"Well, if it weren't for Pete Gurney and Edward [Albee], I'd never work; they write the WASP plays."
The comment was characteristically dry and droll, the speaker the inimitably articulate, immaculately talented George Grizzard, whom I had the pleasure of calling just over a month ago for what was surely one of his very last interviews, if not the last.
Keen to fold Grizzard's perceptions on four decades spent dipping in and out of the Albee canon into a piece I was writing for Playbill in print, I had phoned from London to the actor's Connecticut home in September. The actor never let slip that he was battling cancer, which would end his life on Oct. 2.
Instead, he sounded at the top of his game — as clear-eyed, and sometimes deliciously sharp-tongued, as ever. So that his comments not be lost for good, what follows are excerpts from my conversation with Grizzard, age 79, as that September day he looked back on a theatrical life that gave me, and countless others, great and lasting pleasure. On first reading Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which Grizzard originated the role of Nick:
"I remember when [the director] Alan Schneider gave it to me to read, and I was on my way from Los Angeles to San Francisco and had stopped, I think, in Palo Alto. Alan said, 'Read this,' and it was like the New York phone book; it was terribly thick, and I said, 'Listen, I'm on holiday; I don't want to read it,' and he said, 'Read it, and we'll meet at the Top of the Mark.' So I read it before breakfast and after lunch kind of in dribs and drabs and thought, 'It's a brilliant play with a very good part, but I had already been hired to go to the Guthrie Theatre to play Hamlet.' Alan and I had worked together a lot, though, so I said, 'Yes, I would love to do it, if you'll let me out in three months because I have to go to Minneapolis in February.' They agreed to that, and I later found out that Edward didn't want me at all. He wanted Bob Lansing, but Alan talked him into it."
On initial audience reactions to that play:
"Audiences loved it, but I think they were shocked a little bit [though] the language wasn't that bad. I remember I said 'up yours' one time, and that was as rough as my language got, and Uta [Hagen, as Martha] said, 'Jesus H. Christ' to open the play, and that was a little shocking. And Arthur [Hill, the original George] kept saying, 'When do you think Edward's going to cut it?', and I said, 'I don't think he is.' Some years later, I was offered the part of George and I started looking at it and all I heard was Arthur. I had him in my head and thought, I can't do [the part]. I would just try to copy him because I thought he was wonderful."
On his feelings toward Albee, especially at that time:
"Edward always intimidates me — not on purpose, but I allow that to happen because I am in awe of his talent and his intellect and I was amazed that he at such a young age — we were both 35 at the time — knew so much about older people, as I later discovered with A Delicate Balance and Seascape. It's like the first time I saw Streisand, I thought, 'How does she know all that?' It's as if she's had two lovers and ten husbands and they all died in a traffic accident: there was some depth to her that I didn't understand. I saw her when she was 19, and Edward had that same kind of knowledge and maturity."
On Albee as a colleague:
"During Virginia Woolf, Edward didn't come round. He'd come to rehearsals once a week and say, 'You're all terrific,' and leave. He seemed to trust Alan and like what was going on, so there wasn't much need for him to be there. He still doesn't come to rehearsal, at least in my experience. He stays out of it, and if you read his scripts, with the capital letters and dots, it pretty well says how he wants things spoken: That big aria that Tobias has in A Delicate Balance at the end of the play — if you do it the way Edward wrote it, it works."
On acting A Delicate Balance, for which he won a Tony, and then Seascape:
"I'd first done A Delicate Balance in Stockbridge, MA, at the Berkshire Theatre Festival three or four years earlier with Kim Hunter and Holland Taylor, and I'd done Seascape up in Hartford with Mark Lamos opposite Pamela Payton-Wright. I think A Delicate Balance is Edward's best play, and I remember thinking that when Rosemary [Harris] and Elaine [Stritch] and I went to Washington, DC, to the Kennedy Center Honors to do pieces from his plays. During that production on Broadway, Elaine behaved herself, I guess, more than usual, and I think Edward appreciated that. It was like Rosemary Harris and her truck driver sister: they came across as sisters, just totally different sisters. Elaine knew what she was doing and she knew that woman."
On attempting to pry some praise out of Albee:
"You have to squeeze hard to get any kind of compliment out of him, and then it's hard coming. When we started Seascape up in Hartford, he came to the first preview and said, 'Are you having fun yet?' to the cast. Then he came to opening night and said, 'Well, it's coming along,' and that's when I blew up. I said, 'Coming along, my ass! That's as far as your play's going to get. I don't know what your play's about. Is it comedy? Fantasy?' That's the only time I lost my temper with him because it wasn't an easy play and he wasn't giving us anything, not dropping a crumb anywhere. I know now that he doesn't do that but it took me 40 or 50 years to learn that. When I left Virginia Woolf in New York, they had a small party for me and everyone was having a drink when Edward said, 'I have a speech to make.' And then he turned to me and said, 'All right, thank you for gracing my play.' And that was the speech. It was very moving."