The Raitts took different musical paths to stardom

February 06, 1994|By New York Times News Service

"Is that Bonnie?"

'Pajama Game,' and they say they'll never forget it."

Life with the leading man

Ms. Raitt's own career path rarely felt as effortless as her father's. She dropped out of Radcliffe College in the late 1960s to pursue her music, and later stubbornly refused to compromise her blues-oriented rock to the industry's more mainstream standards. In the mid-1980s, she acknowledged and began to treat an alcohol addiction. Growing up with a dad who epitomized the romantic leading man, squeaky clean and always on the side of right, the two seem a study in opposites.

But, at 44, Ms. Raitt has found that the world has caught up with her music and then some (her album "Nick of Time" sold 4 million copies in 1990, and her 1992 "Luck of the Draw" sold 5 million). She is also happily married to the actor Michael O'Keefe. She has come to celebrate her father today and she means it.

Mr. Raitt, who turned 77 Jan. 29, is equally proud of his daughter and seems glad she can appreciate her old man and his music.

"There's something great about the intimacy of the legitimate theater," he says. "I've played leading man roles for 54 years -- never stopped."

Ms. Raitt says: "Now he does what we call the white-hair roles -- 'Zorba,' 'Man of La Mancha,' 'Shenandoah.' Wonderful, philosophical roles that say things right to his age."

Larger-than-life characters

Mr. Raitt has continued to play his larger-than-life characters for the last 25 years or so, primarily in summer stock and touring companies, while Broadway has turned host to Vegas-type spectacles with ensemble casts. He always returns to Southern California, where he has lived all his life and where Bonnie grew up.

"Lunt and Fontanne said if you want longevity, stay off both coasts and play where the people are," he says. He has been true to his word, even playing Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof" in Ruston, La. Well, that was a stretch, no?

"I wasn't very good," he admits.

"I'm sure you sang great," Ms. Raitt says staunchly. "You did 'Carousel' until you were 63."

Did he ever do "The King and I"? He shakes his head.

"The women would have a heart attack if he cut his hair off," Ms. Raitt says. "My mom packed her suitcase when he cut those curls off for 'Pajama Game.' "

"Twenty years ago, there were 40 theaters across the country that could afford me," he says. "Only about 12 are left." He sighs. "It's the VCRs."

Undaunted, Mr. Raitt still tours a one-man show of his greatest hits and anecdotes, "An Evening With John Raitt."


Taking it to the hinterlands

"At his show," Ms. Raitt says, "I sit in the audience and watch the women's necks swooning a little and their husbands all say, 'It's not his hair, it's not his teeth,' and I say, 'Oh, yes it is.' Afterward he'll sit and sign autographs for anyone who wants them. That lack of a stuck-up attitude has always been inspirational. He's never snobby about taking theater out to the hinterlands."

But he's still competitive. Has he seen the Royal National Theater production of "Carousel," due to open at the Vivian Beaumont in March, starring Michael Hayden, a 30-year-old actor winning raves for his Billy Bigelow? No, Mr. Raitt says, his eyes as flat as his voice. It seems impossible for him to imagine anyone else in the role -- and with good reason.

"When I first came to New York to audition for the national tour of 'Oklahoma!' Rodgers and Hammerstein were there," he says. "I asked to warm up first and sang in English from 'The Barber of Seville.' Dick and Oscar later said my doing that prompted the writing of 'Soliloquy' in 'Carousel.' They said, 'He may be our boy for the next show.' "

Al Pacino as Billy Bigelow?

Ms. Raitt says: "In the '40s they made Billy Bigelow bigger than life, but now the reality is that he's a pretty dysfunctional guy. I could see Al Pacino doing him in the film. I'm waiting for Ziggy Marley to play Billy Bigelow, and then I'll see it."

The phone rings. "Flowers coming up," Mr. Raitt says. "Maybe they're from the Hall of Fame people."

"They might be from my husband," she says.

Actually, they're from Mary Martin.

"Your star shines bright on this historic day," the note begins before going on to send love from the actress, who performed a famous television special of "Annie Get Your Gun" with Mr. Raitt in 1957 -- and from Gene Kilgore, her secretary. Mr. Raitt doesn't find it at all remarkable that a woman who died in 1991 has just sent him flowers.

"In my show, I always pay tribute to her," he says. "An audience couldn't possibly love her as much as she loved them."

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