28 June 2007

Angela Lansbury & The Hollywood Blondes

Pie-eyed: As Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd

My former boss, Dan Rather, has been a proud supporter of the Museum of Television & Radio, and why not? It was founded by his former boss, William S. Paley, and it preserves for posterity Dan’s own best work. When the Los Angeles branch of the Museum invited Dan to be guest of honor at a fundraising dinner, Dan instantly accepted. Then he found out what they had in mind: a celebrity roast.

This is Hollywood, after all. This is what people do. The director of the Museum, Bob Batscha, assured us that he’d even be able to get joke writers to handle all the speeches. Since I was Dan’s primary (and usually sole) joke writer, that let me off the hook, but it didn’t do much for Dan.

Now, Dan has a pretty good sense of humor. Sure, he could take a few jokes at his expense, but an entire evening of them would be like riding a short horse through tall timber, as he might put it. I daresay most of us would find the experience stressful. But it was too late to back out.

Dr. Batscha asked for our input on the list of speakers, and I instantly suggested to Dan that Angela Lansbury act as mistress of ceremonies. Why, Dan wanted to know.

“Because she won’t beat up on you,” I said. “She’s the star of a CBS show and she won’t want you or the network to look bad. She can be funny, but she’s not an insult comedian. She’ll be elegant and polite. And she’ll accept the invitation because she’s a supporter of the Museum, too.”

Murder, She Wrote: Television, she conquered.

Dan liked this reasoning, and passed the suggestion along to Dr. Batscha. I gathered that our “suggestions” would be rubber-stamped by the Museum; indeed, everybody we named got an invitation, and most of them accepted. (My second-most brilliant suggestion was Harry Shearer, who is famously engrossed by the news media and who does a killer impersonation of Dan. Inviting him would show that Dan was willing to laugh at his own expense, and I hoped Shearer wouldn’t be too rough.)

At some point and for reasons unknown, Dr. Batscha decided the dinner would not be a celebrity roast, after all. Teasing jokes were to be set aside in favor of glowing testimonials. This news came as a relief to Dan, but I understand that it left Miss Lansbury even more confused as to why she’d been asked to appear. I tried to pass along assurances through the grapevine from our office to the Museum to her office, but I couldn’t tell her (or Dan, for that matter) the truth: she was invited primarily because I consider her one of the greatest artists in the history of musical theater, and I’d always wanted to meet her. Whatever her misgivings, she didn’t back out.

Creating the title role in Jerry Herman’s Mame

The event took place in early June, beginning with cocktails on the terrace of the Museum, a striking, white building in Beverly Hills. There were several TV stars who weren’t even on the speakers’ list, and at first the Rather staff hung back, intimidated by the celebrity. Then Kim Akhtar said, “There’s Barbara Eden — I’m going to introduce myself.”

Special Guest Star Barbara Eden

Moments later, Kim was telling Ms. Eden how much she loved I Dream of Jeannie, and how important it was to her as a girl to see a woman with so much power.

“I love hearing that!” Barbara Eden crowed. “I really did see a feminist side to Jeannie, and I love it when women tell me she’s a role model.”

Well, role model may be putting it strong, but as Kim went on, it never escaped her attention that, although Jeannie appears submissive and wears a skimpy outfit, she’s always got the real power and could blast her “Master” to oblivion at any moment. “She chooses to submit,” Kim said.

“Exactly!” said Barbara Eden. Clearly she’d given this matter a great deal of thought, and so had Kim.

Special Guest Star Jean Kasem

Their conversation broke the ice, and soon Dan’s little minions were all hobnobbing with the Hollywood hoi polloi. I introduced myself to the radio presenter Casey Kasem and his wife, Jean, an actress. Though Mr. Kasem is more famous than his Mrs., I talked mostly about her work. Casey beamed as I praised his wife — she was very funny on Cheers — and Jean seemed to like hearing it, too.

Special Guest Star Joan Van Ark

Joan Van Ark was there, confessing almost apologetically that she was an incurable news junkie, and it was touching, even a little baffling, to see how gratified she was when we told her that there were Knots Landing junkies in the CBS newsroom, too. (Didn’t she know her show was popular?)

We ate our dinners, and then it was time for the speeches. Miss Lansbury’s speech was constructed out of bits and pieces of the press bio Kim and I had written for Dan, which gave me the unexpected privilege of hearing this great actress read a script I’d written. The other speakers followed. Not one roasting insult was heard, and although Harry Shearer did his Dan imitation and poked a little fun at the expense of his “Ratherisms,” he concluded with an unexpectedly heartfelt tribute to Dan’s integrity. And then the evening was almost over.

“I still haven’t spoken to Angela Lansbury,” I said to my colleagues. “Now is the time.” I’d had one glass of white wine, and it gave me the courage I needed.

In The Manchurian Candidate, with Laurence Harvey

“Miss Lansbury,” I said, “I’m Dan’s assistant, and it’s such a treat to be here with you tonight. Sweeney Todd was the first show I saw on Broadway.”

“Oh, how marvelous,” Miss Lansbury replied, or something to that effect. I’m really not sure what she said, actually, because I kind of blacked out the next minute or two. (I swear, it was only one glass, and not even red wine.) The next thing I knew, I was well into singing Miss Lansbury’s part from one of her Sweeney Todd numbers, “Not While I’m Around.”

Suddenly conscious, I caught myself. “You really don’t need to hear me doing this, do you?” I said.

“Darling,” said Miss Lansbury, “it’s meat and potatoes to me!”

If it were possible to admire her even more, I did, right then.