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Beautiful Life

Joanna Gleason and Chris Sarandon glam it up for stage and screen, but keep it real at home in Fairfield

Photograph by Fran Collin

It’s a good bet that if Fairfield residents Joanna Gleason and Chris Sarandon sing in the shower, they sound a lot better than the rest of us. When not performing on Broadway, in films or on television, this showbiz pair is just another happily married couple enjoying a deliberately laid-back Connecticut lifestyle; they have called this town home since 2006.

Joanna won her Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical in 1988 for a starring role in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Film roles in Mike Nichols’ Heartburn and Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors put her on the map as a talented supporting actress. Most recently she can be seen in The Women (2008) with Meg Ryan and The Rebound with Catherine Zeta-Jones is due in theaters next month. A very incomplete list of television credits includes Friends, The Practice, The West Wing and Eli Stone.

“I was so fortunate to have started out when I did,” says Joanna, slim, youthful and animated. “Being in the public eye in today’s world of 24/7 media coverage is a rough road for young actors to navigate.” Building a career did not require Joanna to be a fashionista or to worry about being attacked worldwide by bloggers or other media predators. “There were bumps on the road, of course,” she says. “They come with the territory, but, basically, I was able to concentrate on my craft.”

Sarandon, who grew up in West Virginia, is the son of Greek immigrants; his dad owned and operated the Eat Well Café in Beckley, his hometown. He earned a Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role Academy nomination for his riveting 1975 film debut as Al Pacino’s tormented, gay lover in Dog Day Afternoon. “My second professional job was interning for Arvin Brown, who was then artistic director of the Long Wharf Theatre Company in New Haven,” Chris says. “I was there for a season-and-a-half and got to play all sorts of wonderful parts. I made maybe $110 a week and lived in a ramshackle house with no insulation near Long Island Sound during the winter. It was a wonderful way to learn to be an actor.

Tall and trim at sixty-six, Chris has played everything from Jesus Christ to soap opera Doctor Tom Halverson on Guiding Light to the sexy vampire-next-door in the classic teen horror flick Fright Night. But here in Fairfield, he looks remarkably mellow tending to his garden or cooking up what he calls “something basic” for dinner at home. His “best lentil soup ever,” according to Joanna, is on tonight’s menu.

Chris admits ruefully that, despite performing regularly at Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw Festivals throughout the United States and Canada, he is probably best known to fans as the evil Prince Humperdinck in director Rob Reiner’s 1987 hit The Princess Bride as well as for his roles in a series of horror films. The man who has played more than his share of dastardly villains really doesn’t think of himself as being a particularly malicious guy. “I guess,” he says, “I am good at transforming myself.”

“Chris is brilliant at playing characters who are off the grid,” explains Joanna, who is also an acting teacher and director. “The smartest and best actors are privately very different than the people they portray.”

Chris, in turn, praises his wife’s “remarkable talent for communicating volumes with just a look, gesture or very few words.”

Love Scene
The couple met on stage, appearing together in Nick and Nora, which had a brief Broadway run in 1991. “It was a troubled piece,” Joanna says, “but our stuff had great chemistry because we were falling in love.” They have been married for fourteen years and each has a created a multifaceted and lengthy professional résumé and each has earned recognition by their peers for a wide range of performances. Most recently, both are fresh from long runs in the New York. Joanna starred as Muriel Eubanks in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on Broadway. “Working with her was just so damn much fun,” says costar John Lithgow, describing the actress as “always the ultimate professional” whose “dazzling” skill with the New York Times crosswords and acrostics was backstage legend. As was her sense of humor. “Joanna would stick surprise props — like, for example, a glass eye — into her cleavage,” he says, “to entertain me in our first scene together, which was two minutes after the curtain went up.”

In the 2007 Broadway production of Cyrano de Bergerac, Chris’s portrayal of the “very conceited Comte de Guiche” was praised by critics as “a formidable foil” to Kevin Kline’s Cyrano. He also appeared as Signor Naccarelli in a Lincoln Center Theater production of The Light in the Piazza.

The couple will soon be returning to flat screens nationwide as recurring characters in a new sitcom called The Unusuals. “It’s really well-written,” Joanna says. “We play the extremely wealthy parents of the leading lady who is a cop trying to be a very blue-collar person, so there’s plenty of tension and dialogue.” Best of all, it shoots in New York City — an easy commute from home base in Fairfield.

“Reality is that we are working blokes who generally don’t know what’s going to happen,” Chris says. “We’re just actors waiting for the phone to ring with the next job. And when it doesn’t ring, we have other things to do. We have each other, we have many interests and we have our children.” Their close-knit family includes Joanna’s son Aaron from her first marriage and Alexis, Stephanie and Michael from Chris’s second. “By the time we met, Chris and I were real grown-ups,” Joanna says. “We had our heads on straight about the business and what we wanted from it and from life in general.”

“We love what we do,” Chris adds, “but our home is where we do other things. Work is one part, but we lead dimensional lives.”

At Home
The two are emptynesters these days, busily renovating their 1947 home room by room, and making plans for its charmingly rustic red barn, tending to an orchard of apple trees and growing organic vegetables in their backyard garden. “We were both familiar with this area,” says Joanna, who lived in Mt. Vernon and New Rochelle until she was ten before her family moved to Los Angeles. Chris once owned a house in Pound Ridge, where he learned his vegetable gardening skills as unofficial apprentice to the man who ran his friend the actress Colleen Dewhurst’s household.

“We used to take day trips to Connecticut while we were doing our shows,” Joanna says. She recalls a party thirty years ago at the Weston home of the actor James Naughton when they were working together. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this place is enchanted!’ We looked in Weston as well as other towns in the area, but it was Fairfield that felt exactly right.” More to the point, it was here they found the red barn they could not resist.

They closed on their Los Angeles property on a Friday and the following Monday, their Realtor took them to see the rather dilapidated house that would steal their hearts. “It was a grey February day and the place was in tremendous disrepair,” Chris says. “It looked awful; there was no real fireplace and the roof was bad, but still we could sense possibilities.” They left to see another listing, but felt compelled to come right back. “We looked at each other and we looked at that red barn,” Joanna recalls, “and said, ‘This is our house!’ We just knew.”

Joanna points to a piece of art hanging in a place of honor in their foyer. “It’s called The Stables and it’s all apple orchards, woods, a red barn and a house with a red roof, exactly like this place,” she says. “I bought it with my first earnings when I was twenty-seven, doing my first Broadway play. I had to have it. I needed it because, this may sound strange, but I knew I was meant to live here. And now, thirty-one years later, I do.”

Although the barn hearkens back to their roots in regional theatre, the couple makes it clear they envision it as bunkhouse for tomorrow’s grandchildren perhaps, but definitely not a potential performance space. “We’re keeping this place separate from all that,” they say in unison. “No theatricals here!”

The shell of the house and its footprint, they both agreed, was appealing, as was the fact that the house grew over the years. They like the flow and also that it was built in 1947, a date actually engraved in the basement’s cement floor. “My parents got married in 1947,” Joanna says, “so that feels like a good omen.”

Chris plays “Mr. Line-Item-Veto” as they work with local architect Paulo Vicente. “We knew if we lived in this house for a while it would start telling us what to do,” Chris says. “We love that process and, generally, we like the same things. Joanna has a great eye, so I am happy to follow her lead.”

Except when it comes to floral patterns, his wife notes wryly. “I’m going to get one of those in here,” she says, “somehow, somewhere!” Meanwhile Chris points out that Joanna’s love affair with eBay is a recurring topic of discussion. “Every day,” he jokes.

“Only when the UPS truck shows up,” Joanna insists. The antique Federalist mirror in the entrance foyer is one such find. The church pew below it belonged to their dear friend actor Roddy McDowall, who gave it to them before he passed away in 1998. “He fought Ethel Merman for possession of this pew,” Joanna says. “They were walking up Hudson Street screaming and yelling at each other, and Roddy won. That’s not casual, to out-yell Ethel.”

Through a wall of windows in the living room, a panorama of apple trees, cherry trees and dogwoods provides a visual feast. “The room’s dimensions are exactly the same,” Joanna says, “but we added curved beams carved from very old hemlock salvaged from a barn in Nova Scotia.” A floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace now anchors the room. “We love to build a crackling fire on a cold winter day.” Shelves to either side of it hold yellowed documents in a glass frame. “These are the papers that permitted Chris’s dad to come to the United States from Constantinople,” Joanna says. A piece of old masonry and a tile from the Eat Well Café also occupy a place of honor. There are also well-read books, an antique Chinese figure and an Art Deco piece. “I’m crazy about the ’30s and ’40s,” Joanna says. “I can look up at the Chrysler Building for hours.”

A copy of Emcee Monty Hall, one of her dad’s books, is close at hand as are many family photographs. At eighty-seven, the iconic television host of the game show Let’s Make a Deal, Monty Hall is still vigorous and involved. “My parents have been married for sixty-one years,” Joanna says. “They still live in the house I grew up in in Los Angeles. My sister, brother and I agree that they built a wonderful family; their example inspires me.”

She heads outside through the screened-in porch, which she says is her dad’s favorite room in the house. “We eat out here all the time just as soon as it gets warm enough,” she says. A two-foot-tall antique cow, found by her mom in London while Joanna was doing Into the Woods, act as a reminder of that Broadway triumph. A nearby Cupid holds a violin instead of bow-and-arrow. Joanna suggests he’s more a patron of the arts than of young lovers. “We think,” she says, “he watches over singers.” Melted wax “drips” in suspended animation from mercury glass candlesticks which, with herbs and sunflowers, served as centerpieces at daughter Stephanie’s wedding this past July.

Joe, the family dog, an energetic mixed breed, leads the way barking to Chris’s vegetable garden, its deer-proof enclosure a gift from Joanna last year. “He’s after the chipmunks, even had one treed the other day,” Chris says. “He doesn’t want to eat one exactly; he wants to dominate the chipmunk. He’s a dog and it’s his territory, right?”

Chris’s first-year plantings have been under attack by fungus, which he has been battling with an arsenal of organic weapons. While ruefully noting that he thinks he “squashed the squash” this go-round, he points to a bumper crop of tomatoes and herbs. “I’m out here at 7 a.m. every day,” he says, “and sometimes in the afternoon.”

“Look, there’s a pumpkin,” Joanna says, adding that the garden is very much Chris’s territory. “But I love to come and pick a tomato for a dinner salad. To do that is a small miracle.”

The tomato harvest may end up as sauce for pasta, another of Chris’s “more basic” specialties. “If we are throwing a dinner party,” he says, “Joanna likes to pull out all the stops and create stuff that’s much more elaborate.” The kitchen, they point out, is destined to be redone someday. For now, the spacious room is fragrant with herbs from the garden and an antique cobbler’s work table makes an excellent preparation counter. Nearby, along with a menu from the Eat Well Café written by Chris’s dad, is the original Greek cookbook given to him by his mom. He says, “Now I can actually read the Greek script.” In between shows, he has been studying the language of his cultural heritage, which he spoke when he was a child. “I’m starting,” he says, “with a six-year-old’s grammar and vocabulary.”

Around Town
Joanna is looking forward to a new course she’s just signed up for: the Mandarin Chinese language. She also plans to enroll in a Chinese medicine program offered by the University of Bridgeport. “I’ve been studying on my own for years,” she says, “but now I want to do this officially.” She also might resume teaching master acting classes at Staples High School. “It’s something I enjoy and how wonderful to have all these opportunities right in the neighborhood.”

Speaking of neighbors, the two could not be more enthusiastic about their adopted hometown. “We do get recognized, but so nicely, in such a noninvasive fashion,” Chris says, “just people stopping to tell us that they have enjoyed our work, which is very nice to hear.”

Joanna agrees: “Everyone is easygoing and friendly; life here is so relaxed. I rarely feel the need to get dressed up.” (There are exceptions, of course. Joanna is a vision in layers of chiffon and a little fur wrap and lots of jewelry for a photoshoot for this magazine. “The designer Neil Bieff is a friend of mine and he does beautiful work. He has lent me outfits for every big occasion, including the Tonys, so it’s my pleasure to show off his clothes.”)

The phone rings to confirm Joanna’s next gig. She will be starring in Happiness, a musical directed by Susan Stroman that will run from February through May at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. “We’ll be going into rehearsal in January,” she says. Which means going back into serious voice training. “On stage every night you have to be on your toes because it’s a tennis match, different each time because stuff happens: the lights blow; the sound goes out; furniture falls over,” she explains. “We’re all backstage thinking the same thing: I hope I don’t screw it up! And then the curtain rises.”

Nobody understands better than Chris. “The great stories are always from the theater,” he says, “because the actors are all out there flying without a net.”

“Bare naked,” Joanna says.

This job could mean their Fairfield abode will acquire solar panels. “We think that’s going to be next,” Chris says. On the other hand, Joanna’s writing studio — where she plans to revise a novel she wrote — is still a work-in-progress. One thing is certain: sooner than later, the Gleason/Sarandon clan will gather around the table in their parents’ dining room. “There will be a huge meal we all will help prepare,” Joanna says, “and then nonstop talk as we catch up with each other’s lives. That’s what I call bliss.” And sometime during the meal, Joanna will catch Chris’s eye and he will know exactly what she is thinking. “What could be better?” he says. “Just sitting around the table laughing and talking with our kids, feeling so proud of the adults they have become and looking forward to whatever comes next.”

Lentil Soup, by Chris Sarandon
Serves 5 regular people or two of our kids!

I cup lentils
3/4 C. olive oil
2 garlic cloves, chopped fine
1 onion, chopped fine
1 16-oz. can good tomato sauce
2 carrots, roughly chopped
6 C. hot water or broth (chicken or vegetable)
salt and pepper

Rinse and drain lentils. Saute chopped onion in the olive oil until translucent, then add garlic and saute an additional minute over medium heat.
Place onion/garlic mixture and all remaining ingredients (lentils, carrots, sauce and water or broth) in large pot, salt and pepper to taste (approximately 1 full tsp. each).
Cover, bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer for an hour to an hour and a half.
Mash the lentils lightly with a potato masher (right in the pot). This will thicken the soup.
Serve with (this is the secret) a dash of red wine vinegar in each bowl.