Penny Peyser was living in New York and had just started her first Off-Broadway show when her agent called with what would turn out to be the opportunity of a lifetime: ‘How would you like to fly down to Washington to audition for a new movie?’
“I was like ‘Oh, I can’t, I just started this show, I don’t even have an understudy, no, I’m not going to be able to do it.’ And I hung up! My agent must have been rolling her eyes because I was so green and naive! She called me back and she said ‘NO. Penny. This is a very big film that Robert Redford is producing. They are going to pay for your plane ticket to fly down there and you’ve got to go!’”
“I knew nothing about the film. When I went down there and discovered I was going to actually be reading for the part with Dustin Hoffman, I thought I was going to fall apart because he was the only actor that I had ever, ever cut out pictures of!”
“Anyway, I had an audition and there was a lot of improvising involved because my scene was very cut and dried on paper and very short…and it went very well…but I almost lost the job on my way back to the airport after my audition. I got introduced to Bob Redford. As the producer, he was the boss but I didn’t give Redford the time of day because I was there with Dustin Hoffman! I shook his hand, and he said ‘Oh, what a firm handshake!’ The director said “Her dad’s a Congressman.’ I said ‘Very nice to meet you!’ and I walked away. I heard later that Bob turned to the casting director and said ‘I don’t like her.’ And the casting director said “Why?! What’s the problem? She just read with Dustin and Alan Pakula! They loved her!’ And Redford said ‘Well, she’s not an actress, she’s a congressman’s daughter!’ He was so worried about protecting the integrity of his film and he didn’t want anyone to be in the movie who wasn’t an actor and who had some weird political connection. But anyway, they talked him into it. They said ‘No, she really is an actress. She’s in an Off-Broadway show, she’s starring in the HOT L Baltimore!’ So, I made it into the movie and it was a huge thrill.”
All the President’s Men is one of the most celebrated movies of the 1970s. Penny’s first film was nominated in multiple Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA categories, and in 2010 was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Not bad for a Hollywood debut! Turns out it was definitely worth taking the opportunity to audition.
“My scene with Dustin Hoffman was the only kind of even flirty scene in the whole movie,” Penny notes. But she has something of greater significance to report: “Actually the day we shot that scene in 1975 was the third anniversary of the day of the Watergate break-in. At the time, during Watergate, my dad was a Republican representative from New York and he felt a huge sense of betrayal. He famously switched parties after Watergate.”
It’s through stories like this that Penny Peyser distinguishes herself not just from the pack of Hollywood starlets, but from the pack of Hollywood storytellers. Her humility, her eye for detail, her ear for dialogue, her great sense of fun, the deeper meanings she understands, and the fascinating connections she makes mark her as something much more than the ingenues she played.
As story after story pours forth, it becomes increasingly clear that Penny Peyser is a writer of great wit. She admits her wit set her apart on set and was evident and comforting to co-star Harrison Ford when they worked together on The Frisco Kid.
“There are a lot of serious people here,” he used to say, seeking her out between takes.
Penny played Rosalie Bender, the winsome younger sister of the prospective bride for whom Gene Wilder’s character, a nebach Polish rabbi named Avrum Belinski crosses the ocean and bravely, miraculously makes his way West to San Francisco to help establish a Jewish community, befriending along the way a cowboy bandit played by the aforementioned Harrison Ford in one of his earliest film roles. The Frisco Kid is a beloved movie for many Jewish cinefiles, but Penny had no idea the little film she made had become a cult classic until she found herself mobbed by a Hadassah group.
She laughs, recalling the experience.
Her character in that film is not insignificant. It is she who asks the disheveled Avrum, who by the time he arrives in San Francisco, looks every inch a cowboy bandit himself, what it is he has just delivered for her father.
“I don’t know,” Wilder drawls in a thick Polish accent slathered with a Western layer appropriated to try to hide his identity. “I think it’s some kind of a Torah!”
“Let me call my father,” Penny says in character, calling over her shoulder: “Papa? Papa!”
“No! No. Don’t call the papa,” Avrum begs.
It’s a beautiful scene and The Frisco Kid is not to be missed. It was released in 1979 and didn’t get great reviews at the time, but the film has always been popular with Jewish audiences and has garnered critical praise years later.
Film scholar Stuart Galbraith IV declares that Wilder gives “one of his very best performances” in The Frisco Kid and calls his character “incredibly endearing.”
“Nobody does nice like Gene Wilder… Nor have many actors been so willing to celebrate their culture and religious convictions as Wilder does here,” wrote John Puccio in Movie Metropolis.
Penny agrees with that assessment, saying Gene Wilder was very nice and polite, adding: “He was in a serious phase. Very serious about his art. Our director Robert Aldridge (who was made famous again this year as a character in the miniseries Feud about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis because he directed them in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) used to come up to Gene between takes and they’d have conversations about film. It was great for me to listen to them and learn so much about filmmaking. I had no idea at first that he had directed The Dirty Dozen or Baby Jane!”
Penny has only fond memories of that film set.
“Harrison made The Frisco Kid after Star Wars and before Raiders of the Lost Ark. I only got to kiss him once on screen. Sadly, we got it on the first take. I should have screwed that up on purpose!”
It was ironic that Penny was chosen from among hundreds of ingenues to play Rosalie. It was one of a few times in Hollywood that she was cast as a Jewish bride.
“At the time I played Rosalie, I didn’t even know about my own family’s Jewish history! It came out much later – only eight years ago – that my father, Peter Peyser’s, family was Jewish. My dad served as an infantry soldier during World War II. He enlisted as a Private and arrived in Europe just after D-Day. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and other significant battles.”
“Somehow,” Penny muses, “given all that history, he still never knew his family was Jewish. In fact, his military dog tags identified him as Protestant. One of my brothers discovered that our great-great grandparents were buried in a Jewish cemetery. But our grandfather was not a religious man and he just never even told my dad that they were Jewish.”
Peter Peyser, who passed away three-and- a-half years ago, was a United States Representative from New York, who served in the House from 1971 to 1977 as a Republican and from 1979 to 1983 as a Democrat.
Meantime, Penny was ubiquitous, with recurring roles in some of the most iconic Hollywood movies and TV shows of the 1970s, including The In-Laws, with Alan Arkin and Peter Falk. She developed a close friendship with her film-dad, hanging out, schmoozing and playing guitar with Arkin between takes. She said he has since confided to her that, of all his roles, The In-Laws is the movie everyone quotes to him. Like The Frisco Kid, this movie in which Peyser plays the Jewish bride became a sleeper hit and a cult classic.
She didn’t stagnate as a doe-eyed ingenue, though. Penny was cast in Rich Man, Poor Man, a prestige project because it was the first time a novel was produced on television. Rich Man, Poor Man set the stage for later television events like Roots and Herman Wouk’s Winds of War and War and Remembrance. She was soon cast in prominent roles on The Tony Randall Show, Crazy Like a Fox, and the Dallas spin-off Knot’s Landing.
As a steadily working actress, Penny guest starred in the most popular TV series of the 70s and 80s, including B. J. and the Bear, Barnaby Jones, The Incredible Hulk, Switch, Knight Rider, The A-Team, The Fall Guy, Tour of Duty, Quantum Leap, L.A. Law, Criminal Minds, and The Mentalist. Penny co-starred as Tracy Beaumont in the 1979 TV movie The Girls in the Office and starred as Emma Gayser Bedell in the 1982 TV mini-series The Blue and the Gray before working with Steven Spielberg in a 1986 episode of Amazing Stories, of which she was the star.
She took a well-deserved break in the late 80s and 90s to raise two much-adored sons who are 11 years apart, a decision of which she is as proud as any of her film roles. Today, Penny is a documentary filmmaker with two well-reviewed indies under her belt. She and her husband, Doug McIntyre (well known to Los Angelinos as the radio host of KABC’s “McIntyre in the Morning” and a page-one columnist for the L.A. Daily News), self-financed their documentary Trying to Get Good: The Jazz Odyssey of Jack Sheldon, about the accomplished but overlooked trumpeter.
Her next documentary was about a subject closer to home. “I hadn’t seen my sister in eight years,” Peyser explains. “She had joined what I considered to be a cult centered around a Zen master named ‘Umi,’ changed her name, and cut off most contact with family and friends. Why she would make such a radical choice was a mystery, and she offered few clues. I resented her choice and withdrew myself. Finally, I realized I’d lose her forever if I didn’t cast off my prejudices and enter her world.”
After several visits with her sister, Peyser decided to pick up a camera and record this unique environment in Santa Cruz, California. “It was a lonely, quiet endeavor at times, as the ‘crew’ was only me alone. I developed a great affection for all of those in residence; what unfolded over the course of two years was unexpected. I owe a debt of gratitude to all who allowed me to intrude for so long. My husband, Doug, often told me during the filmmaking process that I’d brought a bit of Zen into our home as a result of this project. That’s a wonderful side effect of making a documentary about a fascinating subject: a little of it rubs off.”
The result is a fascinating film called Stillpoint, which, like Trying to Get Good, is available on DVD.
Penny’s is a creativity that finds expression in many forms. In addition to acting and filmmaking, she has proven to be a startlingly brilliant poet who has written dozens of sonnets. Many of her collection of Sonnets from Suburbia are wry, ironic social commentary, some are deeply personal, all are examples of careful observation and clever construction.
The poems read beautifully but they lend themselves very well to comic performance and Penny has obliged by producing a video series in which the character “Lady Penelope” – Penny in a Renaissance costume – gives formal, sometimes arch voice to her pithy confections. You can subscribe to Sonnets from Suburbia on YouTube, they’re great fun…as is a conversation with Penny Peyser. She is frequently asked to speak to Jewish groups who are passionate fans, and while she readies her Sonnets from Suburbia for publication, she is considering the idea of developing a one-woman stage show to share some of her Hollywood stories, family anecdotes, and poems. Here’s hoping she takes the show on the road so we can see it in Dallas! Meantime, treat yourself to a Penny Peyser film festival: check out Trying to Get Good and Stillpoint, and by all means re-watch All the President’s Men, The Frisco Kid, and The In-Laws.