It is hard to pinpoint precisely when a character actor of genuine longevity crosses over into Beloved Country, but George S. Irving seems to have been basking there for quite some time. A towering pillar of professionalism, with a mother lode of bluster and bravado, he has — for close to three-quarters of a century — been charging through (mostly) comic roles in plays and musicals on Broadway and beyond.
Amazingly, nearly three decades after his last Broadway outing — a Tony-nominated turn in Me and My Girl (1986-89) — he has maintained the illusion of theatrical omnipresence by busying himself Off-Broadway with readings, benefits, cabarets and actual shows. During Gingold Theatrical Group's first decade of presenting a Shaw-a-month, he did 26 readings — more than any other actor — and, as an appreciative payback, Gingold's artistic director David Staller is now rewarding him with a star part in Project Shaw's 106th event, A Chekhov and Shaw Comedy Night. It will be presented Sept. 21 at 7 PM at Symphony Space's Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre.
This is the company's first brush with Chekhov, one of the inspirations that GBS actually acknowledged. With the help of two Russian language professors, Staller has created — specifically for Irving — a new translation of Swan Song. It's about a veteran actor flashbacking over his career after his final performance. As in David Mamet's A Life in the Theatre, the hanging-on-every-word audience for this nostalgic shop-talk is a newcomer to the art (in this case, Something Rotten's John Cariani).
Irving, who will turn 93 Nov. 1, believes he can hack it. "It's an irresistible part for me," he says, "an old actor retiring from the stage, a little drunk, a little self-pitying, remembering the old times. He's always been a comic actor, but he believes he could have been a really great serious actor. I guess all comics feel that. I'm no exception."
The closest he came to greatness, he figures, was in 1982 when he replaced George Rose in The Pirates of Penzance and dutifully made "the very model of a modern Major-General" of himself. "Any masterpiece is serious, really, and that show was certainly a masterpiece. It was every bit as satisfying as playing Hamlet, I think."
His big claim to fame came a dozen songs deep into So Long, 174th Street, a show that ran only 16 performances. What "Some Enchanted Evening" was to Ezio Pinza, "The Butler's Song" is to George S. Irving. In one of three roles he had in that show, he played a stuffy major domo for a notorious womanizer, blithely rattling off to all callers his master's peccadilloes with every major movie diva of the day. Happily, in 2007, York Theatre revived the show under its original title, Enter Laughing, and Irving got to sing it again. And again. He estimates he has sung the song 100 times outside the show, and, as late as a York benefit in March, it still kills.
"I remember the first time I sang it at the first orchestra rehearsal in Philadelphia. When I sang the first line — 'He's screwing Dolores Del Rio' — the guys in the orchestra couldn't handle their mouthpieces. The audience, of course, collapsed."
They did it again when he went into his showstopper in Irene, "They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me." He got the Tony and beaucoup laughs as a haughty fashion icon who answered to the name of Madame Lucy, but he wasn't the first choice for the role.
"I was in Boston about to close in a flop when my agent, Milton Goldman, said Billy De Wolfe was ill and couldn't continue in the role and would I come in and audition. So I did. I took a train after the show and auditioned in the morning for Sir John Gielgud, who was directing. He handed me the script and said, 'Now, the role is of a dress designer. You may be as extravagant as you like, dear boy,' so I pulled out all the stops and got the part. He really worked with me. He gave me — not a cane — a long, 18th-century walking stick, which worked. They were well into rehearsal by that point. He said, 'The time is short. Would you mind if I gave you some readings?' Would I mind! That was like God asking if He can help you with your bar mitzvah."
Gower Champion, who wound up replacing Gielgud, directed Irving in The Happy Time, which was not a happy time for the actor. "I had a song they took away from me and gave to David Wayne. Gower came into my dressing room — very hesitant about it — and I said, 'It's okay, Gower. It's for the good of the show.' And he cried."
Irving's Broadway career began, fittingly enough, where they say all modern-day American musicals began — with Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's landmark Oklahoma! That was 72 years and 33 shows ago, and today he and Bambi Linn (a Dream Child in Agnes de Mille's famous act-one ballet who grew up to dance the Dream Laurey in the movie version) are all that remain of the original cast. "Dear Bambi, that gorgeous little girl — how we thirsted after her!" he sighs. "I think she was 15 or 16, such a sweet kid. She and her pal, Diana Adams, who later became a great ballerina, used to pal around with me and my roommate. The four virgins!"
Nine months before his Broadway debut — in the summer of '42 — Irving was at the St. Louis Muny Opera getting his act together in the chorus of Hammerstein's other landmark musical, Jerome Kern's Show Boat. Norma Terris, the original Magnolia, was the star, and Hammerstein came in to see her. At the final dress rehearsal, it became apparent the guy singing "Ol' Man River" had lost his voice, so a white actor in a smaller role took over the part and Irving stepped out of the chorus into his. Hammerstein directed the transition, which went well enough for Irving to ask Hammerstein months later for the Oklahoma! audition. That got him into the chorus.
When he next crossed paths with R&H, he was well out of the chorus and playing a conductor on stage in the show-within-the-show segments of Me and Juliet. "I actually conducted," Irving beams. "They thought there was a dwarf between my legs conducting the score. Conducting's easy. The baton plays no wrong notes."
The conductor he played was temperamental, always on the brink of quitting but kept in line by an inventive stage manager who created a mysterious lady admirer who'd send the maestro a nightly gardenia and a note saying she'd be out front. "I left the show before it closed, and on my last night when I started my little overture and turned to the audience, holding my lapel and sniffing my gardenia, I saw Bill Hayes, our leading man, had put gardenias in every other seat on the front row."
Irving was also on board for the last show Rodgers wrote for Broadway, I Remember Mama, playing the irascible Uncle Chris. "Doing that death scene with Liv Ullmann — that beautiful lady leaning over me with those fantastic blue eyes — such a pleasure!"
When he played the head of the household in musicals, he often hired Tony-winning help: Robert Lindsay in Me and My Girl and Vivien Leigh in Tovarich. "Now there was another beautiful woman, a dear lady. Vivien was physically not well at the time — I think she had lung trouble — but she summoned great energy when she needed to."
Movies and TV have always occupied the backseat of Irving's career — and a distant backseat at that. One in particular led him back to theatre. "I was doing sketches in a David Frost revue on television. We had terrific writers who took off on everyone, and pretty soon they started bringing in Nixon material. David yelled out, 'Can anybody here do a Nixon?' I said, 'Well, I'll try.' So I got all the Nixon sketches. Then, when I heard Gore Vidal had a play in the works, I auditioned for that, and I got it."
An Evening With Richard Nixon and..., a play Vidal based on Nixon's actual words, also ran only 16 performances, but it got Irving the Drama Desk Award that year — and a death threat from the rabid far-right. "It was a vicious letter. I have it. I copied it into my script before the detectives took it away. They were going to blow us up some night when we weren't expecting it. It was signed Young Americans for Justice and Peace, but it came from New Jersey. My wife was terrified. She came to the theatre every night. She said, 'If they're going to kill you, they're going to kill me.'"
Irving found his wife in his first Broadway show after his stint in World War II. Maria Karnilova was the ballerina in a revue called Call Me Mister and went on to have an equally distinguished stage career, winning a Tony as Golde to Zero Mostel's Tevye and nominated for her Hortense to Herschel Bernardi's Zorba. They were married 53 years — from 1948 to her death in 2001. "She was the talent in the family, I think," he says.
That's a lot to look back on. "My daughter keeps telling me to write my memoirs, and I say, 'Oh, crap! I was just a journeyman actor.'" If so, it's been a helluvah journey!