"People who write parts for two old people don't have to wrack their brains about who to cast," Jessica Tandy says tartly. "They say, 'Let's get th em."'
By them, she is referring to her husband, Hume Cronyn, 76, and herself, 78. They are America's longest-running acting couple. And with the premiere of two major projects this month, there is no sign that they are slowing down.
The TV version of their hit stage play "Foxfire" airs in a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" presentation Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS. Five days later, their new film, "Batteries Not Included," from the Steven Spielberg factory, opens.
Meanwhile, they are considering several scripts, including a sequel to "Cocoon," in which they were featured.
"It's a very deep rut, and it's comfortable," Cronyn says of their 45-year marriage and acting partnership. Although they often work separately in films, they have starred together 11 times on Broadway.
"Foxfire" may have been their last such stage venture, however. "I don't think Jessie and I would undertake another two-character play," Cronyn says. "The strain is considerable when you're performing eight times a week."
Performing in a hotel room interview is much more relaxing. Cronyn does much of the talking in a chatty, professorial way, while Tandy jumps in now and then with pithy remarks.
An example: Cronyn is explaining how "Foxfire" is such a challenge to actors because of its flashbacks. "I may be on dangerous ground here," he says, fiddling with his pipe, "but I think 'Foxfire' is a rather courageous undertaking. You've got two people both past the three-quarter mark. . . ."
"Just say 75," Tandy interrupts.
Cronyn looks at his wife, seated at the other end of the hotel sofa, and nods with mock gratitude, "Thank you, Miss Tandy."
"Foxfire" has taken almost 10 years to reach the small screen.
It all started when Cronyn was putting together a group of monologues for a show. "I was looking for a short piece of material for Jessie," he remembers, "so I called my friend Susan Cooper, an Oxford graduate, in England. I asked if she could suggest something funny and touching--about four minutes long. She sent me a speech of an old woman who was cleaning a hog's head and talking about life."
The speech was from the first "Foxfire" book, a compilation of student magazines published by a high school class in rural Georgia.
Cooper, a novelist and screenwriter, had stumbled across "Foxfire" in a bookstore. "I was crazy about the material," she says, "and so was Hume."
They decided to turn it into a play. But first they had to get the dramatic rights, so they went to Georgia to meet Eliot Wigginton, the teacher in charge of Foxfire magazine.
Wigginton started the magazine in 1967 as a way of getting his students interested in learning. He assigned students to interview their elderly relatives about their lives and customs. The class then published their findings in a magazine, which they named "Foxfire," after a type of lichen common to Appalachia. The magazine has continued to flourish.
"All these kids were sitting around on the floor in Wig's office," Cronyn recalls of his first meeting with the Foxfire staff. "Wig is very democratic, and he wanted them to hear our proposal."
"They were afraid we wanted to do a 'Beverly Hillbillies,' " Cooper interjects.
"They'd had one bad experience," Cronyn continues, "so they were leery of us. We told them how we felt about the stuff in their magazines. Then we were excused while they discussed what we'd said.
"We walked up and down a field that was this steep." He holds out his hand at a 90-degree angle. "We were there for a long time. Finally a young man came out and said, 'I guess we think you're all right.' "
Cronyn and Cooper built their play around Annie Nations (Tandy), an elderly woman who has been offered a lot of money for her farm high in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Should she take the money and move to Florida to live with her son (played by John Denver)? Or should she stay on the farm with her memories?
Her husband Hector (Cronyn) has been dead for five years, but in her mind he's still there. When Annie is alone, she and Hector talk to each other. And they occasionally flash back to their courtship.
"I remember when Susan suggested we show Hector proposing to Annie," Cronyn recalls. " 'C'mon, Susan,' I said. 'How am I going to make people believe that? I was only 21, and she was 16. No way.' "
"What I think is bloody marvelous," Tandy says to Cronyn, "is that neither you nor I said we wouldn't play it, even though we thought we'd be hooted off the stage."
They were not hooted off the stage. Instead, they won a lot of awards, plus a commission to adapt the play for television. Because Cronyn was busy on another project, Cooper wrote the teleplay herself.
"I tried to translate it without changing it too much," she says. "You tamper with those relationships and the issues behind the emotions at your peril."