I'm a fan of the interviews James Lipton does with major movie stars for “Inside the Actors' Studio” on the Bravo channel.
Of course, I would be. As last week's column reiterated, I'm a junkie for insider information on movie stars' biographies, career tracks, their process of working and stories from the set.
So, when Doane College in Crete, Neb., said actress Jane Alexander, 72, would do an Actors' Studio-style interview about her career while on campus last weekend, I jumped at the chance to hear her.
Alexander was keynote speaker at Saturday's inauguration of her personal friend, Jacque Carter, as the 12th president of Doane. They met in Belize in the early 1980s.
Alexander, a wildlife conservation activist, was researching jaguars for a screenplay she was writing about a woman zoologist. Carter, who had just earned a doctorate in marine sciences, was a research fellow studying fish for the Wildlife Conservation Society. They met through a mutual friend and just clicked.
If that sounds like a small-world story, read on. Alexander's family tree has deep Nebraska roots.
The family of her father's mother came to the United States from Germany in the 1840s.
“They later came across the country on a covered wagon and landed in North Platte,” she told me. “My great-grandfather managed the western terminus of the Union Pacific Railroad at that time in the 1860s.”
It gets better. Her father's father's family emigrated from Ireland to South Dakota, where she said her great-grandfather founded Lennox, S.D. Her grandfather moved to North Platte, Neb., after graduating from medical school and became Buffalo Bill's doctor. This same grandfather, she said, “started the first radium hospital, besides the Mayo Clinic, west of the Mississippi. It was in Omaha in the 1920s, and it was called the Radium Hospital.”
Alexander said her father and grandfather traveled to France to meet Madame Curie, a pioneer in treating cancer with radium, and she gave him the radium he used to start the hospital. When she asked her dad where they kept it, he said in the icebox at home.
“Grandfather was bright red, and he lost a couple fingers, but he lived to age 96,” she said, laughing at how nobody realized then how dangerous exposure to radiation could be.
Not done yet. Her father, Thomas B. Quigley, was a gifted student at Central High School in Omaha, where he earned a scholarship to Harvard. He graduated from Harvard Medical School and became an orthopedic surgeon. He was the Harvard football team's doctor. That's why Jane was born in Boston.
Still more Nebraska roots: Thomas Quigley and actor Henry Fonda went to Central High together and ended up doing summer stock in Falmouth, Mass.
“Dad always had a secret desire to be an actor,” she said, explaining to a student that he never objected when she chose that career. “So it was a secret delight that I got to grow up and do two plays with Henry Fonda: ‘The Time of Your Life' and ‘First Monday in October.'”
In case you don't remember, Jane Alexander is a seven-time Tony nominee. She won for “Great White Hope” in 1967, her breakthrough role opposite James Earl Jones. The play, about the first black heavyweight champion, won a Pulitzer, and Alexander earned an Oscar nomination for the film version as well.
She was Dustin Hoffman's sympathetic divorced neighbor in “Kramer vs. Kramer,” an upset secretary in “All the President's Men,” and a mother in post-apocalyptic nuclear hell in “Testament,” roles that also earned her Oscar nominations. I loved her as a nurse in “The Cider House Rules” as well.
TV watchers recall her as Eleanor Roosevelt in the miniseries “Eleanor and Franklin” and a sequel. She earned an Emmy playing FDR's mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, in HBO's “Warm Springs” in 2005. She also won an Emmy as an Auschwitz prisoner who played violin in “Playing for Time,” opposite Vanessa Redgrave.
She was chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts at the time Newt Gingrich became leader of the U.S. House and led a campaign to discontinue its funding. A strong advocate for partnering public and private funds for the arts, she kept the NEA alive, though it has not yet returned to the funding levels it had in the early 1990s.
She spoke with great eloquence about all of these things to the Doane students Friday. But she shone brightest as she encouraged the young actors to follow their dreams, giving them practical advice on getting a start.
“The thing you have going for you is you're young,” she told them. “They always need new faces. We're not static in this business.”