Bebe Neuwirth -- From Cheers to The Associate

It would be strange if Bebe Neuwirth didn't identify at least a little bit with Dr. Lilith Sternin-Crane, the deadpan shrink she played for six seasons on the television series Cheers.But it only goes so far, says Neuwirth. "She's like an old friend. When I haven't been around her for awhile, it takes us some time to get re-acquainted."Today, Neuwirth is sitting in a New York hotel suite, her mane of dark hair hanging loose -- a sharp contrast to Lilith's slick-backed bun. What's more, the actress is sporting a get-up of black tights, neon-green velour top and matching green nailpolish.For fans who know Neuwirth only from her TV appearances as the humorless Lilith, her latest projects might seem like a big stretch. In the newly released film, The Associate, she plays a corporate ladder-climber who'll do anything to get to the top. And in Chicago, now in previews at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway, she vamps it up as murderous Velma Kelly."It's not such big deal," she shrugs about leaving Lilith behind. "I sing, I dance and I talk. It's all the same. It's all performing, whether it's on TV, in the movies or on stage. It's all about living truthfully from moment to moment under imaginary circumstances."The Associate, a lively mesh of Nine to Five and Mrs. Doubtfire, stars Whoopi Goldberg as a Wall Street exec who opens her own brokerage firm after she's passed over for a promotion. To add credibility to the operation, she invents a silent partner who happens to be a white male.Of course, Whoopi is eventually forced to assume his identity. And, irony of ironies, her alter ego ends up getting all of the credit for her achievements. Dianne Wiest, Tim Daly and Eli Wallach round out the supporting cast.Neuwirth's character -- a vixen named Camille -- is a "personal stockbroker" of Eli Wallach's."I like to say that I play Eli's girlfriend," notes the New Jersey-born, Princeton-bred actress. "Camille's approach to doing business is, first and foremost, to look fabulous, like she would get right into bed with any client."I thought it was important to have a character like this in the movie as an example of what not to do in the world of business. She's a little sad, in a way. I took the role because I wanted to make this woman more than a sexy clown. And, of course, I wanted to wear lingerie on the big screen. I won't lie to you."For Neuwirth, who has a seduction scene with Whoopi, the biggest challenge was forgetting that she was putting the moves on another woman."For a few seconds there I thought, 'Am I going to be able to do this because I really like boys,'" Neuwirth says. "Acting is acting, but when you have do something physical like that, it's different."But Whoopi was so great. She's such a master," she says. "When she came on the set, she was a guy who looked like Marlon Brando. And Marlon Brando is good enough for me."Goldberg returns the compliment: "Bebe was a great partner in those scenes. But I'd look at her body in those skimpy outfits and just shake my head. She's all muscle. It's amazing."Ask Neuwirth what she'd do if she could be a man for a day, and she lets loose a throaty giggle. "I'd run to a theater and get myself cast in 'A Long Day's Journey into Night.' Edmond has the best monologues."Playing a gun moll in Chicago is another kind of dream come true for Neuwirth."I can't tell you how thrilling it is to do this play," raves the actress, 37. "I had lost faith in Broadway because of what I call the scourge of the British musicals. They've dehumanized the stage, distanced the audience from the performers. I think Cats is like Patient Zero of this dehumanization. And then there were all these revivals, some of which had great choreographers, some of which didn't."Fred Ebb and John Kander's Chicago is a musical vaudeville that follows the escapades of lonely-heart killer Roxie Hart and her murderous hoofer pal Velma. In the new production, Ann Reinking plays Roxie, a role originated by Gwen Verdon, while Neuwirth assumes the part created by Chita Rivera."It's a revival but it's not being done exactly like the original," notes Neuwirth. "The original production went for a '20s vaudeville feel. Ours is being done on a black stage, in no particular time. We're trying to speak to all time."Although she's best known for her role on Cheers and Frasier, Neuwirth began her show business career as a hoofer."I knew I wanted to dance since I was seven," she says. "My first time onstage, I played a butterfly in Sleeping Beauty at the McCarter Theater in Princeton."After a year at Julliard, she landed the role of Sheila, an over-the-hill dancer, in A Chorus Line. She followed it up with turns in West Side Story, Little Me, Kiss of the Spiderwoman and Bob Fosse's 1986 revival of Sweet Charity for which she won a Tony Award.The same year, Neuwirth made what was to be a single appearance on Cheers as repressed intellectual Dr. Lilith Sternin. So charged was her chemistry with Frasier's Kelsey Grammer, that a reoccurring role was born.Neuwirth won two Emmy awards for her portrayal of the nutty psychiatrist on Cheers. One of her guest appearances on Frasier netted her a 1995 Emmy nomination.Over the years, Neuwirth has dabbled in movies. She appeared in Bugsy (as an Italian countess), Green Card (as Andie MacDowell's best friend) and Malice (as a gutsy detective). More recently, Neuwirth vamped it up on Broadway as the devilish Lola in Damn Yankees and as the reporter who gets to sing the show-stopping "Zip" in New York City Center's Encore series production of Pal Joey."No matter what else I do, everybody always asks me when I'm going to be on Frasier again," says Neuwirth, who refuses to discuss Kelsey Grammer's offscreen battle with drugs."Here's a scoop: I'll be on the Thanksgiving episode," she reveals. "I turn up because Frasier and I are having trouble getting our son into a prep school."Neuwirth might be pigeonholed as Lilith in the minds of fans but within the industry, typecasting hasn't been a problem."Nobody asks me to play another character like Lilith, maybe because they know I wouldn't do it," she explains. "The only typecasting I see is that I get offered a lot of roles for scheming, intelligent women. If I come across as smart, great. Let's not tell them otherwise."


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