Sunday, November 7, 2010

One Degree of Separation

This would be more fun if it didn't involve dead people. But the past few weeks have brought deaths which are eerily connected. In fact, in a space of less than 20 days, we lost four artists who were separated by only one degree. I think I have this right:

Tom Bosley, celebrated sitcom star, died Oct. 19. I wrote about his loss in connection with this Dance Party. Early in his career, he won the Tony for his performance in a musical called Fiorello!

Joseph Stein, the renowned librettist (book writer) for many musical comedies over the years died Oct. 24. He penned Fiddler on the Roof, and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for his musical Fiorello!, which of course, starred Tom Bosley. I wrote of his death here.

Barely a week later, on Nov. 3, Jerry Bock died. He composed the music for Fiddler, and for Fiorello! During his most prolific period, Bock's lyricist was Sheldon Harnick (who, so far, is still with us). In addition to many other works, the duo created the score for The Rothchilds, which introduced this young actress to Broadway:

Jill Clayburgh


Actually, The Rothchilds was not Jill's Broadway debut. She had appeared once before, in a five-performance flop called The Sudden and Accidental Re-Education of Horse Johnson opposite Jack Klugman (doesn't that title make you want to go out and read the play?). But The Rothchilds was a solid hit, and Clayburgh followed it up with Pippin, in which she played the love interest of the title character and introduced a couple of swell ballads by composer Stephen Schwartz.

By this time, our Jill had already loved and left Al Pacino, with whom she co-starred in a pair of one-acts Off-Broadway. The evening included Clayburgh starring in It's Called the Sugarplum, which was never heard from again, but Pacino's playlet was Indian Wants the Bronx, which has become a minor classic.

Her early romance with Al now has coincidental significance: Jill's daughter Lily is currently breaking box office records opposite Pacino in The Merchant of Venice on Broadway.

But back to our heroine. The turning point in Clayburgh's career (and her personal life) may be the role she did not get. In 1973, she was desperate to land the leading role in a new play by David Rabe, In the Boom Boom Room. The role went to Madeline Kahn, which convinced Jill she needed a higher profile, so she headed to Hollywood. But not before beginning a relationship with the playwright Rabe, whom she married.

She landed a small role in the cult failure Portnoy's Complaint, and played Gene Wilder's love interest in Silver Streak. Semi-Tough introduced her to Burt Reynolds, with whom she was to have a big success a few years later in Starting Over. She played Carole Lombard in a television movie, but it was 1978's An Unmarried Woman which provided her breakout role. Paul Mazursky's film, about a wife who unexpectedly finds herself single, tapped into the angst which was a by-product of the feminist movement of the time. She won the best actress award at the Cannes film festival, and was nominated for the Oscar (which she lost to Jane Fonda in Going Home).

A year later, she earned two Golden Globe nominations, one each for drama and for comedy. La Luna, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, contained a highly controversial scene in which Clayburgh masturbated her own son in order to keep him off heroin (ew). In the comedy category, Jill was nominated for Starting Over, a film for which she received her second Oscar nod (she lost that one to Sally Field in Norma Rae).

Jill's TV work included one of my favorite episodes of Law and Order, in which she played an aggressive divorce lawyer who sacrificed her own client to beat her opposing council, played by Tony Roberts. Those two, Clayburgh and Roberts, would reunite in 2006's Broadway revival of Barefoot in the Park.

Jill played Ally McBeal's mother, and was Donald Sutherland's wife in the night time soap, Dirty Sexy Money.

She earned Emmy nominations 30 years apart, for playing a hooker in 1975, and for a guest stint on Nip/Tuck in 2005. Her final film performance is in Love and Other Drugs, which is to be released later this month. Jill Clayburgh died on Friday, after a lengthy battle with leukemia, at the age of 66.