I've led a very fortunate and productive life." This would be Arthur Penn's modesty talking. He sits in his sprawling, tastefully appointed apartment overlooking Central Park and reduces a half-century of densely distinguished work to a sensible assessment.
The truth is that he has made his own fortune — worked his own miracle, as it were — in more mediums and genres than most directors can fathom. He is the only person ever nominated for an Emmy, a Tony and an Oscar for directing the same property — The Miracle Worker, William Gibson's teleplay/play/screenplay about Annie Sullivan leading Helen Keller into the world of words and ideas — and indeed he took the Tony for that.
After calling the shots in the Golden Age of Television, he graduated to the big screen via a Gore Vidal take on Billy the Kid ("The Left Handed Gun" with Paul Newman), moved on to theatre and has been lacing these two venues into a substantial career ever since.
He isn't prolific, but his shots count. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he did 14 1/8 features — the fraction's for his pole-vaulting segment in "Visions of Eight", a documentary (through the viewfinders of eight filmmakers) on the 1972 Olympics — and he has been Oscar-nominated for landmark movies like "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Alice's Restaurant".
Only now — with Fortune's Fool popping out of the Music Box, starring Alan Bates and Frank Langella — is he getting around to his ninth Broadway show. It's a seldom-seen comedy by Ivan Turgenev, best-known for A Month in the Country. "This has been waiting for a really wonderful translator, and it has one in Mike Poulton," says Penn. "I have every reason to believe it'll be a good and affecting show." Bates, back on Broadway for the first time since his Tony-winning Butley 29 years ago, plays a nobleman who fears he's going to be given the gate by the family who cheated him out of his fortune. Langella is a crafty, rather overbearing neighbor who goads him into an alcoholic speech that is meant to be embarrassing but has a quite different effect.
"Alan and Frank are both superb actors, and they're absolute opposites in this. They couldn't be more different as characters, and I think that'll prove to be very interesting."
It was Bates who activated this project. He did the play at the Chichester Festival, and last year, when he appeared Off-Broadway in The Unexpected Man, he persuaded SFS Productions (Julian Schlossberg, Roy Furman, Ben Sprecher, Ted Tulchin and Aaron Levy) to bring this rarely done novelty to Broadway. "Julian's an old friend," says Penn. "He got it to me and asked if I would read it. I said, 'Not only will I read it, I will do it.'"
That snap decision is slightly surprising since — with the conspicuous exceptions of Lillian Hellman (Toys in the Attic) and Frederick Knott (Wait Until Dark) and that fondly remembered Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May — this is the only time Penn picked a playwright not from his early days in television: Larry Gelbart turned Ben Jonson's Volpone into a slaphappy Sly Fox, Tad Mosel made the Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Way Home out of James Agee's A Death in the Family, and William Gibson wrote all of Penn's other five Broadway outings — two at the beginning (Two for the Seesaw and The Miracle Worker), an improbable musical turn in the middle (Sammy Davis Jr.'s Golden Boy) and two at the end (Golda and Monday After the Miracle).
That was 20 years ago, and Penn hasn't been back to Broadway since. He almost made it back in 1987 — via a Polish play he did at Manhattan Theatre Club with Dianne Wiest and Ron Silver, Janusz Glowacki's Hunting Cockroaches — but Woody Allen needed Wiest for film retakes, and a Broadway transfer slipped through the cracks.
He never intended to stay away so long. "I just didn't find a play I liked. I've always done what I liked in the theatre — plays I had compassion and feeling for — and the plays I was introduced to then were too superficial to spend all that time and energy on without any kind of passion."
For Penn, there have always been other games in town. He credits his career longevity to media-mixing and his media-mixing to his lifelong love of acting. He recently became President Emeritus of the Actors Studio, having put in six years as its artistic head.
Lee Strasberg waved him into the fold in 1953 when Penn was doing live television and utilizing every good actor in town. "In those days," he remembers, "the next worst thing to being in a flop was being in a hit because that meant you did it eight times a week — sometimes for a year, back then — and that could drive anybody nuts. So Strasberg and Kazan and Bobby Lewis started Actors Studio where actors working on Broadway could assemble and do other work — but only in a peer environment. They could attempt things that were courageous and would not be done elsewhere. And they had these extraordinary people doing them, too — Marlon and Steve Hill and Annie Bancroft and Kim Stanley . . ."
Penn begins to glaze over at the thought of them. Like the man said: a fortunate life.
—By Harry Haun