Monday, October 21, 2019

An Interview with Constance Towers

Born in Whitefish, Montana, Constance Towers became interested in show business in the first grade—when talent scouts visited her schools looking for young radio performers. She appeared in radio plays as a child and later studied music at the Juilliard School in New York City. Constance Towers made her film debut in the 1955 Blake Edwards comedy Bring Your Smile Along. She subsequently appeared in major motion pictures such as The Horse Soldiers (1959), Sergeant Rutledge (1960), The Naked Kiss (1964), and Fate Is the Hunter (1964). She has acted alongside actors such as John Wayne, William Holden, Glenn Ford, and Raymond Burr. Constance Towers also gained acclaim working on Broadway and on television. Her stage roles include a revival of The King and I with Yul Brynner. On television, she has won numerous awards for her performances in the daytime dramas Capitol, CBS Daytime 90, and General Hospital. Ms. Towers married actor and former U.S. ambassador to Mexico John Gavin in 1974; they remained together until his death in 2018. Constance Towers has been passionately involved in many charities, to include the Children’s Bureau of California, the National Health Foundation, and the Blue Ribbon of the Los Angeles Music Center.

Café:  You worked with two of the greatest auteurs of American cinema: John Ford and Samuel Fuller. How would you describe your experiences with each of them?

The Horse Soldiers with John Wayne.
Constance Towers:  The experiences were very different. Both were gentlemen, but John Ford was the epitome of being a gentleman until you really got to know him and then his sense of humor came through. He was bawdy in his own way. Sammy Fuller was totally uninhibited and so much fun because he communicated on a raw level. He really knew how to find the right words to help you find where you were trying to go emotionally as an actor. And because he was the writer, he knew the intent of the writing. Because he was the director, he knew what he wanted to bring out of the actor. He just understood the complete arc of what he had written. That was a treasure. As I said, he was totally uninhibited so he had a way of reaching those children in The Naked Kiss. He sat on the floor and just became a kid and worked with them. Both John Ford and Sammy were great directors in their own way. John Ford was a communicator on a different level. He certainly knew what he wanted from his actors and sometimes played a trick on an actor to get just the right emotion. There's the famous story of Victor McLaglen in The Informer, when he took him out and got him drunk the night before his big scene. The next morning, McLaglen sat down, found himself in front of the camera, and said: "Oh, my god." And then he gave an Academy Award performance. So, John Ford and Sammy Fuller were very different, but both were brilliant and great artists in their own way.

Café:  Our favorite of your movies is Samuel Fuller's The Naked Kiss and you recently discussed it at the Niagara Falls International Film Festival. What are some of your memories of starring in that cult classic?

In Samuel Fuller's The Naked Kiss.
Constance Towers:  Sam got truly honest performances out of the children, creating some of the most charming and touching moments in film. It was hard work. We did it in 21 days. It was a lot of filming and a lot of emotion to cover in that short time. I have great memories of working with Sam, because he was this wonderful director who communicated with you--and sometimes shocked you. If he felt he didn't have everyone's attention on the set, he shot off a gun he had. The bullets were blanks, of course, but can you imagine that today? Back then, you could do it without people leaving the studio and running back down the street. He had a way of communicating with everybody on a very human level, giving approval to you on what you were doing. It was a very enjoyable experience.

Café:  What was your reaction when you first read the script?

Constance Towers:  I sat and read the script with Sam and he explained every scene as we came to it. It was a different experience because I could discuss it with the director and the writer. As you envisioned each scene as an actor, he was there to help explain anything you didn't understand. I was concerned about the subject matter because child molestation was not a buzzword at that time. It was a whispered and dark secret that people were aware of, but unwilling to talk about it. Sam Fuller was very courageous. You've seen all of his movies and you know the subject matter of his films has a strong moral and message to it. Certainly, The Naked Kiss had a strong message. Today, child molestation and pedophilia are something that people readily talk about. It's on the front page of our papers practically every day, but it was not back then.

Café:  You guest-starred on Perry Mason five times. We’ve interviewed other actresses (e.g., Julie Adams, Jacqueline Scott, Ruta Lee) who enjoyed their time on that series and spoke highly of producer Gail Patrick. Was your experience similar?

With Raymond Burr in
"The Case of the Ugly Duckling."
Constance Towers:  I loved it. I had such fun on that show. Gail Patrick was a wonderful lady, such an intelligent woman. I'd have to go back and research to be sure, but I think she was one of the first female producers of successful TV series. Raymond Burr was intelligent and such a good actor.  Working with him was a handful, though, because he was so much fun. One of the stories about him is that he was having abdominal surgery around Christmas time. So, the nurses prepared him for the operation, which involved shaving the area. They got him all ready for the operation, sedated him, and sent him into the operating room. When they removed the sheet, printed across his stomach were the words: "Do not open until Christmas." He had this sense of humor that people weren't aware of because Perry Mason was very serious. Working with him was just a joy because he was such fun and was a brilliant actor.

Café:  How did you come to be cast in the 1977-78 Broadway revival of The King and I with Yul Brynner?

With Lillian Gish in Anya.
Constance Towers:  My career started in New York and I went back there after doing The Horse SoldiersThe Naked Kiss, and other films. I went there at the request of Edwin Lester, who was the director of the Civic Light Opera in Los Angeles. He thought I was right for the lead in the stage musical Anya, which was the play Anastasia set to the music of Rachmaninoff. I opened in it, but unfortunately there was a newspaper strike at the time and they were building the subway on Sixth Avenue near the Ziegfeld Theatre. So, we opened under a lot of problems at Christmas time. Frank Loesser, who was the producer of Anya, withdrew, so a golfing friend of George Abbott's--the great Mr. Abbott, the director--took over as producer. So, the show lacked a certain amount of support, even though Hal Prince was sitting there during rehearsals, helping Mr. Abbott. We were open for just three weeks, but I was fortunate that Richard Rodgers saw Anya and took me under his wing and cast me in his production of Show Boat at Lincoln Center in New York that summer. I just had one of those great experiences playing Julie, which was the Helen Morgan role. I sang the song "Bill" and had standing ovations every night, which was a great thrill. I continued to work for Richard Rodgers. I probably did more of The Sound of Music around the country for Mr. Rodgers than I did The King and I. Anyway, when they were casting The King and I revival with Yul Brynner, Mr. Rodgers called and asked if I would play Mrs. Anna and, of course, I said yes.

Café:  You recently reprised your role of Helena Cassadine for a couple of flashback episodes of General Hospital. You’ve made numerous appearances over the last 20 years as GH’s most famous villain. Why do you think Helena remains so popular?

As Helena Cassadine.
Constance Towers:  It's very interesting. When I first took the role, I thought: "Oh, what have I just done?" This is the villain of all villainesses and people hate the villain. I always played characters who were as pure as driven snow. Maybe they ended up on Perry Mason as the one who did it, but the least suspected of all characters. Suddenly, here was a character who was a magic marker villainess, over-the-top evil, and the richest woman in the world. Other actors didn't want to have a scene with me, because when I left their office, they were dead! So, I thought what am I doing to myself. But the character proved to be popular. People walk up to me wherever I go and say: "I just love to hate you!" And I say: "You don't mind that I'm so evil?" And they say: "No. Do more. We love it." We found the vulnerability in Helena Cassadine, which makes people feel a little sorry for her. She loved her grandson, Prince Nikolas, and he was her Achilles heel. She made mistakes because of him. That made her human and people loved that. Now, even though I've died four times on the show and managed to come back, I'm appearing in everyone's nightmares. They wake up and think, oh god, I thought she was really here! The writers keep the character alive that way, which is a very clever device. I just love playing Helena and however they write her, it's great to go back and play the character.

Café:  You probably can’t tell us, but is Helena Cassadine really dead?

Constance Towers:  She's coming back and they always talk about her. One time, my grandson Nikolas pushed me off a cliff and killed me. I came back and one of the characters said: "How did you survive?" And Helena said: "Just one mighty burst of adrenaline." Then, she walked away. The audience just accepted that she was alive. As Helena, I once killed my son Stefan and had him thrown off the back of a yacht. He was totally drunk, having consumed poison and a lot of wine. About three weeks later, he walked in on me. The first line I had after seeing him was: "I knew I shouldn't have taught you how to swim." So, other characters come back just like Helena. Who knows what they have in store for her?

Café:  How did you and your late husband John Gavin meet?

Constance Towers and John Gavin.
Constance Towers:  His godfather was Jimmy McHugh, the songwriter. He wrote "Don't Blame Me," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," and many other classic songs. We met in New York when I was singing in the Plaza Hotel. He told me I should call him if I went to Southern California. So, when I came out to California, I did. He invited me to a big party and took me out on the porch and introduced me to John Gavin. My impression was that he was just an absolutely gorgeous man. But he was engaged to someone else and just went off into the sunset. About five years later, I was married and my then-husband said that a very good friend of his was coming to dinner and John Gavin walked in the door with his wife. We became good friends. When we both divorced, we started going out and then we married. That's how that happened.

Café:  You sang on albums such as The King and I and Constance Towers Sings to The Horse Soldiers.  Did you ever consider a concurrent career as a singer?

Constance Towers' first film.
Constance Towers:  Well, I always had a career as a singer. I started out in New York, singing in the Maisonette in the St. Regis Hotel, which was one of the two rooms one could appear in as a cabaret kind of singer. I also sang at the Plaza. Both were big venues. I've been in musicals on Broadway for ten years. I've always been concurrently a singer as well as an actress. I've only sung in films a few times. I did in my first film, Bring Your Smile Along, which was Blake Edwards' first directorial effort at Columbia Pictures. Surprisingly, the first song I sing in the movie is "Don't Blame Me," which was written by Jimmy McHugh. I had not met John Gavin yet. I sang a song named "Lorena," which was an old Civil War song, in The Horse Soldiers and it ended up on the cutting room floor. I also sang with the children in The Naked Kiss.

Café:  Didn't you also sing during one of your guest appearances on Perry Mason?

Constance Towers:  That's right. I forgot that. That was my first one hour show and they had me play a cabaret singer and I sang in it.

Café:  You have been actively involved with many charities over the years. How did Project Connie come about and what is its mission?

Constance Towers:  In 1985, my husband John Gavin was U.S. ambassador to Mexico. And Mexico had that very tragic, horrible earthquake. I went into the streets with the Red Cross and tried to help wherever I could. I was just confronted by so many children who were either orphaned or seriously injured. One boy, a soccer player, had lost both legs at the hip. I brought him to UCLA. His one dream was to walk again. People contributed money and the UCLA rehabilitation center worked to help him walk on prostheses, which proved to be impossible for him. But at least, we gave him the opportunity to try. The staff then gave him a really hotshot skateboard. He could put his body on that skateboard and zip around to wherever he wanted to go, giving him mobility. He's now an older man and has a computer business in Mexico City. We did a lot of rehabilitation like that. Another little boy lost both arms at the elbows. I happened to have a friend in Mexico City, who lost both arms when he was taking down a kite on the Fourth of July and it hit in an electrical wire. He was a very successful businessman. So, he took this little boy under his wing and helped him emotionally as well as physically. He helped him get prostheses, so he had arms and hands that worked. It just changed the world for this little boy. We then decided to start Project Connie. We chose the name because it made it easier to raise money when people knew it was me. I think it would have been harder to do on my own if we were just living in Mexico without all the power of the United States. It was wonderful to be able to reach out and leave a lasting mark as the U.S. ambassador and the U.S. ambassador's wife. When my husband was no longer ambassador,  I put this project under the umbrella of the United Peace Movement and that's where it has remained. It has the people to watch the money and find situations that need it.

Café:  Last year, you starred in the family fantasy The Storyteller. Do you have any upcoming projects or appearances you’d like to share with our readers?

Rita Hayworth--the subject of
a new documentary.
Constance Towers:  At the moment, I'm doing a documentary on the 100th birthday celebration of Rita Hayworth. When I was at Columbia Pictures, Rita Hayworth was making the Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey. I didn't know her. I was just the young starlet on the lot and she was the big star. In the documentary, I'm going to take people onto the Columbia lot, which has retained some of the original buildings, where I met people like John Ford and Gregory Peck for the first time. Mr. Cohn was the big mogul of Columbia Pictures. His dining room is still there. I will be taking people around the Columbia lot and talking about Rita Hayworth and her contributions to film and why she's still one of the great film goddesses. I'll also be talking about Columbia as I knew it back in those days. It should be fun.

Café:  Thank you so much, Ms. Towers, for taking time out of your day to speak with us.

Constance Towers:  You're welcome.

You can follow Constance Towers on her Facebook page and Instagram.

7 comments:

  1. I have long admired Constance Towers as a singer and actress, now philanthropist is added to her sterling qualities.

    Thank you for another truly enjoyable interview.

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  2. Constance Towers is my favorite actress of all time. I “discovered” her as Helena on General Hospital and her talent and screen presence piqued my curiosity to see some of her other work, so I bought DVDs of her Ford and Fuller movies and taped some of her TV guest appearances, like on Perry Mason, Designing Women, and Fraser. The more I saw her, the more I came to appreciate her. Her philanthropic work is another reason I admire her so much. It’s great to see she is doing so well and I look forward to seeing her in the Rita Hayworth documentary.

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  3. This was fantastic to read. I've loved her since I first saw the Horse Soldiers, and loved finding out more about her. Thank you!

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  4. Like so many others I absolutely loved “Perry Mason” and this is where I first became familiar with Ms. Towers’s work. I was enchanted to read of her singing career and love “The King and I”. I had the joy of seeing Yul give one of his final performances and would have loved to have seen Ms. Towers as Anna.

    This is a wonderful interview and it is awesome to know that Ms. Towers is still entertaining people as the unforgettable Helena Cassadine. I am so thankful she was able to share her career with all of us at the Cafe.

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  5. This was such a good interview to read! I'm only familiar with Constance Towers from her television work but am now looking forward to exploring her films and the music she performed from her stage shows.

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  6. What a wonderful interview! My first memory of her is on Capitol, and I paid closer attention when I caught her in other shows, past and present.

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  7. I love the idea behind Project Connie, and I loved this interview. You are amazing, Rick.

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