Remembering Tony-Winning Play Performers -- Part 1

Tony Awards   Remembering Tony-Winning Play Performers -- Part 1
From the Special Tony Playbill

From the Special Tony Playbill

Reminiscences from some of the past winners of Tony Awards as performers in plays.

The first Tony-winning Best Play of the year to come from regional theatre (Washington's Arena) and NEA funding‹The Great White Hope in 1969‹happened to co-star the current Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts. "It's come full cycle," says Jane Alexander pointedly. Otherwise, she harbors a slightly bittersweet memory of her Tony-getting. "All evening, every time one of us went up to get an award‹Jimmy [James Earl Jones], Howard [Sackler, the playwright], me‹we had these rather long faces on and said we couldn't have done it without our director, Edwin Shewin, who hadn't even been nominated. And this was, mind you, before he became my husband. Some time after that, I got a letter from a fan extending condolescences on the death of my director."

Tony Award Winner: Best Featured Actress in a Play, The Great White Hope, 1969.

Producer/director Robert Whitehead, who brought to Broadway two of its three Tony-winning Medeas, remembers deliberately skipping the award ceremonies when his first one received her Tony. He and Judith Anderson were feuding fiercely at the time because she'd stayed away longer than her scheduled Easter week vacation and caused great box-office chaos for Whitehead. When he could finally summon the words to speak to her, he asked if she would repeat Medea in London. "Not if you produce it," she answered, sending him flying off the handle and into a misbegotten London production without her. "I thought she was a monster‹a big talented monster‹and I felt, 'God deliver me from ever talking to her again.' " Chances are, they never would have spoken again, had The Robertson Jeffers Foundation in Carmel not contacted him some 30 years later about doing Medea in its outdoor theatre there. "I said, 'Medea! That's a huge thing to undertake. I don't think I could. Who on earth would play Medea?' And The Foundation said, 'We've been told you're married to the one person in the world who might be able to play Medea.' " He passed this news, and the Jeffers script, on to the missus, Zoe Caldwell, who rose to the bait providing Whitehead direct. When they asked The Foundation who to thank for this casting suggestion, they were told Dame Judith, who'd seen Caldwell's Bernhardt and felt she had the kind of talent to bring off Medea. Considerable cajoling was required, but The Foundation talked him into a side trip to Santa Barbara for an audience with Anderson. "The idea of seeing Judith made me quiver, but I knew it wasn't me she wanted to see‹it was Zoe‹so we went. The minute she saw me, she said, 'You stopped me from doing the one thing I wanted in my life.' I said, 'What in God's name was that?' She said, 'The London production of Medea.' I said, 'Judith, I begged you to do it, but you said you wouldn't do it if I produced it.' Suddenly, I thought, 'This is the same conversation we had 33 years ago. We're just finishing it off again.' Then, she went on to say how important it was for Zoe to play Medea, and, if I did do Medea, she wanted to play the Nurse. I said, 'Oh, Judith, I could never direct this production.' She said, 'Oh, dear God, don't tell me you're going to direct it.' Well, I did direct, and she did play the Nurse. She said, 'You want all the talent you can get up there on that stage if you're going to do it, don't you?' I couldn't argue with that. We became real friends again. I saw her regularly after that and was there, really, right up to the end of her life. I made a big speech at her funeral. I loved her." Tony Award Winner: Best Actress in a Play, Medea, 1948.

During the decade of her "overnight" stardom‹before she became a household name (and fixture) as the prize-winning sidekick of TV's "Cybill"‹Broadway was already tossing Tonys at Christine Baranski. "In the course of one year," she says, "I had gotten married, gone into rehearsal for my first big Broadway show, won a Tony and had a baby‹all in 1984. My D-cup runneth over." She felt at the time, and still feels, that the momentum for The Real Thing was what swept her into the winners' circle. "That experience to me was like a first-class trip on the Concorde to Paris‹Mike [director Nichols] and Tom [playwright Stoppard] were in top form, and Jeremy [Irons] and Glenn [Close]‹it was such a classy project." But her second Tony was not such sure thing. "I can remember lying on the bed, reading the script of Rumors, and the first thought that came into my head was 'Well, it's not the kind of role you win a Tony for, but I'll at least get to work with Neil Simon.' Two days before the Tonys, producer Emanuel Azenberg spotted her at a Japanese restaurant and said, "I bet you a million dollars you win." Deal, she responded. "That's why, when I got up there, I said, 'Maybe I can borrow the money from Neil Simon.' "

Tony Award Winner: Best Featured Actress in a Play, The Real Thing, 1984; Rumors, 1989.

"He was a doll," said Tony Randall of the Tony winner with whom he shared a dressing room for 17 months during the original run of Inherit the Wind. "Ed Begley was a sweet man and a great practical joker. He had a gorgeous voice, and he brought that to the part. I'll never forget his simplicity and warmth when he said, 'The Bible teaches us that God forgives his children. And we, the children of God, should forgive each other.' It was simply beautiful."

Tony Award Winner: Best Featured Actor in a Play, Inherit the Wind, 1956.

"I came here only because David Selznick said I could play Joan of Arc," recalled Ingrid Bergman of her entry into American movies, "and then he said, 'I can't do it now, but someday I will,' and so I waited and waited." She, in fact, waited out her whole Selznick contract. Only when she declined to sign up again did he announce he'd film Joan of Arc‹with the next Mrs. Selznick, Jennifer Jones. Disappointed but not undone, the determined Bergman settled for the next-best-thing, Joan of Lorraine, a new play by Maxwell Anderson about a group of actors rehearsing a play about Joan of Arc. Instead of Joan, Bergman played Mary Grey, the actress-who-would-be-Joan arguing with the play's director about the character's motivation. Bergman spent her six weeks of rehearsals charming and cajoling the author into something a little closer to what she had in mind. "I'd say, 'Look Max, at this nice thing Joan said here. That's not in your play is it? Don't you think that little bit would be wonderful in your play, Max?' . . . In the end, it was about 70% Joan and 30% of talk, which was a complete reversal of how we started out in the beginning. Maybe I was wrong, but I don't think so." Nor did audiences. A 12-week limited run stretched to six months. Newsweek dubbed her "Queen of the Broadway Season," and she was showered with 21 awards, Tony included. Against such a hailstorm of "Hail, Ingrid," the Jennifer Jones Joan of Arc film faded, and Bergman got to do Joan of Arc. Her director‹just to stick it to Selznick a little more‹was Victor Fleming, the man who helmed his Gone With the Wind.

Tony Award Winner: Best Actress in a Play, Joan of Lorraine, 1947.

Several years before he had a hand in creating a Tony-winning Lola (Gwen Verdon in Damn Yankees), producer-director Harold Prince was a ticket-purchasing patron who witnessed one. "I usually went to theatre alone‹after all, a good orchestra seat cost $4.80‹and surely one of the most memorable performances was Shirley Booth's in Come Back, Little Sheba," he said. "It was the pinnacle of an extraordinary career. Shirley managed to play a woman both vulnerable and stupid‹irritatingly stupid‹and move you to tears. I remember jumping to my feet when the curtain fell. Those were the days when standing ovations meant something."

Tony Award Winner:
Best Featured Actress in a Play, Goodbye, My Fancy, 1949. Best Actress in a Play, Come Back, Little Sheba, 1950; The Time of the Cuckoo, 1953.

On Nov. 1, 1982‹the first day of readings for Brighton Beach Memoirs‹James Broderick, 55, died after a long bout with cancer. The following June 5th when his son Matthew stepped up to the Tony podium to collect his award for Outstanding Featured Actor in that play in an emotionally driven acceptance speach, he dedicated the Tony to the memory of his father.
Tony Award Winner:Best Featured Actor in a Play, Brighton Beach Memoirs, 1983.Best Actor in a Musical, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, 1995.

Late one afternoon in her dressing room at the Golden, waiting to commence her Master Class, Zoe Caldwell thought back 30 years to her first Tony‹for Tennessee Williams's Slapstick Tragedy, well before The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (to say nothing of Medea): "I think it was at The Rainbow Room, and it was in the afternoon‹I think it went something like three to five‹and it was just us actors and producers and designers and others who make theatre. Just us. No public. Ginger Rogers looked great, and she was the only presenter. We said our thank yous. No rush. And, strangely enough, no one overspoke. We had our little drink before, something alcoholic if you wished, and, if you didn't, something nonalcoholic or a cup of coffee. It seemed just delicious."

Tony Award Winner: Best Featured Actress in a Play, Slapstick Tragedy, 1966,
Best Actress in a Play, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1968; Medea, 1982.

"Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile last night as Cleopatra‹and sank," wrote John Mason Brown in 1937, and those words were still ringing in the ears of Broadway's next Cleopatra on Nov. 26, 1947. Hours before she opened in Shaw's Antony and Cleopatra at the Martin Beck, Katharine Cornell was storming across its stage on a last-minute patrol, methodically measuring the number of steps required to come out even in an especially complex scene, muttering under her breath, " . . . barged, one, two, down the Nile, three, four, and turn, five, six, and sank, seven, eight, indeed." Meanwhile, over at Sardi's where her director and husband, Guthrie McClintic, had retreated for a bit to eat and a good stiff drink, he was also treated to some unsolicited pre-opening condolences from Jane Cowl, who had barged toward Broadway herself before Bankhead in the same faulty vehicle and to the same glub-glub effect. Given the play's unbroken line of famous failures and the simple fact that Cornell was 54 (20 years older than both Cowl and Bankhead at the time of their respective bargings), disaster was much in the wind‹only it didn't happen. The critics turned everything around for them. Ward Morehouse was quick to proclaim it "one of the finest achievements of her career," and Robert Garland went even farther: "Don't let anybody tell you it isn't the most exciting theatrical event of this or any other season." The Tony that Cornell subsequently got‹her one and only‹spurred the show to 16 weeks on Broadway and a nine-week tour in four major cities.

Tony Award Winner: Best Actress in a Play, Antony and Cleopatra, 1948.

Of the three Tonys she has accumulated for Best Actress over the years‹two for plays and one for a musical‹Glenn Close claims that any one of them is not closer to her than the other two. "I think they all represent something different," she contends‹but she will allow that one was harder to come by: "I think that my hardest won Tony was Death and the Maiden because the subject matter was so brutal and emotionally exhausting. After every performance I felt as though I had literally been bled dry."

Ton Award Winner: Best Actress in a Play, The Real Thing, 1984; Death and the Maiden, 1992. Best Actress in a Musical, Sunset Boulevard, 1995.

For reasons he's entirely forgotten, Hume Cronyn was not present to accept the only Tony he ever won. He received it later on the stage of the Lunt-Fontanne, where he was playing the Tony-winning Polonius to Richard Burton's Hamlet, and his presenter was none other than the then-Mrs. Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, the lady who'd played Cleopatra to his Sosigenes (or, as he was known on the set, "Old Sausage Knees"). Certain Tony officials got their noses bent all out of joint over the undue publicity that this solitary presentation generated, but, as Cronyn explained, "Elizabeth was a friend of mine." It's ironic that this would be his Tony-winning performance in light of all the stage-pairings he had had with his own wife, Jessica Tandy. They both made the Tony running only for their last two teamings‹The Petition in 1986 and The Gin Game in 1978; Tandy took the Tony for the latter and for a play in the middle, Foxfire, which Cronyn had co-adapted with Susan Cooper. There was a scene in The Gin Game when Tandy went into a card-winning roll and Cronyn went into a red-faced rage, and when a reporter asked her how he achieved that effect, she said, "I don't know, but I wish he wouldn't do it." Now that it can be told, Cronyn says, 'It's a form of self-strangulation. I taught myself how to do it on cue. Of course, it's nothing I'd attempt now."

Tony Award Winner: Best Featured Actor in a Play, Hamlet, 1964.Special Award, Lifetime Achievement, 1994.

New York Daily News drama critic Howard Kissel once cited Colleen Dewhurst's portrayal of Josie in Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten as "a performance that taught me what theatre can be." The actress had, he wrote, "so much presence and stature, her Josie could never be the plain slut she claims she is. She was a veritable Earth Mother. And, because of that exalted quality, she had no problem convincing us she was not just a virgin but The Madonna. There is something naive about the way O'Neill splits Woman into two extreme categories, but, when you have a great actress doing the role, you accept it unquestionably."

Tony Award Winner: Best Featured Actress in a Play, All the Way Home, 1961. Best Actress in a Play, A Moon for the Misbegotten, 1974.

In See You at the Movies: The Autobiography of Melvyn Douglas, the late-blooming award winner remembers the 1960 Tony he got for The Best Man as opening up the floodgates for more prizes (including two Oscars), "which I have been fortunate enough to get from late middle age through my dotage. I was happy for the tickets the Tony would sell to The Best Man but had, still have, mixed feelings about performances being singled out in this way." Douglas initially turned down The Best Man, having (1) just done a political play (the short-lived The Gang's All Here) and (2) been unimpressed with Gore Vidal's previous Broadway fling (Visit to a Small Planet), but producer Roger Stevens prevailed on him to reconsider. He did and signed aboard, playing an ethical politician somewhat akin to Adlai Stevenson, for whom Douglas had campaigned in 1952 and 1956. The fact that his rival had a certain, dark Nixon-like cast to him subliminally stoked memories of Nixon's confrontation with the actor's wife, Helen Gahagan Douglas‹an allusion that was never actually discouraged.

Tony Award Winner: Best Actor in a Play, The Best Man, 1960

(Continued in Part 2)

-- By Harry Haun

Today’s Most Popular News: