On a recent morning in midtown Manhattan, I walked to the back of the Whitby Hotel lobby to find Judith Light wearing large, resin-framed glasses and reading the New York Post. She was dressed all in black—pants and a long-sleeved shirt—her only nod to the sweltering summer heat outside a large, floppy, mud-colored straw hat that had once belonged to her mother.
Light is a veteran of the entertainment business, admired not only for her longevity but for her versatility. She’s done Broadway (three Tonys), soap operas (two Daytime Emmys), hit sitcoms (“Who’s the Boss?”), prestige cable drama (“The Assassination of Gianni Versace”), and an award-winning Amazon series, Jill Soloway’s “Transparent,” whose final season—a musical extravaganza in which Light sings, dances, and does a full split while spinning on a chair in a nude bodysuit—premières later this month. Light is what industry folk call a “jobber”—above all, she likes to work. She will appear in the new Ryan Murphy series “The Politician,” alongside Ben Platt and Bette Midler, and will star in the Spectrum series “Manhunt: Lone Wolf,” as the mother of Richard Jewell, the man falsely accused in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing. And, last week, she finally earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Among her many talents, Light has the gift of gab. Throughout our roving conversation, she discussed how she fell into doing soap operas, her love of discount designer clothes, her unusual arrangement with her husband (they live in different cities), and the ups and downs she experienced persevering in the business for half a century. Over breakfast, she encouraged me to put down my utensils and scoop up melon slices with my fingers. At one point, she offered me advice on whether I should freeze my eggs. Our planned hour together stretched into two. Two follow-up phone calls, which were scheduled for twenty minutes each, lasted another couple of hours. Before the first call, I received a long voice mail: “Hi, sweetie, this is Judith Light. I want to tell you about my mother . . . ”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
You grew up in New Jersey.
Yes, Trenton. Though my father was from the Bronx. No money. No fancy pants. Originally, my father was in the fruit and produce business. My grandfather came from the old country, and he was an egg candler.
I’m sorry, a what?
An egg candler! He was the person who held the egg up to a candle to see if there was a chicken in there or whether it was just the yolk.
That was an actual profession?
Oh, yes, it was in the Bronx. Then he got into the fruit and produce business, and my father, Sidney, followed suit. My mother came from some money, in Scarsdale. Early on in New York, she used to model for artists who would draw women for fashion things. Her name was Pearl, but she changed it to Sue, because she didn’t like it. My parents moved to Trenton so that my father could start his business, and she became a women’s buyer. She bought clothes there for a shop called the Ship Shop.
Did your mother have a strong sense of personal style?
My mother was always a bargain shopper. Loehmann’s was a big place where we shopped. I still have my Loehmann’s Gold Card. I will not give it up. I was never a Rodeo Drive lady. I’m Judy from New Jersey.
My mother’s style was very simple. It was elegant. She loved labels. But she also knew how to buy a really great white blouse, a great man’s shirt, in the vein of Carolina Herrera. She grew up in a time when women were not supposed to be more than a secretary. I think, if society and her family had supported her in a different way, I think she would have gone on to do much more. She always wanted me to do as much as I could possibly do.
You studied acting at Carnegie Mellon in the nineteen-sixties.
I was doing community theatre at the same time as I was going to high school. I had a remarkable drama teacher named Ruth Strahan. She was the one that founded the Carnegie Mellon program. I graduated in 1970, and then I went into repertory theatre for several years. I started at the Milwaukee Rep. Then, one day, Nagle Jackson, who was a wonderful artistic director, said, “You have to leave here. I know you can do more but you have to get out there. I’m throwing you out of the nest.”
What were some of your memorable early roles?
At the Milwaukee Rep, I did a play called “Cat Among the Pigeons,” which is a Feydeau farce, and I played the ingénue in that, or the soubrette. I was never really the ingénue. I always played a character-y character.
So you get to New York. You’re about twenty-five years old. What happens?
A casting director, Rosemary Tischler, who I think is still in the business, said, “I’m going to cast you in a very tiny part in a Broadway show.” And so I did “A Doll’s House,” starring Liv Ullmann and Sam Waterston. You may be too young to remember who Liv Ullmann was.
I know who she was!
O.K. We did it at Lincoln Center, at the Vivian Beaumont. It was just a remarkable thing to be given that gift. I got that, and then after that I thought, Oh, this is what it’s like. Great! You have someone who is your champion, and you come to New York, and then you do great theatre, and then you do feature films, and then you’re set. But, as time went on, it wasn’t happening like that. I was deeply disappointed, deeply unhappy. I was living on unemployment. I thought, Oh, my God. I don’t know how I’m going to do this. I called my father at one point and I said, “Listen, I need six hundred dollars to make it through the month.” And he said, “I’ll give you three; see if you can make it.” I think he wanted to know that I had the resilience to pull this off.
How did you make it through the month?
I was in therapy. God bless my therapist. I think he charged me thirty-five dollars a session. He was a wonderful guy named Bill Kennedy. I was really heavy at the time. And Bill was the one who really taught me how to eat and changed my perspective on eating. I was eating from emotion and fear, and shoving my feelings down. He said to me, “You don’t know how to ask for what you want. It's showing up in your relationship to food.” And he told me to hang in. When we talked about career stuff, he said, “Don’t do anything until you see me next week. Something’s going to happen,” and I said, “Oh, great. Are you psychic?”
So was he psychic?
I literally left there, and my pager rang. Those were the days when you had a pager, and if your pager rang then you called your service, and your service gave you the message. The message was to call my agent, and he said, “They want to see you for an understudy on a soap opera.” I said, “Wait a minute. I told you I never want to do a soap opera. That’s not in my plan.” My agent said to me, “You’re running out of money. It’s three hundred and fifty dollars for the day.” So I said, “I’ll do it.”
That was “One Life to Live.” You played Karen Wolek, a housewife who turns to alcohol and prostitution. You had a famous scene where Karen admits in court that she is a prostitute and breaks down in tears. Did you ever feel, working in soap operas, that you were limited in what you could do as an actor?
No, I never felt that. There are constraints, there are boundaries. You have to learn to do something in one day. You have to learn a lot of lines the night before. There are a lot of challenges in getting it done so quickly. But, remember, all three of my directors on this show—David Pressman, Peter Miner, and Norman Hall—all came from the theatre. And almost all of the actors were theatre people—Michael Storm, Erika Slezak, Brynn Thayer, Robin Strasser. All of them. It was like being in a company.
But did you feel like when you said yes to the soap you were closing doors to yourself on the other side?
It was an acceptance of, this is the choice, for now. I have no idea where it’s going to lead. I don’t know if it’s going to close up everything to me. What I wanted more than anything was to grow. I also knew in my heart and my soul I wanted to do other things. But it wasn’t that I felt bad about being there. I was terrifically excited by the work and the story lines.
What happened after “One Life to Live”?
I wasn’t getting anything for quite a while. I did one Movie of the Week, in which I was awful.
What was the movie?
I can’t remember the full title, but I think it was called “Intimate Agony: the Herpes Story.” Do not laugh at me.
I’m not laughing at you!
They were going to call it “Lovesick.” It was about how herpes was being passed around a community.
I called my manager, Herb Hamsher, and asked, “Why am I not getting work?” Because I was auditioning like crazy. And Herb said to me, “When you’re walking in the room, you’re really angry.”
Did you think you were projecting confidence, and it was being interpreted as anger?
No, no. It was a sense of demand. It’s, like, Give me this, people. Anyway, I was angry. But I started to reframe the way I was going into a room. How about having some respect for the things that people have written and taken the time to do, instead of holding yourself disdainfully? And the first sitcom I got was “Who’s the Boss?” I went into that audition room with a whole shift in perception. I don't mean that in some sort of New Agey way. “I have visions. I have dreams.” I sit and listen to myself say things like that and I think, I’m not talking about “The Secret.”
But it is a little bit “The Secret,” right?
It’s not, If you do this, then this will happen. It’s, like, just stay open.
Photograph by Molly Matalon for The New Yorker
Did you know before “Who’s the Boss?” that you were funny?
Sort of, but I didn’t know that I was really funny. I was learning about it in a whole new way, because sitcom comedy is very different than other comedy. It’s music. You hear it or you don’t. I knew that I heard it, and I needed more application. I would watch Tony [Danza]. He’s a genius of comic timing. So was Katherine Helmond.
Since the eighties, when “Who’s the Boss?” was on, you’ve done so much with the gay community, including speaking out publicly about the AIDS crisis.
I remember going to the March on Washington [in 1987]. Friends who were sick and dying, sitting in a hotel room because they couldn’t get out to the march. I saw how people were treated, how difficult it was to get medication. I thought it was untenable. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t say something about it.
Then I watched Elizabeth Taylor, and she said, I don’t care what anybody thinks about me. I don’t give a shit. She was, like, Excuse me, my friend Rock Hudson is dying. There’s this great line from “Death of a Salesman”: “Attention must be paid.” That’s how I felt.
You decided to come back to New York and do theatre, in 1999, after more than two decades away. How did that happen?
“Who’s the Boss?” ended in 1992, and I did a show with George Segal that did not get picked up. Then Herb, my manager, came up with this idea for me to play a Martha Stewart wannabe. It was picked up for six episodes for CBS and they never continued after that. I was really despondent again. My friend said to me, “This is like Gandhi’s wilderness years.” I said, “Oh, honey, I am so not Gandhi. I need a job.”
I had been offered to audition for a play by a young man named Jonathan Tolins. He wrote a play called “If Memory Serves,” about an aging sitcom star. Herb said to me, “Oh, my God, this is perfect for you,” and I said, “It’s not perfect. It’s not right.”
You didn’t want to be Norma Desmond.
I was just, like, “I'm not an aging sitcom star!” I was completely defensive about it. It was a great play. Elizabeth Ashley ended up doing it on Broadway. I looked at what was happening to me and I said, “I’m going around giving all of these speeches to the L.G.B.T. community. I’m talking about how they really inspire me with their courage and their authenticity.” But I wasn’t really living it, because I was terrified. Herb said to me, “You’re terrified to audition for a stage play.” So I said, “The next thing that I get an opportunity to go up for, I’m going to go up for it,” and that was “Wit.”
I had to fly back up to New York. I thought, They’re never going to give it to me. I was walking out the back door, even then, and they gave it to me. It took me so long to say yes. I’ve always said that, if you ask anybody in this restaurant right now if they think they’re the right stuff, nobody thinks they’re the right stuff. In the heart of hearts, in the dead of night, everybody thinks, I don’t measure up. I’m not enough.
You’ve been married to your husband, the writer Robert Desiderio, since the mid-eighties. You’ve spoken before about the fact that you two often live separately.
One of the things that Robert and I talk a lot about is the willingness for each of us to have the lives we love together and also apart. I was living in Los Angeles and kept longing to be back in New York because I love the energy. I love the life that I have here.
When “Ugly Betty” came up and they said, “We’re moving you to New York,” I was, like, “I’m going.” Robert said to me, “Oh, my God, what are you going to do?” And I said, “Well, I think the question is, what are you going to do? Because I’m going to New York.”
This is the kind of marriage that we have. We adore each other. We want to stay together. We have this very vital, exciting life together. He loves his alone time. I love my alone time.
You and Robert chose not to have children, and you’ve been open about that decision.
Oh, I would never call it a decision. “Decision” implies something that’s locked in and torqued down. I choose to use the word “choice.” It was a very active, aware, conscious thing, which came out of an intense dialogue with my husband, before we were married. Speaking with each other, finding out where we both stood in relating around this, saved us a lot of heartache later.
A friend of mine described her own desire to have children as, “I feel a spring thaw in my veins.” I thought, I don't feel that. I looked at that and I said, “What if I choose to do this, and I don’t feel that kind of passion?” Because, let’s be clear, motherhood is a job. It is a joyful job, and it is a demanding job. I had other things to do. It’s not that I had more to do. Had we made the other choice, I think it would have been fine. I think we would have absolutely made it work. I think we would have possibly been good parents, not necessarily great parents.
My mother’s older sister Jean and her husband Barnett did not have children. They didn’t spend time being upset about the choice; they owned the choice. They went to the opera, they travelled for two months at a time to Europe.
Now a lot of people would call that selfish. I say, O.K., what about that? In the early days of the women’s movement, when I was at Carnegie Mellon, I was, like, “I can have it all. I’m superwoman!” But wait a minute. Let’s just look at this. Let's say, “I can have everything that I choose. O.K., now what do I choose?”
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It feels in many ways like you are peaking in the third act of your career. Do you think “Transparent” was an evolution for you?
I mean, who would cast me?
As an overbearing Jewish mother? Maybe a lot of people. But do you feel like Jill saw something in you that you didn’t?
I know that Jill did. Shelly started as a recurring character. Jill’s vision was to see who this woman was, having pushed down the voice and having sequestered herself. Shelly is the person who needs to be connected to everybody in that family more than anybody, all the time, but has absolutely no idea how to go about it, and so ends up being alone, because they can’t stand her.
The question that we were all living in on the show was, Will you still love me if . . . ? Which means, If I reveal to you who I am. If I tell you who my authentic self is, will you leave me or will you stay?
Did it feel difficult to do the finale without Jeffrey Tambor?
I would say, let’s not talk about this.
It’s not a refusal to talk about it. It’s that it’s painful to talk about it. I’m really trusting that people in your position can respect that. It's complicated. And it’s painful. It needs more time away. I said something a couple years ago and it was completely taken out of context and people were upset with me.
What was it that you said?
No, no, we are not going back there. Please, I beg you. I am not the kind of person, and I think you know this, that says, “Hey, press, you, Rachel, not talking about it!” This is, like, ow. That’s not the way I want to say it. I trust you understand what I’m talking about. It can be written in a sentence somewhere and then everybody gets . . . there’s no chance for any discussion further.
What do you think it takes for there to be nuance and healing? Just time?
Absolutely, yes, I think it requires time.
In the “Transparent” finale, the Pfefferman family comes together to sing and dance and mourn the death of Tambor’s character, Maura. Do you think people are going to understand the last number, the “Joyocaust” number? Making jokes about the Holocaust—
This is not a joke about the Holocaust. I think this is a way of speaking to everybody in the world, that our pain and our suffering is real and true, and how can we look at a way to move through the world in living color, reminding people of what it has gone through, and what we are still going through to this day. We are talking about a new framing, not discounting the past.
I think this is a much longer dialogue to have. It requires a 92nd Street Y discussion. It just does.
You do full spread-eagle splits in the finale. Where did you learn to do that?
I’ve always been pretty flexible, because I started taking dance years ago, as a little girl. And then I did yoga. That’s been in the lexicon of my body and my work. But I have a new knee and a new hip, so, if I didn’t have those I don’t think I would be able to do that.
Well, I could never do it.
Oh, sweetie, if you took enough yoga you could.
One thing I see happening more and more is that women from my generation are having dialogues with our foremothers about what they have been through. And we are also looking up to them as icons. When you stepped onto the Tonys red carpet recently, in that dazzling silver glitter column gown, there was a frenzy of appreciation for you on Twitter.
That’s my stylist, Jack Dayton. He’s amazing. He also knows how to stop me when I’m thinking of something that’s going to take me in a direction that’s really away from that kind of simplicity.
Do you have instincts that are more . . . feathers?
I’m Judy from Jersey. I mean, I have a closet full of gold lamé, trust me. Jack is way younger than I am, and has a vision, a taste level, an appreciation for what fashion actually is and how it can rebrand someone.
People are always so excited for what you’re going to wear.
I didn’t know that.
Well, I’ll be the first to tell you, then.
There’s a sense that I have that people are paying attention. I would never call myself a fashion icon. But I appreciate that people feel that way.