Charlene Sher and Rozanne Sher
Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds and Billie Lourd
In Jon Robin Baitz’s 2011 play Other Desert Cities, writer Brooke Wyeth returns to her Southern California hometown from New York City after six years away, clashing bitterly with her mother Polly over their differences in worldview and Brooke’s insistence on bringing up buried family secrets. In the new Las Vegas production of the play at A Public Fit, the relationship between Polly and Brooke gets an extra jolt thanks to the actresses playing the parts, real-life mother and daughter Charlene and Rozanne Sher. “There’s a lot of art imitating life sometimes, where you can’t tell if we’re really acting,” Rozanne says.
Charlene started acting professionally in her native South Africa, and after moving to the U.S., remained active in theater while raising her children. Rozanne began following in her mom’s footsteps at a young age, when the family was living in Reno. “It has to be something that’s in your genes, because I was on the stage from seven years old,” Rozanne says. Their first mother-daughter collaboration was a production of Fiddler on the Roof, in which Charlene played Golde, and Rozanne and her younger sister played Golde’s two youngest daughters. The Shers are a local example of a long tradition of mothers and daughters sharing acting talents, one which goes all the way back to early Hollywood stars like Debbie Reynolds, Ingrid Bergman, Judy Garland, Janet Leigh, and Tippi Hedren, all of whom had daughters follow them into show business, with equal or even greater success.
Showbiz mothers may be more likely than the average person to push their kids into the spotlight, but for the Shers, there was no coercing needed to get Rozanne to emulate her mother. “I was definitely the theatrical one,” Rozanne says, noting that Fiddler was her sister’s first and last acting gig. “She hated it. And I loved it. I was always the one singing and dancing. That was clearly my path and not my sister’s.” It may not always be an easy path to follow.
In the 2016 HBO documentary Bright Lights, about the relationship between Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher, the filmmakers show a clip of a teenage Fisher joining her mother onstage, belting out an impressive rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” despite clearly not wanting to be there. And while Fisher’s story may be a troubled one, Bright Lights shows how close she and Reynolds became as they grew older, and serves as a tribute to their remarkable (and remarkably different) careers. It’s a bittersweet send-off to both Reynolds and Fisher, who died within a day of each other in December 2016, just a week before the movie’s HBO debut.
As conflicted as Fisher may have been about pursuing an acting career, it didn’t stop her daughter Billie Lourd from following in her footsteps. Although Lourd is glimpsed only briefly in Bright Lights, in the last few years she’s been a rising star, with a small role alongside her mother in the recent Star Wars movies, plus regular appearances on the TV series Scream Queens and American Horror Story. Female acting dynasties that started early (Reynolds’ first role was in 1948’s June Bride) have stretched to multiple generations now, and Lourd has two generations of lessons and inspiration to draw from in her mother and grandmother.
Dakota Johnson, star of the Fifty Shades of Grey movies, is another third-generation Hollywood actress, and she’s already established a strong identity for herself beyond her famous family. The daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson and the granddaughter of the legendary Tippi Hedren, Johnson proved herself to be a gifted comedic performer on the highly underrated (and sadly short-lived) 2012 Fox sitcom Ben and Kate, but she got her start as a child actress with a small role as the daughter of her mother’s character in 1999’s Crazy in Alabama. As Fifty Shades’ Anastasia Steele, Johnson has gotten a lot of attention for the movie’s explicit sex scenes, but possibly her greatest appeal is the way she brings a sense of humor and playfulness to what are otherwise serious, intense movies.
The Shers are extending their dynasty to a third generation, too, with Charlene’s granddaughter (and Rozanne’s niece) Piper pursuing her own acting career. Two years ago, Charlene, Rozanne, and Piper all starred in the play Kindertransport, with Piper in the lead role of Eva, Charlene as the older version of Eva and Rozanne as the older Eva’s adult daughter. “It was really quite something to see,” Charlene says. “It was really very meaningful to me.” Now 15, Piper regularly travels to LA to audition for parts, and has worked in theater and film locally as well.
Mothers and daughters playing the same character at different ages can give a movie or show an extra layer of authenticity, and it’s sometimes the way that young actors get their start. The 2007 drama Evening features two sets of mother-daughter acting pairs, including Meryl Streep and her daughter Mamie Gummer as the same character in two different time periods. Vanessa Redgrave plays a dying woman who flashes back to romantic entanglements from her younger days, and Redgrave’s daughter Natasha Richardson plays her character’s daughter. In a movie all about how youthful regrets can resonate throughout a person’s life, it adds extra impact to see a character played by actors who are clearly connected by more than just the screenplay.
The CBS sitcom Young Sheldon takes that idea even further, casting actress Zoe Perry as the younger version of the character played by her mother Laurie Metcalf on The Big Bang Theory. Both shows are ongoing, which means that Perry and Metcalf may be playing the same character at the same time, although Perry is a series regular on Young Sheldon (a prequel exploring the childhood of Big Bang’s awkward math genius Sheldon Cooper), while Metcalf only has a recurring role on Big Bang. Still, when launching a new series, even one spun off from one of the most popular shows on TV, it helps to have an instant connection to the existing characters.
Actresses like Perry, Gummer and Lourd are still getting their careers off the ground, but some mother-daughter duos are so high-powered that people may not even realize the two stars are connected. Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli are both such monumental figures in Hollywood history that they stand completely on their own, but of course Minnelli was once just Garland’s daughter, making her first brief onscreen appearance at three years old in her mother’s movie In the Good Old Summertime. The same could be said of Ingrid Bergman and Isabella Rossellini, both alluring and sultry screen presences with long filmographies, but Rossellini was also once just the daughter of a movie star, first appearing onscreen in her 20s in a small role in her mother’s film A Matter of Time.
Most viewers of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit probably don’t know that star Mariska Hargitay, who’s played Det. Olivia Benson for 19 seasons, is the daughter of Jayne Mansfield, a vintage Hollywood sexpot who was marketed as a rival to Marilyn Monroe and starred in classic screwball comedies Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and The Girl Can’t Help It. And fans of Rashida Jones on the sitcoms The Office, Parks and Recreation and Angie Tribeca may not realize that her mother is The Mod Squad and Twin Peaks star Peggy Lipton (who did show up as Jones’s mother in an episode of Angie Tribeca).
The Shers particularly admire two mother-daughter acting combos who’ve achieved extraordinary success: “I love Blythe Danner,” Charlene says. “She seems to have integrity in everything she does in life and work and has a very loving relationship with her daughter.” That daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow, has overshadowed her mother’s fame, but the two are often seen on red carpets together, and have played mother and daughter in the movie Sylvia (starring Paltrow as poet Sylvia Plath) and the miniseries Cruel Doubt, one of Paltrow’s earliest roles. Meanwhile, Rozanne looks up to Goldie Hawn and Kate Hudson, whose resemblance to her mother is uncanny, although they’ve never shared the screen. “I like these two because they seem to love each other and have a wonderful relationship,” Rozanne says.
As long as there’s a hunger for new starlets, the daughters of successful actresses will be in high demand: Recent rising stars include Pamela Adlon’s daughter Gideon Adlon, one of the leads in the raunchy comedy Blockers; Lisa Bonet’s daughter Zoe Kravitz, who had significant supporting roles in the Divergent movies and HBO’s Big Little Lies; and Demi Moore’s daughter Rumer Willis, who’s a regular on the Fox series Empire. Some may go on to eclipse their parents in fame, while others may fade away. Either way, there’s a certain excitement to seeing multiple generations working together. As Charlene Sher says of her work with her daughter: “We work so well as mother and daughter on the stage, because we’ve got a kind of shtick thing going. We just know each other so well that we can interact well.”