We have adored Bebe Neuwirth for a long time. Heck, we put her on our fifth anniversary Out cover! Whether she was making Dr. Crane crazy on Cheers or Frasier, she had us laughing. And the actress has always stayed true to her theatrical roots (she picked up Tony Awards for Sweet Charity in 1986 and Chicago in 1997), recently appearing off-Broadway in Here Lies Jenny, an evening of Kurt Weill songs. She is now starring as tough Manhattan district attorney Tracey Kibre on the newest Law & Order spin-off, Trial by Jury. Neuwirth took a few minutes to sit down and chat with us.
Its great to see you!
(Laughs) Im with my people now.
Have you been on any of the Law & Order episodes?
You know what, Ive had a little part on the fourth episode of SVU, and thats the only Law & Order Ive done.
Theres been a tradition of the Law & Order shows using New York theater actors.
Yes. Oh, my gosh. The people that have been on our show have been just incredible. And its really inspiring but its alsosometimes I feel embarrassed because some of the people who come on and say He went that way are so over-qualified for that.
Obviously it was difficult after losing Jerry [Orbach, her costar who died after filming just a few episodes of the show]. Did you know each other from the theater?
Well, Id been acquainted with Jerry, wed been friendly acquaintances for a while just from seeing him around. And, of course, Ive been a huge fan of his since I was 15 when I saw him play Billy Flynn in Chicago. He is and always will be the sexiest man Ive ever seen on Broadway. Unbelievable. It was blissful to be able to work with him and be on set with him.
Speaking of Chicago, you were in the revival of Chicago and youre actually one of the few actors
Im a girl, you can call me an actress. I know, I know, Im politically incorrect, but to me, Im a girl, so thats the feminine form of the word, so
And you are definitely a girl, with those high kicks! Youre one of the few actresses who actually balances television and theater so well. I have a feeling that you love both, but theyre such different mediums.
Well my first love is the theater. Ive been on stage since I was 7.
So 30 years ago
Okay, 30 years ago. (Laughs) If I said 30 years ago, Id be lying wildly. So because Ive been on stage since I was 7 and also because Im a dancer. I dont consider myself an actress really. I consider myself a dancer. Its my first mode of expression; its my way to express myself physically. So also because of that I feel most comfortable with theater because thats a physical place to work. Its a more visceral experience to work in the theater than to work in front of a camera.
Were you looking around specifically for a TV thing or would you have done a sitcom if it were offered?
No. Probably not, probably not a sitcom. As Ive said to somebody today, several times, its really hard to get me to do television. You know, its not the first place Im drawn to, but as I said, this came out of the blue and it was so good. Im glad to do television, and it has to have a couple of things: It has to be really, really well written, really intelligently produced, it has to be shot in New York, and the character has to be interesting to me. And this has all those things for me.
Did anybody ever try to get you to do a Lilith spin-off from Frasier?
No. Im not sure. It sort of came up in a conversation once with an executive only after I had said, Oh, my God. Well, I would never do something like that. So I dont know if they were actually going to ask me that or not. I didnt think that was a good idea. I mean, Frasier was miraculous. That show was a miracle. It was a fantastic show and that so rarely happens.
Do you have fond memories of Cheers?
You know, I have to say I was a very different kind person in my old life, so I was very unhappy. Certainly there were moments of fun and laughter and loving in there, but it was not the best period of my life so far.
Now Im much happier.
And the flip side of that in doing that show, I imagined that opened better doors for you in terms of the theater.
Oh, I have to say, that was a large reason why I took it, because when that came along I was doing Sweet Charity and we were about to go to Broadway with it
With Debbie Allen?
Yes, thats right. And I did my first episode when I was waiting in between the California and the New York runs of that show. And I just did one scene on the show, just to do something while I was waiting to go back to New York. I won a Tony Award with Sweet Charity on Broadway and I was very happy and doing what I loved. This was everything that I always wanted to do. Then Cheers asked me to come back. It was a very hard decision, and I resented it. But part of the reason I took it was because at this point in Broadway, this was 1986, when they just started bringing in people who were better known for television and filmbut really televisionto do the leading parts on Broadway. And all of a sudden, here I was working my way up through the ranks of the chorus and they gave me a Tony Award for supporting role in the show. Normally I would probably be considered for a lead, but I probably wouldnt unless I had television credit. And I thought, Well, its not that I want to be a star, its just that I want to be able to do more stuff on Broadway, so if I have to go to television to do that, then fine. If they need me to be seen by everybody in the country, fine, Ill go to Cheers and Ill be seen by everyone.
Whats your feeling of gays in Hollywood right now?
Well, Ill tell you one thing. I really think its a shame that in Hollywood you cant be out. In New York, the actors can be out and they can play whatever they want. Harvey Fierstein is playing Tevye for Gods sakes. But in Hollywood, there are so many gay actors For actresses its OK for some reason because straight guys like to see it. But straight Hollywood cant stand the thought of men together, so these guysits just too awful, I think. Its like, well, whats changed since Rock Hudson really?