Profile: Actress Susan Tyrrell

A life of blows and disappointments can’t bow Susan Tyrrell: The nomadic, Oscar-nominated actress and painter has relocated to Austin, for now

May 22, 2010, Austin American-Statesman

Susan Tyrrell isn’t there when a journalist shows up to meet her. This is not a surprise. The journalist is expecting a no-show, a late show, a show-off — a show of some kind, preferably grand and spangled. Prickly and difficult will do, too. It is the type of interview you enter with a built-in flinch, light armor steeling you for things you’ve only heard about, weird stuff, wonderful stuff. Adventures, happy and horrifying, that you are sure will put you in a vulnerable state of unforeseen reaction — mouth gapes and head shakes — that grant your subject the upper hand. She’s feeding you, and sometimes the legend tastes fishy. Tyrrell seems like a feeder, shoveling forkfuls of braised auto-mythology.

Ah, here she comes.

Tyrrell is tiny. She is in a wheelchair. She has no legs below the knees.

She rolls up to the table, where I have been waiting with her close friend Yvonne Lambert of Austin band the Octopus Project. Lambert introduces us. I shake Tyrrell’s hand, which is wrapped in a scratchy wheelchair glove, and click on the tape recorder.

“Good luck with that bitch you’re interviewing,” Tyrrell says in the third person.

Now, there we go.

Tyrrell is a movie star, though she’d be the first to tell you that that star is all but extinguished, wisps of smoke curling off the ash pile of flops. Show business burned her early and she bears the scars with a rancor that’s lightly camouflaged by a beaming, charge-ahead optimism. She has a dry, wry, dirty sense of humor that deflects misfortune, curdles cynicism.

Tyrrell has acted in 75 films and television shows and earned a best supporting actress Oscar nomination as a blowsy barfly in John Huston’s 1971 boxing drama “Fat City.” She won a Saturn Award in 1978 from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films for best supporting actress in “Andy Warhol’s Bad.”

“It weighs a ton,” Tyrrell says. “I use it for a doorstop.”

She played a whore in “Islands of the Stream” (1977), a rowdy biker grandma in the John Waters comedy “Cry-Baby” (1990) and a three-inch-tall woman in “Big Top Pee-Wee” (1988). She’s appeared on “Baretta,” “Starsky and Hutch” and “Kojak.” She watched her roles increasingly consigned to misfits, hags, nutjobs.

Tyrrell speaks shakily but bitingly. Hers has not been an easy life, and you can hear it in her scratchy voice and punctuating groans.

Mother issues (they haven’t talked in 40 years). Hanging out with the outré Warhol gang in New York, where she had a nervous breakdown. A traumatic sexual incident with John Huston that forever damaged her. Wild soirées. A beautiful two-year love affair with Hervé Villechaize, the little man who played Tattoo on “Fantasy Island.” And, of course, the legs, which were amputated in 2000 due to a rare blood disease called essential thrombocythemia. She doesn’t give a damn about the legs.

At a glowing 65, Tyrrell has short-term memory lapses that fray her long, ropy anecdotes. Often she loses her train of thought. “Where are we now?” she asks again and again. Oh, yes …

Tyrrell on this busy night at hipster magnet the Highball wears a tight black T-shirt, straw cowboy hat, blue bandanna snug around her neck and black pants that are not filled by her prosthetic legs. Her lipstick is a kittenish red. She sports dark glasses, like a blind woman.

“Sorry about my sunglasses,” she says. “I have hideous allergies that eat my eyeballs out. It’s like cutting an onion in half and rubbing it in your face.”

Tyrrell was born Susan Cremer (pronounced Kramer and changed for showbiz reasons), but for years people have called her simply SuSu.

“They do. If they can stomach it,” she says. She named her rescue dog — “a gorgeous pedigree gray-silver poodle” — ZuZu. (“I love dogs,” she says. She agrees that the fur-covered purse in her lap looks like a small dog.)

Speaking of pups, a Salty Dog cocktail — a greyhound in a salt-rimmed glass — arrives. Tyrrell takes a sip and puckers. “Yowza!” The drink is strong. She likes it.

***

After years toggling between New York and Los Angeles, Tyrrell quietly settled in the Austin area two years ago. At the time she was in town to present a special screening of the 1983 B-horror movie “Night Warning,” in which she plays a psychotic aunt, at the Alamo Ritz. She couldn’t bear to hang around and watch the film. She loathes the movies that “I had to do that were all that were left for me” as her career waned.

“I didn’t look at it,” she says. “I was in nine different bars with nine different tequilas and just having a fine time.”

While in Austin, where her niece lives, doctors found a clot in her heart. “I was so sick and out of it on a couch for a year.”

She’s kept her residency low-key. “I don’t go out much. I don’t crave it.” Yet in April, at the Alamo South, she appeared at a screening of one of her favorite films, the surreal 1982 cult musical “Forbidden Zone,” in which she stops the show as the singing, jiggling Queen Doris of the Sixth Dimension. The movie was followed by an exhibit of her humorous, sexually charged paintings at the Highball.

Tyrrell lives in a two-story, plant-filled Cedar Park apartment with ZuZu, a smart-mouthed green parrot named Rico and a large scorpion she recently captured and put in a jar. She wants to move to South Austin. She has no idea how long she will stay in Texas.

“I’m not here for long, I hope. I want to see things. I’m nomadic. I want to keep traveling till I drop dead.”

There’s one thing she misses here. “I’m very sad that I don’t see more black people,” Tyrrell says. “When I’m at the market, I ask, ‘What did you do with all the black people?’ And they give me some lame (expletive). They tell me to go over I-35. I’m going to make that journey some day.

“I love black people. I adore them. It’s called soul, baby.”

***

Tyrrell’s acting career began on the New York stage when she was a teenager. Her first role was opposite Art Carney in the comedy “Time Out for Ginger.”

In New York she was sucked into Warhol’s orbit, becoming terrific friends with Candy Darling, a Warhol Superstar and transsexual drag queen. Tyrrell resisted Warhol’s blandishments to join the gang.

“I’m a loner and an outsider. Those things strangle me. For me, there is not strength in numbers,” she says.

Unlike the Warhol clan, “I didn’t do substance abuse then,” Tyrrell says. “But later on in life I found beer and acid. They were my best drugs. And mescaline.

“What do you take?”

***

John Huston destroyed her dreams of Hollywood stardom. The director of “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” hired Tyrrell to play the alcoholic Oma in “Fat City” and proceeded to pull the casting couch routine. Anger bubbles as she relates, in graphic detail, how he forced himself on her.

“It was disgusting. He was looking down on me like an old hound dog. I was mortified. I thought I was better than that.”

She refuses to call it rape, and she never officially reported it.

She once told an interviewer, “He stole something sacred from me. He’s the seed for all my behavior.”

“That one incident was like a car crash to me,” she says. “I broke down. And I made a pledge to myself that I would always” — she pauses emotionally. “I’m sorry. I haven’t talked about this in years.”

It was a downslide from there, she says. Her acting career is “disappointing, to say the least. I loved Bette Davis, and I felt I was going to be the next Bette Davis. I knew I had it in me to do a dossier of roles. I so wanted it.”

I ask again about her career, as politely as possible.

“You mean how did I end up in so much crap?” she snaps.

“I don’t know if you really think it’s crap,” I say.

“Yes, I think it’s crap! I know what crap is.”

And that’s that.

***

If you want to see Susan Tyrrell soften like a marshmallow and radiate like a smitten teenager, bring up what is perhaps the highlight of her life, her love affair with Hervé Villechaize.

They met in the mid-’70s, when Tyrrell was starring in a play and the director needed a little person for a role. Tyrrell told a friend, “‘I need a most fabulous midget,'” she recalls, adding, “We didn’t say ‘little people’ back then.”

Her friend replied: “I have the midget-est midget for you.”

Tyrrell and Villechaize fell in love and lived together for two years in a Laurel Canyon house in Los Angeles. They later performed together in “Forbidden Zone.”

“He was so damn cute. I loved him. He rocked my world,” she says, almost giddy.

Long after their affair ended, Villechaize killed himself in 1993.

“Oh, I miss him. God, I miss him. We just had a blast together,” she says. “He was hilarious, had the most amazing wit. We cooked. He loved to wash my back. He was the best boyfriend.”

Tyrrell is single. She says softly, coming down from her memories, “I don’t even know if I’m open to love.” Yet she rules out nothing.

***

Self-awareness like Tyrrell’s, a scrappy realistic outlook, is hard-earned. She’s met adversity and slain it. There are grumbles but few regrets. One moment she fumes, the next she cackles joyously.

In the ’90s — “I’m terrible with dates,” she says — Tyrrell embraced her disappointments in the kaleidoscopic one-woman play “My Rotten Life: A Bitter Operetta.” She calls it a “swan song. I wanted to add everything up in a perverted way. Just the kind of show I like — nasty!”

It ran for eight months in Los Angeles. (A video of the show is at susantyrrell.com.)

She found refuge in painting in her mid-30s. She lived with painter George Condo for three years and started working on her own art when they broke up. Acting jobs had nearly vanished.

Tyrrell paints in acrylics, in loud hues. Human genitalia and “people gettin’ it on” are inspirations, she says. The paintings are lewd and funny. She stays up until four in the morning painting and gets up late in the afternoon. She’s even painted her prosthetic legs with luxuriant designs of lizards and roses that look like tattoos.

This is where the legs come in. This is where you’d think double amputation would ruin a person. This is where Susan Tyrrell gets tough.

Within days of the essential thrombocythemia diagnosis, gangrene set in.

“I kissed my legs goodbye way before they cut them off,” Tyrrell says. “I told them, ‘I know what’s going on. Just cut ’em off! Quick!’

“I always said that I was the perfect person to lose their legs. If anybody has to lose them, take mine.”

She’s glib about it, and an explanation of her indifference is maddeningly elusive.

Tyrrell is on her second Salty Dog. “It’s good.” She looks at me. “You’re growing two heads.”

Josh Lambert, Yvonne’s husband, who is also in Octopus Project, has joined us. Josh and Yvonne have become two of Tyrrell’s best friends in Austin.

“Youth! We’re from the same tribe,” Tyrrell says. “That’s a treasure. It’s a love affair.”

Tyrrell doesn’t drive and needs help around the house, and Yvonne Lambert is there for both duties, as a friend.

“It’s weird and amazing to meet someone who’s so much older than you and find that you have so much in common,” Lambert says. “It’s fun to learn things from her, and she learns things from me, too.

“She’s so caring, so giving. I think a lot of people see her as a very salty, sassy, saucy lady, and that’s part of her. But the SuSu I fell in love with is this beautiful, good-hearted, sweet lady.”

For all the good in her life now, Tyrrell is restless. She’s not happy, but she’s not unhappy either.

“I’m not thrilled. To be happy I’d have to be cut free, traveling,” she says.

“I just want to go home.”

She doesn’t know where that is.

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2 Comments

Filed under Profiles

2 responses to “Profile: Actress Susan Tyrrell

  1. makes me want to drink alchoholic beverages

  2. Todd

    What a great profile. I miss you Susu!

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