Dancer and actress Bebe (for Beatrice) Neuwirth (b. Princeton, NJ, 31 December 1958) has enjoyed singular success and popularity both on Broadway and in television series. Probably most recognizable for her role as Lilith on Cheers and Frasier, she has nonetheless spent most of her time and energies dancing in the musical theatre. Among her many awards are two Tonys®, two Drama Desk Awards, two Emmys, an LA Drama Critics Circle Award, an Astaire Award, and an Outer Critics Circle Award.
Brought up in Princeton, the daughter of artist Sydney Anne and mathematician Lee Paul Neuwirth, she started ballet lessons at the age of five and immediately identified herself as a dancer. At seven she was studying theatrical dancing, and soon appeared in community musicals and with the Princeton Ballet Company in Peter and the Wolf, The Nutcracker, and Coppélia. After graduation from the Princeton public schools Bebe Neuwirth went to Juilliard in New York City to concentrate in ballet.
Neuwirth made her Broadway debut in 1980 in the role of Sheila in A Chorus Line. She was featured as a “Boom Boom Girl” in the 1982 revival of Little Me, and worked with choreographer Bob Fosse in Sweet Charity in1986. For her performance as Nickie, she received the 1986 Tony Award® for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
From 1986 to 1993, Neuwirth was playing Dr. Lilith Sternin, the uptight psychiatrist married to Frasier Crane on the hit television comedy series Cheers, appearing more and more often and with higher and higher billing as the seasons progressed. She won Emmy Awards in 1990 and 1991 for this role, and although she was offered the opportunity to repeat it as a regular on Frasier, the Cheers spin-off, she declined in favor of a return to Broadway as Lola in a revival of Damn Yankees (1994). She did manage to fit in eleven episodes as a guest on Frasier, and got another Emmy nomination in 1995.
Subsequent television guest appearances have included Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (1999, 2005), Deadline (2000), Hack (2003), and Law & Order: Trial by Jury (2005). (She had squeezed in one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1991). She has appeared as herself on Strangers with Candy, Will and Grace, and Celebrity Jeopardy!.
In the smash-hit 1996 Broadway revival of Chicago, starring as the showgirl and murderess Velma Kelly, Neuwirth earned her second Tony® (this time for Best Actress) and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical, as well as several other citations.
In 2004 Bebe Neuwirth created a revue, Here Lies Jenny, for herself and four other singers and dancers, out of the songs of Kurt Weill. It ran intermittently at the Zipper Theater in New York City and in San Francisco in 2005.
On her 48th birthday, December 31, 2006, after undergoing a hip replacement earlier in the year, Neuwirth returned to the still-running Broadway revival of Chicago, this time in the role of Roxie Hart. In 2009, she toured a one-woman cabaret show with pianist Scott Cady: Bebe Neuwirth: Stories with Piano, singing songs by Weill, Sondheim, Lennon & McCartney, and Kander & Ebb.
She has over 20 big-screen films to her credit, including Green Card (1990), Bugsy (1991), Malice (1993), Jumanji (1995), The Associate (1996), The Faculty (1998), Woody Allen’s Celebrity (1998), Summer of Sam (1999), Liberty Heights (1999), Tadpole (2002), How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), The Big Bounce (2004), and Fame (2009).
Neuwirth has been married twice: her 1984 marriage to Paul Dorman ended in divorce. In May 2009 she married Chris Calkins, the founder of Destino vineyards in the Napa Valley.
Neuwirth attributes her unusual approach to acting to her training as a dancer: “I work from the outside in. If I know how a person walks, moves and stands, that tells me something about them. . . . Working on film and TV can be frustrating. There are physical limitations and, because everything is chopped up and out of sequence, you rarely get a good run at things. . . . Frequently I feel like the odd man out, a fish out of water. A dancer who works as an actress – that’s more the animal I am.”
As of this writing, Neuwirth is starring as Morticia Addams opposite Nathan Lane in the Broadway musical of The Addams Family.
Photo courtesy of The Everett Collection