They don’t make stars like Elizabeth Ashley anymore. Since her Broadway debut with Robert Redford 60 years ago in The Highest Tree and their smash 1963 followup Barefoot in the Park, the Tony winner has become as legendary for her irrepressible personality as for roles in hit films like the 1978 thriller Coma and TV shows like her 1990–’94 sitcom Evening Shade, which earned her an Emmy nomination.
“Well, I’m flattered, shocked and chagrined to hear you say that I have a great personality!” she exclusively told Closer Weekly — in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now — about her famously raspy Louisiana drawl. “When I grew up, one of the old Southern traditions was that conversation is blood sport. This was decades before political correctness, which I find utterly loathsome, so I tend to be perverse and go the other way!”
It’s that against-the-grain spirit — and the love of her son, Christian, 51 — that helped her survive an abusive marriage to her second husband, George Peppard, and a nervous breakdown. As her Groundhog Day–style comedy series Russian Doll premiered on Netflix in February, Closer caught up with Elizabeth to discuss her wild life and what she has in store as she turns 80 this summer. “When you get to be my age, if you’re still vertical and can walk and talk at the same time, they think you’ve had a brilliant career,” she said with a laugh. “But the point is, you’re still vertical!”
Scroll down to read our exclusive Q&A interview with Elizabeth!
Russian Doll is getting amazing reviews. How did you end up in it?
I don’t know — the offer just came — but I have a sneaking feeling it came from [star and co-creator] Natasha Lyonne. We had one of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had at Lou Reed’s  memorial. I’m thrilled to be part of something this original that people are just going mad for.
You’ve had a long career, but do most people know you from Evening Shade?
I loved that show! I’d known Burt Reynolds since our early days in New York, from this grotty bar where all the poor-ass actors gathered. He was living in a closet-size room with Rip Torn and, I think, Bruce Dern. Burt was the most loyal, generous, kind man, and very smart. I really miss him.
Where were you raised in the South?
I grew up in the Louisiana Gulf Coast. I was born in Florida, but my mother got a divorce before I was a year old. As she liked to say, with a baby under one arm and a sewing machine under the other, she put three states between herself and that son of a bitch! [Laughs]
Why did she move you there?
It has Napoleonic law, which is much better in terms of women’s property and children. She was the administrative assistant to the commissioner of agriculture for Louisiana, and all she wanted was a child that would get an education. You see, darling, I grew up in the Jim Crow South. It was horrifying and scarring, so she made sure that I never participated in segregation, that I valued the truth of things. I think that’s one of the reasons she was so anxious for me to get out of there as soon as I could. And I did!
When did you move to New York?
When I turned 18, I got myself there. I went to the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre all day and waited tables at night in Greenwich Village. It was a fascinating time — I was there the first time Bob Dylan played. A great writer once told me some people are born bohemian, and I think I was.
What was your big break?
Nobody ever had more pure luck at the beginning of their career than me. I got a part in a huge hit comedy with Art Carney, directed by the great George Abbott …
That was 1961’s Take Her, She’s Mine, and you won your Tony for that …
… And from there, Neil Simon wrote [1963’s Barefoot in the Park] for me, and Mike Nichols directed it. I mean, you don’t get luckier.
And you costarred with Robert Redford!
He was my pal. We made our Broadway debuts together in 1959’s The Highest Tree and shared an agent, so when Barefoot came along, [the agent] and I said, “How about Bob?”
A month after it opened, you were on the cover of Life, which called you Broadway’s brightest new star. You’ve said that led to your nervous breakdown. What made you get help?
One doesn’t have a choice when one sees nothing but hallucinogenic colors and can’t hear anything but things that aren’t there. With huge overnight success, you lose touch with reality. There are people telling you what to do, generally to be anything other than yourself. You lose a self that you can listen to.
That happened while you were married to your first husband, actor James Farentino. Then in 1966, you married your second of three husbands, George Peppard, who was the costar of your biggest film, The Carpetbaggers.
Never having had a father, I was looking for a father figure, so I married a star 14 years older than I was. We did have my wonderful son, Christian … Look, I married everybody in the world for a while, but then I retired to the hall of fame with a plaque! I’m not meant to cohabitate. God knows, I tried.
How did time with George affect you?
I retired for around six years and was held hostage in Beverly Hills. Then I got divorced, took no alimony and had to go back to work. I’d just turned 30, and was told by a huge agent that I should rethink the divorce because I was on the OTB list — he told me that meant “Old Tired Broads.”
Unreal! Are you close with Christian now?
Oh, God, yes. I adore him, he adores me. He’s making a documentary film. He’s an adventurer and leads an interesting life.
You’re 79 and still look great. Any secret?
Oh, please! Listen, darling, I’ve never been sawed, sucked or sewed, but I think I’m the Van Gogh of greasepaint — I’m brilliant at makeup. I smoke the weakest cigarettes known to man. I don’t eat or live in a particularly healthy manner. I’ve never entered a gym in my life, nor would I! I have no idea why I’m still alive.
What’s one of your greatest life lessons?
To maintain positive independence. I’m not a great fan of what they call “positive thinking” — I think it makes you stupid. But curiosity, creative imagination and independence are the things that have saved my life.
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