TV-film star Holland Taylor turned playwright to honor a Texas political star

Actress Holland Taylor was attending a luncheon hosted by her friend Liz Smith at a restaurant in New York one afternoon a long time ago when all of a sudden, a hush befell the room. She looked up and saw former Texas Governor Ann Richards, with her unmistakable head of white hair, enter. “She came in — and this was a star,Taylor remembers. “It could have been (Mick) Jagger. I remember being so intimidated.”

Richards sat at Taylor’s table and the two hit it off, Richards even laughing at some of Taylor’s jokes and stories. When Richards unexpectedly passed away years later, in 2006, Taylor found herself deeply mournful, even though they had only met once.

I realized she meant something to me in a deep way, a poetic connection to all that I believe is good and wonderful about life and what people can be for themselves and their country,” Taylor says. “I simply had to funnel it into a creative deed.”

Said project turned out to be the one-woman play Ann, in which Taylor plays the charismatic and outspoken leader. After engagements in several cities, the production made its Broadway debut at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater in 2013 and earned Taylor a Tony Award for nomination Lead Actress in a Play. It also aired on PBS as part of the network’s “Great Performances” series. Ann has played around the country and next week makes its Georgia bow at ART Station, opening Thursday for a run through July 3, with veteran local actress Clarinda Ross tackling the lead role.

Atlanta actress Clarinda Ross stars as Ann Richards in the production of “Ann” at Stone Mountain’s ART Station through July 3.

Known for roles in TV series including Two and a Half Men, The Practice and The Chair, countless film appearances and her dry wit and grace, Taylor is everything you’d expect her to be in a recent weekend phone call. She’s at once charming, funny, warm, genuine and deeply passionate about the play and its titular subject.

Once she determined how it was that she wanted to remember Richards, she got to work. She had never written a play before and knew she had to do a lot of research. Turning down work to make it the best she could, she was clear about what she wanted Ann to be.

This is not a biography. I wanted to understand her persona. That was the subject of the play — not her life but who she was, what it was about her that made people so attracted, so inspired and loyal to her. She was a real leader by nature.”

Richards also was old school. To Taylor, the governor was exactly what she said she was — someone who felt she could make life better for people. “Her legacy is simple: If you aren’t honest you can’t be an honest politician. Also, not to be sexist, but there was a time when men thought it was a perfectly legitimate career to have to be powerful and make money and establish yourself for a future career in other areas, whereas in her case, it was the desire to be a public servant. Her life and quest and her motivation to be in politics was all about helping society be more fair.”

People often ask Taylor how they think Richards would react to today’s unpredictable political arena. Taylor herself has a hard time believing some of what has gone on of late in the country and thinks Richards, too, would be similarly surprised but able to handle it better. “Ann was a very big figure and she had an overview of everything. She thought like a general, tactfully, and saw the larger possibilities. I am sure she’d see this from a very long lens. I don’t think she’d feel as helpless and wounded as a lot of us do by what is going on.”

Taylor, 79, got her start in theater in New York before taking the role of Denise Cavanaugh in the soap opera The Edge of Night. Her agent Stella Adler later suggested she take a role in the sitcom Bosom Buddies with Tom Hanks, which accelerated her career. From there roles became frequent. Besides her TV appearances, she has also been seen in films such as Legally Blonde and Romancing the Stone, playing Kathleen Turner’s publisher and assessing men at a bar. (“Loser, loser . . . major loser,” her character famously equipped.)

The actress won a 1999 Emmy Award for her role as Judge Roberta Kittleson in The Practice and dropped the word “overnight” when she went onstage, a playful observation about the fact that she had been a working actress for a long time. “It was very surprising to win (Nancy Marchand of The Sopranos was considered the favorite), and I got the impulse to say that literally as I was walking up. . . . It popped in my head, but I did wonder if (the audience) would get it. There was a pause, but then a large roar.”

Taylor also received four Emmy nominations for her work as tough-as-nails mother Evelyn Harper in Two and a Half Men.

Taylor acted alongside Sandra Oh (left) in the academia-set Netflix series “The Chair” and enjoyed playing a character who didn’t worry so much over her appearance.

She’s especially liked being part of Netflix’s recent The Chair, in which she plays Joan Hambling. “It was an opportunity to do something I had never done before and that was to not give a [expletive] about my appearance,” she says with a laugh. “That character has given all of that up by now in her life; she just puts on lipstick. She doesn’t do her hair, and it was liberating. I am used to playing characters who are correct and polite, a colder kind of person. It was great to do the polar opposite.”

Taylor will also return to her role in the third season of Apple TV+’s The Morning Show and is finishing up a movie with Sandra Oh and Awkwafina.

In 2015, she and actress Sarah Paulson announced they were in a relationship together. “I didn’t make a decision; I had become a more public person and I was just living my life. It was clear that’s who I was seeing.”

For all the acclaim she has received throughout her career, she scoffs at the notice that she is iconic, though a lot of folks would disagree with her.

Earlier this year, Taylor returned to the role of Ann Richards for the play’s West Coast premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse. Ann was a milestone for the actress and dominated a decade of her life, but this was her final appearance. She ended the run proud of the show and very happy with her performance.

When I did it at Kennedy Center, I was busy with other things. I also had to do virtually all the press. I was no spring chicken either — I was 70. [With the Pasadena run,] I was able to, for the first time, focus on the acting. I had written and created the script and I knew why everything was there, but in New York, I didn’t feel it was a deep performance. I finally had the time to ponder it from an acting point of view. It was clearer and more dynamic. I walked off (after one performance) and said I was satisfied — and I never say that walking off the stage.”

::

Jim Farmer covers theater and film for ArtsATL. A graduate of the University of Georgia, he has written about the arts for 30-plus years. Jim is the festival director of Out on Film, Atlanta’s LGBTQ film festival. He lives in Avondale Estates with his husband, Craig, and dog Douglas.

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