Actors relate to 'Driving Miss Daisy'

Sunday, September 5, 2004

— Actress Michael Learned, an Emmy Award-winner best known as the mother on "The Waltons," found a parallel from her own family in her current role in a dinner theater performance of "Driving Miss Daisy."

Learned is playing the title role in Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the relationship between a wealthy white widow from Atlanta and her black chauffeur. The film version, which won an Oscar in 1989, starred Jessica Tandy as Miss Daisy and Morgan Freeman as the chauffeur, Hoke.

Learned and Lance Nichols play the roles at the New Theatre, in suburban Kansas City, in a two-month run that opened Thursday night. They previously did the play together in Ventura, Calif.

Learned said in an interview during rehearsals that her grandmother Lila, who lived in Connecticut, had a "Hoke and Miss Daisy" relationship with her chauffeur, Ambrose Lewis.

"She was a domineering, feisty, brilliant woman, and he was the only man in the world who stood up to her," Learned said. "By the end he was bathing her. He only stopped taking care of her because he himself had a heart attack."

"He was an angel in my life and all of our lives," she said. "He was much more than a chauffeur. Basically he was a man of color with a heart as big as the world and a dignity and a sense of pride in himself that Hoke has in this play. People were transformed just by knowing him. And I think that's what Hoke does for Miss Daisy."

Nichols, playing Hoke for a third time, said he modeled his performance on his father and a brother-in-law.

"My dad was from Mississippi, and my brother-in-law was from a small town in Texas," Nichols said. "But both of them were men with limited education, just like Hoke. Both were men who sort of educated themselves, just as I feel Hoke has done. Both were very smart men."