Bebe Neuwirth Moves Through Life Helping Others
by Dann Dulin
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Stephen Churchill Downes / etccreativeinc.com
Her text was straightforward, “Stuck in traffic.” Though Bebe Neuwirth was only a few minutes late for the interview, her message epitomizes the meticulous integrity she has displayed over the years to the HIV/AIDS community. Last summer she hosted the Fire Island Dance Festival 17, raising nearly $350,000 for Dancers Responding to AIDS, a program of Broadway Cares, where she’s been involved from the very beginning, participating in every event.
“I’m grateful to have the opportunity to do something!” exclaims the two-time Tony winner (for Sweet Charity and Chicago) and two-time Emmy winner (both for Cheers), who is now settled in my suite at the Hotel Pennsylvania in midtown Manhattan. “When something devastating happens like 9/11 or a plague that’s like a runaway train to the nth degree, you feel completely helpless. I’m not a doctor. I’m not a scientist. What can I possibly do?”
Bebe’s frustration resonates for many of us who’ve lost friends and peers to this disease. Her outlet is to volunteer. “Broadway Cares raises millions of dollars every year and gives money to organizations who are helping and who, with boots-on-the-ground, are helping people with HIV/AIDS and their families. Working with them eases my helplessness, the panic…the panic of, What can I do?” she states frantically adding, “and not only here’s something you can do, here’s something you can do that has a true and real effect.
“Actually, as Chris [her husband] and I were driving into the city this morning,” she recounts about her trip in from their hideaway in the New Jersey woods, “we were talking about how brilliantly [executive director] Tom Viola runs it. I like to say that he has a wisdom of the mind and he also has a wisdom of the heart.”
One might use that same phrase to describe Bebe—intelligence mixed with compassion. Maneuvering her career to become a Triple Threat—a dancer, a singer, and an actor—the self-admitted “socially awkward” Bebe uses that celebrity platform to spotlight charities for dancers, human rights, and animal rights.
Opting to sit in a desk chair instead of a comfy armchair so that she could be more upright and attentive, Bebe is casually dressed in rolled-up cuffed tight-fitting jeans (darn, I don’t get to see those famous pins), an opened, crisp-as-spring white laundered shirt with sunglasses looped between the buttons, and laceless platinum Voyage shoes. “I’m done with heels!” she gleefully shouts, when I comment on their unique look. Her skin is moon-white, her fingernails bright red, her eye shadow rusty-pink, and her trademark ebony hair is long and loosely curled. During our time together, she’s genuine, shy, eloquent, and forthcoming.
Bebe’s handsome husband of two years, Chris Calkins, founder of Napa Valley’s Destino Winery, sits not far from her on a large material-padded ottoman and leans comfortably against the wall. He doesn’t sit too close to take focus away from his wife. However, he does enjoy, when it’s appropriate, offering his opinion or elaborating on one of Bebe’s responses. He’s charming, debonair, and a good conversationalist. Essentially, Chris is there for support, for fun, and they both seem to treat the interview as a social activity.
Bebe’s hot petite body and youthful glow belies the fact that she’s in her fifties. The girl is fit and shapely. At her core is a dancer. But it’s taken its toll. She’s had two hip replacements and it was a long, arduous, painful, and stressful road back to health. “After my first surgery, when I was healing, I thought, ‘Oh, man, that was fucked up!’ It was a devastating place to be in,” she bemoans, curling her hair around her ear then tugs her shirt down. “Then I encountered a girl, another dancer, who was fifteen years younger and having problems and I thought, this is out of hand, we have to do something.” She did.
Through The Actors Fund, where she is vice chair, Bebe founded the program, The Dancers’ Resource. “They had groups at The Actors Fund to help musicians who were losing their hearing, and groups for newly diagnosed AIDS patients. They would work with therapists and social workers and it really was invaluable. I thought, ‘Let’s have one for dancers.’” She went to lunch with Tom Viola and told him of her idea. He replied, “I agree with you, Bebe. And Broadway Cares will give you seed money so that the first thing you won’t need to do is a benefit!” As she retells the story, Bebe chuckles at Tom’s refreshing response.
The Dancers’ Resource is a program for injured dancers and provides emotional support, financial assistance, healthcare referrals, educational seminars, and shared support with fellow dancers who either want to continue dancing or hang up their dancing shoes. The program helps them through the transition.
It was Bebe’s own personal experience that led her to take action. “As with many charities and foundations, a lot of times something affects someone personally
and they get involved in raising money for that cause. I think it’s that playground mentality where your friends are in trouble and you go and help them,” she analyzes, sounding a bit like psychiatrist Lilith Sternin, the character she famously played on Cheers and Frasier. (For the record, Bebe’s peaceful demeanor contrasts greatly to the shrink’s analness.) “When the abstract becomes real, people tend to get involved. When someone says, ‘Robert passed away from AIDS,’ then it becomes personal. Numbers are abstract. That’s why the [AIDS Memorial] Quilt is sooo powerful and that’s why the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial is so powerful. There’s a list of…names.”
Bebe always dreamed of having her name shine, but initially it was for being a ballerina. She began classes at age five and later performed with the Princeton Ballet Company while attending Julliard. She then landed in the national touring company of A Chorus Line, performing the roles of both Cassie and Sheila and then debuted on Broadway playing Sheila. The character was thirty, Bebe was twenty-two. Bebe went on to originate the roles of Nickie in Sweet Charity and Velma Kelly in Chicago in their revivals.
Chicago has a special connection for Bebe. She saw it years ago with the original cast, Gwen Verdon, Jerry Orbach, and Chita Rivera (her role model). Little did Bebe know back then that years later she’d be playing Velma, the part originated by Chita. (Later, Bebe played Roxie as well.) It was a rigorous, challenging part for her. “Playing Velma in Chicago was like performing microsurgery from 8–10:20,” she declares with ersatz exhaustion—seriously meaning it. Being in the show afforded Bebe the opportunity to work with legendary Bob Fosse again, as she had done several years earlier in Broadway’s Dancin’. In it, she had the opportunity to work with the legendary Bob Fosse. Bebe glances over at Chris, motions to him, saying slowly, “He’s the love of my life….” She then looks back at me, tosses a quick gaze back at Chris, confirming, “He knows that…but…” Her attention returns to me, “…Bob Fosse…,” she pauses, tenderly expressing, “he was the love of my life.” She quietly weeps, briefly averting her eyes downward. For Bebe, Fosse was her master teacher.
If you missed Bebe in Chicago, you can still get a glimpse of her exquisite talented precision in one of the musical’s numbers she performs with fellow dancer Karen Ziemba in My Favorite Broadway: The Leading Ladies Live from Carnegie Hall (1999). Bebe slinks across the stage purring like a cat, graceful as a cheetah, commanding like a lioness. You’ll be riveted.
In 2010, Bebe opened in The Addams Family Musical as the ghoulish Morticia Addams. She played the role until June 2011. Recently she released her first solo album, Porcelain (The Leopard Works Records), which contains songs partly drawn from her concerts. The CD includes songs by an eclectic assortment of artists: Sondheim, Kander and Ebb, Tom Waits, the Beatles, and Edith Piaf. Bebe also continues to travel with her one-woman cabaret show. Like a consummate dancer, she throws her entire being into singing. Her concert songs are usually meaty material consisting of a three-act play, if you will. “I don’t pick songs arbitrarily,” she remarks steadfastly, resting her hands within one another on her lap. “I feel really strongly about what I sing. When I sing in concert it’s a more encompassing experience than just singing a song and hopefully making some nice sound.” Her tone is modest and she proffers a partial grin. “I really choose material that I can inhabit. Most songs I sing are story songs, like ‘Surabaya Johnny’ or Sondheim’s ‘Another Hundred People,’ where the story is about the singer.”
She goes on. “I don’t talk that much about myself in my shows because there’s only a couple of people, really, that I want to hear talk about themselves on stage. I wanna hear Elaine Stritch and Patti [LuPone] and Chita [Rivera]. I would rather choose songs that if you want to know something about me pay attention to what I’m singing then you’ll say, ‘For some reason she relates to this song.’”
What do we know about Bebe? Well, she’s played numerous assorted screen characters, from human rights lawyer Gloria Allred in Without Her Consent to a wealthy rebel in Green Card, from a detective in Malice to a Dog Goddess in All Dogs Go To Heaven 2. In Woody Allen’s Celebrity, she plays Nina, a savvy hooker who teaches Judy Davis how to give a blowjob. Nina delightfully mouths a banana, then nearly chokes on it. The scene is sidesplittingly hilarious and Bebe conquers us again using her acting chops. She’s a chameleon; you don’t always recognize her. And speaking of sex, the New Jersey-bred girl is an avid supporter of safer sex and getting tested regularly. She offers that when she and Chris committed to each other they both got tested.
Who does Bebe consider to be a hero in the AIDS epidemic? Without hesitation she answers, “Elizabeth Taylor.” At that moment, like out of the heavens, we hear church bells gonging. And they gong. And they gong. We all look at one another in wonderment and giggle (Bebe has a deep contagious laugh), and comment how appropriate the bells are. She waits for them to cease then proceeds. “Sad to say, there are too many heroes…like Sharon Stone, Elton John, hugely high-profile people, but then there are…,” she stops, looks off, and cracks a knowing smile. “When I was working on Cheers, Magic Johnson came out [as HIV-positive]. I’m a huge Magic Johnson fan and I thought he was a beautiful basketball player, a great captain of the team and I take nothing from the heroism of what he did. But I remember every time people would say that I would think of Tanis Michaels.”
Bebe repositions herself then removes her sunglasses that are clipped in her blouse and snuggly puts them atop her head. “Tanis Michaels was a dancer with whom I did Sweet Charity and he was diagnosed about 1985 when we performed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion [in Los Angeles]. There was talk about firing him and Bob Fosse said, ‘Absolutely not!’ At that time we didn’t know how HIV was transmitted—sweat or kissing or…In Sweet Charity cast members would drink out of Budweiser bottles and so Tanis had his own Budweiser bottle. He had his own prop, which must have been really, really devastating for him.” Bebe’s voice cracks and her eyes form with tears. “He stayed in the show, we came to New York, which starred Debbie Allen, and we opened on Broadway. I don’t read reviews,” she says flippantly, with a what’s-the-point attitude, “but there was a photograph of Debbie doing ‘Brass Band’ [a Sweet Charity number] and you could only see one dancer because of the way the photograph was taken. It was Tanis. Yes! He got in the picture. But I’ll tell you, the heroism and the internal strength and fiber of this guy to do eight shows a week while he was doing chemo was….” She lets her listener fill in the blank, and then adds, with honesty: “Sometimes he missed, but Sweet Charity is a really hard show. He even understudied Big Daddy and went on for Big Daddy in ‘Rhythm of Life.’” She takes a heavy breath.
“Tanis passed in the late eighties and as the years progressed, we lost several guys from that production. My point is that every time I hear Magic Johnson is a hero…[I think] so is Tanis.” She crosses her legs, swings the chair a little to the side, and props her hand against her waist. “People who live with HIV, people who help others, people who inspire others…,” she says softly, her striking brown eyes intense, “these are the unsung heroes to me.”
BEING WITH BEBE
What’s your favorite movie of all time?
On the Waterfront. Ahh…Eva Marie Saint and Karl Malden.
What is your screen saver right now?
I only have a laptop. It’s a mountain and a forest in black and white—a beautiful landscape. My Blackberry has a picture of the beach and ocean.
What do you believe happens after we die?
I think we more often than not are reborn. I believe in reincarnation. I consider myself an atheist because I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in unseen and unproved things. A scientist who’s an atheist or a pure atheist would say, ‘You are not an atheist.’ So I don’t know what the word is what I am….
Did you ever steal anything?
Do hotel rooms count? [She laughs and her husband Chris adds, “Bebe’s the most honest person.”]
What is your favorite city?
As an audience member, what’s your favorite Broadway shows?
I have a couple for different reasons. Pippin is a favorite because that was when I decided that I was going to dance on Broadway and be a Fosse dancer. Chicago is another favorite. I saw Chita [Rivera], Gwen [Verdon], and Jerry [Orbach], who were the original Broadway cast. Then of course it’s a favorite because it was my first Broadway show [that I performed in]. I’m not mentioning [any other Broadway] shows because I haven’t seen a lot [due to her performing.]
Name your favorite teacher.
Many teachers I’ve loved. The person that comes to mind is Mrs. Danner—my first and second grade teacher. This woman was so kind, so strong, and she really ‘got’ me. I felt seen by her.
You’ve had many accomplishments, including being a potter and a photographer. What is something that you still want to accomplish?
I do not want to do standup comedy! [She says loudly and boldly.] I want to do more Shakespeare. I want to go to some countries I’ve not seen, like Japan and Russia. I desperately want to go to Russia. I also want to see The Great Wall of China.
Name your favorite TV sitcom while you were growing up.
Get Smart and The Addams Family. [Chris adds, “John Astin (who played the patriarch on TV’s Addams Family) came to visit Bebe on opening night. He was lovely.”]
Out of the many people you have met, is there one in particular who stands out the most?
There are those who influence us as adults and there are those who influence us as kids. When I was kid I had a teacher who, again, ‘saw’ me. She was a jazz teacher and she was in the movie Singin’ in the Rain and was on Broadway in such musicals as Kiss Me Kate. She was one of my teachers at the Ballet School in Princeton where I grew up. I was thirteen and decided that I was not going to be a ballet dancer but I wanted to dance on Broadway. She knew I had a gift to be able to express through dance, which is what a dancer does. There’s the technical part then there’s the artist part. She saw my sense of humor, my potential, and she nurtured that. Her name was Joan Morton Lucas. [Bebe begins to cry and takes some moments to recompose.] Joan passed away a year ago. [Bebe then blurts] She was funnn-ny!
Who would you like to meet that you haven’t met yet?
You know, I have this thing where sometimes there are people that I just admire so much and I’m a little afraid to meet them. Because I have met some people that I thought were phenomenal and …OH MAN WAS I DISAPPOINTED! No, I will just be very happy with whoever comes my way.
A word from Tom Viola, executive director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS:
“It is almost silly to refer to Bebe Neuwirth as a ‘supporter’ of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. That would be like saying Bob Fosse had an ‘interest’ in dance. Like Fosse, Bebe is a champion! She is a consummate professional whose talents are brought to the highest polish by a great generosity of spirit and genuine concern for the well-being of those she works with everyday. Bebe is more than simply well intended. She brings a genuine understanding of what best addresses the needs of her co-workers and colleagues and then does not rest until something gets done. You won’t do better than having Bebe at your side. She’s ferocious in the best way. Like a cat. Lithe, smart, determined and playful. I love her!”
BEBE AT THE BARRE
Bebe gives a pithy response to these people who’ve touched her life
Michael Bennett: Profound.
Robin Williams: Sweet.
Woody Allen: Really funny! I’m crazy about him.
Kelsey Grammer: Dear.
Amy Sedaris: Genius funny.
Angela Lansbury: Elegance.
Jimmy Coco: What a doll!
Victor Garber: What a doll!
Joel Grey: My Sensei.
Jackie Hoffman: Heavily talented.
Michael Keaton: A great sense of humor.
David Hyde Pierce: A lovely gentleman.
Chita Rivera: A goddess.
Adrien Brody: Sweet soul.
Bebe gives one word to describe herself: Complicated.
Watch Bebe in a promo on-line at www.DANNandKELLY.com/promo.
Hair and makeup by Kyra Dorman for Artists by Timothy Priano. For more information about Stephen Churchill Downes, log on
Dann Dulin interviewed actor Nick Adams for the October cover story.