As a young man growing up in the 1970s, one of the seminal films for me was “Saturday Night Fever.” No, I didn’t have the big hair or platform shoes. And while, thanks to drama and dance classes, I could cut a rug I was certainly no Tony Manero! But one of my fondest memories of the film is Donna Pescow, who played Annette, the girl who really only wanted to be liked by the boy she loved. It was her vulnerability that kept the film grounded. “Are you a good girl or are you a c*nt,” Tony asks her early on in the film. “Can’t I be both,” she replies. After “Fever” Ms. Pescow landed the lead role in the Garry Marshall produced television comedy “Angie,” earning a Golden Globe nomination for her performance. For the next three decades she has appeared regularly in both films and on television, including long stints on “Out of This World” with Burt Reynolds and on Disney’s “Even Stevens,” a role which earned her three Daytime Emmy nominations. Ms. Pescow recently sat down with MovieMikes to talk about her career:
Mike Smith: You’ve appeared in several popular daytime dramas (“All My Children,” “General Hospital,” “One Life to Live”). Is there something about them that keeps you coming back?
Donna Pescow: “All My Children” was presented to me as being a six week guest star. They were going to bring in the first openly gay character, which was really a fabulous opportunity for me to be in a groundbreaking role like that. I knew a lot of the people on the show…a couple writers and producers and a couple of the actors…and it was really just a wonderful opportunity for me to be a part of something so groundbreaking. I loved being a part of it. They won a couple of awards for it and, I think, opened up a real arena of something that hadn’t been explored. It wasn’t a stereotypical fluffy, fuzzy piece it was something that I thought was beautifully handled. “General Hospital” was another one that went on for a couple of months. They wanted me to do a character that was kind of like a 1940s style comedy – like Roz Russell. A fun but bigger than life kind of character. So again it was something unusual for that style of show. They asked me to do that and again I thought it would be a nice opportunity to do something different and work with some good people.
MS: You had to audition for both “Saturday Night Fever’s” original director, John Alvidsen and later, John Badham. Was there any difference in your character of Annette in each director’s vision? Did they maybe perceive her differently from one another?
DP: I don’t think so. I remember that when I auditioned for both directors I had never seen a full script. I was just starting out so I received what they call “sides,” which are excerpts from the script that your character auditions for. So I think the character was the same. What I did was I improvised a lot to get the tone of the character. Both of them were still trying to find the voice of the character. I don’t know if they were different or not but I’m sure each of them had their own specific take they wanted the actor to bring with them. There was a couple of months gap between the directors so I don’t know if the script was rewritten or not.
MS: How did the television series “Angie” come about?
DP: I got a call from my agent saying that Garry Marshall wanted to meet with me about an idea he had for a show. I was thrilled to get to meet with Garry, who is one of the funniest people on the face of the earth. And he pitched the idea – I think it may have come from another show he had thought about doing but he had tweaked it a bit – of a modern day Cinderella girl from the poor side of the tracks marries the boy from the rich side of the tracks. Now Garry pitching a story is almost funnier then the show! He has such a hysterical personality…he acts out all of the characters…I would have signed up right then and there in his office.
MS: You participated in the “Battle of the Network Stars.” I remember one year it was almost a grudge match between Robert Conrad and Gabe Kaplan. Was the competition really as fierce and competitive as it was made out to be?
DP: It’s funny that you mentioned Robert Conrad. He was there the year I was doing it. I would guess that if I’d ever joined the military it would have been very similar. He was really serious and really scary! And I was very happy that he was NBC and I was ABC because even from a distance he scared me. People were really serious about this and I was terrified because even though I was a dancer I was not an athlete (laughs). And I was so worried that I was going to let my team down and, most importantly, make a complete and utter fool out of myself. Which of course I did. I had to run the obstacle course and I think Howard Cosell said it was one of the slowest runs in the history of the games. So maybe I should take solace in that I did break a record! (laughs). It was a lot of fun but people were tremendously talented in athleticism and I just did not shine there. (NOTE: for readers who never experienced watching the “Battle of the Network Stars,” click here if you want to see the Robert Conrad/Gabe Kaplan match up I mentioned. Notice that Conrad keeps puffing on his cigarette before the big race:
MS: You co-starred with Burt Reynolds (a recent MovieMikes interviewee) in the series “Out of This World.” How did that role come about?
DP: I like that you said co-starred. In the show I spoke to him through a candy dish! Again it was one of those lovely moments where somebody calls and says they have a show they think I’d like. All of the pieces seemed to fit. It kind of reminded me of a show I used to like when I was a kid called “Bewitched.” I just thought it was kind of fun to do the magic and the special effects. I was actually surprised that it went on as long as it did. Not that I didn’t like it, it’s just that you never know. It’s one of those things that will either hit or not. And Burt was great. I would have liked to have had a scene with him! But we were never in the same room. He was recording in one studio and I was in another.
MS: You’ve directed several television episodes. Is directing something you’d like to pursue more?
DP: I love doing it. I got to do some when I was on “Even Stevens.” I also did “Harry and the Hendersons” awhile back and I love it. Pursuing a directing career is like pursuing an acting career. You really have to give it 100%. I think if I’m going to do it again I need to make that commitment and pursue it as strongly as I do acting. I’m sure that the next round I do I’ll definitely stick with it longer.
MS: Getting back to “Fever,” was there any talk of bringing Annette back in “Staying Alive?”
DP: Annette WAS in “Staying Alive.” The character was in the script for quite a while. In fact, there was a section filmed where he (Tony Manero) goes back to Brooklyn and sees several people. But the script changed and they ended up taking that section out. But I did shoot a tiny scene where I was in the audience with my husband – I guess she got married – and we were watching the Broadway show Tony was performing in. But we only shot a little bit of it because they kept rearranging the script. I was sorry to not be in it but I understood that it didn’t really work.
MS: A lot of people pan that film but I think it was amazing how Stallone envisioned the Broadway musical of the 1990s. Lots of flashing lights and explosions and rock and roll scores.
DP: He really had a vision. Both John and Sly really did a great job. They had a very specific thing they wanted to accomplish and they did it and they did it well. It’s really iffy how the public react to things at times. I think they should take a second look at the film and see if they enjoy it more.
MS: You appeared on both “NYPD Blue” and “The Sopranos,” both landmark television dramas. Did you feel you were working on something special when you were filming?
DP: Yes. “NYPD Blue” I was a fan of so going into something that you watch and you like is almost like a little gift because you know going in the quality of the work. So I had a sense that I was doing something that was above average. And the cast and crew were tremendously talented to work with so I had a great time. “The Sopranos”…I was such a “Sopranos” junkie that I could not get enough of that show. I was glued to it every week…I never missed it. When they asked me to do it I really had a hard time separating being a fan from being an actress. I was really sort of star-struck when I went on the set. I got to meet everyone and I had to keep telling myself over and over, “Donna, be a professional. You’re here to do an acting job not sit and gawk at all of the people you watch every Sunday night.” But I was so excited and so thrilled…it was the last episode. So it was really an extraordinary thing for me to be a part of it. It was really an amazing thing to be a part of that show. And you know, when you look back on your career you think you’ve done all of these things that have been personally rewarding. But then you look at “The Sopranos,” which was very much a groundbreaking show in television history, and you’re proud to have been a part of that.
MS: What are you working on now?
DP: There are a couple of things happening. Of course I never know which of them is going to pan out. I’m talking to someone now about possibly coming back to New York and doing some theater there, which I’m kind of excited about. So we shall see!