Eye on the Emmys: An Appreciation: Blythe’s Enduring Spirit

Aug 15, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Thirty-two years ago TelevisionWeek Editor Alex Ben Block first interviewed Blythe Danner. At the time she was starring in a short-lived TV series based on the movie “Adam’s Rib.” In recognition of her multiple Emmy nominations this year, he recently interviewed her again. Following is his first-person report and commentary on Ms. Danner’s extraordinary life and the talent she has shared with us all.

Blythe Danner surprised me when she said she was feeling a little guilty about her nearly unprecedented achievement of earning a trio of Emmy nominations.

I had called the elegant, genteel blond actress with the cultivated aristocratic demeanor to congratulate her on being only the second person in Emmy history to receive three nominations for acting roles in the same year. The other was Glenda Jackson in 1972, who took home two of three statues.

Ms. Danner has certainly earned the honors. But she has always been one of those working actors who can get lost in a role, so the consistent excellence of her work has all too often been overlooked. She has earned a degree of fame but often appears in projects like the hit 2004 movie “Meet the Fockers,” where bigger box office names get most of the attention.

That is all right with her. Ms. Danner is more at ease being part of an ensemble than the center of attention. And her heart goes out to the thousands of actors who spend so much time grasping for any opportunity, let alone the meaty dramatic and comedy roles she played this year.

“I really do feel a bit guilty about getting three nominations in one year, because I do think there are so many extraordinary actors,” Ms. Danner said. “I think any good actor who hangs in there deserves an award. It’s keeping at it and loving it as much as we do. There’s tremendous admiration for other actors in our business.”

Asked to discuss her nominated roles, she talks first about who starred and directed, and then about how much fun she had doing the part. She first mentioned “Huff,” the Showtime series starring Hank Azaria, in which she plays Isabelle “Izzy” Huffstodt.

Then she laughs as she talks about doing guest roles over the past four seasons as Marilyn Truman, the mother of Eric McCormack’s character on “Will & Grace.”

And she has great enthusiasm when she recalls her role in the made-for-TV movie “Back When We Were Grownups,” a “Hallmark Hall of Fame” presentation based on an Anne Tyler novel about a woman in her fifties who discovers that she has turned into the wrong person.

Ms. Danner is comfortable in the company of actors. She has spent parts of five decades reveling in being one of them, in theater and movies and on television. “Even though there is a lot of competition [for roles],” she said, “if you go to some of these events where actors are all together, there’s a tremendous amount of admiration and respect for other actors.”

One young performer who learned the love of acting from Ms. Danner is her daughter, Academy Award winner Gwyneth Paltrow. Mother and daughter have acted together twice, in the 2003 movie “Sylvia” and the 1992 miniseries “Cruel Doubt.”

While thrilled with her daughter’s accomplishments as an actress and a wife and as mother of her beloved granddaughter Apple, Ms. Danner frets about the craziness of the celebrity culture. “I’ve never had to contend with it, really,” she said. “I see it through my daughter’s eyes, and I think it’s pretty horrific. It’s pretty frightening.

“As she has said to me many times, ‘Mom, I didn’t set out to be a movie star, you know.’ I know. I think what’s really upsetting is the paparazzi part of it. … We were with the baby on the weekend and they just don’t care whether you’re with family or not. That’s really tough.”

Ms. Paltrow is the older of Ms. Danner’s two children with the late Bruce Paltrow, the great love of Ms. Danner’s life. He was an eight-time Emmy nominee as a producer, director and writer on such classic shows as “St. Elsewhere,” “Homicide: Life on the Street” and the pioneering 1970s urban drama “The White Shadow.” He died in 2002.

“He always spoke to the person who swept out the stages exactly as he spoke to the heads of networks,” Ms. Danner recalled. “He was a great man. The first year that the Directors Guild gave the Diversity Award, he won for all those people he had helped. … A lot of actors still walk up to me and say Bruce did more for minorities and women than anyone in this town.”

When she’s not acting, Ms. Danner’s other great passion is the environment, especially recycling and conservation. Some of it dates to her youth, growing up in bucolic Bucks County, Pa., where her father was a banker who in his youth had dreamed of a career as a singer. Ms. Danner attended a private Quaker day school, spent a year after high school in Germany and graduated from Bard College in 1965 with a degree in drama.

After graduation she joined a repertory theater in Boston and soon headed to New York to work in theater. She met her husband when she auditioned for a play and married him nine months later, in 1969.

Her career breakthrough came a year later when she won a Tony as best supporting actress in the drama “Butterflies Are Free.” However, Ms. Danner’s use of a false voice in that role for a year permanently damaged her vocal cords, which created her distinctive husky voice.

That success brought her to the attention of Hollywood, where Ms. Danner booked numerous TV roles and films, including “1776.” She remained in demand in the movies into the late 1970s, when she took time off to raise her family. “Bruce and I had a pact,” she recalled. “If one of us was working, one of us wasn’t, so one of us would be here [with the children] all the time. … A lot of times good roles came along when I didn’t have a chance to go. I was really devoted to staying home.”

By the 1990s, with her children grown, Ms. Danner was once again in demand. She is still full of enthusiasm for each role and brings real joy to the process, which comes across on the screen.

“We [actors] love to play,” she said. “It is playing, you know, acting and reacting. I always said I could never do a one-woman show because to me acting is reacting. I always admire the people who can do it. But it’s the thrill of playing that’s always been the appeal to me.”

And for those lucky enough to watch Blythe Danner practice her craft on stage and screen over four decades, that appeal has long been obvious.