In 1976, the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man became a television event. The pioneering drama, based on the popular book by Irwin Shaw, followed the lives of two very different brothers over two decades and ushered in the era of the limited series. It also made stars of its three largely unknown leads: Nick Nolte, Peter Strauss and Susan Blakely. “I had never done any TV, nothing episodic, nothing,” remembers Susan to Closer. “We had no idea it would get that big. I wasn’t paying much attention to fame, but all of a sudden I couldn’t go anywhere without being noticed.”
In the years that followed, Susan, 73, also drew great notices for playing tragic actress Frances Farmer and Eva Braun to Anthony Hopkins’ Adolph Hitler in The Bunker, but she’s also dipped her toes into comedy. “It’s so much fun,” says the still gorgeous actress, who counts Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett among her earliest influences. “Comedy has always appealed to me. I think that is the germ of where my desire to act came from.”
You grew up traveling due to your dad’s job in the military. Were your parents supportive of your acting dreams?
“They were never not supportive, but I think my father would have preferred I marry a West Pointer or become a diplomat’s wife. That would not have been a good choice for me. I’m opinionated and was political very early on.”
As a model, you were a cover girl for Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Was modeling a good experience?
“A great experience. I couldn’t believe that I could make that kind of money as a kid. But it was different back then — modeling girls were not making [what they are today]. But it was an amazing experience. I actually loved doing commercials.”
Did you ever worry about being a “model-turned-actress?”
“I laugh at my younger self and how seriously I took myself. Of course, what happened later was that every actress wanted to do some modeling and be on the cover of a magazine. I just did it in reverse.”
One of your first big movies was 1974’s The Towering Inferno. What do you remember about getting that role?
“I probably wouldn’t have said yes to Towering Inferno if I had read the script! But I was on another shoot, and my agent told me who else was doing it. I was just in love with Paul Newman. He was my biggest crush. So when I heard Paul Newman was in it, I said if he was doing it, I was doing it.”
What was that shoot like?
“I had a fabulous time. I got to hang out with William Holden, who was a wonderful man, and Fred Astaire, who was amazing. I was such a novice and so nervous, but he was just so humble and sweet. I also met my husband on that set, but we didn’t hit it off then. I remembered him when we met again later.”
Did you get to spend time with Paul Newman?
“Yes, but we weren’t in a lot of scenes together. When William Holden said, ‘Susie, I want you to meet Paul Newman,’ I looked at him and my heart started to race! He was the sexiest man, the best actor, and he turned out to be the kindest man, too.”
That’s so nice to hear. So many times we are disappointed by meeting our idols.
“I also got to know Joanne Woodward. They had a bunch of us actors out to Malibu. They were just such down-to-earth people.”
A few years later, you starred in Rich Man, Poor Man. How did you get the role?
“I had done a movie called Report to the Commissioner. Carol Burnett saw the film. She was friends with [producer] Harve Bennett, and she told him he should cast me. I never knew until later. Carol is an idol of mine, but she never told me because she’s so humble. She didn’t want to take credit.”
Did you get along with Nick Nolte and Peter Strauss?
“Oh, I love Nick. He is such a consummate actor, but also a nice, fun guy. And Peter was fabulous — we’ve reconnected recently. There were other leading men in that show who were fabulous, too: Bill Bixby, who my character married, Ed Asner and Robert Reed.”
It’s a shame they didn’t do more with your character, Julie, in the sequel, Rich Man, Poor Man Book II.
“That was the stupidest thing I ever did. They hadn’t signed us [for the sequel], so we could literally have asked for anything. The heads of Universal and ABC kept saying, ‘Susie, blank check. What do you want?’ I said no, it wasn’t about the money. I wanted to do other things. But when you have that sort of success, you shouldn’t turn your back on it. It was just youthful ignorance and foolishness.”
Do you feel there are enough roles for actresses over 50 today?
“No, I don’t think there are. But I feel like there is payback. [When I was younger,] I had the looks that kept other women from getting certain roles. There were always things I knew I was lucky to get. Now I do feel there is a lot of ageism. But there are certainly some great older actresses, like Jean Smart. I’ve loved her since Designing Women, and I love to see her get to do the roles that she does now.”
You’ve been married to your husband, producer Steve Jaffe, since 1982. What’s your secret for a happy marriage?
“The most obvious one is to pick the right person to begin with. We’ve gone through some rough times, but I know that my husband has my back more than anybody I’ve ever known. And I have his. Plus, every single day he makes me laugh. When you’re not acting, what do you like to do for fun? I love to read — I’m sort of an addict. I read all the news and novels. I enjoy making jewelry. And my favorite thing is to walk in nature. I love to take my little dog on walks with me.”
Do you have a motto you live by?
“I think it’s really important to lead with kindness. You have to treat others as you would like to be treated.”
— Reporting by Katie Bruno
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