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Stockard Channing Looks Back at Chorus Member Days as She Returns to Stage

Stockard Channing returns to the New York stage in “Apologia,” opening Oct. 16 at the Laura Pels Theatre, following its successful West End run. Alexi Kaye Campbell’s play concerns an art historian clashing with her past as a 1960s political activist. Channing has decades of stage experience, but most people know her from movie and TV roles, including Betty Rizzo in the 1978 film “Grease,” and First Lady Abbey Bartlet in “The West Wing.”

Channing made her stage debut in Boston, in a 1966 production of “The Investigation.” Her name first appeared in Variety on Feb. 25, 1970, when she was in a pair of Terrence McNally one-acts in New York. Later, she was a chorus member and understudy in the musical “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and was rewarded with the lead female role in 1973. Since then, her honors include an Oscar nomination for “Six Degrees of Separation” and 13 Emmy nominations, including two wins.

Was there a turning point in your stage career?

There was a time during “Two Gentlemen of Verona” when I was sitting in the chorus and going to understudy rehearsals, just thinking my life was truly over — or at least my career. But I got a call that [star] Diana Davila wasn’t feeling well; she literally gave me the chance I needed, because my contract was nearly up. I went on, and the next day I got a stand-by contract. Months later, I left to try to find my fortunes again, and they rang me and asked if I wanted to perform [in the play] for two weeks around Christmas. Then, even later, they asked me to join the national company. I went, and it was a huge success in Los Angeles and San Francisco. And then I got a role in a TV movie called “The Girl Most Likely To…,” and that led to everything.

Did you have any mentors?

I wish I had. I never had a mentor figure; I didn’t even have training. Everybody else had gone to drama school. I had experience at a theater company in Boston under David Wheeler. Frankly, the mentors were the people who were nice enough to give me a job so I could keep doing what I was doing.

You had to work from your own instincts?

I think so; I think we all do, ultimately. After all, you can have a good mentor or a bad mentor; people can give you bad advice. You always hear, ‘Never give up.’ But I say, ‘Don’t be afraid to give up if you have to.’ There’s no shame in figuring out something that works, especially in the gig economy we’re living in right now. Plan B isn’t a bad thing, or C or D.

What was it like transitioning to television and movies?

When I started doing those roles, I really threw myself into them. When we were shooting “The Fortune,” I was going to my car and Warren Beatty followed me to the parking lot. Even though we’d only shot for a couple of days, he looked at me with knitted brows and gave me some advice. He said I had to pace myself. And I just couldn’t — I was so nervous that I’d blow it. I had this role opposite him and Jack Nicholson! I was so hungry and so thrilled about this job that I could’ve done take 55 if I had to. But I took his advice to heart. He still thought I was this odd creature — and I was.

How did it feel to be in a project with that kind of star power?

It was terrifying. I was so terrified I had to pretend I was another person who wasn’t terrified. I was a fan and wanted to ask for their autographs. But when we got down to it, we were basically just three people working together. They treated me totally as an equal professionally although I had no relationship with them personally. But to me, they were from this other planet, this show business planet. And the director, Mike Nichols, was amazing and I was, and still am, so grateful, that he took that chance on me.

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