Jane Alexander: Actress, Author, Activist -June 2018
by: Joshua H. Balling
They are some of her earliest memories. Jane Alexander couldn’t have been more than 2 or 3 when her family first started spending summers on Nantucket in the early 1940s. Her father was a surgeon, serving overseas in World War II.
The Tony-winning actress, former head of the National Endowment for the Arts and ardent conservationist remembers playing with sea cucumbers in the tidal pools at Jetties Beach.
“Mom was never squeamish about anything in nature. When I was older, I remember seeing nurse sharks around us in the water, and mom never panicked. She would let spiders crawl on her. It was quite amazing. I think Nantucket is where it started, my love of nature, and my commitment to conservation and wildlife,” Alexander said. Her new book, “Wild Things, Wild Places,” offers a first-hand look at what is being done to protect the planet’s most at-risk animals, and the scientists, activists and conservationists doing the work.
She’ll discuss it with former CNN producer Michael Schulder June 15 at the Nantucket Atheneum during this year’s Nantucket Book Festival.
“Recognizing the need to protect animals began probably in the 1970s, when I started birding a lot. The ornithologists and field biologists I write about in the book, they were moving more from pure research to conservation, and I realized that the planet was in trouble and animals were losing habitat. Now we are in real trouble, particularly with the larger mammals, with the insectivores. The birds and creatures relying on insects are declining at a rapid rate,” said Alexander, who built her own cottage at Surfside, but left the island for Nova Scotia more than 20 years ago.
“I hope that the people who read the book who don’t have the privilege of going out in the world like I do, realize their own back yard is pretty exciting, too, that maybe they will plant things that are good for animal, bird and insect life. I don’t think it’s a hard sell. People love animals. You just have to make a connection for people that their own back yards are equally important.”
Alexander has traveled far beyond her own back yard. She often goes bird-watching while on location, and has traveled the world, studying big cats in Belize, rare birds in Bhutan and making trips to the Amazon, Peru, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. She has high praise for the scientists doing the groundwork in these farflung places to protect the world’s wildlife.
“I’m enthralled by all of them. They are such hard workers, and don’t make much money at all. (American zoologist) Alan Rabinowitz, with whom I spent time studying jaguars in Belize, became a close friend. He is my all-time hero. I’ve seen him in extraordinary circumstances in the wild. Not everyone is the Indiana Jones that Alan is, but all of them are remarkable,” said Alexander, who sits on the boards of Rabinowitz’ big-cat-protection organization Panthera, the Wildlife Conservation Society and National Audubon Society.
“One of them studies musk oxen in the Arctic in the winter. How crazy and dedicated is that? I’ve met Jane Goodall, and bow down to her, and Sylvia Earle, who studies the oceans. If I talk about them in the book, I hope people will realize they are the heroes of our time.”
“Some kind of heaven”
But first, there was acting. Alexander, 78, knew from an early age the performing arts were what she wanted to do. But not without a backup plan. Her father made sure of that.
“My dad came back from World War II in 1945, and in 1946 he took me to the ballet in Boston, to see ‘Coppélia.’ At the time, I had never seen anything like that. We had no television. We never went to a film during the war. My mother listened to the radio, but it was the news. It was the first moment of magic I’d ever seen in my life. I thought I was in some kind of heaven or something. I remember saying to my father that’s where I wanted to be. Ballet didn’t work out, but by the time I was 10 or 11, I was acting in school plays, and it’s a path I’ve never regretted, and my father never regretted,” she said.
“I was at Sarah Lawrence and I had promised my father I would pursue mathematics. I was on a path to become an IBM programmer. Then I went for my junior year abroad to the University of Edinburgh. I became involved with the university dramatic society and I succeeded in a number of plays. It was very clear that was what I was good at.”
Good is perhaps an understatement. Alexander’s career has spanned more than five decades, and includes Emmy and Tony wins, and Oscar nominations for “All the President’s Men” (1976), “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979) and “Testament” (1983). The Emmys came for her portrayal of Sara Delano Roosevelt in “Warm Springs” (2005) and Arthur Miller’s “Playing for Time” (1980).
But it started with “The Great White Hope,” for which she won a Tony for playing the mistress of a black boxer (James Earl Jones) in 1969 on Broadway. She was nominated for an Oscar the following year for the film version.
“It’s been the career I could only have dreamed about. I knew that I would find some success as a dramatic actress, and I was always enthralled with doing those kinds of heavy roles, but I didn’t know I would be involved in movies that dealt with such important social issues, like ‘Kramer vs. Kramer,’ ‘All the Presidents Men,’ ‘Testament,’” she said.
“But the biggest one of all for me was ‘The Great White Hope,’ which came about at the height of the black power movement. Who would have known these were the films I’d be involved with? I feel so lucky that they have made such an enormous impact on society.”
Alexander’s passion for social causes extends far beyond the movie screen. She serves on the boards of Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament, the National Stroke Association and Project Greenhope, whose mission is to empower women involved in substance abuse and the criminal justice system to reclaim their lives and rebuild their families.
Today, Alexander balances her time between acting and her conservation work, but she’s looking to do more acting following the death of her husband, theater and television director and producer Edwin Sherin, last year. She most recently appeared in “Three Christs,” with Richard Gere, Julianna Margulies, Peter Dinklage and Bradley Whitford on the big screen, and has a recurring role in “The Good Fight,” a spin-off of the CBS series “The Good Wife,” in which she plays a judge. She was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1999.
“I probably spend more time on wildlife conservation these days than theater and film, but I’m excited again to perhaps do a play. For actors, live theater is at the core of what we do. We are participating right there with the audience. It’s such a high. Film and television for all its wonder is not an actor’s medium, it’s a director’s. What excites me is that it is problem-solving in a very creative way, figuring out what a character is thinking and feeling, how she behaves. It’s great stuff,” she said.
“I’m just getting back into a full life again, after my husband passed away. Fortunately I have good health. I’m looking for a new play now. At my age, you don’t get many interesting roles. My friends in the business say, ‘Old actors never die, they just play judges, or Alzheimer’s patients.’ Men have it easier. They have two-thirds of the roles,” she said.
In the trenches
To this day, Alexander doesn’t know why she was chosen by President Bill Clinton to head up the National Endowment for the Arts, but she suspects it had something to do with a character she played in a television movie.
“I never asked president Clinton or Hillary. I was one of 40 being considered at the time, and didn’t think much about it, until I was told it was narrowed down to two people. I honestly think it was because I played Eleanor Roosevelt (in ‘Eleanor and Franklin,’ opposite Edward Hermann, for which she was nominated for an Emmy). Here I am being asked to run the nation’s largest arts organization, and I’m an actress, not a politician. I really came into it like Jimmy Stewart in ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’,” she said.
“But the National Endowment for the Arts always meant so much to me, because of the grant it gave to the writer of ‘The Great White Hope,” which won a Pulitzer. It was a remarkable play about racism, so I felt I owed something to this organization. It seeds all kinds of art all over the United States. I was proud and honored to serve. But I didn’t realize I was going to be in the trenches when Newt and the gang came to town.”
Led by the conservative congressman from Georgia, a faction of the Republican party was looking to gut the budget of the NEA, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities and other cultural organizations, with the eventual intent of shutting them down.
Alexander, who headed up the NEA from 19931997, and the organization’s supporters beat them back, but with a 50 percent funding cut.
“What won the game for us, I think, was that I had to go on the road. I knew the American people didn’t know what was going on in their own area. People thought all we did was grant money for salacious artwork. I visited 200 cities and towns, and many, many schools on a 13-month tour. The NEA is a matching-grant program. We fund those programs where your kid paints flower-pots after school. It ended up not being a hard sell either. The people let their legislators know – don’t tamper with the arts,” she said.
“The NEA exists to give every American citizen an opportunity to use their creativity in a participatory way by making art or viewing art. The mission after president Johnson signed it into law in 1965 was to seed art everywhere, not just in the big urban areas of Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. In Alaska, where you have to take a seaplane to this remote little town, there’s a small performing-arts theater where they write their own plays. I was in Juneau on a talk show, and somebody called in from a tiny little community, and said the NEA funds this little radio program they have. That’s what it’s about.”
While Alexander sees parallels today, with President Donald Trump proposing the same type of cuts and eventual elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, she is confident the organization will survive, in part because of the work done during her tenure.
“The NEA has a very strong infrastructure we built back then. The proposed budget from Congress this year actually gave the NEA a raise. The head of the committee was (Republican senator from Alaska) Lisa Murkowski. She may not be much for the environment, but she gave the NEA a raise. The truth is, in politics, if you can keep something alive, you can grow it again. That’s what’s happened. We may never get back to the $184 million budget the NEA had when I came in, but politicians like Murkowski know we need it,” Alexander said.
“It’s troubling. We have a president and an administration trying to cut a lot of things. There are so many EPA regulations they are going after. That’s very worrisome as well. But we have many, many champions in Congress, on both sides of the aisle. This is a good fight to get involved in. We need to keep these things. The NEA is an appropriate and right organization for the government to be in charge of.”
Return to Nantucket
It’s been more than two decades since Alexander spent any real time on Nantucket, and she’s looking forward to her return for the book festival. Her brother, Tom Quigley, remains a long-time seasonal resident.
“I’ve been coming to the island since I was a toddler. My family bought a little cottage in Surfside in the early 1950s after my dad came home from the war. We were there all the time in the summer. I still adore Nantucket, but it is a much different place than it was in the 1940s and 1950s. I remember walking or biking into town, and buying fish right off the boat. It was so much busier by the time I left,” she said.
“But I still have a very strong affection for Nantucket. It has such a strong conservation ethic, and cares about protecting open spaces. They are even looking to get rid of Roundup. That’s definitely a good thing.”///
Joshua Balling is the associate editor of Nantucket Today and the managing editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.