STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with Jeffrey Tambor and Frederick Weller

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with Jeffrey Tambor and Frederick Weller This month we speak to Jeffrey Tambor and Frederick Weller, two of the stellar cast of Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet's award-winning (Drama Desk, Best Ensemble; Tony Award, Best Revival) vitriolic valentine to real-estate salesmen.

Jeffrey Tambor as George Bluth, Jr. in Fox's
Jeffrey Tambor as George Bluth, Jr. in Fox's "Arrested Development"

On August 28, the drama completes its limited engagement at the Bernard Jacobs (formerly Royale) Theatre.

***

"It's everything I wanted it to be — and more," enthuses Jeffrey Tambor of his current experience. "Doing Mamet is working without a net. He's so delicious. I knew he was great, but I did not know that by doing him, you get him. It's like hearing an overture in a musical. There isn't an ounce of fat on this thing. It's great!"

In the play, Tambor's character of George Aaronow is encouraged by Dave Moss (Gordon Clapp) to join him in robbing the real-estate office and selling its leads for sales to another firm. "Gordon and I run our scene every night [prior to the performance], just to get the cadences. I don't think Gordon would mind my telling you that."

I congratulate him on the cast's (non-competitive) Drama Desk Award for Best Ensemble. "They called me that morning, and told me we had won. I said, 'Don't you mean that we were nominated?' That night, when we came offstage, [director] Joe Mantello said some very nice things to us. It was a real lift." Adds Tambor, "I love this company. I don't know how it was selected. It's a bunch of machers [a Yiddish term for important people]. They mean business." Tambor's character on the ABC-TV sitcom "Arrested Development" is also named George (Bluth, Jr.), and he's just received his second consecutive Emmy nomination for the role. He had spent part of the day selecting two tapes for voters' consideration. "[The Emmy] should be an ensemble award, too. I kept howling at everyone else's performances. This whole thing about winning and losing is muddy waters. But I can remember, as a young actor, just walking around this city and not being able to get arrested. As my manager says, 'These are wonderful problems.'

"When I got this role [his second on Broadway], my daughter Molly [a history teacher] said, 'Dad, you've come full circle,'" referring to Tambor's 1976 Broadway debut in Larry Gelbart's Sly Fox. "All these years later, and I've moved one block up," from 44th Street's Broadhurst Theatre. In the Gelbart comedy, based on Ben Jonson's Volpone, Tambor understudied two roles and played the servant to Foxwell J. Sly, portrayed by George C. Scott.

"My part had three lines. I said, 'You look wonderful, sir,' three times. All my friends said, 'Do not take that role — and do not understudy. You'll regret it the rest of your life.' I did both of those things, and I've never regretted it once."

One of his Sly Fox memories is "watching Jack Gilford, who was my floor mate [backstage], and Gretchen Wyler work out their scene every night — meticulously [before the performance]. I was watching china — very rare and very beautiful.

"And I'd watch Scott from backstage. He was one of my mentors. The night I went on for Hector Elizondo [as Simon Able], if it hadn't been for [Scott], I wouldn't have made it through. He was so beautiful! It led to great things. I took over the role after Hector vacated it, and played opposite Bob Preston [who succeeded Scott]. We had a wonderful time!

"Preston was also a mentor, a great, great man — very spontaneous. He was a real theatre actor. No one gave a matinee [performance] like he did. He was full-bore [at maximum effort] all the time. He shone on the stage!"

Commenting that Kim Hunter had told me that Robert Preston taught her everything she knew about comedy triggers another memory. "I remember going to his dressing room because I was losing a laugh — as you do in a long run. 'What am I doing wrong with this line?' He said, 'Give me the script.' He went back three pages: 'That's where you're going off the road.' That's comedy. It's never the line itself; it's in the foundation.

"Those guys [Scott and Preston] had professionalism, with a capital P. It's a bygone era. I'm getting emotional talking about them." Tambor recalls Scott being thrilled that he liked Walter Huston, and I remark that among Huston's many credits (including an Oscar-winning role in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre") was my favorite movie, "Yankee Doodle Dandy," in which he played the father of James Cagney.

"Cagney," observes Tambor, "had physical grace. Alan [Alda] has it; Liev [Schreiber] has it. All the good actors in this cast have it. They're almost dancers in their acting."

***

Actors first tripped the light fantastic into Tambor's life in his native San Francisco. They'd set up shop in a theatre across the street from where young Jeffrey lived, and he'd sit in on rehearsals. "They were working on Home of the Brave — deconstructing it, putting it together. I kept coming every day to watch. It seemed beautiful. I loved the gentlemanly way they treated each other. It was unlike anything I was used to. I started helping them strike the set," and, at 11, began taking acting classes privately.

Eventually, Tambor's interest led to a 15-year background in repertory theatre. "My education was doing good plays and also stinkers. When you do a stinker, you learn how to act. I like having to audition. It's nice to do rehearsals. But it's with an audience that you get to love it!

"I came to New York late; I was already past 30," and, besides acting, had directed and taught. (A graduate of San Francisco State, Tambor earned a Masters in theatre at Detroit's Wayne State University.) "My first play here was Measure for Measure, at the Delacorte [in Central Park] — a great experience with a spectacular cast: Sam Waterston, Meryl Streep, John Cazale, Lenny Baker, Michael Tucker, Judith Light, Howard Rollins, Jay Sanders. . .

"Now, I probably have as many TV hours as I do theatre hours. When I first started doing [Glengarry], Joe [Mantello] did say, 'You're going to have to speak up,' because I'd gotten used to [not projecting] for television. But that was not a problem."

Among his credits are many films, numerous episodic-TV appearances and several series, including "The Ropers" (a spinoff of "Three's Company"), "Hill Street Blues," "9 to 5," "Mr. Sunshine" (in which he starred as a visually impaired English professor), "Max Headroom," "Studio 5B," "American Dreamer," "Everything's Relative" and "That Was Then." Tambor's favorite role, which earned him four Emmy nominations, is Hank Kingsley, the host's sidekick ("Hey now!"), in the 1992-98 cable comedy "The Larry Sanders Show," starring Garry Shandling.

Career highlights include "my first foray into films," playing Al Pacino's eccentric law partner in "And Justice for All" (1979). The part, he notes, "was dangerous. It was either sink or swim." Another high point was "a 600 pound character I played on [the debut of] 'Tales from the Crypt' — it was very dark, a total transference. I did that with Demi Moore." Regarding his sixth Emmy nomination, he claims, "I'm up against some great actors, but I didn't go into [show business] to get awards."

Last December, Tambor and his wife, the former Kasia Ostlun, became parents of a son, Gabriel, "and four days after he was born, my daughter gave me a grandson, Mason." In the enviable position of being an actor whose next job awaits him, Jeffrey Tambor concludes, "And I go from this [Glengarry] to 'Arrested Development.'"

***

Arrested development would hardly be the term to describe Frederick Weller's burgeoning stage career; however, he wouldn't mind having a series waiting in the wings, as does Tambor. "The financial security [in TV] is incredible. I'm married and would like to start a family, and nothing's better for that than a television show. It keeps you in one place."

His role ofGlengarry office manager John Williamson, a sort of cobra but with less warmth, marks Weller's second Broadway success in a row directed by Joe Mantello — coming on the heels of his memorable bigoted baseball pitcher Shane Mungit in Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out. "It's a great feeling to be in a hit that has won the Tony [as Best Play]," says Weller, "as it is now [Best Revival]."

Grateful for the Drama Desk Ensemble Award, Weller enjoyed the DD ceremony, especially the moments involving the winners of Best Featured Actor in a Play and Musical. "[Juilliard colleague] Michael Stuhlbarg's [acceptance] speech was sincere and humble, and it was great that Denis O'Hare [a Take Me Out cohort] also won. He's a brilliant actor." (Stuhlbarg was honored for The Pillowman; O'Hare forSweet Charity.) How does Weller enjoy making life miserable for Shelly Levene (Alan Alda) eight times a week? He laughs. "One of the unpleasant parts of the role is steeling my heart against Alan Alda. He's a sweet, humble man, the nicest guy in the world. But [his character] says a lot of [nasty] things to me, so that makes it a little easier."

Research for his role included watching a tape of the original production at Lincoln Center Library's TOFT [Theatre on Film and Tape] and numerous viewings of the 1992 movie version (with Kevin Spacey as Williamson). During rehearsals, says Weller, the cast "knew that the play worked, but we didn't know how it would be received. You never know."

That was also the case with Take Me Out, the journey of which — from London to Off-Broadway to Broadway — Weller describes as "quite a wild ride. It was great to be with the play as it progressed, and to see all the different flavors of audience that you got."

The biggest changes, he claims, "were between the Off-Broadway and Broadway audiences, and then between Broadway early-on and Broadway in summer, after we won the Tony. It had to do with the subtlety of the audience, and their sobriety. They get a little drunker, and a little less urbane in their taste. But they were still wonderful and very appreciative."

To date, Shane Mungit remains Weller's "most interesting role. I thought Richard [Greenberg] did an amazing job of writing such a strangely sympathetic, but dangerous, narrow-minded young man. He was an amazingly complicated character." Was it difficult for Weller to find a balance in Mungit? He replies, "I just worked on the sympathetic part. To me, what made that character wonderful was his intense, emotional need. That was the main challenge."

***

A native of New Orleans, Weller can trace his choice of career to a kindergarten experience. He sang "I'm Gettin Nuttin for Christmas" in a holiday show, and recalls, "All the other kids were nervous; I wasn't. All these older, seventh-grade girls kept coming up to me and telling me how great I was. I thought: 'This is a good way to get approval.'"

Following Juilliard, Weller's first New York stage job was understudying four characters in John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation. "It was near the end of the run, and I got to go on for everyone." In 1996, a week-and-a half before the start of previews for Stephen Bill's Off-Broadway play, Curtains, Weller took over for an actor who lost his voice.

Also in 1996, he played Villebosse in the Roundabout's revival of Jean Anouilh's The Rehearsal. The next year, he portrayed Leo Hubbard in the Lincoln Center production of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes. During that run, Jennifer Dundas (who played Alexandra) introduced him to her friend, actress Ali Marsh, now Mrs. Weller. "We've been together eight years, and married a year-and-a-half."

Other plays in which he's appeared include Safe as Houses, Hurrah at Last (both by Richard Greenberg), Douglas Carter Beane's The Country Club and Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things. The last took Weller from London to Off-Broadway to the 2002 film.

Among Weller's TV credits are the 1991 pilot of "I'll Fly Away"; 1993's "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" (playing Eliot Ness, supposed roommate to the title character); a 1993 "Law & Order" (with Lindsay Crouse, the first Mrs. David Mamet, playing his unorthodox shrink); the 2000 telefilm "The Beach Boys: An American Family" (in which he portrayed Brian Wilson); "Law & Order: SVU" (2003); and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" (2004).

He was cast as Officer Johnny Sandowski in the 1993-94 ABC series, "Missing Persons." Remembers Weller, "Daniel J. Travanti, from 'Hill Street Blues,' played the captain of the department. It lasted one season. We limped along, extended six episodes at a time, but it was fun working in Chicago [the show's locale] for a year."

Weller's most recent role (prior to Glengarry) was in Hartford, as the latter half of Peter and Jerry, Edward Albee's reworking (and expansion) ofThe Zoo Story. "I really hope that comes to New York. They lost their funding, or it's possible that the producers didn't want to compete with [the revival of] Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It was great working with Frank Wood [Peter].

"I just got an offer to do Edward's next [Broadway] play, which is a revival of Seascape," Albee's 1975 Pulitzer Prize and Tony winner. "I'd play the Lizard [for which Frank Langella, in his Broadway debut, won a Tony]. I'm waiting to see about something else, but I'd be very excited to work with Edward again."

Another future possibility is a Beth Henley play, Ridiculous Fraud, "at the McCarter [in N.J.] in the spring." That offer has a special significance. Notes a happy Frederick Weller, "My wife and I would be working together for the first time."

***

Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com, and is the author of the book "Between Takes (Interviews with Hollywood Legends)," to be published later this year.

Today’s Most Popular News: