A Very Cybill Affair

Cybill1By Nicholas Kralev
The Financial Times Magazine

March 9, 2002

LOS ANGELES — Cybill Shepherd knows life like few other people do. From early stardom in Hollywood to neglect and rejection, to marriage, divorce and single parenthood, her story is one of intense emotions and great controversies. The mere mention of her name leaves no person neutral and no reaction mellow. She has been called “goddess” and “clown”, “loving” and “arrogant”, “vibrant” and “insane”. For years she viewed such extreme attitudes as part of the “bargain” she had “made with the devil”: “If I can only become rich and famous for doing what I love to do, I’ll accept the trade-off”.

Not any longer. “There is a myth that is completely untrue about me being difficult to work with,” she says passionately. “I don’t make unilateral decisions and I don’t have breakdowns; I’m wonderful, tremendously disciplined, loving and generous. I was blessed with beauty and talent, but I work really hard, like every job is the last I’ll ever have.”

Job offers haven’t exactly been pouring in of late, and Shepherd says her “terrible reputation” may have something to do with it. Feature films, which put her on the Hollywood map 30 years ago with “The Last Picture Show” and “The Heartbreak Kid”, have become a rarity. Television, where the show “Moonlighting” made her a household name, hasn’t been too welcoming since her last series, “Cybill”, was cancelled in 1998.

That year, she says, marked the end of a trend: “The great parts for women were always on television, because there were not enough features for all the wonderful talent. But that changed between 1996 and 1998, when several shows with a woman in the title character — ‘Murder, She Wrote’, ‘Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman’, ‘Roseanne’, ‘Murphy Brown’ and ‘Cybill’ — went off the air. It was no accident. Is there such a show now?”

The end of “Cybill” was rather traumatic for Shepherd (“one of the most stressful things in my life”) both professionally and personally, since the main character — a struggling middle-aged actress and single mother — was loosely based on her. For three years she struggled to find challenging work and to put her life in order, following the end of a romantic relationship.

Then September 11 came and Shepherd, like many Americans, felt the need to get closer to loved ones. This resulted in her seeing more of her best friend, also an actress. They soon found themselves discussing an idea for a new TV show. It would resemble “Cybill” in that Shepherd’s relations with her friend would again form the central storyline, but this time they would play themselves “more directly”, as would most of the other actors. Rather than on a set, the filming would take place in their houses, and instead of a script they’d have a “map” and the rest would be improvisation.

The new programme has a long way to go before it comes to life, but its preparation has certainly added creative excitement to Shepherd’s days, as she fleshes out the details with friends and colleagues and looks for a cast and crew.

“Do you want to be on my new show?” she blurts as I walk into her sprawling 8,000 sq ft house outside Los Angeles. Not even trying to hide my utter surprise — after all, she has known me for only two minutes — I remain speechless, hoping my startled face might convey a bit more information. She then politely asks whether I would mind if she videotaped our interview and possibly used parts of it in her programme; she seems truly disappointed when I just as politely decline.

Her spacious guestroom, with grand piano in the middle and her four Golden Globe awards above the fireplace (two for “Moonlighting” and two for “Cybill”), is usually as far as someone like me would be allowed to go. But some annoying construction noise outside changes the setting: we are now heading to the pool-house. The 52-year-old Shepherd, a 5’9”, famously strapping blonde, is still beautiful, though she looks quite different from the images of her seen on TV and magazine covers. She has her hair in a ponytail and is wearing a dark polo shirt, black vest and black leggings. Her features, as has been noted before, are perfectly symmetrical; her skin almost flawless; she is wearing no make-up.

In the pool-house, my hostess chooses to have her lunch sitting on the queen-size bed, and she is seriously worried that the only chair in sight won’t be comfortable enough for me. So she deftly picks up the phone and pages her assistant on a communication system that reminds me of an airport: “Jason, could you please bring the massage chair to the pool-house? The massage chair in the pool-house, please.”

Now that both of us have taken our proper places, Shepherd is ready to tell me about her upcoming shows in London. Beginning next Wednesday, she will perform her cabaret show at The Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho for five days. “I’m rewriting my act to make it more suitable for a British audience,” she says. “It has to be fresh. I can’t do the same thing I did in New York or Australia. I found the English audience when I played at The Green Room [in Soho] — sold out — to be the sharpest and most riotous ever. I’d do things in London I wouldn’t do anywhere else.”

In the stand-up comedy part of the show she has put back some excerpts she took out of her American performances, including stories about some of the famous men in her life: Orson Welles, whom she considers a mentor, Elvis Presley, with whom she had a brief affair, and her co-star in “Moonlighting”, Bruce Willis. For the musical part, she is teaming up with jazz pianist Tom Adams. “He asked me what I wanted to do when I went to London and I said I wanted to date. Once I fell so madly in love with an Englishman; he opened my eyes. He wasn’t a particularly nice man, but it was great.”

Shepherd has an uncanny way of inserting references to her personal life in conversation on just about any subject. Unlike many Hollywood stars who prefer not to discuss their private affairs publicly, she has accepted the interest in her off-camera persona as part of the job. “People ask me how I feel about my children reading about my sex life in my book. But the fact is, they have always been reading about my sex life in the tabloids.” She says she is “deeply proud” of the book, “Cybill Disobedience”, which became a bestseller two years ago and made her more than $1m. “There isn’t a word there that I didn’t weigh and try to be more honest and truthful. I believe that book revived my reputation — to a certain extent. I was hardest on myself.”

There was a time when Shepherd lived on magazine covers. Born in Memphis, the country music capital of the world, on February 18 1950, she took advantage of her good looks at an early age. In 1969, the teenage model who had won several beauty contests — and lost some — occupied the cover of Glamour magazine for eight out of 12 issues. Those pictures caught the eye of director Peter Bogdanovich, who was casting for his new film, “The Last Picture Show”, a coming-of-age story set in a small Texas town. Captivated by Shepherd’s “fresh, sexual threat,” he handed her the opportunity of a lifetime. At 21, the pretty girl from Tennessee, who had never seriously thought about acting, was an overnight movie star.

Following the film’s success and the good reviews his discovery received, Bogdanovich hired her for two more pictures, the 1974 costume drama “Daisy Miller” and the 1975 musical “At Long Last Love” (in 1972, with a different director, she did “The Heartbreak Kid”, about a man who, three days into his honeymoon, meets the woman he is convinced is the love of his life). Both of these films bombed but at that point, Bogdanovich, almost 11 years Shepherd’s senior, couldn’t care less about what people thought — their affair became one of Hollywood’s worst-kept secrets and eventually broke up his marriage. Although he and Shepherd never married, their relationship remains the most cherished in her life. She and Bogdanovich are still good friends and he appeared on “Cybill”, playing a director. “He was closer to me than anybody else,” she says. “His friendship is one of my treasures.”

Through Bogdanovich, Shepherd met Orson Welles, who lived with them for a while, and movie legend Cary Grant. When she was having trouble getting a job after the failure of “At Long Last Love”, Grant tried to console her, saying: “If I were working today, you are the kind of leading lady I would like to work with, so don’t let them get you down and don’t get unhappy and get fat.”

Not only did she stay fit, she was also offered a role in another film that would become a classic: Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”, co-starring Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster. “I had no part at first,” she recalls, “so Scorsese had De Niro and me, and then Albert Brooks and me, in a hotel suite improvising for three days; then he wrote my part.”

In spite of the critical acclaim she received for “Taxi Driver”, however, her movie career took a downturn. She starred in several mediocre films, which brought some harsh criticism. She was called “Bogdanovich’s severely limited girlfriend” by the press. One critic even wrote: “Cybill not only can’t act or sing; she can’t even talk.” Her partner defended her by claiming that she was extremely underestimated: “People are thrown by her; they don’t know how to handle all that she is.”

After she and Bogdanovich split in the late 70s, she went back home to Memphis, where she made her cabaret debut. She had been taking voice lessons since she was 16, but singing in front of a live audience caused her fear, which took therapy to overcome.

In 1978, Shepherd married David Ford, a Memphis car parts dealer, and had her first child, Clementine, two years later. When the marriage collapsed in 1982, she moved back to LA and landed her first leading role in a television series, in “The Yellow Rose”. The show lasted only one season, but the actress didn’t mourn for long. In 1985, she appeared on millions of TV screens across the US as Maddie Hayes, a top model-turned-private detective — or “bitch-goddess”, as Shepherd calls her — opposite newcomer Bruce Willis in “Moonlighting”.

Before long, another Bruce entered her life — chiropractor Bruce Oppenheim — and in 1987 he became her second husband. That same year the couple had twins — Ariel and Zachariah. Now a working mother of three, Shepherd decided to use her celebrity to promote causes she strongly believed in. She marched on Washington, for example, with fellow actresses Gloria Steinem and Whoopi Goldberg, to “protect women’s reproductive freedom”.

When Moonlighting ended its run in 1989 and she and Oppenheim divorced a year later, she went back to working in feature films, starring in “Chances Are”, with Robert Downey Jr; “Texasville”, the sequel to “The Last Picture Show”; Woody Allen’s “Alice”, plus “Married to It”, “Once Upon a Crime” and “The Last Word”.

But television called again. Jay Daniel, an executive producer on “Roseanne” who had also worked on “Moonlighting”, saw Candice Bergen accepting an Emmy award for “Murphy Brown” (US comedy about a Washington TV reporter and single mother) one night and asked himself: “Why isn’t Cybill on TV?“ He was so “fascinated by her life, how she balanced career and parenthood and her love life,” he said at the time, that he devised the idea of a show about “a glamorous woman in a glamorous career, juggling kids and ex-husbands and getting to that point where she can’t depend on her beauty and her sexuality any more”.

All three US networks, ABC, NBC and CBS, wanted an initial 13 episodes, but the creators chose CBS, largely because it meant they got the coveted post-“Murphy Brown” time slot on Monday night. “Cybill” became a hit soon after its première in January 1995 and maintained consistently high ratings even when it was moved to Sunday night. But after three seasons, the show was cancelled — the reason, Shepherd says, is still a “mystery” to her. As well as being the star of the series, she had also been its executive producer.

“This is a season of miracles,” she told the studio audience during the warm-up before the last episode was taped in May 1998, “whether it’s Jesus Christ dying on the cross and rising from the dead, or somebody passing over your house and not taking your first-born. I’ve been in the business 30 years. When you get a pilot okayed to go on the air, it’s a miracle. When you get picked up for a season, it’s a miracle. And I really consider 87 episodes a mighty miracle.”

Not long after “Cybill’s” demise, she suffered from a “spiking [rising] white blood count and an obstruction in my small intestine”, which required serious surgery. She had just recovered when Robert Martin, a musical director to whom she had been engaged since 1996, called it quits, choosing to tell her the news during a therapy session they attended together. “He was unavailable emotionally,” Shepherd says, “and I need someone who’s available both emotionally and physically.” She maintains that Martin “sold at least one story about our time together to a tabloid, trying to embarrass me with intimate revelations and falsely claiming that I owe him money.”

Since then, she has been almost a full-time mother, although she has worked on a few TV and feature projects, including “The Muse”, with Sharon Stone, where she played herself, and “Marine Life”. “It was hard to star in and produce ‘Cybill’ and have three children at the same time,” she says. “The show took an enormous toll on me.” Her twins, now 14, are excellent students, their proud mother tells me, and Zach, her son, wants to go to college on the East Coast. Clementine is “studying acting”, following in her famous mum’s footsteps.

Shepherd’s mother still lives in Memphis, where the actress also has a house. Her father, William, passed away in November 2000. “My house burned on the day he died — three hours later,” she says. “It was the third fire I’ve had there. That night, the children and I were sitting outside in T-shirts, and my neighbours came out and put coats on us. I love Memphis; I walk downtown and see people. I’m very accessible there. I wish I could find someplace in LA where I could live like that.”

It’s time for Ariel and Zach to come home from school — and while I would love to meet them, I think I’d better leave. But not before I hear Shepherd’s view on age: simply put, it doesn’t matter. “You turn 50 and you realise that so much has happened,” she muses. “Unfortunately, the focus is usually on what you lose, and there are many things to gain. I highly recommend it.”

We get up, ready to leave the pool-house. “Have you ever felt that doing an interview is like therapy for the person you are talking to?” she asks suddenly.

“You bet,” I reply without thinking. “Sometimes it’s therapy for both of us…”