A chat with Brenda Vaccaro, Brenda Vaccaro interview, You Don't Know Jack, Midnight Cowboy
Brenda Vaccaro

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Actress Brenda Vaccaro was a staple of motion pictures and television throughout the 1970s and 1980s, appearing in such films as “Midnight Cowboy,” “Airport ’77,” and “Capricorn One,” even earning an Academy Award nomination for her work in the adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s “Once is Not Enough.” In recent years, however, her presence in those mediums has been limited to voiceover work (she can be heard on everything from “Johnny Bravo” to “Spawn”) and one-off guest appearances on series like “Ally McBeal,” “The King of Queens,” “Becker” and, most recently, “Nip/Tuck.” (She has, however, continued her work in the theater, so it’s not like she’s just lounging around.) Vaccaro will be making a profound return to television on Saturday night, however, playing Margo Janus – sister of Dr. Jack Kevorkian – in HBO’s new film, “You Don’t Know Jack.” Bullz-Eye had a chance to chat with Vaccaro about the experience of working with her old friend Al Pacino, who plays the good doctor, her thoughts of Dr. Kevorkian both before and after making the movie, her love for director Barry Levinson, and some of her favorite gigs from throughout her career

Brenda Vaccaro: Hi, Will!

Bullz-Eye: Hey, Brenda, how are you?

BV: I’m fine. How are you?

BE: I’m good. It’s a pleasure to talk with you!

BV: Thank you so much! It’s a pleasure for me, too, darling. Here we go!

BE: Well, I was at the TCA tour, so I was there for the “You Don’t Know Jack” panel…

BV: Oh, you were there for the panel! Boy, did that go weirdly or what? (Laughs)

BE: Al’s quite a guy.

BV: Oh, God! What was it he kept saying? “It’s television, it’s Home Box Office…” Susan and I kept leaning into each other saying, “No, it’s not television, it’s HBO!” (Laughs) Oh, my God. Anyway, we were excited to be there, because I was there the whole day, and I had a ball! And that hotel was fabulous! Oh, it was wonderful. We ordered everything off the menu and had it sent up to the room, and until they called us, we just kept eating and drinking and having a great time. But, anyway, let’s talk about “You Don’t Know Jack”!

BE: Absolutely. So what was it about this project that led you to go for it? Because you’re pretty selective about what you do these days.

"(Al Pacino) said things like, 'Now, let’s not get too haughty. Let’s not get too sure of ourselves. Remember, these people were in uncharted territory. They had to be nervous.' And I thought, 'Wow, what a good thing to say…and to remember.' Because, you know, you don’t want to play heroes, you want to play people. We told (Dr. Kevorkian) about Al’s 'uncharted territory' comment. And he said, 'You’d better believe we were in uncharted territory! We were damned nervous!"

BV: I really was madly in love with Barry Levinson’s work. I had recently seen “What Just Happened,” and I saw…what was it called? “An Everlasting Piece”! So I’d seen some of these things that he had done, and, of course, “Rain Man.” To talk about his work…to me, he’s brilliant. He’s one of my favorite directors. And Al Pacino and I have been friends since we were kids. Marty Bregman was our manager when we were kids, so we knew each other so well, and I’ve always wanted to work with him. I was doing a play in New York called “Jake’s Women,” with Alan Alda and a bunch of really wonderful women, so (Al) came backstage to see me, ‘cause we would always go and see each others’ plays, and I said, “Al, when are we going to work together?” He said, “We will one day. We will!” And this was the moment, actually. You know, Ellen Chenoweth said to Barry Levinson, “What about Brenda Vaccaro?” He said, “Oh, what’s she up to these days? I really like her!” I went into HBO and I took four of the scenes that they gave me, and I put them down on film four or five times…I did a lot of takes…with this wonderful Carrie Frazier, who’s the vice president of casting there. It’s all very elegantly done, by the way. And I heard that Barry liked the tape, and then I went and met with Al a few weeks later, and then I waited again for a few weeks, and then I heard I got the part! And I was, like, so ecstatic! How did I do this? With one, big happy leap! (Laughs) I was so excited. I can’t remember being that happy about a project in…well, it’s been many, many moons. I mean, John Goodman and Susan Sarandon and Danny Huston…Anjelica Houston is one of my best friends, and Danny’s a friend…and with Barry, it was a class act project. You know, I was really happy to be part of it.

BE: So how was the experience of finally getting to work with Al?

BV: It was like being on a Persian rug…if you can imagine the rug flying into the heavens of creation. (Laughs) He was just so creative. He loves the process. Every Saturday and Sunday, a car would pick me up, I’d go to 57th Street, and we’d rehearse with Danny Huston, we’d talk about the thing, we’d talk about the people, and I remember that…he’s so insightful, Al. He said things like, “Now, let’s not get too haughty. Let’s not get too sure of ourselves. Remember, these people were in uncharted territory. They had to be nervous.” And I thought, “Wow, what a good thing to say…and to remember.” Because, you know, you don’t want to play heroes, you want to play people. And it was just really smart and insightful of him to say that to us. We always talked about scenes, rehearsed them and went over them…and we changed them. Out of improvisation would come a better line. Like, one time, talking about our mother (in the film), I said, “I watched our mother struggle to die.” And Al said, “Oh, we’ve got to use that line…” Things would come to you. And when you came to the set, you were full of work, full of the process, and nothing would throw you. You were really ready to go do your work moreso than if you’d spent all that time alone in your hotel room. We rehearsed Saturdays and Sundays, Will. It was really fabulous.

BE: What were the challenges of playing someone who was a real person?

Brenda VaccaroBV: It was scary. You know, most of my career has been playing people that I never got to meet, from Ethel Rosenberg with Stanley Kramer (in “Judgment: The Trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) onward. (Laughs) And then in “Sunshine,” with Cristina Raines, Joe Sargent directed me in that, and I remember that I had to talk to the doctor I was playing, who was in Denver, and it was very interesting because she said, “Well, you’ll be playing me, but I don’t know if you will be able to understand what it means to be able to not fight for someone’s life. She made a choice, and I had to respect her choice.” Almost forty years later, that’s sounding a lot like Kevorkian to me. Isn’t that interesting? She said she didn’t want to cut off her leg. She wanted to walk with her children and take hikes. She said, “there wasn’t’ anything I could do, Brenda. I had to respect her choice. If I had amputated her leg, she might’ve lived quite a few years longer, but she wouldn’t accept it.” So it was really down the line, around the corner, and up the mountain, all of those responsibilities about playing real people. There’s a part of you that just has to let go. I just did (the play) “Full Gallop,” and when I had to do Diana Vreeland, and that was a real toughie, let me tell you. Down the road, you have to sort of let go and pray that the essence and as much of the physical work that you do captures enough so that you can fool the audience periodically and intermittently for seconds here and there. (Laughs) Especially if they know the person, like “Full Gallop.” It was very hard to get that voice of Diana Vreeland, and you know I’m not as tall as she was, I don’t have that walk, and I’m not as skinny as she was, either! So they’re a commanding challenge, but they’re interesting, and I think they make you a better artist.

BE: Certainly Dr. Kevorkian is a controversial figure. What were your thoughts about him prior to doing the film, and what were they afterwards?

BV: Prior to doing the film, I always thought of him as a hero. I always thought of him as a very brave person who marched ahead as the father, on the forefront in this country for merciful endings. I know that when one of my animals is ready to go, it’s the most difficult decision I have to make, and I have to let go and let it happen. When my mother was dying, it was horrible for me. I could not let her go. I just couldn’t let her go. I failed, Will. I kept fighting to keep her alive. When I came back from Europe and they had her in the hospital, I said, “Mom, they say you’re gonna be okay, they say you’re gonna come through,” and she went, “No.” And I said, “No, Mom, you’ve got nine lives like a cat. You’re gonna be okay!” And she said, “No.” And she never answered me again. I guess she was just tired of me fiddling with her and trying to save her. She was aspirating, and…it was awful. Just awful. I sometimes remember Dr. Holtzman – he’s a brain surgeon here in New York – saying to me, “I tried to keep my father alive, Brenda, and because I’m a doctor, I was able to do it six times, but if it ever happens to your mother, don’t do it.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because they’re on a journey and they know where they’re going. You don’t.” That’s the problem. You don’t, and you never understand until you’re on it yourself. But you know, Will, when it came to my mom, I couldn’t let go. It was awful. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I go… (Gasps) “What did I do?” So for Dr. Kevorkian, what he did for people was that, when they were ready, he thought it was their right to decide that. Not the daughter’s right, not the hospital’s right, not the doctor’s right, not the Religious Right’s right. Not the politics in the sky. Just that person’s right. I think it was a magnanimous gift of his life to go and do what he did, and I think he’s…what would you say? Captain of the ship? Master of ceremonies? (Hesitates, then laughs at what she’s just said) I met him last night, and he’s just adorable. I told him that I thought he carried the banner of truth about the ending. I said, “You know, Dr. Kevorkian, everybody understands the beginnings and the endings, nobody understands the middle. But you brought a very clear helping hand to the end!” (Laughs) I just think he’s a wonderful man.

"I sometimes remember Dr. Holtzman – he’s a brain surgeon here in New York – saying to me, 'I tried to keep my father alive, Brenda, and because I’m a doctor, I was able to do it six times, but if it ever happens to your mother, don’t do it.' I said, 'Why?' He said, 'Because they’re on a journey and they know where they’re going. You don’t.' That’s the problem. You don’t, and you never understand until you’re on it yourself."

After the experience of doing the film…? I thought that Mr. Levinson had done the most noble thing, which was not to take sides and to sort of let the audience feel their own way through it. During the prosecution at the end, there’s one shot of a prosecutor holding his head, and I thought, “What a great thing to leave in! I wonder if Barry did that on purpose.” Because the prosecutor looks either exhausted or like he’s experience a certain amount of conscience, like, “What did we do here?” And I thought, “How brilliant.” Because in a way, it’s, like, “They do have a point of view, you know.” If you grew up in church your whole life and you grew up with God as the master of everything you did and said and felt, then maybe it’s a little hard to see people fiddling around with what you think is God’s world. I thought, “Well, I’ve got to think about that.” I guess that is a clear perspective, and a fair one. Who am I to say they’re wrong? I ran into Gloria Steinem while I was doing the movie – she’s so brilliant – and she said, “You know, Brenda, it’s politics in the sky.” That was her line. I thought, “That is just the greatest.” She said, “Well, ether’s been around since the Romans.” In all of those Western movies, you’d see the guy biting the block of wood or they’re pouring whiskey down his throat while they’re cutting off his leg…but why? There was ether! I told that to Dr. Kevorkian last night, and he said, “That’s right, there was, but even then, people didn’t want to see you messing around with what they thought was God’s right.” But it has to do with the person’s right. Don’t you think, Will?

BE: I do. Absolutely.

BV: And that’s what Dr. Kevorkian gave up his life for. I heard him say a wonderful thing once. He was saying, “Look, I don’t have a family. I don’t have any kids, I don’t have a wife. I don’t care about money, don’t care about clothes, I don’t eat much…” And I thought, “Well, that’s the perfect scenario for an activist, isn’t it?” He’s like a monk or a priest, in his way. No accoutrements, nothing being hidden, nothing in the way of him to march forward to do his calling. I really do think Dr. Kevorkian had a calling. How many people don’t have a calling in life? I said, “You’re so lucky that you knew what you wanted to do at a certain point.” It is a calling. I said, “You were blessed, sir, and you blessed other people.” Because when you see someone withering away and dying, or struggling to die, it’s a horrible sight.

BE: It is. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s Disease, and…well, obviously, she was in no position by the end to say whether or not she wanted to die or not, but she was on “do not resuscitate” because she had clearly lived her life to the extent that she was able. It wasn’t even her life any more. Not really.

BV: Yeah, I know. But it’s still hard, isn’t it?

BE: It is, of course.

BV: My aunt Marge had the same thing: Alzheimer’s. I had to fly to Dallas and say, “Take her off life support.”

BE: It’s rough.

BV: (Sighs) Dr. Kevorkian told me an interesting thing last night, Will. He said, “You know, a lot of these people…90% of them…came to me, and I said, ‘Listen, let’s try to find a way for you to get more adjusted to your illness and work through it, to feel safe about it. Because I’m here if you need me, but why do it now? Let’s see if life doesn’t end up meaning a little more to you if we help you to live with what you have.’” And I’m listening to him say this, and I thinking, “Oh, my God, I saw him do this on film!” You know? I saw him talking to some of these people, and…he is so compassionate. He’s very sweet. How she put him in prison… (Trails off) Oh, my God. She threw the book at him, didn’t she? Poor guy…

Brenda Vaccaro

BE: I’ve got one more question about “You Don’t Know Jack,” and then I wanted to ask you about a few other things you’ve done over the years…

BV: Okay, honey, sure.

BE: How do you think the tone of the film, given that there are actually a few laughs to be found, will affect people’s appreciation of it? Do you think it will help to turn around some of those who don’t agree with Dr. Kevorkian’s position on euthanasia?

BV: Well, I think life is funny. There are moments that are funny, no matter what. Last night, Dr. Jack told us that the first time he used the Mercitron…the Mercy Machine…he dropped the sodium penathol on the ground. (Laughs) He said, “I was so nervous!” And Al and I looked at each other, and that’s when we told him about Al’s “uncharted territory” comment. And he said, “You’d better believe we were in uncharted territory! We were damned nervous!” But things like that are funny. He said that one time somebody – cops – came up and got him out of the car, and they dragged him up against a wall, and they pushed him, and then they turned him around, and he said that he just started laughing. “It was like something out of the movies,” he said. They handcuffed him, they pushed him back around, and he was just laughing because it felt like he was in a movie! (Laughs) So I think there are things in live that are serious, but they have that certain twist because, y’know, comedy is just the truth twisted a bit. So I think that when those moments come up, it’s sort of a relief, isn’t it?

BE: Hey, I try to find the comedy in life whenever I can. (Laughs)

BV: Right, exactly! I don’t think Barry wanted it to be all grim, grim, grim. If he can lighten it up, then why not lighten it up? If someone comes up with a funny improv, do it. I mean, the relationship between that wonderful John Goodman…oh, God, I think he’s so great in the movie…and Al is so funny. They have such a humorous relationship. It’s a great cast, it really is. Did you like it? Tell me if you liked it.

BE: I really did. But, then, I’m a big Barry Levinson fan, too, so I went in predisposed to like it. But I did think that he did very well with the subject matter.

BV: The subject matter’s a heavyweight, isn’t it?

BE: It is. But I think he handled it about as well as he could have, putting it just enough of the comedic to keep it from getting unbearably morose.

BV: Did you like everybody in the cast?

BE: I did.

BV: Did you like me as Margo? (Laughs)

BE: (Laughs) Yes, I did, Brenda.

BV: Oh, good!

BE: Although you know, of course, that I’d possibly say that, anyway. (Laughs) But, no, I promise you, I was really impressed with the film.

"Dr. Kevorkian told me an interesting thing last night, Will. He said, 'You know, a lot of these people…90% of them…came to me, and I said, ‘Listen, let’s try to find a way for you to get more adjusted to your illness and work through it, to feel safe about it. Because I’m here if you need me, but why do it now? Let’s see if life doesn’t end up meaning a little more to you if we help you to live with what you have.’"

BV: I’m so glad! I’m so glad to hear that. I’ll tell you an interesting story: the scene in the Bob’s Big Boy wasn’t there originally. I read the script, and I went to Barry Levinson – this is what a great gentleman he is – and I said, “Barry, this scene really happened. They really had this terrible fight.” He said, “Where did you read that?” I said, “In this book, The Dead and the Dying.” He said, “For God’s sake, let me read it!” And we read it together, and he said, “Holy Moses, we’ve got to do this thing!” And I said, “I think that’s great!” So when I told the president of HBO, “Thanks for flying me to Michigan to do that scene,” he said, “Oh, I kept telling him, ‘We don’t have that money for that scene,’ but, Jesus, I’m glad we came up with it!” But the truth of it is that they had this terrible argument, they didn’t talk for six months, and then soon after that she died. And I thought that was very important that they put that in, but if it wasn’t for Barry being such a liberal person and always caring more about the truth than anything else, it wouldn’t have happened. Al, of course, said, “Oh, we’ve got to do this scene. Oh, I love this scene. Oh, no, we’ve got to do this scene! It’s got to be in the movie!” It was a great supportive cast, because it was filled with all of the best actors that you could possibly be working with.

BE: Well, to start into chatting about other things you’ve done in your career, what would you say is your favorite project that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved? It can be stage, screen, or television

BV: Hmmm. (Considers the question) That’s going back too far! And, also, to relate to whether or not it got what it deserved, I can hardly remember what some things deserved, let alone whether they got it or not! (Laughs) I’ll tell you, though, that “Midnight Cowboy” got everything it deserved and more. That was great fun.

BE: Funny you should say that: as soon as I mentioned that I was going to talk to you, the first person to pipe up said, “Oh, I loved her in ‘Midnight Cowboy.’”

BV: Who said that?

BE: Ross Ruediger, one of our other writers.

Brenda VaccaroBV: Well, tell him thank you! Oh, I loved that. (Considers the question again) Oh, I don’t know! You know, one of the things that’s shown on TV every now and then is George Hamilton’s comedy, “Zorro: The Gay Blade,” that I was in with him. At the time…Jesus, they didn’t do right by it. But when you see it now on cable, I laugh hysterically. There are some great parts. And George is one of the best. He’s so good, and he’s wonderful in that. “For the peoples!” (Laughs) I’m in the film with Ron Liebman, too, and we had such a great time. I didn’t think it got its merit. It’s a lot funnier. But movies like that don’t make money in the beginning, and then they show them alllllll the time! (Laughs) So I imagine there are quite a few projects that I had respect for that didn’t get what they should’ve gotten, but I can’t remember now for some reason. It just doesn’t strike me as something. But “Zorro: The Gay Blade” is definitely the first one that comes to mind. That was a great movie.

BE: I’ve always been partial to “The First Deadly Sin.” It’s very dark, but…

BV: (Gasps) You’re right! I loved that movie!

BE: I don’t even know how old I was when I first saw it, but I remember that it was definitely darker than anything I’d seen at the time.

BV: And Frank (Sinatra) was really good in it. I loved doing that movie. I thought it was good.

BE: How was it working with Frank?

BV: Oh, it was great. Just great. I got everything I wanted. I said, “Oh, my! My trailer’s so big, and everything’s in there. Cashmere blankets!” And he said, “Hey, kid, your name ends in an ‘O.’” Which means that I’m Sicilian! (Laughs) So I got everything I wanted, and he was adorable to me. We had a great time. He really treated his women well, I must say…

BE: Did you enjoy doing a big disaster movie like “Airport ‘77”?

BV: I did! Olivia de Havilland with an eyelash falling on her cheek was one of the great moments of all time. (Laughs) And she turned to me and she said, “Well, what do you think just happened?” I said, “They just threw a gush of warm water through here, Olivia. Get that eyelash off your eye, baby!” She said, “It doesn’t come off! Oh, dear!” She was so elegant and sweet. And Joseph Cotten…can you imagine? James Stewart! I mean, I got a chance to work with the most wonderful people. In “Going Home,” I got to work with Robert Mitchum. I worshipped him. Oh, my God, I worshipped him.

BE: I was looking over a list of the final films of famous actors, and I noticed that you were in one of the films: “Love Affair,” which was Katherine Hepburn’s last movie.

BV: Oh, yes! Oh, my, can you imagine Warren (Beatty)? He’s the love of my life. Warren Beatty means everything to me. He’s like my brother. I love him so much. That guy is so great. He would do things like, “Okay, let me just see you improvise something here,” so Paul Mazursky and I would improvise something, and Warren would be bent over laughing, holding his stomach, he thought it was so funny. He’d say, “I love it! Let’s leave it in!” He’s fun to work with, Warren. I know that book about him came out .My God, did you read that book, Will?

BE: It’s on my “to read” list, I swear…

BV: (Laughs) Well, anyway, I love Warren, he’s very close to me, and I had a great time working with him.

BE: Well, I’m sure we’re up against the wall here, but it’s been a real pleasure talking to you, Brenda.

BV: Thanks, Will! Same here. It was easy, it was fun, and I enjoyed it. First of all, I’m really proud of this film. I have to say that honestly. I could say that and not mean it, but I do, and I was so happy Barry gave me back my vocation and my faith and my heart in the business, because he gave me this job, this wonderful, wonderful job. He gave me a whole new life in the business.

BE: Now that you’re back out there, are you planning to stay there?

BV: I hope so! If somebody hires me, I’m ready to go to work, trust me! (Laughs) I love it when it’s good, and when you work with that kind of a cast and that kind of director, it’s good. The last line in my E-mail to him was, “Barry, I don’t know how to stand in front of a camera unless you’re there.” He’s the best. Well, anyway, Will, lovely to talk to you.

BE: You as well, and I just wanted to add that I appreciate the way you were slipping my name into our conversation. Not everyone gets involved enough to do that.

BV: Oh, thank you for telling me that, honey! Have a good day!

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