Over the course of her 30-odd-year career on stage, screen and TV, Stockard Channing has made more comebacks than the New York Yankees in a pennant race. In 1978 she gained mainstream fame as mantrap Betty Rizzo in the megahit film Grease. Then in 1993, after flying below Hollywood’s radar for years, she received an Oscar nod for her portrayal of society hostess Ouisa Kittridge in Six Degrees of Separation. More recently, in 2002, she became a small-screen star, winning an Emmy for her role as feisty first lady Abigail Bartlett on The West Wing. What her best-known characters share are a biting wit, an offbeat glamour and enough savvy to stay one step ahead of everybody else—not unlike Channing herself.
Her latest “alpha female,” as Channing dubs her, is Vera Simpson, the cougar who bankrolls the nightclub dreams of a gigolo in the 1940 Rodgers and Hart warhorse, Pal Joey. Opening on Broadway in December and set in Thirties Chicago, the revival is directed by Joe Mantello, costars Christian Hoff (Jersey Boys) and Martha Plimpton (The Coast of Utopia), and marks Channing’s first marquee turn in a musical since Grease. Not wanting to leave anything to chance, she began working with a vocal coach for the first time and got in shape by climbing hills and frequenting spas. “I would say, ‘I’m getting into character!’” she says, drawing out her vowels, as she sits in the American Airlines Theatre on a break from rehearsals. “I think I need a massaaahge!”
Shapely and petite in fitted jeans and black boots, her long brown hair falling into wide hazel eyes accented by dark brows, Channing has one of those malleable faces that can look at one moment like an undergrad and the next, a grande dame. Still, the qualities you recall days after a conversation with her are her patrician voice and droll, deadpan delivery. What drew her to Vera, she says, was the play’s unclichéd take on a woman of a certain age. “It’s not dragon-lady time,” Channing explains. “She’s extremely self-possessed, a cool customer, tough and elegant. She is at a time in her life when this could be her last fling, and she thinks she can handle it. And then he gets to her. I think that’s very interesting.”
“Vera is wildly sophisticated, highly sexual and smart as a whip—well, that’s Stockard,” says Channing’s friend Jack O’Brien, who directed her in revivals of Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood (1994) and Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (1997) at Lincoln Center. “She’ll show us a new facet of a character that we all think we’ve seen before.”
Her model, she cautions, is not Rita Hayworth in the 1957 screen version, which also starred Frank Sinatra. To cater to the mores of the time, Hayworth’s Vera was a widow, not a married woman, and she and Sinatra were both young and close in age. Channing, 64, and Hoff, 40, will be playing it differently. “In any case,” she jokes, “if someone compares me to Hayworth, I’ll be so pissed off. Because, who looks like that? I’ve already told [Pal Joey costumer] William Ivey Long, ‘Don’t give me any bias-cut satin dresses, because my body can’t take it.’”