Smart enough to blow off an Ivy League kind of life and still make it to the White House in a fashion
February 5, 2001
By Dennis Hensley
Photo Editor Kathryn McCarver

To hear Stockard Channing describe it, the acting bug didn't so much bite her as swallow her whole. She was 19, attending Radcliffe and married to a student at Harvard Business School, Walter Channing, when it happened. A friend of hers, a fledgling theater director, suggested that she might make a good Jenny in his undergraduate production of the Kurt Weill musical The Three-penny Opera.

She had been in a few small college shows before. And when she was Susan Stockard, grow­ing up amid privilege on the Upper East Side of New York, she had always loved telling stories and doing imitations. But she never thought of acting as something one would actually do as a career.

"I was supposed to be a well‑educated, Harvard Business School‑type; you know, Mrs. Venture Capitalist," the 56‑year‑old actor explains. "But something happened to me that first night onstage that had never happened to me before, where all my intelligence, instincts, creativity ‑you name it‑ happened all at once and then kicked into overdrive. It was like a drug.­

How did the news of her artistic epiphany go over with her soon‑to‑be ex‑husband, her homemaker mother, Mary Alice Stockard, and her older sister, Lesly Smith? (Her father, Lester Stockard, a prominent shipping agent, had died of cancer when she was a teenager.)

"About as well as you'd expect," she says. "The need to act blew my life apart. It was like I ran off and joined the circus."

The circus is still running, a three‑ring one at that, with triumphs in the arenas of film, stage and television. Currently, she's appearing in the center ring in the all‑star, all‑chick Showtime miniseries A Girl Thing, in which she portrays a New York therapist who is the link to four separate one‑hour stories.

"In her own life, my character is crazy and neurotic," says Channing who shot the miniseries after wrapping her first season as First Lady Abigail Bartlet, M.D., on NBC's The West Wing, "but to her patients, she's a source of wisdom."

When it's suggested to Channing that she's a natural choice for characters who need to come off as brainier than average, the husky‑voiced actor narrows her eyes as if she's heard this theory before but never quite bought it.

"I know what you're saying, to a degree," she allows. She's stylishly dressed in a green sweater and skirt, a blue shawl and sleek black leather boots. "But I've certainly played a lot of people who couldn't afford a college education. I think that people respond to a certain spark of life in a character ‑ even if that character is not massively intelligent, people are drawn to [her]. It's not because they're well‑read, you know?"

She pauses. "Or maybe I'm just a smartass."

The notion that Stockard Channing is an aggressively smart cookie isn't just a casting director's concept. Lee Rose wrote the teleplays for two of Channing's TV‑film roles, An Unexpected Life and An Unexpected Family.  During the making of those movies, Rose says, "I saw that if the director was not fully prepared and really specific, Stockard could really take [her] to task for it."

So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that Rose directed Channing in The Truth About Jane, last year's Lifetime movie in which Channing played a mother coming to grips with her daughter’s homosexuality. "When she agreed to do Jane," says Rose, "I thought, I don't think I can deal with it if she challenges me every day, because I have 18 days to shoot this."

But her worries were unfounded. "First day on the set," Rose recalls, 'she showed up and said, Where do you want me to go?' And that was literally what she did every shot, asking 'Did I do it right? Is this what you wrote? Is this what you imagined?"

That isn't the only surprise about Channing, says the director. "Though you'd never think it, Stockard is a major outdoorsy person," says Rose. "I made the mistake of going on a hike with her straight up a mountain, and I had to stop because I could barely breathe, and she came back to me laughing and said, 'Are you all right?' She thought it was really funny."

Any other quirks?

"She loves to sing and has big fun doing it," says Rose. "On the set, Stockard and Camryn [Manheim] and Peta [Wilson] would sing show tunes ad nauseam, to the point where I said, Someone bring me that prop gun because I'm going to blow all your brains out."

Channing has plenty to sing about these days, but that hasn't always been the case. She may have known from the time she was 19 that she was destined to act, but she survived on her trust fund for years before any real acting work kicked in. At 27, she got her first major break, appearing in a national tour of Two Gentlemen of Verona. A Hollywood agent spotted her during the show's Los Angeles run, which led to the lead role in a TV movie called The Girl Most Likely To, a black comedy cowritten by Joan Rivers about an ugly duckling who becomes a swan via plastic surgery and then proceeds to bump off her tormentors.

Costars: With Nicholson and Beatty on the set of The Fortune, 1975

A plum role in Mike Nichols's The Fortune opposite Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty followed, but her subsequent films were disappointments. By 1977, when she was offered the part of the gum‑smacking, ball‑breaking queen of the Pink Ladies, Betty Rizzo, in Grease, "the tide was out" on her career.

"I was completely dead broke," recalls Channing "and they said, 'Will you do this?' And I said, 'OK, fine, give me some money."' Given that Grease went on to become the highest‑grossing musical ever, the movie offers then poured in, right?

"Grease did nothing for my career whatsoever," Channing says dryly. " I mean, the people at the TV networks responded to Grease. But the people in motion pictures did not."

So she tried her hand at television, star­ring in the friends‑in‑an‑apartment-complex sitcom The Stockard Channing show, which later evolved into Stockard Channing in Just Friends and was then canceled in 1980, after two and a half seasons. Her third marriage, to the show's producer, David Debin, ended that same year. (A second marriage, to actor‑playwright Paul Schmidt had lasted five years, ending in 1975)

"I thought people were done with me," says Channing. She took Hollywood's indifference as her cue to head east and return to the stage. She did a few plays that went nowhere and wed husband number four, South Carolina businessman David Riwle, in 1982, a union that ended in divorce in 1988. Broadway finally embraced her in the 1985 revival of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg for which she won a Tony Award. More stage successes followed, including The House of Blue Leaves and the project she says she's most proud of, Six Degrees of Separation.

Given her Park Avenue upbringing replete with debutante balls and chauffeured rides to private school, one might think that her Six Degrees character, WASP matron Ouisa Kittridge, would have been a natural fit for Channing. Even the playwright, John Guare, said, "Ouisa is what Stockard was raised to be." But for the actor, it wasn't exactly like going home.

"Frankly, it was a little of the opposite, because I left at 17," says Channing, who struggled to find the Ouisa within. "That was a world I never lived in as an adult." She went on to star in the film version of Six Degrees and garnered an Oscar nomination for her trouble.

“It's a unique situation," Channing says of her deal on The West Wing. She's speaking of creator Aaron Sorkin's willingness to fit her into the show whenever she's available and to do without her when she's not. " I love doing it, and yet I did not give up my day job," says Channing.

She discovered the show the same way the rest of us did ‑ as a viewer. "I was unpacking in a hotel room in Canada, and on it came," she recalls, "and I remember sitting there, gnawing on a burger, thinking, This will never last, it's too good."

Ten days later, Channing's agent called with the news that The West Wing's producers were interested in casting her as the first lady. "I said, 'How great is that?' But we didn't know if a deal could be worked out." Instead of waiting by the phone, Channing left for a long‑planned hiking trip in deepest British Columbia.

"I get there and this guy in hiking boots picks me up in a van and says, 'Are we ready?' Just then, my cellphone goes off, and I think, How tacky and showbizzy is this? But I took the call, and it was my agent saying 'You can't go anywhere, because we're negotiating.' So I spent three hours with this guy ‑ his name was Greg- walking around the lake and enjoying the scenery, hearing about his life, and at the end of the back‑and‑forth phone calls, I said, 'Greg, we have to go back to the airport.' And he took me back, and we hugged because we had gotten to know each other by then. We had a moment."

The next day, she found herself in Los Angeles, her hiking togs doffed in favor of an evening gown, shooting a lavish reception scene on the set of The West Wing. "I get out of a van, and there's Martin Sheen in white tie. I went up to him and said, 'Hi, we've never met, but I think we've been married for about 25 years.' And he burst out laughing and that was it. Our chemistry could have gone any way, and luckily, it went the way that it should have. He and I love each other, and we laugh a lot."

Offscreen as well, Channing is happily coupled at last, with cinematographer Dan Gillham, whom she met on the set of the aptly named 1988 film A Time for Destiny. With four marriages behind her, Channing sees no reason to tie the knot again, and even discussing marriage doesn't really appeal to her. "I wouldn't presume to make any comments on marriage," she says with fina1ity. She's not fond of referring to Gillham as her boyfriend. "That's for people who are 16 years old," she says with a laugh. "I prefer [the term] 'the man I live with.'" When they’re not working the pair enjoy a "very simple life" in their house on the water in rural Maine.

Though she's played countless mothers, Channing has never had children and says she has no regrets about that. She glows with maternal pride, however, when she talks about her three dogs, one of which is a failed performer that the actor acquired thanks to her Emmy‑nominated role in the TV movie The Babydance.

"He wouldn't take direction," she says, "and when the trainers said he did it wrong he got depressed. So I said, 'OK, I'll take him.'"