New Again: Rex Smith

By
Photography Albert Watson

Published August 12, 2015

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, singer and actor Rex Smith was a teenage heartthrob, frequently appearing in magazines like Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine, but he was also well respected, receiving praise from The New York Times and Time. In 1981, he even graced the cover of this very magazine. Having grown up in Jacksonville, Florida, Smith’s breakout acting role was in a 1978 production of Grease, and in 1979 he released his single, “You Take My Breath Away,” which quickly made it into the Top 10. He continued acting with “Pirates of Penzance” in Central Park and on Broadway, and was then cast in the film adaptation of the play alongside Kevin Kline.

Recently, however, Smith’s roles haven’t been as noticeable. He appeared in a 2010 production of The Sound of Music in Ogunuit, Maine, and is now acting in a production of “Hands on a Hardbody” at Barn Theatre in Kalamazoo, Michigan. “Hardbody” opened this past weekend, so even though we won’t be making it to Kalamazoo, we decided to revisit Smith’s primetime: his cover interview with Andy Warhol and Bob Colacello, during which Yoko Ono even made a cameo.

Rex Smith By Andy Warhol and Bob Colacello

Friday, March 20, 1981, 1:00 P.M., Quo Vadis, New York. Andy Warhol and Bob Colacello are lunching with Rex Smith, rock star and romantic lead in the Broadway hit Pirates of Penzance, co-starring Linda Ronstadt. Rex is wearing a grey flannel suit, a rainbow striped cotton sweated over an open-necked shirt and cowboy boots, for a look of Rock Respectable. After lunch, the trio head for Bloomingdales, Rex in a raccoon coat.

REX SMITH: I was in the studio till six in the morning.

ANDY WARHOL: For the new record that you’re working on?

SMITH: I got two songs finished. There are eight to go. At this rate I should finish the album by ’83.

BOB COLACELLO: How many albums have you done?

SMITH: I’ve done four myself plus the Pirates album, which will be out in two weeks.

WARHOL: You’re the best one in the show. You’re on all the time. You haven’t seen it Bob.

COLACELLO: I saw it twice. I went to both opening nights, in Central Park and on Broadway. I loved it.

SMITH: My understudy went on Saturday because of my foot.

WARHOL: What happened to your foot?

SMITH: President Reagan was coming out of Radio City. I was just walking to work, I’d come out of the gym. I see this crowd and it kind of spilled off the street, so I just jumped off the curb and there was a pothole just big enough for my foot to fit in. It caught in there and it didn’t come out.

WARHOL: This friend of mine fell in a pothole and somebody fell on top of her and she’s crippled now. It’s really bad. She had to go to Zurich to get an operation.

SMITH: I just got an invitation to a place called Starbucks. Is that a new disco?

WARHOL: It’s a cowboy place. I guess we’re going.

COLACELLO: I’m not. I’m going to a dinner for Princess Napoleon.

WARHOL: What’s that, a drink? I went to see 42nd Street for the fourth time last night.

SMITH: Wanda Richer and I met when I was doing the road show of Grease and she was doing the road show of Chorus Line. We were right across the street from each other in Boston. This was a year ago. Now on Broadway we’re right across the street from each other again.

WARHOL: I think Wanda is a really great star. Have you been offered a lot of movies?

SMITH: I have two movie offers for the fall. It’s just a matter of getting down to which one comes through. Movies are so weird. I don’t believe anything until it’s already done.

COLACELLO: Have you done any movies?

SMITH: Yes. I’ve done two movies and several TV shows. I did a TV Movie of the Week called Sooner or Later, which is what put me on the map. I did a Joe Brooks movie, Headed for Broadway, which has been sold to Twentieth Century Fox, but they pulled it because it came out the same time as Fame. Fame opened on the coast and Headed for Broadway opened in Canada and the Midwest. When Fame really took off the movie company said, “Well, there’s not enough room for both right now,” so they pulled it. They sold it to ABC Movie of the Week this summer.

COLACELLO: Where were you born?

SMITH: I was born in Jacksonville, Florida. I moved from Jacksonville to Chicago, Chicago to Birmingham, Alabama, then to Greenville, South Carolina and then to Atlanta, Georgia.

COLACELLO: So you’re mostly southern?

SMITH: Yes. My whole family is from Birmingham. They’ve got the best barbecue and the best lemon meringue pie. Ali’s Barbecue, the world’s best.

WARHOL: We’ve been there.

SMITH: I get half gallons of Ali sauce. My parents buy it and send it up.

WARHOL: Rex is such a beautiful name, has it always been your name?

SMITH: I was named after the next-door neighbor’s German shepherd. It was either that or Cadillac Smith. I had a very crazy aunt and uncle who we traded my brother Webster to for a Siamese cat. It was heaven to live with my aunt and uncle because you got spoiled to death. In the bottom of their house they had a place called Pig Alley. They had a big house and the basement was all stone. They had a little French café down there with a gas lamp. They used to have parties down there and they’d have mannequins sitting all around in carnival costumes. It was a great place to be a kid. There was a whole armory, too. In one section of the basement they had all this play war stuff.

COLACELLO: Where was this, in Birmingham?

SMITH: Yes.

COLACELLO: What did your father do?

SMITH: Advertising. That’s why I got into this business. I think because we’re really boxes of soap—actors and singers. You’re artists, but in the public eye it’s a matter of advertising. 

COLACELLO: Did you start modeling in ads?

SMITH: No, I was playing in bands. At 14, I got into my first group and did that all through high school. Then when I got out of high school I hit the road. I lived like a gypsy. Those were the best times of my life. I was living from club to club not knowing where my next meal was coming from. No credit cards, no apartment, no bills, no managers, just on the road with a truck and five guys.

COLACELLO: What was the name of your band?

SMITH: Tricks. We were a really crazy band. This was in ’73. I had my hair real short with a white stripe down the middle of my head. The guitarists had pink hair. We weren’t playing CBGB’s either, we were playing Statesborough, Georgia, for cowboys on penny beer night. We used to keep crowbars onstage when fights would break out. Those were really wild times. I learned a lot doing that. It was a quick education in life. Then I came up to New York at 20 with a suitcase and a ceramic tiger. That was my one piece of furniture and I wanted to save it. Unfortunately, I broke it a couple years ago. I was living on a piece of Sicilian pizza and a cream soda a day, dollar a day budget, when it broke.

WARHOL: I’m living with a sock now, so it’s really great. I’m really embarrassed to say it.

COLACELLO: You go to bed with a sock?

WARHOL: Yes, with somebody’s sock. It’s so much better than anything else. It’s so simple. So you didn’t replace your tiger?

SMITH: No.

WARHOL: Now you have an apartment?

SMITH: Yes…and credit cards and furniture. I really crave and love Adventure with a capital A. This morning at 6:30 I couldn’t sleep because I feel like I’ve got a hit so far and that’s just two songs into this album. When you have a hit then you’re able to enjoy a little more freedom in life. I was already thinking of a day in France—topping the tank on the Porsche and heading toward Italy. 

WARHOL: Are you going to take a vacation?

SMITH: I don’t know, that’s my light at the end of the tunnel.

WARHOL: Will you go alone or with someone?

SMITH: I have no idea. It really depends on business or if I get my album finished on time. That’s why I’m trying to finish it now while I’m doing the show.

COLACELLO: How did you get discovered?

SMITH: I played in Tricks and then eventually Tricks went broke. We were always in debt. When that band disbanded I joined another band just for money. I got enough money to make it to New York, but I went broke up here the first time. I went down to Florida, started another band, but I had some backers. That’s a whole other story. I got out of Florida by the skin of my teeth. I made it here, which was great.

COLACELLO: Was someone chasing you out of Florida?

SMITH: No, these people down there wanted me to sign to them forever and a day because I was a big draw in Florida and they knew I was going to be hot. They were forcing me, not enticing me.

COLACELLO: Did you always feel you were going to make it big?

SMITH: Yes. I wouldn’t have gotten into this business to not make it. I’m too much of a planner. I would have been a dentist; that’s what I was thinking of being. Dr. Rex, open wide and say “Ah.” I think I’d look good in a smock.

COLACELLO: You have everything planned out for how long into the future?

SMITH: Unfortunately, I have long-range plans, but you always have to wait for business to catch up with you. It’s a matter of contracts and meetings catching up with your ideas of what you want to accomplish in life.

COLACELLO: Do you want to go beyond acting and singing?

SMITH: I don’t know. It’s been an interesting career. I don’t know a lot of guys who started out as a hard rock and roller with a white stripe in their hair. Suddenly I do a TV movie and I wake up the next day and I’m a teen idol, like I’d laid on a beach in California all my life waiting for that to happen. I’m definitely the only person at the Uris who did Love Boat and Pirates or went from Joe Brook to Joe Papp. I’ve seen it all.

COLACELLO: I think it would be hard doing the same show over and over.

SMITH: My role is mentally demanding because I’m on constantly. My understudy said he really admired me because he did two shows and the thought he was going to drop—Frederick never gets a break. I had to really work to make Frederick an interesting character because he’s sort of the dip in the show. He’s just the axis that the whole thing turns on. It’s his story. I have a total of maybe 12 hours a week to myself.

WARHOL: Do you stay up late every night? 

SMITH: No, I’ve had to curb my partying quite a bit.

WARHOL: We read in the paper that you fell in love with your best friend, Tatum O’Neal. Is that true?

SMITH: Well, Tatum is great. She’s a trip. Tatum and I did one of those helicopter flights around New York just on a goof. We were going to eat somewhere and I was driving down the FDR Drive and I saw a helicopter take off and I said, let’s go check this out. We flew around the Statue of Liberty, right around the hand, and all around the Island. It was such a great view to see.

[Yoko Ono stops at the table]

YOKO ONO: Hi Andy, how are you?

WARHOL: Hi. It’s nice to see you. Do you know Rex Smith? Do you want to have a drink with us? I’ve been meaning to call you for lunch, but I don’t know how to get in touch with you.

YOKO: I’ll give you my number.

WARHOL: Oh, great. Okay, so I’ll call you soon.

YOKO: Have a nice day.

WARHOL: Thanks.

SMITH: Nice to meet you.

WARHOL: That was a surprise, God.

COLACELLO: She was wearing one of her Fendi furs.

WARHOL: My favorite person is Patti Lu Pone. She should be able to walk right into another show. She’s so good.

SMITH: She had all that acclaim in Evita, I wonder what’s next? Everything is disposable now: disposable lighters, disposable blades, disposable stars. They inflate you up for one big deal and then they look for someone else. It used to be that a movie star would have a 20-year career. Now if you get three to five years, you’re lucky. I’ve been very fortunate with Pirates; it’s been a great showcase. I don’t think anybody in the business has missed this show.

COLACELLO: Have you ever met Richard Gere?

SMITH: Yes. I went to meet Linda [Ronstadt] down at One Fifth one night and Richard joined us. There was Wilford Leach, the director, Lindy and myself. Jerry Brown came in and sat down. And then I’m sitting eating and I’m talking to somebody and I see this hand taking food, sort of eating my food with their hand, and I look and it’s Diane von Furstenberg going, “Don’t mind me.”

COLACELLO: You didn’t know her though.

SMITH: Not until that moment. I knew who she was when I turned around and followed the hand up to the face. Then we all went to see Roy Orbison at the Lone Star Café and it’s packed to the gills and we’re all standing at the stage door and Richard doesn’t want to say who he is to get in, so I said, I’ll do it. I go to the doorman and say, “I’m Rex Smith. This is Linda Ronstadt, Richard Gere, Diane von Furstenberg, and Jerry Brown. Can we get in?” For me, especially being a musician and coming through the back door of acting, this is like the ultimate universal tour. I just sit at these dinners and I don’t believe it.

COLACELLO: Are you going into politics, too?

SMITH: If I can burn all the negatives, I can get into politics. I’m a pretty straight guy for this business. I have a pretty healthy outlook. I was doing an interview at a radio station and the interviewer says, “Looking at you Rex, you look like a college student.” And all those days flashed in my head of the white stripe in my hair and Tricks. I had no place else to go but straight. If I’d continued in the direction I was heading…well, I just used it as a learning experience.

COLACELLO: How old are you?

SMITH: 25. I’m curious what the next five years are going to be like. That’s what I’m excited about. I just drove across country before I did the show. I drove from California with my dad and my dog, from Califronia to Atlanta to New York. It was interesting to get out into the middle of the country because we lived in sort of a bubble between Beverly Hills and Manhattan. You really think of the world as that, but when you get out into the middle of nowhere and you’re just at a gas station and the guy says, “I know you. Come here honey, look!” When you get out in the country, you begin to see you’ve made some progress in terms of reaching people as a performer. I’m the only guy who is referred to as Mr. Smith in the New York Times and in the same week as Sexy Rexy in some teen magazine.

COLACELLO: So, you’re still very close to your parents?

SMITH: Oh, yes. It was a great trip.

COLACELLO: I would never think of travelling cross-country with my father.

SMITH: My father and I were going to sleep in a hotel one night someplace in the middle of Arkansas. We were just laughing and the lights were out. After about five minutes of silence, I don’t know if he was asleep yet, but I just wanted to wake him up and tell him I loved him. I didn’t say it and I was thinking, “Oh, it’s just going to be one of those things I’ll regret someday.” But it really didn’t even have to be said. I got such a warm feeling in the middle of that trip. I’m very close to my parents and we built a sailboat together when I was growing up. We’re partners. When we started out I said, “If I give you a black eye in the middle of the Mojave Desert, that’s only because you’re my driving partner. It’s got nothing to do with father and son.” We made that agreement and it was just a great trip. In Memphis, we’d had a big dinner. We’d been driving about 600 miles, limeade and vodka was the drink of the trip. I got a little bombed and I went to this club where they had a mechanical bull and I rode it, then somebody recognized me and I had to leave the club. I love mingling when I’m in the middle of nowhere. 

WARHOL: The best was when I was in Ft. Lauderdale and I went into the bathroom for the first time in my whole life.

COLACELLO: I thought it was in Houston. You mean, you went into the men’s room alone for the first time in your whole life?

WARHOL: Well…

COLACELLO: That’s Andy’s idea of mingling.

WARHOL: No, no. Somebody was saying, “There’s Andy Warhol.” It’s just too weird.

COLACELLO: Remember in Houston they thought your name was Andy Whirlpool, the man who invented the whirlpool?

SMITH: I heard about some big star, I don’t know who, who only goes into the urinals when there’s no one else there. Because once the guy next to him went, “Hey, aren’t you…? I know you.” And he pissed right on his leg.

COLACELLO: What kind of dog do you have?

SMITH: An American Pit Bull Terrier. It’s a fighting dog, only he’s a lover, not a fighter.

COLACELLO: He lives here in New York with you?

SMITH: Pal’o’mine. I call him Pal for short. He’s a trip.

WARHOL: Is that the one that looks like a pig?

SMITH: Well, that’s a bull terrier. Do you remember Patton’s dog in the movie Patton? It’s a very stocky dog, very muscular. He’s indestructible. He’s jumped out of a car going 40 miles per hour—he saw a dog and jumped out. I had a convertible. This dog bodysurfs. He goes out on the beach way beyond the breakers and he’ll catch a good eight-foot wave and just ride it in and disappear under the water. He’s swum the Rio Grande, we’ve gone down the Grand Canyon together, and we’ve done a lot of things. He’s like my kid. I haven’t raised him like a dog. I’ve raised him more like a kid.

WARHOL: Has he seen the show?

SMITH: Oh, yes. He comes to work with me all the time. He stays in my dressing room.

COLACELLO: Does he sleep with you?

SMITH: Yes. There’s really no place else to sleep. I bought him a bed, it looks like a contemporary love pit for a dog. He gets in it until I fall asleep and then he hops on the bed with me. Every day I wake up and he’s on the bed.

COLACELLO: What’s your day like? What time do you wake up?

SMITH: It depends on what time I go to sleep. I like to go to bed about 3:00 a.m. and sleep till 11:30 or 12:00, go to the gym, and then go to work. Last night I was so productive and I was so high after finishing the songs, I called Linda at 6:30 in the morning. I woke her up and I said, “I finished these songs,” and she said, “Oh, that’s good, I’ve got to go back to bed.” It’s great to have Linda as a friend because we’re both in this same project together and we sort of lean on each other when we start to get a little crazy. We rely on each other to straighten the other person out because we’re from the same sort of world and in this other world you sometimes get a culture shock. Coming from rock and roll, the discipline of Broadway is very strict.

COLACELLO: Did you know her before you started doing Pirates?

SMITH: No. We are the best of friends. We’re friends for life.

COLACELLO: Her voice is incredible. I’ve never seen her perform except in “Pirates.” I’d like to go to one of her concerts.

WARHOL: Let’s go to Bloomingdale’s.

SMITH: What are they doing over there? I’ve got to head that way anyway. We might as well just pop over there. Let’s go be adventurous and see what happens. I was at Brasserie one night. I used to ride my motorcycle down there in the summertime and have champagne and orange juice and black forest cake. That was just a destination to ride to on a hot night and watch people come in from the clubs and stuff. One night I had numerous champagne and orange juices and this guy came in with these other guys and he said he was a du Pont. One of the guys was dressed in all these furs and leather. He came over and invited me to a party. He gave me some invitation. A couple of days later I look in the paper and he was murdered. I looked through my jacket and I found the invitation. It was really strange. Actually Pal is a gift from a du Pont.

COLACELLO: But that guy you met wasn’t really a du Pont?

SMITH: My dog’s a du Pont, a Delaware du Pont. That’s a lot of class.

[Walking to Bloomingdale’s]

WARHOL: Oh, god, what a nice coat.

SMITH: It’s 50-years old, my dad had it. It’s well taken care of.

COLACELLO: Do you have your clothes made or do you just buy them off the rack?

SMITH: I’m rarely in anything but sweat pants and tennis shoes. They’re the only shoes I could fit my foot into. It’s all taped up. These are my Miami Beach shoes.

WARHOL: They’re really pretty. We’re going to pass Halston’s house, it’s such a great house. Have you ever been there?

SMITH: I think I’ve seen pictures of it.

COLACELLO: I still can’t get over meeting Yoko Ono today. She looked really elegant.

WARHOL: She had the ruby and emerald ring.

COLACELLO: We size up the jewels immediately.

[They arrive at Bloomingdale’s. Warhol and Smith are interviewed in the Pirates of Penzance promotional window by Jim Carr of PM Magazine]

WARHOL: I’ve never been in a window before. But I started as a window trimmer.

JIM CARR: From what you’ve seen of the display, can you tell me what your immediate feelings are? 

SMITH: Well, this lady needs some hair. I don’t see any high boots and where are the swords? Otherwise, if three corner hats are coming back into style… I don’t really know what to make of this actually. I think I’m going to reserve comment. What do you think Andy?

WARHOL: Gee, I’ve always wanted to be in a window. Pirate fashions are really big now. One of the kids at the office said he saw about 40 kids at a disco the other night in pirate fashions.

CARR: Is it something you’d wear?

WARHOL: Oh, yes. Will you give us some pirate fashions to wear?

CARR: After the work you’ve done in “Pirates,” do you feel that a window like this really captures the flavor of it?

SMITH: I don’t think you can capture the flavor. You’re talking art and commerce here. I want to go shopping.

CARR: Thank you very much for your time.

[Several teenage girls ask Rex for autographs and he gives them cheerfully]

SMITH: I was thinking about getting some sunglasses. I’ve got to get some shampoo, too. Bloomingdale’s is a trip. I come here in between the two shows on Saturday and do all my shopping. My dresser follows behind me with the credit card and I pick stuff out and tell them, “There’s a guy coming with my card.”

SALESLADY [at the shampoo counter]: Can I help you?

SMITH [to saleslady]: Do you have some kind of junk you put in your hair that keeps it kind of greasy?

SALESLADY: None of us have that, not in the store. Really, Dipity Doo would do it. That’s your best bet.

[At the sunglass counter]

SMITH: Do you have aviators?

SALESLADY: Yes.

SMITH: I like those blue mirrors and the aviators.

SALESLADY: Cash or charge?

SMITH: Charge.

WARHOL: You’re lucky. I’ve never had a charge card.

SMITH: I’m thinking of getting over it, but I’d never carry all that cash around. What do you do, write a check?

WARHOL: No, I just pay it in cash. Actually, I don’t buy anything.

SMITH: I don’t buy a hell of a lot. I don’t really need that much. I find that I buy stuff and it just sits around. I’d like to get some soap, that’s what I need. And then I’m going though. I’m going to get some Clinique.

WARHOL: I buy everything at Bloomingdale’s.

[At the Clinique Counter]

WARHOL: Can you believe soap is so expensive?

SMITH: How much is the soap?

SALESLADY: $8.50. It lasts a long time.

WARHOL: No, it doesn’t.

SMITH: No, it doesn’t.

SALESLADY: It does. What have you been doing with it? It lasts for four months if you keep it dry.

SMITH: Hey, do I get anything for free now that I’ve bought this? Do you have anything like gift packages you’re giving away now?

SALESLADY: How did you know we have that? Here’s a case for travelling. Here’s skin cream, a moisturizer that’s excellent for around the eyes.

WARHOL: Can I get a free sample, too?

SALESLADY: No, you can’t get a free sample. You have to buy something for $6.50. Who are you taping?

WARHOL: Him.

SMITH: What’s your name, just for the interview?

SALESLADY: I don’t know if I want to tell you. I’m here Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday from 9:30-6:00. My name is anonymous. What are you doing this for?

WARHOL: Interview magazine.

SALESLADY:  Who is he?

WARHOL: Look at his card. His name is Rex Smith.

SALESLADY: Rex Smith? Who’s he, George Washington?

COLACELLO: Does she know who you are?

WARHOL: I don’t think so, she would have given me a free sample.

SMITH: Do you know who he is?

SALESLADY: No. Enjoy your bonus.

SMITH: I’ll think of you fondly every time I put on my pink plum lipstick.

 

THIS INTERVIEW WAS INTERVIEW’S MAY 1981 COVER STORY.

New Again runs every Wednesday. For more, click here.