.”

When she hears the viral story of a woman from South Carolina who spent a night in jail last week for never returning a VHS rental of “Monster-in-Law,” a movie that cast Stritch in a supporting role, she lets out a laugh. “Oh, I want to know which part she watched,” Stritch deadpans. Was it fun making the film? “No,” she says. “I made it fun for me, so I could stand to be out there. I love it when people think I have a ball.”

She recalls her two co-stars from 1997’s “Out to Sea.” “I know Walter Matthau used to go, ‘We did it again,’ because he wasn’t having any fun at all. He was sick of getting up at 6 o’clock, and he wasn’t well. And the same thing with Jack Lemmon. He was tired. We’re all tired.”

Throughout the interview, Stritch has been closing her eyes, often on the verge of drifting off, but when she gets to this anecdote, she suddenly sits up, re-energized: “I decided to pack up again and give it another shot, and I’m very happy that I did,” Stritch says. “I didn’t declare any retirement. If somebody sent me a play in the mail, and said you have a great scene in the second act, I’d grab it.”

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