Times Staff Writer

The hair--short, with streaks of gray--is plain. The voice--diction-perfect--is set off by an occasional, unexpected lilt, an octave or so higher. The clothes--timeless dresses and a triple strand of choker pearls, spiced with a dash of big hats and long foxtails--are mostly simple.

The actress is wearing special makeup to hide her own schoolgirl English-roses complexion. She is Lee Remick playing Eleanor Roosevelt in a one-woman, one-hour KCET/Taper Media Enterprises co-production of “Eleanor--In Her Own Words: A Tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt.” The program, limited locally for the moment to KCET, will air Friday at 9 p.m. with a repeat performance at the same hour next Wednesday.

Lee Remick as Eleanor Roosevelt?

“I chose to play her from the inside out,” says Remick.

How she looked was not the point, either of Roosevelt’s life or of the production, Remick explained, sipping afternoon tea recently in her Brentwood home. Outside, an array of flowers provided a lush spray of color; indoors, a pot of vegetable soup simmered on the stove. Gardening and cooking are Remick’s special pleasures: “I like weeding and pruning and digging. It’s like making bread; it’s very satisfying.


“So many people would say to me, ‘What? You’re going to play Eleanor Roosevelt? ‘ And I said, ‘Yes, I am. Don’t be silly.’ I mean she wasn’t about what she looked like. She was about passions and commitments, and that’s basically what we were dealing with. . . . “

Remick as well as the producers wanted to convey “the essence” rather than “the detail” of Roosevelt, to use makeup to create lines and shadows, while at the same time avoiding any sort of prosthetic devices. “I didn’t want me to look like me, and yet I didn’t want to go through a whole thing with false buck teeth. . . .

“Some photographs of her when she was first married are quite wonderful. Her big-collar hats and her hands. She had beautiful hands. Wonderful, great, long, beautiful hands. . . . “

“Eleanor: In Her Own Words” was culled from three of the former First Lady’s autobiographies--”This Is My Story” (1937), “This I Remember” (1949) and “On My Own” (1958)--from press conferences and radio transcripts during her 12 years in the White House and from a quarter-century’s worth of letters and columns in magazines and newspapers, including the Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s and the New York Post. Her last column appeared shortly before her death in 1962.

Originally done in a longer version at the Itchey Foot, the Mark Taper Forum’s literary cabaret, the production ran for six weeks in the fall of 1984. Russell Vandenbroucke, who had been the Taper’s literary manager, wrote the original script, which he later adapted for television.

KCET producer Julian Fowles saw the cabaret production (with Alice Hirson as Roosevelt) and wanted to adapt it. “The centennial of her (Roosevelt’s) birth was coming in 1985, which was also the 40th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, which she is probably best known for. . . . “

For an hour of prime time, both Fowles and Judith Rutherford James, a director of Taper Media Enterprises who became co-producer of “Eleanor,” desired a “name.” Fowles drew up a short list of actors to play Roosevelt, including Remick, Ellen Burstyn, Louise Fletcher and Jane Alexander, who had starred in the 1976 and 1977 “Eleanor and Franklin” television specials.

James wanted Remick from the start. “I was looking for that lady ,” said James, referring to an elegance of bearing as well as character. “When Lee looks at you, you feel you’re the only person in the room. . . . We made up a list, we looked at the availables and waited for her (Remick’s) answer.”

“I don’t know whose idea it was,” Remick noted, “but I was (at home) on the Cape (Cod) at the time the material was sent to me from my agent, with a note from Judy James. And I remember thinking, ‘Weird idea.’ Because Eleanor Roosevelt is a character who it would never enter my mind I would play. It’s that simple. It never occurred to me, and then I read this wonderful material, and a great deal of work was done on it, of course. . . .

“And,” she smiled, “because it was a slightly off-the-wall thing for me to do. . . .

“This woman is too wonderful to not play,” Remick said, “and I know she’s been played before, by many and well, beautifully--in a different-shaped piece of material, however. It was this one-woman thing that intrigued me. I’ve never done that before. So I said yes.

The fact that Jane Alexander had appeared as Eleanor Roosevelt in 1976 and 1977; that Jean Stapleton starred in the title role in “Eleanor: First Lady of the World” for CBS-TV in 1982, and that Greer Garson also played the young-married Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1960 movie (adapted from the play) “Sunrise at Campobello” didn’t faze Remick a bit.

With that attitude, “you’d never play anything,” Remick asserted. “Actors who play Hamlet don’t think they won’t play it because they’re not John Gielgud!”

Growing up in Boston and New York in an upper-middle-class Republican household, Remick, who was born in 1935 during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s third year in office, didn’t hear much about Eleanor Roosevelt. “I remember only what I saw in the papers. I did not come from a heavily, how do you say, pro-Roosevelt family. I didn’t grow up in an atmosphere of. . . I suppose they just ignored her.”

Remick attended the elite Miss Hewitt’s in New York from the third grade through high school graduation, “by which time I was very much aware of what I wanted to do. I was studying ballet, very seriously, since I was 8. When I was 16 or 17, my first job was in stock on the Cape,” where her family had a summer home. “I soon became more interested in the acting aspect of things rather than dance.”

She entered Barnard, to be close to the theater world. “My father (a business executive), my mother (an occasional actress) both wanted me to go off to Vassar or Wellesley, whatever--to do the right thing. I wanted very much to go to college, but I wanted to be in New York so that I could continue working in voice, in television and theater.”

She stayed only three months “because I found it was not possible to carry a full load of college courses plus rehearse in theaters here and there.” Remick no longer remembers what role it was that took her out of college.

She emerged at the beginning of television’s golden era. Her film career also blossomed in the late ‘50s, starting in 1957 with the role of a sexy drum majorette in “A Face in the Crowd.” In 1958 she had a bigger role as Tony Franciosa’s wife in “The Long Hot Summer” and the year after that played the presumed rape victim in “Anatomy of a Murder.”

She won an Oscar nomination in 1962 in the role of Jack Lemmon’s suffering, alcoholic wife in “Days of Wine and Roses.” “It was such a glorious role,” Remick said. “Some wait a lifetime for it.”

Remick is probably as equally well known for her portrayal of the title role in “Jennie,” the seven-part series for PBS in 1979 based on the life of Winston Churchill’s American-born mother. It was filmed in England, where Remick had made her home for more than a decade. “In L.A. you’d be lucky to get eight weeks to do seven shows in, 10 weeks maybe. The pace was just wonderful, so beautifully put together, and to play a woman like that, from 18 to 67, was a treat. You don’t often get that opportunity.

“I’ve done a lot,” she said of her television work. “And I adored ‘Ike’ because I loved playing that lady (his driver Kay Summersby). She was terrific. Sharp and smart and crackling and funny and brilliant, and desperately in love with a man who didn’t treat her very well. . . . “

Remick’s joy, her late-found career passion, is singing. Had she come along a decade or so earlier, she believes she would have done a lot more of American musical theater. As it was, she had a taste of it in “Anyone Can Whistle.”

More recently, she was one of the four principals in the recent RCA Records concert staging of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies,” which is scheduled to be broadcast soon as a PBS “Great Performances” special. “Follies in Concert” will air March 14 at 9:05 p.m. and March 16 at 4:05 p.m. during KCET’s “Festival ‘86” fund-raising campaign.

Remick’s private life revolves around Kip Gowan, her producer/director husband whom she met in the late ‘60s, when they were doing a movie together in Brussels called “The Hard Contract.” The attraction was “instantaneous, I can tell you that,” she laughs. “It was one of those, ‘Hello’ . . . ‘Uh-huh’ . . . It didn’t take long. Talk about romantic. We flipped around Europe for 3 1/2 months making that movie. . . . “

She has two grown children by a previous marriage--Kate Colleran, 27, is training on the business side of restaurants in New York, and Matthew, 24, is working here for a special-effects company.

“I knew of her (Roosevelt’s) compassion and her forward-thinking,” Remick said, “but I only knew it second-hand, third-hand, more by reputation than by really reading about her life. Her farsightedness was just extraordinary. So many of the things she actually did, I was not aware of. I didn’t know about her trip to Russia, her interview with Khrushchev. . . . “

One of Remick’s favorite lines in the show occurs just near the end. It is Eleanor Roosevelt repeating the words of a Maine lobsterman describing her. Remick’s face lit up as she said in full down-home accent: “She weren’t stuck up, she weren’t dressed up, and she weren’t afeared to talk.”