Holland Taylor Channels Texas Governor Ann Richards

Ann Richards
Actor Holland Taylor. Ave Bonar

If you had told the actor Holland Taylor five years ago that her identity would be subsumed by Ann Richards, the feisty late governor of Texas, she likely would have cocked a famously mobile eyebrow and shut you down with a dismissive, patrician laugh that has for 40 years made her a staple of television shows including Two and a Half Men and The Practice and plays like A. R. Gurney’s The Cocktail Hour.

“I know, it’s insane,” she says, lifting a martini (“I want it perfectly chilled,” she instructs the waiter, “and none of that extra-dry nonsense. I want to taste the vermouth, as it was originally intended”) in a sleek restaurant overlooking the Chicago skyline. “Can you believe I’m here, that this has happened?”

By “this” she is referring to the three-week engagement that began Sunday at the 1,800-seat Bank of America Theater for Ann: An Affectionate Portrait of Ann Richards, which she wrote, produced, and stars in. The one-woman show will move to D.C.’s Kennedy Center in December and is expected to open on Broadway in the spring. The play, which has packed houses in Austin, San Antonio, and Galveston, Texas, has taken over her life, she says, a phenomenon that could never have been anticipated. After all, Taylor, 68, and Richards, who came to national attention with the 1988 Democratic convention speech in which she mocked George H.W. Bush for having been “born with a silver foot in his mouth,” met only once. That was in 2004, over lunch in New York at Le Cirque with their mutual friend, the Texas-born gossip columnist Liz Smith. Taylor had just come off an Emmy-winning stint on The Practice, and Richards, who lost her 1995 reelection bid to George W. Bush, kept a Manhattan office for her consulting business. “After that meeting, I really didn’t give it that much thought, other than thinking she was fantastic, a hoot,” Taylor says.

In 2006, Smith called to say that Richards, who died later that year, had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Smith was inconsolable, which led Taylor to reflect on the effect that Richards had, not merely on Smith and Texas but on the nation. The two women had lived very different lives. Taylor, a well-to-do lawyer’s daughter and Bennington graduate, was raised on Philadelphia’s Main Line, never married, and has no children. Richards grew up hardscrabble in Waco, Texas, married young, and was a mother of four. Still, Taylor related to Richards’s gumption, warmth, and self-awareness. “She emerged at a pivotal time in American politics, and there really was no one like her and hasn’t been since. I decided that I had to make something out of it, maybe a biopic or a book. If I were a painter, I would have done a portrait. I just had to convey her.” One day, as she drove along the freeway near her home in Los Angeles, it hit her: “I realized it was a stage play. It came to me so fast and hard that I had to pull over. I just stared out through the windshield for about 15 minutes.”

Taylor thus began a multiyear odyssey that included dozens of trips to Texas, hundreds of interviews, and countless sleepless nights of writing and rewriting. She talked to members of Richards’s famously devoted staff and family for “thousands of hours,” becoming an amateur expert on Texas politics and culture. She had never written a play, or anything, really; a spare bedroom in the Rudolph Schindler–designed home she lives alone in at the foot of the Hollywood Hills became chockablock with notes and memorabilia. She calls it “Ann’s room.” “I’m a loner and given to melancholy,” she concedes, “and this infused my life with a huge amount of energy and focus.”

On Thanksgiving Day 2009, as she left L.A. to do a narration for John Williams at the Chicago Symphony, Taylor emailed off a draft to her agent and a producer friend. The reception was swift, positive, and absolute: “Suddenly I was hiring a production designer and a director, getting a booker to find me theaters,” she says. “It took on a life of its own. I didn’t think about the future.” She paid for it all herself, more than $200,000 of upfront expenses, out of the money she has made from her years in character roles, like her turn playing the vain mother in Two and a Half Men, Reese Witherspoon’s Harvard Law professor in Legally Blonde, and bisexual heiress Peggy Peabody on The L Word.

“It was all the cash I had,” she says. “Everyone assumes I have all this family money, and I may have had a somewhat privileged childhood, but as an adult I’ve survived entirely on my own. I’m just a working actor.” By 2010 she had told the producers of Two and a Half Men that she would appear occasionally on the show but needed to devote herself to Ann.

The play is set in Richards’s statehouse office, lined in mahogany, with a commanding desk and a towering chandelier. Done up in an elaborate wig that recalls the former governor’s trademark white pouf and projecting a presence much larger than her diminutive frame, Taylor spends much of the two hours of running time on the phone with aides, lawyers, speechwriters, and her character’s children. Sliding effortlessly into Richards’s archetypal drawl with its strategically lazy cadences and surprising swells (Taylor’s chum Tom Hanks, whose voracious boss she played on his breakthrough 1980s sitcom, Bosom Buddies, made sure she used his dialect coach), she captures the governor’s sly humor, talent for intimacy, and knack for getting her way. Much of the script centers on Richards’s personal life: her alcoholism (she stopped drinking in 1980), her traumatic divorce from her husband of 30 years, Dave Richards, and her complex relationship with her offspring.

Although the play shows her grappling with issues including the death penalty, concealed-handgun laws, and abortion, it is far more character study than polemic. George Bush is mentioned only obliquely, and there is nary a mention of Karl Rove, the master political puppeteer who engineered Richards’s undoing (after the election he attributed Richards’s defeat partly to a speech she made to a Girl Scouts conference in Austin warning young women to beware of “Prince Charming on a motorcycle with a beer gut and a wandering eye”).

Ann Richards Holland Taylor (left); Governor Ann Richards (right) Digitalegacy (left); Courtesy of Texas State Library & Archives Commission

“I think, in a way, Ann was relieved at losing, despite how hard she fought,” says Taylor. “She was in her 60s and the job was exhausting.”

For Taylor, success in Chicago, where the theater is nearly twice the size of venues she played in Texas, is crucial, marking the first time the play has been seen by an audience outside the Lone Star State. “This is really the test, with people who don’t really know the backstory, who aren’t invested.” But she is more excited than worried: “I feel there’s really something happening here, and I want to see if I’m right.” She demurs at the comparison to Hal Holbrook, whose legendary Mark Twain Tonight came out of an honors thesis he wrote in college in the 1950s. Holbrook played Twain on Broadway in 1966, 1977, and 2005, winning a Tony along the way; he has played the Amer-ican humorist in more than 2,000 performances. Despite ob-vious similarities between their folksy, quotable subjects and her and Holbrook’s passion for the material, the differences are legion, she says. Not only has no one alive likely ever met Twain, who died in 1910, but Holbrook’s script was fashioned entirely out of Twain’s own words, whereas Ann is 90 percent Taylor’s concoction. All the events described are real, as are a few of the locutions she culled from speeches and letters, but almost all the words are Taylor’s, “for good or bad,” she says.

For all the pressure, at least she is no longer financing the show entirely on her own. The producer pal to whom she sent that first draft, Bob Boyett, who worked with her on Bosom Buddies and now is responsible for Broadway’s War Horse, signed on for real after she debuted the play in Galveston. But waiting for a Broadway house to become available, one suited for a straight play, is nerve-racking, she concedes. And then there are the big-time reviews to sweat. She drains her martini and sighs.

“My pal Stockard Channing calls this my ‘moonshot.’ The one chance to go for broke. I’ve always been a hired gun, and not always so fulfilled by my work. Now I’ve had the chance to be a leader, to do something that’s beyond just myself, something meaningful. Who would have imagined?”