Three matronly women with adenoidal voices are sitting in their seats discussing the play, a revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce. Actually, they’re discussing one of the actors. “He has her eyes,” says one. “And her mouth,” says another. So much for the guy’s technique. Being upstaged by his famous genes is nothing new for Michael Wilding, Elizabeth Taylor’s son by her second husband, the late British actor Michael Wilding.
Ayckbourn’s 1979 comedy about three married couples recently concluded a critically acclaimed off-Broadway revival. Like the rest of the cast, Wilding, 34, worked for minimum Equity wage ($240 per week). He was cast opposite his wife, Brooke Palance, who is, like him, the offspring of a Somebody: actor Jack (Shane) Palance. Brooke’s theater company, Acorn, produced the Ayckbourn play.
For the past five years Wilding has been learning his craft by doing small theater in New York and L.A. He has a steady job on CBS’ Guiding Light as a record producer turned club manager, and in 1985 played Jesus in the mini-series A.D. Right now, while Brooke prepares for a low-budget Italian movie, he’s again off-Broadway, this time playing a psychiatrist in the thriller The Perfect Crime. “We’re still struggling like crazy,” he says.
During the mid-’70s Wilding lived on a farm commune in Wales, where he played sax with a five-member rock group. His laid-back, unconventional ways were seen as a rebuke to his mother, but he says that wasn’t the case. “I was carrying on with my life as I saw fit, and it may not have always seemed the best thing to her,” he says. “She tried to have faith in what I chose to do, though sometimes it was a bit difficult for her.”
The commune in Wales is history, replaced by a sparsely decorated one-bedroom apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. The saxophone rests in a corner of the living room. For Michael and Brooke, staying home is a top priority. Brooke, a pre-Raphaelite sort of beauty with her father’s famous cheekbones, says growing up on the party circuit was enough.
It is startling to see how much Wilding resembles his parents. He’s lanky and gaunt like his dad (who died as a result of injuries from a fall in 1979), and has a British accent. “I’ve been told I should lose it for my career,” he says. He does indeed have his mom’s features—the same mouth, black hair and white skin. The eyes are a luminous blue, like Mom’s. “Are they violet?” Michael asks Brooke. “They’re quite extraordinary, but not quite violet,” she says, peering into them.
Michael is remarkably low key, almost shy, often dependent on Brooke to finish his thoughts. “Brooke is my best friend,” he says. “We really love being together. We laugh at the same stuff.” Brooke says what attracted her to Michael is his sensitivity. They met at a friend’s house six years ago and married a year later in L.A. while co-starring in La Ronde, the only other play they’ve done together. Their reason for getting married—something Michael swore he’d never do again, and Brooke claimed she’d never do at all—was simple. “We loved each other like crazy,” says Michael.
Wilding was only 17 when he married his first wife, Beth Clutter of Portland, Ore. At the wedding ceremony in London he upstaged his mother by wearing a maroon velvet kaftan and matching trousers, set off with a medallion pendant and sandals. The marriage broke up two years later, shortly after Michael took Beth and their daughter, Leyla, to live on the commune in Wales. (Leyla, now 16, lives with her mom in Portland.) In 1975 Michael had another child, Naomi, by his mate in the commune, Johanna Lykke-Dahn. He stays close to his kids, who visited this summer. “We see them when they’re not in school,” he says.
Wilding seems unimpressed at having grown up among some of the world’s most famous people, including his stepfather Richard Burton. “Yeah, he had that same voice at the breakfast table,” says Wilding. He and his three siblings (Christopher Wilding, 32, Liza Todd, 30, and Maria Burton, 26) had to get used to fairly ravenous public attention. “My mother always dealt with it as graciously as she could,” says Wilding. “She’s met with a few people who’ve shoved her to the limit.” When Taylor and Burton were in Rome during their courtship, photographers tried scaling their villa walls. “My mother gave us permission to shoot them with water hoses,” says Wilding.
Although Michael, along with Chris, was sent to boarding schools in Switzerland, he didn’t feel unwanted: “My mother was careful not to divide up the family. She maintained a very good relationship with my father.” So did Michael, who was 4 when his parents divorced. “I adored him,” he says. “As a kid, I’d often visit him in England.”
Michael and Brooke do not feel their careers have been enhanced because they’re children of celebrities. “I realize the reason I get interviewed is because I have very famous parents, not because of something outstanding I’m doing,” says Michael. “I don’t believe that will always be the case. I believe I will someday have a career that will stand for itself.”
Wilding says that acting was always his first love, but he got away from it. “One reason I became so involved in music is because I wanted to establish my own expression and not follow in my parents’ footsteps for a while.” But now he’s back, raring to tear up the boards. “I’m doing what I’ve wanted to do all along,” he says. If those ladies with the adenoidal voices will keep it down, we might hear him.