STAGE TO SCREENS: Gallagher, Abraham, Phillips, Phelan, Evigan and Bucchino

By Michael Buckley
April 7, 2008

This month we speak to Peter Gallagher (The Country Girl), F. Murray Abraham (Almost an Evening), Ethan Phillips (November), Anna Hamilton Phelan and Greg Evigan (Mask), and John Bucchino (A Catered Affair). Also: Remembering Richard Widmark.

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Peter Gallagher co-stars with Oscar winners Morgan Freeman and Frances McDormand in Clifford Odets' 1950 drama The Country Girl, playing Bernie Dodd, the director of a play-within-the-play. Dodd hires Frank Elgin (Freeman) for a leading role that could be a comeback for the actor, following the alcohol dependency that eclipsed his career. McDormand portrays Elgin's beleaguered wife, Georgie.

Gallaher previously worked with Mike Nichols, who's directing the revival, in The Real Thing, 1984's Tony-winning Best Play. Says Gallagher, "Creatively, it was one of the best experiences I've ever had." When Nichols telephoned to offer him the role of Dodd, Gallagher said, "'Mike, I can't imagine not doing it, but I should at least read the play. May I talk to you tomorrow?' The next day, I accepted.

"We're having a good time. Clifford Odets, who directed the original production, was an actor first, so instead of having one great part in the play, there are many. We have a wonderful supporting cast — Chip Zien, Remy Auberjonois, Anna Camp, Joe Roland, and Lucas Caleb Rooney. I've worked with Frances before, and I'm a huge fan of Morgan's. He's teaching me tap combinations [during rehearsal breaks]." (Freeman made his Broadway debut as Rudolph, the Harmonia Gardens' head waiter, in the 1967 Pearl Bailey edition of Hello, Dolly!)

There's a feeling of déjà vu in Gallagher's current entrance. "I enter down[stage] left, with a cigarette — exactly the same way I entered, with a cigarette, 30 years ago, in Grease [as a replacement Danny Zuko]. It was the Royale then [now it's the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre], and the head carpenter was just starting out."

His first day at the theatre, actor and carpenter were surprised to see each other. "I said, 'Mike?' He said, 'Pete?' There's also an electrician from A Doll's Life [in which Gallagher appeared], and another fellow from Guys and Dolls [starring Gallagher as Sky Masterson]. It's funny: Some of the other guys look older, but I haven't changed. We have a lot of laughs about having survived this long."

During his survivor time, Gallagher's appeared in several movies, including "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," "While You Were Sleeping," "The Hudsucker Proxy," and "American Beauty." He also starred in two TV series: the short-lived "The Secret Life of Men" (1998) and "The O.C." (92 episodes, 2003-07). His character, Sandy Cohen, was chosen Number 25 in a 2004 TV Guide list of the "50 Greatest TV Dads."

Other television appearances include "Long Day's Journey into Night" (1987, with Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey), and three 1988 productions: as the lead character in Clifford Odets' "The Big Knife," playing Leo Frank in "The Murder of Mary Phagan" (also with Lemmon), and "The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial" (directed by Robert Altman).

A native New Yorker, Gallagher and wife Paula Harwood celebrate their 25th anniversary in May. They have a son, Jamey ("who turns 18 opening night," Apr. 27), and daughter, Kathryn ("who's 14, and is currently playing Tracy Turnblad in her school's production of Hairspray; she's pretty wonderful"). Jamey, who starts at Northwestern in the fall, "wants to be a director. Mike [Nichols] invited him to sit in on a couple of auditions."

In a 2000 L.A. benefit performance of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Gallagher (as Nick) played opposite Uta Hagen (the original Martha, then 80), who had won her second Tony Award for the 1962 original. Also starring were Jonathan Pryce (George) and Mia Farrow (Honey). "We rehearsed for three weeks," recalls Gallagher. "I had the time of my life." (The film version of Albee's play, which won Elizabeth Taylor a second Oscar, was the first movie directed by Mike Nichols.)

Hagen once told me that, although she won a Tony for The Country Girl, she was never happy with the play. "They couldn't get the third act right." She co-starred with Tony winner Paul Kelly (Command Decision) as Elgin, and Steven Hill as Dodd. (The movie version starred an Oscar-winning Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, and William Holden.)

Although Grease is cited as his Broadway debut, Gallagher had earlier appeared in the 1977 revival of Hair. During Hair's 79 preview performances, Gallagher was offered the part of Danny Zuko in a bus-and-truck production of Grease. "I had no agent at the time," he admits. "I left to do that, and after six months, I joined the Broadway company."

Does Gallagher have a dream role? "Sky was a dream role. So was Edmund in Long Day's Journey [the 1986 revival]. I'd like to think that there's a role being written that I could play. I feel connected to the theatre; I love it very much — and I find it very exciting discovering The Country Girl."

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Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham (Best Actor of 1984, "Amadeus") stars in the Atlantic Theater Company's production of Ethan Coen's Almost an Evening, a trio of plays, that has transferred from the Atlantic Stage 2 to a commercial run at The Theatres at 45 Bleecker Street. Abraham's in the second two plays (Four Benches and Debate). Of the latter, New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote that it allowed Abraham "to chomp on a role he was born for: a raging, foul-mouthed Jehovah..."

F. Murray Abraham in Almost an Evening.
photo by Doug Hamilton
Were there any challenges with Coen's play? "The challenge is getting past using that kind of language to make it funny. I'm a very religious man. It's a challenge to call people the things I call them — and make it funny."

Following a recent performance, the actor and I chatted at a local restaurant. The play, he notes, "is the funniest thing I've done since The Ritz [the original production of Terrence McNally's comedy]. What a company that was!

"I'm a funny person, but I'm never thought of that way. I'm thought of as a bad guy. I love the chance to do something funny. I love to hear the laughter. Have you heard laughs like that [in Almost an Evening] in a long time?"

"I tend to jump into my work pretty much. The only qualms I've ever had is that there isn't enough for me to do. I'm a real, honest-to-God actor." When did he know he wanted to act? "I was a troubled kid, part of a gang, a hoodlum. A drama-and-speech teacher in high school said, 'You should try this.' It changed my life. From that moment on, I knew exactly what I wanted to do."

Fast forward to Abraham's Broadway debut: Robert Shaw's 1968 play The Man in the Glass Booth, "which was directed by Harold Pinter." In 6 Rms Riv Vu, he had a small role and stood by for Jerry Orbach, whom Abraham remembers as "a good guy, the real McCoy, an honest-to-God pro."

Other Broadway credits include succeeding Ron Leibman as Roy Cohn in the two Angels in America plays, A Month in the Country ("Helen Mirren was terrific; I worship that woman"), Triumph of Love ("I wasn't very good; I wish we had opened three weeks after we did. Betty Buckley is the best"), and Mauritius ("Dylan Baker and Bobby Cannavale are big football fans; I'm not. They were hollering about a game; I don't understand the sport.")

He's very fond of Shakespeare. "I loved doing Lear, and I think my recent Shylock, at Stratford-at-Avon, is my greatest performance, so far."

I'd read that the F. in his name stood for Fahrid (and also Frank). He insists, "I made it up. The rest is genuine. Who would make up such a name? I was raised an Orthodox Christian; I was an altar boy for a long time. My father was Syrian; my mother, Italian. I work a lot in Italy."

Come May, the actor and wife Kate Hannan celebrate 46 years of marriage. They have a son and daughter — "and we have a lovely granddaughter." Although he's made several movies, Abraham admits, "I can't see myself on the screen. All I see is the bad stuff. I've never seen 'Amadeus' all the way through. 'Amadeus' is a great movie. What prevents more films like that from being made?

"I really love this business," concludes Abraham. "When it's good, it's very, very good; when it's not, it's awful. But I've been very lucky. I like my work in [Almost an Evening], and I'm pretty good in it — but no one is irreplaceable, darling."

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David Mamet's comedy November features Ethan Phillips as the Turkey Guy. Ben Brantley called his performance "winningly understated"; however, the character has an arc that takes him from mild-mannered White House lobbyist to frustrated visitor (telling Nathan Lane's Chief Executive that his "numbers are lower than Gandhi's cholesterol") to maniacal assaulter, trying to strangle the president and screaming, "You killed my f--king turkeys!"

Larry Feldman is the name Phillips created for his character, known only as "Turkey Guy." Explains Phillips, "The genesis of the play was when David Mamet was flying first class, and on board the plane were guarded turkeys that were going to be pardoned [by the president at Thanksgiving time]."

Ethan Phillips in November.
photo by Scott Landis
Notes Phillips, "I replaced Nathan at Manhattan Theatre Club and at the Mark Taper [in Los Angeles] in Lips Together, Teeth Apart. Before rehearsals [for November], Nathan was talking to Victor Garber, saying, 'We can't find a guy to play the Turkey Guy.' Victor said, 'What about Ethan Phillips?' Nathan said, 'That's a great idea.' I owe Victor Garber."

On TV, Phillips has had several credits, including two stints on series: He was Pete Downey on 96 episodes (1980-84) of "Benson," and played Neelix on 171 episodes (1995-2001) of "Star Trek: Voyager." Notes Phillips, "Neelix was an alien, covered in rubber. At the end, I figured out with my makeup guy that I spent 2,300 hours on the makeup chair." There are usually Trekkies at the stage door. "It's fun to chat with them for a second."

Married since 1990 to Patricia Cresswell, the actor has five sisters. His grandfather started the Manhattan steak house, Frankie & Johnnie's "in 1921. My father took over and ran it until 1985. None of us [he and his siblings] wanted to be a restaurateur, so my father sold it."

Phillips praises Nathan Lane: "I've never met a more playful, braver, or funnier actor. He's just f--king extraordinary! Acting with him is like taking a thousand classes. We [Phillips, Laurie Metcalf, Dylan Baker, and Michael Nichols] root Nathan, who's like a cyclone. He never changes lines, but you never know which way he's going to go. It's very exciting out there."

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Currently at the Pasadena Playhouse is Mask, a musical version of the 1985 fact-based drama that starred Cher as biker mom Rusty Dennis, Eric Stoltz as her teenage son who was born with a rare, disfiguring disorder called craniodiaphyseal dysphasia, and Sam Elliott as Rusty's lover. Directed by Richard Maltby, Jr., Michelle Duffy, Allen E. Read, and Greg Evigan play the Cher-Stoltz-Elliott roles. The score's by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Anna Hamilton Phelan adapted her screenplay.

Claims Phelan, "My reaction when my good friend, Cynthia Weil, suggested that 'Mask' would be a good subject for a musical was 'Are you crazy!?' [Laughs] We talked more and it became clear to me, too. That was 10 years ago."

When Phelan was a community educator at a hospital, she met the real Rocky Dennis (1962-78), and then tried to locate his mother. She left her number "at a motorcycle place, where the owner told me that Rusty was dead.

"Shortly after that, Rusty stopped by the shop — for the first time in two-and-a-half years — and she called me. We met, and I optioned the rights for her life story, for a year, with $100 and a six-pack of beer."

Rusty read the screenplay's first draft (of 13) and, according to Phelan, "had two objections. In one scene, I had her ironing, which she said would ruin her image. I also had her drinking and getting drunk, but she insisted that she didn't drink. She used drugs."

Recalls Phelan, "The studio objected to Cher. They asked that she do a screen test." It was Phelan's first screenplay to be produced. Later credits include "Gorillas in the Mist" (1988, for which she received an Oscar nomination) and "Girl, Interrupted" (1999).

She didn't start writing "until I was in my 30s." Earlier, she's been an actress. "Looking back, I was not very good. I played dumb blondes and hookers in TV movies. When I started being offered madams, instead of hookers, I knew it was time to shift gears."

Phelan's husband "develops energy sources." She has a son, daughter, stepson, and stepdaughter. Upcoming, Phelan is "writing the book for a musical about the McGuire Sisters [singing siblings in the 1950s]. It focuses on Phyllis [who became involved with a Mafia boss], and is called The One in the Middle."

Scheduled to attend the musical's opening night, Rusty Dennis died in November 2006, age 70. Still hospitalized a month after a bike accident, an infection proved fatal. "She was riding her tricycle, a Harley with two wheels in the back. She skidded, was thrown from the bike, and hit a pole," states Phelan. "I can picture her flying through the air, and saying, 'What a bitchin' way to die.'"

Greg Evigan and Michelle Duffy in Mask.
photo by Ed Krieger
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Greg Evigan is pleased to be playing in Mask. "I'm glad to be here. I have two songs, and I'm working with a great team." While he enjoys rehearsals, Evigan says, "Until you're in front of an audience, you don't know where the laughs are. You realize, I can't talk quite that fast — or I'd better talk faster."

How would he describe his character? "Gar is a free-spirited guy who's good at building bikes, is never without a few bucks in his pocket, but has a bad temper. He runs away from problems, but can't live without Rusty or Rocky."

Evigan has toured as Danny Zuko in Grease, and appeared on Broadway in the original production of Jesus Christ Superstar (four different roles during two years), and also spent a year on the road with the show. "I did an open-call audition, and had more than a dozen callbacks [before joining the Superstar company]."

However, most of Evigan's work has been on TV. Among his 13 series are "B.J. and The Bear" (1979-81), "My Two Dads" (1987-90) — "a great chance to do comedy" — "Tek War" (1994-96), "Melrose Place" (1996-97), and "Pacific Palisades" (1997).

"A Year at the Top" was a Norman Lear project, for which Evigan did four pilots. He and Paul Shaffer ("Late Night with David Letterman") played rock stars who sold their souls to the devil (Mickey Rooney). "They never got it right, script-wise. One day Norman came in, and said, 'That's it.' He pulled the plug."

A New Jersey native, Evigan's been married since 1979 to dancer Pamela Serpe. They have a musician son, Jason (of the After Midnight Project group), and two actress daughters: Vanessa and Briana.

In Mask, says Evigan, "Gar takes on responsibility, and tries to make things right. He believes in living for your dreams, and that you can live a full life in whatever time we have."

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Though John Bucchino neither reads nor writes music, he's had a successful career writing songs (many of which are performed and recorded by cabaret artists) and is making his musical-theatre debut by writing the score for A Catered Affair, now in previews at the Walter Kerr.

How much has changed between last fall's San Diego tryout (at the Old Globe) and Broadway? Claims Bucchino, "I've rewritten one small section of one song, and a couple of small reprises. Friends who have seen both think it's even better now."

Seven San Diego Theatre Critics Circle Awards for Excellence were presented to A Catered Affair: Musical, Score, Orchestrations, Director (John Doyle), Lead Male and Female Performances, Musical (Tom Wopat, Faith Prince), and Lighting.

The cast of 10 also features Harvey Fierstein (who also penned the book), Leslie Kritzer, Matt Cavenaugh, Heather MacRae, Philip Hoffman, Lori Wilner, Katie Klaus, and Kristine Zbornik.

Bucchino watched the movie "The Catered Affair" at the beginning of writing the score, but it didn't inspire any of his songs. "It inspired Harvey," notes Bucchino. "I watched it again about a month ago, called Harvey, and said, 'I appreciate what you've done.' I've learned so much working with Harvey. He touches people on a deep level, which is what I always try to do with my songs."

Gore Vidal wrote the screenplay for the 1956 film version, which starred Bette Davis, based on Paddy Chayefsky's (last) teleplay, which starred Thelma Ritter. "There's no record of that," Bucchino tells me, "but we do have the script, and a copy of Chayefsky's original screenplay."

What is his pattern of writing songs? "Usually, the lyrics come first, but for 'Coney Island' [sung by Fierstein], the music came first. I woke up about four in the morning, grabbed a little digital recorder that I have, and sang 'la-la-la' all the way through."

Is it true that when Fierstein approached Bucchino about writing the score, he said no. "I was scared," admits Bucchino. "Like many artists I suffer from self-doubt. But Harvey's material is so brilliant. I still don't think I could write a big production number."

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Of over 1,100 interviews, my favorite remains Richard Widmark (1914-2008). It took five years to get the superb actor, and very private individual, to consent to a 1985 interview at his Roxbury, CT, home.

A successful radio actor, Widmark's Broadway career includes five plays: Kiss and Tell, Get Away Old Man (both 1943), Trio (1944); Kiss Them for Me and Dunnigan's Daughter (both 1945). Asked if he had any desire to return to the stage, Widmark replied, "No. I never liked the life. It's the only place to learn to act, but it's so goddamned regimented."

Widmark received an Oscar nomination (and a Golden Globe) for his movie debut as a maniacal Tommy Udo, who pushed an elderly lady (Mildred Dunnock) in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs, in 1947's "Kiss of Death." He starred in over 60 movies (1947-91).

His TV debut was on a 1955 "I Love Lucy" episode, and he got an Emmy nomination for his dramatic debut in 1971, as a U.S. President in "Vanished," the first TV movie to be shown in two parts. He starred in the 1972-73 series "Madigan," even though his character had been killed in the 1968 movie.

He was married (1942-97, her death) to college sweetheart Jean Hazelwood. They had a daughter Anne (once the wife of baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax). In 1999, Widmark wed Susan Blanchard (Oscar Hammerstein's stepdaughter and Henry Fonda's third wife).

In 1990, Widmark received a Career Achievement Award from the National Board of Review, for which I wrote the ceremony's script. I'd recommended Sidney Poitier as the presenter, since Poitier wrote in his autobiography that when he made his movie debut (in 1950's "No Way Out," which starred Widmark), a lot of people paid him lip service, but only Widmark invited him to his home for dinner.

Proof positive of Widmark's quality came with an exchange (which I was the only one to overhear) between him and Poitier: "Sid," said Widmark, "I can't believe you came all the way from California to do this for me." Poitier's response: "For you, I would have walked."

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VARIOUS AND SUNDRY

Lonny Price, who directs the five Avery Fisher Hall concert performances of Camelot, featuring Gabriel Byrne, Marin Mazzie, Christopher Lloyd, Christopher Sieber, Fran Drescher, and Marc Kudisch, also helms the May 8 "Live from Lincoln Center" telecast.

The April 23 "Law & Order" marks the last (and 201st) episode for original Rent cast member Jesse L. Martin (Det. Ed Green), and introduces his successor, Anthony Anderson ("The Departed," "K-Ville," "The Shield") as Det. Kevin Bernard...Robin Williams fans can see the Oscar winner as guest star on the April 29 "Law & Order: SVU." Boris Kodjoe, selected one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful" in 2002, has since gained fame on TV's "Soul Food" (where he met actress Nicole Ari Parker, now his wife and mother of two), and makes his Broadway debut April 15, as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, filling in six weeks while Terrence Howard (whom I interview in next month's column) promotes his latest movie "Iron Man."

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Stage to Screens is Playbill.com's monthly column that connects the dots between artists who cross freely between theatre, film and television. Michael Buckley has written this column since 2002. He may be contacted at stagetoscreens@aol.com.