Christine Lahti on That Time She Was in the Bathroom When She Won a Golden Globe

A few weeks ago, Christine Lahti sat next to Brad Pitt at an awards-season tastemaker screening in Los Angeles. Lahti leaned over to tell the actor that she admires his work, to which Pitt responded, “Oh yeah, I loved when you were in the bathroom when you won your Golden Globe.”

Lahti has been acting since 1978. She has an OscarShe won for directing the 1995 short film Lieberman in Love. She was also nominated for the Jonathan Demme comedy Swing Shift., an EmmyFor Chicago Hope., two GlobesOne for Chicago Hope and another for the TV movie No Place Like Home., and a number of Broadway rolesMost notably, The Heidi Chronicles, God of Carnage, and Gloria: A Life. to her name. But the centerpiece on her résumé is the time she almost didn’t make it to the stage to accept one of those trophies. The year was 1998, and Lahti had received her second consecutive nomination for the CBS medical drama Chicago Hope, which co-starred Adam Arkin, Mandy Patinkin, and Hector Elizondo. When she won, Lahti was on her way back from the restroom, leading to one of the most memorable moments in Globes history. Robin Williams, nominated that year for Good Will Hunting, rushed to the stage to stall, delivering 25 seconds of uproarious improv. “This year’s award for cloning,” he joked. “People from the Deep South say, ‘We’ve had cloning — it’s called cousins.’” Lahti returned to the Beverly Hilton ballroom right in time to hear Williams chanting her name, at which point the crowd leapt to its feet in a frenzied applause. “I was in the bathroom, Mom!” she said when she got to the microphone.

This is the sort of spontaneous moment that makes live TV, and awards telecasts in particular, so remarkable. Watching famous people give normal speeches is pleasant enough, but what everyone really wants is for things to fly off the rails, for some sort of mishap or mix-up or whim to intervene. Lahti handled hers with humor and grace. “This is the one thing that I am apparently going to be known for after 50 years in this business,” she tells us, laughing.

Let’s walk through this. Did you expect to win that night?
I never expect to win. Somebody said they want to do a podcast or something of all the speeches that go to the graveyard drawer from people who haven’t won. I have a huge pile of speeches that I never gave. I didn’t expect to win, but I always prepare a speech just in case.

That’s so interesting that you’ve hung on to those various speeches. I feel like most people wouldn’t admit that.
I have a whole drawer where all those little speeches go to die.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I always assumed you were handed some kind of program or itinerary at these events. Was that true that night?
It was true, and what I didn’t see was the asterisk that said “subject to change.” So I went to the bathroom with my girlfriend, basically just to put on more lipstick. I thought, Oh, I have plenty of time because I’m near the very end. And then they switched the order, and I didn’t realize what had happened. I’m in the bathroom flushing the toilet, and I say to my girlfriend, “You know, I have a weird feeling. I’m gonna go back, and I’ll see you back in there later.” I go back into the ballroom, and a woman is coming out of the ballroom and she says, “Oh, you just won.” I say, “Ha, ha, ha, that’s not even funny.” She says, “No, you really did. You just won.” I mean, the color just went out of my face, I’m sure, and I went, “Oh, fuck. I can’t believe I missed it.” So I walk in thinking it’s over, and there’s Robin Williams on the stage vamping. He had jumped up, and had he not, I’m sure they would have moved on. He was riffing brilliantly. I sent him flowers the next day because it was so thoughtful and sweet of him.

And who better to do that?
Who better? It was a dream. So I go up and get the award, but the most inspired comedic moment of my life was he had his dinner napkin and I remember, just on an impulse, grabbing his napkin and wiping my hands as I approached the mic, which I thought was pretty apropos and pretty funny considering that I was just in the bathroom.

So when you walk up with the napkin, it’s not actually what you had been drying your hands with?
No. You have to look carefully, but you can see that I grabbed Robin’s and used it as a prop.

That is a good joke.
I was pretty proud of myself for thinking of that on the spot.

When you’re backstage or when you go to the bathroom at one of these shows, is there no overhead speaker piping in what’s happening on the stage?
I think what happened was, because the bathroom in the ballroom was so crowded, I went down the hall to the restroom that was out of the ballroom, much farther away. That was the beginning of the end because there was nothing on the speakers. I think in the bathroom in the ballroom, you can hear what’s going on.

I always had this mental image of somebody running into the bathroom being like, “Christine, you’ve got to get out of here!” But that didn’t happen.
Nope, it was just this casual woman who passed me by in the hallway. Then I stormed in because the only thing I thought was, My mom’s going to kill me.

You had a lot of people rallying to your aid at that moment because before Robin got on the stage it was Bill D’Elia, one of the producers on Chicago Hope, who walked up and said he wasn’t going to leave until you returned. He knew you were in the ladies’ room.
Yes, he says something about, “I know you want this. I’m not going to leave until you come up here and get it.” He also kept them from moving on, and that’s when Robin got inspired to just do, like, the greatest stand-up ever.

What was it like to re-enter the ballroom at that point? Once Michael J. Fox calls your name as the winner, you can sense confusion running through the room. Everyone must have thought, She’s around here somewhere. Was there commotion going on as you walked back in?
I really thought they had moved on. I thought, I missed it and fuck me. I’m just a stupid person who doesn’t read asterisks on programs. That’s when Robin saw me and said my name. It was really fun and gratifying, but I will admit that, from that moment on for the rest of my life, I could never take awards seriously again. That’s really a good thing for me because I took them way too seriously. That was a really healthy thing for me to learn: Oh, these are fun and a little silly. They’re a nice thing to get but not to be taken seriously.

It’s also refreshing to hear you acknowledge that you did take it seriously at one point. It’s very trendy to act like it doesn’t matter — Oh, it’s just an honor to be nominated, which I know is true, but come on, everybody wants to win. What was your relationship to awards before that point?
I think it had been a while since I’d won anything. There was a period of time where there was a kind of flurry of awards, with the Oscar and the Emmy. I just remember there was a little bit of a lag time, and I thought, Okay, it’s time that I get one of these again. In my experience, it doesn’t really change how much money you’re going to get or what job you’re gonna get. It’s just a really gratifying recognition of your work, which is always great. I don’t mean to minimize it, but it really isn’t that important in the scope of things. I’ve been doing this for literally 50 years, and I know now that they don’t change your life.

One thing that’s also amazing about this moment is that when you do make it to the stage and you’re taking it all in, you’re so poised. You slip pretty seamlessly into what I assume was the speech you had planned.
Yes, I think I did slip into it after a few ad-libs about my mom and seeing some people in the audience. I did go right into my speech, which made it all the more fun because it had different nuances and meaning given that I just about missed it.

Do you remember getting back to your seat? Were people aflutter about what had just happened?
Yes, in the clip, you can see my husband looking around the room, and I think mostly it was just, How could you do that? How could you have gone to the bathroom? It was just all fun and memorable. People remember that, obviously. When I won the Oscar, when I won the Emmy, when I won another Golden Globe, no one remembers those. It’s like, Okay, big deal. This one was the big one.

That’s kind of the catch. It really changes the game if you can get up there and make some kind of impression. If you’re part of a show that’s giving out 20 or 30 awards and you thank your agent and your partner and your god and then go about your night, that’s great. It’ll be on your résumé. But what lasts in the zeitgeist are these strange accidents that set people apart.
I lucked into a big one, and since I’ve done so much theater, I’m so used to accidents happening. They invariably make the show better. I mean, fake guns have gone off when they shouldn’t have and I had to die like two scenes early.

Is that true? You had to die prematurely in a play?
Yeah! And then one time — this is a great one — in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I was playing Maggie. At the end of Act One, BrickPlayed by Peter Weller of RoboCop fame. hurls his crutch at me. I duck down behind the bed, and he misses. I go get the crutch off the floor and hand it back to him, and that’s the end of the act. One night, he throws the crutch, I duck, I get up to give the crutch back to him, and I can’t find it. The dialogue is all about, Here it is. I can’t keep doing the play until I find the crutch. I’m looking around the stage and I can’t find the fucking crutch. I look out onto the audience, and it’s leaning up against a woman in the front row. I don’t know what else to do, so in character, I kind of sashay off the stage, walk into the dark theater, reach for the crutch, and this woman reaches back. I pull, she pulls back. I’m pulling the crutch, and I’m thinking, Lady, just give me my fucking prop. And then I look down in the darkness and notice that she has this huge cast on her leg. It was her crutch.

So where was the prop crutch?
The audience is roaring laughing, and this is a huge Tennessee Williams tragedy, right? This is really meant to be sad. I ad-libbed some kind of, “Oh, fiddledeedee, I didn’t need that anyway.” I walk back up on the stage and I see our crutch embedded in some fish netting that was on the back wall. So I pull it down, hand it back to Brick, the curtain comes down, the audience is roaring, and Brick — who has been brooding in character this whole time and hasn’t seen what’s been happening — says to me, “Holy shit, the audience is going crazy. What did I do that was so funny?” And I just wanted to kill him. You threw the fucking crutch in the wrong place, dude! But I’m so used to figuring out a way to get through mistakes onstage that I don’t fear them. They always unite the audience with the actors. They’re rooting for you because they see how vulnerable you are. There’s something so beautiful about that chemistry. So I really relished what happened at the Golden Globes. I knew it was going to turn out good.

It’s interesting, too, because you couldn’t have imagined it existing on YouTube forever for people to revisit. I’m sure it was replayed on Entertainment Tonight, but today, we immediately think, Oh, here’s a viral moment; here’s a meme; here’s a GIF. I would also love to hear that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof story from the perspective of the woman whose crutch you tried to grab. She walked away with a great story, too.
A great story. And I was pulling! I was, like, yanking it, thinking she’s just pulling a prank on me. Had I taken her crutch, that would have been really bad.

Your theater background makes total sense in terms of how you handled the Globes moment. I wonder how somebody who doesn’t have that background, or maybe someone newer in the business or who isn’t lucky enough to have Robin Williams rush to the stage on their behalf, would have processed it.
Yeah, I didn’t really feel any humiliation. I really just felt like, This is so fun, and the support in the room was so huge. There was such a warmth, like, Yay, she made it.

The other reason people remember it is because it was the year of Titanic and Good Will Hunting — really big movies. The viewership ratings were astronomical.
And you know what? I don’t know how the Golden Globes do it anymore, but a lot of my nominations were in television, and they had the television tables kind of in Siberia. The big, important motion-picture people are in the front, so that’s always really funny, to walk through the VIPs of the world after sitting on the outskirts. Back then, television wasn’t nearly as important as it is now. This was before streamers, so it was a lot of network shows.

And when your name is called, you see people start to turn to the back, where the TV section is.
They have to strain their necks to see if they can see way back in Siberia.

Anything else that stands out to you about that night?
The next year, I was presenting, and I asked David Kelley, who is the creator of Chicago Hope and a brilliant writer, “Do you have any ideas of how I should follow that up?” He said, “If I were you, I would tape some toilet paper to my shoe.” I completely stole that idea.

And did you reference the bathroom incident onstage? Or was it just an inside joke?
I didn’t say a word about it. Either you got it or you didn’t.


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