John Davidson stopped by once to talk with me. He brought his bike up to our bookstore. You may not remember him, but in the 1960s he was a TV star, a tall, handsome man with a beautiful singing voice. He was appearing on Broadway in the stage version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein film musical, “State Fair.” He looked exactly like John Davidson, but with gray-flecked hair. He wanted to do a one-man play about Thoreau, so he wanted to read other monodramas. I talked to him for quite a while, recommending several and told him my opinions about what makes a good one-man play. He looked down and asked, “How come you know all this?” I knew that he was a Denison alum. Denison was my alma mater Kenyon’s arch revival. They always beat us in football; we always trounced them in swimming. Denison was in a dry county, so the students had no access to liquor. Mr. Hayes, who ran our local grocery store, had no problem selling alcohol to underage Kenyon students, so our frat parties were well-lubricated. The problem was, Kenyon was all-male, so we needed women. Guys would get in their cars and drive over to nearby Denison, pull up in front of the sororities, and yell to the girls coming and going, “Hey girls, party at Kenyon tonight. Anyone wanna go?” In two shakes, they had a full car. The Denison guys hated us. My reply to Davidson’s question when he asked me how I knew so much was, “’Cause I went to Kenyon.” He replied, matter of factly, “I went to Denison.” “I know,” I said. He thought about this, realized I was kidding him, and then gave me a “that’s a good one” big smile. I have never heard that he actually did a one-man Thoreau play, but he had his own theatre in Branson, Missouri, where he was probably making too much money entertaining all the geezers who trekked to Branson.
Sometimes, instead of people stopping by, they would call me up. I would answer the phone, “Lawrence Harbison.” One time, the voice on the other end said, “Mr. Harbison, this is Jon Voight. I’m an actor?” Me: “I know who you are, Mr. Voight. What can I do for you?” He said, “Well, my daughter is a student at N.Y.U. and she’s playing Nina in The Sea Gull. I was wondering if you could recommend some research materials for her.” Konstantin Stanislavski directed the original production and later he published a journal he kept during rehearsals entitled, “The Sea Gull Log.” I told Voight about that and recommended that she read a good biography of the playwright, because I was pretty sure that Chekhov based Nina on a real girl. Voight thanked me profusely and then we hung up. I found out the name of his daughter a few years later. She was Angelina Jolie.
Another time, I answered a call in my usual way and heard a shakey, geezer voice on the other end: “Mr. Harbison, this is Buddy Ebsen.” Holy moly, it was Jed Clampett! We talked a bit about “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “The Adventures of Davy Crockett,” in which he had played Davy’s sidekick, Georgie Russell, who said things like, “Give ‘em what fer, Davy!” He had written a play and asked if I would read it. “Of course I would,” I told him, so a few days later his play arrived. The author’s name was Christian Ebsen, which was Buddy’s given name. It was a beautifully written play about an army camp during the Civil War, but it had a gazillion characters, all male, so there was nothing we could do with it. I had to return it to him. A short while later, he died.
One time, I got a call from a woman who identified herself as “Goldie Hawn.” I almost said, “Who is this really?” because her voice was that of a middle-aged Jewish matron, nothing like Goldie Hawn. She wanted recommendations for plays with strong dramatic scenes for a young man, because her son was auditioning for the Actor’s Studio and they expected wannabes to come in with a scene. One time, a woman called me needing help to find a scene for the same reason. In order to better assist her, I asked who her scene partner was. “Stephen Lang,” She said. Again, holy moly! In my humble opinion, Stephen Lang is one of our greatest actors, both in film and on stage. Although he has had a pretty successful career, playing major roles in the films “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” “Gettysburg” and “Avatar,” he never became the star he should have been. Anyway, I hope she got in. Back to “Goldie:” She was being driven around Manhattan, and I asked her to give me a half hour to pull some plays for her. Then, I asked her if I could have an autographed picture for a fraternity brother, Randy Giarraputo, who was nuts about her back in the day. I chose ten or so plays, and a half hour later her driver came to the counter to purchase them. He handed our clerk an 8 x10 glossy, signed, “To Randy. Thanks for being such a great fan. Goldie Hawn.” I sent this to Randy. Imagine the look on his face when he opened the mailing envelope.
I wrote about Jerry Sterner, Don Nigro and Ken Ludwig in my chapter on Samuel French, but there were many more playwrights with whom I became friendly, such as Tina Howe, Theresa Rebeck, William Mastrosimone, Michael Weller and John Patrick Shanley. I was Donald Margulies’ first agent; Richard Dresser’s and Mark St. Germaine’s as well. I tried for a couple of years to place their plays before hooking them up with real agents who had the time to promote their work; and the rest is history.
I want to reminisce a bit about two lesser-known playwrights, Leonard Melfi and John Ford Noonan. Leonard was a cheerful bear of a man with long, curly, dark brown hair who spoke with a minor stutter. In his youth, in the early 1960s, he had been at the epicenter of the Off Off Broadway movement, along with Lanford Wilson, Jean-Claude Van Italie, John Guare, Sam Shepard, Terrence McNally, Tom Eyen, Doric Wilson, H.M. Koutoukas, Paul Foster and Robert Patrick. Note: all men. There were a few female playwrights then, but it wasn’t until later that they started getting much attention. Several playwrights in the above list managed to move beyond their OOB roots. Leonard never really did, I think largely because his plays were whimsical almost-fairy tales which seemed rather silly to critics, although Theodore Mann of Circle in the Square did commission him, McNally and Van Italie to write three one-acts, which he produced as MORNING, NOON AND NIGHT. Leonard started out mostly with one-acts, the kind which could be produced simply at places like Café La Mama and the Café Cino, his best-known being BIRDBATH. He did have a couple of full-length plays produced under mini-contracts later, FANTASIES AT THE FRICK and PORNO STARS AT HOME, but these came and went and are now pretty much forgotten. I lost track of Leonard, then was saddened to learn of his death in 2001 in a S.R.O flophouse. His body went unclaimed for several days and then was misplaced by the hospital staff and wound up being buried in Potter’s Field. When his brother learned of his death, he had Leonard exhumed and buried in Binghamton, his old home town. His was a sad and ignominious end for a man who never lost his child-like wonderment and optimism, even when he was struggling with alcoholism.
John Ford Noonan started out as an actor, appearing in several films such as “Last Stop, Greenwich Village.” Then Joseph Papp “discovered” him as a playwright, and Papp produced his early play, The Year Boston Won The Pennant (which featured a then-unknown actor named Roy Scheider in the lead) during his brief tenure at the helm of Lincoln Center Theatre. Subsequently, Papp took a lease on the Booth Theatre and announced a subscription season of 5 new plays, one of which was by Noonan. Also in this season were to be plays by Michael Weller, Thomas Babe, David Rabe and Dennis Reardon. Papp opened with Reardon’s The Leaf People, which was such a critical bomb that he cancelled the rest of the season and refunded the subscribers’ money. In 1979, Noonan had a huge hit Off Broadway with A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking at the Astor Place Theatre (where those Blue Men seem to be permanently ensconced), starring Susan Sarandon and Maureen Brennan. In his heyday, he was a large hirsute fellow; but when I got to know him, he had slimmed down considerably. This was around the time he had a modest Off Broadway success with Some Men Need Help, which starred Treat Williams and Philip Bosco. John often used to call me just to talk. I would answer the phone and I would hear, “Who’s-your- favorite-playwright?” “You, John,” I would reply. “How are you?” “Still sober,” he would reply. John had had a huge problem with alcohol and cocaine. He had received $500,000 for the film rights to A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking and in 6 months it was gone – up his nose. After I left Samuel French, I lost track of John, though I tried to contact him a few years ago on behalf of a Greek friend who wanted to direct a production of A Coupla White Chicks in Athens. Even Noonan’s agent, Buddy Thomas at ICM, had lost track of him. I told the Buddy to contact Noonan’s brother, the actor Tom Noonan, who told him that he had Power of Attorney, as John was in the Actor’s Home in New Jersey and was non compos mentis. John passed away there in 2018 at the age of 77.
When we are young and just starting out, we are convinced that Fame and Fortune are just around the corner. The ends of Melfi and Noonan are cautionary tales.