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Show Business Life Is a Series of Cruises for Actress-Director Pat Carroll

Expect straight talk from Pat Carroll. It’s what you’ll get. “When I started working with this bunch of youngsters,” said the redoubtable actress, referring to her staging of Wendy Wasserstein’s “Uncommon Women and Others” (opening this weekend at the Melrose Theatre in Hollywood), “I don’t think a lot of them knew who the hell I was. It didn’t hurt my feelings--why should it? The only thing I take seriously is the work.”

She talks gleefully about a recent nosebleed (“We’re talking rivers of blood”) that prompted a visit to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “The front of my white shirt looked like I’d been in a gang knifing; my hair was matted from the ice packs. Later, my daughters told me there’d been two Latino fellows watching me.

“One of them said, ‘Isn’t that the lady from “She’s the Sheriff”?’

“The other one said, ‘Yeah, man, she’s got blood all over her. I wonder what happened?’

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“ ‘Maybe Suzanne Somers punched her out.’ ”

The Louisiana-born actress, who was educated in Catholic school, takes an equally unegotistic tack on the play.

“I feel older and experienced--in a good way,” she said of her young cast, “but I don’t feel older in terms of discovery. I think every time you start doing a play, it’s like a ship cruise. We all book passage together. And each sailing is never the same. It can be the same ports of call, the same boat, the same cabin. But the people make the difference. People always make the difference. Different personalities, different inputs. We’re all trying to discover this play at the same time.”

The play (last seen locally in 1981) was brought to the actress-director by her daughters, Kerry and Tara, as a potential family project.

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“It’s about five gals who were really tight in college; they’re meeting in a restaurant six years ater graduation--and they haven’t seen each other in all that time. It’s a memory play, so you can go any place you want, do anything you want. We flash back to their senior year, when they were on top of the hill, but knowing damn well that in a few months they were going out into the world and being freshmen again, starting at the bottom.”

What does Carroll bring to it?

“An eye, I hope,” she said. “Laughter. Perhaps some hope.” She shrugged. “Look, I don’t know that much. I’ve got instincts. I’ve got 40 years of experience that’s taught me some general rules. But each performance in the theater is another birthing. I can’t tell you the number of things I’ve discovered two months into a run. It’s the only kind of acting where you’ve got eight chances a week at bat--the chance to be awake, alive and aware every night. I love it.”

You can almost hear her champing at the bit. For an actress so recognizable from her hundreds of TV appearances, Carroll, 61, can’t wait to get back on the stage. The day after “Uncommon Women” closes, Carroll (who served as a civilian actress-technician during World War II--producing, writing and directing the Army’s shows) will trade in her director’s togs for a nun’s habit, reprising her role as the Mother Superior in a touring production of Dan Goggin’s “Nunsense"--"the most fun I ever had.”

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A similar high point came in the early ‘80s with her one-woman tribute, “Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein,” which Carroll performed around the country for five years.

“Doing that, I got to use everything I’d ever done,” she recalled with relish. “It was all in me: in my hands, in my bones. There wasn’t anything I wasn’t able to use. It was the only time in my career where I’ve thought, ‘I can quit now--because I know what it’s all about. It’s about compiling those stones, building whatever that ultimate edifice is.’ I could’ve hung up my gloves after that,” she chortled, “but I didn’t. ‘Cause I’m too curious about what’s around the corner.”

-- --

The acting bug bit early. As a child, Carroll went to the movies half a dozen times each week; at 13, she saw her first play. “And at 13 1/2, I knew I wanted to do it.” At 20, she headed for New York City and got her Equity card.

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“I looked like a cocker spaniel,” she said with a grin, “a bus-and-truck Patricia Neal. I also knew at 20 that I wasn’t an ingenue. And I knew I did comedy. I did stand-up in some chic New York clubs. It took a lot of chutzpah, belief in self. I don’t think I struck any of my contemporaries as being anything special. And nobody was writing young character people then. I always felt there wasn’t a path for me, that I was going to have to cut my own. So I just kept banging on doors.”

Though recognition--and a 1956 Emmy--came for her work opposite Sid Caesar on “The Danny Thomas Show,” Carroll swears that success never went to her head. “Apart from the work, there’s a separate identity,” she said, “the me I am at 3 in the morning, when no one’s around. My family is extremely important to me. So is the life of my mind. I’m an eternal seeker; my curiosity level is very high. I live on a street called Wonderland.”

It’s definitely a rosy picture--and financial security doesn’t hurt.

“I’m very grateful for TV,” Carroll said with a nod, “because it’s allowed me to do my theater. I’m very honest about the TV work; I try not to bite the hand that feeds me so nicely. Well, not too much.” In fact, it was TV money--contractually owed her for upcoming series work on the Ted Knight show, which was canceled when star Ted Knight died--that is financing this production. “The money just didn’t feel earned,” Carroll said briskly. “Doing this with it . . . well, Ted would’ve adored it.”

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She’s certainly loving it. Working with her daughters--the elder one producing, the younger one in the cast--"has just knocked me out,” Carroll said, beaming. “I will treasure this experience for the rest of my life.”

She does not take her success for granted. “I suppose I’m one of the fortunates. I know it’s rare. Mind you, we’re not talking about great stardom here. But it has been 40 years of consistent work in every area: from nightclubs to Broadway to any kind of stock, musicals and legit, dinner theater, regional theater, one-person shows. In the last three years, I’ve started doing cartoon series. Now I’m doing a voice-over for a fully animated Disney film. I play the mean sea witch, a squid called Ursula.”

As for future plans, “I really want to play Falstaff in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor.’ ” I know it sounds cocky. But I think I could pull it off. And it’d be a hoot .”


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