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‘Russian Doll’ Star Elizabeth Ashley on Her Early Stage Career

The force of nature born Elizabeth Ann Cole, and rechristened Elizabeth Ashley for stage and screen of the late 1950s, first drew the attention of critics and fans with her work in New York theater, garnering an early-career Tony Award for her portrayal of Mollie in the Broadway production of “Take Her, She’s Mine” in 1961.

Ashley’s big-screen debut in 1964, the hit film adaptation of Harold Robbins’ mega-best-seller “The Carpetbaggers,” earned her a Golden Globe supporting actress nomination and led to decades of work on screens big and small, including an Emmy Award-nominated turn in the Burt Reynolds ’90s comedy series “Evening Shade.”

More recently, Ashley appeared in the hit film comedy “Ocean’s 8” and has lit up the Netflix mind-twister “Russian Doll” as Natasha Lyonne’s unconventional therapist. Her first time in Variety was 60 years ago, when she appeared in a critically trounced 1959 summer stock production of noted black actor-playwright-novelist Bill Gunn’s “Marcus in the High Grass.”

You were still a teenager when you left your home state of Louisiana and hit Manhattan.

Nobody was ever luckier straight out of the gate. I got every break you could get. On the plane to New York I met a gentleman who’d been winning the quiz show “The $64,000 Question” every week, and he invited me to sit in the audience. It was like my second day in New York City and I sat in the audience and the cameraman kept cutting to close-ups of me! My mother’s friends back in Louisiana called her and said “Liz is on TV!”

Being young, gifted and in New York showbiz in the late-’50s and early-’60s sounds pretty exciting.

I waited tables and then I worked as a designer’s model for Jonathan Logan. Keep in mind that being a designer’s model was different than being a runway model. It was more like being a human mannequin. It was the bottom of the food chain. But it paid me enough to live at the YWCA.

But what about the bright lights of New York?

I saw Bob Dylan on what I think might have been his first night at Gerde’s Folk City. 

So you were a music fan. Louisiana in the 1950s produced some great music acts.

Fats Domino played my high school graduation party. After that, it was a fast run down Airline Highway from Baton Rouge to New Orleans in a souped-up ’55 Merc. The Louisiana Bayou Country was hardly even in America. It was the Jim Crow South, but it was kind of different there. They’d put on a show in a big dirigible hangar — the dancers in the middle — and it was $2 to dance, but you could stand and drink for free. I saw Bo Diddley and Little Richard at those Louisiana roadhouses.

But New York City lived up to your dreams?

The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre was my home. I was there all day, every day. This is the place where Sandy Meisner was teaching acting and Martha Graham taught dance. Meisner never believed in auditions. He had no interest in making sure actors were “unlearning” bad habits. I was there the same time as James Caan, Brenda Vaccaro, Dabney Coleman. To give you an example of the caliber of the people at the Playhouse, Sydney Pollack was a gofer when I was there!

The competition sounds daunting and the training sounds rigorous.

To get in, you had to agree you could live in New York City from September to May without working, so you lied and worked at night. I was given a scholarship and went to work on everything I could do. We used to do scenes, and we had agents from MCA and William Morris invited to come and see us. I did a scene from “The Crucible” that got me a lot of attention. I’ve always been good at the going nuts part. 

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