When Her Play Died in a Week, Elizabeth Ashley Stirred the Shubert Alley Fight of the Year

updated 06/02/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/02/1980 01:00AM

Elizabeth Ashley, 40, has been a great actress half her life, not to mention a street-fighting lady who seems to get her teeth into everything but consistently good roles. So when her latest Broadway shot—a misbegotten Amityville horror show called Hide and Seek—closed after nine performances, Ashley was not about to leave town without stirring the Shubert Alley fight of the season.

"I'm a Southern redneck woman," she declares. "If you mess with me, you have to fight me." Ashley's target is the author of the drama, a British-born Atlanta woman named Lezley Havard. "She said I raped and violated her play," snarls Ashley. "I was faced with the cheap conceit of an amateur." Havard, 35, was admittedly a Broadway newcomer, and the critics did rap everything about Hide and Seek except the star. During its Boston tryout Ashley demanded several rewrites. Havard did only one. Now the playwright says, "I think it's a shame Elizabeth doesn't let everything go to sleep. She's furious because she wants a hit. It's sad." Pressed to arbitrate, the director, Melvin Bernhardt, observes: "Elizabeth is a very open person and anything that comes to her mind goes through her mouth. But her talent is boundless."

So is her commitment to her craft—and no one disputes it. "I love my work," says Ashley. "It's my church and my bar. While I'm acting I get the feeling that I'm the medium, that magic passes through me." Volatile as she is, there's a hard core of honesty. "The one thing I have with the public—even when I'm drunk and a fool on the Tonight show," she says, "is they know I'm not lying."

As she detailed in her bawdy, best-selling 1978 memoir, Actress: Post Cards from the Road, Elizabeth grew up in Baton Rouge, La., the daughter of a horn player and a secretary who were divorced when she was a child. "My mother thought I was never good enough, and maybe I don't either," the actress sighs. She won a Tony at 20, though, in Take Her, She's Mine, with Art Carney, and was nominated again two years later for Barefoot in the Park, opposite Robert Redford. Ashley was less of a natural at marriage. She lasted seven months with actor James Farentino, then got involved with George Peppard, her co-star in the movie The Carpetbaggers, and married him in 1966. Peppard insisted she abandon her career, so Elizabeth played Beverly Hills housewife, entered analysis and produced her only child, Christian, now 12. In 1970 the couple broke up, and four years later Ashley credited the sexual energy of her stunning Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to her affair with novelist Tom McGuane—"It was savage love."

Since 1975 Ashley has been wed to Jim McCarthy, who produces rock and country records. "He's the only man I've met who doesn't let his ego get involved when we fight," she says. "If I'm full of shit, he tells me." Obviously thriving on combat, she once called her "relationship with McGuane "blood sport."

Ashley had sole custody of her son until last year, when the boy went to live with his father in California. "At that age," she explains, "boys should have a chance to rub up against a male animal." But Christian continues to visit Elizabeth at her "primitive" two-bedroom home in Guadeloupe. "I'm not a great mother," she confesses. "I mean, I don't go to PTA meetings or bake cookies. But my kid understands room service, he understands when Mommy's broke and he knows what a limo is. I always took him on the road with me." Indeed, she's spent her happiest years on tour, her unhappiest in Hollywood, and says, "I'll never again do Windows," referring to her current movie suspense bomb.

Ashley contemplated taking an off-Broadway role, but that fell through. She is philosophical. "I suppose I could have a career as a public eccentric," she cracks, "but that's not what I want. I'm very insecure; that probably explains a lot of my behavior."

In the meantime she is also negotiating to represent Revlon. "I'm completely out of money," she concedes. "Otherwise I'd have to sell my house and my car—which is all I've got." When Hide and Seek closed, Ashley says her first impulse was to "go home and grieve awhile and sail. But I'm like a race car ready for Indy that's been sent back to the garage. My juices are up. Just give me a stage to crawl upon."

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