August 25, 1980 12:00 PM

With the television and screen actors’ strike turning Hollywood into a ghost town, and with mostly second companies taking over Broadway, the showbiz capital of the U.S. may, for once, be on neither coast. The Williamstown (Mass.) Theatre Festival, to pick just one bright spot in the boondocks, could boast the most powerful concentration of acting talent anyplace this summer—including a SAG-AFTRA picket line. Williamstown’s season is adorned by Frank Langella as Cyrano de Bergerac; Richard Dreyfuss in Whose Life Is It Anyway?; Christopher Reeve, Celeste Holm and Richard Burton’s daughter, Kate, in The Front Page; and Colleen Dewhurst and Blythe Danner in The Cherry Orchard.

The summer tour of road shows has also brought a bumper crop of celebrities to Middle America. Some are stars in other milieus trying out their stage skills for better (rocker David Bowie received accolades for his performance in The Elephant Man) or for worse (Joe Namath won mostly sympathy for his first attempt at a musical, Li’l Abner).

The gracefully aging hoofers on the boards this summer include Carol Channing (in a national company of Sugar Babies, with Robert Morse), Rosemary Clooney (continuing with Rose Marie, Helen O’Connell and Margaret Whiting in their two-year-old revue, 4 Girls 4) and Alexis Smith (crisscrossing the West as the madam in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas). “I wouldn’t know what to do with my time if I didn’t work,” says Jane Powell, now on tour with a revival of I Do! I Do!.

Chris Reeve first appeared on the Williamstown stage as a 15-year-old apprentice. “My return is a confirmation that I’m still an actor,” says the 27-year-old star, anxious to shuck his Superman image. He earned Equity scale, $300 a week, for his role in The Front Page and plans to stay on for a 10-line part, as Yasha, in The Cherry Orchard. “It’s an intense immersion into theater,” Reeve says, “that makes you feel alive down to your fingertips.” It also beats walking a picket line in Universal City.

“It’s more of a challenge to play Hildy Johnson than Superman,” says Christopher Reeve of his role as a nonflying reporter in The Front Page, with Ed Hermann (left) and Kate Burton, Richard’s 22-year-old daughter. “Hildy is a part where you can fall flat on your ass.” Cautious Chris stayed close to the ground and only flew his private plane to ferry his other co-star, Celeste Holm, on a round trip to New York. Sighed Celeste: “I really wanted to go on his arm.”

Still lithe and leggy at 59, Alexis Smith has no qualms about playing the gold-hearted madam in Best Little Whorehouse. “If you’ve been a lady as long as I have,” she says, “it’s very refreshing.” Married for 36 years to Craig Stevens (of Peter Gunn fame), Alexis passes time on the current tour by delving into higher consciousness, reading (Dirk Bogarde’s A Gentle Occupation) and afternoon movies. Her new idol: Urban Cowboy. “I learned a lot from John Travolta.”

“Li’l Abner and I are a lot alike,” says Joe Namath, to which his Daisy Mae, Misty (Wee Haw) Rowe, concurs: “A little boyish, masculine and kinda gawky.” Namath confides that he’s been without a steady lady for five years—the last was Randi Oakes of CHiPs—and finds a homey appeal in Dogpatch. “It would be great to find a lady who feels the way Daisy Mae does about Abner,” dreams Joe. “Knowing me, it’ll be difficult, but I’ll never rule it out.” Just by opening his mouth he proves that no challenge is too big. As one reviewer in Atlanta observed, “Namath makes such an eager-to-please appearance, it seems cruel to point out he can’t sing…but L’il Abner is, after all, a musical.”

David Bowie made his stage debut with Concetta Tomei in Denver as the side-show freak in The Elephant Man. Where his glittering rock shows called for “a magnification of character,” Bowie explains, this role “demands understated acting—like yin and yang.” Now working out a divorce settlement with his wife, Angela (he is counting on getting custody of 8-year-old son Zowie), Bowie, 33, also has a new album in mid-September, which will coincide neatly with his takeover of The Elephant Man lead on Broadway Album title: Scary Monsters.

Her youngest child is 24 now, and Jane Powell, 51, admits that the cycle in her revival of I Do! I Do! with which she most identifies is “the menopause scene.” Says Jane: “I think all women go through that feeling when they reach a certain age—’My life is so boring, and I’m not wanted.’ ” During her five-city summer tour, she and co-star Howard Keel, 63, pack five performances into each weekend. Jane’s third husband of three years, producer-director David Parlour, visits, and she seems to have only one regret in life: “I exercise 20 minutes a day and hate every minute of it.”

A ham and Hamlet as a Dartmouth undergrad, David Birney (class of ’61) returned this summer to essay Richard III. Meredith (Family) Baxter, 32, his wife since CBS’ Bridget Loves Bernie, and their three blond kids have also rediscovered the pleasures of New England from beachcombing to ox driving. The couple also teach a drama course on campus. Their mission: “to encourage each student to discover his own eccentric stage self.”

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