Susan Sullivan is a rarity among actresses. One of her first roles was opposite Dustin Hoffman in a 1960 Broadway production of Jimmy Shine. She has never stopped working. Her career spans more than 40 years and has included roles on stage, on TV, and in films. She just finished the third season of the ABC hit, Castle, where she plays the title character’s self-involved mother, Martha. Rather than relax during the program’s two-month hiatus, she went back to where it all began—the stage, to star in the long-running Off Broadway play, Love, Loss, and What I Wore. (photo, above).
“I’m a New Yorker and blessed to have an apartment here,” Sullivan says. “I’m blessed to come back to my home turf and get in touch with my roots. My other love is indeed the theater. My first love, as an actor and an artist.”
Sullivan was born in New York and graduated from Hofstra University. Like so many New York actresses, Sullivan worked in daytime drama, playing Lenore Curtain Delaney on NBC’s Another World for five years. She went on to play Maggie Gioberti on one of the most popular nighttime dramas of the 1980s, CBS’s Falcon Crest, appearing opposite Jane Wyman, Robert Foxworth (above), and Lorenzo Lamas. “That was a lovely show,” Sullivan says of Falcon Crest. “We had one of those retrospectives in California and it was lovely. The whole group got together again. They showed a couple of episodes. It’s a very strange thing to look back at yourself and—oh!—what happened!” She laughs her signature husky laugh.
Sullivan seems very much like both Lenore and Maggie, smart, warm, the woman friend we all would love to have. But it’s when Sullivan plays against type—the snooty, country-club mother-in-law that tortured Greg’s Dharma, and Castle’s bossy, overbearing mother, Martha—that we truly enjoy her talents. On Dharma and Greg (above), Sullivan’s Kitty Montgomery, began as the mother-in-law from hell, but soon became less manipulative if not totally loveable. On Castle, Martha’s quick to point out her son’s shortcomings, but is also one of his fiercest defenders and a doting grandmother to Castle’s daughter, Alexis, played by Molly Quinn.
In May, Castle’s season finale stunned its fan base. NYPD Detective Kate Beckett, played by Stana Katic, is shot and appears to die in Richard Castle’s arms. We have to ask—will Beckett survive? Sullivan laughs. “They are smart enough not to tell the actors anything,” she says, but she admits that she was also shocked. “I read the script and had to go back and read it again. I said, ‘Are they serious?’ I mean I’m sure she’ll be back; I can’t imagine that she wouldn’t be. But it did say ‘lifeless body.’”
As Castle, played by Nathan Fillion, held Kate, he confessed his love. “Finally,” Sullivan says, “he listened to his mother.”
Sullivan admits that she is having a ball playing Martha, whose back story as a former soap opera actress, mirrors her own. “I have said on a number of occasions that it’s really been an homage to my mother who is 94 years-old and a great gal and character who is now starting to decline,” she says. “There is a part of me that very much likes the character of Martha. I kind of repress her because she’s kind of over the top and wears thin after a while.” Sullivan says that the core of Martha is that she doesn’t want to be marginalized. “Let’s face it,” she says. “Life does that to you after a certain age. So she’s jumping up and down and trying to stay in the game.” One of the ways Martha draws attention to herself is through her clothing, something Sullivan insisted upon. “I told the designer, I’m only in a couple of scenes. Put me in bright yellow, bright green. At least you’ll notice I’m coming. You’ll know that she’s there.”
According to Sullivan, the opportunity to appear in Love, Loss, and What I Wore came at a perfect time. “You know those times in your life when you realize that you are making a profound choice, and it’s kind of off the top of your head?” Sullivan asks. “This was a choice that was really quite timely and important for me to do now for a variety of reasons.” The play, written by Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron, uses clothing—outfits once worn and perhaps long since discarded—to help women reconnect with their past. “With this piece of work, you are swept up by these women and all these tales,” Sullivan says.
The Ephron play features a rotating cast of actresses who face the audience reading from their scripts on stands in front of them. Sullivan, however, says that she will learn her lines, crediting her training on a daytime drama. “That was the genesis, the start of being able to get those lines as quickly as possible because it’s really difficult to connect to the other actors when you are stuck to the page,” she says. “One day all those years ago I learned the wrong script.” She went into a room and by focusing was able to learn the new script in half an hour. “Once you learn you can do something, you never forget it. I know now that I can learn lines.”
Being back on stage is exhilarating. “It sharpens your craft and it keeps you connected to an audience which you forget about when you are doing television,” says Sullivan. “In TV, you know there’s a kind of veil there and you’re working so small. Here, on stage, you have to really extend yourself and I think it’s important to remember to do that.”
Sullivan says that the play’s theme resonates with her. “It’s been very interesting,” she says. “It’s been reclaiming those parts of my life. You’ve sort of forgotten them and then, I started to do what my character in the play does, draw pictures of the various dresses and different outfits that she remembers. It’s been very fascinating. It’s that old cliché that you don’t know where you’re going until you understand where you’ve been.”
Sullivan says that she keeps in touch with her “families” from Falcon Crest, Dharma and Greg, and even Another World. Beverly Penberty who played Pat Randolph on Another World, planned to attend Sullivan’s opening night in Love, Loss, and What I Wore. “I’ve kept up with people from each of the major jobs I’ve had,” she says. “That’s a great gift.” That family atmosphere has developed on Castle. “I absolutely adore Nathan and love my granddaughter Molly,” she says. “We are a very tight knit little group.”
Although Castle is set in New York, the show is filmed in Los Angeles. Sullivan considers L.A. her primary residence now, living there with her husband, Connell Cowan, a psychologist and author, and her two cats, Derry and Clare. “If I wasn’t doing Castle, I would probably be spending more balanced time between L.A. and New York,” she says. “I like going back and forth, keeping my toe in a lot of different areas.”
Susan Sullivan will be appearing in Love, Loss, and What I Wore through July 3, 2011. To buy tickets, go to the play’s website.
Read our review of Love, Loss, and What I Wore.
Top photo by Carol Rosegg
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Shop: Bergdorf’s
Favorite Place to Eat: Robert Restaurant in the Museum of Art & Design, Columbus Circle
Favorite New York Sight: Out my window looking at the 59th Street Bridge
Favorite New York Moment: Doing the Parades. I used to do the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
What You Love About New York: The energy, lights, people on the street, being able to walk out the door and go to the corner and get a cup of coffee and not have to get in your goddamn car.
What You Hate About New York: When it gets sticky and the bad air coalesces between the buildings. I could do without that.