Actor, director, teacher, and mentor Gloria Gifford didn’t allow her exotic model beauty to detour her from becoming a much sought-after talent. She has conquered pretty much playing any role on stage, television, and the silver screen. Throughout her career she has appeared on All My Children, The Nanny, ER, and Thirtysomething. She also had an array of roles in feature films such as Halloween II, California Suite, 48 Hrs., and D.C. Cab, along with her more recent work including A Perfect Ending with John Heard and Morgan Fairchild and The Christmas Pageant with Melissa Gilbert. Gifford has directed multiple theater productions throughout her very unique career earning both the L.A Times and L.A. Weekly Critic’s Choice Awards. After studying acting for 25 years straight she was tapped to teach prestigious classes at AFI, the Beverly Hills Playhouse, and abroad. Her students have included Jenna Elfman, Max Greenfield (Emmy-nominated for New Girl), Catherine Bell, and many other successful actors. She currently serves as Executive Director of the Gloria Gifford Conservatory and directing the second run of her acclaimed presentation of the play Fool for Love re-opening Aug. 24 in North Hollywood.
How did you get the acting bug?
I was obsessed with movies ever since I was a little girl and I always sang too. When I was a freshman in high school I won a city-wide oratory contest and my friends would tell me that I was either going to go into politics or dramatics. In my freshman year of college I got the lead in the play Blood Wedding. My speech teacher discouraged me from going into acting because she thought I was too sensitive. So I got my degree in Political Science and studied for my Masters in Criminology to become a lawyer. All that time I buried the acting; got married, had a kid, and became the first black executive at Bloomingdale’s. My fourth year there I was having a problem with the Merchandise Manager and someone said to me, “You know, Gloria, you don’t want to play this game. You need to find a game you want to play.” So I told my husband I was quitting my five-figure job at Bloomingdale’s and he said OK! By fall I took my first acting class and my career-changing decision was made that night. Four years later I was on Broadway.
Your big break came from Bill Cosby?
The first day of rehearsal for my first Broadway show was aired on local television. Bill saw it in Connecticut and asked his agent to “find that girl.” The William Morris Agency called me the next day and said he was interested in me for a pilot; I took a meeting with the producer and was asked if I wanted to go to Sardinia to shoot the pilot. I said no because I wasn’t giving up my part on Broadway for television. (Laughs) Bill would call me to check on my availability now and then. When the play closed I called him and he had me meet the director of California Suite Herbert Ross who brought me out to L.A. to meet Neil Simon.
What was your favorite scene to do with the other three actors (Cosby, Richard Pryor, and Sheila Frazier)?
I love the scenes when we were in the car; that was the most fun! I got 48 Hrs. because Eddie Murphy had seen California Suite so much that he knew every piece of dialogue and all of my physical actions in the fight scene. Richard Pryor admired Bill Cosby; Eddie Murphy admired Richard and I was very fortunate to be able to work with all of them!
And the classic Halloween II!
The director of the film and I were in class with my mentor Milton Katselas. My part (‘Nurse Alves’) was actually written for a white 55 year old! But I was very authoritative, always have been, so they made the other girls a bit younger, I read and got it.
Then there’s your iconic scene as the airport security guard in This Is Spinal Tap….
I was recommended to Christopher Guest by another director I worked for while filming a movie with John Candy. When I met with Rob [Reiner] he looked at me and said, “We don’t want a vogue model for this part.” So I asked if the character wore pants and he said yes. I told him that I could do that bulge around your waist when you’re trying to put a belt on and you’ve got too much weight bursting out. He just looked at me and said, “OK well, thanks.” On my way home I called my agent to tell her how much he hated me and she said, “Oh no, no, no, he hired you.” He gave me one line to say and allowed me to make up the rest!
What was it like working with Harry Shearer (‘Derek Smalls’) when he was pulling all the stuff out of his pants?
I just acted like I was actually working at the airport. You know how these people are; they don’t get very excited about anything really. For years, people thought I wasn’t an actor; they really thought my character was actually an airport guard.
You gave George Clooney his first acting role.
My boyfriend at the time had written a play that Miguel Ferrer was directing. George is Miguel’s cousin and he came to visit. I was starring in and producing the play; Miguel asked me if George could please do something in the play so I gave him a part. Years later, I did ER when George came back to get Julianna [Margulies].
Why did you open the Gloria Gifford Conservatory?
After I taught at the Beverly Hills Playhouse and AFI I decided to open my own school. I tell my students, “If you don’t start getting trained properly the Brits are going to wipe you out” because I have worked in England and I know they have better training. They get full training over there; here it’s more singular. At my conservatory I encourage my students to work on their body, speech, art, watch old movies, read, go to museums, do plays; this is your life’s work. I have my friends come and talk to my students about acting too, including Juliette Lewis and Donna Pescow.
You are currently re-opening Fool for Love because the first run was so successful.
Our reviews were spectacular! Sam Shepard wrote it early in his life about an obsession, in a positive way. It’s about two people that just cannot let go of each other. They go away, they come back, and it’s right there again. The play is 75 minutes, has heat, and just moves. You take the journey, the ride, with these people and you’re right there with them because the theatre is so intimate. When you leave you think, “Wow! I want this myself!” You get excited. I am so fortunate to be working with these actors; many are students from my class. They are so fearless! It’s very sexy … A lot of people have seen it three or four times!
Fool for Love opens Aug. 24 at Theatre Unlimited located at 10943 Camarillo St. in North Hollywood. Performances are on Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. for six weekends. For tickets visit tix.com and Goldstar.
To audition for classes visit GloriaGiffordConservatory.com or call (310) 535-4999.