Jane Alexander

Actor and former Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts
Jane Alexander headshot

Photo by Joan Marcus

Music Credits: “Renewal” composed and performed by Doug and Judy Smith.

Jane Alexander: I feel that the arts are one of the greatest gifts that the creator has given us as human beings. And when you’re given a gift like this you have to utilize it, you have to use it. So of course it should be part of our government because government is about aiding people everywhere and giving them the opportunity for happiness, for fulfillment, for a good life, good health, etc., and the arts are part of that.

Jo Reed: That was actress, author, and former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, Jane Alexander. And this is Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

As an actress, Jane Alexander is a triple threat: she is equally at home on stage, in film, and on television-- and she has the awards to prove it. She won a Tony Award for her first Broadway play, The Great White Hope, and then went on to seven other Tony nominations over the course of her career for roles in plays as varied as 6 Rms Riv VuThe Sisters Rosensweig, and Honour. She picked up the first of her four Academy Award nominations when she starred in the film version of The Great White Hope. She was also nominated for All the President’s MenKramer vs. Kramer, and Testament. Her television work includes indelible performances as Eleanor Roosevelt in two different productions. Ironically she won one of her two Emmy Awards for portraying Eleanor’s nemesis-- FDR’s formidable mother in the television film Warm Springs.

Jane Alexander also has had a career as an influential arts advocate. She was the first artist to become chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. Appointed by Bill Clinton, she arrived in 1993, which was a tumultuous time for the agency. For four years she led the NEA during this challenging and pivotal period.

Jane Alexander: The agency I came into had about... close to 300 if not more employees and a healthy budget of 175-plus million dollars despite culture wars that had been ongoing and had actually forced the resignation of John Frohnmayer, my predecessor. So there was a lot of demoralization among the staff. And I think I was brought in because they wanted an artist and somebody who would really stand up for the First Amendment, freedom of expression, and I was told in no uncertain words not to be wishy-washy about that.

Jo Reed: Take us back just a few years before that. What was the mandate in 1965 for the National Endowment for the Arts?

Jane Alexander: The mandate, as I remember it, was to reward the best art in our country hopefully for the benefit of all citizens. Of course, with the amount of money then, which was I believe seven million in the beginning-- something close to that-- that was not possible. So they made some very good and strategic grants to American Ballet Theatre, I believe was the first. They tended to be the more high-end fine arts.

Jo Reed: Tell me why you wanted the job as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Jane Alexander: You know, that really wasn’t a hard one for me and the reason was because the NEA had been responsible really for my career as an actress in that a grant was made to Howard Sackler and the Arena Stage to develop The Great White Hope back in the ‘60s. I think the grant was given around ’66, one of the first ones, and that really made the careers of James Earl Jones and myself. We did it first at Arena Stage to great acclaim. We went to Broadway with the show where it won the Pulitzer Prize. It was made into a movie and both James Earl and my self were nominated for Academy Awards. This gave James Earl and myself access to all media-- think about it-- theater, television, and film. And we made good use of that in our careers, I’ll tell you.

Jo Reed: Your career as an actor and doing your art and then moving into the role of being an arts advocate... Did you approach that differently from the way you would approach a role? I don’t mean to doubt any kind of sincerity or commitment, but just what skills you used from your training as an actor and brought to that job as chair.

Jane Alexander: It’s a very interesting question, Jo. I’ve never really had that question in my life. But it’s a very different thing being an administrator and certainly very different being part of a government. Politics is about compromise, finding common ground. The arts are not about that necessarily; the arts are about searching for truth, searching for truth as the playwright in this case of The Great White Hope or whatever sees it. And that was a hard lesson for me to learn, to switch a brain that was always searching for some kind of truth of a situation to one seeking compromise with other individuals.

Jo Reed: Correct me if I’m wrong though, but certainly as a playwright yes, it’s an uncompromising vision and as an actor as well. But at a certain point in theater and film it’s so collaborative that there has to be a kind of negotiation that happens among everybody.

Jane Alexander: Well, you’re right about that. But that is the lessons that I learned very early on as an actress in improvisational theater-- which I did quite a bit of with Paul Sills’ Second City workshops-- and that was you accept what is given to you. In other words, if you walked into a room and you said, “What is wrong with you?” I would not deny that there was something wrong; I would take what you gave me and said, “Oh, well, you know, I have been not feeling well lately” and then we’d go from there. That’s the cornerstone of improvisation. So I used my improvisational techniques to begin to understand where other people were coming from and that you can’t really change the dynamic of who they are and what they are presenting and you have to work with it. So in that respect that part of acting worked for me very well. 

Jo Reed: Can you briefly describe your confirmation process as chair? And did the whole vetting process and all of the courtesy calls-- did that give you an inkling of what you were walking into?

Jane Alexander: Yes. Yes, and it was shocking. The other thing that was shocking to me was the amount of material one has to go through in the briefing books. This did not end during my four years because it was so incumbent upon me to be up on whom I was meeting, what they had done in their lives, what their stance was, what their constituency was and so on, and these briefing books were huge. I would come home every night with one that would be 120 pages or so. Yeah, the confirmation process gave me a very good inkling about what I was up against. I was very, very fortunate, however. At that time, Ted Kennedy became a really staunch friend and ally and then I had Republican friends and allies-- and people forget that that happened during those years of the Clinton administration-- but Alan Simpson of Wyoming was one of my greatest supporters as was Orrin Hatch of Utah, Nancy Kassebaum from Kansas, remarkable senators, all of them. And if I didn’t have them to talk to or be in my court I would have been a very sad person.

Jo Reed: As you’re dealing with Congress and everything that’s going on there and in Washington in general and the politics that has to go on you were also traveling throughout the country.

Jane Alexander: Uh huh.

Jo Reed: Why did you decide that that was important and how did what you see help you lead the agency?

Jane Alexander: I read early on a research paper that the National Endowment for the Arts had done about how many people knew what the NEA was, what it did in the United States of America and the districts, and it was shocking to me that almost 90 percent of the people who had been interviewed did not know what the NEA was. Those that did know-- there was a huge cohort that felt it was a terrible organization because of all the media attention that had been focused on it during the previous administration, Bush Sr., and John Frohnmayer’s problems with a couple of grants that Congress found egregious. So I said, “This can’t be. We’re giving grants to places all around the United States and they don’t know what’s happening in their district, how we’re helping them. And these are matching grants and challenge grants and all kinds of exciting things.” So I said to my scheduler, Noel Boxer, I said, “I’ve got to get out there. I want to see all 50 states this year." And it was so important, vitally important. Everywhere I went I had great media attention, so that meant the local and sometimes the state public relations organs if you will were focused on the arts, what the NEA was doing, and what they did for the community and for the state. And it was an eye-opener for most people that I met. Of course, the artists knew it but when the artists and the general public began to come together that was truly exciting and they said, “Oh, now we get it. Oh, that little museum, that children’s museum that I go to... You mean that wonderful show about Dr. Seuss was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts,” something like that. “Oh, that’s what you do.” So it was no longer in their minds an elitist organization that gave outrageous grants to artists who were doing reprehensible things, so it was well worth it. That really made the day. Once I had traveled to all 50 states, which I did in the first 13 months, by that time the first Republican Congress had come in in 19-- the end of ’94 and I was ready. I knew what the people wanted out there. I knew that they loved the arts that we were bringing, helping them open theaters and dance halls and community ballet companies, whatever. So once I knew that I knew that I had been armed with the love of the people and that was what I fought with for the rest of the couple of years.

Jo Reed: Because even though the scandals had happened not during your tenure, when Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House part of what he wanted to do was eliminate the Arts Endowment.

Jane Alexander: Yeah, it was actually at one point top of his hit list, the Contract with America.

Jo Reed: What was his reasoning? Do you remember?

Jane Alexander: Well—

Jo Reed: I mean specifically about the Arts Endowment.

Jane Alexander: Yeah. You know, Gingrich and the others thought that the arts and the humanities and public television needed to be privatized-- they were not a good use of public money, there was plenty of commercial outlets for the arts. That’s what they thought.

Jo Reed: And what finally happened in that Congress?

Jane Alexander: That Congress-- well, it was still there when I left four years later. The Contract with America did not succeed. When we finally won the war to keep the National Endowment for the Arts alive-- and by the way the NEH was having its own fights and PBS was having its own fights and the Pell grants were having theirs and all the museums, etc. When we were all in alliance together-- when we finally won, I’ll never forget what Pat Williams, who was the congressman from Montana, came up to me, and he said, “It’s bulletproof. Nothing will happen from now on.” And I said, “How do you know?” He said, “Because you won the big war. It’s now part of the system.” Now there were restraints put in, language put in by Congress which made it much more difficult for an artist-- for example, let’s say Picasso. He couldn’t apply with his erotic art anymore, or if he would it probably wouldn’t get funded and he would be a fool to try. So that’s what happened. So it became much more democratized if you will, the whole art, in that my successors in the role of chairman of the NEA have concentrated more on community art, on funding large challenge projects that all of the United States can-- one way or another-- can participate in. And I think that’s great because it is definitely under the aegis of what a government agency such as the NEA should be doing. So I’m all for that. I just don’t want the individual artists to be left out either, which is what happened at the end of my administration. They cut all the individual fellowships except literature.

Jo Reed: No writing by committee.

Jane Alexander: No. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Were you always drawn to the arts from the time you were a kid?

Jane Alexander: Yes, I was. Yeah.

Jo Reed: In your book you tell a really lovely story about how going to a performance with your father when you were young was catalyzing.

Jane Alexander: Yes. My dad had come back from the second world war, and I think when I was about seven he took me one afternoon to a matinee of a ballet company from Copenhagen-- Royal Danish Ballet, I believe-- and they were doing Coppélia. I remember this, Jo, as if it was yesterday. It was so stunning. I mean all through the war-- I mean I was very little but Mom couldn’t take us to the movies. We had no theater. We had nothing. We just had a war effort that we’d listen to sporadically on the radio. So when Dad took me to this it was like, "Where has this been all my life?" I couldn’t believe it, these people leaping in the air and the color and the ladies twirling, pirouetting and pirouetting. Something in me said, “Oh, that’s where I want to be. That's where I want to be.” Mom started me with ballet lessons shortly thereafter but it turned out that my toes were so long that by the time I was ten and I got on point they said that I would probably have to break my toes and have them reset, and I just wasn’t up for that. So I found another outlet in theater and then I proceeded to do every school play that I possibly could be in and community theater and summer stock and blah, blah.

Jo Reed: Do you remember your first professional acting role?

Jane Alexander: My first professional one where I got paid-- <laughs>

Jo Reed: Yeah.

Jane Alexander: --was probably Rosalind in As You Like It at the Harvard Summer Players, a summer stock company.

Jo Reed: Wow. That’s not a bad first role.

Jane Alexander: It’s a wonderful role and I was all of 22 years old, a perfect time to play her. I was crazy in love and she was crazy in love. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Now Jane, when you read The Great White Hope and when you were in rehearsal for it were you aware that this was a masterpiece? Did you know what you were in?

Jane Alexander: I did. I think we all did. I mean there were 63 actors playing over 200 roles and I think most of them-- half were African Americans, and-- more than half, yeah. It was really about their lives and it was a sweeping, sweeping story about entrenched racism in the boxing business. So yes, we knew. We knew very well. It was based on the true story of Jack Johnson-- the first heavyweight champion of the world in 1910-- who was a larger than life character who would walk down the streets of Dallas, Texas, in 1910 and ’11 with two tigers on leashes and his white mistresses trailing behind. So you can imagine how the South felt about this man and how it was incumbent upon them to get a great white hope to defeat him. So it was a remarkable story and so beautifully acted by this large company that-- I think we all knew it was going to be incredible coming as it did at the height of the Black Power movement that Stokely Carmichael had been promulgating for a couple of years, black is beautiful. It was perfect timing.

Jo Reed: As you said it started at Arena Stage and then went to Broadway and then you and James Earl Jones also starred in the film version. Can you talk just a bit about the difference between acting on a stage and acting in a film?

Jane Alexander: Although I had done a few films, this was my first major, major film-- 1970-something, around there. And so I had-- did not have a lot of film experience at all and I had been playing this role for the long run at Arena Stage and then a year on Broadway and then James Earl and myself were contracted for over four months in different locations that went from L.A., Arizona, England, Spain-- most of it shot in Spain. The stage I was very comfortable and always have been very comfortable on, and it’s my first love. When I got to film it was shot out of sequence, as most movies are. I didn’t quite understand that. Even though I knew exactly what these scenes were all about, the language had been changed a little bit, Howard had-- Sackler had had to write it a little bit different for film, and I absolutely froze at one of my major scenes. And Martin Ritt was a great filmmaker. I said, “I don’t think I can do this scene today” and he said, “What?” And I said, “I can’t seem to do anything today.” And to his credit he called it off for the whole day, losing $10,000 for the production. In retrospect, now because I’ve got maybe 75 films under my belt now years later, I cannot believe this decision of his, except he was known as an actor’s director and he took me at face value when I said I didn’t think I could do it. I don’t know what happened. I did freeze. The next day I came in and I knocked it out of the ballpark. It was fine, but I never, ever did that to a director again. Years later I thanked Marty but I said, “Boy, were you brave to do that.” Poor producers. <laughs>

Jo Reed: And what about on stage? Did you ever just go off your lines?

Jane Alexander: Oh, yes, you often go off your lines. I mean I don’t know an actor who hasn’t.

Jo Reed: And you just pick them up when you can.

Jane Alexander: You just wing it.

Jo Reed: You also most very famously played Eleanor Roosevelt. Just very briefly-- the preparation for creating someone who’s so present in our minds.

Jane Alexander: It is huge. It's huge. When Joe Lash and Franklin Roosevelt, son of Eleanor and FDR, approved me I just burst into tears right in front of them. I didn’t know why except I knew that this was one of the greatest women I was ever going to be given the opportunity to play, and then began two years of research-- because it was a mini-series for ABC and ABC executives kept dropping it and saying, “I don’t think the American public is interested in the Roosevelts anymore.” Edward Herrmann, who played FDR, and I had two years to do research. Fortunately, both of us lived not far from Hyde Park, so we would go up there and I immersed my self in letters and photographs. I saw one photograph of Eleanor when she was about 14 or 15 years old and there was something in her eyes and I knew exactly what was going on with that girl. It was really an eerie and remarkable experience that I said, “Oh, oh, I get what you’re feeling.” I wasn’t even seeking it. I just came-- So once I had the young girl-- and I started playing her when she was 17 years old and I went up to 63 with the help of a lot of questionable-looking prosthetics, <laughs> But I did have a visceral experience of who the young Eleanor was anyway and the research that I had done aided in the experience. I talked to a lot of members of the family, people who knew her-- Joe Lash of course had known her very, very well. And it was a remarkable, remarkable time to be able to inhabit that incredible mind and spirit.

Jo Reed: She was quite a woman.

Jane Alexander: Yeah.

Jo Reed: The NEA: How do you think it’s contributed to the cultural vitality of the nation over the last 50 years?

Jane Alexander: The NEA has been remarkable. Just in my lifetime right now-- I’m about to turn 76-- I have to tell you that the whole map has changed. When I was a girl there were community theaters everywhere, there were some summer stock playhouses many, many places. But there was very few what we call regional theaters today, the professional theaters. There was one in Dallas in 1960 or so-- here in Washington Zelda Fichandler and Tom Fichandler began Arena Stage-- Cleveland Playhouse. There were some but now they are all over the United States. That’s just theater. There were symphonies of great repute-- Philadelphia, Cleveland and so on, but now there are ensembles or symphonies that are shared sometimes or not. But they’re all over the United States. It’s-- galleries, artists, visual artists started coming out of the woodwork, folk crafts started to appear all because of the NEA. There was a possibility for artists everywhere to be shown, to be seen, to be heard, to be read. That was very, very exciting and it’s happened. Roger Stevens, who was a very good friend of mine and the first chairman of the NEA and who worked for the Kennedys and conceived really of the idea of the National Endowment for the Arts, wanted to have the arts decentralized so that they weren’t just in the big centers of New York, Los Angeles or Washington, D.C., Chicago-- that they were all over so that everybody could experience the greatness of what can be brought to and what people can participate in. And that has happened.    

Jo Reed: And just to build on that a bit, the importance of having a federal agency whose sole purpose is to support the arts.

Jane Alexander: Yeah. Well, I feel that the arts are one of the greatest gifts that the creator has given us as human beings. And when you’re given a gift like this you have to utilize it, you have to use it. So of course it should be part of our government because government is about aiding people everywhere and giving them the opportunity for happiness, for fulfillment, for a good life, good health, etc., and the arts are part of that.

Jo Reed: What are you proudest of when you think about your time as chair?

Jane Alexander: I’m very proud that we kept the agency alive, kept it going. It could very easily have gone under but I think my fortunate trips to all the states, to 200 plus cities and towns, reservations, you name it, made the American people more aware of how they needed to contact their congressmen and make sure the Endowment was still alive. And they did it. They did it in spades. I mean it’s the American people who really kept the agency alive because they said, “What are you doing? Don’t cut the NEA," and "This is the one that does this and that in my district” so—

Jo Reed: And then finally this is our 50th. If we fast forward 25 years to the 75th, what would be your wishes? What would you like to see?

Jane Alexander: I would like people to find the art in themselves more because I think it’ll... it will bring more happiness to them and make them feel a part of the whole. I’m very concerned these days about alienation of people in society because of technology-- which I love-- but it does tend to actually isolate so that it’s easier to text somebody or send an e-mail than it is to pick up the phone or even go over to their house. I would like to see more live arts everywhere in the community and I think people will start coming out of their homes more. They love to come out for festivals; they love to come out for participatory things like that. I would like to see more of that. I think we need more art.

Jo Reed: Jane Alexander, thank you and thank you for everything you have done for the agency and for keeping it alive. 

Jane Alexander: Thank you, Jo. That’s great.

That was actress and former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, Jane Alexander.

You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us at @NEAarts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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Music: "Renewal," Doug and Judy Smith

Jane Alexander reflects on her time at the NEA, her life-long love affair with theater, and the centrality of art to the human experience.