Sigourney Weaver is one of the greatest movie stars of all time, and many of us think of her as the tough, no-nonsense screen heroines she has played in films from Alien to Avatar. But that’s not how she saw herself as a girl growing up in Manhattan, where she was Susan, the shy, bookish daughter of a dynamic set of parents in that whirling scene of trailblazers in television’s first golden age. In this revealing episode, hear how she found empowerment roaming the streets of New York and attending an all-girls high school where she discovered her name.
"I was invited once to the Browning dance by this very nice young man. I didn't know him at all and he invited me to the class dance. I think I was 11 and the most terrible thing happened because those were the days of The Twist. And so, we're twisting and twisting. I went all the way down on the floor, and then went all the way back, and then I couldn't get up. Poor George had to lift me up.”
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This Is Your Life, with host Ralph Edwards and honoree Roger Williams (1959)
I Married Joan: Season 1 Episode 1: Pilot (1952)
John Lennon Murder: Original News Report, Eyewitness News (December 8, 1980)
“Ghostbusters,” by Ray Parker Jr. (1984)
Original Composition: Sterling Steffen
Illustrations – Nick Gregg
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Part 52, Leaves of Grass (1855)
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
“You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, And filter and fibre your blood.
“Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
Sigourney Weaver’s NYC films: Eyewitness, Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters 2, Working Girl, The Guys, My Salinger Year
A special thanks, too, to our co-presenter on this special New York City feature series, the Museum of the City of New York.
4: Sigourney Weaver – Manhattan
March 16, 2021
Intro: Kevin Burke (Voiceover narration): This episode is part of a special feature series on New York City and is a co-presentation with the Museum of the City of New York. With generous support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Find us at yourhometown.org or on your favorite podcast app.
Sigourney Weaver: I was invited once to the Browning dance by this very nice young man. I didn’t know him at all and he invited me to the class dance. I think I was 11 and the most terrible thing happened because those were the days of The Twist. And so, we’re twisting and twisting. I went all the way down on the floor, and then went all the way back, and then I couldn’t get up. Poor George had to lift me up. Anyway, I didn’t do that again. But I don’t think anyone asked me out to a dance after that for about three years.
Kevin (Voiceover narration): “Where did you grow up?” is a question we’re all asked a lot, but the answer is never as simple as a place on a map, is it? It’s about the kid inside of us and what happened to them there before we met the world and the world met us. I’m Kevin Burke, and this is Your Hometown.
One of my first memories of watching Sigourney Weaver act was in Aliens, the second film in the franchise series that made the character she played, Ellen Ripley, one of the most iconic, badass heroines in movie history. I’ll never forget the scene of the climax of the story: when she peered inside a tall, yellow power loader — I don’t know, it looks sort of like a forklift type thing. She was operating its arms and legs to stomp out and take a mighty swing at the most terrifying, otherworldly, jaws-y, salivating monster I’d ever seen. At that moment, the whole theater erupted as Ripley, in a show of superhuman force, injected the Alien queen out into space.
From then on, whenever I’ve seen her on screen and whatever film, from Ghostbusters (1984) to Gorillas in the Mist (1988) to Avatar (2009), I think of Sigourney Weaver instinctually as that tough, no-nonsense, athletically graceful screen heroine that she’s known for, far and wide.
But interestingly, that’s not how she saw herself as a girl growing up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. As you just heard her recall, she wasn’t exactly the model of agility out on the dance floor. Now, it’s fun to tell that story in hindsight, but it couldn’t have been easy to be down on that floor in real time — something I know that the teenager inside of all of us can relate to deep down inside.
In Sigourney’s case though, she wasn’t just growing up in any old place or time in New York. Her English mother, Liz, was a former actress and her father, Pat Weaver, was the president of NBC. Yes, that NBC. So, from a very young age, she was surrounded by the capital “P” pioneers of television. And unlike her attempt at “The Twist”, her parents were paragons of elegance and grace, especially under pressure, including one night when they found themselves the guest of honor in a special version of the classic television show, This Is Your Life.
[03:26 We hear the opening to This Is Your Life, with host Ralph Edwards and honoree Roger Williams (1959)]
Kevin (Voiceover narration): But instead of the usual host, it was the comedian Jackie Gleason of Honeymooners fame doing the honors.
Sigourney: Jackie Gleason, for whatever reason, they did This Is Your Life with my father and mother. And it was in the NBC apartment.
Kevin: They were the objects of it.
Sigourney: Yes, they were the objects
Kevin: This is their lives.
Sigourney: Yes. This is their life. And it was Jackie Gleason chain smoking. My mother had gotten very beautiful in this beautiful dress. And they were walking Jackie around and talking about stuff. And as they went around the corner, my mother felt her dress. The zipper gave and it completely came open in the back. And because it was live, although they did record it, my father suavely, went behind her back and kept her dress closed for like the next hour as they moved around the apartment, always behind her so that she could — she couldn’t go, “Excuse me, I’ve got to change my dress.” So I just think it’s so funny.
Kevin: That’s show business.
Sigourney: That’s show business.
Kevin (Voiceover narration): And her parents did it with easy grace and were very, very good at it. And she would join their business later on, in her own terms and in a very different way. But at this point, Sigourney was just a little girl and all that was in the future. At the time of that party, she was just one of the Weavers’ two children growing up on the Upper East Side, their own particular window onto her hometown.
Sigourney: My first memory is hearing that bus noise as it turns a corner endlessly and watching the pattern of the light across the ceiling. That’s the first thing I remember. And I feel like it just formed me as a New Yorker. Now, when I hear city noise, especially bus noise, I go, “Ahhh.”
So we lived on 64th Street, then my father was made President of NBC. And he put the Today Show on the air, The Tonight Show later on. I think that my mother found this apartment that then became the [NBC] president’s apartment on Fifth Avenue, which was very big and sunny. And then my father wanted to move on. And so suddenly — and this became a weird trait of my parents — they moved us without telling us we were leaving the other place because they didn’t want us to not want to go or make some sort of scene. I’d come home from school to a different apartment. The furniture was still all the same but we were in a different place.
Because my father was in the Navy, he wanted to live in view of some sort of body of water. So we moved to 56th Street and Sutton Place. And it was a lovely apartment, you know, done to the nines. There was a Golden Gate for the entrance to the living room. The living room was not that big so it was a little strange to have this big Golden Gate. I used to try to swing on it when I was small, which did not endear me to my mother. And then, I can’t remember, I think there was another one in the 50s. I moved to California, and then back, and then another. Anyway, I couldn’t really keep track of all the moves.
Kevin: And when you got to the new place, did your parents set your room up for you or did you get to do that yourself? Did you get to decorate your room and make your own or is it [that] you arrived there and it’s all already established?
Sigourney: Yeah, it was all established. I don’t know how my mother did it. I don’t know how she moved the furniture in one day and set it all up the next day. But that’s what she did. It was sort of eerie, but also, to me it was so normal.
Kevin: And so Sigourney, I’m trying to picture that scene being in school — I grew up in one house, so I’m trying to imagine being in your shoes. How did your parents arrange this and how did you know where to go? Were you picked up and just dropped off at the new house? How did you get the message?
Sigourney: I know. I think that that was what happened on those particular days. I was brought to a different place. My mother was English so there was a lot of stuff to talk about that we didn’t talk about. I think that that was, in a way, a good thing for me; to know about stability, because my mother always put the furniture nicely. There was some sort of order. And the rest of it, I just thought was normal. I do remember something very special about my father being President of NBC that I knew was terribly special. He had a gold card that could get you in Radio City Music Hall to see movies for free. And when we use that card, I remember I usually was all dressed up. I thought it was the most exciting thing in the whole world. I felt a little bad that we just got to go in without waiting in line. But it was so thrilling. It was probably the only thing that I thought made us really special.
[9:06 we hear Mary Martin singing “I’m Flying,” from the television production of Peter Pan (NBC, 1960 broadcast)]
Sigourney: My father took me across a river. I always thought this [was] New Jersey, but it could easily have been the East River to see Peter Pan being filmed for television with Mary Martin.
Kevin: With Mary Martin, yeah. Wow, amazing.
Sigourney: I was worried about being underwater because I thought the bridge or whatever it was — the tunnel had just been built and maybe we were testing it. But no, I got to meet Miss Martin and there’s a picture of me. I was so shy.
Sigourney: I think I got to meet Cyril Ritchard, who was playing Captain Hook. But I did get really scared of the crocodile that was sort of moving around the set with the clock going off in it. I thought it was such a wonderful world. Having a dad in show business, especially television in the early 50s, there was so much excitement around it. A lot of the people in that world like Jackie Gleason, Art Linkletter, whoever they were, they were sort of the circle of friends that my parents were in, and also a lot of people who just came over either right before the war or right after the war. It was a real cross-section of people. What was interesting was that money was not considered important or worth talking about. You could have a little garret somewhere, and if you made it gay or — it was what you did with whatever it was.
I remember, people never really — I mean, of course, I was invisible. I wasn’t at these parties. But I just remember it was very much about telling a funny story, making people laugh, always in the moment, dressing up just to come to each other’s houses. People really went out and it was all about having fun, which I can understand after two wars. Business, I don’t think, was considered that interesting. No one ever talked about what they did, or their health or money; it was just about “Were you a good conversationalist and did you bring a kind of spirit?? I mean to me, Diana Vreeland is the perfect embodiment of all these things.
Kevin: And what was it like for you as a kid to be introduced to or be around some of these figures that you mentioned? Did you feel embarrassed around them? What was it like for you to be around them?
Sigourney: I don’t think they paid any attention to us. We weren’t really allowed to go to those parties. No one would have been interested in meeting us unless they were really stuck, and [with] no other guests and we were trotted out. I remember the man who wrote 2001 A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke, he came to the house for a drink and I remember he pulled out this magazine and showed it to my parents. At this point, I was like eleven. And they all laughed, they thought it was so funny. So he put it back in his briefcase, didn’t show it to me. So while they were jabbering, I reached into his briefcase and I pulled out this magazine, which was my first time I ever saw Playboy. And there was a big cartoon of some lady. I didn’t really get the joke, but I think he was very embarrassed that he had brought this in and an 11-year-old girl was looking at it.
[13:05 we hear 15 second music break]
Kevin: What was it like to be a shy girl in their world? Given how social they were, what they were doing, the fact they loved to be out, and you mentioned before being shy, how did you navigate that as a kid?
Sigourney: If you are 5, 10½, 11, and you tower over everyone, I think that at that point I was feeling very self-conscious and I probably was very quiet. I used to only wear olive green and black and I always had my nose in a book. There were places at school — I was sort of a class clown. On my turf, I wasn’t shy and the rest of it, you know, I can talk about it, but I wasn’t really part of it. I knew how to be polite and I was taught to curtsy and all that. And there would usually be another kid to play with. I read. I read constantly. I read, like everyone, with a flashlight in bed at night. And I think that was a big, big deal for me. Just losing myself in books.
I didn’t feel deserted because it was so normal back then. The parents had their life and the children had a different life. I didn’t know enough to think, oh, it’d be nice to have — I could see my parents on weekends. If we went on a trip, I’d see them. So I wasn’t like — I thought they were happy. I was like, good. So there was no choice in it, but it didn’t feel personal to me.
Kevin (Voiceover narration): So we’ve met Susie, a shy, bookish girl in the big city, the daughter of a dynamic duo who were part of that whirling scene of trailblazers in TV’s first golden age. Not that they actually sat around watching TV at night. No, they were part of the post-World War II generation, squeezing everything they could out of life by dressing up and going out to clubs and parties in style. As Sigourney’s story reminds us, the parenting style was very different back then. Baby-Boomer children weren’t the center of the family schedule or universe. They were like moons in their own orbits, which made me wonder: now that we’d gotten a sense of her parents’ New York, what was her version of going out to play?
Sigourney: I had a nurse for a long time who was German and we used to go to Yorkville, which was just all these German restaurants and beer parlors.
Sigourney: But she also had a boyfriend in New Jersey. So she used to meet him. She used to take me to the Palisades Amusement Park and buy a whole slew of tickets for my favorite ride, which was Ride the Wild Mouse, which just jerks you around for about five minutes. I was thrilled. And so I have like eight or nine tickets for this. She’d go off and have a drink with her boyfriend and I would just go on this ride again and again and again until after five or six rides, I’d crawl out and get sick. She’d find me sitting on the edge of the ride, outside the ride, like, “ugh.” But to me it was worth it for those few first rides.
Kevin: So you didn’t rat her out to your parents?
Sigourney: Oh no, I thought someone worse would come.
Sigourney: In those days, the wife would often just be with the husband. There was so much entertaining with these television jobs. So I had to have a nurse. I’ve heard so many people say, “Oh, you poor thing, you grew up in the city.” I’m like, are you crazy? You could go to the Natural History Museum, you could go to so many things, you could go to shows, you could go to Rockefeller Center and go skating. There were just nonstop things to do. There was a place called the Women’s Exchange, and I think it was in the 50s on Madison and it was a building. And on the first floor they had a big kind of cafeteria. And it was, I guess, a little like Shaft’s, but it was very uniquely this place and it was all women sitting at all the tables. And that was the one place my mother took me to have lunch. It was something so exciting about being in a place that had all different women talking different languages just there for each other. You never saw any men. It was just all women. It was like women’s land. And of course, I think growing up in the city gave me confidence because I was used to roaming around the streets by myself a lot of the time, going to school very young by myself, and also not hav[ing] the attention of parents very much — the city was your playground, the whole city.
Kevin (Voiceover narration): Okay, so Sigourney says her version of being a kid in New York was roaming around the city like a playground. And on that playground, she learned to do a lot of things on her own. And as she said, life at that point seemed perfectly normal, even merry, as she played on her playground and her parents played on theirs. But when she got to her teenage years, her parents began to worry because she was a little hard to read, maybe distant. So, in their fumbling way, they tried to figure out what was going on.
Kevin: And when you were 13, I understand your parents sent you to a psychiatrist just to talk with them, because you had an uncommunicative personality. How did they tell you about that? How did they break the news to you that we’d like you to go and visit so-and-so? Did you just get dropped off there one day or do they come visit you? How did they broach the subject with you?
Sigourney: It was the days where people were becoming mad about psychiatry. It’s true I was not happy when they wanted to do that. It’s true that I wasn’t a very talkative kid. We didn’t really have that kind of life, you can’t expect a kid to just throw everything up at dinner [on] what you did that day. It was this really weird compensation on their part to try to find out what I was feeling and what I was thinking. And all I ever did with that man, who had this family photo of this ideal family with this little girl with long hair pulled back in a beautiful bow and a little party dress on — he had that facing out. So any kid going to see him would look at that and go, oh, well I feel like a troll. And all we did was play checkers and other games. Dare I say it, I didn’t think he was a very good psychiatrist. He wasn’t very personal. I had to go back and see him many years later for something because I was going to transfer to another college and my parents wanted me to go back and see him.
And what he said to me was — I said, “Well, what did you learn about me?” And he said, “I thought you really wanted to win.” And I thought it was so funny because all we did was play checkers and stuff like that. So of course, all I wanted to do was win. I mean, you have a license. I guess it was just my parents realizing that we didn’t have that kind of close dialog through many of those years.
Kevin (Voiceover narration): Around that same time, the dialogue in Sigourney’s life would change locations altogether, when she packed up and moved out of New York to attend the Ethel Walker School, way up in Connecticut. Having run the competition of playing board games with the psychiatrist trying to solve her, how, I wondered, did this totally new environment of a private all-girls’ boarding school change her relationship to home?
Sigourney: When I first went away to school, I just cried nonstop for about three months and broke out in hives. I used to come home and watch The Life of Riley, I Married Joan, and all these sitcoms [with] Loretta Young telling a different story each time. It was one thing being away from the family; I could deal with that because I was used to that. But being away from my shows, I couldn’t bear it. They made me laugh so hard and I missed my shows. They were my friends. They were my companions.
Kevin (Voiceover narration): This is a scene from I Married Joan. I could just picture Sigourney in front of the TV, watching at home, not with her parents, not with her brother, but alone and totally involved, like she was spending time with true friends. Here’s TV-Joan comforting a pal.
[22:52: We hear a clip from I Married Joan] “Honey, you’ve just got to go to sleep. But maybe I can help. Not now. Just relax. Clear your mind and picture a beautiful, lazy river you’re floating down river way.”(I Married Joan: Season 1 Episode 1: Pilot (1952)]
Sigourney: I’d rather be in a comedy sitcom than anything else I could think of. I’ve never done it. But to be part of a family like that and make people laugh I think is probably the most joy you could have.
Kevin (Voiceover narration): Who wouldn’t want to see her do that? But now that she was moving into her teenage years, she was going to have to get herself out of this thicket of hives and homesickness without her favorite shows, or any TV at all. But like TV-Joan, she did have a bit of a funny bone, and soon she discovered how to use it as a lifeline.
Sigourney: And even at the girls’ school, I was so dorky, I’d win all these questionable — like “Freshmen Fairy” and “Sophomore Fink.” These were sort of insults. But if you had a good sense of humor, you could make people laugh. So I got all those things and —
Kevin: What does that signify? What is that? I’m trying to think —
Sigourney: I had to run around with a broken wand and throw fairy dust at everyone in the school, which was just baby powder. What can you do but try to do it well?
Kevin: Your parents sent you to some of the most prestigious private schools in the city. Brearley on East 83rd, Chapin which is on East End Avenue. Those are storied places and elite girls’ schools. What was the future your parents were preparing you for? What were their expectations of you in sending you to these places?
Sigourney: They believed in education so strongly. And I think they did it, the main reason would be that [so] wherever I went, whatever I did, I would always be able to hold my own. It was a rare time. Of course, the school still exists. But to have that generation of women who had to really fight to get a good education, teaching you and believing in you and believing that you could do anything was such a powerful motivator. And [it] made you feel that you wanted to use that knowledge and these advantages and go out. And that you should have, no matter what situation you ended up in, that you would have your education as your sword and shield.
I think that that tradition of girls’ education — which is so strong in New York and I don’t know about other cities, but I imagine — it made me a believer of same sex education because I feel like girls are leaders. And if there are all these boys around, at a certain age, they start to put on lipstick and concentrate on the boys.
I was such a wreck like this big tall spider. I certainly wasn’t ready to go to a coed normal school. I needed to be in the oven for about five more years until I could catch up to my height. And so I thrived in that strange conservatory of weird orchid-like girl writers and readers. It was the right place for me. That’s the thing I’m most grateful for in anything in my life that I had, an education that not only was thorough, but that these women just force fed into us. It was so important it would make us equals in the world. It would make us fighters. It would make us capable of feeling like there was nothing we couldn’t do. That’s the thing I’m most grateful for besides my husband, my daughter, and my career. It’s all based on feeling that I was worth taking this much time with. And I hope someday every child has that experience of the teacher believing in them saying, go for it, you have your own point of view, stand up and speak it out. And there’s nothing more important.
I actually think [about] when I went away to school, there was a teacher, an English teacher named Florence Hunt. She was extraordinary. And we had to read all the Thomas Hardy novels. For some reason, Miss Hunt was very interested in what I had to say. And I would go in, I’d go, “Oh Hamlet is so boring. The play should be about Claudius. And it’s much more interesting.” And she’d say, “Yes, yes!” I said, “I want to write a play about that.” And she’d say, “Yes, go and do that.” And it turned out that I was a good writer. It was something I loved to do, was very good at, and felt completely thrilled by
Kevin: Before you had a formed dream of “I want to do this,” when you were in the room with the flashlight and your books, what were you reaching for?
Sigourney: Well, besides John Lennon, I had a massive — I had huge crushes on Steve McQueen and that whole period. But I think I wanted to be a writer very much. I thought there is nothing more wonderful than transporting someone to another world. And I kept that through college. I was an English major. I thought, well maybe I’ll be a journalist because I don’t think I have the talent to be a novelist. And then I suddenly applied to drama school and I thought it’s all the same. You see, as an actor I go into this other world, I experience every part of it. And then I come out and tell you the story of what that is from a personal point of view, the way a journalist has to. They have to get inside the story and then they report it. So I think I was very fascinated by both getting lost in stories and by being able to come out and pass them on.
Kevin: As I understand, you made a discovery that changed your identity in certain ways. You went from Susan, which is your birth name, to Sigourney, and it’s one of these interesting factoids about you that the name comes from The Great Gatsby. I can remember exactly where I was and the circumstances when I first read it. I was going into my senior high school. I had to read it that summer before classes started for AP Literature. And of course, I wanted to be prepared. I can remember sitting outside in a lawn chair in our yard near or above ground pool and just falling into that book, in the language of it. I want to just sit there a bit with you and ask you about this, because I think it’s easy to just breeze through it as an interesting factoid about you. But if you know that book, the name Sigourney is not a prominent name.
Sigourney: Not at all.
Kevin: You have to really look for it. It’s not even a character that we meet. It’s a character that’s referred to. Jordan Baker is this golf and tennis, athletic person that the narrator Nick Caraway is dating. She tells him at one of Gatsby’s parties to look her up and they’ll get together. And she says, look me up under Mrs. Sigourney Howard in the phone book. I live with my aunt.
So that’s it. That’s it. And I was thinking, okay the world knows you as Sigourney Weaver. And that’s sort of the point, the origin of that. And I want to ask you, do you remember reading Gatsby for the first time and what impression that made on you? First of all let’s start there.
Sigourney: Well, I think I was actually about 13 or 14 because I know it was once I was away at school that that’s where I looked at that word and it was an “S,” it was long, and sort of curvy. And I thought, oh I want to be that word. I don’t want to be Sue. I’m too old for Susie. I’m going to be this this word for a while. And I only did it really — I didn’t think it would ever stick. I didn’t feel like I changed my name. My parents called me S in case I changed it to Sally or something. And I’m amazed that I’m still using that name today. But I know it’s not uncommon for people to do that.
Kevin: And [were you] on the lookout for a name when you read it?
Sigourney: I don’t think so.
Kevin: So you weren’t saying I’ve got to find a good “S” name. You just were reading The Great Gatsby and this name —
Kevin: Was it the first time you read the book that it stuck out to you or was —
Sigourney: It was the first time. It was the first time.
Kevin: It’s also a novel in which the main character changes his name.
Kevin: Gatsby as James, becomes Jay Gatsby. So there’s that riff on names, too. But it sounds like when you read it, it was just instantaneous. And it wasn’t a statement, it was more of a sound.
Sigourney: Yes. And actually, it was the way it looked on the page. There are a lot of — like there’s a curvy “S”, a curvy “G”, curvy “O” – “R” – “E.” And I mean, I thought it was just nice to look at.
Kevin: Did you keep it inside for a while? Did you think about it? Did you experiment with it? When did you start using it and how?
Sigourney: I don’t know how I did it, honestly. I look back and I go, wow, why did you do that and how did you do that? What happened was I think I was at a dance, because sometimes the school had dances with boys’ schools. And this boy said, “What’s your name?” I said, “My name is Weaver,” because that’s what we called each other at this girl’s school. We called each other by our last names. And I thought, God, I’ve got to think of a better name than that. So I really just chose it. And then I asked my friends to call me that. I don’t think it was easy. I still have friends who call me Susie. My parents, as I said, called me “S.” The headmistress called my parents in New York and said, “I hope you’re not going along with this absurd idea your daughter has of changing her name.” And my parents said that they said, “Are you referring to our daughter, Sigourney?” which was unexpectedly loyal of them.
In fact, my father’s name was Sylvester. He was called Pat. My mother’s name was Desiree. She was called Liz.
Kevin: I was going to say, they also had experimented with names. It wasn’t new to them.
Sigourney: No, I was a chip off the old block, but I never even meant to use it. When I came to New York to have a career, I said my name is Susan. I just gave up. And the lady who I met for the first time, she said, “Oh, no, no, no, don’t use that. This other one is much more interesting.” But of course, everyone who really knows me calls me Ziggy. So you can’t really escape your destiny.
Kevin (Voiceover narration): It’s ironic, isn’t it, that she grabbed that destiny from a corner-of a corner-of a corner-of a famous American novel. Yet today, when you hear the name Sigourney, you only think of one person. She owns the name by now. And that didn’t happen by accident.
Sigourney: I didn’t decide to become an actor for a long time, but I did grow up knowing a lot about the business, that it had ups and downs, it involved all kinds of people, and that it was all about the show, and then it was over. So I think I had that rhythm in me, even though I came to acting pretty late.
Sigourney: I had no illusions, let’s put it that way. I remember coming back from drama school, my father had said, you should call this friend of mine and maybe he can help you get a job at the network or something. And I called this guy up and he said, “Do yourself a favor, get a job at Bloomingdale’s.” And I said, “Excuse me, but I happened to have a degree from the Yale School of Drama.” He said, “Yeah, Bloomingdale’s. That’s where you want to go.”
Kevin: And so those who don’t know that reference Sigourney, what did he mean by that?
Sigourney: Oh, he meant to be a shop girl at Bloomingdale’s. I’m sure they did not expect — because I was so shy — I’m sure they did not expect me to go into show business, let alone be successful in it.
Kevin: Your mom, you mentioned, had come here from England and was herself an actor on stage and screen, and was in The 39 Steps and other important early works. But she gave that up when she got married and focused on family, it sounds like.
Sigourney: My father had such a demanding job that she very reluctantly, I think, gave it up. I think she also thought the business in Hollywood, the film business was you know — she definitely had some moments, casting couch moments, where she was shocked to see heads of studios chasing her around. I think she found that so degrading. And so she then put all her energy into other things. I didn’t think it was a glamorous business. I think I was very lucky because my parents never talked about these things. My father was always on to the next thing you know, after he left NBC, he tried to start a fourth network twice before he started the first cable business. And even there, he was put out of business illegally by the theater owners. And the Supreme Court in California overturned it 12 years later. But we used to get threatening calls at the house from hoods. I remember answering the phone and I said hello and they said, “Yeah. So tell Mr. Weaver that his pretty wife may not be so pretty anymore.” And I said, “Okay, I’ll tell them.” Click.
I thought my father was very brave. And he believes so strongly that television was a rocket ship that should take us all over the world, expose us to all the arts, put us in prime seats for the opening of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. And he believed that to the day he died at 94. I could tell he was a bit rocky. But, again, I think that that was, in a way, a good thing for me to know about. But not scary, I think that because my mother always put the furniture nicely, there was some sort of order. And the rest of it, I just thought was normal. I thought the way people always lived in the same house forever was kind of boring.
Now, mind you, I live in a very boring way now. I don’t like to move. And so I think that it is partially this desire to have, in my crazy business, a lot of stability [and] some kind of order. I see that I’ve done that so in a way that mimics what — my mother was very ordered because she was English. I wouldn’t trade them for anything. My father would always say, “Pick something commercial, pick something commercial,” and so when I did read scripts, I couldn’t help — there’s part of me that thought, yeah. But I felt like my job wasn’t finished until people were in the theater watching it. I really wanted to make movies that people saw because otherwise — in those days my communication wouldn’t be complete because they wouldn’t have seen it. And if they didn’t see it when it came out, that was it.
There always has been a kind of commercial part of my decision, not in a crass way. It’s just like, oh yeah, they can’t ruin this in filming. This has a good beginning, middle and end. Shooting can’t screw this up. Like Ghostbusters. I just thought that’s solid. I don’t care how big it is, if the movie is not a story that is about more than those people in it, then I don’t want to be in it. I don’t care how big the role is, I can usually make most things work, I can improve most things. But in terms of what the movie’s about, you can’t change that. And you don’t want to, it’s either solid or it’s not. And I think that’s from being an English major and having a father who’s a producer. But I think it was a total shock to them that I made good. And I think my mother was especially thrown. She was like people would say to her, when a movie came out or she came to the opening, “How about it? Your daughter is this big success.” And they’d say, “What did you do?” And she’d say, “I don’t know, vitamins.”
[41:55 we hear 30 second music break]
Kevin: When you look back at your life and those years we were talking about, what do you consider your jumping off point into adulthood? Where you felt okay childhood has ended and now I’m really on my own, I’m an adult now?
Sigourney: After I got out of drama school, where I hadn’t really been encouraged that much by the people in charge — other people encouraged me — I had to start making a living and I was willing really to do anything in the theater, under study or whatever. I think it was once I started to be able to make a living and enough for me to actually have my own apartment, which was when I was 30. I went (sigh of relief). I was so relieved, I never thought I’d be able to make a living. Even in spite of what I said about the woman teachers, I had a great deal of insecurity. And the fact that I was independent was electrifying to me. And I rented this apartment, which was more than I could afford, and I just made sure I could afford it.
Kevin: Where was it Sigourney, where was the apartment?
Sigourney: It was on 72nd, it was across from The Dakota. I shared an apartment with a good friend of mine from Walkers in that building. And then once I came back from Alien and really when I did Eyewitness, I looked at another apartment because my friend had gotten married, and it looked right over Central Park, indirectly. And I thought, well I’ll never be able to afford this, but I’m going to go for it. So that’s where I was. In fact, the building was on top of this very, very smelly crab restaurant, where you used a hammer and a mallet and you could sort of kill the — not kill them, luckily, they were dead — but tear them apart. So it was a stinky building. But I was so grateful. I was grateful to be in New York.
Sigourney: And in the 70s, New York was not as safe as it seemed to me when I was small, and certainly Central Park wasn’t. And so I think I wanted to be — the idea of living, when I think of people living in a house, I go, oh but an apartment is so much more secure.
No one could really see you. You know, you can figure that out. And no one’s going to walk in from the street. And I still feel that way. There’s nothing more secure than an apartment. I think I really needed that at the time because the business is already so up and down and no promises and who knows what’s going to happen. And so I have my own apartment. Even though I didn’t have a couch for about two years, I had the apartment and I was so grateful because it meant something. It meant I was moving in a direction.
Kevin: And you mentioned John Lennon before, having a crush on him. Were you aware that he was living at The Dakota at that time? Did you see him or Yoko Ono? And were you there when he was killed? I’m just thinking the timing lines up, it seems.
Sigourney: No, I know. I never saw — I might have seen him go into the building with Yoko once. I did hear the shots, I was reading a Chris Durang play. I think it was beyond therapy. And I heard the shots and I went –I mean, to me, the only way someone could get shot was like the Mafia driving by. And I thought, oh, God, some poor person has been killed.
[We hear ambulance noises in the background: John Lennon Murder: Original News Report, Eyewitness News (December 8, 1980)]
And then I thought, no, it’s just a truck. And then in the middle of the night, my boyfriend came into the apartment and woke me up and told me what had happened. And outside you could hear people singing on the street. All we are saying is give peace a chance. And they sang for at least three days. And I still think it was one of the greatest losses.
[We hear singing in the background: “Give Peace a Chance,” live recording at Strawberry Fields in Central Park, NYC)]
Kevin: I remember distinctly, too.
Kevin: And this is someone that you adored. Did you venture down into that crowd or did you stay where you were?
Sigourney: No, I went down and it really stood out as a bit of evil and [was] so shocking, so shocking.
Kevin: And thinking about your career, Sigourney, it’s so extraordinary, and there’s so many things we could focus on. But one thing I want to talk to you about is you have been in, in the course of your career, so many iconic New York movies. You had a brief onscreen role in Annie Hall; you think of Ghostbusters, Working Girl and The Guys. Thinking about acting in movies that are set in New York and are part of the New York landscape, how did researching different parts that are set in the city open new windows to you onto the city in the course of your career?
Sigourney: Underneath what I think New York gives you, regardless of what way of life you come from, you have this much New York terra firma inside you and everything can grow in that soil, which is a very vivacious sort of universal feeling soil. I led a very distinctly privileged life, but I still felt part of New York. And if you ask me today, what is the most important thing about myself, I would still say I’m a New Yorker. I just think it’s the greatest place in the world.
[48:56 we hear “Ghostbusters,” by Ray Parker Jr. (1984)]
Kevin: And one of the beautiful things to think about your contributions to it and to our imagination of New York too, is that we were just talking about something that was very tragic and sad about the city, which is the murder of John Lennon, but not that long after that — I mean by 84, we have Ghostbusters. And as a kid I was obsessed with it.
Kevin: And I was thinking that so much of the movie takes place around Central Park and Lincoln Center. And it lays onto that sad landscape we just described near The Dakota. And you’re a part of it.
Sigourney: Well, I think Ivan Reitman did such a brilliant job because we spent the first three weeks in New York. It is really a love letter to New York
Kevin: When in your movements around the city, are you most conscious of the little girl that we started out talking about at the beginning of our interview? When are you most aware of her, in New York?
Sigourney: That’s a good question. I think it’s every time I go on Madison Avenue, which is not very often, but because that was the first place we lived. I feel a difference that can only come from — like my father was an atheist, but he used to take me to Sunday school on Park Avenue, drop me off, then he’d come back and pick me up and we would go to Madison. We’d walk uptown and we would go to this small, very old-fashioned candy store. Because they didn’t sell wrapped candy, you had to pick out what you wanted from a jar. We would get butterscotch and hard licorice and then we would walk home. And to me, Madison was just sort of like this boardwalk of wonders, so many small stores and not these big chains and stuff. That to me is the heart of the city.
Kevin: And thinking about that little girl and staying on that theme, how have you drawn on her, the Susie that we’ve talked about? How have you drawn on her in your work?
I think one of the most interesting things when one looks at your life, reads about you, and talks to you is the fact that you know your most iconic role if you had to pick one, is Ellen Ripley and the Alien series. It’s such a powerful part. It’s on all the all-time lists of heroines and heroes and most badass characters. And I know you’ve spoken before about how different she is from you. But I think given all that you said about feeling like a weirdo in the way that you had to catch up to your body when you were growing up, there’s also something very brave about your choice to fight through the insecurity and become an actor. And I was just thinking, it’s one of the last things you said your parents thought you would do, given how shy you were.
It seems like on the surface people say, oh she’s acting because it’s such a stretch of who she is, Ripley. But I’m wondering, are you able to access that when you have to inhabit the skin of someone like her?
Sigourney: That’s a really interesting question. I actually based Ripley on a girl I went to Walkers with who’s very no nonsense, the complete opposite of me. I think that I’m not unusual in the sense of being a girl growing up in New York, a big girl, a self-conscious girl. But I think that a lot of New Yorkers have a kind of — it’s almost like they have steel running through their spine. There’s a kind of “Yeah!” Your feet are on the ground in New York and the street is yours. You run around like a little urchin; very young, at least [in] my time and my daughter did, too, but a little older.
But you grow up like a brave kid because the city is yours. [It] doesn’t really belong to these grown-ups. And you discover all kinds of things in your city and you have an ownership with all these other people. And I think that really gives us a kind of slender thread of steel from childhood. That means you don’t give up.
Kevin: And also thinking about the kind of arc that we’ve talked about, which is going from a little kid who — you’re slightly invisible, because of the world you described your parents were in and you’re observing, but you’re not really in it. And then you have teachers, you have you have the psychiatrist trying to get inside of you to report back. Then you have the teacher, Miss Hunt, who it sounds like is one of the first people that really saw you, paid attention, and wanted to hear what you had to say. But you also describe the social side of things, which is you felt like a weirdo and awkward in your body, but eventually you choose a path that puts you in many situations where an entire set of people, a crew, is fixed on you when you’re filming something. And then the world is watching you from that dark room in the theater. Do you still feel when you’re in front of people as the spider you were describing? Are you still that girl inside or is she somewhere else when those lights go on?
Sigourney: Now, unfortunately, or not, she’s still there. I’ve started, a long time ago now, about 15 years ago, giving speeches to people about various things, mostly to women, about the environment, or about sisterhood, and various other things because I was so uncomfortable. And I really didn’t want to be because at heart I’m a communicator. It was so difficult for me. I felt so uncomfortable and terrified. And so I’ve done more and more of that. And I welcome the chance to talk to you about these things I’ve really never talked about. But that person, alas, is always there. Still the main character. I wish she weren’t. I’d love to. But anyways, you are what you are.
Kevin: But as I say, you could have chosen a million paths to avoid that frequent feeling, but you chose to go into the storm. And I think that that in itself is the ultimate act of courage for someone who is afraid of being embarrassed or shy. It’s like you’re daring it over and over and over and over and over again, to be embarrassed.
Sigourney: That’s so true.
Kevin: But it’s either masochistic or it’s something that’s a drive that overcomes.
Sigourney: I think it is a challenge. I’ve heard from so many actors, when they’re interviewed, they talk about how shy they were or are. And it’s just amazing to me that we have so many similarities, but yet we’re in this business where we take huge risks in front of other people. Turning yourself into someone else is — you do it absolutely. You always get nervous before you’re starting a new project, no matter how much preparation you’ve done, because, you know in a couple of days, you’re going to have to turn yourself into someone else and you have to trust that process will happen as it’s happened before. And so when people ask me to go skydiving or any of these things, I go you know what? I really don’t need to do that. I take enough risks with what I’m doing.
Kevin: So Sigourney, I love to end every interview by going to another New York writer, the poet Walt Whitman, who is very special to me, too. And this comes from Leaves of Grass and “Song of Myself”, where he writes,
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love/If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles//You will hardly know who I am or what I mean/But I shall be good health to you nevertheless/And filter and fibre your blood//Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged/Missing me one place search another/I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
And when I think about that passage and New York and people who 50,100, or 200 years from now come across your work — maybe it’s a descendant or it’s someone who loves a certain film and they want to know you, commune with you, and feel your spirit, like you talk about Madison Avenue and sensing your father — where should they look for you in your New York to commune with you and to know you?
Sigourney: I think they have to come to the Museum of the City of New York and listen to this podcast.
But probably it would be the East River. When I see a tugboat, I relate to that tugboat. I feel like that’s who we are; we’re these small vessels, padded, determined, and pulling these enormous things behind us. I always want to spend an anniversary on a tugboat going around, but I’ve never dared to ask to go on one because it doesn’t look like they have any room for anyone. But I think if you’re by the 59th Street Bridge and you’re looking at all those currents, all the life in that area, and all the boat life and the people on the Esplanade, I would say that’s as close to home.
Outro: Kevin Burke (Voiceover narration):
Your Hometown is a Kevin Burke Production. For more, please visit our website at yourhometown.org, where you can find our past episodes and artwork that brings each guests’ hometown to life. You can also follow us on your favorite podcast app and on social media on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Also, please check out the show’s New York City series page, including information on live events on Museum of the City of New York’s website at MCNY.org/yourhometown-podcast.
Now, I’d like to thank the fantastic team that made this episode with me, especially our executive producer, Robert Krulwich; art director, Nick Gregg; editor and sound designer, Otis Streeter; composer/performer Sterling Steffen; and our researcher Shakila Khan.
Our branding and website design is by Tama Creative, and our social media team is led by CURE and Jessica Sain-Baird.
A special thanks to our partners this season, the Museum of the City of New York.
I’m also profoundly grateful to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and our other financial supporters for their commitment to this series.
Until next time, thanks so much for taking this ride with me. And remember, everyone’s from someplace, and everywhere is somewhere.
New York City
Local engagement is vital to the mission of Your Hometown, with the series aspiring to visit a variety of iconic cities and towns for a deeper dive on each place as a hometown. This model is being launched through a first-season focus on New York City, and is a co-presentation with the Museum of the City of New York. Many think of New York as a place where people move to in order to realize their dreams, but it is critical to remember that it is also a place where young people grow up – a series of hometowns within the larger metropolis that shape rising generations through the day-to-day texture and details of family, neighborhoods, schools, and boroughs that will become the origin stories of their lives, creativity, work, and contributions to society as a whole. That is the New York this series seeks to illuminate and reveal.