In the early 1960s, Michelle Phillips rose to fame as a founding member of the Mamas & the Papas. Today, she’s the last survivor of the famed folk-rock quartet, best known for their lilting harmonies on hits like “California Dreamin’” and “Monday, Monday.”
“I had a couple of things going for me,” Michelle, 77, confides to Closer. “I was the youngest member. And I was out of the music business as soon as I could get out. I started acting, which was blissfully fun.”
As an actress, Michelle has worked alongside luminaries including Audrey Hepburn, Dennis Hopper and Martin Sheen, but she really came into her own playing scheming Anne Matheson Sumner on Knots Landing.
Despite her success as an actress, Michelle hasn’t forgotten her counterculture roots. NFT copies of a drawing she created of the Mamas & the Papas for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame were recently sold and raised $25,000 for the Painted Turtle, a camp for kids facing serious medical conditions. “I am delighted to be able to help so many children through these auctions,” Michelle says.
Scroll down below to read Closer‘s exclusive interview with Michelle!
When you were a child, did you know you wanted to go into entertainment?
I never had the slightest interest in going into show business. All I wanted was to have a very pretty black cocktail dress, have an illegal cocktail and meet a bunch of musicians. That was my goal in life. And I think I did a damn good job!
What do you think you would have done if your showbiz career didn’t take off?
I have not the slightest idea, because I don’t have that kind of personality where I plan or have ambitions. Whatever happens, happens. I always just wanted to have enough money to travel and, you know, buy that pretty little black cocktail dress.
What’s your fondest memory of the Mamas & the Papas?
The first time we were ever on stage, we played the Hollywood Bowl. And then we toured the country in a jet. And then we did the Monterey Pop Festival. We played Carnegie Hall, and then we came back and did our last show at the Hollywood Bowl. I was just really lucky that I fell in with some great musicians. That’s not to say that I didn’t contribute, I did. But they had all recorded before. I had to work really hard for it.
Was your family supportive?
Yes. I loved it when my father — my whole family — was so proud of everything that I was doing. It’s an unforgettable feeling when you hear your parents say, “Oh my God, I had no idea you could sing.”
What’s the most important thing your family taught you?
My father taught me to always be a generous person. My mother died when I was very young, so my father took over a lot of these philosophical questions. I was just taught to be a good person, to give what you can, and give as much as you can. Because you know, there are so many people who are in dire straits. We have to do our best to put a hand out.
Is there a motto you live by?
I suppose if I have a motto it’s: “Be kind, be available and just try to live a good, honest life.” It sounds trite, but really, if you try to help, and you do what you can, then you should throw yourself into it. There was a time when I used to make sandwiches for homeless people, but I’m past that age now. I can’t make 100 sandwiches and hand them out on Saturday and Sunday anymore.
What do you enjoy most about acting?
I love the collaboration. For instance, when I was working on Knots Landing, if we wanted to change the dialogue, all we had to do was call the office. There was no conflict at all. We would laugh ourselves silly. Nicollette Sheridan, my daughter in the show, would say, “Oh, can we make this dialogue nastier than it is, Mom?” The office loved to get our notes!
Is it similar to the collaboration that happens with a singing group?
Yes, it’s very much the same thing. The actors I worked with — Bill Devane, Michelle Lee, Nicollette Sheridan — you could look into their eyes and you could see [a reflection of] your own character. You relate to each other in such a deep way. You have to love them in a very deep way.
Did you have any problems playing a villain on Knots?
[Laughs] People used to ask me if I treated my own children like the children I had in Knots Landing.
I have to say I’d be in prison if I did. But Anne Matheson was my favorite acting role because I had years to develop her.
Your daughter, Chynna Phillips, followed you into show business as a singer with Wilson Phillips and as an actress. Did you ever try to discourage her?
I did try and discourage her from getting involved in the record business. I didn’t let her work until she was 18. [By then] she was mature enough to know how to pick an acting part and how to manage her singing career. I certainly wasn’t going to become her manager. I think she’s done a really great job.
What do you like about being the age you are now?
I don’t know what you can say. You’re not even mentioned in demographics after you turn 65! But I feel well. I just took a mild walk. And I expect to be around for — I don’t know — another 40 or 50 years.
Do you enjoy being a grandma?
I don’t pass enough time with my grandchildren. My son Austin, he’s the closest, and I get to see his beautiful baby boy Aiden the most. It’s wonderful to see Aiden developing and running and talking.
Do you have any other career goals?
I would really like to make the Mamas & the Papas movie. The script is just sitting there, complete and ready to go, with some wonderful people involved. I think it’s going to happen.
What are you proudest of in your career?
Oh, a lot of stuff because I’m so talented. [Laughs] But it really goes back to different parts of my career. I loved working with Ryan Murphy on Popular. I absolutely loved doing Knots Landing. And even though there were a lot of difficult moments during the Mamas & the Papas, I was very proud of what we did.