News Column

Farce of 'The Fox on the Fairway' feels good to Dyan Cannon

August 29, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 29--Do a quick Internet search of Dyan Cannon and here's the kind of headline you might run across: "Sexy Senior Citizen! Dyan Cannon Wears Leather & Spandex Pants at 74."

And the Web will cough up information on her movies, her marriage to Cary Grant, her beauty secrets and her "style evolution."

Mixed in with all that you might encounter a few concrete facts: That she worked with some of the best directors and actors in Hollywood, collected a Golden Globe and earned three Oscar nominations -- one of which was for "Number One," a short film she wrote, directed and edited. Or that in 1990 she wrote and directed "The End of Innocence," a feature film that was well-received in its initial run but never got the distribution it needed.

In a recent interview, Cannon, 76, was chatty and relaxed in a small lounge at the New Theatre's rehearsal studio on the west side of downtown. She was, indeed, dressed in snug jeans, high heels and a slim top that most women her age could never get away with. With her were her two little dogs, whom she occasionally admonished when they became obstreperous.

Cannon is headlining the New Theatre's production of "The Fox on the Fairway," a piece by Ken Ludwig, virtually the only successful American playwright specializing in farce. This is the first time New Theatre audiences will see the show. And it marks Cannon's local stage debut. Performances begin Thursday.

It's the first time Cannon has performed on stage in -- well, a while.

"I haven't done theater in a long time," said Cannon. "But it feels good. A farce is just heightened comedy. It's all timing. And you've got to be right there. You drop it for a second, forget it. But it's great. It gets your juices going."

Cannon was discovered by an agent one day in the 1950s when she was having lunch with a couple of girlfriends at a popular restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. Struck by her arresting beauty, he approached the table. "Are you an actress?" he inquired. Her response was "Yes!" And she immediately rattled off a fictional resume, naming every play she'd ever seen. "But you're too young for some of those roles," he said. "I'm a character actress," she glibly replied.

Cannon, who was born Diane Friesen, was working in a fashion showroom in the downtown garment district in Los Angeles, but her fortuitous encounter with the agent was the beginning of a rewarding career. He escorted her to the 20th Century Fox lot, and she was introduced to producer Jerry Wald, who was developing a film about Jean Harlow.

"I walked into this huge office," she recalled, "and at the far end of this room was a desk and there was a little head sticking above the desk and I heard, 'Guns! Cannons! Explosions! What's your name, kid?' I said, 'Diane Friesen.' And he said, 'It's Diane Cannon!' I said, 'OK.' Can you imagine? I thought it sounded kind of cool."

Wald told her, "You've got star quality, kid. I'm gonna test you for Jean Harlow."

She didn't get the part but she did get her professional name. (She used the conventional spelling of "Diane" in her early credits before switching to the more distinctive "Dyan.") And she got a career. Starting in 1958 she landed a series of guest shots on popular network series, including Westerns ("Have Gun Will Travel," "Wanted: Dead or Alive," "Gunsmoke") and noir mysteries ("The Untouchables," "The Detectives," "77 Sunset Strip.")

She made her feature film debut in "The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond," a low-budget, black-and-white gangster flick from Warner Bros. After paying her dues for 10 years, she landed her breakthrough film -- "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," Paul Mazursky's dramatic comedy about two couples struggling with the concept of open marriage. Her costars were Natalie Wood, Elliott Gould and Robert Culp. She was nominated for best supporting actress.

After that, it was off to the races. She worked opposite Sean Connery for director Sidney Lumet in "The Anderson Tapes," headlined Otto Preminger's "Such Good Friends" and earned her second Oscar nomination in Warren Beatty's remake of "Heaven Can Wait."

Lesser films included "The Last of Sheila (her co-stars included James Coburn, Ian McShane and James Mason), "Doctor's Wives" (with Gene Hackman and Richard Crenna), "Shamus" (with Burt Reynolds) and "Honeysuckle Rose," in which she sang and appeared opposite Willie Nelson as a country singer a lot like Willie Nelson.

Whether she was in good films or not so good ones, or appeared on TV shows that endured or were quickly forgotten, it's all part of a performing life that Cannon traces back to her childhood in Seattle.

"From the time I was 5 years old," she said. "Writing plays, acting all the parts, setting up all the chairs, taking down the chairs, cleaning up the mess. I was writing, producing and directing from 5 on. ... That was out in the backyard. I was charging admission. I couldn't come up with a profit. I remember that I imitated Al Jolson and sang 'Swanee.'"

Most of the audience, she said, consisted of parents from the neighborhood.

"The kids weren't going to sit still for that kind of nonsense," she said. "Only parents put up with that and tell you how wonderful you are."

Cannon was a theater major at the University of Washington but didn't finish.

"You know what happened?" she said. "I didn't like the fact that everyone in the drama department was so different. They wore sandals and had long hair and earrings. And I was brought up in a very conservative home and the idea of belonging was so important to me. So I changed my major to anthropology -- the study of man. I thought that would be really interesting."

As it turned out, however, she traveled to Phoenix with a girlfriend, became engaged and moved to Los Angeles, where her fiance lived. The engagement didn't work out, but Cannon landed the job in the fashion showroom. And then she went to that fateful lunch with with her girlfriends.

In 2011, Cannon published a memoir: "Dear Cary: My Life With Cary Grant," a recollection of her marriage in 1965 to the much older film legend, which produced a daughter and some difficult memories. Written in a breezy style, the fast read became a bestseller. And although Cannon worked the interview circuit to launch the book, she said she didn't write it for the money.

In an author's note, Cannon described being approached in the 1980s by agent Swifty Lazar to write a book about her life with Grant. She declined. Some 15 years later, Jacqueline Onassis, then an editor at Doubleday, solicited her to write a book about her life, whether she mentioned Grant or not. Again, Cannon chose not to.

Finally, she felt, the time was right.

"Why now?" she wrote. "Because finally, I found a way to forgive. Because my heart was broken and now it's whole. ... I wrote this book for all people everywhere who have loved and lost and fear to love again. It is possible to get the stars back in our eyes ... and keep them there!"

Cannon said writing the book was the hardest thing she's ever done. She has the utmost respect for writers.

"If I had wanted to make a lot of money, I would have written it way back then," she said. "It's not bashing Cary Grant. I was so concerned about that. After the second draft my publishers said, 'Dyan, you're being too overly protective. People are gonna think you're crazy! But people love him and I didn't want to take the stars out of their eyes."

Opening Thursday

"The Fox on the Fairway" begins performances Thursday and runs through Nov. 3 at the New Theatre, 9229 Foster, Overland Park. For more information, call 913-649-7469 or go to NewTheatre.com.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

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