Shelley Plimpton: From Hair to Maternity
by Judy Klemesrud
The New York Times - September 13, 1970

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Shelley Plimpton has put on weight.  The tiny, 23-year-old actress weighed only 85 pounds when she created the part of Crissy, the teeny-bopper-waif who searches forlornly for Frank Mills, in the very first production of Hair in October 1967, at the Public Theater.  And she weighed only 85 pounds when she did the spoofy commercial for Face-Off pimple remover in "Putney Swope" which showed her romping in a wispy green glade with a black boyfriend (Ronnie Dyson).  And she weighed only 85 pounds when she played the pea-breasted groupie in "Alice's Restaurant" who wanted to make it with Arlo Guthrie because she figured he "might be an album some day".  And she weighed only 85 pounds when she and her actor husband, fuzzy-haired, 24-year-old Steve Curry, whom she met in Hair, made a movie together called "Glen and Randa" on the West coast last Spring.

But now the five foot tall actress tips the scales at all of 95, and it's not due to a binge of overeating, but because she's seven months pregnant.  And that, and only that, is the reason she has just left the Hair cast for the sixth time, and will not be frolicking onstage Tuesday night when the 1,000th performance of hair is celebrated at the Biltmore Theatre.  Instead she'll be hanging around backstage with Steve and other Hair alums who have come back to bask in the starshine of one of Broadway's biggest all-time hits.

Right now, however, she is sitting on a rock in Central Park, not far from the Bethesda Fountain Scattered all around her on the sunny Sunday afternoon are orange drink cups that litterbugs have left behind.  She is wearing a flowery orange and tan maternity smock, over a pair of purple bell bottoms, and a peace symbol and a cross around her neck.  Her face is totally free of make-up, and it is the face of a misplaces, The Littlest, Everybody's Kid Sister.

Her first words are of Hair.

"Some of my most fun times were spent in the show" she says, in a childlike voice so soft that it can hardly be heard over the drums of a nearby Puerto Rican festival.  "The night before it opened on Broadway, Steve and I and two other cast members spent the night in the theater.  We hid in the balcony until the night watchman left.  Our director, Tom O'Horgan, originally wanted us all to be able to live in the theater.  He knew we were staying all night.  It was for good luck.  It was like spreading good vibes throughout the theater.  We explored every inch of that theater - the light booth, everything."

As Shelley speaks, her blue-jeaned husband sits a few yards away, playing with their black Labrador puppy, Puppy.  Puppy is a randy virgin, and every once in a while he bolts from Steve and tries to attack some startled pooch that is prancing through the park on the end of its master's leash.

I ask Shelley why she thinks some people - especially those in cities outside of New York - feel threatened by Hair.  "A lot of people aren't ready for nudity on stage" she says.  "In New York we've led up to it with things like the pornographic bookstores and theaters on 42nd Street.  I'm not even shocked when I see a hooker on the street any more.  I used to be when I first came here.

"But New York isn't perfect either.  People in the audience have said things to us while we were mingling in the aisles before the show begins.  One of the kids once complimented a woman on her fantastic necklace - it must have cost gobs of money - and as the kid walked away, he heard the woman's husband say 'He wouldn't know a good necklace if he saw one.'  That's the kind of hostility that people with long hair run into.  Another time, I heard a person in the audience talking about me.  He said 'She's cute - but she probably smells like all the rest.'"

Shelley believes that she and Steve are the first couple from the New York Hair tribe to get married.  They met in March 1968, when he joined the cast as Berger when the show was playing at Cheetah discotheque (He later became Woof when the show switched to Broadway a few weeks later.) "It was love at first sight for me," says Shelley, "but it wasn't for him.  We'd see each other every day, but we never dated.  There wasn't a lot of dating around the show.  A lot of the girls would say 'Oh gee, I really like so-and-so' and the boys would get hung up on one of the girls.  But none of them ever got serious, except Heather MacRae and Oatis Stevens, who are together in Hair in Miami."

Shelley and Steve performed their first marriage ceremony themselves, in February of 1969.  "It took place in our apartment with no witnesses present" she says, smiling at the memory.  "He's Catholic and I'm Episcopal, and we just thought it would be the best way for everybody involved.  We read something in which we promised to love each other, and that was about it."  They made it legal about a year later when a justice of the peace performed the ceremony in California.

As Shelley sees it, Hair has been something of a bridge - albeit a weak one - over the generation gap.  "The differences will always exist" she says, lighting up a cigarette.  "People have different views, and life styles are different.  I just don't think we should try to force anything on older people.  I love it when they open up to me, but if they're not receptive, I don't think we should argue and try to shove our beliefs down their throats.  They grew up in a different time, and I can understand the way they think to a point, and accept it.  The only thing I put people down for is trying to force their views on other people."

All of a sudden Shelley bursts out laughing.  Puppy is terrorizing a white Afghan hound on the sidewalk below the rock, and Steve and several other people are trying frantically to keep the two animals apart.  The scene has a Mack Sennett quality about it.  Finally, the Afghan's owner stalks off in a huff, dog at his heels.

The conversation turns to the impact that Hair has had on the American culture.  "It's something, I'll tell you." Shelley says, as though she can hardly believe it herself.  "Look at all the rock musicals.  And everybody is going nude now.  But I think that the nudity thing is going to extremes.  It's a bit much.  But I think it will eventually taper off to a better level."

She was a bit shy at first about taking off her clothes for the now famous "Be-in" scene.  "During the previews I held the curtain that we change under at my waist, so that it covered me from my waist down.  But one night it dropped, and I thought 'why was I so uptight? It's nothing.'  I was glad it had dropped."

Hair is often cited as an ideal of racial harmony in the entertainment world.  The cast has a large number of blacks, and the musical itself stresses brotherhood and love among people regardless of color.  "I've never seen any racial friction while I've been in the show," Shelley says.  "And I'm really happy when I see a lot of black people in the audience.  They're a lot more responsive, and seem to be much more open, and laugh harder and much easier.  The white people who are coming to the show now are older, or suburban middle class or upper middle class types who seem very uptight.  I think the main reason they come is so they can tell their friends that they've seen Hair.  They certainly don't enjoy it, or at least they don't seem to like it.  Some people who come and sit in the front row look down all the time.  I feel like telling them, 'Why don't you go home?'"

Shelley is a "very distant cousin" of George Plimpton, the professional amateur.  Her father ran an auto parts store in Roseburg, Ore., where she lived as a child.  Her parents were divorced when she was 5, and her mother, who now works as a researcher for a manhattan fertility doctor, moved the family to New York after Mr. Plimpton died.  Shelley was 14.

They settled in a picturesque area on East 12th Street just off Fifth Avenue, and Shelley went to the all girl Washington Irving High School.  After graduation, she got a job as cashier at the old Night Owl night club where she was "discovered" one night by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, co-authors of Hair.  They were captivated by her angelic face, and wrote in the part of Crissy just for her.

The groupie role in Alice's Restaurant was something of a natural for Shelley.  She and a girl friend used to follow rock stars whenever they came to town, and one of the highlights of her life was being picked from a horde of girls to ride two blocks in a limousine with the Rolling Stones as they drove down 14th Street on their way to a performance at the Academy of Music.  Her favorite Stone is keith Richard.

Shelley took three days off from Hair to make Alice's Restaurant, and she doesn't look back on the experience with much enthusiasm.  "Arthur Penn really didn't direct me very much." she says.  "He just told me to do it, and I did it.  I wasn't overwhelmed with Arlo, either.  He was sort of a bore.  It was the end of the shooting, so he may have been tired for those couple of days.  He just didn't impress me; nothing came past his face."

Steve joins Shelley on the rock to talk about Glen and Randa in which they costar.  The film, scheduled for release this fall, is about a boy and girl who wander across the vast wasteland that remains after the United States is devastated by nuclear bombs in World War III.  It was directed by Jim ("David Holtzman's Diary") McBride, and filmed in desolate spots in oregon and California.

"He was signed for the part first," Shelley says of Steve, "and he wanted to read with me because we read well together, and with no direction it's much easier to do it with someone you know.  Before that, my manager had said I'd like to audition for Randa, but they said no.  They thought I just wasn't the type.  They were against Stevie at first, too.  The casting director, who had also worked on Zabriskie Point, was angry because Stevie had turned down the lead in Zabriskie Point.  That was a terrible film.  It's the best decision Stevie ever made."  Steve nods.  "I just had no feeling for it," he says.  The son of a Camden, N.J. grocer, he has appeared in small roles in nine Broadway shows, including Gypsy and Camelot.

The Currys and Puppy live in a one-bedroom apartment on West 54th Street that has recently been beset by a series of watery disasters.  First, a fire sprinkler in their upstairs neighbor's apartment went off accidentally, and water seeped into the Curry's place.  Then a pipe under their sink burst during the night, flooding the apartment for a second time.

Shelley says her marriage is a rather conventional one, in which she does the cooking and cleaning and Steve helps only when she asks him to.  Since both have decided that movies are where it's at, they often spend their spare time together experimenting with 8-millimeter film.

Although they both enjoy working with each other, they have no visions of being the Lunt and Fontaine of the 70's.  "It's not like we want to be known as 'Shelley and Steve, ra-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta'" he says.  "But it is so much easier to work with her."  Shelley agrees. "Steve knows how to make me cry in a scene, whereas another actor would just say the lines."

After her baby is born, does Shelley ever want to return to the Broadway that boosted her to fame?  "I like the stage," she says, "but so little is happening there.  I think Hair has spoiled me.  It will be a long time before anything that good - or that fun - comes along again."

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