Sondra Lee The American
Ugga Wugga Meatball! Tiger Lily talks Brando, Dean, Robbins and directing the world première of Norman Mailer’s widow’s play in London
ondra Lee, the respected veteran actor, dancer, director and now acting and directing coach, is fondly remembered by generations of Americans as the original Tiger Lily from the Peter Pan musical - and for having Marlon Brando as her first lover. But there’s much more to her story than that, detailed in her autobiography, I’ve Slept With Everybody. “Ah the book! I started writing it as an exercise, really, but I just kept going. Everybody seems to be interested in the title. It comes from a show business term - if you want a good agent, or to give a good interview, you have to ‘get into bed with them’. It means get close to people and tell a good story, so it’s not literally true,” Sondra jokingly apologizes. “It’s a loving book about the people who were good to me when I was a beginner in the theater. They’re my extended family.” Part of that family was, famously, Brando. What was he like as a man? “Spectacularly hilarious! His great gift as an actor was an astute facility for observation. As with any great artist, he wouldn’t produce what he saw before he understood what he had seen. He could see a character to the core. Being near him was like being caught by a magnet in a minefield - he pulled you in, in life as well as on the screen and stage. He didn’t ‘play’ that electricity, he had it. I knew him before he was acclaimed, he was just this good
16 November 2014
looking guy who came to class and liked the way I danced.” Brando and James Dean are the two that still have that fascination from that era. “I knew James Dean as well, from the Actors Studio and actually Jimmy was fascinated by Brando. To be perfectly honest, Jimmy was really a pain in his ass. He started riding a motorcycle because Brando did, and he even tried to go to Marlon’s psychiatrist! He kept hanging around trying to meet Brando, and Marlon kept hiding under the bed.” Sondra came from a a dysfunctional family and all she had ever wanted to do was leave home and dance. Her big break came from a chance meeting with the great producer, director and choreographer Jerome Robbins - her favorite person of those she ever worked with. “Jerry Robbins is the reason I’m alive and in the theater. I had been chosen for Allegro, a Broadway musical, by the casting director, a wonderful man called John Fearnley. They lined us all up and Agnes de Mille the choreographer asked me if I could do tap... I said yes. She asked if I could do a stag - I didn’t know what it was but I said, why don’t you come up and we’ll do a stag together? - I was outrageous! They walked down the line of dancers and suddenly there was a drop of about 12 inches... that was me. Boom - I was outta there.
“I was walking down Shubert Alley and there was a door ajar into the Shubert Theatre. I asked what was going on and someone said, we’re in there with Robbins. I don’t know why but I walked into the empty theater and called out ‘Who’s Robbins?’ This guy answered ‘I’m Robbins, who are you?’ I told him I’d just been let go by Allegro and I was going home to commit suicide. “Robbins said ‘Don’t commit suicide. Dance for me.’ And I danced with a passion you wouldn’t believe. I got through to final auditions and Jerry said ‘Put her in Group A... no, Group B... no, put her in Amazons.’ I’m just 4 feet 10 inches tall - he thought it would be funny. And that’s how I ended up in High Button Shoes. I was thinking, Oh my God, now I’m a star! Then I overheard the producers, Monte Proser and Joseph Kipnes, arguing with Jerry. They were saying they didn’t want the kid with the fat legs in the show and Jerry said he did want the kid with the fat legs... and that’s how I got the job!” Sondra has fond memories of the 1954 and 1960 Broadway productions of Peter Pan. “I loved Cyril Ritchard, our Captain Hook. He was one of the most extraordinary, beautiful people I’ve ever known. His wife was very ill, actually dying, during that time. He was just wonderful. And he taught me a great lesson - he had ‘a great contract,