STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The Pentimentos

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The Pentimentos While 1776 is on everyone's minds, do you know what would be nice? If this year's Tony committee gave a special award to William Daniels for his riveting performance as John Adams in 1776.

While 1776 is on everyone's minds, do you know what would be nice? If this year's Tony committee gave a special award to William Daniels for his riveting performance as John Adams in 1776.

True, Daniels hasn't played the role since May, 1971, after a solid two-plus years of doing it. And he did get a 1969 Tony nomination, not too many hours after his triumphant opening night performance.

But it was a Tony nomination for Best Supporting or Featured Actor in a Musical.

Back then, if you were an actor who had a supporting part -- or if you had the lead but were merely billed under the title -- you competed in the same category.

The latter represented Daniels' situation. Lord knows that with John Adams, he had the lead in 1776. It's one of the great roles in musical theater. He also gave (I mean this) the best performance I've ever seen an actor give on the musical stage. The never-take-no-for-an answer, squarely resolute congressman with fire to burn -- Daniels made America happen for us on Broadway in 1969, just as Adams had made it happen in Philadelphia in 1776. But he wasn't billed above the title. Top-billed, sure. Star-billed, no.

After the nominations were announced, Daniels was not happy. He said he belonged in the Star category. Of course! Why the nominating committee didn't change the rules right then and there for Daniels is a staggering question. Someone should have said, "Listen, can't we just say that the top-billed actor and actress are the leads, and never mind where their names happen to be on the poster? It's what's on stage that counts."

We won't give the names of the nominators that year. It happened 28 years ago. By law, the statute of limitations has run out on their crime. (By emotions, it never will.)

Had Daniels been placed where he rightfully belonged, which Best Actor nominee would have been bounced? Herschel Bernardi in Zorba? Joel Grey in George M.? Probably Jack Cassidy in Maggie Flynn.

And had Daniels been placed where he rightfully belonged, Jerry Orbach of Promises, Promises wouldn't have won Best Actor -- which would have been heartbreaking, too. Orbach was sensational in the show, in a way you've never seen him before or since. He didn't play the tough guy that's become his stock-in-trade, but Chuck Baxter, a truly nice guy office worker who was too shy around women, especially the elevator operator. You knew everything going on inside him, because Neil Simon had him talk to us. "I wish I were sitting out there with you," said a forlorn Baxter, "so I could take a look at me and figure out what's wrong."

Too bad you weren't out there, Mr. Orbach, to see how good you were. A Tony winning performance in virtually every other year.

Not, though, 1969.

Everyone knew that Daniels would walk away with the Tony for Best Supporting or Featured. He didn't. Instead, he chose to make a statement. He took himself out of competition because he didn't want to be considered a Supporting or Featured Actor anymore.

That turned out to be a nice post-opening night present for his castmate, Ron Holgate. As Richard Henry Lee, he had one good scene with one number. He didn't have to feel guilty when he won. He really WAS the Best Featured Actor in a Musical that year. Even competitors Edward Winter and A. Larry Haines (each of Promises) would have probably agreed.

So Daniels came away with nothing.

The very next year, Cleavon Little was billed well below the word Purlie (check your album) and won Best Actor in a Musical. Same story for Hal Linden the year after that in The Rothschilds, Vereen two years after that in Pippin, Cariou the year after that in Night Music. The irony is that Vereen's could have been considered a supporting role, given that the show is called Pippin and not Leading Player.

All these performers profited from Daniels' statement that people who have been making their living as supporting or featured actors CAN snag a starring role. Even if their agents can't get star billing for them.

Come on, don't you think we can give William Daniels a Revisionist History Tony?

You know, that's not a bad idea. Maybe there should be a Revisionist History Tony each year to atone for oversights and downright mistakes. It could be called Best Pentimento.

You probably know the term from Pentimento, one of Lillian Hellman's memoirs. Webster's describes it as a term in painting -- "the presence or emergence of earlier images, forms, or strokes that have been changed and painted over." In her book, Hellman expressed the wish to change and paint over some of her life. Wouldn't we all?

Wouldn't the Tonys? Now, with the wisdom of hindsight, with emotions behind us, with sentiment faded ("So-and-so just has to get it this year, she's lost too many times!"), we may all be better equipped to give Revisionist History Tonys -- the Pentimentos.

Streisand in Wholesale. Follies as Best Musical, no? (If you want to bet that any Tony committee would still give Best Musical to Two Gentlemen of Verona over Follies, demand at least ten million-to-one odds.)

How about a Pentimento for those who weren't even nominated? Lee Roy Reams in Applause? Lewis J. Stadlen in Minnie's Boys? Lonny Price in Merrily We Roll along?

Perhaps we'd have some fun if the Tonys gave John Napier a Pentimento for his set for 1987's Starlight Express. Not necessarily because it deserved it. But that year, Napier won for Les Miz, and, in his acceptance speech, made a point of chiding the nominators for not citing Express. So -- if he were given a Pentimento, would he say, "About time," or would he apologize -- which we would be a Pentimento in its own right.

Maybe there should be a Best Pentimento Award in every category. Can't you hear it now? "The nomine's see William Daniels get one. (And don't be surprised if we see Brent Spiner win a Tony, too.)

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theater critic for the Star Ledger
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com