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Sam Waterston reminisces about Katharine Hepburn while receiving award in Old Saybrook

Old Saybrook — Actor Sam Waterston reminisced Sunday about his time working with Katharine Hepburn and her influence as an actor and person.

And he told stories about everything from visiting her Fenwick estate in Old Saybrook to Hepburn’s objecting to how Waterston’s Adam’s apple looked in a scene they were filming for “The Glass Menagerie.”

It was all part of the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center’s gala that honored Waterston with its Spirit of Katharine Hepburn Award. The Kate gives the award each year to someone who embodies the spirit, independence and character of Hepburn; last year’s recipient was Cher.

Waterston has been nominated for other awards before, of course: Emmys for “Law & Order” and “I’ll Fly Away” and an Oscar for “The Killing Fields.” He currently stars in “Grace and Frankie.”

Waterston starred with Hepburn in the 1973 TV adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie, and she made quite an impression.

In his acceptance speech, Waterston thanked the Kate for giving him the chance to offer a public salute to Hepburn, to her great “wit, appetite for work, vitality … and above all, her uprightness, a quality in short supply these days, her daring, leadership and moxie.”

She wanted that for other people as well; she wanted to find excellence and courage in you, too, he said.

Waterston emphasized how much Hepburn was about the “game,” meaning movies were about the whole project, not one person.

“She was no fan of closeups. What she loved was the two-shot,” he said. He recalled her telling him, “I want you to be in the same shot with me because I don’t want the camera to turn around on you and you to be doing something entirely different than you did when the camera was on me. We want to be in this game together.”

As for being chosen to receive the Spirit of Katharine Hepburn Award, Waterston said, “I love the idea of getting an award named after her, but knowing what I now know about how Kate felt about awards, I’d have had a hard time taking it. In fact, if she knew an award was being given with her name on it, she might have a few choice words for all of us. Actually, I think she would have truly been mollified by the fact that it’s given in support of a beautiful little jewel of a theater, thriving in this neck of the woods that she dearly loved.”

He thought her objections about awards were that they turned acting into a contest. Her idea of good acting is something where everybody wins, he said.

But, he noted, the Spirit of Katharine Hepburn Award isn’t a contest.

“And I don’t know if Kate would call it a character weakness, but I like presents and this is a very nice one,” he said.

Visiting Hepburn

In addition to his speech, Waterston was interviewed onstage by Ann Nyberg, the WTNH newscaster who is also vice president of the Kate’s board of trustees.

Before he was hired for “The Glass Menagerie,” Waterston went to Hepburn’s home in Turtle Bay, N.Y., so she could meet him. He recalled her coming down the grand staircase, saying (he imitated Hepburn’s distinctive voice), “Has he come yet?” He doesn’t remember what she said after that but, in response to a Nyberg question, he said, “I wasn’t frightened. I was absolutely mesmerized.”

He said Hepburn had a tremendous sense of humor about herself and loved fun.

“She had opinions by the carload, she had opinions about everything,” he said.

One of those strongly held opinions was, oddly enough, about Waterston’s Adam’s apple. They were filming “Menagerie” at night in London, and he was wearing a turtleneck sweater with a lower neckline than the one he wore to Sunday’s gala. (He said he wore a turtleneck to the ceremony in honor of Hepburn.)

“To this day, I can’t understand what she was objecting to. But there was strong side light, it was a night shoot. She went up to Lynn (Waterston’s wife, whom he had just started dating at the time) … and said, ‘You’ve got to do something.’ Lynn said, ‘What?’ She said, ‘You’ve got to tell him that he can’t have his Adam’s apple showing because nobody will be able to look at anything else and it’s horrible!’”

Hepburn was also generous. During a rehearsal, Waterston was enjoying the great spread of food set out for the actors (“this parade of goodies,” he called it), which he assumed was provided by the company. But Hepburn told him, “I make them pay me a very large per diem so that I can get you something edible to eat.”

Nyberg asked what Waterston thought of Hepburn’s Fenwick home when he had gone there with Tony Harvey, who directed “The Glass Menagerie.”

“It was so homey. … She and her brother were living there. It was very casual. The furniture looked like it had been there for a long, long time. It was there not there to knock anyone’s socks off but just to be comfortable,” he said.

Another Hepburn story he told: Later on, Waterston went to a theater performance of Hepburn’s, and, since he had played her son in “Menagerie,” he thought it would be funny to send a note to her backstage saying, “Your son is here to see you.” Hepburn’s longtime secretary Phyllis Wilbourn came out and said, upon seeing Waterston, said, “Oh, it’s you.” He said Wilbourn was unamused and Hepburn was unamused.

‘Law & Order,’ ‘Grace and Frankie’

Nyberg also asked a few questions about other subjects. The original “Law & Order,” which Waterston starred on, is going to return to TV. Nyberg said, “You might find yourself in it?” Waterston replied noncommittally, “I might,” and made the so-so hand gesture.

Asked when he knew that joining the series “Grace and Frankie” was for him, Waterston said he doesn’t even think he read a script.

“I think somebody just said Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda and Martin Sheen are doing this show and they need a fourth,” he said, adding the experience has been “nothing but fun.”

Fairness and decency

But back to Waterston’s views on Hepburn. He said, “Kate accused herself of being selfish, but I beg to differ. Her father once told her, ‘If you find yourself with a group of people who don’t know what to do, pick any course and you will be the leader.’ That sounds like sure winner-take-all-ism, until you remember he was talking to his daughter, a woman he knew very well. He could take it for granted that she already knew what the course ought to be made of — simple fairness, common decency, and generosity of spirit.”

Waterston noted that a lot of her movies were about a self-centered, headstrong, arrogant woman getting her happy comeuppance. He hopes we all take a page from that.

“I hope we learn from her and remember ourselves how to make the game, the play, the movie, the country we live in work for everyone. I hope we, in a confused and divided country, are reminded by her example to take good care of our common home, from this little theater to the whole natural world so there will be a place for our children to play for generations to come,” said Waterston, who is chair of the board of directors for Oceana, the world’s largest ocean conservation organization.

If we do that, he said, and turns out anything like what it was to work with Hepburn, we’ll be in for the time of our lives.

Waterston ended his speech with this: “Thanks very much for bringing back to mind a very special time in my life and an extraordinary woman.”

k.dorsey@theday.com

 

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