Last year, when Judith Light was offered the role of brash, pill-popping Aunt Silda in Broadway’s Other Desert Cities — a caustic dramedy, costarring Stockard Channing and Rachel Griffiths, about a fractured, wealthy family — she did something she’d never done before in her 35-year career. She signed on without reading the script. ”When you get the chance to be directed by Joe Mantello [Wicked] in a play by Jon Robin Baitz [ABC’s Brothers & Sisters], the only answer is yes,” says Light, 62, who had heard about the rave reviews last spring for the Off Broadway run (featuring Linda Lavin as Silda). ”But was I terrified? Of course!”
Light had good reason to be afraid. With her graying roots and tacky outfits, Silda is the kind of role that would get a polite ”pass” from a more image-conscious actress. ”People said to me, ‘Do you really want to look like this on stage?”’ recalls Light. ”But it’s all about serving the character.” Her commitment is paying off: Light has won cheers from critics, and at a recent performance on a Thursday night, the actress could barely open her mouth without getting roars of laughter and applause from the audience.
This isn’t Light’s first brush with acclaim. She won two Daytime Emmys for her 1977-83 stint on the ABC soap One Life to Live before landing her signature role as working mom Angela Bower on Who’s the Boss? (1984-92). In 2007, she earned an Outstanding Guest Actress Emmy nod for playing Ugly Betty‘s conniving Claire Meade, and last year she scored a Tony nod as a legendary football coach’s wife in Lombardi.
As devoted as she is to acting, Light often puts her career second to activism. For decades, she has been a tireless proponent of gay rights and HIV/AIDS awareness for organizations like Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and the Point Foundation, which awards scholarships to LGBT students. She recalls persuading her philanthropic role model, a then-ailing Elizabeth Taylor, to join the 1996 AIDS march in Washington, D.C. ”[Elizabeth] said, ‘Oh, honey, I can’t march.’ And I said, ‘Then we’ll get you a go-kart, or a wheelchair, or have a hundred boys carry you. Whatever it takes!’ And she said two words: ‘I’m there.’ And she was.”
But right now, Light’s focus is on Other Desert Cities. The mention of a possible Tony nomination brings out a charming touch of Silda-style brassiness. ”I mean, do I want it? Hello! Yuh-huh!” laughs Light. ”But whatever happens happens. I’m having the time of my life.”