Actress Morgan Fairchild is as glamorous as ever on a Saturday afternoon at the New Theatre’s rehearsal space near downtown.
Many actors routinely roll up to rehearsal in athletic clothes, but Fairchild, who grew up a product of old Hollywood, is dolled up in her signature flowing mane and glittering makeup. After all, her mentors have included Bette Davis, Warren Beatty and Jane Wyman.
Fairchild is charismatic and genuinely welcoming, even while giving up her lunch break in an eight-hour rehearsal day for an interview.
So, how did Fairchild make it from growing up in Dallas in the 1950s to a successful career in Los Angeles to a stage appearance in Kansas City?
“I’ve always just done what I’ve wanted to do. I’ve always created my own reality,” she said. “When I first moved to L.A., everybody told me right off if you don’t sleep with the right people and you didn’t do drugs with everybody, you would never have a career. And I always said, ‘Well, then, my soul is not worth a career.’ ”
Her way has certainly seemed to work out. Fairchild’s career has spanned theater, film and TV, including turns on various prime-time soaps and made-for-TV movies. This spring, she returns to the New Theatre stage for “The Dixie Swim Club,” opening April 27.
She last appeared in Kansas City in 2014 for “Murder Among Friends.”
“I had such a great time last time and, quite frankly, I’ve always been impressed with the level of the talent in Kansas City,” she said. “I had such a fabulous cast last time, and this cast of ladies is wonderful, so it’s a joy to come back. They make it so much fun.”
In the play, five 40-something Southern women, all friends from the college swim team, meet up every summer at a beach cottage to catch up and meddle in one another’s lives — resulting in lots of laughs for them and the audience.
It makes sense that the show encourages its actresses to look back on their own lives, and Fairchild is no exception. She sat down with The Star to reflect upon the moments that made her the actress she is today.
Her big break
When Fairchild was 16, she was opening a Dallas production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” when a man who owned sound stages in town asked if she wanted to be in a movie. Of course she said yes. Without much detail from him, she showed up at a local inn at 5 a.m. after her opening night, boarded a bus and traveled to the set in Nowhere, Texas — for a little movie called “Bonnie and Clyde.” Dropped off in the middle of a field, she milled around, not sure what to do.
“I don’t know what’s happening, and then I see a tall young man coming toward me, kind of a handsome fox, and I said, ‘Excuse me, is this the way to the set?’ And he says, ‘Why, yes, let me show you,’ ” she said. “And it was Warren Beatty.”
She ended up landing a gig as the double for Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker, stepping in for long-distance shots to speed up the filming process.
Fairchild remembers wandering around set, soaking up all she could about the movie industry. She watched all the scenes she could, not just for acting tips but to learn about camera angles. This was the turning point for her — the moment she knew she wanted to act on camera for a living.
“It was a great experience to be around,” she said. “There’s just a magic about movie sets. Of course, no one knew at this time that it would go on to be a big hit and a cultural icon — it was just a movie set — but I loved everything about it: the big crew and the sound and the lights.”
In Fairchild’s TV roles — e.g. “Falcon Crest,” “Flamingo Road” — she would become known as the glamorous, dangerous blonde, and it wasn’t just all for show. In fact, Fairchild spent almost five years learning kung fu while she lived in New York, thanks in part to a close brush with kidnappers.
When visiting her sister at Juilliard, a 20-year-old Fairchild was approached by two large men on the street. In complete daylight, they pulled her into a cab. Matter-of-factly, they told her they were a pimp and a pusher and exactly what they were going to do to her.
“I was a kid, but I was just going to be damned if they were going to see how scared I was, so everything that they would say, I would just make a wisecrack,” she said. “Finally, one of them looked at the other and said, ‘You know what, she’s funny. Let’s let her go.’ So, I talked my way out of it.”
A combination of that experience and her love for Bruce Lee movies inspired her to join a kung fu class shortly afterward. She was filming “Search for Tomorrow” at the time and had to take a subway across town by herself, so kung fu seemed like a natural option. It also had a nice tie to her profession.
“Everything about acting and all these things is about focus of energy,” she said. “I ended up five or six nights a week down at kung fu, sweating my guts out, getting kicked around.
“There were a lot of guys in the class who were not thrilled with having a girl in the class. So they tortured me — they could have killed me if they wanted — but they always paired with me a 6-foot-4 black Muslim whose arms were about the size of my thighs,” she said, laughing.
They also had a nickname for her, an unwitting sign of her career to come: “Hollywood.”
Learning from the best
“Bonnie and Clyde” was only the beginning of working with big movie stars. Her own star was rising at the same time that the actors of old Hollywood were winding down, which gave her ample opportunity to work with those she admired.
In fact, she took a pilot for “Hotel” solely to work with Davis. While it wasn’t a friendship at first sight (like many, Fairchild respected and feared the older star), Davis took a liking to the young soap actress.
“She kind of adopted me. I was telling her about some of my battles with Lorimar (Television) on ‘Dallas’ and she says, ‘You remind me of me when I was young, the way I stood up to Jack Warner,’ and I said, ‘Ms. Davis, the way you stood up to Jack Warner changed the movie business. It’s far different from what I’m doing.’ ”
Fairchild loved asking her older co-stars about working with the greats of old Hollywood. Now she’s that person — the actress who can casually name-drop stars like Davis and Natalie Wood as old friends and tell endless stories about what they were like. But she has found a disconnect from today’s young stars.
In one of her shows, she was swapping stories with her makeup artist about the days of old Hollywood while a younger actress shared the trailer with them.
“All of a sudden, from the other end of the trailer, she goes, ‘I don’t know who any of these people are, and I don’t want to. I’ve never heard of any of these movies,’ ” Fairchild remembered. “And I said, ‘That’s sort of a shame, because if you’re in this business, you should know what “Gone With the Wind” is and who Clark Gable is and what “Casablanca” is.’
“She said, ‘Oh, that Humphrey Bogart — I don’t know any of the stars of your generation.’ And I said, ‘Honey, Humphrey Bogart died when I was a tiny kid. I know him because I’m interested in film and my industry and the history of this business, and you should be, too.’ ”
So, as long as Morgan Fairchild is around, you can bet the memories of those Hollywood greats will be too. All you need to do is see her acting and style to know that truth.
“The Dixie Swim Club” runs April 27 through July 2 at the New Theatre Restaurant, 9229 Foster in Overland Park. See newtheatre.com or call 913-649-7469.