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Interview with Teri Garr

HOLLYWOOD - Teri Garr lives breathlessly in a 2 1/2-room apartment in an oldish building up the hill from Sunset Strip, the kind of apartment you'd expect for a member of the chorus line. It is weeks since Christmas, but she still has her tree up. It's all dried out, shedding needles. She's wearing a jumpsuit and talking in a confidential tone of voice into the telephone:

"You read the script? You read the script? It's a piece of crap, isn't it? They came over to fit me for costumes. They want to dress me as a hippie. A hippie. I said I didn't realize it was a period picture. They said it isn't, it's set in 1980. 1 didn't know how to ask this woman if she knows that there aren't any more hippies in 1980, or at least no more hippies who dress like she thinks hippies dress in 1980. I'm going to be a flower child 15 years after my time."

Sigh. She hung up. "My next film," she explained. "I'm always like this with a new movie role. I always get super-defensive and make noises like a rooster, Maybe that's because I spent so much time as a chorus girl. If I counted them all up, I was a dancer in sixty movies! Look at me here."

She produced a yellowing movie poster from a 1964 Elvis Presley movie. In the front, Elvis and Ann-Margret were dancing and singing. In the background were six or seven chorus girls.

"This one is me," Teri Garr said, pointing to an Identikit chorine second from the right. "Me. I am the same person now that I was then. Except that I got sick and fed up of dancing in the chorus. I trained for 10 years. I finally asked myself, why am I not in the front? I didn't study all those years to be in the back and get no money. But I was shy and sweet. So I started going to the shrink and I learned how to talk to people. Directors would tell me, 'We want you to play a character a little less complex than you are.' Yeah, sure. What they mean is, 'You're playing a dummy.'"

Well, I said, you played a dummy in Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein," but you were really funny as the lab assistant. And, I said, accepting a cup of herbal tea . . . you played the mother in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," and in your new movie, "The Black Stallion," you play . . .

"The mother," Teri Garr said. "They sent me the script. I turned it down. The mother only has two scenes, I said. I got a call from Francis."

She is talking about Francis Ford Coppola, who produced "The Black Stallion."

"Francis said I was absolutely right, the part was too small. He told me to take the role, come up to San Francisco, and we'd write some additional scenes. I went up to San Francisco and we wrote 11 new scenes for the mother. Then we shot the movie. When I went to see the movie, do you know how many scenes the mother had? Can you guess? Two."

She idly fingered the Christmas tree, and dead needles fell to the carpet. "I have to throw out this tree," she said. "Well, of course, when I saw what had happened to my role, I was devastated. But, you know . . . I was resigned, too, because I think 'The Black Stallion' is a classic, and so I'm proud to be in it. Why not be content to just be a good actor, and not be the star all the time?"

The movie stars Kelly Reno, a young Colorado boy who'd never acted before. I asked Teri Garr about him. "I just love that kid," she said. "You just turn on the camera, and he's great. He lives on a ranch in Colorado, and his parents won't let him do any more of this. No more acting after this one picture, they say. And they're right."

She binged a Christmas ornament with her fingernail.

"When you're a kid," she said, "you should be a kid."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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