Going from Lancelot to Sarnoff in a single lifetime is quite a stretch — by any actor's imagination — but Hank Azaria has successfully brought this off in a single Broadway leap.
He debuted, magna cum Tony nomination, in 2005 as a dizzy denizen of Monty Python's Spamalot — the late-blooming "Lance" who, according to Pythonian-Arthurian legend, went gay rescuing a damsel-in-drag (Christian Borle) — and now he's back for seconds (without a song to his name, despite the fact that he plays RCA president David Sarnoff) in The Farnsworth Invention, Aaron Sorkin's historical saga of the co-creation of television.
In a surprising way, this also comes down to a single-sex struggle — a fight for credit, power and glory by two men who both claimed (each with considerable justification) to be The Father of Television: Philo Taylor Farnsworth, the Mormon farm-boy who built the first electronic television system when he was 21, vs. Sarnoff, the Russian immigrant who rose from office boy to ruthless captain of industry. One man brought television into existence; the other knew what to do with it. The labor pangs lasted for years until the patent-law courts determined the paternity question — with a highly debatable verdict.
"This play, for me, is like going back to the mother ship — to the beginning of it all," says Azaria. "Aaron is intrigued with TV and how it interacts with American culture. A lot of people put him on to the Farnsworth story. Here's this guy who doesn't get credit for inventing television, but what Aaron found was a story much more complicated. He got, as Aaron put it, fascinated with Sarnoff and how he was misunderstood by history."
Initially, Sorkin started writing the piece as a feature film — indeed, New Line Cinema announced in April of 2004 that it would produce the picture, with Thomas Schlamme directing — but the deeper the writer got into the heart of this technological cavalcade, the more he realized that his story might better be served by a less literal, more intimate and abstract approach. He envisioned the two adversaries (who, like Mary of Scotland and Queen Elizabeth I, never actually met in real life) squaring off on opposite sides of the stage, telling their respective sides of the story and asking the audience who was right.
A play was born, and director Des McAnuff gave it a work-in-progress production in San Diego last March, starring Stephen Lang as Sarnoff. Azaria caught the show, as did Steven Spielberg, who signed on to co-produce with Dodger Theatricals the Broadway production that opens Dec. 3 at the Music Box.
"The great thing about Aaron's writing is that he takes these guys off the page of a history book and makes them these living, breathing, human, frail, funny, complicated guys," Azaria observes. "I think he represents Farnsworth and Sarnoff so well, so evenly. Certainly, from my point of view, I walk out on that stage and begin addressing the audience as Sarnoff. Right from the get-go, my point is: 'I'm tired of how history is portraying me. Here's what really happened. You decide.' Sarnoff and Farnsworth take turns narrating for each other, and you get the feeling that the play exists in their minds. They sorta trade off points of view in an almost "Rashomon"-like way: 'Here's how I remember it.' 'No, here's how it really was.'"
Azaria admits liking the character he plays — and only in part because he has to ("You can't possibly play someone you couldn't imagine liking"). He thinks of Sarnoff as more Machiavellian than villain: "One of the first things out of his mouth is 'The end justifies the means' — yet if it weren't for him, TV as it exists today wouldn't exist. You could say that's a good thing or a bad thing — but news gathering and entertainment programming, all the stuff we take for granted, only existed in his head.
"My pal Oliver Platt says if you play a guy who's perceived as quote-unquote 'a villain' or someone morally questionable, you play him as if you're making your case to God why you should be in heaven. The way this play is structured, Sarnoff is literally doing that."
Lest he be forgotten (again!), Farnsworth is being played, as he was in San Diego, by Jimmi Simpson — and no relation to "The Simpsons" Azaria usually associates with (three of Azaria's four Emmys were won doing voice-overs for that animated series). "Jimmi is tremendous," admits Azaria. "He's one of the reasons I wanted to do this."
The other 18 in the cast play the multitudes that sweep across the play's big canvas — the first half of the last century. "To cover what has to be covered, we couldn't do a realistic set. You get taken through the sinking of the Titanic, the Crash of '29, the opening of Radio City Music Hall — it's that Des kind of bare-boned, Brechtian sort of staging."
Both Fathers of Television died in 1971. Sarnoff, 80, went out with all the pomp and circumstance one would expect for a media deity. Farnsworth's passing at 64, nine months earlier, barely made a blip on the screen — less than that, on the TV screen: Although responsible for the technology, he appeared only once before the cameras — as a mystery guest on "I've Got a Secret." His secret ("I invented electronic television") stumped the panel and won him the full $80, plus a carton of Winstons.