Photo of a woman with greying hair wearing a blue shirt and smiling in front of a grey background

Ann Talman reflects on her relationship with Elizabeth Taylor and time at Penn State

For more than 40 years, Ann Talman (’79 B.A. Theatre) has been a prolific actress on stage and on screen. In 1981, she was cast to play Elizabeth Taylor’s daughter in Lillian Hellman’s Broadway hit “The Little Foxes,” and the result was a close friendship between Talman and Taylor that endured until the iconic actress died in 2011.

With “The Shadow of Her Smile,” Talman explores her relationship with Taylor in a critically acclaimed solo show that combines story and song to tell the stories that only Talman can tell.

Coming off two encore performances of the show in the Fall, Talman took the time to discuss her time at Penn State and her bond with Hollywood royalty.

When did you come to Penn State, and can you reflect on your time at the University?

I entered fall 1975 and lived in Pollock quad, Shulze dorm with my best friend from high school. I really didn’t have a major until the end of my second year when I realized I was in a show every term and I knew then that theatre was my major.

I loved working breakfast in the dining hall for two years and the “slop line” was fun because I got to say hi to everyone that way. Of course, I smelled like cereal and milk all day but it was worth it. And I loved being an Orientation Leader my second year in Pollock.

Food service was a major I considered along with Spanish and History. My other favorite job while at school was the early shift at Mister Donut. The various casts I was in loved it too because I often brought the leftover goodies from my shift to rehearsals.

In the spring of 1977, I began to audition for Pittsburgh’s Civic Light Opera when Bill Thundhurst ran it. I did this to teach myself how to handle high-stress auditions. I would bus home to Pittsburgh on weekends and my mother would drive me to the calls. I got all the way to first alternate for the chorus for that season, I was the youngest ever to do so. At that time, I toyed with the idea of transferring to Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and auditioned for their music department, theatre and their new musical theatre department run by Mel Shapiro. I was accepted on the spot at my first audition for the music department and waitlisted for the other two, but it aggravated me that they would not take any of my credits and I would have to start over in a four-year program.

I met with Dean McHale (Bill McHale acting dean of the College of Arts and Architecture 1982-83) at the end of my second year, spring term and told him I was going to transfer to CMU and gave him my withdrawal letter. He asked me to think about it and take the summer to be sure it was my intention. He told me that I was welcome back no matter what.

I agonized all summer because I was terrified that I could not handle the music theory and comp and I really did not want to be an opera singer. The week before Penn State classes resumed in the fall of 1977, I decided to stay.

My dad and I drove up to State College for me to re-enroll and to find me a place to live because it was too late for a dorm room. When I sat down with Dean McHale again and told him my news, he smiled and opened his desk drawer and handed me a page of paper. He said, “Ann, not to worry. I kept your withdrawal letter right here and never filed it because I hoped you would decide to return. Welcome back.”

I got my B.A. in Theatre. I wanted to go for the B.F.A., but I did not have enough credits. I had to go one extra term as a result of my mother’s sudden death, and I graduated in August 1979 after that summer term, which was so much fun. My mother had grown up with President Oswald’s (John Oswald, Penn State president 1970-1983) wife in Birmingham, Alabama and they were sorority sisters at Birmingham Southern College. She insisted Dad, Woody (Talman’s brother) and I sit with them at graduation, and she held Woody’s hand the entire ceremony. He (Woody) was such a charmer. She had looked after me when my mother passed, which meant so much.

A few weeks later, my dad drove me to New York City to my SRO at The Allerton House for Women on 57th and I began to pound the pavement. I got an off-Broadway play in November 1979, which ran February-April 1980. Then I was the cabaret intern at The Williamstown Theatre Festival in the summer of 1980, which is where I met and sang with Austin Pendleton who cast me in “The Little Foxes.”

One of my favorite things about college was dorm life. I thrived on it. When I decided so late to return to Penn State in the fall of 1977, I had to grab a dingy studio apartment living alone. When my mother passed, I slept on the sofa with my “BFFs” from Shulze who were living at Cedarbrook Apartments. I transferred back to the dorms I loved ASAP because I knew I needed to be around people. Then my last year we all lived in a three-bedroom on Garner Street, The Garner Court Apartments. We are all still close and I sang at everyone’s weddings too. Across the hall was a three-bedroom of fun-loving guys.  We had a rule, “no fraternization,” it was, I swear, the pilot for Friends ahead of its time. And I am close to many of them still as well.

If there was something you learned at Penn State that helped you in your career, what was it?

The wonderful Helen Manfull (former and beloved School of Theatre professor), who was my advisor, told me she called me “the I’ll try girl” because no matter what I was faced with, she remembered that I would say, “I’ll try.” I didn’t realize I did that until she told me about it when she attended my solo play “Woody’s Order!” in Pittsburgh in 2017 with Bill and Nancy Kelly. Bill was one of my favorite professors and we have all remained in touch over the years. The takeaway is that I learned never to give up and it is what I live by.

Your relationship with Elizabeth Taylor is well-documented, but perhaps you can describe what your relationship was like and how it evolved over the years?

I met Elizabeth at the first table read Jan. 20, 1981. Only Lilliam Hellman had casting approval and I had read for Lillian at her Park Avenue apartment twice.  I have a scene (in “The shadow Of Her Smile”) all about that. Elizabeth welcomed me with open arms, and from that moment on all my life I have been told I looked like Elizabeth in “National Velvet” when she was 12. My mother first spoke of it when I was 4 and every time the film was on TV, the next day folks would tell me how much I looked like her. I joke in the show, “only National Velvet, mind you, when she was 12.”

When I met Elizabeth she floated up to me, gave me a huge hug, kissed my cheek and whispered in my ear, “Oh my God, I feel like I’m looking at myself from National Velvet.” and I blurted, “Why thank you. I never heard that before.”

As an actress she was a total hardworking pro, therefore setting the tone for the cast in that regard. We were the first Broadway show to rehearse for five weeks on a Broadway stage, The Golden Theatre, so she could get used to projecting. What made my bond with her even stronger is that I had lost my own mother very suddenly in a car crash while I was at Penn State and I was still raw from it. Elizabeth played my mother on Broadway just when I needed a mother the most. She mentored me in every way with love and humor. And as we got to know each other, we found we had much in common.

We were both baby sisters to an older brother whom we adored. We had slumber parties, watched old movies and talked for hours. And I told her all about my mother and explained about my brother Woody and how he was brilliant, handsome, hilarious but also severely cerebral palsied and nonverbal from his birth in 1948. She was fascinated and made a big deal out of the day dad and Woody came to the matinee in matching tuxes. He did something hilarious and unforgettable when introduced to her and it is a fun moment in the show. From then on, she always asked about, “that gorgeous randy brother of yours.”

Elizabeth was very generous. I have many gifts from her, and she wanted to buy me the gown I wore in an Andy Warhol photo shoot but I was embarrassed and didn’t think I’d ever wear it again. Thank God she did not give up. She bought me an antique lace gown for my 24th birthday and when I wore it to our LA opening at Chasen’s I was in Women’s Wear Daily the next day. I speak of her generosity throughout my show.

When Elizabeth met my maternal Grandmother, she remembered that her favorite “story” was General Hospital (GH). Then when Elizabeth appeared on GH while we played Los Angeles, she sent grandma a set of “I LOVE GH” mugs. It was destiny that in 1997 I would be a recurring on GH as well. We all loved GH.

After the 18-month run, which included Fort Lauderdale, The Kennedy Center, Broadway, New Orleans and 6 months in London, we stayed in touch. When she was in NYC, she would have the gals over to her hotel suite for Soave Bolla and popcorn. The gals were me, her dresser Suzanne, her beloved assistant Chen Sam and sometimes her hairdresser Michael Kriston. It was a blast.

When I moved to LA in 1991, she and I spoke on the phone and I would call her for advice like what to wear to The Emmy Awards in 1992 and 1993. She even set up a private viewing for me at Saks in Beverly Hills. Champagne and everything. She wanted to lend me her jewelry and it was the second time she offered that. I sang at a venue in London and she offered to lend me her jewels when I sang “Glitter” and “Be Gay” from “Candide.” I was afraid I’d be kidnapped! In 1992 for her 60th birthday, she rented Disneyland and I was invited. I talk and sing about it in the show. I was at her 50th in London too.

She trusted me and knew I would never write or contribute to a gossipy tell-all. Whenever I was asked to do so I would decline and then call her and tell her all about it. I was offered $10,000 once for scoops. NO WAY! My show is a loving tribute and if she were alive, she would attend and love it I am sure.

As her health declined, she was more isolated and protected. The last time I spoke to her was on the phone and when she passed March 23, 2011 friends and strangers reached out to me as if I had lost my own mother, again.

If you will, please offer to the layperson the concept of “The Shadow of Her Smile.”

The show is a cabaret of story and song woven together into a complete narrative that flows from dialogue to song and back. The theme throughout is my loving, and at times hilarious, relationship with Elizabeth from January 1981 to her passing in 2011.

In cabaret, the dialogue is called “patter.” I tell stories only I can tell, and the songs are from Broadway shows, films Elizabeth was in and The Great American Songbook.

I also pay tribute to Elizabeth’s generosity to me and her groundbreaking AIDS activism beginning in 1981 when it was so new it was sadly called, “the gay cancer.” She was the first celebrity to stand up for her beloved gay friends and she co-founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AMFAR). Now there is also The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and its leadership team was handpicked by Elizabeth including her grandson Quinn Tivey.

One of my favorite sections of the show is when I talk about the many pranks Elizabeth loved to play during the run of the show. And a few I played in return, too!

Another theme is destiny. Hers, mine and how we come to grips with what life hands us.

During the creative process of writing and performing the show, did you rediscover or maybe even discover something about your relationship with Elizabeth?

Absolutely. The mother-daughter bond was key also because my own mother and I were never close, nor affectionate. She was often bedridden and suffered from severe clinical depression and post-partum depression. Sadly, undiagnosed and untreated. Elizabeth was almost like the dream of a loving mother that I had longed for all my life but did not even realize it. What an amazing gift of destiny. I met her mother Sara, too. Elizabeth was very close to her mother.

I came to a better understanding of my own mother by writing the show, and believe it or not, it was in the thank you/encore section when I remembered that my mother’s middle name was Elizabeth.

I discovered that Elizabeth can live on for me and others from my show. And I hope her family will be happy and pleased.

If she could see the show, what do you think she would say?

Elizabeth came twice to see me sing in a show in 1981 at Palsson’s, which is now The Triad in NYC. This was during the run of “Foxes.” I did a show one night in London and she was there too. She loved cabaret. She would love my show and be holding court for sure. I make sure it is something she would approve of, and it is all true. When we were in Fort Lauderdale, it was so much fun. Tony Bennet and Peggy Lee invited our cast to their show at The Diplomat, all expenses paid.

What is next? Anything on the horizon?

Yes. I am in “Steel Magnolias” through Dec. 4 at The Gulfshore Playhouse in Naples, Florida. I’m playing Ouiser who was played by Shirly McLain in the 1986 movie. The second week of January 2023 I have a writing retreat at The Prospect Street Writer’s House in Bennington, Vermont. That will be a climate change for sure. I got a grant for this and will be working on the compilation of all my writing that will become the manuscript for the book “Woody’s Order,” a nonfiction narrative memoir.

I hope to bring The Shadow of Her Smile to LA for Elizabeth’s 91st heavenly birthday on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023.

And in the summer 2023 I have a 2-week residency at a retreat in Virginia to keep working on my book.