Blythe Danner, the Accidental Celebrity

UPDATED: March 13, 2012
PUBLISHED: March 13, 2012

Blythe Danner never set out to become a star. She never sought celebrity, preferring to slip imperceptibly into character as opposed to newspaper headlines. Throughout her prolific career—with deft and sensitive performances in everything from Chekhov to Shakespeare, television to film, as Thomas Jefferson’s wife and as Dina Byrnes in Meet the Parents—Danner’s main ambition was simply to lead an artistic life, and she regarded her most important role as that of wife and mother.

With both children grown and successful in their own right—daughter Gwyneth as an award-winning actress and mother of two, and son Jake Paltrow as an accomplished director and producer—Danner’s thoughts and conversation often center on her late husband. The loss of producer-director Bruce Paltrow, who died in 2002 of complications from oral cancer, still shadows her busy life. Yet Danner’s grief is well-worn now, endowed with a certain wistful longing, as if he is just there, in another room.

“My husband died 10 years ago, you know,” she says. “I just keep hearing his voice saying, ‘Get on with it.’ I remember his favorite poem was Robert Frost’s—very short—something like ‘I summed up in three words what life is… it goes on.’ You have to put one foot in front of the other and keep going.”

Danner, now 69, has kept going, with roles in The Lucky One, adapted from the Nicholas Sparks novel with Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling scheduled for release in April, and another movie, Hello I Must Be Going, out later this year. She’s always on the lookout for theater work, which she loves, and is active with environmental issues and oral cancer awareness.

Although fame was never part of her plan, Danner’s career choice resulted from a fascination with the arts dating from childhood. “We had a very full life full of music,” she says. “My dad was a banker in Philadelphia, and my mother and my father met singing at the Choral Arts Society. They both had glorious voices. My first memory of anything that had to do with performing was when they would perform at the PTA shows.”

As a student at the George School, a Quaker school in Bucks County, Pa., Danner was classmates with children of theater people like Mary Martin and Oscar Hammerstein. “I was always surrounded by musical people who did very well in their line of work and I just had great admiration for it—and even more so when I started to do it. I found it was a tremendous release, a freeing, liberating thing to do: To open your mouth and let sound come out—lungs working full—kind of a wonderful release. Becoming someone else.”

And becoming someone else is what Danner decided to do. After a degree in drama from Bard, Danner took to the stage, performing in The Glass Menagerie, The Knack, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, among many other plays. She met Paltrow while both were working in the theater and they married in 1969. A year later, she won a Tony for her breakthrough role in Butterflies Are Free.

Meantime, her career blossomed with film and TV work, including roles in 1776, To Kill a Clown and her notable performance in The Great Santini opposite Robert Duvall in 1979. On television she was in Columbo, M*A*S*H, You Can’t Take It With You and countless other productions. Her television, filmography and list of stage work goes on for pages from the mid-1960s to the present day; she has numerous awards, including two Emmys and the Katharine Hepburn Medal from Bryn Mawr College.

Danner deflects credit for her accomplishments. “It was a very lucky time,” she says. “It was before the onslaught of all these kids who wanted to be actors or moviemakers or in the business. I remember my husband was always astonished at all these kids who were brilliant coming from Harvard or Brown or Yale and all they wanted to do was get into show business. He couldn’t get over it. He wondered why they weren’t saving the world. It seems to me we didn’t have much competition when I started.”

Unwaveringly modest, Danner acknowledges a tendency toward shyness. “My husband said when he met me that I backed into a room,” she says. “I think he was quite the opposite, which was a big help for me. I think a lot of actors are a bit shy about life in general. And drawn to becoming someone else. When we can fly into another realm of being, it’s very exhilarating and always has been the most satisfying part of acting.” She recalls the moment she disappeared into a Harold Pinter play she did on Broadway with Raul Julia and Roy Scheider. “I just remember every night before the curtain went up saying, not exactly a prayer, but ‘let the play wash over me and take everyone with us.’ ”

Just as her passion for acting never faltered, neither did the marriage. The family valued its privacy; there were no scandals or stints in rehab or interventions. It was about as normal as a family with celebrity could hope to be. “We were raised in middle-class families of substance.” Danner says. “Both of our parents stayed together until they died. It’s just the way we were raised. We were both very attracted not to the glamour so much as to the becoming, the liberating quality of [acting]. Bruce was always very funny in a wonderful way—very irreverent, very New York kind of humor—very acerbic. He was a great father and he loved his family. I always say he was the heart of the family. I think we were just lucky, you know?”

The same values that kept the Danner-Paltrow union solid have also defined Danner’s career. Approaching acting as a serious artist rather than a movie star, her interest is in the craft and the message of the work far more than in the ancillary perks of fame. That may explain her longstanding relationship with the Williamstown Theatre Festival, which she says, “enables me to grow most as an actress. I do roles there I wouldn’t ordinarily be cast in, and that makes people regard me as a woman of more depth.”

Being a person of substance—making a difference—is integral to how Danner thinks people should live; it’s how she measures value.

“I always thought you should be doing something more,” she says. “I think actors often have that kind of an attitude toward what we do, that we aren’t doing something that’s terribly important. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen responses to certain performances and the reaction of the people thanking me for giving them a perspective they hadn’t considered before. Not only do I think that we serve an important purpose, we do provide an important service to people as actors. I’m very pleased to have been for many years at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where we explored Tennessee Williams and Chekhov—who is to me the most brilliant of all writers—and a little Shakespeare along the way.”

The artist in Danner is complemented by her environmental and social activism; she has been recycling for decades and has her own organic garden. She has been involved with several environmental advocacy organizations, particularly Moms Clean Air Force, a nonpartisan effort to preserve the Clean Air Act. She and her family have worked on public service announcements promoting alternative energy sources. Danner is even credited with implementing curbside recycling in Santa Monica and working to save the New York City recycling program in the face of threatened budget cuts. In short, she’s been green for a very long time—and is not sure how it all started.

“You know, it’s hard to figure that out,” she says. “My brother and I both are. It’s a combination of things. I remember Dad was always turning out lights—that probably came from being a child of the Depression but to us it was simply economical. Then we had a grandfather who would come and plant a garden for us every year, and I would visit him and he was doing things that I realized later were organic. I think that might have been the genesis. As the environmental movement started in the ’60s, I just remember jumping on board and thinking, This is so important. I’m so thrilled to see the younger generation has embraced it. It’s finally a sexy issue.”

Danner’s work on environmental issues is just part of the way she gives back for the greater good. She and her husband were always social activists: he through his work in promoting diversity, she through environmental issues and organizations like Planned Parenthood.

“When you have been successful you do feel you owe something and you do have to give back the best way you can. What is sort of upsetting is [all this] about Wall Street and this terrible disparity between the rich and the poor that seems to be getting more and more and more and more. My husband always said that everyone in the country who could afford it should adopt a family that is struggling—so there would be no poverty. He was an incredibly generous man. He won the first diversity award for the Directors Guild for helping minorities and women in the workplace.”

Danner’s admiration for her husband is evident, his loss palpable. “There is a tremendous void without Bruce—and I don’t find the idea of dating very appealing—but every day everyone has their own private wars to fight. I think you just soldier on. Every family is complicated; every family has things they have to work on. Life isn’t just a breeze for everyone.”

Still, she is devoted to her family and dotes on grandchildren Apple and Moses, the children of Gwyneth and her rock-star husband, Chris Martin. Danner says she feels “very blessed.”

True to her self-effacing nature, Danner says her life today is quite boring and ordinary. She’s always embraced an ordinary life, though, and that mindset seems to contribute to her enduring success. She’s sidestepped diva-dom, greed, serial marriage, substance abuse and any number of other pitfalls that routinely come with a professional life in the spotlight. Her values remain the same as they were at the start of it all.

“I define success the same way today [as I did 25 years ago]. I don’t mean to sound selfless or not ambitious but part of it is that I haven’t been terribly ambitious—I kind of fell into this business—luckily because I loved it. I think I’ve always had this feeling it’s an extension of what I desire in life, which is to be in an artistic life. And encourage my children to embrace what is beautiful in life and not to only concentrate on ‘success.’ Chekhov said it best in The Seagull: ‘I now know it is not the fame and the glory but it is the enduring.’ ”