She thinks of herself as being “deeply shy,” but during a cell-phone interview in a car in the middle of New York City traffic, Liza Minnelli wasn’t a bit reserved as she talked about her latest project — a multimedia tribute to her godmother, Kay Thompson — and some of her favorite movie and TV roles
“Oh, I’m not shy when it comes to interviews, but if I’m in a new situation or at a party I’m horrible — I’m horrible; I’m just not good,” she said in her New York accent.
Something else she hasn’t been good at is talking about her family onstage, but that will change in her salute to Thompson, “The Godmother and the Goddaughter: Liza Minnelli Salutes Kay Thompson.”
“It’s the first time I talk about my life, my family, Kay,” Minnelli said
“I never mentioned anybody onstage because I always wanted to make it myself.”
There was one time when Minnelli welcomed having someone help her make it: the day her mother, entertainment icon Judy Garland, died of an accidental drug overdose in 1969. Minnelli was 23
“I hadn’t seen Kay in about seven years because she had been living in Rome, but a few hours after I found out about my mother, Kay called,” Minnelli said.
“She had just gotten in town and had called for us to get together, and I said, ‘Something’s happened ...’ and she said, ‘I’ll be right over,’ and from that time on, she did not leave my side.”
Thompson was living with Minnelli on the Upper East Side of Manhattan when she died in 1998 at the age of 90.
“She was what a godmother was supposed to be ... and a wonderful gift my parents gave to me,” said Minnelli, whose father was film director Vincent Minnelli.
“And, what a teacher and what a performer Kay was — never did an unoriginal thing come out of her mouth.”
In 1943, Thompson was the main vocal arranger for many of the MGM musicals and vocal coach to stars such as Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra, June Allyson and Garland. Later, she wrote the “Eloise” series of children’s books
Minnelli remembers her parents taking her to watch Thompson perform in cabarets.
“I don’t think people today realize how influential she was in vocal arrangements, and she was innovative in her nightclub act, too. Singers normally were stuck singing into microphones on stands, but she hung mikes from the ceiling.”
Las Vegas and Reno producer-choreographer Ron Lewis is choreographing Minnelli’s new show.
“Ron remembers seeing her act when he was about 12, and just going crazy,” Minnelli said.
“It took me four years to get him to work on this project, and he’s got all the singers in the show dancing like they’ve been doing it all their lives.”
Minnelli has been dancing, singing and acting most of her life. When she was 2, she appeared with her mother in the movie “In the Good Old Summertime” in 1949.
At 10, she hosted the first TV broadcast of “The Wizard of Oz,” reaching a viewing audience of about 45 million people. By the time she was 19, she was on Broadway in the lead role in “Flora, the Red Menace,” a performance that won her a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical.
In 1967, she starred in several films, including “Charlie Bubbles,” “Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon” and “The Sterile Cuckoo,” a part she said she waited four years to do.
“I was up against every actor in the world, I think,” said Minnelli with a laugh as she remembered how she ended up winning the part of Pookie, an eccentric college student.
“All I did was wear a navy blue pleated skirt — clothes like my father would have bought me — with one sock a little bit down, my collar out of a pullover sweater, just little things like that. She was just a great character to play,” she said.
A character that didn’t come easy to her was Sally Bowles, the character Minnelli portrayed in “Cabaret” and for which she won a Golden Globe, a British Film Academy Award and a Best Actress Oscar.
“I just didn’t have a handle on her,” she said. “I didn’t think of myself as glamorous, and I wasn’t used to having to be glamorous in any roles I had done, but (Bob) Fosse was a brilliant director and I learned it from him.”
Something she didn’t have to learn from anyone else was comedy.
In 2004-05, Minnelli appeared as a recurring character on the critically acclaimed TV sitcom, “Arrested Development,” as Lucille Austero.
“I do have pretty good comic timing,” she said. “But I had never done a slapstick kind of comedy like that role called for, but it really was a dream come true when Ron Howard called me to do it.”
Howard was the executive producer and uncredited narrator of the show, which received six Emmy awards, one Golden Globe and a spot on Time magazine’s “100 Greatest Shows of All Time.” Since the show’s last broadcast in February 2006, it has gained cult status.
“He called and said, ‘Listen, I’m doing a new TV show. Would you like to work on it?’ and I said, ‘Of course.’”
She reminded Howard it had been a while since they had last seen each other.
“I said, ‘I haven’t been around you since you were about 6 years old, and you were in the “Courtship of Eddie’s Father” that my dad directed,’” she said.
Throughout her long career, Minnelli has continued to gain new audiences by doing projects like “Arrested Development.”
In 1989, she recorded a pop album with the Pet Shop Boys. In 2006, she made a guest appearance on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” and that same year, she was a guest vocalist on My Chemical Romance’s album “The Black Parade.”
“The funny thing is, I have so many young fans now,” Minnelli told Holly O’Dell of Palm Springs Life. “It’s interesting, because their grandmother brings their mother who knows me, who brings their daughter who was a great big fan of ‘Arrested Development.’”
At 61, Minnelli isn’t trying to be something she’s not, she said.
“I wish I was clever enough to reinvent myself, but I think people call me for those kinds of things because they believe in my talent,” she said. “I’m glad they did because it’s all been great fun.”
Zoe Rose is a freelance writer.
— It was the antics of her goddaughter Liza Minnelli that inspired Kay Thompson, who lived at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, to write the “Eloise” series of books about a precocious 6-year-old girl who lives at the Plaza
— Minnelli recently told an interviewer the two people who were her ideal duet partners would be Bonnie Raitt and Michael Bublé.
— Minnelli has performed at almost every major Manhattan venue, including: Carnegie Hall, where she had an unprecedented three-week run in 1987; the Palace, where she shattered the record for first-day ticket sales ahead of “Minnelli on Minnelli,” a 1999 tribute to her father; and the Winter Garden, where she earned her second Tony for a one-woman show, in 1973.
— Many of her movies and TV roles were filmed in and around New York City, including: “The Muppets Take Manhattan” (Sardi’s), “That’s Dancing!” (Times Square), “West Side Waltz” (Manhattan), “The Sterile Cuckoo” (upstate Hamilton College) and, last year, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” (Manhattan). Minnelli’s character in “Arthur,” an actress-waitress, lived in Queens.
— She’s won three Tonys, an Oscar, an Emmy and a special Grammy, as well as a pair of Golden Globes.
— She is the only Oscar winner (“Cabaret”) who is the child of two Oscar winners: Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli.
— Her first movie role was at age 2, alongside her mother and Van Johnson in “In the Good Old Summertime.” Garland was pregnant with Minnelli during the filming of “Till the Clouds Roll By,” which is why Garland’s body is mostly hidden in the 1946 film.
— According to the Web site notstarring.com, movies that Liza turned down or that ultimately weren’t made with her include “A Star Is Born” (then called “Rainbow Road”), “The Great Gatsby,” “Chicago” and “Evita.”