Bernadette Peters

Bernadette Peters

Bernadette Peters was born in Queens, New York in 1948.   A consummate theatrical performer she has also starred in such movies as “The Longest Yard” in 1974 with Burt Reynolds, “Silent Movie” with Mel Brooks in 1976  and “Pink Cadillac” with Clint Eastwood in 1989.

TCM overview:

Instantly recognizable for her curly red hair and porcelain doll features, Bernadette Peters was already a seasoned theater actress when she broke through with 1968’s “Dames at Sea.” Her critical triumphs as the star of a series of stage musicals earned her multiple Tony and Drama Desk Awards, and she earned an amazing track record with acclaimed turns in “Song and Dance,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Into the Woods,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Gypsy” and “A Little Night Music,” earning a reputation as the premier interpreter of Stephen Sondheim. Romantically linked to Steve Martin for several years, Peters achieved great success onscreen as well, starring in Mel Brooks’ “Silent Movie” (1976), the comedy classic “The Jerk” (1979), “Annie” (1982) and “Pennies from Heaven” (1981), winning a Golden Globe for the latter. Gifted with impeccable comic timing, a powerful voice, and a unique charisma, Peters became one of musical theater’s most loved and recognizable ambassadors, appearing in many variety shows, tributes and filmed performances that increased mainstream interest in theater. Even audiences resistant to Broadway’s charms could appreciate Peters in popular roles such as the sorceress Circe in “The Odyssey” (NBC, 1997) or as Brandy’s wickedly bitchy stepmother in “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella” (ABC, 1997). Working steadily and to enormous acclaim across the entire entertainment spectrum, Bernadette Peters was universally hailed as one of the greatest musical theater performers of all time, if not the all-time greatest.

Born Feb. 28, 1948 in Ozone Park, Queens, NY, Bernadette Lazzara was the daughter of her bread delivery truck driver father, Peter, and a showbiz-savvy mother, Marguerite. (She would later take a form of her father’s first name as her stage name.) Thanks to her mother’s machinations, the young girl with the powerhouse voice made appearances on several game shows and local children’s programming, including “Juvenile Jury” (NBC, 1947-1954; BET, 1983-84; syndicated, 1970-71, 1989-1991). After these first steps, Peters quickly revealed an innate talent for showmanship, notching several impressive professional credits before she was a teenager, including roles in “A Boy Called Ciske” (NBC, 1958) as well as 1959’s musical “The Most Happy Fella.” A small role in the second national touring company of “Gypsy” introduced Peters to Marvin Laird, who would become her longtime accompanist, conductor and arranger after he overheard her singing to herself and marveled at her immense talent.

Ascending through the theatrical ranks, Peters gained invaluable experience in a variety of plays and musicals, and after graduating high school, she landed work in several off-Broadway musicals, including 1966’s “The Penny Friend” and 1967’s “Curley McDimple.” That same year, she debuted on Broadway in “Johnny No-Trump” and won a Theatre World Award opposite Joel Grey in 1968’s “George M!” Her performance as the show-saving ingénue Ruby in the 1968 parody musical “Dames at Sea” sealed her stardom, earning her a Drama Desk Award and a wealth of critical acclaim. A newly minted Broadway star, she starred in 1969’s “La Strada,” 1971’s “On the Town” and 1974’s “Mack and Mabel,” receiving Tony nominations for the latter two.

Hollywood beckoned, and Peters began to systematically accrue screen credits, including appearing in the TV movie version of the musical “Once Upon a Mattress” (CBS, 1972) and playing a sexy but easily duped prison secretary in the Burt Reynolds comedy smash “The Longest Yard” (1974). A comedic dynamo with a wicked intelligence glowing from behind her ringlet curls and porcelain doll face, Peters proved a natural fit as Mel Brooks’ leading lady in his comedy “Silent Movie” (1976) and calibrated her talents to the perfect whacko wavelength to romance Steve Martin in “The Jerk” (1979). A scene in which Peters and Martin, who were dating in real life, earnestly but goofily warble “Tonight You Belong to Me” to each other showcased both performers at the peak of their comedic powers. Many viewers fell in love with Peters during one of her many performances as a staple guest on variety programming during this time, with her Emmy-nominated guest spot on “The Muppet Show” (syndicated, 1976-1981) proving a highlight.

She notched a Top 40 hit with the single “Gee Whiz” in 1980, but she proved most effective as a vocalist when her singing and acting merged on stage or on screen. Perhaps Peters’ best feature performance came as a frustrated schoolteacher in love with a traveling salesman (Steve Martin) in Herbert Ross’ stylish, underrated “Pennies from Heaven” (1981), a throwback to 1930s movie musicals. For her work in the film, she won a Best Actress Golden Globe and that same year, hosted an episode of “Saturday Night Live” (NBC, 1975) as well as posing for the December issue of Playboy wearing Bob Mackie-designed lingerie. Although her follow-up, the film version of the beloved musical “Annie” (1982), was not the enormous blockbuster Hollywood hoped for, Peters stole the show from co-stars Tim Curry and Carol Burnett as Lily St. Regis, Curry’s delightfully tacky moll intent on kidnapping America’s most optimistic orphan (Aileen Quinn). Despite her success on the West Coast, Peters heeded the siren song of New York and returned to appear in the 1982 off-Broadway dramedy “Sally and Marsha,” for which she earned a Drama Desk Award nomination.

In 1984, she appeared in the first of two Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musicals, the experimental “Sunday in the Park with George.” Playing a dual role as the lover of artist Georges Seurat (Mandy Patinkin) and her elderly descendent, Peters delivered an incandescent, Tony-nominated performance. A 1986 PBS recording of the performance earned the actress a CableACE Award. Many fans and critics believed that Peters was overdue for earning Broadway’s highest honor, and were happy to see her nail the demanding female lead role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1985 hit, “Song and Dance.” Playing an English girl adrift in America, Peters was onstage alone for the first act, singing nearly 20 numbers depicting various stories and aspects of the character’s life. For her powerhouse performance, she won the Tony for Best Leading Actress in a Musical and a reputation for being musical theater’s premier leading lady.

A longtime muse of Sondheim’s, Peters was universally acclaimed as perhaps the greatest interpreter of the famed composer/lyricist’s work; she created the role of the Witch in the Sondheim/Lapine 1987 collaboration “Into the Woods” to rave reviews and a Drama Desk nomination. That same year, she was named Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Woman of the Year as well as the Sarah Siddons Actress of the Year. (Almost 10 years later, she would be the youngest person ever inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame.) The actress returned to film work playing a disaffected hat designer in the downtown New York art scene ensemble “Slaves of New York” (1989), starring opposite Clint Eastwood in the dramedy “Pink Cadillac” (1989), and essaying the imperious mistress of Franz Liszt in James Lapine’s “Impromptu” (1990).

She would find more success on television, however, winning raves for her turns as the mother of a kidnapped child in the powerful “David” (ABC, 1988), as colorful televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker 0opposite Kevin Spacey as Jim Bakker in the biopic “Fall From Grace” (NBC, 1990), and as a cancer patient befriended by her psychologist (Mary Tyler Moore) in “The Last Best Year” (ABC, 1990). Younger viewers also benefited from the talents of this vocal chameleon as she voiced the breathy Rita in a series of recurring appearances on Steven Spielberg’s well-regarded cartoon “Animaniacs” (Fox, 1993-95; The WB, 1995-98) as well as a loyal lady-in-waiting in Don Bluth’s fantasy-based-in-fact cartoon musical “Anastasia” (1997).

Peters returned to Broadway in the ill-fated 1994 stage version of Neil Simon’s “The Goodbye Girl,” but garnered her second Tony and third Drama Desk Award as a goofy, goodhearted Annie Oakley in the 1999 Broadway revival of “Annie Get Your Gun.” The lure of Hollywood remained strong, and she essayed memorable turns as a series of powerful women: the sorceress Circe in Homer’s epic “The Odyssey” (NBC, 1997), the deliciously wicked stepmother to actress-singer Brandy in “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella” (ABC, 1997), and a country singer who mentors the up-and-coming LeAnn Rimes in “Holiday in Your Heart” (ABC, 1997). For her recurring role as a woman seeking a divorce after her husband paid someone to seduce her on “Ally McBeal” (Fox, 1997-2002) Peters earned her second Emmy nomination.

Many viewers who did not have the opportunity to see Peters on Broadway were able to see her work her theatrical magic in several performing arts specials such as the star-studded “Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall” (PBS, 1992), “Hey Mr. Producer!: the Musical World of Cameron Mackintosh” (PBS, 1998) and “Quincy Jones: the First 50 Years” (ABC, 1998). She co-starred with Christina Applegate and Martin Short in the likable fairy tale-inspired “Prince Charming” (TNT, 2001) and earned a Daytime Emmy nomination for her work in “Bobbie’s Girl” (Showtime, 2002). Back on the big screen, Peters played Michael Douglas’ wife in the dramedy “It Runs in the Family” (2003), but the most impressive next chapter in her career came as Mama Rose in the 2003 Broadway revival of “Gypsy.” Considered by many critics to be one of the finest Broadway performances of all time, Peters managed to deliver a complex and radically new take on the legendary stage mother, earning another Tony nomination as well as the best accolades of her career.

In addition to her six solo albums, including the Grammy-nominated Bernadette Peters Loves Rodgers & Hammerstein, Sondheim Etc.: Bernadette Peters Live At Carnegie Hall and I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, Peters added yet another of her Grammy-winning Broadway cast albums to her discography with the release of Gypsy. Television continued to provide juicy roles for the actress, who impressed on the breast cancer research drama “Living Proof” (Lifetime, 2008) and in guest spots on “Grey’s Anatomy” (ABC, 2005- ) as well as a recurring role on “Ugly Betty” (ABC, 2006-2010). Showered with awards and honors, Peters received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Along with her immense success giving concerts, she also branched out into writing children’s books to support Broadway Barks, an annual star-studded pet adoption event she and Mary Tyler Moore co-founded. In a lovely bit of serendipity, the multi-hyphenate talent who performed for Stephen Sondheim at his 1993 Kennedy Center Honors ceremony not only replaced Catherine Zeta-Jones in a 2010-11 Broadway revival of the composer’s “A Little Night Music,” but also won the Stephen Sondheim Award in 2011 and performed in Sondheim’s musical “Follies” during the summer of 2011. Back on the small screen, Peters appeared on a pair of episodes of the Broadway-themed “Smash” (NBC, 2012- ), playing a former actress as well as the mother of Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty).

By Jonathan Riggs

The above TCM overview can also be accessed online here.

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