A Light in Dark Places

The courage of people living with serious illness inspires activist actress Judith Light to confront her fears.



Judith Light used to talk about courage but feel like a coward. Her participation this month in fundraising efforts for Cathedral City’s new Gilda’s Club, a resource for people living with cancer, is only the latest action in a long battle against fear and ignorance that challenged her to overcome her own limitations.

While starring as Angela Bower in the long-running sitcom Who’s the Boss?, Light flexed her dramatic acting muscles in a string of TV movies, one of which affected her profoundly. In 1989’s The Ryan White Story, she played the mother of a boy who contracted AIDS.

“It woke me up,” Light says of her experience with that project. The fact that White became infected during treatment for hemophilia hadn’t spared him from the effects of the prejudice and ignorance that poisoned public discourse about the disease throughout the 1980s. Although Light had already become involved in AIDS-awareness campaigns, she says she was on the periphery of the battle until she heard White during an on-set interview in which he said people had spit on him and hurled a homophobic epithet at him. That convinced her that she had to do more to change prevailing attitudes.

“Ryan always talked about how people were afraid,” Light recalls. “He could understand that. He said he was afraid of a lot of things, too, but he wouldn’t have been cruel. He was a sage, and so was his mother, Jeanne. They taught me a lot.”

Jeanne and Ryan White taught Light about the importance of social networks, support systems, and open dialog — things found at Gilda’s Clubs in New York, Chicago, Washington, Montreal, and elsewhere.

Light became a vocal advocate for the needs of people living with HIV and the human rights of gays and lesbians. She saw that, for progress to occur, society had to confront its fears. “We had two presidents who never mentioned the word AIDS, and my friends were dying,” she says. “That lack of compassion and the tremendous level of homophobia living beneath the surface of our country showed it was not true that we were a compassionate country. We could be, but in that instance we were not. Telling the truth supports transformation.”

Eventually, however, Light faced a decision that forced her to question the truth of what she herself had been saying.

A Moment of Truth

Light had performed in several plays, including an appearance on Broadway, before landing the role of Karen Wolek on the soap opera One Life to Live, which earned her two daytime Emmys. But when manager Herb Hamsher asked her to audition for a play in Los Angeles after she had been absent for more than 20 years from the stage, she declined.

“You’re terrified,” Light recalls Hamsher saying. “You’re perfect for the part.”

“No, no, no,” she protested. “I’m really not.” When Light finally relented, Hamsher informed her the part had already been cast.

“I was giving all these speeches to the gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual communities saying, ‘I’ve watched how when the government gave you nothing during the beginning of this epidemic, you pulled yourself together and you made a difference — and the world would be well-served to follow your example,’” Light explains. “I looked at my own life, and I saw I was afraid to make courageous choices. I talked about being inspired, and all I was doing was giving it lip service.”

Light told her manager she would audition for the next part that came her way, no matter what. As it happened, she was asked to play the lead in Wit, the story of a woman facing ovarian cancer, the same affliction that claimed the life of comedian Gilda Radner, namesake and inspiration for Gilda’s Clubs.

Light dreaded facing New York theater critics, and she certainly didn’t look forward to shaving her head for the role, but she found the script tremendously moving. “It was one of the most extraordinary things I’d ever read,” she says. “The last line of the play is a stage direction that says, ‘She doffs one hospital gown and then she doffs the other, and then she is naked and beautiful in the light.’ I closed the script and I was just weeping. And I stopped and I opened it again and I said, ‘She is what?’” Suddenly, a bald head seemed like no big deal.

“I told myself, you’re going to have to do this.” Light says. “You’re going to have to get past everything that you think about in your mind about everything if you do it.” Light wasn’t alone in her resolve. Hamsher stood behind her.

“He wasn’t making the decision for me, but he was supporting me in getting clear about something,” Light says. “I think that’s what’s so great about Gilda’s Club. They have people there who support you in decisions that are huge for you in terms of your life and what you have to do. I just think that’s a magnificent thing that we as human beings can do for each other.”

Stage-Struck

Light took the risk, won the part, and earned glowing reviews.

“Ms. Light has avoided the stage for far too long,” a reviewer wrote in The New York Times. “Her performance as Vivian Bearing, the John Donne scholar struggling to hold on to her dignity as fiercely as the doctors seem eager to suction it away, cuts poignantly close to the bone. It is the sort of transformational work that would hint at other future successes, with Shakespeare, maybe, if a full-time career in the theater were truly an option these days. … Her innate feel for the theatre, the ease with which she takes us into her confidence, are apparent in a harrowing and deeply affecting portrayal.”

Light has since tackled other dramatic parts, starring in Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in Washington, D.C., and Athol Fugard’s Sorrow and Rejoicing in New York and Los Angeles. She also plays a recurring character on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. But high-profile roles aren’t enough.

“Celebrity is a very hollow experience unless you’re doing something with it,” Light says. She wants to continue using her celebrity status to foster caring and openness.

“I think we need to learn to listen to each other, really be there for people, and find a way to transform the human condition,” Light says. “I think that’s what this legacy of Gilda’s in the desert is all about. I know there’ll be a splendid party, and I know there’ll be these fabulous things around it, but the real heart and soul of it is what’s so important.”

Information: www.judithlight.com and www.gildasclub.org


A Clubhouse in the Desert

Gilda’s Club Desert Cities opens this month in Cathedral City as the 26th affiliate of Gilda’s Club Worldwide and the first in California. Gilda’s Club was formed in New York City in 1991 in memory of comedian Gilda Radner, who lost her battle to ovarian cancer. Her husband, Gene Wilder, and, therapist, Joanna Bull, founded the organization to provide a place where people with cancer and their families and friends gain social and emotional support, as a supplement to medical care. The success was overwhelming, and the founders expanded to other cities throughout the United States and Canada.

Gilda’s Club Desert Cities, founded in 2000, was a grassroots effort by four Palm Desert women who were touched by cancer. Three (Paula Berke, Judy Wolfe, and Estelle Cooper) had a loved one who had cancer. The fourth, Phyllis Greene, offered her skills and support to help her friends.

Berke’s daughter, Beth Horton, and Wolfe’s daughter, Michelle Kiefer, were diagnosed with breast cancer. Cooper’s husband, Edmund, also had cancer. Each experienced the helpless feeling that accompanies the diagnosis. Each needed a place to educate themselves on current treatments and felt there were limited services for emotional support.

Berke’s daughter was fortunate to locate a Gilda’s Club in her hometown of Nashville, Tenn., where she found support for herself and for her husband and young son. Berke knew the desert needed this, too. She shared her experiences with Wolfe, who in turn talked with her daughter. Soon, a Gilda’s Club representative visited the desert and spoke to a group in Berke’s living room about starting a local club. Gilda’s Club Desert Cities began that night.

The women, who all possessed social service and nonprofit backgrounds, established a Gilda’s Club with the help of the late Dr. Sebastian George. In four years, Gilda’s Club has surveyed the community’s current services, obtained community support, recruited a dynamic board of directors, and raised money to renovate a clubhouse in Cathedral City. Eighteen months ago, Gilda’s Club Desert Cities hired Paula Kennedy as executive director.

Support came from every segment of the community. More than 100 building supply companies, contractors, and interior designers answered the call for donations and in-kind help to renovate the building. Wessman Development provided a long-term lease package. Major gifts came from the Auen Foundation, Morongo Band of Mission Indians, the cities of Rancho Mirage and Indian Wells, Regional Access Project Foundation, California Wellness Foundation, Howard S. Richmond, and others. Many volunteer hours by Friends of Gilda’s Club made for numerous successful luncheons, fashion shows, boutiques, game days, golf tournaments, and social teas.

Now it is time to implement the program — a home-like clubhouse offering support groups, stress reduction and relaxation sessions, lectures, workshops, social events, potluck dinners and parties in the Dr. Sebastian George Community Room, arts and crafts classes, exercise and nutrition programs, a kids program and play area, teen programs, and cancer resource library with Internet access. Carol Austin, LMFT, will direct the program with Administrative Assistant Kathy McCoy. All activities and services are free to members and comply with the Gilda’s Club Worldwide philosophy, policy, and staff training.

Gilda’s Club Desert Cities will not duplicate local services; rather, it will enhance existing services and fill other needs. The Medical Resource Council, as well as other physicians, social workers, psychologists, dieticians, and professionals, will be used as referral sources. They will be able to refer their patients to sources of consistent, comprehensive social and emotional support. Gilda’s will also use its expertise for outreach.

Gilda’s Club Desert Cities opens its doors Nov. 16.

Information: (760) 770-5678.

Palm Springs Life

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