STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with Željko Ivanek and Victor Garber Plus an Eileen Heckart Bio

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with Željko Ivanek and Victor Garber Plus an Eileen Heckart Bio This month we chat with Željko Ivanek and Victor Garber, and take a look at "Just Outside the Spotlight: Growing Up with Eileen Heckart" (Back Stage Books), a sterling new biography written by Luke Yankee, the youngest son of the late actress.
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From Top: Photo by Scott Landis

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Although Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial opens May 7 at the Schoenfeld Theatre, it's already received nominations from both the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk: as Best Revival, for Best Director (Jerry Zaks), and for Best Actor Željko Ivanek (pronounced ZHEL-ko Ee-VAHN-ik). "It's nicer being nominated than not nominated," says a smiling Ivanek, as we speak in his dressing room prior to last Wednesday's matinee.

Ivanek gives a riveting portrayal of Lt. Com. Philip Francis Queeg, a character usually referred to as Captain Queeg. Explains Ivanek, "He's captain of the ship, and the men who serve under him call him Captain, but his rank is Lieutenant Commander." Though he only appears in two scenes - both while being interrogated on the stand - his presence is felt throughout the drama.

Were there any misgivings about playing a role that some identify with Humphrey Bogart (in the 1954 film)? "No. I hadn't seen the movie. I'd only seen Michael Moriarty [in the 1983 Circle in the Square revival]. It was a really good production. Now, I've seen everything I could get my hands on: Bogart, the Robert Altman version [for TV in 1988, with Brad Davis as Queeg], even a kinescope of the original cast, with Lloyd Nolan as Queeg, at this theatre [then named the Plymouth].

"Someone asked wasn't it peculiar to look at other people doing the role, but somehow it wasn't. It didn't influence me in any negative way. If it influenced me to steal something good - that's positive. [Laughs.] It wasn't like I had an image in my head that I had to fight against." A gifted actor, who manages to become one with the Naval officer, Ivanek is truly in a Queeg of his own. Finding a character, claims Ivanek, "is an idiosyncratic, personal journey. Mostly, it's about going back to the play and back to the text [Wouk's Pulitzer Prize-winning book] to figure out how things happen. The book has a bit more about [Queeg's] marriage, and about a traumatic hazing incident. That's not mentioned in the play, but was very useful."

He's billed above the title, between David Schwimmer, making his Broadway debut as defense attorney Lt. Barney Greenwald, and Tim Daly, who plays the prosecutor, Lt. Com. John Challee. "Sometime in January, I got a call about doing it," notes the soft-spoken, self-effacing actor. Remarkably, it was a straight offer [no audition required], which doesn't happen much in the theatre - well, it doesn't for me."

The offer, he believes, was due to his solid performance in last season's The Pillowman. "I hadn't expected to be doing another play quite so soon. The Pillowman experience was so remarkable that I thought it would be a little while before anything else could live up to that. But this [Queeg] is an incredible part, and the play still works. It was impossible to say no."

How would he describe Queeg? "You first encounter him as a man who is confident, in full control, at ease in the world of the courtroom because he's among his peers. He functions very well when things are all right. In the first interrogation, he's totally at ease. There's no question in his mind that all will turn out well, because there's no question in his mind that he's ever done anything wrong. In the second interrogation, you see a man whose façade is endangered, and he really doesn't have the resources to fight back."

Ordinarily, he doesn't learn lines prior to rehearsals, but he admits, "I did in this case. I was too scared not to. We only had three-and-a-half weeks from first day to first preview. Everybody was off book [sans script] pretty fast." But learning dialogue beforehand, Ivanek points out, "is a mixed blessing. A certain part of your mind works on remembering, and therefore is not totally in the moment and working on what's happening between you and others."

An actor also needs to let a director orchestrate. "You learn the lines in as mechanical a way as possible, so that you're still exploring [during rehearsals]. When you really know the lines, there's an immense freedom. You can do them at breakneck speed, because it's in your bones.

"That's the wonderful thing about theatre. At some point, you really own [a character]. That never happens in movies or television." TV viewers know Ivanek from recurring roles on "Homicide: Life on the Street" (ADA Ed Danvers), "Oz" (Gov. James Devlin) and the first season of "24" (Andre Drazen). "It's allowed me to keep working," admits Ivanek, "and not have to do things I don't want to do."

He credits writer-producer Tom Fontana for his assignments on "Homicide" and "Oz" (both Fontana creations). Recalls Ivanek, "I knew him in Williamstown, back in 1978 [after the actor had graduated from Yale]. He was a fledgling playwright. I did three seasons in a row at Williamstown [the Massachusetts theatre program] under Nikos Psacharopoulos [its famed artistic director]. Tom was my first mentor. He helped me with agents, resumes and photographs -- and has kept me working ever since."

While he considers his "Homicide" colleagues to be "an incredible group of actors," Ivanek confides that his role on "Oz" was "probably the more enjoyable. My function was to stir things up, upset everybody and waltz out the door."

But television assignments are becoming scarce, he insists. "Movie stars are doing TV series, and former TV stars are doing guest shots. Everybody gets bumped down the line. That's affected everyone in the industry. I've been lucky; I've stayed busy. I'll cross my fingers until it's my turn to be sitting around, not working. I'm sure that'll happen, too."

Born in Ljubljana, Slovenia, he's been in the U.S. since age three. Following Yale, Ivanek studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). Among his favorite stage roles have been his Drama Desk-winning turn in Cloud 9 ("enormously influential") and Master Harold...and the boys, in which Ivanek was part of the original company.

"I had seen Pillowman in London and loved it. Being part of something that I, as an audience member, would like to be part of was one of the greatest experiences I've ever had." He's also fond of his part in bash (in London), and of Tom in The Glass Menagerie, a role he played in a 1994 Roundabout revival that starred Julie Harris. "I so love her. She came to the show last week. She was so sweet [in what she said] that I was in tears." To date, Ivanek's been a Tony nominee twice: Brighton Beach Memoirs and Two Shakespearean Actors.

Prior to a Caine Mutiny performance, he and a few actors "run small scenes. It's partly habit, partly superstition. I don't think we're going to go up at this point. Two or three of us do the first interrogation that we have with Tim [Daly]."

Just before curtain time, Ivanek relates, "The whole cast gathers onstage. I don't know how it started, but we wish each other well, and sort of hang out [for a few minutes]." An hour elapses between Ivanek's scenes, and during a performance, "occasionally [other actors] will stop by [his dressing room] when they're finished with their scenes, and we talk a little bit."

Ivanek prepares privately by doing "a vocal warm-up onstage. I like an empty theatre. Alone onstage, before anyone's there, I take a few quiet moments to erase the regular world and get into [a make-believe] one. I figure out what my first moment [in the drama] is about. I can't prepare for the whole play; that sort of charts itself out. If you start in the right place, nine times out of ten you'll end in the right place. It's just clearing the space for that moment to happen," concludes the consummate pro.

*** Of Thee I Sing: A brief background:
Co-librettists George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, along with lyricist Ira Gershwin, shared the 1932 Pulitzer Prize. Composer George Gershwin was excluded on the technicality that his music did not contribute to the story.

Choosing a satirical musical for the honor stunned the theatrical community, especially since there were such dramatic contenders as Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra, Robert E. Sherwood's Reunion in Vienna, Philip Barry's The Animal Kingdom and Elmer Rice's Counsellor-at-Law.

William Gaxton and Victor Moore co-starred in the original musical, which ran 441 performances. A sequel, Let 'Em Eat Cake, again starring Gaxton and Moore, opened in October 1933, but ran only 90 performances. Jack Carson and Paul Hartman starred in the 1952 Broadway revival (72 performances), which was recorded and, a few years ago, reissued on CD. Also recorded was a 1987 BAM concert version, which teamed Larry Kert and Jack Gilford. Ron Bohmer and Wally Dunn were paired in the most recent revival (at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse in 2004).

No movie version was made. A proposed early 1950s motion picture, to star Bob Hope, failed to materialize. CBS-TV presented a 90-minute adaptation (March 24, 1972), starring Carroll O'Connor and Jack Gilford.

George S. Kaufman, who directed both the original and the Broadway revival, kept check on his shows. One night, after watching Of Thee I Sing and thinking that William Gaxton was not as good as he could be, Kaufman went to a nearby Western Union and sent him a telegram: "Watching your performance from the last row. Wish you were here."

***

For six performances starting Thursday, Victor Garber returns to the New York stage - for the first time since Art in 1998 -- to star as Presidential candidate John P. Wintergreen in the City Center Encores! presentation of Of Thee I Sing. During a break in rehearsals last Thursday, Garber says, "I'm very happy to be back, and excited about doing this. It's my first Encores!

"They've assembled a great group of people," referring to a cast that includes Jefferson Mays, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Jenny Powers, Lewis J. Stadlen, Jonathan Freeman, Michael Mulheren and David Pittu. Mays (a Tony winner for I Am My Own Wife) plays Vice-Presidential candidate Alexander Throttlebottom, a never-recognized non-entity who, after the election, can only get into the White House by joining a guided tour and sneaking away to his office.

"It's thrilling to hear this music being sung by these people," claims Garber. "It's a great score [featuring the irresistible title song, as well as 'Love Is Sweeping the Country' and 'Who Cares?']. I didn't know this show at all. It was all new to me, so it's very fresh."

Since holding a script in hand is a concert-performance custom, how is Garber coping with it? "It's sort of an art to learn how to use the book, to be able to turn the pages when everyone else does. I'm grateful to have it, but it will be challenging.

"When I told Victoria Clark, at the time I saw Light in the Piazza again, that I was doing one of these, she said, 'I have one piece of advice: Know it all before you go into rehearsal.' I took her advice, and learned all the music, and read a version of the script, which has been cut considerably."

Garber laughs about the love angle between his character and the woman he marries. "I don't really know her, but she can bake corn muffins. That's the clincher, which we sing about ad nauseam. It's very funny. On my fourth day of rehearsal, the only thing I can honestly say is that it will be a fun evening."

As fans of the ABC-TV series "Alias" know, Garber has spent the past five seasons playing Jennifer Garner's father, Agent Jack Bristow (and earning three Emmy nominations along the way). A two-hour series finale of "Alias" airs Monday, May 22 (9 PM ET). "I think it will be thrilling for the audience -- satisfying and sad. Shooting it was extremely emotional," states Garber. "A lot of things happen that I won't divulge.

"Last night, I went to see 'Mission: Impossible III' [directed and co-written by JJ Abrams, creator of 'Alias' and 'Lost']. It was great. It was like watching a phenomenal two hours of the most-expensive 'Alias' ever. I feel like our last two hours are great television, and I hope people watch and enjoy."

Does the finale tie up loose ends of plot and relationships? "I think so. But it's 'Alias,' so everything is open to speculation - and to an 'Alias' movie, if they ever make one."

With several plot twists involving Bristow and his wife, played by Lena Olin, did he find it difficult to keep his portrayal consistent? "Not really. No matter what Lena does, when she walks in the room, she's yours. She's so beautiful and sexy that it's easy to forget all the bad things that she's done."

Did he consider Jack's relationship with his daughter Sydney (Garner) the heart of the series? "Well, it was part of it. It was about a family struggling to find its way, and I think Jack and Sydney became allies by the end. In the finale, we go back to her early days, and you see the damage that was done, and that was never really repaired."

Despite the series' cult following, why does Garber think "Alias" never caught on with the general public? "I think it was too complicated for people. That was the criticism I mostly heard. It had avid fans, but some people complained, 'Oh, I can't follow this.' My response was, 'Just stick with it. You don't have to follow it. It's entertainment.'"

Aside from Of Thee I Sing, this is also the week that Garber learns if "American Crime," a TV pilot he did for FOX, will become a series. "It was fun to do. Hopefully, it will be picked up. It's about high-profile defense lawyers who handle a lot of celebrity clients. In the pilot, the client is an upper-middle class man accused of killing his wife. My character is not concerned about whether someone is guilty or innocent. His job is to get them off. I think the series has potential, and could catch on."

If it does, Garber will have an even longer hiatus from the New York stage, where he enhanced more than a dozen shows between 1973 (his Off-Broadway debut in Ghosts) and 1999 (the workshop of Stephen Sondheim's Wise Guys, opposite Nathan Lane). He has four Tony nominations to his credit: Death Trap, Little Me, Lend Me a Tenor and Damn Yankees. In the last (a 1994 revival), Jerry Lewis succeeded him. I say that I was surprised that Lewis didn't succeed him in his next show, Arcadia, and Garber laughs. "I think he wanted to. Things just didn't work out." Adds Garber, "I'm very fortunate. I've never been typed as a 'musical' person. To me, being an actor is about doing as many different kinds of roles as possible. I've been blessed."

His parts have ranged from the Devil to Jesus, playing the latter in Godspell -- first onstage in Toronto, in a company that included Martin Short and Andrea Martin, then in his 1973 film debut. He's also played the title role in TV's "Liberace: Behind the Music" (1988); Thomas Andrews, the ship's designer, in "Titanic" (1997); Daddy Warbucks (the 1999 TV version of "Annie"); and Sid Luft in "Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows" (2001). He also received Emmy nominations as Luft, and for guest appearances on two sitcoms: a 2001 "Frasier" (as a British butler) and a 2005 "Will & Grace" (playing a has-been commercial star).

London, Ontario, Canada, was the birthplace for Garber, who started acting at nine when he joined a children's theatrical troupe. In 1969, he made his U.S. TV debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show," as a member of a musical group called The Sugar Shoppe.

Is there a role that has given Garber the most satisfaction, thus far? "There have been so many. Art was one of the greatest experiences I ever had, mostly because I was working with two actors [Alan Alda, Alfred Molina] that I had such a rapport with. For me, that's what's it's about now; it's who I'm working with, as much as the role.

"One of the best experiences I ever had was when I did A Little Night Music [with the Los Angeles Opera, in July 2004]. It was with Judith Ivey, Zoe Caldwell, Laura Benanti, Michelle Pawk. . . . Fredrik fit me better than any other Sondheim role I've done." That includes John Wilkes Booth in Assassins, Anthony Hope in Sweeney Todd and Wilson Mizner in the Wise Guys workshop. Assassins and Sweeney have been revived, he observes, "which makes me feel like an elder statesman."

Declares Garber, "Theatre, for me, is still very important," though he does less of it these days. "Every now and then, if I can come back and do an Encores!, I'll be happy."

***

A perfect gift for Mother's Day (next Sunday) - or for theatre lovers on any occasion -- is the new biography "Just Outside the Spotlight," Luke Yankee's valentine to his mom, the gifted Eileen Heckart (1919-2001).

Chock full of delectable actors' anecdotes, it's told in an engaging style, and laced with love. Along the way, Luke also pays tribute to his dad, Jack Yankee, an insurance salesman who occasionally acted in community theatre, and comes across as an ideal father. The Yankees, who were married from 1943 until his 1996 death, were parents of three sons: Mark, Philip and Luke.

Following the foreword by Mary Tyler Moore, on whose sitcom Heckart memorably played her aunt on three occasions (twice earning Emmy nominations), Yankee immediately draws you into the action, beginning with one of the many parties his parents hosted for friends. "In the living room of our Colonial Manor House," he writes, "Daddy would be tending bar while my mother held court."

Upon hearing "that booming, whisky tenor voice come wafting out of the living room," the youngster "ran downstairs for the evening's performance. . . When Mama was 'on' it was the greatest drug in the world. . . Reaching into the engraved, silver cigarette box on the table, Mama took the floor." A reader instantaneously joins the party, along with the other guests who, that particular evening, are Morton Da Costa, Jan Miner, Teresa Wright and Robert Anderson. Though the guest list changes (to include Paul Newman, Ethel Merman and many others), this behind-the-scenes look at the actress remains a party to be enjoyed.

Heckart gained attention with back-to-back stage successes: as the spinster schoolteacher in William's Inge's Picnic, and as the murdered boy's heartbreaking mother in Maxwell Anderson's The Bad Seed (a part that she also played in the 1956 film version, earning her first Oscar nomination). She won a 1972 Oscar for reprising her Broadway role as the caustic mother in "Butterflies Are Free."

Among stories to savor is Heckart's reaction to Nancy Kelly's attempt to upstage her in The Bad Seed (after she received better notices than the star). What future icon gave Heckart wardrobe advice on the set of "The Bad Seed"? Learn her feelings about Marilyn Monroe during the making of "Bus Stop." How did she meet Elvis Presley? Read about her friendship with Marlene Dietrich. A wealth of material is contained within this sparkling treasure trove.

Eileen Heckart, whom I interviewed more than once, was one of my favorites. As a child, she told me, she accompanied her mother "to two double features on Saturdays and Sundays. That was eight movies in a weekend! I cut my teeth on Joan Crawford movies - she dragged a mink better than anyone else."

At age eight, the future actress first stepped on a stage (at a Girl Scout camp). "I smelled blood," she recalled. "That start was enough to keep me going for the rest of my life." Heckart preferred stage to screen. "I don't know camera that well," she explained.

Mother Courage was her favorite stage role. She played it at UCLA (1960) and at the McCarter in Princeton, NJ (1975). "Those last four performances," she assured me, "were the most gratifying of my life."

Her best work on Broadway, believed Heckart, was as Lottie Lacey in William Inge's The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. "The part was beautifully written, and Elia Kazan [who directed] had four ideas for every one I had." Eve Arden played Lottie in the 1960 movie, because Heckart was pregnant with this book's author.

Due to rain, our first interview occurred at Kay's Luncheonette, near the Norwalk, CT, railroad station. As we were leaving, she commented on the luncheonette's patrons: "They didn't know who the hell we were," said Eileen Heckart, pausing to light another cigarette, "but they were fascinated."

That ability to fascinate is superbly captured by Luke Yankee in this portrait of his mom. Despite a few misspelled names and inaccurate references (correctable in future editions), the biography is very much like an Eileen Heckart performance: honest, on-target, immensely entertaining and leaves you wanting more.

***

Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com.

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