Dancing Queen

Chowing down in Cave Creek with the choreographer to the stars.

Wood offers me a section of her sandwich, the Tornado -- turkey, cream cheese and cranberry walnut sauce on focaccia. It's delicious, too.

Naturally enough, Wood regards Kidd as her greatest influence, but when I ask her who her favorite dancer was as a kid, she names a guy who, according to tradition, never had a lesson: "Jimmy Cagney, even when he was just doing his hoodlum, had an air about him. . . . Also, Fred Astaire. To me, Fred Astaire and Michael Jackson are two of the top: Nobody can touch them."

The choice of Cagney may be especially significant, though. Outside of her long association with Dick Van Dyke, an acclaimed dancer, Wood has spent much of her career building numbers around star performers who weren't dancers first and foremost. Always eager for dish, I ask her to tell me who, among the show-biz giants with whom she's worked, was particularly difficult.

Deedee Wood
Deedee Wood

"I have to tell you, most of the top stars are terrific people," she says diplomatically. "I don't think they get there unless they are. I've been lucky. Bing Crosby was a dream. Bob Hope was not terrific. He was very standoffish. We never got one-on-one."

The same was true, she says, of Frank Sinatra. "Those two guys always had a lot of suits around them." She's quick to add, "They were at the top of their game," however.

She came in contact with two very different types of difficult performers while working on the later incarnation (1979) of Laugh-In. "Robin Williams was the only one I would allow to disrupt a rehearsal," she recalls, "because he would start ad-libbing with stuff around the rehearsal hall. I mean, you could not stop him. Besides not being able to stop him, you knew you were seeing a genius at work."

But her favorite story comes from the same period, and involves the legendary Queen of Difficult Performers: "Bette Davis was on Laugh-In. The big guest star was always in the opening number, and the director and I would design it sort of so that the star could just walk into the number. And she came into rehearsal, and we had sent her the tape of the number; she was going to talk it, you know. So she came in and the director introduced me, and I said, 'Ms. Davis, here you'll do this, and here you'll do this, and . . . .' So she turned to me" -- Wood jabs me in the chest with her forefinger to demonstrate what Davis did, much harder -- "and said, 'I'll do it my own way!'"

Wood laughs. "I loved it! I said, 'Yes, you will.' And I turned to the director and said, 'All yours.'"

On the other end of the spectrum, says Wood, "Goldie Hawn's wonderful to work with. So are Lucille Ball, Dick Van Dyke, Carol Burnett, Cher. . . . I said to Cher one time, 'Okay, Cher, I want you to do a plié here,' and she said, 'What? Deedee, please don't use those words with me. If you want me to do that, tell me to squat.'"

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