Blythe Danner – Like Mother, Like Daughter

Mom to Gwyneth and grandmother to Apple, Emmy Award-winner Blythe Danner at 62 is finding more fame than she ever sought.

Blythe Danner, at 62, just set the new record for the number of Emmy nominations for acting in a single year (three). But ask most people to put her name and “superstar” in a sentence, and another name will most likely be added: Blythe Danner is the mother of superstar Gwyneth Paltrow.

Paltrow once told reporter Jeanne Wolf, “I did not set out to be a celebrity. I just wanted to do what my mother did. I don’t know how it snowballed into what it snowballed into.”

What her mother has done is to have a solid, satisfying career balancing stage, TV and the occasional film. How her mother avoided the snowball was primarily her passion for privacy-and for her family. There was never anything to gossip about with Blythe Danner.

She married young and stayed married, and once told a reporter that the only designer wear she owned was Halston-specifically, his Brownie Leader uniform. Today she relishes the role of grandmother, both onscreen (with Robert DeNiro as her husband, in Meet The Parents and Meet The Fockers) and off, calling herself “a doting grandmother” to 20-month-old Apple Blythe Martin, Gwyneth’s daughter.

It all sounds pretty wholesome for a woman whose first big career move was in her underwear.

In 1969, Danner made her Broadway debut in Butterflies Are Free, at the age of 25. Her role of the “hippie chick” Jill required her to spend much of her time on stage clad only in her skivvies. It also earned her a Tony award for Best Supporting Actress.

And then she disappeared from the Broadway stage for 10 years. Some thought she was sulking because the film role went to the better-known Goldie Hawn; but the simple fact was that Danner had married producer Bruce Paltrow during the play’s run, and was busy nesting. If she didn’t zoom into the stratosphere, it’s because she wanted it that way.

Danner is a banker’s daughter from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with an upbringing and education similar to those of the many cool, WASP-y women she’s played. She was captain of her high school swimming team, and graduated from Bard College with a degree in drama. She started her career in a repertory group in Boston, moving on to off-Broadway and Broadway.

Theater has always been important to her, and she spent summers with the Williamstown Theatre Festival for more than 20 years, saying that there, “the things I do enable me to grow most as an actress. I do roles that I wouldn’t ordinarily be cast in and that make people regard me as a woman of more depth.” But her priorities have always been clear. In her Playbill bio in 1980, she said, “Acting is really only a part of my life. I’m addicted to it, but mostly, I spend my time being a mother to my two children, working in my organic garden, being passionately involved in conservation, recycling and solar energy.”

In art as in life, Danner became known for strong supporting roles as the good wife. But in 2002, she lost the one that mattered most: Her husband of 33 years, Bruce Paltrow, died at the age of 59, of oral cancer diagnosed too late for successful treatment. The entire family was devastated. Because he died unexpectedly while visiting Gwyneth in Rome, where she was filming Sylvia, the biography of Sylvia Plath, and because of Gwyneth’s higher media profile, Danner had more of an opportunity to grieve in private than did her daughter.

“The circumstances of my father’s death and the way it all happened sort of allowed me to take on the responsible role,” Gwyneth told journalists; “I see [my mother] as more of a woman than as a wife and mother now. It was a kind of a subtle shift, a change in the dynamic between us.” For moral support, and to be together, Danner joined Paltrow toward the end of filming to play the small role of Plath’s mother.

The healing really began when, in late 2004, Gwyneth and husband Chris Martin, lead singer of the band Coldplay, gave birth to daughter Apple. In a message sent to Gwyneth on “Oprah,” Danner said, “When I first saw Gwyneth with the baby, my firstborn holding her firstborn, there was an overwhelming feeling of joy-deep, deep, deep joy-because it happened not long after Bruce died and we were all still reeling from that. I think the first thing I thought was, ‘There is a reason to live-I have a grandchild.’ And I think that put it all in perspective and it was very good for all of us after the initial shock of Bruce not being there. One sees the future in one’s grandchild.” She told another journalist, “Having my new granddaughter is the most I’ve been able to feel in two years; she’s just extraordinary.”

As always, Danner keeps working while putting family on the front burner. While her Showtime series “Huff” (for which she won the Best Supporting Actress Emmy) was on hiatus, she recently wrapped The Last Kiss, due to be released in 2006. When she’s not working, she’s likely to be babysitting Apple; when she’s interviewed, she’d rather talk about Apple. “I know I shouldn’t talk about family but I am such a doting grandmother,” she told Who magazine; “I am weighted down by the amount of pictures I carry around with me. I go to the airport and forget my passport, but I don’t forget my pictures of Apple.”

Sidebar: Blythe Bits

Not only did Danner have to prance about in her underwear (in Butterflies Are Free), but she had to do so in front of audiences full of young women-because Danner was playing opposite Keir Dullea, whose David and Lisa had made him a teen crush and whose 2001: A Space Odyssey had been released the year before. Also in the cast: Paul Michael Glaser, who went on to Starsky & Hutch” fame.

Many people think that Danner was once married to Ken Howard, but they were never involved; however, they did frequently play husband and wife, the first time as Tom and Martha Jefferson in the film 1776, later in the TV series “Adam’s Rib.”

Danner is an obsessive recycler. (“I can get a bit nutty about it,” she confesses.) She’s been known to pick up empty soda cans when traveling on an airline that doesn’t recycle them, and will carry dead batteries back to California from states that don’t recycle them.

Her name, Blythe, was suggested by an aunt. It’s a Welsh name, which motivated her to choose the Welsh name Gwyneth for her own daughter. Her husband, however, put his foot down when it came to his son’s name, asking for a “red-blooded, meat-and-potatoes name”-which is how come Gwyneth’s brother is named Jake. Like a good grandmother, Danner has kept wisely quiet about the name choice for her granddaughter.

Sidebar: Raising Awareness

Alongside such other actor-activists as Susan Sarandon and Christopher Reeve, Danner has lent not only her celebrity but her energy to environmental and political causes. She once told US magazine, “I feel a little guilty only being an actor. Onstage or in films, you do affect peoples’ lives, and sometimes they say, ‘Thank you. That hanged my perspective. You made me feel deeply.’ That’s very gratifying. But still, there’s this little voice that says you should be doing something that matters.”

Not surprisingly, Danner has become passionate about fighting the disease that took her husband, donating her time and celebrity to raising awareness of oral cancer. In a public service announcement she filmed recently, she says, “Neither Bruce nor I knew much about oral cancer, so we didn’t know to get him to a doctor when his voice became increasingly hoarse. He was so busy that he didn’t seek help for months-and by then his cancer was very advanced. I wish we had known more.”

The Oral Cancer Foundation (www.oralcancer.org) says that oral cancer has a high death rate largely because of the combination of low public awareness and infrequent screenings; two-thirds of cases aren’t diagnosed until they are late-stage and advanced. Part of the Foundation’s efforts involve reaching out to the dental community to provide this service as a matter of routine practice.

“Early detection can save lives,” says Foundation founder and oral cancer survivor Brian R. Hill. “Death rates from cancers such as those of the cervix, skin and prostate have decreased as annual checks have been adopted for them; this could also be the case with oral cancer, if the simple and painless screening procedure were to be adopted as a routine part of dental or medical examinations.”

Originally published in GRAND Magazine Issue 8 Dec/Jan 2005-2006

MARY HUNT

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