BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
Lesley Ann Warren’s longtime career as a singer-actress in theater, movies and television isn’t exactly the classic Cinderella story. No struggling, no hard knocks.
From the age of 17, Warren has been a star: on Broadway in the 1963 musical 110 in the Shade; on TV in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1965); and in the Blake Edwards’ hit film Victor Victoria (1982), which earned her an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress.
“It was my destiny to do this,” says Warren, now 65, still a working actress and promoting the latest DVD release of Victor Victoria (Warner Archive, $18). “I wanted nothing else, I saw nothing else. There was never any question in my mind.”
As a teen in New York, Warren studied ballet and also acting with Lee Strasberg at his Actor’s Studio. TV producer Charles S. Dubin saw her in 110 in the Shade and wanted Warren to play the title role in Cinderella, a taped remake of Julie Andrews’ live 1957 TV production.
First, she needed to audition for composer Richard Rodgers. “I was terrified,” Warren says.
“Richard Rodgers sat down at the piano and had me sit down next to him,” says Warren, who sang one of his standards written with Lorenz Hart, My Funny Valentine.
Warren, who had recently lost the role of Liesl in the movie version of The Sound of Music, won the part of Cinderella.
Her prince was played by relative newcomer Stuart Damon (later Alan Quartermaine of General Hospital). The rest of the cast, an intimidating assembly of Oscar winners and nominees: Ginger Rogers as the Queen, Walter Pidgeon as the King, Celeste Holm as the Fairy Godmother and Jo Van Fleet as the evil Stepmother.
“Working with these giants was very helpful with this character,” Warren says of the downtrodden Cinderella.
The musical had 10 CBS network airings, according to Warren, and a still-available cast album with songs by Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II including In My Own Little Corner, Ten Minutes Ago and Impossible!; It’s Possible!
Afterward, Walt Disney hired Warren for his first all-live-action musical, The Happiest Millionaire, released in 1967, a year after his death.
Disney was the absolute micro-manager. “He knew what color hair ribbon I was wearing, along with what they were serving in the commissary,” Warren says.
In 1967, Warren married hairdresser Jon Peters, who aspired to be a film producer. He encouraged her to take more mature parts, including agent Dana Lambert in the 1970-71 season of Mission: Impossible. She even, briefly, dropped her middle name.
“I think I was trying to be more grown up,” says Warren, saying it was probably Peters’ idea. “I was so young and easily influenced. He was a very strong personality. I went along with it for a long degree. I found my own voice, and it took a bit of time.”
Peters and Warren had a son, Christopher, in 1968, before they broke up and he became involved with Barbra Streisand. Peters became famous doing Streisand’s hair and producing her 1976 remake of A Star is Born.
Warren found her greatest critical success when director Edwards cast her as a bleached blonde opposite his wife, Andrews (“pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman”), James Garner and Robert Preston in Victor Victoria. Her most memorable scene: opening her coat and flashing her bra and panties to bystanders on a train platform.
Edwards originally wanted Warren to do the scene topless. “I didn’t want to do it. I said to Julie, ‘What should I do?’ She said just beg him. And I did.”