Joely Fisher – Dream Foundation’s Wild Card

Circa 2004

Her father is Eddie Fisher and to most, no introduction is needed. A 50s heartthrob, Fisher boasted a number of Top 10 hits including Wish You Were Here, I’m Walking Behind You, Oh My Pa-Pa and I Need You Now. As his career was booming, Fisher was called to serve his country. After spending a year in the U.S. Armed Forces he returned to star in his own television series, Coke Time. Fisher then went on to co-star with Debbie Reynolds in the film musical Bundle Of Joy. Fisher married Reynolds and one year later their daughter, Carrie Fisher of Star Wars fame, was born. Later Fisher had a role in Butterfield 8, in which his second wife, Elizabeth Taylor, won an Academy Award for best actress.

Her mother, as one of the most popular role models for teenage girls across the globe in the 60s, requires about as much an introduction as her father. Connie Stevens successfully took on the entertainment industry and made herself into a film, television and Broadway star, popular recording artist and concert performer, and then went on to develop a successful cosmetic empire. She has performed for four U.S. presidents. Having toured with Bob Hope around the world, Stevens was voted one of Veterans Across America’s all time favorites.

As the first artist signed to Warner Brothers Records, Stevens recorded two mega-hits: Kookie Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb) and a number one record, Sixteen Reasons. However, it was her memorable role as Cricket Blake in the popular series Hawaiian Eye that made her a household name. In addition to countless film and television roles, Stevens starred opposite George Burns in the popular TV series Wendy and Me and was the most popular guest on The Love Boat, not to mention Neil Simon’s Star Spangled Girl on Broadway.

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For Joely Fisher, daughter of Eddie Fisher and his third wife, Connie Stevens, it’s easy to imagine that life came easy and acting jobs were handed to her on a silver plate; all she had to do was remind people who her parents were and casting agents couldn’t sign her name fast enough. Well, perhaps this might be the case in her dreams, but real life tells a very different story. Many armchair critics assume that second or third generation actors make their way through the entertainment business through hand-ups from celebrity mommies or daddies. While this career-boost certainly happens from time to time, many children of celebrities find their pedigrees have the opposite effect, and they are left to pave their own way in one of the most competitive and difficult industries. During a 1994 interview with Movieline, Joely Fisher said, “If having celebrities for parents were a plus, I’d be a huge star by now. People might be curious to see if you turned out okay—to see if Eddie Fisher’s kid does drugs—but they won’t hire you. Brandon Lee, who was a friend of mine, said, ‘Don’t you feel like you always have a comma before or after your name?’ It’s like, ‘Joely Fisher comma daughter of Eddie Fisher and Connie Stevens.’”

Although her destiny would be shaped by her own fortitude, Fisher was born with talent in her veins on October 29, 1967, at St. Joseph’s Hospital, directly across the street from The Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. Unfortunately, Joely’s parents separated two years after she was born. A self-proclaimed “road-baby,” she has traveled around the world with her mother and sister, sometimes joining her mother onstage during performances. During the Persian Gulf War, Joely performed with her mother and Bob Hope for the troops overseas.

Although Joely had decided early to hold off pursuing her own career until after college, she eventually quit her studies to pursue acting full-time. Joely soon landed bit parts on Growing Pains and Blossom, as well as a role in the 1994 Jim Carrey comedy The Mask.

Even though the small roles gave her a taste for being on the silver screen, she had been turned down for nearly thirty television pilots before she landed her first major part. At the age of twenty-six, her persistence finally paid off when she landed the role of Paige Clark on the hit television comedy Ellen. For her supporting role on Ellen, which made TV history as the first series centered on a lesbian character, Joely was nominated for a Golden Globe Award, and her career was ready to take off. Her personal life also flourished as she fell in love and married cinematographer Christopher Duddy, now the proud father of their daughter, Skylar Grace.

ABILITY’S Chet Cooper interviewing Joely
ABILITY’S Chet Cooper interviewing Joely

Not only did Joely inherit a love of entertaining from her parents, but she has also followed in her mother’s footsteps by giving back to the community. Sitting in the living room of her Los Angeles-area home, Joely talks with ABILITY’s Chet Cooper about her career post-Ellen, her current starring role on Lifetime Television’s Wild Card and the important role she’s playing as “Dream Angel” for the Dream Foundation.

Chet Cooper: You’ve basically grown up in the entertainment industry. Do you believe your parents’ involvement influenced your decision to follow suit?

Joely Fisher: I’m not sure. I definitely have a Fisher voice. I think you inherit most of your talent from your parents, although sometimes a fabulously talented singer grows out of the union of two tone-deaf people. I knew from the time I could walk that I wanted to be an actor. We would perform shows in restaurants and we would put on Girl Scout musicals in the living room whether my mother and her friends liked it or not. (laughs)

CC: What was your first audition?

JF: I went to my first audition—it was for Annie—in my Catholic school plaid-skirt uniform. My mother was out of town and she didn’t even know I had gone. I got a call back and they offered me the swing position. An understudy is the backup for one part, but swings learns all the parts and then “swing in” wherever they are needed. I didn’t end up taking the part.

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CC: How did your mom feel about your choosing acting?

JF: She used to say, “I couldn’t stop you with a train.” But I didn’t start working until after college. I wasn’t told not to do it and I wasn’t pushed into it at all. I’m sure that my mom would have been happy with any path I chose. Maybe this one is difficult for her to watch because she has done it for so long herself; she knows both the triumphs and the really big lows.

CC: In what ways do you think her personal experience makes it more difficult to watch you?

JF: You want the best for your kid, but everybody’s career is completely different in this industry. I am still learning every day not to watch other people’s careers and compare. It would actually be interesting to hear if she felt I had met her expectations or if I’m going beyond what she thought I would accomplish. I know she is immensely proud; I also know she’s my biggest critic. Maybe it’s because she cares the most. If my mom was a doctor or someone who worked in a drycleaner’s, she would probably say, “Oh my god, everything you do is so great! That’s my baby girl!” And she does do that, but then there’s the “Stand up straight, shoulders back. You don’t have enough blush!”

3 pictures of Joely, the daughter of Vegas headliners Eddie Fisher and Connie Stevens, had entertaining in her blood, After her parents divorced, Joely often toured with her mother, sometimes joining her onstage. During the Persian Gulf war, Joely joined her mom and Bob Hope in performing for the troops, Growing up, Joely would perform for her mother and her mother’s friends—whether they liked it or not!
Joely, the daughter of Vegas headliners Eddie Fisher and Connie Stevens, had entertaining in her blood, After her parents divorced, Joely often toured with her mother, sometimes joining her onstage. During the Persian Gulf war, Joely joined her mom and Bob Hope in performing for the troops, Growing up, Joely would perform for her mother and her mother’s friends—whether they liked it or not!

CC: Isn’t there a musical based on that premise? I Love You. You’re Perfect. Now Change?

JF: (laughs) Lately we’ve had conversations about how the business is so different from before. A dear friend of mine says, “The conveyer belt is always moving. Athletes, ballet dancers and so on…there’s always someone younger, more talented or luckier coming off the conveyer belt. So, to stay on it is good.”

CC: Lots of people are falling off.

JF: Sometimes they are doing triple back flips off. Joey Pagliano said, “Let them typecast me into the box. So I get to play the same part forever. At least I’m doing it.”

CC: What college did you go to?

JF: I went to Emerson [and studied abroad]. I took up French boys and wine and I studied psychology.

CC: Whining French boys?

JF: No. I think that class was full. (laughs) I loved psychology and I loved history. I did a bunch of musicals and directed by the time I was a junior. I was like a race horse, just trying to get into the world. I didn’t finish college, which is really weird because they awarded me the Alumni of Distinction recently. (laughs)

CC: So you’re straight out of college…

JF: Can’t stop me with a train!

CC: What happened after college?

JF: When I came back from school I was heavy. I wasn’t obese, but I was the funny fat best friend—never the leading lady. I had always gotten away with it because I had a curvy body. But when I went on camera to test for some roles they said, “You’re great. Lose 10 or 15 pounds.” That’s a horrifying thing to hear at 19 or 20 years old because young women are already uncomfortable.

CC: Did it prevent you from working?

JF: I acted in little parts here and there. I would say the part that changed my career was a movie called I’ll Do/Be Anything, directed and written by James L. Brooks. I auditioned eight times before getting the part, but I got to play with the big kids and it was really exciting for me. My mom would even say it was sort of a turning point for me.

Right around the same time I sang my first part at the Academy Awards. Nobody really remembers, but it was a 10-minute vignette that Kenny Ortega directed and choreographed, and it featured Christian Slater, Ricki Lake, Patrick Dempsey, Fabian, Danny Glover and a bunch of people we see all the time now. I sang and danced in that number, and two days later these women called me in and I got a part. They said, “We saw you the other night on the Oscars!”

CC: How did your career develop from there?

JF: This one year in particular I went on forty-two pilot auditions and tested for five or six. Testing is the proverbial dangling of the carrot, where they say you are going to make x amount of dollars per episode, and you sign the contract before the audition. The networks are protecting themselves, because if they want you, then suddenly you are allowed to ask for whatever you want. So they make you sign these deals beforehand. Then a little show called Ellen came along. I had auditioned the first time around when Ellen was called These Friends of Mine, and when I read the same material a year later, I went to the network the next day and got the job. In a succession of three days I was on the show. It changed my life. I developed a character I think people remember and felt they knew. People would stop me and say “Oh, we watch that show and we love you.” Finally I wasn’t funny and fat, I was the best friend who was sexy and hot.

CC: But not funny?

JF: Not funny at all. (laughs) Funny-looking. Anyway, after Ellen I entered a succession of everything inbetween. There was one show I was extremely proud of called Wish You Were Here, which to this day I wish they would have put on the air. Then I did my big debut crazy action movie, Inspector Gadget. I was like, “Oh my god, it’s my big Disney cartoon!” I had a great time—loved Matthew Broderick, loved Rupert Everett—and got to be the leading lady in a $100 million movie. It was unbelievable! With Inspector Gadget came a huge new fan base: 6-year-old boys. (laughs) So now I have the lesbians and the 6-year-old boys…I just need to get those 18 to 49ers.

CC: What about theater?

JF: I had already done Grease on Broadway and then after Ellen I did Cabaret for nearly a year. That was a big reaffirmation that I wasn’t just a TV girl, even though I wanted to go back to a nice cushy television job after working as hard as I did.

CC: Why did you leave Broadway?

JF: When they asked me to continue on and stay in the show, I realized I was ready to start the next phase of my life, which was having a family. I came home and started a show with John Goodman called Normal, Ohio. I got pregnant right in the middle of the show and thought, “This is perfect! I’m going to be doing a show with John Goodman and it’s going to go on for eight years. I’m going to have a baby and they are going to pay me to be pregnant…” And then we got cancelled and I thought, “Oh my god, I’ll never work again!”

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Not long afterward I got called to do a series, Baby Bob. They were willing to shoot around my pregnancy. I thought, “Wow, they must really, really want me.” I was very flattered. I did that for two years, but we were always a mid-season replacement.

CC: And that brings you to where you are today?

JF: Yes, and what I am doing now is knitting. (laughs) No, I had my baby, and then this amazing script came to me and I opened it up and on the first page it said “Zoe” at the top, and I thought, “That’s a cute name.” Then it said she’s dealing blackjack in Vegas and I thought, “That’s cool!” Zoe spoke like me, and it was written to have an energy through it. She didn’t censor herself. She was flying by the seat of her pants, trying to make decisions about life and dealing with the tragedy of the horrible death of her sister. Turning the pages, I thought, “Oh my god, this is it. This is my part.”

CC: Lifetime has a mostly female demographic, right?

3 pictures Joely’s big break came when she was invited to join the cast of Ellen. Pictured left to right: Emma Thompson, Ellen DeGeneres and Joely, After Ellen, Joely returned to Broadway and starred in Cabaret. Photo: Joely being prepped for a performance., Joely had the time of her life in her first big Disney production of Inspector Gadget, where she starred opposite Matthew Broderick and Rupert Everett.
Joely’s big break came when she was invited to join the cast of Ellen. Pictured left to right: Emma Thompson, Ellen DeGeneres and Joely, After Ellen, Joely returned to Broadway and starred in Cabaret. Photo: Joely being prepped for a performance., Joely had the time of her life in her first big Disney production of Inspector Gadget, where she starred opposite Matthew Broderick and Rupert Everett.

JF: Lifetime is television for women and very, very sensitive men.

CC: The “metrosexuals?”

JF: Metrosexuals, yes. (both laugh) No. But you would like my show.

CC: I’m definitely going to watch. I heard it was great. (laughs)

JF: Flattery! (laughs)

CC: How much of the year do you film?

JF: Six months.

CC: Are you in Toronto the entire time or do you make it to Los Angeles once in a while?

JF: Last year when we were shooting I was in Los Angeles four days in six months.

CC: That’s a tough schedule. You started out explaining how you felt a lot of your talent was genetic. Both you and your husband are involved in the film industry. Do you see a future for your daughter on stage?

JF: Hmm… I’m not sure. It sounds so terrible because I have three children on my show, but it’s not a great job for a kid. I’ve seen it be extremely destructive. On the other hand, we did produce a child who is precocious and animated and alive, and she has a great sense of humor at a young age. So who knows what path she’ll choose.

CC: How old is she?

JF: She’s two-and-a-half.

CC: How was your pregnancy?

JF: I was never sick and I never got the swollen ankles. I only gained 38 pounds, but…she was a 38 pound baby. (both laugh)

CC: That’s your story and you’re stickin’ to it?

JF: (laughs) She’s not even 38 pounds now!

CC: How did you lose the weight?

JF: The changes come from the inside. At that time I was dealing with a mother who was loved and adored for being talented, funny, beautiful and sexy. She has one of those souls and spirits that make people gravitate toward her. She’s an amazing human being. That powerful presence in a parent can be a very difficult thing for a girl to deal with. I had to confront some of my issues and became more comfortable with myself as a person. Eventually I needed food in a less unhealthy way and weight became less of an issue.

CC: I bet your mom dealt with some of these same issues at one point.

JF: We did a Christmas album many years ago, and my sister, my mom and I were on a talk show with a woman who had done a movie with my mom when she was 17. This woman reminisced, on air, saying to my mother, “I remember you went into your trailer and you wouldn’t come out. You were crying hysterically because you had to wear jeans and you thought you looked fat.” My sister and I looked at each other and thought, “Oh my god, she’s been dealing with this since she was 17.” We were about 18 or 19 ourselves at that moment when we realized this is not just our issue; it’s a female issue, a human issue.

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CC: Is there anything specific you hope your daughter learns from watching you?

JF: I imagine that she will be like me, and she will see that not only does mom go to work, and not only does mom come home and give me my bath and read stories and cuddle and laugh and play airplanes, but she also does all this other [charity work], and people really seem to respect her for it.

CC: What organizations do you work with?

JF: I’ve dedicated myself to helping people with HIV disease or AIDS. I’ve lost a lot of friends and I lost my uncle really early in his life. Until a couple years ago I thought that was where my focus should be. Then a friend of mine, Thom Rollerson, contacted me about a foundation he had started, Dream Foundation, and I think I just showed up to party and support him. It is now the only national organization granting last wishes to adults with terminal illness. They call me the “Dream Angel.” They were trying to think of what title I would have and came up with that instead of “ambassador” or “celebrity spokesperson,” which make you sound as though you’re selling something.

CC: As the Dream Angel, what do you do?

JF: I have been fortunate enough to take part in a number of people’s dreams in small ways and [last year] I put on a large show for them that hopefully will become an annual event.

It’s so gratifying to help make sure that people’s untimely departures from our planet are not without grace and some sort of happiness. The illness affects the whole family. One of the letters I received read, “My mom has such terrible brain tumors that she didn’t smile for years. My family went to Disneyland and saw her laugh, and that’s the greatest last memory I could have had with her.” I think that right now about 60 or 70 percent of the dream recipients are women with breast cancer or ovarian cancer or some kind of cancer. I’ve made friends with a lot of these women, and it’s hard to see them leave. I asked Thom, “How do you do it?”

CC: I should ask you, “How do you do it?”

JF: The little bit of it that I’ve done? I don’t know how one would do that all the time.

CC: Have you gone on any wishes with dream recipients?

JF: I’ve spent time with some people here in L.A. There was one girl who had breast cancer and had gone through so much chemo and radiation. Her boyfriend wanted to marry her anyway. Dream Foundation did the ceremony and sent them on a cruise for their honeymoon. We took her to a spa and she got the beauty treatments and all of that. I couldn’t stop thinking how incredibly brave she was. She came out and had a beautiful wig and she was in a pretty dress. That to me makes what we do so worthwhile.

CC: What other issues do you work with?

Joely, daughter Skylar, and the Baby Bob cast meet Blue from Blue’s Clues
Joely, daughter Skylar, and the Baby Bob cast meet Blue from Blue’s Clues

JF: I work with Community Entry Services (CES), which is my mom’s organization, and a few others. My friend Bob Saget is on the board of Scleroderma Research Foundation, so I support him by taking part in an evening he has every year. If Nancy Davis [of the Nancy Davis Center Without Walls, a research foundation for MS] calls and says to come to an event, I will run right over there, because I think she is just a fabulous person and she’s working really hard. Then I also get requests every day from people asking for help. “Can you send an autographed script? Can we have a walk-on in your show?” They come in piles. You can’t do it all. Although I would like to.

Left Joely with former President Clinton Right Joely and family with former President Bush
Left Joely with former President Clinton Right Joely and family with former President Bush

All of my efforts combined don’t compare to what our friends at CES do in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. They’re dedicating their life and time. I was involved at first because I was Connie Stevens’ kid and it was my job to show up and sing a song or do whatever else they needed. Over the years the people who run the organization have become like family, and I’ve been able to see the progress and the spirit of the clients, which has been really rewarding. Once you meet the people you realize the heart of Jackson Hole is so huge, and it’s such a soulful little town. They really care about getting people with brain injury back into the community.

CC: Now that you are a mom, has it been hard for you to continue to do the work that you do with Dream Foundation and the other groups you support?

It’s a family affair. Left to right Trisha Leigh Fisher (Joely’s sister, also an actor), Connie Stevens and Joely
It’s a family affair. Left to right Trisha Leigh Fisher (Joely’s sister, also an actor), Connie Stevens and Joely

JF: The people who are actually in the trenches and making the dreams come true and the families who support these people with terminal illnesses go through far more than I do. When I see what they do, the problems of my everyday life seem so miniscule. I got to know one girl in particular fairly well. She said that the last year of her life was one of the most amazing times for her, and she owed it to Dream Foundation, because she was able to spend time with her sister and she got to make these incredible relationships and friendships with people involved with Dream Foundation.

People sometimes feel it’s a gift to know when death is coming. However difficult it is, at least you know, “I have this month and I am going to try to tell all the people I know that I love them, and try to have some good experiences.” Not that I wish that on anybody.

CC: You really seem to be in an exciting place professionally, you have a great family, and you are making a difference in the lives of many.

JF: I’ve been very fortunate. My family’s talents are diverse enough that we write and we sing and we dance and we act and we do our charitable work. We try to do a little bit of everything. But our friendships and our family and all of these relationships that we make along the way are by far the most important.

foreword by Romney Snyder

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