Harris: We welcome to our guest line actress Mary Steenburgen, whom you know from the new CBS television show Ink, and you also know from big time movies like Philadelphia, Parenthood, Back to the Future III, Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, the extremely underrated Time After Time, and of course the movie she got the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1980, Melvin and Howard. Good Morning, Mary!
Steenburgen: Hi! How are you doing?
Harris: I’m doing great. Welcome to the show. That’s a pretty impressive list there, and I mentioned Time After Time, which you did with Malcolm MacDowell, which is one of my all time favorite movies.
Steenburgen: I love that film.
Harris: It really is wonderful and a great take on the old H.G. Wells novel The Time Machine. Just a really nice job.
Steenburgen: Thanks. The funny thing about that movie as you look back now is that it was done just before special effects got very sophisticated, but also it was done on a budget. So, the movie is fantastic, but the special effects are a little bit like a Tom & Jerry cartoon (laughs).
Harris: (laughs) That’s why you and Malcolm had to carry it with your acting, and I think you did. Anyway, I know Washington is a town that you visit quite often because you have some pretty good friends here in town, don’t you?
Steenburgen: I do.
Harris: Over there at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. You’re from Little Rock, is it that you knew Bill Clinton growing up, or how did that friendship start?
Steenburgen: Actually, it started in his first month of his first term as Governor, which is now about 18 years ago. He actually met my dad first, and became friends with my dad, who was a freight train conductor.
Harris: How does that happen? How does the governor run into a freight train conductor?
Steenburgen: I’ll tell you, he was speaking before a group of retired railroad workers, and he was talking to them about a sort of mentoring program of senior citizens with the youth. He was talking about the potential in our community for people, and he had just heard about this young woman who came from a real working class family in Arkansas who had been discovered by Jack Nicholson and cast in a film. He’s telling this story and the importance of really being there for the young people, and he hears this sobbing in the audience. He keeps talking and realizes there’s this real weeping going on, and he’s thinking what a great job he’s doing talking. After he finished his speech, he went down into the audience and went up to this man who’s wiping tears from his eyes, and he said, “I see that my remarks have touched you and I wanted to meet you. My name is Bill Clinton.” And he said, “Well, my name’s Morris Steenburgen and if you’re going to talk about my daughter, I think you ought to meet her!”(laughs). So Daddy introduced us. One of the only regrets I have in my whole life is that my dad did not live to see him become President. My dad died when I was making “Parenthood” in 1989, and Daddy really, really thought a lot of Bill. I would have made him very happy and it makes me sad that he didn’t live to see it.
Harris: Now, when you and Ted Danson got married, didn’t the President and the First Lady come to the wedding?
Steenburgen: Yeah, they did.
Harris: How does that work? Do you just send an invitation to the White House?
Steenburgen: (laughs) Well, I’ll tell you what was great about it. The press, of course, was very curious about the wedding and tried everything they could to get out there. We actually did the same thing, in our own way, that JFK Junior just pulled off. There were absolutely no photographers and no press at our wedding. They were all over the island and down at the bottom of our driveway trying to get up there, but because of the Secret Service, they couldn’t really get up.
Harris: Oh, sure! You pulled rank!
Steenburgen: (laughs) At one point, one poor shmuck who was silly enough to come up there popped up out of the bushes and about ten guys in fatigues popped up out of the bushes and he was gone in an instant. He never got his camera out.
Harris: That is not the right wedding to pop out of the bushes. When the Secret Service are there, you’re not popping out of bushes.
Steenburgen: No, no. So, I told Bill that was the ultimate wedding gift, that we got to have our wedding in peace, which was great.
Harris: Yeah. Can we hear the Jack Nicholson story? Where did he discover you? How did that happen? I heard it wasn’t a casting couch, but it was a casting office kind of thing.
Steenburgen: No, I managed to avoid the casting couch in my career, although I have some friends who have complained about it. I just met him when he was looking for a leading lady for a film called “Goin’ South”, and I was a young actress and a waitress in New York. I started reading for him, and he started cancelling all of his interviews. He started asking me where I had been and I said, “Well, I have been here for six years.”
Harris: If you had only come in to the coffee shop, we could have done this earlier!
Harris: And at what point does he tell you you’re the one, and you say to yourself, “Homina homina homina….Jack Nicholson!”?
Steenburgen: It was a few days later I came out to Hollywood for a screen test, and so did a lot of other people. So, I really didn’t think I would get it. I was definitely the one that was least likely to get it, because everyone else was an already established star. I was this person with this weird last name from New York that no one had ever heard of. But my screen test I guess, according to him, was the best. So I got the part, which was incredible.
Harris: That’s a great story.
Steenburgen: He’s a great friend.
Harris: You going to work with him again?
Steenburgen: I’d love to, but right now I’m busy working with my husband on Ink.
Harris: I know. You see, right there would be the stunt casting promotion of all time for February sweeps. You and Ted are in the newspaper office and all of a sudden, Nicholson comes in bitching about a subscription.
Steenburgen: Well, we have a few ideas for that kind of thing. We’ve got some pretty interesting people planned to come on. But the show is working so great now, with the cast that we have, which is wonderful.
Harris: I know you had some trouble, but you got off to a great start in the ratings. It’s on Monday nights on channel 9 here in Washington, and all over the country on the CBS television network. Mary, we’re out of time, but we’d love to have you back on sometime, maybe next time you’re here in town visiting the President. Bring Ted along and play around with us in the studio!
Steenburgen: That sounds like fun.
Harris: There’s not a chance in hell of it ever happening though, is there?
Steenburgen: Maybe. You have my number. We’ll see, but right now we’re too busy with the show.
Harris: Well, thanks for taking a few minutes to be on with us today on Harris In The Morning, Mary!
Steenburgen: Thanks a lot, Paul.
Copyright 1996, Paul Harris.
Transcript by Rhyan Jones