Betty Buckley Reflects on Joining the Long Line of Legendary Dolly Levis

Julia Cervantes
Betty Buckley in 'Hello, Dolly!'

The celebrated "Voice of Broadway" looks back on her career as she arrives in Southern California, leading the touring company of 'Hello, Dolly!'

Broadway legend Betty Buckley was surprised and grateful to be cast as voodoo queen Gran'ma on AMC's Preacher, a job that possibly had something to do with the box office success of M. Night Shyamalan's Split, in which she played Dr. Karen Fletcher. As she sat in her New Orleans hotel room on location for the TV show, she was about to get another surprise — an offer to play irrepressible matchmaker Dolly Levi in the national tour of Hello, Dolly!

"I flew to New York and met with [producer] Scott Rudin and [director] Jerry Zaks and had this lovely conversation about their phenomenal love for the show, which started when they were both boys," she tells The Hollywood Reporter as Hello, Dolly! hits Southern California, currently playing at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa and running at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre Jan. 30 through Feb. 17. "They had both seen the original production and put so much love and heart into this."

Buckley is proud take her place in a long line of legends that started with Carol Channing and continued with, among others, Pearl Bailey, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Ginger Rogers, Barbra Streisand and, more recently, Bette Midler and Bernadette Peters, who have ensured that Dolly will never go away again. Here, the "Voice of Broadway" talks about the Tony-winning revival and the recent death of Channing. She also looks back on working with Brian De Palma, Roman Polanski and Woody Allen.

What does the passing of Carol Channing mean to you while you're performing this role?

Carol Channing was a singular icon and, as one of our lovely cast members said, none of us would be here bringing this beautiful production across the country if it weren’t for her. She played Dolly Gallagher Levi over 5,000 times. She made Hello, Dolly! her own cottage industry and left an indelible stamp on the role. She was a singular talent, a wide-eyed, sly, savvy innocent. We dedicated our show that night to her.

What about seeing the production on Broadway with Bette Midler, before you got the role?

I was deeply moved by it, and I was standing and sobbing and crying not just for joy but in rapture by the end of the show. The production values are just amazing, and Bette Midler's performance, of course, was absolutely incredible. I literally turned to my friend during curtain call and said, "I think this is one of the greatest pieces of musical theater I have ever seen."

How comfortable are you playing comedy?

I've done comedy, but not this kind of comedy before. It's like being in comedy school, and Lewis Stadlen [who plays Dolly's initially reluctant romantic conquest, Horace Vandergelder] is a great, great comic actor — apart from being a brilliant actor. Fortunately, from day one, Lewis and I had great chemistry, a great connection, and that's a blessing.

You made your name on Broadway with your Tony-winning performance as Grizabella, singing "Memory" in Cats. Any thoughts on the forthcoming Tom Hooper movie adaptation starring Jennifer Hudson in the role?

I think he's a great director, and I think she's an extraordinary singer. I can't wait to hear her do it. It will be fascinating to see how they adapt it for the film. Judi Dench is in it, that's great, and Idris Elba is awesome. Taylor Swift, it should be fun. James Corden, I think he's so great.

Before that, you began your career working with Brian De Palma.

I had auditioned for him for Phantom of the Paradise, and he didn’t cast me. But when he was done, he called me and asked me to come in and fix these voices. I’m not really good at being myself, but I can do ADR for other people. So he came, and we had dinner on Broadway, and he gave me the book Carrie, and he said, "I'd like you play the gym teacher."

And you were in the stage musical as well, but you played Carrie's mother.

The mother-daughter scenes really had a lot of power to them, and they are really some of the best theater scenes I had ever done. And the director, Terry Hands, who was the director of the RSC, I think he was kind of mystified by the Americana aspects of the story and the show. He wanted to change the basketball stuff to soccer. And someone at a party said it looks like Grease, and he thought they meant Greek drama, so he had the kids in togas and no one understood that. The gym was like an Aztec staircase, it was beautiful to look at. He saw the show as a kind of Jacobean drama in the classical tradition, and the rest of us thought it was Americana in terms of the story. So there was this conflict of styles.

How did you take the reaction to it?

It was extraordinary. People talked to me from the audience. When I got to the top of the Aztec staircase, people would say, "Betty Buckley, come on down!" We got some great reviews' we didn't get just bad reviews. I think, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, they could have gone on and on and on. It was an amazing experience, and I was proud to be a part of it.

You also worked with another prominent New York filmmaker from the same period, Woody Allen, on Another Woman.

Woody Allen was an amazing character. I just had three days on the movie, but I got to work with Gene Hackman, and I got to work with Gena Rowlands, which was extraordinary, because she was one of my role models. But I'll never forget Woody Allen’s directions. He says to this extraordinary group of New York actors that he’d gathered for this party scene, "Okay, some of you know her, some of you don’t. So…you know what to do." So I just started laughing, and so did one of the grips. And he kind of looked at us like, what are you laughing at? I must have done about 12 takes of that spurned woman coming through the door scene. He says, "You know, you’re very talented." He says, "Someone needs to write a part for you where you throw tantrums and cry a lot."

The year before that, you made Frantic with Roman Polanski.

Watching Polanski direct his girlfriend, who later became his wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, I saw this kind of ballet mistress, him showing her exactly what to do. And yet he had this very soft, powerful...like a ballet dancer showing this young dancer how to do the dance. He's a really fascinating director.

Currently you play Gran'ma, the sorceress on wheels on AMC's Preacher, an unusual role for the woman who used to play the mom on Eight Is Enough.

I love Preacher. I’m a huge fan. I just think it's a brilliant social-cultural parody. It's really my kind of part.

Which is?

Weird and enigmatic.