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That’s Just Tandy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jessica Tandy was standing in the middle of the living room of a spacious artist’s loft in downtown Los Angeles, waiting to shoot her next scene in “The Story Lady.” Oblivious to the bustle of a crew moving props, lights and cameras, Tandy shoved her hands into the pockets of her skirt and began to pace slowly back and forth as she went over her lines.

Nothing could drive the award-winning actress to distraction, not even the eyes of others on the set, admirers who wanted to watch and learn from a living legend.

Bob Zeschin, who wrote “The Story Lady,” said he felt like a kid again listening to Tandy read the children’s stories that are an integral part of the NBC movie.

“During the first two-and-half days, we were filming the stories she reads throughout the show,” he said. “I just stood there like Tammy Faye Bakker with tears running down my eyes.

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“One of the actors playing one of the advertising people (was) here for five days and he said he learned more in five days watching her than 10 years of school and 10 years in the business. Everybody is acting as if this is something very special, which makes me feel real happy.”

The film’s co-star, Stephanie Zimbalist, also found watching Tandy a graduate course in acting.

“She is just heaven to work with,” she said. “I was just writing a letter to a friend and telling him about it. It is not so much her art, which is so evident with Jessica, but she has a grace and an ease and a sweet nature which is almost a package of another time. I am really happy the network gave me an opportunity to work with someone who clearly knows what she is doing.”

“The Story Lady” is Tandy’s first project since she won the best actress Oscar in 1990 for “Driving Miss Daisy.” Tandy had been set to film “Story Lady” last year, but production had to be postponed when the actress was diagnosed with cancer. With the cancer in remission--she won’t discuss her illness--Tandy looked fit, spry and sophisticated in her boots, mid-calf skirt and fashionable blouse. Still, the cast and crew were treating Tandy with lots of TLC and went to great lengths to make certain she was not overworked during the hectic shooting schedule.

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Tandy is among the growing list of popular movie actors, including Glenn Close, Richard Dreyfuss and Jessica Lange, who are doing projects for the small screen. Tandy was quite drawn to “Story Lady.”

“I am very sympathetic about this whole project,” she said, sitting on an antique chair in the living room. “I think it has sort of real human qualities and, knock on wood, won’t offend anybody. I am all for that.”

Executive producer Margery Nelson couldn’t believe her luck when Tandy agreed to do the movie. “I am thrilled we got an actress who is also right for the part,” she said. “In television, the two don’t always mesh. What happens is that you need a name, and the name is not always necessarily the best person. We wanted someone people wanted to see at Christmas.”

“Story Lady” is a holiday tale that finds Tandy playing a widow who moves in with her daughter (real-life offspring Tandy Cronyn) and son-in-law (Richard Masur). Eager to keep busy, she tries unsuccessfully to do volunteer work. She then hits upon the idea of producing a children’s story hour on public-access TV. After the show becomes a hit, a young advertising executive (Zimbalist) signs her to star in a sleek new network show.

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“Once it gets big time, it all gets spoiled,” Tandy said. “It is so elaborate and the heart of it has gone out. I find it a very believable story.”

“The story really follows the relationship between her and my daughter,” Zimbalist said. “She comes into our lives and transforms us and has a focus on what is most important in life.” Along the way, Zimbalist’s character is taught a lesson about the spirit and meaning of Christmas.

The movie also shows the need for the elderly to be in contact with younger people. “It seems an awful pity to me that when people get old they are very often put in places which are full of old people,” said Tandy, 82. “We don’t have that extended family as we used to. They are not exposed to people of all ages where they have so much to give and so much to take.

“I know, for instance, when I am working I have far more energy than if I am home alone. I stopped working this past year for quite a long time and I had to recover, but I found as soon as I got my strength back and came to work, immediately I had more energy.”

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Tandy complained about the lack of good roles for women, especially actresses her age.

“I think my roles in ‘Foxfire,’ (for which she won both a Tony and an Emmy as a strong-willed mountain woman) and ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ were terrific,” Tandy said. “The other ones (in the “Cocoon” films), were not. They were peripheral. The men had much more to do with the rejuvenation process than the women.”

As Zimbalist said: “By the time you get to the seasoning of Jessica Tandy, they are not writing roles for those people. They write a scene here and two lines there. These people shouldn’t be relegated to shelves; they should be allowed to work.”

With the Oscar under her belt, work does come Tandy’s way. After wrapping “Story Lady,” she went off to shoot “Fried Green Tomatoes,” a warm-hearted drama with Kathy Bates that is set to open Dec. 27, and “Used People,” with Shirley MacLaine, scheduled for release next year.

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The British-born Tandy has been a working actress for more than six decades, making her London stage debut in 1929 in “The Rumor.” She came to Broadway in the 1930s. In 1947 she originated the role--receiving her first of three Tonys--of the fragile Blanche DuBois opposite a newcomer named Marlon Brando in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Even when Tandy was young, finding decent film roles was a problem. Her career languished when she accompanied her husband and frequent co-star, Hume Cronyn, to Hollywood when they married in 1942. She appeared in forgettable parts in a a handful of movies in the 1940s, starring opposite Cronyn in “The Seventh Cross” and “The Green Years.”

“I was very happy in my life because I had two new children (her eldest child, Susan, is by first husband, actor Jack Hawkins) at that time, but not happy at all in my career,” she said. "(After) having done really star parts in England, I began to wonder if I could really act because they weren’t giving me anything to do that was all that fascinating.”

Cronyn, she said, knew she was frustrated in Hollywood and decided to change her status. He directed her in a one-woman show, “Portrait of a Madonna,” at the old Actors’ Lab, which was behind Schwabs drugstore in Hollywood. Tandy later repeated the performance on TV in 1948. “‘He only did that because he thought I needed something I could get my teeth into,” she said. “If I had never done that I never would have done ‘Streetcar.’ It was quite a sensation.”

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After “Streetcar” she kept working on Broadway with and without Cronyn. Hollywood didn’t beckon until she was 76, when she teamed with her husband (among others) in the 1985 box-office hit “Cocoon.”

Tandy said she and Cronyn, who have not acted together since “Cocoon: The Return” in 1988, have talked about doing a play together. “I think we would if there is something we had to do or bust,” she said. “But if it is a success, you have a long sentence because neither one of us (will) quit after six seeks. So it is a question of how much of your energies can stand it. He just had his 80th birthday and I am 82. There comes a time when your energies are not the same.”

“The Story Lady” airs Monday at 9 p.m. on NBC.


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