Ellen Foley
Photo: Gregg Delman / Courtesy of Prime Mover Media

Ellen Foley Is Back in Swing of Things with ‘Fighting Words’

Ready to release her fifth solo album, New York triple-threat Ellen Foley revisits a career filled with legends of the stage, screen and recording studio, along with “The Thing That Will Never Die”.

Fighting Words
Ellen Foley
Urban Noise Music
6 August 2021

Star Power

The Clash connection also helped Foley continue a streak of working with Oscar-winning directors that started with reprising her stage role of Sheila for Milos Forman’s Hair in 1979 followed by Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie in 1982. “Milos Forman … he was just like the big Daddy Bear,” notes Foley, who sang “Black Boys” and danced with Twyla Tharp’s company in Hair. “Everybody just had so much fun on the shoot.” 

In 1983, she appeared (very briefly) in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy among a group called “Street Scum,” including members of the Clash. “I was in New York with the Clash and their extended entourage, and Scorsese was a fan of theirs, and I found out he was actually a fan of mine,” Foley gleefully points out. “He says, ‘Why don’t you guys just come to the set, hang out.’ … 

“So we ended up being there all day and … standing in front of Colony Records, which was a really famous record store, sheet music store. Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard were doing a scene and we were harassing them as they walked by. It was improvised, basically. Just being ourselves — sort of obnoxious. (laughs) Told she must have been pretty good at it, Foley replies with another laugh, “Yes. It’s one of my greater talents.” 

Though a TV role in the NBC comedy series Night Court ended in disappointment (“You don’t know pain until you’ve been replaced in a role by Markie Post,” is her go-to punch line), Foley bounced back with supporting parts in 1987’s Fatal Attraction and fulfilling 1988 films with two of Hollywood’s brightest stars. 

Calling Cocktail her most satisfying film acting experience, Foley maintains, “It was fun ’cause I had some scenes with Tom Cruise where I was a cocktail waitress [named Eleanor] and he was a bartender. And just really ragging on him and playing the real bitch. That’s one of the most fun things to play.” 

Ellen Foley Night Out pose
Photo: Ellen Foley Night Out pose (1979) / Courtesy of Prime Mover Media

Though they didn’t hang out because “he was Tom Cruise”, Foley considers him “very nice, very complimentary. So professional and so concentrated. He’s a terrific actor. I think he might be kind of underrated as an actor.” 

In the offbeat gangster comedy Married to the Mob, she worked with Jonathan Demme, another Academy Award-winning filmmaker (for Silence of the Lambs). As Theresa, one of the three embittered East Coast mob wives who try to make life miserable for the recently widowed Angela de Marco (played by Michelle Pfeiffer), Foley wore wild outfits while sporting hairdos almost as high as the Empire State Building. 

“It was all about the hair,” Foley declares. “I’m not sure about the other girls but that was before everybody was wearing weaves and hairpieces. That was all my own hair they really teased up and beat into submission. … That was all me.” 

Foley cherishes a memorable moment off the set involving Pfeiffer, who she recognizes as “another really excellent actor. She’s definitely not just another pretty face. She’s so beautiful but so good.” Answering the phone one day in her Upper West Side apartment where she’s lived since the early ‘80s, Foley hears a woman with a thick New York accent: 

“Hello, Theresa. You wanna come on over and hang in my house?” 

“Who the fuck is this?” Foley asks.  

“It’s Angie,” answers Pfeiffer, still in character. 

After getting the joke, “The three of us girls [Joan Cusack, O-Lan Jones also were part of the “posse”] went over and hung out,” Foley relates. “They had put her up in some fabulous hotel on Central Park South and we had drinks. So she was a very cool lady that kind of brought us all in and made us a group.”

Living For the City 

It’s moments like those that have kept Foley going strong, despite seeing opportunities get sidelined like the 2020 off-Broadway production of Club Dada (In Difficult Times) at La Mama in Manhattan.

Putting it together with Robert I. Rubinsky, the work about a duo “trapped by memories of past glory and by outside forces” was shut down by COVID-19 following two shows that March “after we’d worked on it for a really long time.” 

A determined Foley continues to keep it alive, though, performing a couple of Club Dada songs live and showing clips from the show during a streaming performance on July 20.I feel like, OK, we’re sort of back in it and hopefully we can now pursue it,” she optimistically anticipates. 

So it makes perfect sense when Foley explains the theme of Fighting Words is “surviving and surviving well,” represented by songs like “Are You Good Enough”, “Fill Your Cup” (she reminds us “It’s a hard, hard world”) and — finally — her own recorded version of “Heaven Can Wait”, the album-closing cover Steinman wrote for Bat Out of Hell.  

Previously mentioning “I was not a fan of the previous presidential administration,” Foley follows up with “Paul and I sort of felt like we were in an oppressed, depressed state. It was fun to fight our way out of it … personally, writing and recording some songs that are uplifting and really talk about survival. …It was a dark time for us. Just the way the country felt at the time.”

From her living room a few years ago, Foley and Foglino co-wrote “This Won’t Last Forever”, a title open to different interpretations, but she indicates it’s about trying to prevent someone in a dreamlike state from drifting away. 

Go easy when you wake me / If you try to shake me /
I think it’s gonna make me / Rattle like a tambourine 

Opening verse OF “This Won’t Last Forever”

Managing to find the light of day even after “I was removed from my regular daily life” by the pandemic, Foley discovered that a New York upstate of mind began to agree with her.  

Regarding their stay in Pawling, about a 90-minute drive from her apartment, she decides, “It’s been kind of great in its own way. I’ve gotten more used to it. It’s quite beautiful, actually.”

Still, there’s no place Foley would rather be than in New York City. “I’ve lived here for 40-whatever years but … I’ve never lost my wonder at it,” she confirms. “What a great city it is to walk around, have all the people and all the energy and all the stores and all the food.” 

After living through so many characters and songs in her own wonderful world, the feisty Foley embodies the Spirit of St. Louis. But as New York’s Little Sparrow, she’s made a forever home in this precious piece of Paradise.