Now starring in the Off-Broadway revival of Paul Osborn’s classic American comedy Morning’s at Seven, stage and screen star Alley Mills has long-since exceeded the running time allotted in Andy Warhol’s proverbial “fifteen minutes of fame.” The magna-cum-laude 1973 graduate of the first women’s class at Yale studied acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and made her professional debut in a Joe Papp New York Festival production of Sons and Lovers, followed by a national tour in the titular role of Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Mills’ blossoming career then brought the Upper West Sider to Los Angeles, where she appeared regularly in regional theater productions, playing in a variety of works from Candida to Says I Says He with Brian Dennehy. Best known for her television role as the mother Norma Arnold (opposite Dan Lauria) on the Emmy-winning coming-of-age comedy series The Wonder Years (1988-93), she starred in an impressive roster of other TV shows, series, and films, including The Associates with Martin Short, as the sister of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and, for thirteen years, on the CBS daytime drama The Bold and the Beautiful.
On the big screen, Mills played the lead opposite John Candy in Going Berserk, among her other notable movie credits, and before the current Off-Broadway engagement of Morning’s at Seven (in which she is reunited with co-star Lauria), her most recent stage appearance was in a two-person autobiographical show about life together with her beloved husband Orson Bean (whom she lost in February 2020, after being hit by two cars in a tragic pedestrian traffic accident).
Alley was gracious enough to share fifteen minutes of her long-running fame with us, to answer some quick questions about her life, her thoughts, and the show.
- With Thanksgiving approaching, what are you most thankful for this year?
Alley: Oh, man, I’m just so grateful that I’m now coming out of a long period of grief after losing my beloved Orson; it’s been such a ride. I’m so thankful to be back in our apartment in New York, where he did decades of Broadway shows; it feels great to be here.
- What’s the best thing, and the worst thing, about family (the central theme of Morning’s at Seven?)
The best thing is that you feel a connection – that you feel part of something. The worst is that sometimes the others don’t want you to be – that’s family for you! It’s wonderful to feel wanted and horrible when you’re not, as with my character in the show.
- Is there one quality in your character Arry that you find most compelling?
Yes, she’s still a kid in many ways, after her childhood trauma of being loved at seventeen and then not being able to have that love. She wants to be loved and has to work really hard on that feeling of not being wanted.
- What makes this play a classic?
It’s Americana, almost like an American Chekhov, about a dysfunctional family, with all the characters and their sub-plots coming together. It’s set in the 1920s and was written in the 1930s, but, as with The Wonder Years, it’s not limited to the experiences of any one time or family or race; it can make anyone laugh, or cry.
- Do you prefer stage or screen acting?
Oh, stage! You don’t get to be with the audience when you’re on screen, and there’s nothing like it when you’re feeling connected to the humans in an audience!
- What do you love most about being back live on stage?
Being back in New York. I grew up here and I just love walking around in my sneakers, with my bag, and taking the subway.
- What is it about New York?
The energy in New York and the theater is great! It’s also the international culture of New York. You walk down the street and you see and hear people speaking different languages from all different countries and walks of life. It’s the beautiful humanity here, and the Park is also so gorgeous now, with all the colorful trees and flowers.
- What’s the most memorable line you’ve ever delivered?
Wow! Once I’m done with a script, the truth is I don’t remember the words, just the experience and the feelings. In this particular play it’s more about the moments than the lines.
- What’s the most memorable reaction you’ve ever gotten from a fan?
It’s always when people come up to me and tell me that something in my character on The Wonder Years or the soap opera or a play touched them deeply and they share their personal stories with me. That’s what theater is for, so I’m just happy when somebody felt it. Just like in ancient Greece, it’s an amphitheater where spirits come to meet. It’s metamorphosis. It’s catharsis.
- What three words would you use to describe yourself?
Searching; indefatigable; and blessed – ridiculously blessed, but that’s two words so I’d be cheating!
- What three words would you use to describe your Morning’s at Seven castmates?
Veterans; super-talents; and generous.
- What three things are you always sure to pack in your luggage when you’re on the road?
Vitamins for stamina; my husband’s underwear (I’ve always worn them); and a cashmere sweater because I get cold.
- Who has been the biggest inspiration in your career?
When I was in high school, my teacher Jean Armin had tremendous faith in me. She is no longer alive, but she was my rock.
- What’s your first creative memory?
I was on The Patti Page Show when I was six or seven and I got to do a duet with her. My dad [screenwriter, TV producer, and director Ted Mills] directed the show, and I was there with a bunch of kids. The girl who was supposed to sing with her wasn’t doing it the way she wanted, so she pointed to me to come up, because I was staring at her and very focused. I wasn’t really a singer, but I sang the word “Mama” in her song about a baby doll, and that was the beginning for me!
- Is there a show or a role that you’d most like to perform next?
It’s weird. I don’t think that much about the future. I tend to like it when someone just sends me a script and it resonates with me; Orson used to say, “Things get delivered to your door.” I’d like to do Shakespeare and Chekhov – I’ve always wanted to play Arkadina in The Seagull, for example – but I like to be in the moment, to wait for what I get, and if it hits me, to go for it. I prefer to live in the present and to perfect it!
Thank you so much, Alley, for making the time to take our Pop quiz, and for all the outstanding performances you’ve given us throughout your illustrious career and in your ongoing “fifteen minutes of fame.” It was truly a pleasure to talk to you!
Morning’s at Seven plays through Sunday, December 5, 2021, at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th Street, NYC. For tickets, starting at $44, go online. Proof of full COVID-19 vaccination and a photo ID must be shown upon entering the building, and masks covering the nose and mouth are required inside at all times.