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Glenn Close Looks Back on Her First Theater Role

Glenn Close was a Power of Women honoree last year for her work on Bring Change 2 Mind. The actress has four films due this year and is currently onstage at the London Coliseum with “Sunset Blvd.,” running April 4-May 7. She was first mentioned in Variety on Oct. 30, 1974, for her Broadway debut.

That was your first professional role?

I got it right out of college. I had done a series of auditions with URTA, the University Resident Theatre Assn., and TCG, Theatre Communications Group — all the university and non-profit groups. I got only one callback, for a theater in Texas. I was a little discouraged, I visited my parents in Wyoming, where there was no phone; when I went to get groceries, I called back east and got a week-old message but got a message to come audition for the New Phoenix Repertory. So I called and leapt on a plane.I got that season of three plays at the old Helen Hayes Theater. The first one was “Love for Love,” directed by Hal Prince.

Were you nervous?

Excited. I was so eager that I sat in on all the rehearsals of “Love for Love,” which is a Congreve Restoration comedy. On the Saturday before opening, Hal Prince told me he was thinking of letting the leading lady go and would make his decision during the matinee. I hadn’t even had an understudy rehearsal. It was kind of a miracle that I was ready; I knew all the lines. They tried to assemble all the actors who had gone to dinner, to go through the show with me. Before the performance, Hal parted the curtains and told the audience I had gotten my equity card seven weeks earlier and this was my debut. I went on that night and I got through it OK.

That must have been dizzying.

A half-hour before that show, a note was delivered to me: “It’s a tradition in the British theatre for one leading lady to welcome the next. I welcome you. Be brave and strong.” It was from Mary Ure, who’d just been fired. That was an extraordinary act of — how would you even describe it — love, support. That meant a huge amount to me. It was a great chance but also a sobering lesson about what can be a very cruel profession. I felt elation, but it was tempered with the knowledge that this beautiful actress had been humiliated. And here I am, all these years later, playing Norma Desmond, a humiliated actress!

Did you have mentors in college?

I was lucky to be at William & Mary when there was a great triumvirate of professors in the theater department. Howard Scammon was head of the department. I think he sensed my seriousness of purpose and he really mentored me. He would say, “Just remember: You’re a big fish in a very little pond.” So when I got to New York, I realized I was a little fish in a very big pond. When I was in “Love for Love,” one night I saw this figure across the street. I said “Dr. Scammon, what are you doing here?” and he said, “I just wanted to watch you walk through the stage door.” It still moves me to think about that.  He would see everything I did onstage; I did theatre for six years before movies. He would send me wonderful notes, with comments on each performance. And for each performance, he would give me a pewter cup with the name of the play and the character, in the Williamstown tradition.

Any other fond memories of 1974?

Marybeth Hurt was one of the actresses I understudied that season. All through my career, she has been such an inspiration to me. She played Miss Prue in “Love for Love” and she had this funny business with a fan. I remember Hal — who was already a legend — directing her to do something and she said, “No, I don’t think so.” I nearly fell out of my chair! I thought “My God, who is that?” But she was right, she got a huge laugh every night. She’s a great stage actress. And then she played Garp’s wife, so I was able to work with her in my first movie. There have been times in my career when I thought “What would Marybeth do?”

When you first dreamed of acting, did you have any heroes? 

Snow White! That’s how young I was when I knew I wanted to be an actress.

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