Forty-three years after making his legit debut as Sydney Chaplin's understudy in Bells Are Ringing, Hal Linden is coming back to Broadway. The four decades in between the Comden-Green-Styne tuner and Arje Shaw's drama, The Gathering, have seen Linden win a Best Actor Tony for The Rothschilds, star in the evergreen TV sitcom "Barney Miller," follow Eli Wallach in Off-Broadway's Visiting Mr. Green, and enjoy a family life that's included a 43-plus-year marriage.
Has all that background made stepping back on the stage in a new play a breeze? Well, no...
PBOL: The Gathering had a well-received run Off Broadway last year [with Theodore Bikel in the lead], which is one of the reasons it's gathered enough steam to come to Broadway. So why the butterflies about coming back to New York?
HAL LINDEN: My basic feeling is that we have a show which reaches an audience. Whether it will stand up to critical acclaim... I don't trust critics anymore; they make me very nervous. In the theater, all we do is react to our basic instincts of what we think an audience likes. If they laugh at a joke, we figure something is right. Critics come with different baggage, so I'm quite apprehensive. And the longer I've been in the theater, the more I get apprehensive about critics.
I've never had a smash. Never had a hit in my entire career. In the ads, we always had to pick something to say from the critics. That extends to "Barney Miller" as well. And I've been ripped by knowledgeable critics. Maybe it's because I had a flawed career. Or I'm a flawed performer.
I read critics assiduously, by the way. I read them very closely to see if there's some kind of pattern. If two or three say the same thing, I start to wonder 'what am I missing?' So I don't denigrate them totally. The problem is that they come with their own careers and own baggage, their own predilections. For instance, I was once criticized in my concert act because I was doing material the critics didn't particularly like. Well, I wouldn't like what they liked. That's a horrendous way of criticizing. But I'll be the first to say acting can be like 'the forest for the trees.' You have to rely a lot on your director because you forget the whole picture; you forget what the play's about.
PBOL: So in reading the out-of-town reviews for The Gathering, did you gather any helpful advice from the L.A. scribes?
HL: A lot matched what I felt. The play has been worked on, as well as the acting, so I gave my input as to what I felt. There were certain aspects I thought were maybe a little over-explained and could use a little more mystery. So a lot has been taken out, and it makes the show easier to play.
PBOL: The family arguments in The Gathering swirl around Ronald Reagan's trip to the cemetery in Bitberg where Nazi soldiers are buried. What are your personal feelings about Reagan's excursion?
HL: I'm American born. I know of the Holocaust but didn't experience any of it. So my response to Reagan's visit was, 'There goes that idiot again. Another dumb gaffe.' But no more than a gaffe. It was stupid, but the question is how big a gaffe. Someone who experienced it probably has a more emotional response. And in the play, a father and a son react totally differently. That's one of the messages of the play: We are the product of our experiences. The history we bring to a situation determines how we react to it. PBOL: On a more personal level, with The Rothschilds through "Barney Miller" through Mr. Green, through The Gathering, were you worried that you were being specifically typecast as Jewish?
HL: The Jewishness is something I'm in touch with, I think. And I'm comfortable with it; I never pushed it aside. The determining factor of doing a show was always the play itself, not the theme. If I thought the play was playable. I'd do it. Have I ever sat down and said, 'why are they sending these to me?' yes, a few times. Then again, I also played Scrooge [in the Madison Square Garden Christmas Carol] and quite a few other things, so I never thought it limited me, particularly. Still, I expect this is my swan song when it comes to this subject. I've about exhausted the Jewish experience, I think.
PBOL: Any close encounters with anti-Semitism?
HL: Of course you notice it. There are still golf courses I can't get on. We all know it exists, but it's the exception rather than the rule.
PBOL: How has Broadway changed since your early years in the business?
It's gotten bigger and not as good. The concept of 'spectacular' took over for finer work. I don't think we've heard lyrics, for instance, to match Sondheim or Harnick in two or three decades. We substitute spectacle. I find that to be a major loss to the theatre. How much ground fog can you look at? A laser beam is a laser beam. Also, the whole era of rock and roll dulled our ear. Our creative ear, our listener's ear. It makes us think 'night' rhymes with 'life.' When the most important element of a musical is a lyric, it's hard to explain when it doesn't quite work. We want more. There are some talented people out there, but the audience didn't appreciate them. It's just gonna take time to get past that. Maybe a new generation'll pop up eschewing spectacle. And then again, Stoppard's back on Broadway, so words are back.
PBOL: Have you tried your hand at writing or directing?
I've done directing on television but not on stage. I haven't written. I tried innumerable times to write, but I'm a victim of the empty page. It's possibly why I admire words so much. I just can't put `em together. And I've come to terms with that. Direction was fascinating for me, but at this point in my life, I don't have the energy to invest. I'm not a kid anymore. So instead I opted for a round of golf.
PBOL: Certainly you're lucky to be in a position to have that option. What if the acting thing hadn't worked out all those years ago?
HL: I probably would've been a musician. That's how I started, as a professional clarinet and sax player. Although music turned on me, too. I was pre-rock and roll. I was making quite a good living and probably would've continued as such, but the music changed. I was doing both until Bells are Ringing, which gave me the impetus to devote myself entirely to theatre.
PBOL: Did you receive any great advice along the way?
HL: From Mr. Abbott. He was kind of looked on as an old-fashioned, 'say your line and hit your mark' director, but he was not by any means. He was quite devoted to the reality of the situation. He once said, 'Never let an audience direct your play.' How many times have you been out of town when the audiences loved a character, the producers insisted on a new number, and they skewed the play entirely in the wrong direction? You have to do it the way you think it should be done. You have your own personal view of what you're doing and devote yourself to that. And the risk is the critics might rip you apart.
PBOL: Speaking of ripping apart, care to share your most embarrassing stage moment?
HL: In Bells are Ringing way back when, there was a scene where Judy Holliday comes to the door and I open the door. The hasp on the door caught my pants and, as I backed up, I ripped the entire pair of pants, revealing my altogether. I ended up doing the rest of the scene holding my pants together, which, of course, made every word of the scene hysterical. The upshot? Two weeks later I did the same thing.
— By David Lefkowitz