By Kenneth Jones
and Robert Simonson
25 Sep 2003
Mr. Gardner's plays—mostly comedies with heartwarming messages at their core—could be counted on one hand. Yet, his batting average was good. Three of the titles—A Thousand Clowns, I'm Not Rappaport and Conversations with My Father—had long runs on Broadway. A Thousand Clowns was Tony Award-nominated for Best Play and Rappaport won the Best Play prize, and both have been revived on Broadway (though with nowhere near their initial success) and in countless stagings across the U.S.
Those plays that did not succeed failed in extravagant fashion. The Goodbye People ran a few performances before closing in 1968. Nonetheless, Gardner stuck by the work and brought it back to Broadway in 1979, where it again flopped after a short run.
Mr. Gardner's preeminent interpreter was actor Judd Hirsch, who starred in the original productions of Rappaport and Conversations, winning Tonys for both performances.
A Thousand Clowns had a high-profile revival in 2001, starring Tom Selleck. Rugged TV and film actor Selleck had reportedly always wanted to play the iconoclastic, slovenly and free-spirited Murray Burns, the lead figure in the play, who raises his nephew, Nick, in an unfatherly way.
In 1996, Roundabout Theatre Company presented A Thousand Clowns starring Judd Hirsch. A Thousand Clowns originally featured Jason Robards, who starred in the film version as well.
Hirsch starred in a revival production of I'm Not Rappaport with Ben Vereen that played Paper Mill: The State Theatre of New Jersey, Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami and Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC, before moving to Broadway in 2002.
Although Mr. Gardner was too ill to attend the short Broadway run, he saw a run-through of it prior to the regional engagements.
"Rappaport was my first Broadway show," said Roy Miller, a producer of the recent revival. "He could not have been a more encouraging and inspiring throughout the entire process. I am greatly saddened because Judd and I and Herb had often talked about what we would scheme about next for Broadway. Herb had been working on and off on another play. I was hoping we would all work on it..."
The 1985 Broadway play (first staged by Seattle Rep in 1984 and then Off-Broadway at American Place Theatre prior to Broadway), concerns two old men — liberal, Jewish, cranky Nat and an African-American building super, Midge — and their confrontations with each other and the outsiders in their lives. It's sent in Central Park.
Given that New York has been preoccupied with the idea of "survival" over the past year, the play — about respecting the history of older people, who are survivors with much to offer — was viewed as remarkably timely when revived in the post 9/11 era, in 2002. The 1996 film starred Walter Matthau and Ossie Davis. Gardner himself directed.
Mr. Gardner also wrote the screenplay, "Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?" The script, along with A Thousand Clowns, The Goodbye People, Thieves, I'm Not Rappaport and Conversations With My Father, appeared in "Herb Gardner: The Collected Plays," published in 2000 by Applause Books.
"I cannot offer an explanation for why I wrote these plays because there is none," Gardner wrote in the volume's introduction, dated January 2000. "Playwriting is an irrational act. It is the Las Vegas of art forms, and the odds are terrible. ... God help me, I love it. Because it's alive. ...For a few hours all of us, the audience, the actors, the writer, we are all a little more real together than we ever were apart."
Judd Hirsch summed up Mr. Gardner's male lead characters this way, in the introduction to Rappaport in the play collection: "They all believe they are being pursued by time and silly people."
Mr. Gardner was born in New York City and graduated the High School of Performing Arts in 1952. He attended Carnegie Institute of Technology and Antioch College. He was previously married to actress Rita Gardner.
Mr. Gardner is survived by his wife, Barbara, and two sons, Jake and Rafferty. A public tribute to his life and work is expected, according to friends and colleagues.