There will be those for whom the iconic image of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys will forever be George Burns's Al Lewis stabbing a finger ("the finger") into the chest of Walter Matthau's Willie Clark in the play's 1975 film adaptation. Going back to the play's Broadway premiere in 1972, it was Jack Albertson and Sam Levene nearly killing each other on stage. Twenty-five years later, Odd Couple alumni Jack Klugman and Tony Randall took their shots at Lewis and Clark in the play's only Broadway revival to date.
Time elapses, and roles are often passed on with ties to the Simon legacy. In order to fully appreciate the revival of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys with Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch set to bow at Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre, one might consider both the Boys that had been and the Lewis and Clark expedition that was conceived but never happened.
The germinating seed dropped sometime in the spring of 2007 while British director Thea Sharrock was in Los Angeles directing George Segal, Richard Benjamin and Len Cariou in a production of Gerald Sibleyras' Heroes at the Geffen Playhouse. Segal and Benjamin — who had played Willie's put-upon nephew Ben in the movie with Burns and Matthau — broached the play to Sharrock as a possible vehicle for the two of them.
Sharrock was hooked.
"I absolutely loved the play, and I saw the film, and so it was one of those things that sits on your shelf hoping one day the right moment will come along and you'll get the right people," recalled Sharrock. "There was a reading in L.A., but it was something Richard and George had often thought about and played with, more of a pipe dream."
Pipe dream or otherwise, Segal shepherded the idea over to Richard Griffiths with whom he had worked — along with Sharrock — in the long-running West End production of Yasmina Reza's Art. The project worked its way to the desk of West End and Broadway producer Sonia Friedman, who eventually came back to Sharrock.
"She called and said ‘I've got a play with two actors that I hope you might be interested in and they'd like you to do do it. It's Richard Griffiths and George Segal.' I said, ‘Is it The Sunshine Boys by any chance?'" said Sharrock. "She said, ‘Hang on. Am I the last person to be invited to the party?' It's one of those things that you talk about on and off, like Richard and I would talk about doing King Lear. You have those relationships with actors and are constantly trying to find reasons to work together. Occasionally something hits the right producer's desk at the right time."
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