Lee Grant has one of the world’s great laughs, rich, throaty, and full of the elan that only someone who has lived such a storied life can give it. She was nominated for an Oscar™ for her very first screen appearance in 1951’s DETECTIVE STORY. She went on to win that award in 1975 for SHAMPOO. The intervening years saw her blacklisted, during what she termed her prime ingénue years, yet she refused to name names and continued a distinguished career on Broadway, including working with, and ticking off, Joseph Papp.
When she did start working again in television and movies, it was on her own terms. From insisting on doing her own makeup during guest spots, to promising to walk if her names weren’t listed in the end credits of Peyton Place despite the financial security being on that television series would provide, Grant’s sense of right and wrong was not something she was willing to compromise. She went on to work behind the camera, becoming an award-winning director on the large and small screen, and, most recently, an author, with her memoir I Said Yes to Everything, which is as forthright, and irresistible as Grant herself.
When I spoke with Grant by phone on July 8, 2015, it was in anticipation of her receiving the Freedom of Expression Award from the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on August 2, 2015. Rather than attempt any sort of journalistic detachment, I started by telling her how much it had meant to me, a smart girl growing up in a small town in the deep south, to see her speak her mind on national television without mincing words in how she chose to respond to the whys and hows of NBC cancelling her 1975 sitcom, Fay. At a time when women were still expected to be demur and smile, despite the women’s liberation movement, Grant gave the network the finger on The Tonight Show. To say it rocked my world is a gross understatement.
Naturally, that’s where we started.
We ended up, though, talking about the roots of her chutzpah, meeting Vaclav Havel, the effect on her life of being called by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and the resulting boost to her drive and ambition. And, of course, 1980’s TELL ME A RIDDLE, her feature film directorial debut, which will be screening as part of the festival’s tribute to her. It’s a measure of what a great sense of humor Grant has, and her gift for self-evaluation, that she can describe her directing and editing style back then as being like a tarantula. And a further measure of how big her heart is that she is so generous in talking about the two producers, Mindy Affrim and Rachel Lyon who, she now states categorically, were right about how the final edit should have gone.
Grant began her career as a child with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, went on to study at the fabled Actor’s Studio before going on to Broadway, television, and film. Retired now from acting, she has become a successful director and author, with her frank, poignant, and sometimes raucously funny memoir, I Said Yes to Everything.