“I like roles of women who are achievers. Characters who are intellectually complex, I generally find much more interesting.”

— Holland Taylor '64

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Emmy-winner Holland Taylor '64 is transformed in role as former Texas governor

Enter Ann Richards. At 71, the political icon’s crown of white hair adds an air of stately grandeur to the ineffable charisma she's renowned for. Even in the high-society New York restaurant Le Cirque, patrons half rise from their chairs as she walks past their tables, some not even sure why.

At the opposite end of the restaurant, gossip columnist Liz Smith and actress Holland Taylor '64—two grande dames in their own right—can’t help but marvel as the former Texas governor approaches their table for lunch.

“It was like Mick Jagger rolled in,” Taylor says. “You should have seen people’s faces. I’ve just never seen anything like it—she had that magnetic of a presence.”

For Taylor and Richards, this chance meeting in 2004—a casual lunch with a mutual friend—was the first and last time they’d ever speak. Which is why, Taylor says, when Richards died of cancer two years later, she was so surprised by the immensity of her grief.

“I was absolutely thunderstruck,” she says. “The mournful feelings I experienced lingered for a really long time considering I hardly knew her. After a while—and I mean months—when they wouldn’t go away, I began to realize that these feelings were insistent that I do something. I had no idea what at the time, I just knew that I had to act.”

On a stage in Galveston, Texas, last spring, that’s exactly what she did.

These days, you might recognize Taylor as Evelyn Harper, Charlie Sheen’s overbearing mother on the CBS comedy Two and a Half Men—a role that’s earned her four Emmy Award nominations (including one this year). Or perhaps you’re more familiar with ABC’s The Practice, where her portrayal of a powerful, sultry judge won her an Emmy for best supporting actress in 1999. Having also played a brassy executive on the 1980s sitcom Bosom Buddies, a demanding law professor in the film Legally Blonde, and Nancy Reagan in the TV movie The Day Reagan Was Shot, Taylor has become known for her convincing portrayals of accomplished, no-nonsense women.

“I like roles of women who are achievers—women who have mastered something,” she says. “Characters who are intellectually complex I generally find much more interesting.”

Perhaps no character, fictional or otherwise, has captured Taylor’s interest like Ann Richards. The outspoken, progressive Democrat served as Texas governor from 1991 to 1995, only the second female to hold the office in state history. Over the course of her political career, Richards became known (and was widely beloved) for her quick wit, strong will, and for opening the doors of state government to women and minorities.

“She was incredibly wise and had opinions on everything, but was passionately fair,” Taylor says. “That hard-nosed fairness mixed with her very high expectations made for an unbeatable combination. People found her irresistible…I suppose I did too.”

In the wake of Richards’ death in 2006—and Taylor’s “enormous emotional response to it”—the actress began casually researching her life, watching Internet clips of old speeches and reading news articles from her gubernatorial days.

“I really didn’t know what I was doing; I was just doing it,” Taylor says. “I was taking a journey, in a way, to see why I was taking the journey.”

And then, out of nowhere in early 2007, it hit her. “I was driving to work one morning and it just came to me,” she says. “I actually had to pull off the road. I was utterly stunned at the realization that a depiction of her should be a theatre piece. It all came to me in a flood—the idea, the setting and occasion, the rules of the production—it was a staggering experience. When I pulled back onto the road, I knew that something extraordinary had happened.”

It would be the first of many extraordinary happenings during the three-year inception of ANN!—Taylor’s one-woman theatrical sketch of Richards, which premiered in May at the Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston.

“The good fortune that’s happened to this play since I started on it has been astonishing,” she says. “Otherwise, there’s no way it could have been produced the way it was.”

First, Taylor made sure she had the blessing of Richards’ family, who were not only receptive to the play, but also helpful at times in its making. As were Richards’ former staffers, who “declined interview requests all the time,” Taylor says, “but for some reason embraced me. Literally, these people spent hours upon hours talking to me. I met several of them, who were then far-flung from Texas, in cities all over the country.”

Then, once Taylor had enough interview notes, reference books, speeches, news clippings, and archival materials to fill the guest room of her house, there was the uncanny way the play “just sort of came together on itself.”

“I would write things on large pieces of paper and tape them to the walls and windows and just stare at them, until theme lines and order started to emerge, and out of the chaos formed this tightly woven puzzle. It’s very strange. I’m not a playwright. I’ve never written a play before nor do I have any ambition to write another. But the writing part of this for me was extremely successful.”

Taylor also got a little help from her friends. Tom Hanks, with whom she’s remained close since their days on the set of Bosom Buddies, recommended his dialect coach to help her master Richards’ Texas twang. Her friend Paul Huntley—“the greatest wig maker in show business,” Taylor says—recreated Richards’ trademark white hair, while Oscar-winning costume designer Julie Weiss, a former colleague, finished the look.

A flurry of unexpected press followed: The New York Times, NPR, and PBS are a few of the media outlets that interviewed Taylor on the project.

“I guess word just got out. I don’t know how—I don’t even have a press agent—but it did, because out of the blue I started getting all of this unsolicited press. One of Ann’s friends once told me that Ann Richards was born under a special star. Well, I think this play might be catching some of that starlight because it’s fallen into some extraordinarily good fortune.”

Most fortunate of all, Taylor says, “was that the Galveston [Grand 1894 Opera House] reached out and took a risk on me.”

“It was literally the best theatre I could have opened in. It’s a magnificent theatre and a joy to perform in. Of its 1,000 seats, none are farther than 70 feet from the stage. The atmosphere there is affectionate and balmy, and the audience was wonderful.”

After the debut, when Taylor asked a producer friend for advice on booking the show, he surprised her by stepping in to produce it himself. Before taking the play to New York, they plan to hone the performance in other Texas cities, Taylor says, where the audience knows her subject best.

“It’s one thing to go out there and play Mark Twain, who no one alive has ever met. For three generations of Americans, [actor] Hal Holbrook is Mark Twain. But with Ann Richards, not only does the audience know her, but there’s this enormous affection for her, so you’ve really got to get it right.”

Judging by the reaction in Galveston—she did.

“When I walked onto the stage, there was this sort of gasp from the audience. I can’t even describe it—just a burst of joyful sound. There was even some clapping and yay-ing, which completely surprised me. It just goes to show you how adored this woman was, and the great sense of loss she left behind. Because it wasn’t me they were so happy to see … it was Ann Richards.”