From a reign as Miss Teenage Memphis to starring roles on a variety of hit TV shows, Cybill Shepherd’s 40-year career has included a host of twists, turns and transformations. After being discovered by director (and later boyfriend) Peter Bogdanovich in Glamour magazine, Shepherd scored the breakout role of Jacy in his 1971 film The Last Picture Show. The actress appeared in films including The Heartbreak Kid, Daisy Miller and Taxi Driver before hitting the small screen in Moonlighting, Cybill, The L Word (alongside her daughter Clementine), Psych and The Client List. Now the four-time Emmy nominee is making her Broadway debut as political wife Alice Russell in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man opposite John Larroquette, John Stamos and James Earl Jones. She is spending time with her brand new fiance, therapist Andrei Nikolajevic (who proposed shortly after this interview was conducted). Broadway.com chatted with Shepherd about singing with John Stamos, the injury that forced her to give up the title role in Hello, Dolly! and wearing high heels (and actually liking them!) in The Best Man.
Congratulations on your Broadway debut! How are you feeling?
I feel wonderful. Gore Vidal has been a friend of mine for years, and he’s one of the greatest writers in American history. When I heard the play was by Gore Vidal, I read it and instantaneously said yes. Then [director and former partner] Peter Bogdanovich told me about the brilliant movie with Henry Fonda that came out in 1961. I saw it three or four times and started studying!
I can’t imagine this is the first time you've been offered a Broadway show.
I was offered Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to follow Kathleen Turner, but I had three [young] children at the time. So it’s like, on my hiatus I’m gonna…? [Laughs.] Right! But The Best Man is the perfect Broadway debut—it’s an emotional ride, even though it doesn’t appear that way on the surface. Alice has been in love with [her husband] forever, but he becomes even a greater man by the end. He does what’s right for the country, and we get to see that moment while she watches him.
What is it like playing John Larroquette's wife?
He’s been fantastic. Candice [Bergen, who originated the role] told me, “He’s got your back,” and John’s been marvelous to me. We share a bathroom backstage, so we’ve gotten to know each other very well [laughs]. And he’s so good in the part. The Best Man is an extraordinary tour de force for John Larroquette. Of course, James Earl Jones is no slouch, either!
So, you got to spend some time with Candice Bergen?
I shadowed her backstage. You really have to get out of the way and figure out when you’re going in, when you’re going out, when the [rotating] set turns. And Candice loaned me the most beautiful gold mirror you could ever see. It’s a magnifying mirror, which sometimes I need when I’m putting on my makeup. Like, all the time [laughs]. We’ve known each other a long time, and she’s been very sweet to me.
What’s it been like transforming into a ’60s political wife?
I was 10 years old in 1960 and I remember how my mother dressed, so I was prepared. The silhouette was the most important thing—it’s not a tiny waist, but there’s a beautiful line in the clothes. Ann Roth designed my costumes, she’s a genius. And…I actually wear heels!
That’s right! You're famous for wearing sneakers at dressy events. How is that going?
It’s terrific, really. Now people are going to want to put me in a little heel. And I’ll be fine! I don’t wear them up and down the stairs, but onstage, definitely.
You've obviously been thinking about theater for a while, including a run in Hello, Dolly! at North Carolina Theatre that was cancelled when you were injured.
That was heartbreaking. I actually thought, “Maybe I can do this in a wheelchair with a broken knee,” but then I realized I couldn’t do the stairs. I was crushed. I would absolutely love to try Hello, Dolly! again. It’s got the greatest songs in the world. People still say “break a leg” to me, but I’m not gonna do that again! [Laughs.]
Do you still practice your singing?
I love to sing, and I warm up to Maria Callas. In The Best Man, I do a vocal warm-up for singing, and then I get to the theater and we all get together and do the official warm-up onstage. That’s the greatest fun. I’m all ready to sing, even though I don’t have to sing in this show.
Maybe you'll figure out another way to use your voice.
At Birdland, there’s something called Cast Party on Monday nights, with Billy Stritch. I’d love to do it. And John Stamos has a wonderful voice.
What duet would you sing with John Stamos?
Anything he said!
Your 1975 movie musical At Long Last Love is apparently having a resurgence on YouTube.
It’s going to be coming out [on DVD]! I’ll have to talk to Peter Bogdanovich to find out when. For a long time, I thought that it wasn’t very good—when it came out, we got terrible reviews. We all sang live, which hadn’t been done since the 1930s, and it wasn’t appreciated. I think I swam with Burt Reynolds in a pool and sang live. But the thing that moves me so much is to see Madeline Kahn. At Long Last Love showcases her in a way that is just a treasure. I’m proud of it, and hopefully it’ll be out soon—I’ll be buying boxes to send everybody I know.
What are your favorite memories from Moonlighting?
Well, it was a thrilling adventure, and for me it was a big comeback. And then of course, we got Bruce Willis, and he was a keeper! At some point we realized we were fighting before every scene, and we went, okay, we’ll have a little fight before we fight, and then people decided to run with it. It’s a fantastic show, and I got to do [DVD] commentary on a lot of the episodes.
Did you and Bruce Willis reunite for the commentary?
Yes, and it was wonderful to see him again. When you’ve done something so great, it takes a while to really understand how wonderful the show was and how great everybody was in it. But it was definitely one of the greatest opportunities I’ve ever had.
Besides Bruce Willis, you also got to work with Robert De Niro just as he was becoming a superstar.
Taxi Driver was one of the happiest moments of my career. It was a small budget film; we were in these checker cabs they don’t even have anymore. And we were pulling off this amazing, almost underground heist. I’m ready to be in the next Scorsese film!
You’ve got a full plate already, with The Client List getting picked up for a second season.
We start in October. Jennifer Love Hewitt is one of the loveliest people, and so professional. We all rise to the occasion, there’s no diva on the set. And playing her mother…it’s so funny, once you play the mother of someone, you always think of them as your child. That never goes away.
What are your real-life kids up to these days?
All three of ’em are doing fantastic. We’re gonna try to work out a family trip to New York.
What’s the best advice you’ve given your oldest child, Clementine, about her acting career?
You have to keep your hope alive. The comeback I had on Moonlighting, I didn’t know I would have such an opportunity, and over such a long career, you have to be patient. Clementine’s a beautiful woman, inside and out. She’s a wonderful actress, and gosh, when can she play my daughter again? [Laughs.] She was brilliant on The L Word.
You encouraged Clementine to do a nude scene on The L Word after the experience you had doing one in The Last Picture Show. Would you recommend it to other young actresses?
It’s not every day you work with Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn and Eileen Brennan. I lucked out in getting the greatest part you could start a career with. For actresses, you have to trust the process and your director, and you have to feel that the material is worthy. I encouraged my daughter to do a nude scene in The L Word because she’s so beautiful. But I think you have to search your conscience. If you want to do it, do it!
You’ve been vocal about your support of gay rights. How has America changed since you appeared on The L Word?
I’m pleased with the progress, but we still don’t have full marriage equality. It’s a crucial issue, and there’s a lot of bullying among younger kids. Parents really have to teach their children—they have to love them and support them, whatever their choices are. I mean, the Mormons came to California and managed to get [outlawing same sex marriage] on the ballot, saying marriage is only between a man and a woman. It shouldn’t be an issue. Don’t they have enough to do, the Mormons?
See Cybill Shepherd in The Best Man at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.