Tuesday, February 7, 2012

I Hit Hamlet

Nicol Williamson

He was part of the "Angry Young Men" generation of British actors, coming of age in the 1950s and 60s, bringing a grittier realism to their art than had their predecessors. 

In rehearsal for "Inadmissible Evidence."
During the tryout, Nicol dumped producer
David Merrick into a trash can.

Williamson, in fact, made his first splash in Inadmissible Evidence, written by John Osborne, who was considered the playwright who invented the Angry Young Man in his landmark drama Look Back in Anger.  But Nicol never became the international star that others of his generation did.  Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, and Richard Harris all drank and caroused their way to the top, earning critical laurels and eventual knighthoods.  Williamson drank and caroused himself into a reputation as a temperamental drama queen, raging against injustices done to him.

He had great success with Hamlet, Macbeth, and Sherlock Holmes (The Seven-Percent Solution), but he rarely escaped a project without causing trouble. 

As Henry VIII, he couldn't keep
his temper.

His onstage antics were legion, including a famous incident when, during the curtain call for his flop musical Rex, he slapped a chorus member whom he thought was drawing focus from his bow (I mentioned Rex several years ago, when digitizing my album collection).  His most notorious onstage incident was during the run of the Paul Rudnick comedy, I Hate Hamlet.

I saw the original production of this show, drawn there by the presence in the cast of the legendary Celeste Holm.  I was visiting New York on one of my numerous college tours, and snagged a ticket without knowing that, the night before, Nicol had caused a situation which is now infamous.  In the show, he was playing the ghost of John Barrymore, who has returned from the dead to guide a young actor in the playing of Hamlet.  Act one climaxes in a big sword fight between the two characters, and on this particular evening, Nicol changed the fight choreography and smacked his costar on the ass with his sword.  Evan Handler, playing the younger actor, halted the show, walked off the stage, and did not return.

Anyone who deals with fight choreography knows the necessity for accuracy.
One night, costar Evan Handler had had enough.
I did not see this particular performance.  I saw the next one.  The understudy had taken over, and Williamson was on his best behaviour. 

At the curtain call, the star took the young replacement by the hand, and asked the audience to give him a special round of applause for stepping into the role so quickly.  (The guy was not very good, as I recall, and the show ended up closing shortly after this mishap.  I wrote all about this when remembering my trip to New York in 1991).

Nicol Williamson died in December after a long bout with esophageal cancer, never having achieved the international acclaim he felt he deserved.  He was 75.

I Hated Homos

Dan Evins
A real American entrepreneur, Evins founded the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain in 1969, recognizing the market for "a home cooked meal" along the nation's expanding highway system.  As an alternative to the fast food chains which already held a toehold in the arena, Cracker Barrel grew from one store in Tennessee to a multi-million dollar corporation, with over 600 restaurants spread out in 42 states. 
They were particularly successful in the southern states, where their comfort food items, such as meat loaf and grits, mixed well with local bigotry and election fraud. 

During Evins's tenure as head of the company, memos were circulated urging individual restaurants to fire any employees who did not "display normal heterosexual values."  Uncounted numbers of gay (or perceived-gay) employees were sacked during a ten-year period, during which a lengthy boycott of the chain caused the shareholders concern. 

Rocking chairs on the porch for guests, unless
you were gay or non-white.

Even as the company was finally reversing its policy, they were brought up on racial discrimination charges, filed by non-white employees and clientele. 

Tom Delay received illegal
campaign money from Evin

A few years later, the company was charged with illegal campaign contributions to various politicians in Texas (this was part of the Tom Delay scandal).

After all the above turmoil, I was very surprised to read such a glowing obituary for Dan Evins in the Washington Post when he died of cancer last month.  The article slobbered praise all over the guy, with only a bare mention of the bigotry the man displayed throughout his life.

I guess if you make enough money, it doesn't really matter how many people you rob of their civil rights.

I Stalked Tina Sinatra

James Farentino


In "Violent Midnight," he was prettier than his costar,
Sylvia Miles.

He made his Broadway debut in the original production of Night of the Iguana, as one of the scantily clad houseboys, opposite star Bette Davis.  He went on to a substantial stage career, during which he played both sons of Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman. 

He played Happy opposite Lee J. Cobb's Willie,
then played Biff opposite George C. Scott's.

"The Bold Ones"
 His television career was even more boisterous, and included a starring role in The Bold Ones, and many guest gigs.  He first popped onto my radar when he starred with Patty Duke in a little one-act play which was filmed for PBS's Hollywood Television Theater back in 1971.  Birdbath, which is largely forgotten today, was a breakout script for Leonard Melfi, and the TV version was part of the ongoing commitment PBS used to fulfill, to bring various theatrical treats to the viewing public.  Duke and Farentino were dynamite in the play, a two-hander about two lonely souls who connect at a diner and spend the night together.
"Birdbath" provided rich roles for James and Patty.
Plus Farentino stripped to his underwear.
Patty and James also costarred in the feature film Me, Natalie,for which Duke won the Golden Globe. 

With Faye Dunaway, as the
non-musical Perons

Farentino won a Golden Globe himself, back when they used to give awards to Most Promising Newcomer.  He earned an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Peter in the acclaimed mini-series directed by Franco Zeffirelli, Jesus of Nazareth.  James played Juan Peron opposite Faye Dunaway's Evita, and was a regular player on Dynasty and ER, where he played George Clooney's father. 
With George Clooney, "ER"

With Timothy Dalton and Joan Collins,
"Dynasty," 1982
 Farentino led a tumultuous private life, with failed marriages to Elizabeth Ashley and Michelle Lee, among others.  He was arrested in Canada on a cocaine charge, and when he tossed an intruder off his property, he was sued for battery.  He felt his career was derailed by his unfortunate obsession with one-time girlfriend Tina Sinatra.  The relationship ended so badly that a restraining order was issued to keep him away from her;  Tina's father Frank spread the word that hiring Farentino would be a slap in the face to himself, initiating a blacklist of sorts. 

James Farentino died in January, from complications caused by a broken hip.  He was 73.

I Warned Will Robinson

It was almost exactly two years ago, that I wrote of the death of Bob May.  Don't recognize the name?  You'd recognize his most famous character, as I mentioned when I wrote his obit

The Robot, from Lost in Space
Bob May had a partner, in creating that most lovable of inhuman characters:

Dick Tufeld

Tufeld always knew he belonged in the voice field, and he had a long and varied career in radio and television. 

With a cup of hot chocolate,
I watched this program religiously, every Friday Night,
during its brief run

In addition to Lost in Space, he announced other Irwin Allen sci-fi programs such as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and The Time Tunnel.

Walt Disney and his 50s hit Zorro!

Disney loved him, too, and used his vocal stylings to introduce Zorro! and the long-running anthology series carrying Walt's name.  Variety shows starring Judy Garland and Julie Andrews were also part of Dick's repertoire.  But in 1965, when Tufeld teamed with Bob May to create The Robot, he achieved cult status. 
Tufeld and May, and the mechanical man they portrayed.

Though envisioned as an ensemble drama,
it took less than a season for this trio to become
the leading characters of Lost in Space.

With Bob in the costume and Dick at the mic, the character of the "bubble-headed booby" became a breakout star of Lost in Space, and as the series progressed, Tufeld's dry delivery of the Robot's dialogue became more and more endearing (and hilarious).  His voice was so inextricably tied to the character of The Robot that he repeated his vocal duties when Lost in Space was revived as a regrettable feature film in 1998.  Our hero did not write "Danger, Will Robinson!" nor "It does not compute," but due to his vocal expertise, both became catchphrases in the late 60s.
Dick Tufeld died a few weeks ago, at the age of 85, while watching the NFL playoffs.

I Climbed Ev'ry Mountain

Patricia Neway
I have never been a fan of The Sound of Music, and I resist anyone's attempt to drag me to a production.  The film makes my teeth ache, and I really want to smack those children. 
"So long, farewell..." now go jump in that lake.

A nun with a guitar
never gets old.

But I have to admit I may be too hard on the old chestnut.  Olney Theatre has just concluded a hugely successful run of the show, which extended several times and received great reviews.  I did not see that production, but was aware of the catastrophic injury one of its cast members received during the rehearsal period.  Monica is a colleague of mine (we recently appeared together in Olney's Witness for the Prosecution), and her accident made the whole DC theatrical community shudder. 

Monica Lijewski

Monica was slated to play the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music, which is probably why Patricia Neway popped up on my radar.  When Neway died last week at the age of 92, it was remembered that she won the Tony for the original production of The Sound of Music, playing the Mother Abbess.
Neway's Mother Abbess advises
Mary Martin to haul ass up that Alp.
Neway's career straddled the worlds of musical comedy and opera, with her greatest success coming with the latter.  She was particularly well-regarded for her appearances in various 20th century operas.  

Neway as Lady Macbeth in
Verdi's opera.

Her performance in The Sound of Music was her biggest success outside the opera world;  in the show, she sang that anthem of hope, "Climb Ev'ry Mountain."  As my friend Monica continues her arduous recovery from her fall, I hope she gets some comfort from the song.