Holland Taylor Digs Into Ann Richards' Fascinating Life for 'Great Performances'

Jim Halterman
Great Performances: Ann, Holland Taylor
Q&A COURTESY OF PBS/ Platon

Ann Richards, the charismatic governor of Texas from 1991 to 1995, passed away in 2006, but she lives again in this colorful one-woman play written by and starring Holland Taylor and airing as part of PBS's Great Performances.

The Emmy-winning actress, currently seen in the Netflix series Hollywood, taped this performance four years ago in Austin and tells us more about the "feat of memory and energy" that garnered her a Tony nomination in 2013 and why it was worth walking away from her role on successful CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men.

What was your first memory of seeing Ann Richards?

Holland Taylor: My first memory of her was, of course, the keynote speech [at the 1988 Democratic National Convention] which made her a superstar overnight. Whatever hotel she was at had an atrium that went up five stories and there was some kind of glass elevator that goes up the five stories and a series of incredibly long escalators that come down from like five stories above coming down to this huge atrium. She got on the top of an escalator and it started to come down and [Richards] said it was like looking at iron filings coming to a magnet. It was like literally swarmed to the base of that thing and one of her top aides said "I knew it then. That was it, that was it." The impact of her as a person who you would trust.

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With so many Broadway vets (Patti LuPone! Jeremy Pope!) in the cast, the actor reveals there was much singing going on when the cameras turned off.

What was it that drew people to her so easily? I was a kid in Indiana and remembered watching the news and thinking 'I like her!'

She had a real sense of what the bare bones of a life was. So things like family and family values and community values were what she was intensely aware of, were the ingredients of life. When she would talk to people, her constituents or her aides, the values that she had, the things that she wanted to achieve, this is she said, the kind of woman who lives in a town and car crashes keep happening at that intersection over by College Road. And the woman who goes to the city council and the school board and said "we got to get a stop sign put up there!" The one who makes that stop sign happen is going to President because it's the person who sees how something could be helped and fixed to ensure the health of the community.

Great Performances Ann, Holland Taylor

(Credit: PBS/Ave Bonar)

Did you ever meet her?

Once, probably 10 years after she was governor. I had lunch in New York with her and her dear friend Liz Smith, the columnist. I told her a couple of jokes, made her laugh, which was very gratifying. She was just the kind of person who you could meet and ask them anything, or trust them completely. She cared deeply about things and thoughts. She had so much integrity — she couldn't not do good.

You spent three years writing the play, which unfolds through private phone calls and public speeches. What did your research entail?

The research was very demanding and I traveled for her. Mostly I had to go to Texas and I made any number of long trips to Texas and got to know people. I established good relationships with about fifteen key people. And once I had a good relationship established in person, then I could deal by phone and stuff like that.

What intimidated you most when you began performing the role in 2010?

I'm not a good mimic, and I knew I had to get it right. I opened this in Texas! Understand, this was not a show business idea. This was not a project. This was a mission and something fell on me to do. I stepped out of [CBS hit sitcom] Two and a Half Men. I left and I said "sayonara, I'm going to do other things." And I think they always assume, of course, that that's a negotiating ploy for more money. I said, "Nah, I would like to be a guest if you ever want me back to visit. That's fine, but I've got to go do this other thing."

You look so much like her in the show. How long is that transformation?

It's a long process of about two and a half, three hours, to get ready for each performance. And in that time I listen to music that I associate with her and I get very much into it. Sometimes, when I walk on, when the audience sees her at first...I couldn't be more helped by the audience because she was so loved so the audience is so incredibly welcoming. And I remind myself, you know, "I'm bringing good news. I'm bringing good news."

Great Performances: Ann, Friday, June 19, 9/8c, PBS (check local listings at pbs.org)