STAGE TO SCREEN: American Film Theatre & TV Theatre in Sept.

STAGE TO SCREEN: American Film Theatre & TV Theatre in Sept. Many readers have written in with nostalgic memories of Ely Landau’s American Film Theatre. This was the mid-seventies program in which subscribers would go to a local movie theatre once a month and see high quality adaptations of contemporary drama (Genet, Ionesco, O’Neill and Pinter, among others). The theatre managers dressed up, and “Cinebills” with fake leatherette covers were handed out. The series lasted two years and generated a total of 14 movies, very few of which have been seen since (and one of which, “Philadelphia, Here I Come!,” never got screened in theatres at all).

Many readers have written in with nostalgic memories of Ely Landau’s American Film Theatre. This was the mid-seventies program in which subscribers would go to a local movie theatre once a month and see high quality adaptations of contemporary drama (Genet, Ionesco, O’Neill and Pinter, among others). The theatre managers dressed up, and “Cinebills” with fake leatherette covers were handed out. The series lasted two years and generated a total of 14 movies, very few of which have been seen since (and one of which, “Philadelphia, Here I Come!,” never got screened in theatres at all).

New Yorkers recently had a chance to catch six of the 14 AFT offerings, thanks to the Lincoln Center Festival, and it looks like the rest of the country will get its chance soon. Ely Landau has passed away, but his widow, Edie, and son-in-law, Michael Kantor, are on a crusade to get the 14 films on DVD and at a film festival near you.

The modus operandi behind selecting the Lincoln Center Festival offerings was simple enough, according to Edie Landau: “They were basically the easiest, quickest, best prints available.” Among those chosen were the late John Frankenheimer’s four-hour film of O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” with Lee Marvin, Fredric March and Robert Ryan; Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield and Lee Remick in Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance”; and a film of Pinter’s “The Homecoming” featuring four of the six original cast members, including Ian Holm. Arthur Hiller came into New York to discuss his “Man in the Glass Booth,” starring Maximilian Schell, and Frankenheimer had been scheduled to appear as well. Landau says “Iceman” is “the best thing John ever did, by his own admission.”

Back in the days before public television existed, Edie and Ely Landau owned New York’s Channel 13, where they had had some success in the early 1960's producing what they called “Play of the Week.” These were regular film adaptations of everything from “Medea” to “The Iceman Cometh.” When O’Neill’s widow saw the latter production, she asked for other O’Neill films, which ultimately led to an acclaimed big-screen “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” starring Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson and a young Jason Robards Jr.

The rest of the AFT puzzle came together in 1970, after the Landaus had completed a four-hour documentary about Martin Luther King. The Landaus implored more than 500 movie theaters nationwide to donate a screen for one night, and all proceeds went to the Martin Luther King Foundation. The Landaus realized it was possible to couple this distribution strategy with the “Play of the Week” format. Thus was born the American Film Theatre, which ran from 1973 to 1975. Not even two people as dynamic as the Landaus could keep AFT running indefinitely. “There were just too many mountains to climb,” Ely Landau says, “and we simply wore out.” She had hoped to include the AFT film of Simon Gray’s “Butley” in the Lincoln Center retrospective — “Alan Bates was wonderful in that” — but the print would benefit from some refurbishment. “I’m also a real sentimentalist,” she says, “and I happen to love ‘Lost in the Stars,’” one of two musicals that AFT filmed. (The other is “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.”)

Kantor, himself a documentarian — he’s developing a six-hour series on the history of Broadway for Channel 13 — is working to get the 14 movies seen. The rights — which had been languishing in the Warner Bros. vaults, thanks to a complicated series of mergers — have finally made their way back to the Landau family, and Kantor says a distribution deal is nearly in place for the entire package. He says the Lincoln Center Festival offered great press as well as an imprimatur: “Once Lincoln Center does it, it’s like a beacon to all the independent theatres and film festivals in the country.” Sure enough, festival showings have already been lined up in Philadelphia, Florida and Portland, Oregon, among other places. Kantor would also love to find an Irish film festival for what would be the domestic premiere of Brian Friel’s “Philadelphia, Here I Come!” with Donal McCann and Siobhan McKenna. As more details become available about this or any other AFT news, I’ll be sure to pass them on.

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In addition to the batch of TV-bound plays I mentioned in my last column — including the Bruce Willis “True West,” which debuts Aug. 12 on Showtime — a few more titles have popped up. The most mainstream is probably the upcoming PBS “Gin Game,” starring former sitcom cast mates Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke. It’s filming now and should debut under the “PBS Hollywood Presents” banner sometime in early 2003. PBS will also show “Copenhagen” — the best Broadway play of the last five years, in my opinion — on Sept. 29, starring Stephen Rea. Combined with the live “Contact” on Sept. 1 and the Beckett short pieces on Sept. 15, next month is shaping up to be a stellar one for public television.

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For anyone living in northern Manhattan (such as myself), finding a good movie to rent just became about 100 times easier with the opening of a Kim’s Video franchise near Columbia University. While frittering away at least an hour in the DVD shelves the other day, I stumbled onto “Pinero” among the new releases. This was the biopic of Miguel Pinero, the Hispanic playwright who had a hit with Short Eyes before falling out with Joe Papp and ultimately dying of cirrhosis of the liver at age 41.

I had interviewed Leon Ichaso, who wrote and directed the film, just before the movie was released in theatres last December; unfortunately, “Pinero” only lasted a week or two and never got a wide release, so I never had a chance to use the stuff. But now that it’s out on video, I thought I’d mention the movie. It’s far from perfect, God knows, but it takes an adventurous stab at depicting a guy whose flame burned extremely bright and in many directions — poetry, drama, screenplays, acting — for all too brief a time.

If I hadn’t cleaned out my workspace a week or two ago, I’d still have my damn notes and could tell you exactly what Ichaso had to say about the film. But I do recall that he had worked hard to make the film he wanted to make (very stream-of-consciousness, with quick edits and different film stocks). Anyone who knows anything about Pinero’s plays or poetry will find lots to enjoy. (Ichaso films Benjamin Bratt, who is quite good as Pinero, performing several pieces in their entirety.) And any theatre fan will get a kick out of Mandy Patinkin’s stern rendition of Papp and the sight of West Side Story star Rita Moreno, who plays Pinero’s mother, dancing yet again on a New York roof.

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Your Thoughts: Here’s your chance to play cheerleader for all your fellow readers: What stage-themed movie is crying out to be rediscovered at the video store? Feel free to name one of the American Film Theatre offerings or something even more obscure.

—Eric Grode is a 2002-2003 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, the New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, an assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at egrode@hotmail.com.