An Emmy winner, Tony nominee and respected stage, film and TV character actor for decades, Laurence Luckinbill can be considered a pretty well known and esteemed person. That said, he's begun to devote his acting career to playing other real-life, renowned and famous people -- especially those of historical weight and significance. Luckinbill's significant body of work -- including The Boys in the Band (both on stage and film), The Memory Bank (a NY Critics Circle Award nod) and The Shadow Box (Tony nomination) -- has brought him to a place where he can choose his projects. He's worked with his wife, Lucie Arnaz, on such shows as I Do! I Do! and They're Playing Our Song, and most recently played LBJ in the one-man bio, Lyndon, Off-Broadway. His next assignment, which opened March 7 at Ensemble Studio Theatre, will be the solo Clarence Darrow, Tonight!, taking a personal, unvarnished look at one of the great legal minds of the century.
PBOL: As a performer, what challenges do you face when recreating an actual person, rather than bringing a fictional character to life?
LL: Well, with Lyndon, everybody thought they knew what Lyndon Johnson looked like. They had an indelible image. I spent hours and hours at the museum of Broadcasting and tapes from the LBJ library. I worked really hard on that and never felt I achieved it. And even Lady Bird and the daughters commended me on the performance, so I gradually got to feel I accomplished something there -- granted, I'm not 6'4," and he had a very large johnson, whereas.... Anyway, that aspect never occurred to me until I was talking to the wife of a Secret Service man at a reception. She said the show was great and that I only screwed up one thing: Johnson played `pocket pool' all the time. So, um, I added some of that.
For me, since I wrote Darrow, the issue was who really is Darrow? It's not just the Scopes Trial and the Leopold & Loeb trial, where he stood against the orthodox ideas of the day. He has grown and grown in my estimation. He didn't take the cheap or easy road. He liked money as well as the next guy, but he was not a wealthy man. He was the most esteemed lawyer of his time, but he was so honest. Did you know he got stiffed by his clients in the Leopold & Loeb thing? They begged him to take the case, he took it -- even though he had a deathly flu -- and then, when he saved their lives, they refused to pay his fee. He ended up going to arbitration and got only a fraction of what they agreed upon.
I tried really hard to capture a moment in his life, when he became Clarence Darrow, with a big "C" and big "D." Before that, he was just another corporate lawyer. But the 1894 Railway Strike was a life changing decision: will you continue to work on the side of the strong (and big, big money), or work for zero on the side of the weak. He didn't want to leave his employment -- by his early thirties, he was earning more money than the President of the United States -- but he was uncomfortable working for the Railroad. He became a labor advocate -- a dangerous and, at times, dirty and violent business. In fact, toward the middle of Darrow's life, he got in trouble philosophically with what he believed. That's what the play is most about. It's about the man in full.
The play begins with him as an old man (an idea I got from seeing the only footage of him around: a "March of Time" interview). He's been invited to lecture but comes not quite knowing what the subject is. Turns out, the subject is: What is Justice? He sincerely and emotionally tries to find the answer.
Inherit the Wind wasn't Darrow at all; it was completely rewritten. His Leopold & Loeb summation is American Shakespeare. It took twelve hours. And at the end of it, one reporter said that when Darrow approached the bench, his voice was indistinguishable from the silence in the room; he had so spent himself. He gave everything he could in defense of indefensible people. They called him "the attorney of the damned."
The issues are complicated and have to be explained in dramatic terms. I'm pretty sure I've succeeded, but a one-man show is very lonely. As a performer, you hyperventilate, you have no spit left. As Phyllis Newman said when doing The Madwoman of Central Park, the worst thing is when the stage manager knocks and says `Places, please.' My wife even says, `I couldn't do what you do. I like people too much.' She likes musicals where you can talk and sing and go out with people afterwards. My cast parties are lonesome affairs. Still, I'm convinced I've found my niche; not just one-person shows, but historically important American characters who dealt with issues in a gutsy way. My next show, Nuremberg Revisited, will deal with a man who had access to the Nazi criminals on trial.
PBOL: Let's turn to much smaller sins and lighter topics. What was the most embarrassing moment you ever had on stage?
LL: We were doing Boys in the Band in London at Wyndham's Theatre. Well, we then found out, next door to our theatre was a marvelous Victorian Pub. So a bunch of us went at intermission to have a pint or two between acts. Now, I'm such a puritan and a stickler, but I felt like a schoolkid being naughty. So one night I had two beers. I got back on stage after a nice long break and realized I was absolutely swimming, stone drunk. I was aware I was drunk but I didn't know where I was. The second act is very fast dialogue, with nine people fighting for stage room. I felt underwater. I heard other people reciting my lines. We were great friends, and they'd never seen me like this. I had my big speech, and somehow I got up, feeling very strange. I thought, `Now I'm going to really do this.' But I wandered through that speech and through the end of the play. I got offstage, and everyone was laughing at me. It was the one and only time I will ever, ever, ever do that. And I'll bet the audience never knew anything. PBOL: Speaking of nights to forget, what credit couldn't you wait to get off your resume?
LL: Any and all of those early television episodes. I don't use them at all. Long ago I proudly said, `And he did a `Bonanza.' Or a leading role in `The Senator' -- a Hal Holbrook show which became a forerunner of the television movie. I'm proud of the work, but eventually you just don't want television things people haven't seen. Television's just a one-night stand. All the time people come up to me and say, `Hey, I just saw you on such and such...' I reply, `Wow, you sure stay up late.'
PBOL: Theatre obviously made the strongest impression on you. What was your first live theatre experience?
LL: When I was a kid in Arkansas, a professional company run by Clare Tree Major toured schools, and they did Hansel and Gretel. God only knows who those actors were! They had to be dear and magically strange creatures. I remember their makeup was very orange and blaring. But where I was, there was no live theatre of any kind, so that was my first play, and the only play I saw until I was 19 or 20. Then I saw Picnic with Ralph Meeker at the Geary Theatre in San Francisco. By that time, I'd decided, I wanted to do this for a living.
PBOL: Having spent a life in the theatre, then, who's your favorite person in the business?
LL: My wife -- and that's not trying to be a cute answer. Lucie is one of the two or three women in our business who can do it all: sing, dance act and be funny. She's also a really good, determined actress. She was the best Bella [in Lost in Yonkers] there ever was. She does everything so well. Yet we also have three kids in teen hell, so she has made many, many decisions over the last ten years which have kept her from being queen of the stage. I admire it so much. I had to make choices too, but she's younger and could do more than I can. I don't sing in Darrow, thank goodness. My favorite actor is Paul Scofield. If I could be anybody other than me, it'd be him. I like a lot of the British folks, such as Alec McCowen. I like both the craft of what they do and the modesty with which they do it.
PBOL: If God were a theatre critic, what would you like him to tell you when you go to Heaven?
LL: "You played LBJ, you played Clarence Darrow. Why didn't you play me?"
-- By David Lefkowitz