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Interview: Actress Morgan Fairchild Highlights Her Career, Activism
CHICAGO – Morgan Fairchild was a memorable presence during her early career in various appearances on 1970s and 1980s TV screens. She and also starred in a couple of nighttime soap operas including “Flamingo Road” and “Falcon Crest”. Known for her distinct glamour and deep voice, she became a popular sex symbol of the era.
Hailing from Texas, the former Patsy Ann McClenny began her career as a local model and actress, and got her big break as a double for Faye Dunaway during the filming of “Bonnie and Clyde.” Changing her name and moving to New York City, she got her first national gig on the soap opera “Search for Tomorrow.” This led to many memorable guest spots on ‘70s TV shows such as “Kojak,” “Happy Days” and “Police Woman.”
Chicago, March 13th, 2010
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for HollywoodChicago.com
After doing notable roles in two series, Fairchild continued to work steadily throughout the 1980s to the present, doing turns in the miniseries “North and South,” and the series “Murphy Brown,” “Roseanne,” “Friends” and “Cybil.” Recently, she appeared in the syndicated show “Fashion House” and went back to her daytime roots in “The Bold and the Beautiful.”
Fairchild is also a fervent activist, remembered for being the first to advocate for AIDS awareness in the 1980s, and continuing to speak out on environmental issues while maintaining a prominent role in the Screen Actors Guild.
HollywoodChicago interviewed Morgan Fairchild in Chicago at the Hollywood Celebrities & Memorabilia Show in March, highlighting both her career and her continuing activism. HC’s Joe Arce provided the photography.
HollywoodChicago.com: What spurred your ambition to be an actress, and what circumstance got you involved with Arthur Penn’s ‘Bonnie and Clyde?’
Morgan Fairchild: I got involved in theater because I was too shy to make a fifth grade book report. My mother started making me take drama classes, to bring me out, never knowing she’d be stuck with actors. [laughs] My sister and I both started taking acting classes, she wanted to go, but I would throw up every Saturday before the classes. But we really liked it.
Afterward, I started auditioning for local theater and getting parts. Because I was doing a lot of theater work then people started asking me to do commercials. From commercials, I got a call from a guy who owned one of the commercial houses asking me if, ‘hey, do you want to be in a movie?’ Turned out to be ‘Bonnie and Clyde.’
HC: You started your early career in soap operas. What specific performance skills are enhanced by working on a daytime drama?
MF: For me it was really great because I had grown up in the theater. And even though I’d done commercials and movies, it was the first time I had done a three camera show. I really learned how to do close-ups and similar things. We would take our lunch when the show actually was on during the day, and so I would sit in the control room and watch it during the lunch break.
One day a guy on the show who went to Julliard with my sister, who considered himself slumming, came in and said ‘what are you doing, why are you watching our show?’ in a put down manner. I told him I got married young and didn’t get to go to college. But had I gone to SMU or one of those good schools that teaches drama, they would have had video classes where they tape us and then tell us what we’re doing wrong. This show was paying me to do the same thing. [laughs] I was learning to act before a camera.
HC: You are a 1970s, ‘80s and beyond icon that appeared on virtually every well-known television series. What do you think is different for an actor back then that made it possible to make so many appearances?
MF: Well, the business and town has just changed dramatically, especially in the way business is conducted, as I have learned by sitting on the boards of the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA. First of all, even though there are a lot more outlets, you don’t get the exposure you did when there were only three networks. If you did a guest slot then, everybody saw you. And at that time, you didn’t have five companies basically owning the entire industry, all the vertical integration.
There was more diversity, a lot more independent film companies that were actually good and trying to do things. So there was a lot more opportunity to get work and to get discovered. Now there are rules like if you appear on one network, they don’t want you to work for another one for a whole year. That really hampers the opportunity to get a break.
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for HollywoodChicago.com
HC: You are also well known for your activism, especially in the areas of AIDS research advocacy.. What compelled you to get up and do something, and what words do you have for a government that ignored AIDS for so long?
MF: I had been rather apolitical until Ronald Reagan got elected. Reagan opened up the influence of the right-wing Christian groups into politics. And they started taking evolution out of the schools. I’m from Texas, and this is an issue right now. Publishers are not going to do two separate textbooks because Texas is so huge. Whatever Texas does is going to influence everybody else.
Now I was a huge science nerd when I was a kid, the first thing I was willing to defend was evolution. To stand up and say, ‘no, you can’t take evolution out of the biology books.’ And my uncle had won a landmark anti-censorship case in the Supreme Court, so I grew up with that through my childhood and adolescence. The work towards taking out evolution broadened the censorship, and groups then started trying to take books out of libraries. I expanded my defense of evolution into a defense of the right to read.
HC: So that morphed into your AIDS advocacy?
MF: I had an interest also, because of wanting to be a doctor in my early life, of emerging viruses and epidemiology. I had been following this new weird disease since 1979. I had seen a magazine blurb about eleven cluster cases of Kappa-C sarcoma in New York City, which a very odd cancer in the age group that was getting it. I saw some pneumonia cases in San Francisco, an odd strain that most people can fight off. I was making note of that.
Separately I saw that all of the cases were in gay men. And I knew something new was out there. I read everything I could about the disease, which then had no name. I knew all about it. Then when Rock Hudson got sick and Hollywood was going berserk, and the media went berserk, I felt I wanted it treated as a disease and not a social stigma. It was a disease and we needed to do something about it. I was the only famous face they could get out there on “Nightline” and hard news shows and explain what a retrovirus is and how you can and can’t get the disease. I testified before a Congressional committee, lobbied for AIDS funding and did a lot of work with C. Everett Koop. I was the face of AIDS for a long time, because other celebrities wouldn’t touch it.
People Magazine called me the summer that Rock Hudson was sick and asked me to do a picture in association with Hollywood Fights AIDS theme, and I said yes. They called me a couple weeks later and said thank you very much. And I asked why was he just thanking me. Because he said everyone else in Hollywood had turned them down, except when you said yes it made it okay for other people to do the picture. That’s what I could do with fame and the knowledge set I had. I could use the fame to actually help people and science, and help raise money.
HC: Finally, what type of role have you always wanted to do, that you haven’t necessarily been considered for?
MF: I’d love to play a doctor, that’s what I wanted to be. I came from a family of attorneys, but they have never cast me that way. The more heavier, serious parts, which is how I’m really like. [laughs] Less of a stretch for me.
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