Interview with singer/actress Ellen Foley

(This interview was originally published October 5, 2013 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is Ellen Foley. She may be best remembered for her singing, her multiple film roles or her one season on Night Court. She was public defender “Billie Young” on the second season of that popular sitcom. She had roles in several 80s movies including TootsieFatal AttractionCocktailMarried to the Mob and more. She sings the female part on the Meat Loaf classic “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”, released three albums of her own with a new album coming out this year [2013]. Find out a little about her, those film roles, her time on Night Court and more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Ellen Foley

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a professional singer? When and how did you get your start in the music industry? Why and at what point did you decide to give acting a try?

EllenIt’s hard to put a date on when I knew I wanted to be a singer. I started as a kid in school and knew that’s what I could do. I went to Catholic school and was shown lots of films about finding our vocation as nuns, saving pagan babies in Africa, but it never took. I left St. Louis the day after I turned 21 and came to New York. I had a band with some college friends called Big Jive, studied acting and started working.

Q: Even though it was a hit before the 80s, I have to ask you about “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”. How did you end up singing on that duet with Meatloaf? How come Karla DeVito was used in the music video to lip sync your parts instead of you and later on tour as well? How did you feel about the song back then and how do you feel about it now?

EllenI met Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman when we were touring with the National Lampoon Show. Jim came as music director to be around Meat when he was writing the songs that would become Bat Out of Hell. He loved my voice and it all fell into place. Karla was used on tour and in the video because after Bat Out of Hell I was offered a record deal of my own and was working towards my first album. I always knew that that “Paradise” was unique, funny and beautiful. I’m still proud of it. I never cringe when I hear myself on it, which we singers do a lot when we hear ourselves.

Paradise by the Dashboard Light” was released on the 1977 Meat Loaf album Bat Out of Hell and runs for about 8 minutes. It was written by Jim Steinman and produced by Todd Rundgren. Despite its length and unique structure, the song became somewhat of a hit and has grown in popularity over the years. Meat Loaf and Foley’s voices blend together well throughout the song and Foley has the notable part of singing, “Stop right there! Before you go any further, do you love me? Will you love me forever?” She also sings a line that I have always loved, “What’s it gonna be, boy?” As mentioned earlier, even though Foley sings on the album recording, Karla DeVito was used in the music video and for the live performances on tour.

Q: Can you confirm or deny the implication that The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” was at least partly inspired by your relationship with Mick Jones?

EllenI only know what I’ve read about the Clash song being about me. I can neither confirm nor deny.

Should I Stay or Should I Go” was released by The Clash in 1982 as a single from their Combat Rock album. It is one of the band’s most popular and commercially successful songs though it only made it to #45 on the Billboard Hot 100. There have been some rumors over the years that the song was about the impending dismissal of Mick Jones from the band as well as his turbulent relationship with Foley at the time. Jones has later said that the song wasn’t about anybody specific, but many do not believe that is the case.

Q: How did the role of “Billie Young” for season 2 of Night Court come your way? What do you remember about that process and getting a major role on a prime time sitcom? Was it awkward at all taking the place of Paula Kelly (who had received an Emmy nomination for the first season) on the show?

EllenThe role on Night Court came about as a run-of-the-mill audition process. Next thing I knew they were flying me out to L.A. to test for it and I was suddenly a transplanted New Yorker. It wasn’t necessarily awkward taking on the role because there was a revolving door where the female character was involved.

Foley’s “Billie” character was definitely feisty yet also compassionate. As public defender, she battled prosecutor “Dan Fielding” (played by John Larroquette) each episode while catching the eye of unorthodox “Judge Harry Stone” (played by Harry Anderson). You can see this for yourself in these scenes from a season 2 episode of Night Court

Q: Night Court had such a tremendous cast of characters. What can you tell us about your experience working with Harry Anderson, John Larroquette, Richard Moll and the rest? What are some of your best memories from being on Night Court?

Ellen: The whole cast was hilarious. My favorite quote I remember is from Selma Diamond who was five foot tall at the most. When referring to the guys who were all very tall, she said “I feel like I’m in a forest of men”. [Selma Diamond played a bailiff on Night Court for the first two seasons, but passed away from lung cancer before the third season.]

I wasn’t in a great place in my life when I was on Night Court. I was embroiled in a doomed relationship back in New York, so I didn’t enjoy it as much as I should have. And Los Angeles can be really lonely. But I certainly can appreciate the great worth of the actors I was with, especially Larroquette who is a tremendous comedic actor.

Season 2 of Night Court ended up ranked #20 overall in the Nielsen ratings that year. Foley left Night Court after just that one season and was replaced by Markie Post the following season. The series went on to run 7 more seasons (for a total of 9). Night Court received three Emmy nominations for Best Comedy Series (in 1985, 1987, and 1988) and 31 overall, winning seven. John Larroquette won four consecutive Emmys for Best Supporting Actor in a comedy series from 1985 to 1988, before he withdrew his name from the ballot in 1989. Night Court was always one of my favorite sitcoms during its run.

Q: Even though you were in several movies during the '80s, the one that always stands out to me is Cocktail and especially those scenes when Tom Cruise’s character is learning how to be a bartender on the job. What can you tell us about Tom Cruise and working with him on this film?

Ellen: I really loved that role. It wasn’t huge but I had the juicy scene with Tom Cruise where he says, “Sorry I called you a bitch” and I say, “Why? I am a bitch.” That pretty much distilled my character who was a hard-boiled professional waitress at TGI Friday’s.

It’s always a unique experience when you’re shooting away from home. We were shooting in Toronto (in the dead of winter). The whole cast and crew was staying in one hotel which can make for an interesting time. There were lots of nights out; finding all the places we could get in trouble in Toronto. Tom Cruise was very sweet, complimentary and encouraging. He was married to Mimi Rogers at the time so she was around.

Cocktail was released in the summer of 1988 and stars Tom Cruise, Bryan Brown and Elisabeth Shue. It went on to be the ninth highest grossing film in the U.S. that year. Tom Cruise’s “Brian Flanagan” is a business student who takes a job as a bartender in Manhattan to help make ends meet. The job, at first, is not as easy as he expected and his first night is quite challenging. Foley plays a waitress who doesn’t help matters by asking him to make a “Cuba Libre” without telling him it is basically just a rum and coke. Here is that scene from Cocktail, but it unfortunately cuts off before Foley gets to deliver her great line as she mentioned above…

Q: Any other interesting stories or details about making any of the other '80s films you were in?

EllenThere’s a scene in Fatal Attraction where my “husband” [played by Stuart Pankin] and I are having dinner at the home of the Gallagher’s (Ann Archer and Michael Douglas). It was 8:00 in the morning and we were drinking real champagne. The director Adrian Lyne said to just go for it, which we did. The scene was mainly improvised and it really worked in setting the happy tone before the shit hit the fan. A lot of people have talked to me about that scene.

In addition to Fatal Attraction (1987) and Cocktail (1988), Foley also had roles in Tootsie (1982), The King of Comedy (1983) and Married to the Mob (1988) in the '80s. She also released three studio albums in 1979, 1981 and 1983 respectively before releasing a new album this year, 30 years since her last.

Q: Please tell us a little about where your career has taken you since the '80s. What are some of your proudest professional accomplishments?

EllenAfter my first three albums, I did a lot of film, TV and Broadway. I think my proudest moment was originating the role of “The Witch” in Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods [1987]. It was such a powerful role and I think I was able to bring a rock and roll sensibility to it. And I was able to work with Mr. Sondheim in developing the role which was both intimidating and wonderful. And, of course, my biggest pride comes from raising my two wonderful sons, Timothy and Henry. And having a very long marriage, by showbiz standards, to my husband of 23 years, Doug Bernstein.

Q: What else has Ellen Foley been up to more recently? Both singing, acting and otherwise? What can we expect in the future?

EllenRight now, I’m in the process of releasing a new CD called About Time with my band Ellen Foley and The Worried Men. I’m SO proud of it. The songs are written by the fabulous Paul Foglino. They are really tailored to my voice and my style. (And I never cringe listening to my singing on it.) It will be officially released on November 5th on the Urban Noise label. Advance press on it has been great. Until then, it can be heard on my website ( I hope you and your readers will listen and enjoy.

I am so pleased that Ellen was able to take some time to answer some questions so I could share them with you here. Special thanks to Paula Amato for helping coordinate the opportunity. To find out more about her new album and keep up with Ellen, please visit her official website. I want to take this occasion to again thank Ellen Foley for her contributions to '80s pop culture and, even more, for going back to the '80s with us here for a little while as well.

Follow @OldSchool80s on Twitter for a daily dose of '80s nostalgia and read more Retro Interviews on RD80s.

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