When she was 7, Pia Zadora appeared on stage with the legendary actress Tallulah Bankhead in a touring production of Midgie Purvis. “We were in her dressing room, and there’s this bottle [of bourbon],” recalls Pia, 69, to Closer. “She says, ‘Try it. See how it feels.’ And I’ve been drinking ever since!”
Pia’s adult career also got off to a rocky start when she won a Golden Globe as New Star of the Year and a Razzie for Worst New Star for the same performance in 1981’s Butterfly. But the vivacious performer didn’t let the critics stop her. She continued acting, creating hilarious moments in the hit comedies Hairspray and Naked Gun 33 1/3, and also has enjoyed success as a nightclub performer, notably touring with Jackie Mason and Frank Sinatra.
You began working very early in life. How did you first start performing?
“My mother was this Polish Mama Rose type who wasn’t happy with my father and wanted to get out in the world, so she used me by putting me in show business. To get me out of my shell, she took me to a doctor who recommended I take children’s courses at the Academy of Dramatic Arts. Burgess Meredith was looking for a little girl to costar in a stage play with Tallulah Bankhead and asked me to go on the road.”
A lot of people were shocked when you won a Golden Globe in 1982. What do you remember about that night?
“I never expected to win and didn’t even want to go. I was up against Kathleen Turner, Elizabeth McGovern [and Rachel Ward]. Timothy Hutton presented me with the award, and nobody knew who the hell I was! I remember seeing Sally Field in shock, [looking ] like someone had thrown a bomb in her face.”
One of your co-stars in ‘Butterfly’ was Orson Welles. What was he like?
“Quite a character. He asked me to remind him to water his marijuana [plant] patch. And then he had a bottle of vodka that he spilled over!”
In 1988, you and your late husband purchased Pickfair, the former estate of Golden Age stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. You received a lot of criticism for demolishing it for a new house. Any regrets?
“I never wanted Pickfair. [My husband ] Meshulam [Riklis] wanted to leave me this legacy, but my kids [Kady, a singer, and Kristofer, a lawyer] swore to me there were ghosts. And there were termites. I wouldn’t tent it [for extermination] because I didn’t want the chemicals. So someone said, ‘Tear it down.’ Look, it was my house — suck it! But it never felt like home. Too much marble. Too many Picassos. [Giggles]”
Is it true that you and comedian Joan Rivers were very close?
“Joan was my best friend, a very sweet woman. I’d go on her show. I was opening for her at Caesars Palace the night her husband Edgar [Rosenberg committed suicide]. Everything froze. I don’t know how she held it together. She went through with the show and fell apart after. It almost seemed to me like she suspected it. I really miss her.”
Frank Sinatra also asked you to tour with him. How did that happen?
Frank came to see Jackie Mason in Miami, and I was his opening act. Afterwards, I got a dozen roses with a note, ‘You knocked ’em dead. From the guy with the blue eyes.’ Later, Frank was doing a show with Liza [Minnelli], who got sick, and I was invited by his people to step in. That was the beginning of another trajectory for me. He was a good-hearted, tough bastard.”
You and Meshulam divorced in 1993 but remained friends until his death.
“He spoke at both of my [next two] weddings and called my [current] husband, Michael, his ‘husband-in-law.’ When our house flooded, he invited us to move back to Pickfair and gave us the master bedroom during our construction. Meshulam would tell his wife that I was the only one he ever loved. When he died, he left me an elaborate diamond-studded key to Pickfair as a souvenir.”
Is it true that you met your husband Michael, who was then a police detective, after you reported a stalking incident?
“Yes, I called and we ended up talking for two years [before we met in person]. When we finally did, we connected and found out we are soulmates. The funny thing is he told me that when he first looked at my police report, he thought, ‘Some idiot named their kid ‘Pia Zadora.’”
You’re still as perky and vibrant as ever. What is your secret?
“It’s just me. I have less pressure now and can finally relax a little and take care of myself.”
You also look like time hasn’t touched you. Do you still get recognized by fans?
“Yes. I was in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, just not feeling like being recognized. A guy came up and said, “Aren’t you Pia Zadora?” and I said, “Are you kidding? I hate her!” He ran off so fast. [Laughs]”
If you could go back in time and tell yourself anything, what would you say?
“I would say, “Don’t worry. It’s going to be OK. You just have to keep learning and growing. And at the same time, look at the good stuff and don’t take it all too seriously.”
You have some upcoming appearances. On October 6 and 7, you’ll be at the Hollywood Show, and on November 6 you’ll be doing a cabaret in Palm Springs. [Tickets available at oscarspalmsprings.com]. Are you looking forward to performing?
“Yes. I’ll be doing a Q&A, showing clips and singing a couple of songs. And I might bring my drag queen, who does an amazing Liza. It’s going to be fun to get back up on stage and see how it feels again.”