Joanna easily had her father riveted, but once she grew up to become an actress, convincing audiences of her star quality took a bit longer. She went through several wrong doors. One was the 1979 McLean Stevenson sitcom, Hello, Larry, a legendary flopola. Work in theater (The Real Thing, Joe Egg) and movies (Heartburn, Hannah and Her Sisters) won her good notices—but in supporting roles.
Now, at 38, Gleason has finally captured the star spot. Her performance as the Baker's Wife in Stephen Sondheim's fairy tale-based Into the Woods has made her the odds-on favorite to walk off this Sunday with the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical. Is Gleason confident? Ha! As a self-described "14-year-overnight-suddenly-coming-into-view" success, Gleason doesn't want to tempt the fates by preparing a speech. "All I'm going to do is be dressed," says Joanna, who will forsake her usual jeans, sneaks and funky hat for a Hanae Mori gown.
Gleason wasn't dressed at all when she learned of her Tony nomination two weeks ago. In fact she was dripping wet. Her husband had failed to replace the soap in the shower, so Joanna had to hop out and find a new bar. That's when the phone rang and her agent screamed out the good news. "I went back into the shower feeling all warm and cozy and singing the Marseillaise," she recalls. "It was loud and stirring and expressed my feelings. And I had my soap."
The soap line is an example of the wry comic spin Gleason tries to put on her life and work. Much of the fun in Woods comes in watching Gleason's dowdy housewife grab at adventure by trying to steal Cinderella's Prince as well as her golden slipper. At home in her elegant seven-room Manhattan apartment, Joanna is quick to show the light side. She had planned to greet this visitor lying down in front of the door. Her chums say she uses humor as a mask. "Joanna has all the garden-variety fears and insecurities," says actor pal Frank Langella. "She's really a powder puff—soft and emotional."
Joanna remembers becoming a perpetual fretter about the age of 11, when her parents (mom is former actress Marilyn Plottel) moved her, brother Richard, now 35, and sister Sharon, 23, from New York to L.A. (where Papa Monty would make his TV deals). Bad deal for Joanna. "L.A. was like another planet, inhabited by these large, tanned children who could swim," she recalls. "I never felt as if I belonged."
After graduating from Occidental College outside Pasadena in 1972, Joanna enrolled in a musical theater workshop run by the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. There she fell in love with the director, Paul Gleason, and chose the door labeled Marriage. After her 1975 wedding, Joanna debuted on Broadway in 1977's I Love My Wife. Two years later she debuted as a mother to son Aaron, now 9. Her work in L.A., mostly failed TV pilots, left her frustrated. In 1981 she and Paul separated. "Divorce is very rough," she says. "You're not in control of your emotions, and it's turmoil."
She tried another door by moving back to New York. The move helped. So did meeting Michael Bennahum, then an investment banker, who encouraged her career. "She glows from what she does," Michael says. They married in 1984. "I love nesting and being silly with the kids," says Gleason. (Bennahum, 47, has two kids who are off at school but come by periodically to sample Joanna's culinary skills.)
"Someday I want to buy a house somewhere," says Gleason wistfully. "I feel a need for roots." What? Joanna choosing a new door labeled Homebody? Hardly. She and Bennahum have recently signed a multimillion-dollar deal with ABC to develop various TV series and movies of the week. "I'll have an inside track on the roles," jokes Joanna. But seriously, she admits she now feels "a surrender to ease. I don't have to make everything happen." She says her dad advised her to make a deal with success. "Just relax," he told Joanna after her Tony nomination. "Now it's a party."
As the daughter of Let's Make a Deal host Monty Hall, Joanna Gleason learned early that you don't get noticed without working at it. Oh, she didn't resort to wearing weird outfits like the contestants on her dad's show. Darn near, though. "Joanna did somersaults in her crib to get applause," says Monty, whose early work on radio and TV often kept him away from home. "When Dad was home," recalls Joanna, who started doing funny impressions to make him laugh, "it was 'Let the festivities begin.' "