Kathie Lee Gifford wants me to feel comfortable, so she pats the seat next to her and scrunches over in the back seat of her town car. She doesn’t have to do much scrunching; she is slender, wavy haired, with an expression that can best be described as resting perky face. We are just leaving NBC Studios. Gifford, 65, was supposed to have the day off from the Today show, which she has cohosted for the past 11 years, but she sneaked back on the set to surprise her cohost, Hoda Kotb. As part of a segment about the new Fox competition show The Masked Singer, Gifford dressed up in a lion costume and sang as Kotb and two others tried to guess her identity—a feat they managed quite quickly, though Gifford tried to disguise her voice. The actress-writer-singer’s talents are not easily hidden under a fake lion head.
Now we are heading to the Greenwich, Connecticut, estate she shared with her husband, football legend Frank Gifford, until his death in 2015. Let me say that Kathie Lee is a dream interview because, to put it mildly, she likes to talk. She is the opposite of standoffish, with her sincerity and eagerness and open expressions of faith. This is a woman who time and again has shown a certain kind of fearlessness and authenticity on live television that has captured America’s collective heart—first with 15 years on Live With Regis and Kathie Lee and then in the fourth hour of Today, with her peerless wine-drinking partner, Kotb. (Kristen Wiig’s Saturday Night Live impersonation of Gifford perfectly captured her habit of oversharing.)
For all her lack of cool, Gifford is, in a sense, one of the original performance artists, to use a fancy term, drawing on her life as material before it was fashionable. Indeed, she’s been willing to say or do most anything without embarrassment (the internet is filled with Gifford “outrageous moments” video collections) and, at the same time, reveal the earth-shatteringly personal (as when she discussed her husband’s affair in 1997). During her hosting days, she has acted occasionally in movies, published four New York Times best-sellers, released several albums and appeared on Broadway. But through it all, there is the talk. Is there anything Gifford won’t gab about?
Well, yes, Kotb insists. In public “you see only about a tenth of who she is,” her close friend says. “She gives the illusion that we know everything about her, that she is an open book. She is not. There is a very serious person she keeps inside.”
And that serious person seems to feel, at a stage in life when many of her contemporaries are winding down, that her most creatively interesting days are still ahead. Which is why Gifford has chosen to leave her lucrative Today gig, as of April 5, for new challenges.
“Maybe it is someone else’s dream job,” Gifford says. “But there was a more powerful dream within me that had yet to be fulfilled. All I ever wanted to do, from the time I was a little girl, was sing and be in movies.” When Gifford was in elementary school, she sent Walt Disney a letter asking for a film role. “I said, ‘I know you love Hayley Mills and Annette Funicello, but you really need to meet me,’ ” she says, then laughs. “Talk about chutzpah!”
Gifford’s bravado may not have paid off that time, but it often does. It’s a big part of how she came to write and star in one upcoming movie and direct another. Courage by itself doesn’t accomplish all that, of course, but it can when accompanied by Gifford’s brand of smarts, charm, talent and keen instinct for what the audience wants.
Then Came … Craig
Here’s how the new movies came to be, according to Gifford: “Craig Ferguson, the comedian and host of the late, lamented Late Late Show, was guest hosting the Today show with me in March 2017. Craig is not a man who holds back; he basically treated 11 a.m. as if he were still on at midnight. So we had to have a 10-second delay, and every day they delayed it a little more. We were like two bad little children. Everyone was terrified.” After the run, the two were having lunch and Ferguson said, “Kathie, if we wait for our agents to get us a job, we’ll die waiting. So let’s write a movie together.” “OK,” Gifford responded. This is the kind of show biz banter that is heard a thousand times a day, and usually forgotten before the soy chai latte is drained. But Ferguson didn’t count on Gifford.
“Two o’clock in the morning, I woke up and I went”—dramatic gasp—“ ‘I know what the movie should be!’ ” Gifford recalls. “I just knew. I got up and started writing. And around noon that day, I called Craig. I said, ‘Craig, remember that movie that you and I were going to write? Well, I think I just wrote it.’ ” The film, Then Came You, is about a widow who takes her husband’s ashes on a trip to the locations of their favorite movies. Ferguson, as good as his word, signed on to the project, playing a curmudgeonly manager of an estate turned inn in Scotland. His character’s family owned the estate, but, well, you know what heating a country house costs these days? The two meet, and though Gifford doesn’t want to give away too much, let’s just say, what are you going to do in a movie opposite one of the most swoon-worthy Scotsmen this side of Sean Connery?
Ferguson likes the way the film turned out. “It’s a pretty good movie, which might confuse people because I’m usually in movies that suck,” he jokes.
The film is equal parts hysterical, heartbreaking, honest and hopeful (an announcement of its release date and distributor is imminent, Gifford says). “This is a romantic comedy for people who believe that romance has passed them by and they will never find love again,” she adds. When I mention that I lost my husband, who happened to be a Scotsman, six months ago, she stops and looks at me for the first time during our drive. “It’s a club none of us wants to belong to,” she says.
“Hollywood has ignored elderly people. And we’re elderly,” she continues, as I, at 57, shift uncomfortably in my mom jeans. “I’m considered a senior citizen,” Gifford says. “But I’ve just decided that at this point in my life, I’m not gonna use my senior citizen discount to go to other people’s movies. I’m gonna make movies for them.”
Kathie Lee Gifford
From Host to Leading Lady
In the recording studio, working on the new film’s soundtrack
Gifford insists that the only thing she has in common with her character in the film,
Annabelle, is that they are both widows. I’m not totally buying it. In the last years of his life, Frank Gifford suffered from dementia, possibly the result of traumatic brain injury from his Hall of Fame career playing for the New York Giants. When he died, their children—Cody, 29, a movie producer, and Cassidy, 25, an actress—were worried about Kathie Lee’s being alone. “That house is loaded with a gazillion memories,” she says, and her voice trembles a little. The home overlooks Long Island Sound, and there are views all the way to New York City. “Sunset used to be a huge thing in our family,” she notes. “Every day, no matter what, we’d yell, ‘Sunset alert!’ and we had to stop whatever we were doing, go out, and honor another day. And now I still say it out loud to the puppies”—Lola, a goldendoodle, and Bambino, a teacup Maltipoo. “We still go and do it, but sunset alerts are some of my saddest moments, when it’s just me and the dogs at home.”
After Frank’s death, Gifford stopped socializing. “When you’re part of a couple, you don’t realize that the whole world is just made up of couples,” she says. “And all of a sudden, you’re that odd number at a dinner party. You’re the fifth, seventh, ninth person at the table. They’re always making an adjustment for you. So I didn’t want to go out and go alone to things. I go to professional things alone, but nothing social. I just wasn’t comfortable. And I didn’t want people giving me that widow look.” Here, Gifford cocks her head to one side, goes full puppy eyes and makes her voice drip with concern: “Oh, how are you? Are you OK?”
I can’t help laughing. I’ve endured six months of that look.
In the three and a half years since Frank’s death, Gifford has gone on one date—“because of that one,” she says, pointing to Today publicist Megan Stackhouse, who’s cringing slightly in the front seat of the car. “Didn’t go too well, did it, my darling?”
The man was “a very nice gentleman who was just totally wrong for me, and I was totally wrong for him,” Gifford continues. “He didn’t share my faith, and I could never spend my life with someone who didn’t share my faith.” Gifford’s father was Jewish, but she was raised in a Christian household and famously became born again at 12.
“My faith is not what I do for an hour on Sunday mornings; my faith is who I am,” she explains. “You know, the Bible talks about ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’ That means every nanosecond of our life.” Still, I remind her that in one TV interview, her dating criteria included “anyone with their own teeth,” and mention that recently I went out with someone who showed up with no teeth whatsoever. At that, Gifford jokingly edits her standards. “Let’s change that to ‘anyone with teeth, and doesn’t have to be their own.’ ”
So what is her solution to the trials of widowhood, at least for now? It’s work, friends—and did we mention work? Every year, Gifford goes to Israel, and this year she will be directing a short film there called The God Who Sees, which she describes as a “musical journey through the lives of four very different people in the Bible.” She’s writing songs with country music composer Brett James, who scored Then Came You and has written No. 1 country hits for Carrie Underwood, Martina McBride and Kenny Chesney, among others. But please don’t say that Gifford is “reinventing herself.” “That is the worst description of what I’m doing,” she says adamantly. “I’m not reinventing myself at all. I am evolving as an artist and a human being, and I will be till the day I die. People who think I’m a silly person do not know me at all. I’m 10 percent silly and 90 percent dead serious in my life.”
That certainly squares with Kotb’s experience. “The thing about Kathie is that at any given moment she has an idea she needs to get out of her system,” Kotb says. “When she decided on doing Then Came You, she had no backer. She went to start location scouting and casting anyway.” (Eventually, she did line up several investors.) “She wills things into existence,” Kotb adds. “Kathie wants to put beautiful things into the world, which I think is the secret to happiness.”
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Gifford is also spending more and more time with newfound friends in Nashville, where she’s purchased a small pied-à-terre. The city brings her complete joy. “I thought to myself, Why am I so happy here? And I realized one of the biggest parts is that there are joyful people,” she says. “I haven’t run into one
cynic yet in Nashville. They love God, they love their country, they love music, wine and food. I’m in heaven in Nashville, Tennessee.”
While Gifford chafes at the notion that anyone would confuse her with her Then Came You character, they do have one thing in common. “Am I open to new love?” she asks. “Yes, of course. You know, there’s a line in a song I did with Brett called ‘Once Again’ that goes, ‘You don’t find love, love finds you, in the mist of a moment, right out of the blue. It sneaks up on your heart, hardly making a sound, till all of a sudden, you find you’ve been found.’ And it’s one of the best lyrics the Lord’s ever given me. I know a lot of people go looking for love, but I think it finds you. So when and if it finds me, I will welcome it literally with open arms.”
You could say she has done the same with this next phase of her career. With her long tenure as talk show host—a job that always felt to her like plan B—coming to a close, Gifford has her arms wide open to her long-delayed plan A. “All I ever wanted to do was be in movies and sing,” she says. “Now I get to do that.”
Judith Newman is the author of To Siri With Love, a frequent contributor to AARP The Magazine and a columnist for the New York Times Book Review.