Born Bernadette Lazzara, February 28, 1948, in Queens, NY; daughter of Peter (a truck driver) and Marguerite (a homemaker; maiden name, Maltese) Lazzara; married Michael Wittenberg (an investment adviser), July 20, 1996. Education: Attended Quintano's School for Young Professionals, New York City; studied acting with David Le Grant, tap dancing with Oliver McCool III, and singing with Jim Gregory. Addresses: Home--New York City; Agent--Jeff Hunter, William Morris Agency, 1325 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019.
With her cherubic face, saucer-like eyes, full, pouty lips, and springy mass of curly red hair, Bernadette Peters is one of the most recognizable actors on stage and screen. Her energetic performances add zest and vitality to virtually all of the projects in which she appears, from children's shows to zany movies to her best-known vehicles, Broadway musicals. Peters got her start as a child actor on television shows and in plays, and by the late 1960s, had begun raking in theater awards and nominations for several productions. In the 1970s, she ventured into television and film, earning accolades for her work on The Muppet Show and standing out as a comic force in films like Silent Movie and The Jerk. Returning to the stage in the early 1980s, she became a standard in Stephen Sondheim musicals, but earned her first Tony for the Andrew Lloyd Weber production Song and Dance. In 1999, she was the darling of Broadway when she amassed three important awards, including another Tony, for her work in the musical Annie Get Your Gun.
Peters was born Bernadette Lazzara on February 28, 1948, in the Queens borough of New York City and grew up in the Ozone Park area. She was the youngest child of Peter and Marguerite Lazzara. Her father, Peter, drove a bread truck, and her mother was a homemaker, but had a keen interest in show business and urged her daughter to perform. By age three-and-a-half, Peters was taking singing and tap dancing lessons, and soon began making appearances on television. She started out on The Horn & Hardart Children's Hour and also appeared on The Juvenile Jury and Name That Tune. At age ten, her Italian American surname was changed to prevent her from being typecast; her father's first name became the source of her stage name.
Even before she was in her teens, Peters was landing roles in stage productions such as This is Google, directed by the legendary Otto Preminger, as well as The Most Happy Fella and The Penny Friend. At age 13, she was cast as Baby June in a touring company of Gypsy. During her high school years, she backed off from her career temporarily and attended private school, Quintano's School for Young Professionals in Manhattan, graduating in 1966. In the meantime, she studied acting with David Le Grant, tap dancing with Oliver McCool III, and singing with Jim Gregory.
After graduation, Peters performed in some off-Broadway shows, then landed her Broadway debut in 1967 in Johnny No-Trump. The following year, she garnered acclaim when she starred with Joel Gray in the musical George M! For the role of Josie Cohan, she earned a Theatre World Award. Also in 1968, she brought in a Drama Desk Award for the humorous off-Broadway hit Dames at Sea, in which she played Ruby. Some subsequent plays, including an adaptation of Federico Fellini's La Strada, were not well-reviewed, but Peters was often singled out for praise. For example, reception was mixed regarding a 1971 revival of On the Town and 1974's Mack and Mabel, but Peters was nominated for Tony Awards for both.
By the early 1970s, Peters began trying her hand in Hollywood, but although she was a star on the stage, she was relegated mainly to supporting parts in film. Her screen debut came in the obscure 1973 movie Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies, then she played a secretary in the football film The Longest Yard, 1974, starring Burt Reynolds. Later, she demonstrated her comedic talent in the Mel Brooks slapstick spoof Silent Movie, 1976, and the romp The Jerk, 1979, written by and starring Steve Martin. Although The Jerk was widely panned by critics for its lowbrow humor, Peters received kinder notices for her role as the cosmetologist girlfriend of Navin Johnson (Martin), a goofball who becomes wealthy off of a simple invention. Martin was romantically involved with Peters off-screen during this time as well and had written the part specifically for her.
Peters and Martin teamed up again in 1981's Pennies from Heaven, an unusual musical about a schoolteacher during the Depression who is seduced, then dumped, by an out-of-work salesman (Martin); she subsequently has an abortion and becomes a prostitute. Attempting to deal with her bleak situation, she imagines herself in a series of fanciful musical numbers. Based on a successful British television miniseries, Pennies from Heaven received mixed reviews, but Peters was hailed for her role as the teacher and won a 1981 Golden Globe. She also starred that year in the dismal Heartbeeps, about a lovestruck robot who falls for another android (played by Andy Kaufman). Afterward, in 1982 she worked with Carol Burnett in a film version of Annie. She was also cast as the lead character in the movie version of the Tama Janowitz novel Slaves of New York, as a New York bohemian who develops self-confidence upon finding success at making and selling quirky hats. In 1990, Peters played the Muse in the Woody Allen film Alice, starring Mia Farrow, and the next year, worked with Hugh Grant, Judy Davis, and Mandy Patinkin in Impromptu,a romantic comedy about composer Frederic Chopin.
In addition to making films, Peters was busy during the 1970s with television appearances. She was nominated for an Emmy Award for her work on the lovable children's variety program The Muppet Show, and was also a regular on The Carol Burnett Show. In 1976 she took a part in the series All's Fair, about a liberal photographer in love with a conservative journalist; though the series was critically liked, it did not catch on with audiences and was canceled after one season. Peters has also made a number of television movies, including David, 1988, and The Last Best Year, 1990, with Mary Tyler Moore. In addition Peters provides the voice of Rita the Cat on Steven Spielberg's popular cartoon program The Animaniacs. She also starred in Terrence McNally's The Last Mile, 1992, for the Great Performances series on PBS, and played the stepmother in Cinderella, 1997, one of the highest-rated television movies of that year.
Returned to Broadway
After being away from the theater for nearly ten years, Peters returned to Broadway in 1982. Moving completely into new territory, she portrayed a frumpy homemaker from South Dakota in Sally and Marsha, and critics applauded her performance for showing a new depth. She carried this over to the Stephen Sondheim production Sunday in the Park with George (which won a Pulitzer Prize), playing the mistress and model of pointillist painter George Seurat. This brought her a third Tony Award nomination. Peters was also nominated for a Drama Desk award for her role as the Witch in Sondheim's Into the Woods,1987. Finally in 1986, Peters nabbed her first Tony Award, as well as her second Drama Desk Award, for her sparkling performance in Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit musical Song and Dance. Also in 1986, she was honored with the Drama League of New York's Distinguished Performance Award. Peters also received the Hasty Pudding Woman of the Year Award in 1987 and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She was also the youngest person to be inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame.
In the early 1990s, Peters took a hiatus from Broadway for a few years to concentrate on recording albums and giving concerts. Her first self-titled solo release came out in 1980 and featured a conglomeration of cover tunes by a range of artists such as Elvis Presley, Marvin Hamlisch, and Fats Waller. The next year, she released another disc, Now Playing. In 1996, Peters was nominated for a Grammy Award for the best-selling I'll Be Your Baby Tonight, which is a cornucopia of popular songs from composers including John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Lyle Lovett, Hank William, Sam Cooke, and Billy Joel. Of course, it also contains many Broadway classics by Leonard Bernstein, Rogers and Hammerstein, and others.
When Peters puts an album together, she chooses a surprising mix of material based on whether she feels a connection to the songs. As she noted to Jon Bream in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "The connection can be from anywhere. It can be from something spiritual or something uplifting or something dramatic, funny, just a witty song." In April of 1996, Peters performed at the White House for President Bill Clinton, and also sang and provided a voice-over for the animated film Anastasia, 1997. Her fourth solo work, Live at Carnegie Hall, came out in 1999. Peters's voice can also be heard on cast recordings of various musicals, including Dames at Sea, Mack and Mabel, and Sunday in the Park with George.
Revived Annie Get Your Gun
In 1999, Peters had a blowout year starring in a revival of the 1946 Irving Berlin hit Annie Get Your Gun, which first opened for a pre-Broadway run on December 29, 1998, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In a role made famous by the big-boned, booming-voiced Ethel Merman as the bawdy Wild West sharpshooter Annie Oakley, many were skeptical that the petite, squeaky-voiced Peters could pull it off. After all, the number "There's No Business like Show Business" was a signature Merman tune throughout her career. Peters, in fact, had doubts as well. Not only was she reluctant to do a revival, she was also initially concerned about some of the politically incorrect references to women and American Indians. However, her fears were put to rest when she discovered that the writer was committed to doing a revision of the original.
As a result of the script changes, the character of Annie is more self-directed, and her lover, Frank Butler (played by former Dukes of Hazzard star Tom Wopat), is more sensitive. Though she still purposely misses her shots to make her man feel better, it is Annie's own choice, and Frank's response helps even the balance of power in the relationship. As Pacheco observed in Newsday,"Loving compromise, not female sacrifice, is what finally unites the two." This updated text was imbued with irony to make it more palatable, and in the eyes of most fans and critics, it worked. Though some reviewers found fault with nuances, such as the stereotypical Indian dialogue or the contradictions in Annie's pseudo-feminist character, most considered the show a success and were especially please with Peters's talent. For Annie Get Your Gun, she won a Drama Desk Award and Outer Critics Circle Award as well as her second Tony for best actress in a musical, and the play itself earned a 1999 Tony Award for best revival of a musical.
On July 20, 1996, Peters married for the first time, to investment advisor Michael Wittenberg. The ceremony was performed at the home of Mary Tyler Moore in Millbrook, New York. They met serendipitously, as she recalled to David Patrick Stearns in USA Today: "I was just standing in front of my (apartment) building waiting for somebody and he walked by. He was wearing a tuxedo and I was all dressed up and he said, `Well, are you ready to go?'" The two reside in New York City. Peters considers herself a "late bloomer" in both her love life and her career, as she remarked to Patrick Pacheco in Newsday, adding, "I guess I've been blooming all along, but I think I'm really just beginning to get it right. When I'm considering a role I'm looking for what I may learn from it, and I've still got a lot to learn."
by Geri Speace
Bernadette Peters's Career
Actor, singer, and dancer. Stage appearances (all in New York City, unless otherwise noted) include The Most Happy Fella, 1959; The Penny Friend, 1966-67; The Girl in the Freudian Slip, 1967; Johnny No-Trump, 1967; Curley McDimple, 1967-68; George M!, 1968; Dames at Sea, 1968-69; La Strada, 1969; Nevertheless They Laugh, 1971; On the Town, 1971- 72; Tartuffe, Philadelphia, PA, 1972-73; Mack and Mabel, 1974; Sally and Marsha, 1982; Sunday in the Park with George, 1983, 1984-85; Song and Dance, 1985-86; Into the Woods, 1987-89; Goodbye Girl,1993; and Annie Get Your Gun, 1999. Also toured with Gypsy, 1961-62, and W.C., 1971, and appeared in This Is Google, 1962; and Riverwind, 1966.
Bernadette Peters's Awards
Drama Desk Award for outstanding performance, 1968, for Dames at Sea; Theatre World Award, 1968, for George M!; Best of Las Vegas Award, 1980; Golden Globe Award for best film actress in a musical/comedy, 1981, for Pennies from Heaven; Antoinette Perry ("Tony") Award for best actress in a musical, and Drama Desk Award for best actress in a musical, both 1986, for Song and Dance; Distinguished Performance Award, Drama League of New York, 1986; Hasty Pudding Woman of the Year Award, 1987; "Mr. Abbott" awards Dinner, President's Award, 1995; Drama Desk Award for outstanding actress, Outer Critics Circle Award for outstanding actress in a musical, and Tony Award for best actress in a musical, all 1999, for Annie Get Your Gun;Sarah Siddons Actress of the Year Award; youngest person inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame.
- Selected discography
- (with others)Dames at Sea , Sony, 1968.
- George M! , Columbia, 1969.
- Mack and Mabel , Columbia, 1974.
- Bernadette Peters , MCA, 1980.
- Now Playing , MCA, 1981.
- Annie , Columbia, 1982.
- (with others) Sunday in the Park with George , RCA, 1984.
- Song and Dance , RCA, 1986.
- Into the Woods , RCA, 1988.
- Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall , RCA, 1991.
- The Goodbye Girl , Columbia, 1993.
- I'll Be Your Baby Tonight , Angel/EMI, 1996.
- Sondheim, Etc ., Angel/EMI, 1997.
- Annie Get Your Gun , Angel, 1999.
July 2003: Peters stars in a revival of the musical Gypsy at the Schubert Theater in New York City. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com/2003/07/13/arts/theater/13THEA.html, July 16, 2003.
September 26, 2005: Peters' husband of nine years, investment advisor Michael Wittenberg, was killed in a helicopter crash in Montenegro. He was 43. Source: CNN.com, www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/Music/09/28/obit.wittenberg.ap/index.html, September 28, 2005.
- Contemporary Musicians, volume 7, Gale Research, 1992.
- Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television, volume 10, Gale Research, 1993.
- Atlanta Journal and Constitution, October 16, 1998, p. 1; March 5, 1999, p. F2.
- Columbian, July 2, 1999.
- Dallas Morning News, March 6, 1999, p. 41A.
- Entertainment Weekly, August 9, 1996, p. 12.
- In Style, June 1999, p. 218.
- Newsday, February 28, 1999, p. D10; March 5, 1999, p. B2.
- People, March 29, 1982, p. 70.
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 2, 1998, p. 21.
- Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), June 22, 1996, p. 1E.
- Time, March 15, 1999, p. 86.
- USA Today, January 28, 1999, p. 3D.
- USA Today Magazine, May 1999, p. 81.
- Variety, March 8, 1999, p. 72.
- Bernadette Peters Official Web site, http://www.bernadettepeters.com (October 14, 1999).
- "Bernadette Peters," Internet Movie Database web site, http://us.imdb.com (October 13, 1999).