Actress Rue McClanahan died almost three weeks ago but we were in Chicago at the time and I failed to comment on her passing. Plenty has been said about the saucy “Golden Girls” star so I just wanted to mention her Obie-winning role in my father-in-law’s wonderful play, “Who’s Happy Now?”
Here’s how Rue described it in her book “My First Five Husbands…and the Ones Who Got Away”:
I was called to audition for “Who’s Happy Now?,” a new play by Oliver Hailey. They wanted me for the role of the wife, Mary, but when I read the play, I knew I was made to play the marvelous mistress, Faye Precious. Through my agent, I wrangled an audition for both roles. As Mary, I wore a proper little dress and modest hairdo. Then I dashed to the ladies’ room, got into an off-the-shoulder peasant blouse, dangly earrings, and blond floozy wig, and came out to read for Faye. Perplexed, Oliver Hailey and the director, Stanley Prager, now wanted me for both roles. After a few anxious days…the phone call.
“They got Teresa Wright for Mary,” said my agent. “They want you for Faye Precious.”
Bells and whistles! Blow them horns! Bang them drums!
The play is set in the godforsaken town of Sunray, Texas where a boisterous, irascible butcher, Horse, is carrying on an affair with Faye, a dumb but good-hearted waitress. Mary puts up with this because, besides being in love with him, she is raising their son. It’s poignant and hilarious, with raucous action and cornball country songs. The son was beautifully played by Ken Kercheval (who later gained fame on “Dallas”). Our Horse was Robert Darnell, and the local bartender, Pop, was Stewart Germain. All three were wonderful. Stanley Prager gave insightful, meticulous notes after every rehearsal and performance. For my money, that Stanley Prager knew his onions. What a director!
I became fast friends with both Oliver Hailey and screen star Teresa Wright.
In addition to being an acclaimed Broadway director, Stanley Prager produced and directed many episodes of “The Patty Duke Show.” In the 1970s, Duke and McClanahan appeared in an episode of the serious “issues” show called “Insight,” in which Patty played the co-dependent wife of an alcoholic (a subject she was familiar with). Here’s a short clip just to show Rue's non-sitcom acting chops:
Rue McClanahan reprised her career-boosting role as Faye Precious in a 1974 PBS version of my father-in-law’s play, this one co-starring the wonderful Betty Garrett along with Albert Salmi, Alice Ghostley, and John Ritter. We have a 3/4-inch video of this production and I wish I could get it on DVD and show you some clips of Rue at her best. The TV play was directed by Gordon Davidson, and was also the first play directed by Davidson during the first season (1967) of the Mark Taper Forum.
Of course I loved McClanahan in both “Maude” and “Golden Girls.” Wasn’t she single-handedly responsible for convincing those idiotic youth-oriented TV executives that older women were still sexual beings?