Leslie Easterbrook attended our first two Christian media events and was one of the first people to hear about the Point North project, even before we had an official name for it. She was a major hit at our events and we have been in touch ever since. Recently we had the opportunity to have an in-depth, interview with her. So in depth that for the first time we ran an interview in two issues.
Ed.: We first met you in Hollywood thanks to a breakfast meeting set up by Heather Lowe. We had not announced our start of the Point North Outreach program, in fact not more than four people knew about it. We described it to you not knowing what your reaction would be to a Christian media convention and you were very positive, didn’t seem to give it a second thought. Did you at the time consider the idea as unusual or as something that was needed?
Leslie: I was enjoying your company, as Heather Lowe and Andy Prine had assured me I would, so when you mentioned the idea of a Christian media convention, I was further impressed and intrigued. I initially thought it was a great idea, feared it could be exploited in the wrong hands, but you seemed very sincere in your intent and indicated a good deal of experience with both Christianity and fan events. I wasn’t entirely sure what your ultimate goals were, but was convinced you had a good idea and would go forward with integrity, which you did. Most promoters, if you will, only book actors for their fan appeal. That is understandable. If you are going to spend money to set up and advertise an event, you must book ‘stars’ that fans will pay to meet — and the basic requirement for stars at these events? Meet, chat and sign. That’s all we are usually required to do. Well, to be fair, it is extremely flattering for us. Imagine the thrill of thinking people would line up just to meet you. It’s an amazing high. However, it’s usually frustrating to encounter so many interesting people and realize, in retrospect, that you never got to know any of them or to share anything of substance.
You were offering us a way to really communicate at Point North – this was before the name ‘Point North’ had even been chosen, as I recall. In short, you were offering us a dialogue. You were asking us, as guests, to share our views and beliefs with the fans and to listen to theirs, as well. You wanted us to Witness with one another. It sounded good – I wanted to try it! And if we could improve the Christian message in the mainstream media as a result — Bravo!
Ed.: As a guest at our first event we visited a round table session you conducted in which you used the idea of God being like an artist and life being like a painting. Very beautiful and very unusual. Could you repeat that now?
As I was reading different religious passages and books on faith as a kind of research before attending the event, I became fixated on books of art, paintings and sculptures mostly. Then I found myself envisioning masterpieces by great artists I’d visited in museums here and in many cities around the world, too. I don’t know why. I was trying to collect my thoughts as a Christian and find some inspiration I could share with your guests at a “Round Table.” It was a new experience for me and I wanted to be prepared. But why was I so drawn to great works of art at the same precise time?
Suddenly it occurred to me that God is the greatest artist of all. He has created this universe of extreme beauty, drama, diversity, challenge and change in many ways like a master painter creates complex life, on a canvas – in a much more limited sense, of course. The thing that struck me was that God’s world is ever changing and growing, just like an artist’s work. It is said that an artist is never finished with a painting and will work and rework it until it is wrestled, sometimes forcibly, away from him or her. I know from experience that when you are acting on the stage, you may say the same lines night after night, but they are never the same. You work on them before bed, before breakfast, on the way to the theatre – you constantly rework the character you are playing. You stay within the boundaries of the direction and the author’s roadmap, but you are never satisfied. Often I am haunted by a role long after a production has closed. I will find myself discovering something I’d missed and suddenly see how it would have influenced the entire play if I’d just gotten it earlier. I am certainly not calling myself a great artist, but I’ve chosen a creative profession and feel called to contribute.
All I was sharing was the concept that God is the greatest artist of all – his canvas is never done. His creations are never static. Even stones change their shape over many many years. We humans are part of his great handiwork and if we listen very carefully, we can hear and feel him guide our lives — day by day, minute by minute and even second by second. We respond to the stroke of his great and gentle brush in this mighty masterpiece called life.
Ed.: You are both a singer and an actress, actually a classical singer. When did you start with your interest in both fields and which do you feel closest to?
Leslie: For many years I did more singing than acting, then things reversed and I’ve never looked back. As long as I get to do a little of each every year, I feel grateful.
My father was a music teacher in the public schools and was also a Professor of Music at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He was also a wonderful tenor soloist, composer, arranger and church choir director. He taught me to read music before I even started kindergarten – I had no choice but to sing. I graduated from Stephens College in Columbia, MO with a degree in music with an emphasis on opera, but ultimately turned down a full post-graduate scholarship to Julliard — only because I had discovered the theatre! For years my compromise was performing Musical Theatre.
Herein lies the rub so to speak, my love of music wasn’t just based on hearing or even producing beautiful notes. It was also based on the drama! I always chose roles and songs because of what they said – their message, if you will. Even an instrumental symphony speaks to me – it always tells a story.
I really had no choice in any of this because my mother was an English teacher in the public schools and then taught literature at the same University as my father. She filled in my love of story, my fascination with the communication of characters, my respect for dramatic structure and kindled my passion to express grand emotion. Between the two of them, I was a hopeless combination of the performer and the storyteller. If I’d ever shown any promise as a writer, that probably would have been my profession, but, alas, I am but a vessel awaiting directional inspiration.
Truthfully, I’ve always liked acting better than singing. It’s a little easier, you see, to act spontaneously, without having to do it on pitch or in tempo. Singing is perhaps more gratifying – when you get it right and I mean just right; when you can tell the story without your technique getting in the way. If I finish a performance in which I have sung and someone simply tells me I sounded good or even glorious, I feel I’ve failed; but. If they tell me I moved them, I’m on cloud nine for days!!
Ed.: You began your television career with Laverne and Shirley, the comedy on which you were a regular after its first few seasons. You showed a great flair for comedy and you had a cast of comic trained people to keep up with, often exceeding. What was it like working with those folks and actually getting an opportunity to sing?
Leslie: I was, indeed, a regular on Laverne and Shirley for the last 3 seasons, playing an actress-model-dancer named Rhonda Lee. It was a wild ride securing that part with 6 auditions and a 6-month SAG strike between my first meeting with the casting director, the dear and brilliant Bobby Hoffman, and the actually getting the contract. Every nervous minute was worth it though. Suffice to say, I learned a great deal in those 3 years. Most of what I learned had nothing to do with acting, but has helped me navigate the industry for years. Only recently has ‘the business of the business’ changed radically enough to make those lessons learned on L&S almost obsolete. I need a new series to learn the new language…what a novel idea…
I loved Rhonda, but believe me, she was never funnier than the other characters, no matter how much I probably wanted her to be. Those actors were, and still are, really good!
My “flair” for comedy, which you allude to, is, perhaps instead, my constant twisted sense of humor. But, thank you for the compliment, anyway. I always seem to find the humor in any situation, much to the chagrin of more serious minded folks, but my sense of humor is what kept me alive and working on L&S. By the time I got there, the regulars were very unhappy with everything – the scripts, their characters, the producers, the network, the studio, the wardrobe department, you name it…the list was endless and the angst so thick you could cut it with a knife. But, their endless talents always saved the day. They could be throwing things one minute and absolutely hysterically funny the next. They were an inspiration to me and I watched them like a hawk – even managed to stay out of their way. I’ve never been able get too upset about anything I can’t control, so the only thing that ever got me really nervous was the potential that one of the regulars would become upset with me. It never happened and that taught me an enormous lesson – just do your job and stay out of sight when you have nothing to contribute.
I never got tired of watching them rehearse and perform. They were masters of getting the joke, improving the joke and then adapting the joke to their characters. They could take a script and personalize it in a way I’d never witnessed before. What’s stunning to me is that I’ve never seen it done as well since. Penny, Cindy, David, Michael, Eddie, Phil and Betty – brilliant! Simply Brilliant! The shows haven’t weathered the test of time as well as the their individual work has.
Eddie Mecca and I were the only singers in the group, so I got a couple of opportunities to warble. It was my first attempt at lip-syncing. It’s not so easy. It was also my first time in a recording studio. I drove them crazy – take after take, to get it just so. I was like the others with their scripts. I wouldn’t be nearly so picky now. It’s like anything else, the more you do it, the easier it gets. The more you hear yourself, the more objective you become – the better you sing it the first time, too, knowing how costly and totally boring (for you, but especially for the crew) it is to sing/hear it over and over again.
Ed.: After Laverne and Shirley you were on such television favorites as Murder She Wrote, Matlock, Masterpiece Theater, Hunter and Dukes of Hazzard. Do you have any special memories of those shows or people you worked with?
All of the other well-known shows came after that very lucky break. Before L&S, I had only worked on one CBS pilot called The Two of Us, starring Dixie Carter and Peter Cook, and an episode of Me and Maxx, starring Joe Santos.
Me and Maxx was a short-lived CBS series and I was cast as Maxx”s school teacher, for one episode only. After it aired, the network contacted me about wanting the grade school teacher I had just played to become a semi-regular character on the series. I was thrilled, until the whole show was canceled, 3 weeks later. Now, The Two of Us was a terrific pilot and we were all pulling for it to get on the air. It did, but CBS replaced Dixie with Mimi Kennedy and me with a ten-year-old girl. Peter Cook stayed on and was wonderful in the series, as was Mimi and the 10-year old- girl! But, get this, I played Dixie/Mimi’s agent in the pilot. They took all of my dialogue and gave it to the character’s daughter in the first episode – one of the strangest and funniest ‘firings’ I’ve ever had. I did a bunch of Murder She Wrote‘s. Peter Fisher was very good to me. I always got to play smart, strong, cranky or funny women — depending on the situations. My favorite Murder memory is this: I was 2 hours late to the set the first day of my first episode. Ms. Lansbury’s son, Anthony Shaw, was directing. I thought my goose was cooked for sure. Well, the tears running down my cheeks when I finally arrived on the set for my first rehearsal must have moved him, because he carried on as if there had never been the slightest upset in the schedule. What a guy. He wasn’t always my director on Murder, but they were all top notch. I had such a good time working Murder, that when they spun off a show called The Law and Harry McGraw, they cast me as a gangster’s moll in the second episode. In that episode, my gangster boyfriend had just been killed and Jerry Orbach, Harry McGraw for those of you who may not remember, discovers me at the mortuary tearfully picking out a casket. He picks my brain and I like the look of him. We had a very cute relationship and shortly after we wrapped the episode, Mr. Fisher’s company called me to ask me to continue my character and become Harry McGraw’s girlfriend – semi regular employment again! Of course I said, “YES!” and once again…the show was canceled 3 weeks later.They did cast me as Harry’s bookie, in a 2- hour Murder episode, that may well have been their last. It was the end of their first 7 years on CBS and Peter Fisher was no long going to produce the show. Most of the cast and crew thought it was ending – but, Angela Lansbury’s family decided to keep shooting and to produce it themselves. Good for them. I was extremely surprised to be asked to return again, under the new management, and do one final episode. This time I got to work with the great lady herself, instead of in a sub-plot, and it was the treat of a lifetime. She is everything you’ve ever thought and more. I’ve never worked with a more giving and professional actor anytime, anywhere. I was the ‘red-herring’ and played her personal hairdresser. Oh, what fun we had! And, the show lasted another five years on the air – all of them highly rated and memorable.
What started out as one episode of Matlock, turned into two. My character in the first was so evil that they used her/me as a jailbreak killer on the lamb, hunting down Matlock, in another episode. I had killed my lover for sleeping with my daughter and framed my husband in my first episode. Oh, she was a bad woman, but she sure was fun to play. I loved working with Andy Griffith. What a generous actor!
Leslie: The last show I’ll share about is Dukes of Hazzard. It was a ball! I was supposed to wreck a van in that one and wreck it, I did. I played a fortuneteller who traveled and worked with a sidekick. My sidekick was Tommy Madden. He had been the ‘understudy dwarf’ and my best back stage pal in my very first professional musical, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I got my Actors’ Equity card playing Snow White at the St. Louis Muni Opera for the Disney Company. Tommy and I hadn’t seen each other in 10 years when we teamed up again in Dukes. It was wonderful to see and work with him again. Oh, and he even helped me wreck the van!
Every movie, play and TV episode has a story, for me, behind the scenes, as you can see. I really appreciate this opportunity to think back and smile.
Ed.: You probably are asked most about the film series, Police Academy, now considered a classic. There too, in six of the seven films, you co-starred with a big cast. What are your favorite memories of that series and is there a possibility of another one?
I love a big ensemble cast – I was adopted and raised as an only child who always wanted to be part of a big family. Oh, how I longed for brothers and sisters. A big cast is the perfect answer for me – although there are always some conflicts, you all pull together for the final take. You become like siblings, in that you can yell at each other, but don’t let anyone from the “outside” try it. It’s funny that way. I think that’s why I love big musicals and classical plays – big casts — big families!
“Do I have any favorite memories?” Almost every memory I have of a Police Academy movie is a ‘favorite’ memory of my life. Our ensemble cast is my favorite film/theatre family of all time. Almost 26 years after we filmed the first one, my heart still skips a beat and tears come to my eyes when I think of the depth of the friendships that were founded at that retired insane asylum cum police academy campus outside of Toronto. Other cast members were added as the series expanded and, miraculously, they were welcomed into the heart of the family, as well, and just moved on in. Of all the strange things, egos were never apparent on the set. No pouting, no arguing, many hilarious biting insults, though — but that’s what you expect when you work with stand up comics — and no jealousies. Go figure. Is there a family anywhere that can boast of that? It’s certainly the only theatrical family, in my history, that got along that well. Most of them are filled with high drama and then some.
I guess my favorite memory is every memory. Hugh Wilson was our director on the first one and he set the tone. We all loved him and he trusted his cast totally. Before every scene we were encouraged to get together and figure it out – block it out, work on the jokes and make them better, rewrite it, add to it, cut some of it; whatever it took. Most of the time, when Hugh finally witnessed our handiwork, he accepted it, shot it our way and thanked us for the improvements. Since he had written it, he could un-write it when he wanted – no ego…absolute heaven. And, when he was right and we were wrong, we respected his decision. Even when our later directors became rather authoritative with us, we took it with a smile, because we’d had Hugh once upon a time and he had trusted us. We tried to pass that on to future cast additions and, for the most part, it worked.
There are too many great memories to list here, so I’ll just share with you my most moving Police Academy experience. We made the 7th one in Russia, soon after the Cold War ended. We were there when the citizens tried to burn down their white house. The government was completely unstable and the people were starving. Among the long list of heartbreaking stories I could tell you are these few:
1. We stayed in Moscow too long (like Napoleon) and it began to snow. One morning I looked outside our bus and noticed the prop man was making props, wearing no gloves, in a blinding blizzard. I bundled up, went outside and gave him my own. He tried not to take them, but I can be very persuasive. The next day, more snow. I look outside and there he is again – again wearing no gloves. I bundle up and go outside to find out why he is still freezing his fingers. (Mind you, this is all in broken English/Russian) He tells me he gave the warm gloves to his family – none of them have mittens. I wasn’t working the next day so I went to the flea market, where I purchased 20 pairs of mittens and gloves – all for well under $1 a pair — and took them to him on the set. The next day I worked and he was bare handed again. I asked him why and he said, “I have big family.” It was then that the entire cast began bringing mittens, gloves and warm scarves, as gifts, everyday for our entire crew. None of our crew was working for money on the film. They were working for the hot meal. Even our American producer didn’t know this – but when he found out, things changed somewhat. Our crew was made up of the best artisans in the Russian film industry – it’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?
2. One day I needed a check, made out to a charity, for a prop in a scene planned for the next day. Our producer told the prop guys (2 of them) what was needed and then left the room. The prop guys looked lost. They turned to me and asked, “What check?” I explained what a charity was and how we give them money, but they still looked confused. I pulled a check out of my purse and made it out to the charity. I gave it to them, in case they didn’t have one the next day. My friend from the mitten exchange was looking really confused by this time and finally said, “Ya, understand, but what check?” During the next exchange, it finally dawned on me that they didn’t know what a “check” was. As I found out, during that conversation and many afterwards, the Russian people had never ever had bank accounts. All they knew was cash. They had never seen a check, let alone a credit card. This knocked me for a loop, of course, and then I began to realize why, when the value of the ruble fell, so did the Soviet Union.
3. One more Russia story and I will stop. We were the first western film allowed to shoot in Red Square since the revolution in 1917. We set up graduation-bleachers right there in front of St. Basil’s, with the Kremlin to our left and Lenin’s tomb further down. (I finally went to see Lenin’s body the last week both Lenin and I were in Moscow. It was the last week his body was ever seen by the public, as the new government gave his body back to the company that had been chemically preserving it, as it lay in state, for the last 60 or 70 years. How could I leave town without paying my respects?) Our producer had asked for 250 policemen, in uniform, to act as extras for our scene. Everyone was shocked when 700 of them showed up. It turned out that the police and the military are one and the same in Russia and the soldiers had heard that we were serving lunch. Our American producer was flabbergasted and at a loss. How do you feed 950 extras when you’ve budgeted for a mere 250? He asked our Hungarian caterer if he could do it. Our caterer and his staff left the set, actually found enough food and cooked for all of us – no one went hungry that day. Pictures were taken with every one of those soldiers. Many happy tears were shed by all of us at Red Square that day! Believe it or not, the soldiers were all fans of the Police Academy movies, although they had only seen them on bootlegged videos. Our movies were illegal in the Soviet Union.
My stories about that one movie could go on and on. When we wrapped and I finally left Russia, I cried all the way to London. I cried because of the heartbreak and also because I missed our crew and all of the Russian actors we had worked with. I wanted to bring them all to the US. Their lives may have been difficult, but, though they were shy and reserved at first, they showed us a kind of love and acceptance in the end that I will never forget. It’s been emotionally draining just to tell these stories.
Our last film, Mission to Moscow, wasn’t very good. We were there during the coup and could never keep a location long enough to complete a sequence properly. The government kept changing and the evening curfew kept getting earlier and earlier, so we were shooting on the fly. We escaped getting arrested several times only by proving we were in the movie. Michael Winslow would get out and do his noises in order to convince the police we were the cast of Police Academy. It’s a shame there isn’t a better movie to represent our experience there.
Ed.: I have to ask if that is where you and Marion Ramsey became such good friends? A great team and we hope to interview her later. Marion was partnered with you at the two events you joined us for. You both revealed what outstanding singers you are.
Marion is the one who is good on the fly, though. I really don’t sing well unless I rehearse with an accompanist and kind of become one with my environment, if you will. I’m even better if I’m singing in character, as opposed to just singing a song. I’ve been a little embarrassed when I’ve sung for you. Perhaps one day you will here me sing at my best. I was in a showcase of a new musical this summer and had a great song – the show was based on the early lives of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez. I played Lucy’s mother, De De. I felt absolutely committed while singing my song – you see, I was in character. The song is called “Little Girls” and if the show goes, it will be a classic. The show is called Dance with Me.
Marion and I met on the first Police Academy movie. We worked and played together, but we didn’t become like sisters until the 3rd one, Back in Training. Our musical backgrounds and our passion for the theatre are probably what really bonded us. We just got into a habit of watching each other’s backs. Marion is one of the most generous people I’ve ever met. She is a giver and once she is on board with you, she is a lifesaver. We’ve been there for each other though thick and thin; celebrating the victories and bearing the heartbreaks. It’s always a treat to travel with her. Our styles are so different, yet where one picks up the other leaves off. We are indeed a “Team Thing.” That’s the title of a song we sang in PA3 and then we sang it again, for you, at Point North.
Ed.: You have made some films, not enough to our thinking, since the Police Academy’s. Some in which you got to display your more serious side as an actor. Do any of them stand out to you?
Well, I wish there were more, too. In fact, I was just lamenting the lack of good roles this very morning. I do that sometimes and, then, I pray it away. If the good Lord has something in mind for me, I’m sure that he will reveal it in His own sweet time.
A couple of my more recent film roles stand out to me because they were more serious, but also because I had the opportunity to explore my dark side. I’m sort of a breezy person. I find humor in unexpected places, yes, but, when asked to crawl out from under a rock, I seem to be quite ready for it, as well. That was a surprise to me. Now, the evil characters I’ve played in the last few years were also a little funny – yes, they were in serious, deadly serious, situations, but they were still able to make light of it all. Perhaps that’s my specialty? I’ve also had to use very bad language, yet found it easy, even fun in The Devil’s Rejects which came out in the summer of 2005. I even hate to mention the name of that film because it’s so disgusting! But. I am proud of my work in it. In so many of my films and TV shows, I didn’t get a chance to go beneath the surface. Rob Zombie not only let me, he insisted on it. I loved exploring the limits of my own sanity and surviving. It can be very cathartic, I found. I had done it in the theatre, of course, but never before on film.
I have a list of new credits, but I’ll only tell you about Black Water Transit. The others are either too small or too silly to really get me going. But, Black Water had the best script I’ve ever read. Notice I said, “had.” Director Tony Kaye re-wrote it every day on the set, so who knows what it is today. Tony is a controversial director, to say the least, but brilliant. He directed American History X. He is English and fascinated by all things American. American History X is about gangs in America, Blackwater is a drama about guns in America.
Our film takes place in New Orleans, post Katrina. It is dark and complex. The film has some really interesting actors in it; Laurence Fishburne, Tom Skerritt, Brittany Snow, Beverly D’Angelo Stephen Dorff and Carl Urban. It’s a big nasty film — or it should be. Since Tony re-wrote all of it on the set, he confused his actors just a bit. We were all adapting to New Orleans accents and the script changes made it all the more difficult to pull that off. Also, the film may be impossible to edit. We finished shooting in August 2007 and it’s not out yet – yes, I’m worried it will never be released. No, I’m not giving up hope.
I play Bet, a character based on a real woman, who, together with her husband, left New Orleans before Katrina hit – without making any evacuation plans for the patients in her convalescent home. They all drowned. She and her husband, in the film version, steal the valuables from their decaying corpses, when they return to the stricken city after a cruise. The real woman Bet is based on actually went to trial for her crimes, recently. She was exonerated. I don’t know the details, but I think justice may not have been served. Bet, in the film, meets her fate in a very different way. Again, I’m playing a despicable character, but, true to my legacy, not without humor. If half of what I shot makes it onto the screen, you should find her horrible, yet ridiculously cavalier.
Ed.: As a Christian, have you ever felt that you were discriminated against in regard to your work as an actress? We only ask as we hear so many stories about stars who have had trouble getting work because of their beliefs.
Leslie: It’s never been an issue for me. Perhaps it’s because I’m a character actress and not a star. My private life has never been big news. With a name like Easterbrook, being Jewish or Muslim wouldn’t be very likely, I suppose, and since films don’t usually shoot on Sundays, I’ve been spared having to ask for special time off. I have found that the community of filmmaking and the theatre are a wonderful melting pot of all kinds of people and every religion. We often talk openly about our differences and lovingly respect each other’s beliefs, even if different from our own. I think that is one reason I love my profession so much. It really upsets me when I think of anyone being targeted negatively because of their beliefs – unless, of course, they are using them to hurt others. That’s a different story!
Ed.: In that same vein, how important do you consider your faith in your daily life and work?
My faith is what lifts me up in the morning and keeps me going until I fall asleep at night. I feel it and see it working, always, in my daily life and in the lives of others. I feel it testing me when I least expect it. I cannot be separate from it. That’s how important it is to me.
Ed.: One last question. Are there any future projects you would like to tell us about, things that we could promote on your behalf?
I’ve already talked about Black Water. There is a film called Hollywood and Wine, which could be quite funny and a cartoon-type film called, Daze, which could be quite funny, too, and interesting, coming out next year. The problem we face is the same as the rest of the globe – the economy. Editing money is drying up for independent films. Cross your fingers for us and I will cross my fingers for all of you. Let’s get through this! It will be a true test of faith for all of us.
Ed.: This is not a question really. You may like to say something about your husband. Please feel free to. You are an amazing couple.
Leslie: How nice of you to say so. We have a terrific marriage and it took us years and years to find each other. He is truly the answer to my prayers. His name is Dan Wilcox and he is a television writer. He has won Emmy’s and Writer’s Guild Awards for his contributions to Captain Kangaroo, Sesame Street, Mash, Newhart, The Cosby Show, Growing Pains and The Jeff Foxworthy Show.
That’s a list of some of his shows. There are more. He’s writing a pilot for a new Internet series, presently. It’s about a troubled young man, but will have plenty of action. He’s been on the Board of Director’s of the Writers Guild for the past 6 years and has headed numerous committees before, during and after their strike this past year. He’s still frantically trying to finish some post strike issues. I feel he is one of the main reasons the guild did so well in their negotiations. Their efforts opened doors for the rest of us in sister unions. Personally, I hope SAG does not vote to strike at this time. Again – the economy!
He is not a religious man, but he lives by the strictest moral code I’ve ever known. He respects my religious beliefs totally and he is an inspiration to me and to everyone he comes in contact with. He’s smart, generous, talented, giving, gracious, wise, and, most importantly, a fabulous chef!