Judith Light used to talk about courage and feel like a coward. Her participation this month in fundraising for Cathedral City’s new Gilda’s Club is only the latest action in a long battle against fear and ignorance that has challenged her to overcome her own limitations.
While starring as Angela Bower in the long-running sitcom Who’s the Boss?, Light flexed her dramatic acting muscles in a string of TV movies, one of which affected her profoundly. In 1989’s The Ryan White Story, she played the mother of a boy who contracted AIDS.
“It woke me up,” Light says of her experience with that project. The fact that White became infected during treatment for hemophilia hadn’t spared him from the effects of the prejudice and ignorance that poisoned public discourse about the disease throughout the 1980s. Although Light had already become involved in efforts to increase AIDS awareness, she says she was on the periphery of the battle until she heard White during an on-set interview in which he said people had spit on him and hurled a homophobic epithet at him. That convinced her that she had to do more to change prevailing attitudes.
“Ryan always talked about how people were afraid,” Light recalls. “He could understand that. He said he was afraid of a lot of things, too,
but he wouldn’t have been cruel. He was a sage, and so was his mother, Jeanne. They taught me a lot.”
Jeanne and Ryan White taught Light about the importance of social networks, support systems and open dialog – things found at Gilda’s Clubs in New York, Chicago, Washington, Montreal, and elsewhere. Light became a vocal advocate for the needs of HIV-positive people and the human rights of gays and lesbians. She saw that for progress to occur, society had to confront its fears. “We had two presidents who never mentioned the word AIDS, and my friends were dying,” Light says. “That lack of compassion and the tremendous level of homophobia that was living underneath the surface of our country showed it was not true that we were a compassionate country. We could be, but in that instance we were not. Telling the truth supports transformation.”
Eventually, however, Light faced a decision that forced her to question the truth of what she herself had been saying.
A Moment of TruthLight had performed in several plays, including an appearance on Broadway, before landing the role of Karen Wolek on the soap opera One Life to Live, which earned her two daytime Emmys. But when manager Herb Hamsher asked her to audition for a play in Los Angeles after an absence of more than 20 years from the stage, she declined. “You’re terrified,” Light recalls Hamsher saying. “You’re perfect for the part.”
“No, no, no,” she protested. “I’m really not.” When Light finally relented, Hamsher informed her the part had already been cast.
“I was giving all these speeches to the gay and lesbian, transgender and bisexual communities saying, “I’ve watched how when the government gave you nothing during the beginning of this epidemic, you pulled yourself together and you made a difference and the world would be well-served to follow your example,” Light explains. “I looked at my own life and I saw I was afraid to make courageous choices. I talked about being inspired, and all I was doing was giving it lip service.”
Light told her manager she would audition for the next part that came her way, no matter what. As it happened, she was asked to play the lead in Wit, the story of a woman facing ovarian cancer, the same affliction that claimed the life of comedian Gilda Radner, namesake and inspiration for Gilda’s Clubs.
Light dreaded facing New York theater critics, and she certainly didn’t look forward to shaving her head for the role, but she found the script tremendously moving.
“It was one of the most extraordinary things I’d ever read,” Light says. “The last line of the play is a stage direction that says, ‘She doffs one hospital gown and then she doffs the other, and then she is
naked and beautiful in the light.’ I closed the script and I was just weeping. And I stopped and I opened it up again and I said, ‘She is what?’” Suddenly, a bald head seemed like no big deal.
“I told myself, you’re going to have to do this.” Light says. “You’re going to have to get past everything that you think about in your mind about everything if you do it.” Light wasn’t alone in her resolve.
Hampsher stood behind her.
“He wasn’t making the decision for me, but he was supporting me in getting clear about something,” Light says. “I think that’s what’s so great about Gilda’s Club. They have people there who support you in
decisions that are huge for you in terms of your life and what you have to do. I just think that’s a magnificent thing that we as human beings can do for each other.”
Stage-StruckLight took the risk, won the part and earned glowing reviews.
“Ms. Light has avoided the stage for far too long,” a reviewer wrote in The New York Times. “Her performance as Vivian Bearing, the John Donne scholar struggling to hold on to her dignity as fiercely as the doctors seem eager to suction it away, cuts poignantly close to the bone. It is the sort of transformational work that would hint at other future successes, with Shakespeare, maybe, if a full-time career in the theater were truly an option these days…. Her innate feel for the theatre, the ease with which she takes us into her confidence, are apparent in a harrowing and deeply affecting portrayal.”
Light has since tackled other dramatic parts, starring in Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in Washington, D.C., and Athol Fugard’s Sorrow and Rejoicing in New York and Los Angeles. She also plays a recurring character on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. But high-profile roles aren’t enough.
“Celebrity is a very hollow experience unless you’re doing something with it,” Light says. She wants to continue using her celebrity status to foster caring and openness.
“I think we need to learn to listen to each other, really be there for people, and find a way to transform the human condition,” Light says. “I think that’s what this legacy of Gilda’s in the desert is all about.
I know there’ll be a splendid party and I know there’ll be these fabulous things around it, but the real heart and soul of it is what’s so important.”