“There isn’t any project that I now consider ‘too little’ or ‘too small,’ like that girl [an earlier version of herself] from back in the early seventies, the girl who said ‘I will never do a sitcom,’ ‘I will never do a soap opera,'” says the actress Judith Light as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “That’s not ever where I come from anymore. I come from great respect for the work.” Ironically, Light is perhaps most famous for her acclaimed turns on the ABC soap opera One Life to Live (1977-1983) and the ABC sitcom Who’s the Boss (1984-1992) — projects she now, a few months shy of her 70th birthday, proudly embraces — but she has also done so much more en route to becoming one of the most respected and admired actresses of her generation.
At the moment, Light is as busy and buzzy as ever. She and her colleagues on Amazon’s Transparent are preparing to wind down that critically applauded show; she recently shot her scenes for the first season of one of the first shows that will appear on the Facebook Watch platform, Queen America, and the indie film Stupid Happy; and she is nominated for her fourth Primetime Emmy (she has yet to win one), this time in the category of best supporting actress in a limited series or a TV movie, in recognition of her portrayal of Marilyn Miglin, a businesswoman whose husband was murdered by the same serial killer who later killed Gianni Versace, in Ryan Murphy‘s FX limited series The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. “I’m open,” she says. “I’m working to stay in every single moment. The past is over. The future is unknown. All I have is right now.”
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Light was born in Trenton, New Jersey, to parents who once dreamed of becoming actors themselves, but instead wound up in sales. From as early as age three, the only child was a performer, perhaps because, she speculates, she so badly wanted her parents’ approval. She certainly had their encouragement, as they sent her to acting teachers and ultimately helped to send her to Carnegie Mellon University, where she majored in theater (as well as liberal arts). “I was gonna only do feature films and theater — that was my plan,” Light remembers thinking after graduating. “I wanted to go to New York.” But her first stops were in Milwaukee and Seattle, where she was part of repertory theater companies for four and a half years.
“I have always felt something larger driving me,” Light says. “Not just my ambition, which is clear and I’m not going to be coy about it. But I knew there was something bigger for me to do in relation to the work that I would do.” So in 1974, she headed to the Big Apple and found some major opportunities right off the bat. She made her Broadway debut in a 1975 revival of A Doll’s House for Joe Papp, which starred Liv Ullmann but ran for less than two months. Then she appeared in another Broadway play, Herzl, which lasted less than a week. In other words, she had made it to the Great White Way — but it wasn’t so great for her. “It was the destruction and the disillusionment of a dream that I had held on to,” she says, “but it was [ultimately] the greatest thing that ever happened.”
Light entered a down period — she was depressed, bedridden with a back injury and collecting but quickly running out of unemployment assistance — but during it, as she puts it, “I woke up.” She elaborates, “What it did was it allowed me to look at who I was being in the world in my work and in my life, and I didn’t like who I was being,” adding that she decided to no longer think selfishly, but instead how she might serve others. She went into therapy, lost weight, recalibrated her thinking — and then received an offer be an understudy on One Life to Live.
Light had assured her parents after college that she would never work on a soap opera or sitcom, but, having decided to stop thinking that she was ‘above’ doing anything, she went in, and soon was cast in a Belle du Jour-inspired story arc, playing Karen Wolek, the wife of a doctor in a wealthy community who was secretly prostituting on the side, and ultimately had to come forward in court and speak the truth in order to exonerate someone else of a crime. Light hadn’t even wanted to be part of the show, but through it she met her husband; won Daytime Emmys in 1980 and 1981; and did such good work that her courtroom scenes are still taught in acting classes. In 1983, her agents urged her to move to Los Angeles to try her luck there.
As it turned out, Light initially struggled to find work out West beyond guest parts on TV series including St. Elsewhere, Family Ties and Remington Steele, and came to feel as if she was “back at square one.” Then, she was invited to audition for several ABC shows, one of which was called You’re the Boss — later retitled Who’s the Boss? — and she wound up being cast as Angela Bower, a single working-mom and advertising executive who hires a character played by Tony Danza to babysit her child. Donning power suits, shoulder pads and hair extensions for 196 episodes over eight seasons that aired as part of the Alphabet Network’s primetime lineup, Light says she learned how to do comedy — and, in the process, created a groundbreaking and influential female character that established the actress as a force to be reckoned with.
She followed Who’s the Boss? with a host of TV movies, such as 1989’s The Ryan White Story, in which she agreed to play the mother of a boy dying of AIDS as but one part of her early and extensive efforts to raise awareness about and funds to combat the then-deadly disease. (“Friends were dying — people who I considered family,” she recalls mournfully.) But it was yet another relatively dry period for the actress — until, that is, she overcame her fears and returned to the theater in the most challenging way imaginable. In 1999, 22 years after she had last acted on stage, Light, as a challenge to herself, agreed to join the off-Broadway production Wit, which had just won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, to portray a scholar diagnosed with terminal cancer — requiring her to shave her hair and be nude onstage every performance. “It was wildly intimidating,” she admits, but she did the show for a year between New York and a national tour, and found that it transformed her entire outlook. “I began to let go of the things that were binding me to myself and my insecurities.”
Light followed Wit with a return to network TV, this time playing key recurring guest parts on NBC’s Law & Order: SVU (2002-2010) and ABC’s Ugly Betty (2006-2010). Ugly Betty brought her the first Primetime Emmy nom of her career, and her part was later expanded into a regular role, thereby bringing her back to New York, where she returned to Broadway and soon embarked on one of the most remarkable stretches in its history. Indeed, Light was nominated for Tonys in three consecutive years — for Lombardi in 2011, Other Desert Cities in 2012 and The Assembled Parties in 2013 — winning for the latter two, which made her one of only six performers who have won Tonys in back-to-back years.
From that run came two of the most important TV projects of Light’s career. During her time in The Assembled Parties, she was approached by Jill Soloway about playing Shelly Pfefferman, the yenta-ish ex-wife of Jeffrey Tambor‘s character who comes out as trans, on Amazon’s Transparent. “Getting to do this show was a real pinnacle for me,” she emphasizes. “I loved every minute of it.” (She notes that Amazon says “there will be some kind of closure” for the show, which was recently rocked by sexual harassment allegations against Tambor that led to his firing.) Separately, John Robin Baitz, the Other Desert Cities playwright, connected her with Ryan Murphy, his frequent collaborator, which led to her being cast as Marilyn Miglin in The Assassination of Gianni Versace.
On Versace, Light was originally supposed to play this “strong, powerful, amazing woman” — who she says she “chose very actively” not to reach out to ahead of the project, both because it would have been “inappropriate” and might have led to a “caricature” — in only the series’ third episode; but she was so excellent in it that she was brought back for the series’ ninth episode, as well. And though Light’s collected screen time is relatively brief, the impression that she makes is unforgettable, from her tapping of a kitchen counter while a search is underway for her missing husband, to her emotional breakdown in front of a mirror, to her remarks to a TV camera about her late husband. “It’s the combination of everything,” Light says of her performance. “It’s the work that I’ve done before, it’s the work I do on myself, it’s the script, it’s the director, it’s the crew, it’s the cast … it’s the team.”