Andrea Chambers
May 25, 1981 12:00 PM

Proving that she’s a trouper as well as a superstar, the leading lady stiff-upper-lipped it through previews, despite bronchitis and a 101° fever. But on opening night the antibiotics and critics seemed to conspire to make Elizabeth Taylor’s Broadway debut a triumph. Her fever down and her spirits up, she won nearly universal raves, plus a Tony nomination, as the vituperative Southern belle in Lillian Hellman’s melodrama The Little Foxes. “No doubt it’s superfluous to point out that Miss Taylor has charm, grandeur and sex appeal,” commented the New York Times’ demanding Frank Rich. “The news here is that she has the killer instinct too—and the skill to project it from a stage.” Taylor herself breathed a gasp of relief. “I thought the critics would clobber me,” she admitted. “This is one of the most exciting evenings of my life.”

The fanfare over Foxes isn’t likely to subside anytime soon. Buoyed by pre-Broadway sellouts in Fort Lauderdale and Washington, D.C., and by a $2 million advance sale in New York, producer Zev Bufman is scheming to keep Liz center stage. The New York run, originally scheduled to end in July, has already been extended to Sept. 5. Then the show moves on to New Orleans, Los Angeles and possibly London and even the Soviet Union. How will Liz and her senator husband, John Warner, survive the separations required by her road show? “We both have very powerful careers,” says Warner. “We make it work and we always will.” Being with her on opening night, he reports, forced him to miss his first roll call in 2½ years in the U.S. Senate. Henceforth the couple will alternate Sundays and Mondays together in Virginia or Manhattan, and Taylor keeps up with the D.C. scene with phone calls several times a week to Nancy Reagan.

In any case, Taylor, 49, is obviously at home on the stage. “The theater is like a Polaroid photo—instant gratification,” she says. Equally gratified by her 40-pound weight loss (thanks to a Spartan diet consisting mostly of clams, mussels and skinless roast chicken), she is determined to keep looking and performing her best. “Elizabeth has grown in confidence and authority since the show opened last February,” says Little Foxes’ director, Austin Pendleton. “She has developed new layers in her character in the play and grown into the killer we have come to know and hate.” She has also earned the respect of her fellow performers. “In all these pressured months, I never saw even a trace of temper,” says Pendleton. Co-star Maureen Stapleton agrees. “The star trip hasn’t gotten to her,” she says. “I think that if the money and the jewels were to go tomorrow, Elizabeth would take it in stride.”

Fortunately, Taylor has not had to endure such privation. For the woman who has everything, including the million-dollar-plus Krupp diamond, Bufman came up with a nearly flawless three-quarter-carat diamond worth an estimated $5,000. There was also a solid-gold star for the door of her dressing room—which he redid in her favorite color, lavender, at an expense of $5,000. It is estimated that Liz’s percentage deal will net her more than $1 million this year. In return Taylor presented Cartier watches to Bufman and Pendleton, and has wined and dined the Foxes company lavishly. To transport the cast and production crew from Washington to New York, Elizabeth insisted on chartering a special first-class train and a movable feast of smoked salmon, caviar and flaming crepes suzette.

With the show all but sold out into the summer, Bufman is already searching for another role for Taylor, and Pendleton believes her potential is limitless. Personally, he thinks she’d make a fascinating Lady Macbeth. “She could get the drive and sexuality of that woman,” he muses. “There is something terribly vivid about Elizabeth. She has everything it takes to be a great stage actress.”

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