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Dramatis Personae: The Passing Show Part 2

Dramatis Personae: The Passing Show Part 2

In the first part I talked about the early days of Gina Lollobrigida, Anna Magnani and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr today’s column……………..

As I mentioned, when I was at Samuel French, I used to get a lot of people who came in to ask for my help, and I was always glad to drop whatever I was doing, go out to the bookstore and sit down with them. Mostly, these were young women looking for a new scene or a monologue; and I was usually able to come up with something for them. 

Sometimes, they had recently arrived in New York and they just wanted my advice about what to do next. Someone had told them, “Go see Larry at Samuel French.” As the years went by, I often got what I came to call “The Look,” which betrayed their suspicion about why I was spending so much time with them. It was like a thought bubble in a cartoon, attached to their head. They were thinking, “Does this geezer think he has a shot with me?” Once, I asked a young actress not to give me “The Look.” She asked, “What look?” “This look,” I replied, imitating it and said, “And I know what you were thinking.” “What was I thinking?” she asked. “You were thinking, does this geezer think he has a shot with me?” She thought about this for a moment and said. “I was thinking that.” “Look,” I said. “I don’t want anything from you; I just want to help you.” Then I saw another thought bubble containing, “That’s a relief!” I expect most of them gave up eventually, it being practically impossible to establish an acting career in New York unless you have an agent, which few of them did.

A few times, though, I had walk-ins who beat the overwhelming odds and became Famous. Ellen Barkin came in once, just in from wherever she came from. I forget what she wanted, but we had a lovely chat. In about 1980, another cute young actress came in, fresh out of Carnegie-Mellon, from whom she had received an M.F.A. She had long, blondish-brownish hair and spoke with a distinctive southern accent, as she grew up in Georgia. We hit it off and I began inviting her to join me at the theatre. One play I remember taking her to was Baby With The Bathwater, in the old Playwrights Horizons upstairs studio theatre. Chris Durang, the playwright, was there and I introduced her to him. She was amazed that she was meeting such a famous playwright. I have a story about Chris and this play, but I will save it for later. As the play was rather short, afterwards we moseyed over to the Hotel Algonquin for a drink in their cozy lounge. While we were sitting there, Morton Gottlieb came in. Morty was a Broadway producer whose hits included Enter Laughing (which made a star of Alan Arkin), Sleuth, Same Time Next Year (with Ellen Burstyn and Charles Grodin) and two other Bernard Slade hit comedies, Romantic Comedy (which starred Anthony Perkins and Mia Farrow) and Tribute (starring Jack Lemmon). I asked Morty to join us and he readily agreed. I doubt if my young friend had ever heard of him, but she was flabbergasted to find herself having a drink with a Famous Broadway Producer. By this time, I was kinda sweet on her and thought, “This is gonna be my night!” but, alas no. 

At the time, I was still trying to get something going as a director, and she did several readings for me. She was the greatest I have even seen at a cold reading. With no rehearsal even, she was always fabulous. Many years later, I was at the Humana Festival and a casting director reminded me that I had recommended her for a role she was having difficulty casting. She was amazing in the play, Battery by Daniel Therriault, and this was her first New York acting credit. 

Many years later, I happened to sit next to Morty Gottlieb at the theatre one night. He told me he had retired from producing – not because he couldn’t raise money anymore but because of the difficulty of getting a star willing to commit to 6 months on Broadway. I asked him, “Mr. Gottlieb, do you remember coming into the Hotel Algonquin one night after the theatre many years ago and joining me for a drink?” He thought for a moment and replied, “Sure! You were there with some cute young actress. Whatever happened to her?” To which I replied: “That cute young actress, Mr. Gottlieb, was Holly Hunter.” 

Holly Hunter

After she went on to film stardom, I lost track of Holly. More than thirty years later, she acted in a production by the New Group of David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones. I waited for her afterwards and when she finally came out, I went up to her and said, “Holly, it’s a Blast from the Past!” She didn’t recognize me after all those years so I added, “It’s Larry, from Samuel French.” She lit up. “Oh my God, Larry! I haven’t seen you in years.” Well, Holly,” said I. “You’ve been busy.”

Holly Hunter, Bill Pullman Sticks and Bones

Before Samuel French, I worked for Robert Whitehead and Roger Stevens who, at the time, were producing Preston Jones’ A Texas Trilogy; plus, Katharine Hepburn touring around in A Matter of Gravity. I was the receptionist and general office factotum. One day, Mr. Whitehead asked me to read a script for him which an old friend named Chester Erskine had sent him. It was called The Kings Favorite and was about King Edward II of England. It was really well-written but required a very large cast and obviously wasn’t something that could be produced on Broadway. Mr. Whitehead asked me to compose a letter from him to Mr. Erskine; in his words, “a nice note,” which I did. I decided to write him myself to tell him how much I had enjoyed his play. He replied, thanking me, and we began a correspondence. After several months, he wrote to tell me he was going to be in New York and would like to meet me. We set up a date and time, and he invited me over to his digs, where he and his wife were staying. 

I arrived for our appointment, to a townhouse in E. 49th Street. I rang the bell. The door was opened by a middle-aged woman with an Irish accent named Nora, the housekeeper. I told her my name and she replied that Mr. Erskine expected me and was upstairs in the parlor. I went upstairs and met Mr. Erskine, an elderly gentleman in a tweed sport coat and tie (it may have been an ascot), who shook my hand, invited me to sit down and asked if I would join him for tea. I said I would, so he asked Nora to bring us tea.

We talked about his play, and he was surprised that I was so knowledgeable about Edward II. I told him that I had been in a production of Brecht’s Edward II while I was in grad school and, as is my wont, had read a lot about the King, his notorious relationship with Piers Gaveston and his deposition and horrible murder. Meanwhile, I started to notice that there were a lot of Katharine Hepburn memorabilia in the parlor, such as a photo of her with Laurence Olivier taken during the filming of “Love Among the Ruins” and a Giacometti sculpture of her. I remarked, “You must be a big fan of Katharine Hepburn.” “Oh yes,” he replied. “She’s been one of my dearest friends for many years. As a matter of fact, this is her house.” Imagine the look on my face when he told me that! Miss Hepburn was out on the road with A Matter of Gravity and had invited Chester and his wife Sally to house-sit.

Katherine Hepburn A Matter of Gravity

Well, we hit it off and started to meet every week for lunch, during which he told me stories about himself. In the 1920’s and 30s, he had been a Broadway producer and director. He produced and directed the first play in the Golden Theatre, rehearsing it in the downstairs lounge. In 1930, he directed The Last Mile, a prison drama by John Wexler, produced by Herman Shumlin, which made a star of Spencer Tracy. In 1934, he decided he wanted to make a film, which was problematic because there were no indie films at the time as the Hollywood studios owned all the movie theatres, so there was nowhere to show them. The only one in New York they didn’t own was Radio City Music Hall. Chester bought the film rights to a thriller called Midnight which didn’t succeed on Broadway but which he thought would make a good film. Chester asked an actor friend of his, who at the time was playing juvenile roles (you know, the kind of character who walks through the French doors in whites and asks, “Tennis, anyone?”) to play the “heavy,” a gangster, to which he replied, “Are you crazy, Chester? Nobody would believe me as a heavy, I’m a juvenile.” Chester said, “You’re a good actor, and a good actor can play anything.” The guy accepted the challenge and they made the film (In case you’re interested, you can watch the film on You Tube). which played a week or two at Radio City, and he so impressed people in the theatre that he was cast as the heavy, an escaped criminal named Duke Mantee, in a new play by Maxwell Anderson called The Petrified Forest. The play was a hit in 1935, at the Broadhurst Theatre, and he was a sensation. Hollywood put him under contract and he never did another play. The film version of the play made him a movie star. His name was Humphrey Bogart. 

I went to the Library of the Performing Arts and looked all this up. It was all true.

In the 1950s, Chester went into television production; but by the time I met him in 1976, he was retired.

Chester was close friends not only with Kate but with Gar and Ruth (Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon) and Spence (as in Tracy). He told me that Kate and Gar had had a huge falling out when Kanin published Tracy and Hepburn, in which he revealed for the first time that the relationship between Kate and Spence was not exactly merely a professional one. They lived together for years, but Tracy couldn’t get a divorce because he was a Catholic. They were together when he died. Hepburn never spoke to Kanin again.

Ruth Gordon

One afternoon, we were sitting in the parlor when I noticed a copy of Ruth Gordon’s latest autobiography, My Life, on the table next to Chester’s chair. I asked him if he had read it yet. He had, and offered to lend it to me. I asked him if he was mentioned in the book. He was, several times. Then he thought for a moment and said, “You know, I think I am the only man mentioned in the book that Ruthie never slept with.”

Shortly thereafter, Miss Hepburn’s tour finished up and Chester and Sally returned to their home in Santa Monica. We corresponded for a while but then he passed away and I never saw him again.

Come back next week for more.

Broadway

For over thirty years, Lawrence Harbison was in charge of new play acquisition for Samuel French, Inc., during which time he was responsible for the publication of hundreds of plays, by new playwrights such as Jane Martin, Don Nigro, Tina Howe, Theresa Rebeck, William Mastrosimone, Charles Fuller and Ken Ludwig among many others; and the acquisition of musicals such as Smoke on the Mountain, A…My Name Is Alice and Little Shop of Horrors. He has edited over 100 anthologies for Smith and Kraus, Inc. For Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, he has edited several monologue, full length, 10-minute and 5-minute play anthologies. Currently, he is editing books solely for Applause. He has set up a new division for Applause to publish and license individual full length plays, as well as the World Premiere Club. His column, “On the Aisle with Larry,” appeared in the Chelsea Clinton News and the Westsider for several years and then moved to www.smithandkraus.com. In December of 2019, it began running on the Applause website, www.applausebooks.com. It also appears on his blog at www.playfixer.com and on www.doollee.com, the international playwrights database. He also writes occasional columns for Theatre Record, a London-based magazine. He was a member for many years of two NYC press organizations, the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk, and served on the Drama Desk Awards Nominating Committee for the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 seasons. He works with individual playwrights to help them develop their plays (see his website, www.playfixer.com). He has also served as literary manager or literary consultant for several theatres. He taught playwriting in the Theatre Dept. of the University of Michigan in the winter semester of 2016. He holds a B.A. from Kenyon College and an M.A. from the University of Michigan. His book, How I Did It: Establishing a Playwriting Career, a collection of interviews with playwrights, was published by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books in March, 2015. His latest anthologies of monologues and 10-minute plays were published in December, 2019 by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books.

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