When I first decided to become an actress, for real, for sure, professionally, I started taking classes in New York at HB Studios. I was very lucky to find a great teacher right away – Walt Witcover. He taught me the basics and kept me focused on the truth of acting and the reality. We did acting exercises and we did scenes from famous plays. We worked on scenes from Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Chekhov, Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw. Walt still teaches in NYC – on his own and HB Studios is still a great place to study in NYC and I recommend it to anyone who tells me they are living in NYC. Walt Witcover and/or HB Studios you can’t go wrong.
When I’d completed my basics with Walt, I then studied with Michael Shurtleff. Michael had been a major casting director and worked with Bob Fosse casting both “Pippin” and “Chicago” and with Andrew Lloyd Webber on “Jesus Christ Superstar.” He also worked in Hollywood, where he did casting for “The Graduate” and “The Sound of Music.”
After encountering frustrations while casting the Broadway production of “The Lion In Winter”, Michael decided to write a practical acting handbook about the tryout process “AUDITION” which was first published in 1978 and it has become a bible for aspiring actors.
While I was studying in NYC, I did productions of “Salome”, “Dracula”,”Man of Destiny” by Shaw, “Alcestis” by Eurpides, “The Haunting of Hill House” and Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, among others. I also did extra work and under/5 work on all of the NYC soap operas or daytime television, like “As The World Turns”, “The Guilding Light”, “Another World”, “Search For Tomorrow”, “The Doctors”, “The Edge of Night” , “Love of Life” and finally a real role on “All My Children”. It was a short role, but the late great black actress Beah Richards played my mother.
I also did one NYU Film School project, which gave me my first taste of acting on film.
While I was studying with Michael I was cast in my first national commercial for Avon Beauty Products and then a Broadway production of “THE MERCHANT” written by Arnold Wesker and directed by John Dexter which was to star the great Zero Mostel (the original and most famous “Fiddler On The Roof”).
From Michael I learned to take risks as an actor and artist and as a person and not to judge my character. These were very important lessons. I also began to develop my style as an artist. Michael used to take us disco dancing as a group and we’d dance for hours and hours in the late 70’s in NYC. He gave me books as gifts and he became a personal friend. He came to my parties and I went to his parties and I loved and admired him. He died in 2007 in Los Angeles.
I was discovered by Bill Cosby on the first day of rehearsals for “The Merchant”, because Zero was going to be doing his first large production that was not a musical and the first day was catered by Sardi’s and was televised on local NYC and surrounding areas. I got my Equity (AEA) card by being cast in this play. Bill saw me on TV and got the William Morris Agency to call me in and meet with his producer, the great Sheldon Leonard (He he is better known as the producer of hugely popular television series, including The Danny Thomas Show (1953–64), The Andy Griffith Show (1960–68), The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961–66), and I Spy (1965–68).
Sheldon offered me a role in Cosby’s next pilot which was shooting on an island in Italy. I turned it down because I didn’t want to give up my Broadway debut.
Bill Cosby being a persistent man kept communicating with me through the death of our star Zero Mostel in our out-ot-town tryouts in Philadelphia with our new star, Joe Leon, and our subsequent continued performaces at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and finally our Broadway debut.
Finally, Bill recommended me to Herbert Ross, the highly acclaimed Broadway and Film Director (“Chapter Two”, “The Goodbye Girl”, “Funny Lady”, “Turning Point”) who met with me in NYC. Herbert Ross flew me to Los Angeles to read for Neil Simon, the playwright/screenwriter and Ray Stark, the producer. I was cast as Richard Pryor’s wife in “CALIFORNIA SUITE” and all of my scenes were with Richard, Bill and Sheila Frazier (“Supafly”). This movie also starred Alan Alda, Jane Fonda, Walter Matthau, Michael Caine and Maggie Smith (she won The Academy Award for her role.) I got my SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card by being cast in this movie.
We shot the film in and around Los Angeles and at the Warner Bros. Studios. It was exciting and I had a driver and a beautiful room at the Sheraton-Hilton hotel in Universal City, California.
At the time, my boyfriend, Armand Assante, had just finished playing Sylvester Stallone’s brother in “Paradise Alley” and we enjoyed all the sights of Los Angeles and its surrounds. Magic Mountain, Knots Berry Farm, Hollywood Boulevard theatres and screenings, and the great Thai restaurants and Mexican restaurants that are everywhere in Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley, aka The Valley.
I returned to NYC with my son, Adam, and after doing a play written by Ray Flores quickly was cast in a play in London, England. “MY CUP RANNETH OVER”, written by the brilliant playwright, Robert Patrick and produced by Ed Berman. It was a two-person play. We did lunch-time theatre in the West End, got great reviews and it was a spectacular highlight of my career.
Returning to NYC, I accepted a role in “THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT” at the Grand Bend, Ontario Theatre in Canada. Again, this was an exciting two-person play, with a wonderful director and then I repeated my performance in “My Cup Ranneth Over” for the Public TV in Minneapolis, Minnesota at The Guthrie. Another adventure.
Then I moved to Los Angeles and started studying with the late great acting teacher/director Milton Katselas at The Beverly Hills Playhouse (BHP). Actually we were at the Zephyr Theatre in Los Angeles and then we moved to Milton’s Skylight Theatre. There my classmates were Michelle Pfeiffer, Ted Danson, Tom Selleck, Peter Horton, Ana Alicia, Delta Burke (Delta was my friend and I brought her to the BHP.), Rick Rosenthal and so many others.
I started to guest star on such tv shows as “QUINCY, M.E.”, “THE INCREDIBLE HULK”, “CAGNEY & LACEY”, “HUNTER”, “FAMILY TIES”, “DAVE’S WORLD”, “THIRTYSOMETHING”, DICK CLARK’S “BEYOND BELIEF”, “GOOD NEWS”, “CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL” while starring in or co-starring in “HALLOWEEN II”, “48 HRS.” with Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte, directed by Walter Hill, “GOING BERSERK” with John Candy and Ernie Hudson, directed by David Steinberg, “D.C. CAB” with Bill Maher, Paul Rodriguez, Gary Busey, Max Gail, Adam Baldwin, Marsha Warfield and directed by Joel Schumacher for Universal Pictures. I starred in my own pilot for CBS “SHE’S WITH ME”, directed by Will MacKenzie, produced by Mort Lachman and my co-star was Deborah Pratt (she became Mrs. Don Bellasario and helped to create “Quantum Leap”).
After that I did “THIS IS SPINAL TAP” directed by Rob Reiner and the last film that John Cassavetes directed “BIG TROUBLE” starring Peter Falk, Alan Arkin and Beverly D’Angelo. Next I co-starred in “VICE VERSA” (Judge Reinhold, Fred Savage). Along with other TV shows and/or movies of the week starring Cybill Shephard (director Mimi Leder), Angie Dickinson, Benjamin Bratt, and recurring for two seasons on “HANGIN’ WITH MR. COOPER” - (Mark Curry, Holly Robinson Peete), “THE NANNY” (Fran Drescher), and three seasons on “TRACEY TAKES ON…” (Tracey Ullman). I did a pilot with Benjamin Bratt and worked with Tobey Maguire twice. First on a great tv movie called “HOT ROD BROWN CLASS CLOWN” which starred Whoopi Goldberg, Tobey and myself. Then on Tobey’s tv series “GREAT SCOTT”.
I did a play at The Beverly Hills Playhouse, “THE GINGHAM DOG”, written by Lanford Wilson and my co-star was Eric Pierpoint, “HANNAH DAVIS” written by Lonnie Elder in New Jersey, directed by Lee Richardson, and “FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE”, written by Terence McNally and directed by Sheldon Epps (Now Artistic Director of The Pasadena Playhouse) in Philadelphia.
While I was working as an actress, I had been teaching children and teenagers in Los Angeles in 1984. I started to teach at The Beverly Hills Playhouse in 1993 and continued there until almost 1999. I also created a One-Act Play Festival at the BHP that put 100 actors to work as writers, directors and actors. We did that for two successful years. I taught over 1,000 actors while I worked at the BHP and I continued to take classes myself with Milton Katselas in the Master Class. Some of my students were Jenna Elfman (“Dharma & Greg”, Bodhi Elfman, Catherine Bell (“Jag”, “Army Wives”), Michelle Clunie (“Queer as Folk”), Carlos Bernard (“Tony” on “24”), Jennifer Hammon (“Port Charles”, John Livingston (“Mr. Wrong”), Philip Rhys (“Jude” on “Nip/Tuck”), Merrin Dungey (“Alias”, “Summerland”), Larry Thomas (“Soup Nazi” on “Seinfeld”), among many others.
Simultaneously, I began to teach at the American Film Institute (AFI). At AFI, where I taught for six years, I was privileged to teach directors and writers in the Master’s Program. This program was created by director Rick Rosenthal and he recommended me as the teacher to initiate this innovative program. Teaching directors how to work with actors and then teaching writers acting so they could write for actors. Some of my students were Patty Jenkins (“Monster”), Brian Dannelly (“Saved”), Aza Jacobs, Dan Katzir, Josef Lieck.
While I was teaching at AFI, I appeared in workshops at the Mark Taper Forum in original productions and continued to work on television and in independent films. I also created an informal production company with actor/director Robert Townsend, called Rebel Planet Productions. We got over 100 writers, directors and actors involved in writing scripts to see if we could get a film produced. We got some great scripts but we had to disband the company when Robert took a job in Atlanta running a television station. But the seeds were planted and there are no lost projects.
I continued to guest star on “PASSIONS”, “THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS’, “ER” (the famous episode where George Clooney returns to reunite with his love), “THE PRACTICE” opposite Charles S. Dutton, “SON OF THE BEACH” with Frank Sinatra, Jr., “8 SIMPLE RULES” when James Garner was a regular. I played a very funny role in Margaret Cho’s ”BAM BAM AND CELESTE”, and did a wonderful Borders commercial directed by the great Jim Sheridan.
I started the GGC (Gloria Gifford Conservatory) and had the privilege of teaching wonderful actors like Efren Ramirez (“Pedro” in “Napoleon Dynamite”, “Employee of the Month”, “Crank”), the late sensational human being and actor Pablo Santos (“Greetings From Tucson”), and Pablo was the first Mexican-American actor to have his own television series at the tender age of 15 and we lost him in a plane crash at the age of 19 (2006). Many other wonderful actors came out of this conservatory.
In 2005, I was hired by Warner Bros. Studios to go to Atlanta, Georgia to coach young actors for the film “ATL”. I worked for two months with the Grammy winning rapper T.I., Diana Ross’ son Evan Ross, Lauren London, Jason Weaver. I was in the middle of directing Tennessee Williams’ “SUMMER AND SMOKE” with a very large cast and I left them a few weeks after we opened and went to Atlanta, but the show was a success. I had wonderful actors like Julie Burke, Philip Rhys, Joey Shea, Mary Gilbert and Tahlia McCollum co-produced and had a role, as well as Chad Doreck and Pablo Santos.
In 2006, I co-created a film festival – The Rebel Planet Short Film Festival of Hollywood with Holly Lewis. It was a great success. Then I directed an original play written by my student Carlos Javier Castillo. He had workshopped in class for 18 months and it evolved as “A Bed And A Bar”. What a great cast we had and Carlos was a dream to work with. We had Shaun Baker, Christian Anderson, Jake Head, Joseph Eid, Chad Doreck, Rafael Feldman, Michelle La France, Kimberly Demarse, Anaisabel Mercado. It got wonderful reviews and we consider it a success because we kept changing the play and the reviews kept getting better.
Then I directed, in 2006, Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “OUR LADY OF 121ST STREET”. It had taken me two years to get the rights and I love this play and this playwright. This was double cast so I had 26 cast members plus some understudies. This was an outstanding ensemble and the actors really delivered. The rehearsals, the cost, it was all worth it because we got L.A. Times Critics Choice and we were nominated for Best Ensemble by the Los Angeles Theatre Alliance. Hundreds of plays are produced in Los Angeles in a year and to be singled out to be nominated among five plays – that was a huge win. We had standing room only at The Matrix Theatre and we were hit.
We finished that play in February 2007 and then did the second year of the Rebel Planet Short Film Festival of Hollywood – another winning festival.
Then I accepted my former student’s invitation to be an inaugural teacher of his acting school in Milan, Italy. Actors Academy Milano, founder Edoardo Costa (“Live Free Die Hard”) had been an international model as well as an actor. He founded the Academy in Milan and also purchased one of the most prestigious modeling agencies in Milan – Beatrice International.
I went to Milan, Italy for two months and taught acting six days a week. I taught Italian and Spanish actors and actresses and models from all over the world. What an exhilarating, validing experience. I even got to direct on Italian National television – The Markette Show. We did press and I was validated as an actress, a director, a teacher and a woman every day. The food was magnificent and the people were extraordinary and the passion was inspirational.
I traveled to the Cannes Film Festival in France and that was another amazing experience. Having a film festival in Los Angeles gave me a spotlight and I learned so much and met many interesting people.
As of today, six models have come 6,000 miles to Los Angeles to study with me. They have been thrilled – me too. I have directed four showcases in Los Angeles since my return from Italy and I’ll be directing another one in February 2009.
At the end of 2007 I co-starred in a Hallmark Channel movie opposite Gail O’Grady called “ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS” then did another one opposite Faith Ford called “A KISS AT MIDNIGHT”. I just completed a Lifetime Channel series called “RITA ROCKS” opposite Nicole Sullivan and Tisha Campbell-Martin that will air in 2009. Acting, teaching, directing and mentoring are four of the creative ways I give my contribution to the Arts in Los Angeles and now internationally.