STAGE TO SCREENS: PBS-TV's "Character Studies," and "The Catered Affair" on Screen(s)

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: PBS-TV's "Character Studies," and "The Catered Affair" on Screen(s) Interviews about the documentary series "Character Studies," plus a look at the 1956 film "The Catered Affair," a musical version of which is tuning up for Broadway.
"Character Studies" creator Tony Vellela
"Character Studies" creator Tony Vellela Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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Had Tony Vellela taken a sleep enhancer, it's possible that we wouldn't be able to enjoy the "Character Studies" series. He explains, "I got the idea in the middle of the night. I woke up and wrote it down. The next morning, I called a very good friend, Austin Pendleton, and asked, 'Has anyone ever done this?'"

The idea was to examine the lives of those depicted in plays and musicals. "Every great character in a play is a fully-formed person," observes Vellela. Fascinated by "the colors behind the facts," he set out to examine the individuals through interviews with writers, actors, and directors.

"We treat characters like real people. It's a study in human behavior. I don't know if it's unique," Vellela admits, "but it's unusual." Interspersed with interviews are film and TV clips, stills, and archival photographs that reflect the time period. The series' hosts are Eli Wallach, Eric Stoltz and Phylicia Rashad.

In July, PBS airs the first hour-length "Character Studies": "Living and Dying in Our Town." In the New York area, it will be seen on July 15 (WLIW, 10 PM) and July 22 (WNET, 12:30 PM). The first three portraits ran 30 minutes and aired in 2005: Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie (April), Rose in Gypsy, the Laurents-Styne-Sondheim musical (May), and Ruth in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (June). Among those discussing Mrs. Wingfield were Julie Harris, Olympia Dukakis, and Ruby Dee (all of whom portrayed the heroine), Sam Waterston (a TV Tom, opposite Katharine Hepburn), James Naughton (once a Gentleman Caller), and Martha Plimpton (a one-time Laura). Commentators on Mama Rose included Tyne Daly, Betty Buckley, Bernadette Peters, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim. Focusing on Raisin's Ruth were talents such as Audra McDonald, Phylicia Rashad and Lloyd Richards.

Says Vellela, "We are pacing the releases of episodes based on [recorded] material. We were able to do the first ones because we had a tremendous amount of material." He's grateful for the expanded format for "Our Town," stating, "Originally, we were going to concentrate on just George [Gibbs]. An hour allows us more depth, and we can also study Emily [Webb]." For anyone who may not know, George and Emily are the young couple — next-door neighbors and friends since childhood — around whose relationship Thornton Wilder's play revolves. Overseeing the action is the character of the Stage Manager.

Participants in the "Our Town" episode include host-narrator Eli Wallach; members of the most recent Broadway revival (aired on PBS in 2003): Paul Newman, Stephen Spinella, Ben Fox, Maggie Lacey, Jeffrey De Munn, and its director, James Naughton; Eric Stoltz, James Rebhorn, and Frances Conroy (Lincoln Center's 1988 production, also seen on PBS); Cynthia Nixon (Emily in a 1990 Old Globe presentation); and Harvey Evans (Broadway's George in 1969). "We were very pleased to include Harvey," Vellela tells me. "We thought that we were only going to interview actors who did George in the last ten years."

Also seen is Tom Jones who, with Harvey Schmidt, wrote a musical version of Wilder's play, which they called Grover's Corners. Jones portrayed the Stage Manager. Rarest among the clips is a scene from a 1955 TV-musical version, with Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint as George and Emily. (Not seen in the documentary is Frank Sinatra who, as the Stage Manger, introduced the standard "Love and Marriage.") The program allows you to see Newman as George and — almost a half-century later — as the Stage Manager. "To be able to see that kind of an arc in a person's career," exclaims Vellela, "is amazing!"

Clips are seen from the 1940 film version (for which a happy ending was added), with William Holden and Martha Scott as George and Emily, and a cast including Thomas Mitchell, Fay Bainter, Guy Kibbee, Beulah Bondi, Stuart Erwin and Frank Craven (Broadway's original 1938 Stage Manager).

Occasionally, the same scene shifts from the '40 film to a subsequent TV version, among which are a 1977 NBC telecast, with Sada Thompson and Ned Beatty as George's parents, and the 1989 PBS presentation (featuring the 1988 Lincoln Center cast, including Spalding Gray and Penelope Ann Miller).

Sixty minutes also lets Vellela a more in-depth look at the drama. "Every single person I talked to had the same experience — that [Our Town] is not a Hallmark-card-theme play, but a dark, serious work. People don't always realize that." It's also noted that the Stage Manager character may have inspired George Burns' introductions to episodes of the 1950s sitcom "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show."

Included in the documentary are stills from school and regional productions of Our Town.

Upcoming "Character Studies" include profiles of Anna in The King and I ("We interviewed Shirley Jones, Barbara Cook, and Donna Murphy"), Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Edmund in Long Day's Journey Into Night, Mark in Rent, Roxie and Velma in Chicago, Music Man Harold Hill, and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Vellela was able to interview the original Martha, the late Uta Hagen. "She was in failing health, but she knew about the project and had a long history with Austin Pendleton [the series' Creative Consultant], because of the HB Studios."

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Not included in the documentary, because rights were not made available, are stills from the 1969 Broadway revival of Our Town. But Harvey Evans, who played George, has fond memories of the production, which featured a stellar cast that included Henry Fonda (Stage Manager), Elizabeth Hartman (Emily), Ed Begley and Mildred Natwick (George's parents), John Randolph and Irene Tedrow (Emily's folks), John Beal (Simon Stimson), John Fiedler (Professor Willard) and Margaret Hamilton (Mrs. Soames).

Recalls Evans, "Henry Fonda was incredible! He was such a minimalist actor that you never saw him act. After Broadway, we went to California. He directed that. He brought me down [in performance] about a third. I was thrilled!"

Fonda, notes Evans, "was semi-cold, but always kind. He would always say hello. He was happy with the company, because a couple of the actors — Ed Begley, John Fiedler — had been in '12 Angry Men' with him."

Playing Emily, opposite Evans, was Elizabeth Hartman (a 1965 Oscar nominee for "A Patch of Blue") in her only Broadway appearance. Says Evans, "She was very neurotic." The actress (1942-87) later committed suicide.

Evans' favorite role, to date, was Albin/Zaza in La Cage aux Folles, in which he co-starred (on tour) with Larry Kert. "We had been friends since West Side Story."

July 7, Evans sets sail on Rosie O'Donnell's annual cruise, on which he'll play Daddy Warbucks in Annie, with O'Donnell as Miss Hannigan and Andrea McArdle recreating her title role. (The orphans are played by adults.) ***

Among those present at a screening of the documentary that I attended was Eli Wallach, the nonagenarian actor who's still sharp as a tack. During a Q&A, he expressed his opinion of "American Idol" ("a disgrace!"), and felt that "Character Studies" was "refreshing for young people to see." When Maggie Lacey joined the session, there was no chair for her, and Wallach jokingly suggested that she "sit on my lap!"

Wallach later shared a Billy Wilder story with me. Near the end of his life, Wilder was about to be interviewed by a neophyte reporter, who had not prepared. Began the interviewer, "What are some of your major accomplishments?" Smiling, Wilder replied, "You first."

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On Sept. 20, San Diego's Old Globe Theatre welcomes a new Broadway-bound musical, A Catered Affair, with book by Harvey Fierstein, a John Bucchino score, and John Doyle directing. The cast includes Faith Prince, Tom Wopat, Leslie Kritzer and Fierstein. It's based on a 1955 Paddy Chayefsky teleplay that starred Thelma Ritter, Pat Henning, Kathleen Maguire, and J. Pat O'Malley, and its 1956 film version, with Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Debbie Reynolds and Barry Fitzgerald.

In 1953, Chayefsky (1923-81) wrote "Marty" for television. It starred Rod Steiger as a Bronx butcher and Nancy Marchand as the girl in whom he becomes interested. It proved so popular that a movie version was made, co-starring Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair. Chayefsky wrote the screenplay, and won an Oscar. "Marty" also won Best Picture of 1955, Director (Delbert Mann) and Best Actor (Borgnine).

"The Catered Affair" (NBC, May 22, 1955) proved to be Chayefsky's last teleplay. It told the story of a Bronx mother, Aggie Hurley, who wants her daughter to have a big wedding. The girl wants a quiet ceremony, as does her cab-driver father, who would rather use the money required for a fancy reception to buy his own taxi. The Hurleys share an apartment with Aggie's brother (which will be Fierstein's role).

Thelma Ritter received an Emmy nomination for her portrayal. Those unfamiliar with the brilliant character actress (1905-69) — and who are interested in good acting — should rent her movies. She received six Oscar nominations: 1950, as Bette Davis' outspoken dresser in "All About Eve"; 1951, as the groom's mother in "The Mating Season"; 1952, as a nurse for injured singer Jane Froman (Susan Hayward) in "With a Song in My Heart"; 1953, as a peddler in "Pickup on South Street"; 1959, as Doris Day's tipsy maid in "Pillow Talk"; and 1962, as Burt Lancaster's mother in "The Birdman of Alcatraz."

She and co-star Gwen Verdon tied for the 1958 Best Actress Tony for New Girl in Town. Chayefsky had long been a Ritter fan, having written the story for the 1951 movie "As Young as You Feel," in which Ritter appeared and Marilyn Monroe had a small role. Monroe later promised to star in the film version of Chayefsky's "Middle of the Night," but changed her mind. (Kim Novak played the role.) Chayefsky used Monroe as the prototype for his 1958 film "The Goddess," which starred Kim Stanley.

Bette Davis starred in the 1956 movie of "The Catered Affair," which she considered "one of my proudest efforts" (according to "Mother Goddam," the book she co-authored with Whitney Stine). Debbie Reynolds, who co-starred as her daughter, had appeared in a small role in 1948's "June Bride," which starred Davis and Robert Montgomery.

Ads for the film touted the new Oscar winner Borgnine and that the film was a reunion for the actor and Chayefsky (whose teleplay was adapted by Gore Vidal). According to Davis, the picture was not properly promoted by MGM. Richard Brooks directed. Not a box-office success in the U.S., the film fared better in England, where it was called "Wedding Breakfast."

Let's hope that the "Catered Affair" musical (note that it's going to be called A Catered Affair rather than "The") has more success than the Rupert Holmes-Charles Strouse-Lee Adams musical version of Chayefsky's "Marty," which has not yet resurfaced since it had a Boston production (starring John C. Reilly) a few years ago.

Barry Fitzgerald, Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Debbie Reynolds and Rod Taylor in "The Catered Affair."
Barry Fitzgerald, Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Debbie Reynolds and Rod Taylor in "The Catered Affair."