Remembering Tony-Winning Play Performers -- Part 2

Tony Awards   Remembering Tony-Winning Play Performers -- Part 2
From the Special Tony Playbill

From the Special Tony Playbill

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

Helen Hayes, who had seen all the celebrated Cyranos from Walter Hampden to Derek Jacobi, steadfastly insisted there was only one: José Ferrer. The part won him the first Tony ever given for Best Actor (a distinction shared with Fredric March for Years Ago), a 1950 Best Actor Oscar for the subsequent movie version and an Emmy nomination for a Producers' Showcase reprise (Christopher Plummer, his Christian in that, went on to win a 1974 Tony for a musicalized Cyrano). The legend began with the 1947 Broadway version, directed by Mel (no relation) Ferrer. He did two television versions (in 1949 and 1968); narrated a 1974 animated version for "ABC Afternoon Special"; recorded it; directed Keith Michell in a 1975 Chichester Festival production; toured in a 1973 musical version, A Song for Cyrano; and re-created the role on screen in Abel Gance's 1964 never-completed Cyrano and D'Artagnan‹clearly, a Cyrano for all seasons! Of the above Ferrer felt the most difficult to do was the 1950 film. "If I hadn't said the lines over and over, I don't know how I would have gotten through it. We did rather well, on the cheap‹for $400,000, working six-day weeks for four weeks‹but I can't bear to see the film." Ironically, that is all that is left of his legacy.

Tony Award Winner: Best Actor in a Play, Cyrano de Bergerac, 1947; The Shrike, 1952. Best Director of a Play, The Shrike/The Fourposter/Stalag 17, 1952.

The Belasco Theatre, where producer David Belasco worked, played and lived is said to be inhabited by a ghost‹perhaps his, perhaps not. At any rate, legend has it that this spook showed for every opening there till Oh! Calcutta. Ralph Fiennes, who performed a Tony-winning Hamlet at the Belasco, suspects strongly that the spirit is still in residence, working its wiles: "The Belasco ghost looked after the Almeida production of Hamlet‹perhaps he or she (?) helped with the Tony‹it all felt supernatural and lonely." As if Hamlet weren't already haunted enough! Tony Award Winner: Best Actor in a Play, Hamlet, 1995.

Not till they had written the word Curtain did Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan consider casting the play they had just completed. Then, and only then, did they realize they both had silently written Mister Roberts for Henry Fonda. Unfortunately, Fonda was bound, body and soul, to 20th Century-Fox, preventing his involvement, but they read it to him anyway since he was an old pal of Logan's from Princeton and at the time needed Logan's advice about getting a screenplay out of John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra. Once Fonda heard the play, however, he vowed to do the play‹to hell with Hollywood and O'Hara‹and, for the next eight years, didn't go near a movie camera. Opening night was the stuff that dreams are made of. Even Noël Coward stood on his seat, shouting bravos. The standing ovation the cast received refused to die down until Fonda, alone on the stage, held his hand up for silence and said with a boyish grin, "That's all Tom and Josh wrote. If you want us to do it again, we will." Good idea that, concurred critic John Chapman the next day in the Daily News. "I hung around awhile, hoping they would do it again." He did the role 1,156 more times on Broadway, nine months on tour and once on screen‹and each time it seemed like the first time. Alex Nicol, who served as one of Fonda's Ensign Pulvers, once expressed astonishment at Fonda's flair for keeping up the performance. "The pitfall you get into in most long runs," Fonda proffered, "is you stop listening. It never happened in Mister Roberts." He shared Best Actor honors that year (1948) with Paul Kelly for Command Decision and Basil Rathbone for The Heiress.

Tony Award Winner: Best Actor in a Play, Mister Roberts, 1948.

Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor both won Oscars for roles that, in their original stage forms, won Tonys for Uta Hagen‹namely: Georgie and Martha in, respectively, Clifford Odets's 1951 The Country Girl and Edward Albee's 1963 Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Because Hagen is more of a doer than a talker, these performances rate scant mention in her book, A Challenge for the Actor. She notes, very much in passing, that she and Martha were both the adoring daughters of a college authority and were both raised in college towns and that "making these things particular was easy in the initial stages of my work on the play." The Country Girl comes up totally and literally parenthetically in an anecdote about her first brush with fire: "My first ludicrous action, after grabbing the dogs and running barefoot into the hall to escape the roaring flames, was to rouse my neighbor with a quiet but urgent request that she 'call the police! I'm having a fantastic fire!' A little later I remember sitting disconsolately on the floor of the downstairs hallway clutching my animals, staring at the deflated hose while one of the firemen stood casually by as his colleagues attempted to get the water flowing. He insisted that I ought to remember him because we'd worked together for a whole season in The Country Girl at the Lyceum. When I politely asked what part he had played, he replied impatiently, 'I was the fireman backstage, don't you remember?'"

Tony Award Winner: Best Actress in a Play, The Country Girl, 1951; Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 1963.

Julie Harris, who has won more Tony Awards than any other performer, professes to be "always surprised" when her name is announced. "There are always wonderful actresses with you who've been nominated, and I never think I'll win. I don't do plays for prizes. I don't think, 'Will I get a Tony for this?' But I do feel very awed by it all when someone says, 'You've won five Tonys?' I say, 'Well, I guess I have, if it means anything.' "

Tony Award Winner:Best Actress in a Play, I Am a Camera, 1952; The Lark, 1956; Forty Carats, 1969; The Last of Mrs. Lincoln, 1973; The Belle of Amherst, 1977.

Rosemary Harris has no trouble declaring "I'm the only dramatic star-r." She mentioned as much at a recent American Theatre Wing luncheon, explaining to the assemblage the peculiarity about the Tony she received for her portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter: "It says, 'For Rosemary Harris,' then it says, 'Dramatic Star'‹but 'Star' is spelled with two R's." Katharine Hepburn inherited Harris's role for the movie Lion, and her performance split the Oscar with Streisand's Funny Girl; interestingly, Harris's most recent Broadway outing, her nineteenth, is in a role Hepburn played in pictures: Agnes in Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance.

Tony Award Winner: Best Actress in a Play, The Lion in Winter, 1966.

"The First Lady of the American Theatre," Helen Hayes, was first in line for Best Actress honors when the American Theatre Wing started passing out Tony Awards on April 6, 1947 (albeit, she had to share this particular first with Ingrid Bergman for Joan of Lorraine). Hayes's winning ticket was titled Happy Birthday, a medium-grade enterprise authored by Anita Loos, directed by Joshua Logan and produced by Rodgers & Hammerstein, who also dashed off a little ditty ("I Haven't Got a Worry in the World") for her to do. Time magazine thought she romped through her role "with the gusto of a paperweight that suddenly finds itself a pinwheel," and the play stayed in the air for 564 performances. The only critical sour note about her was sounded by Robert Garland, who turned in a particularly nasty assessment to the New York Journal-American: "What I'm wondering is how Helen Hayes got mixed up in it. Maybe she's been seeing too much of Charles MacArthur." The actress made a practice of never reading reviews, but so many were so incensed over this one that she spared it a glance‹then fretted over it. "What am I going to do about him?" she kept saying, wringing her hands around the house. "What am I going to do?" In time, hubby MacArthur came up with a suggestion: "Oh, toss him a poisoned choirboy."

Tony Award Winner: Best Actress in a Play, Happy Birthday, 1947; Time Remembered, 1958.

On March 28, 1954‹a scant three days after her performance in From Here To Eternity lost the Oscar to Audrey Hepburn's in Roman Holiday‹Deborah Kerr's stage performance in Tea and Sympathy lost the Tony to the one that Hepburn was giving onstage in Ondine. Only once before‹the year before, in fact‹had the precedent been set of a performer winning both awards: Shirley Booth for The Time of the Cuckoo onstage and Come Back, Little Sheba on screen; that feat was repeated only twice more‹in 1975 by Ellen Burstyn (for Same Time, Next Year onstage and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore on screen) and in 1991 by Mercedes Ruehl (for Lost in Yonkers onstage and The Fisher King on screen). Until that award bombardment, Hepburn said years later, "I thought of myself as a dancer who acted." Alfred Lunt, who directed her Tony-winning "water sprite" in Jean Giraudoux's medieval romantic fable, assessed her better: "She has authentic charm. Most people simply have nice manners." Lunt was less enamored with Mel Ferrer, Hepburn's co-star in Ondine (and husband-to-be). Asked at the play's opening-night party if he'd learned anything from working with a movie star like Mel Ferrer, he replied, "Yes, madam. I learned you cannot make a knight-errant out of a horse's ass."

Tony Award Winner: Best Actress in a Play, Ondine, 1954. Special Award, 1968.

"I remember receiving the Tony Award vividly. It was the high point of a wonderful six months. I was particularly happy that my co-star, Glenn Close, was honored as well. In the United States Broadway is viewed as the ultimate theatrical experience. Success on Broadway is so lovingly embraced. I would ride to the theatre in a taxi, and the driver would say, 'How's the show going?' I mean, he knew about it; he knew who I was. In London, the taxi driver probably won't know where the theatre is. Success in England is very different. We don't grab it in the same way. Broadway is a more spectacular experience when it works and more difficult when it doesn't. There is no doubt that were I offered Play X on the London stage or on the Broadway stage, putting all domestic considerations aside, I would prefer to play it on Broadway."

Tony Award Winner: Best Actor in a Play, The Real Thing, 1984.

"Besides the intense joy of the moment‹because of the category I was in and because of those other three women‹I really honest to God didn't care whether I won or not," says Cherry Jones speaking of the 1995 Tony ceremonies. "As I was walking up there, I remember thinking, 'Oh, please, remember this.' I so wanted those 50 seconds in front of that podium to be a wonderful, crystalline image in my mind well into my dotage. Truly, I don't remember Mr. Gorgeous Laurence Fishburne even handing me the Tony. What I remember is turning to that house and hearing that wonderful warm applause. The first set of eyes I caught were Helen Mirren's‹for anyone who knew me last year, they knew I was a hopeless acolyte of Helen's‹and the next set of eyes was Eileen Atkins's. And I knew where Mary Alice was sitting because she'd been in front of me. So when I got to speak my words to those three women, I was able to be looking right at them. And then, finally, getting to speak the names of my grandmother and my creative dramatic teacher and Colleen Dewhurst on national television was a deeply joyous moment. In the pit of my stomach was a deep glow. The main thing in that moment was that I wanted to remember it, and I knew I would because it was a real calm, deep, peaceful happiness."

Tony Award Winner: Best Actress in a Play, The Heiress, 1995.

It's ironic that such an imposing cerebral presence as James Earl Jones would become the only black performer to cop two Tonys for Best Actor by playing, of all things, athletes before their time‹the champion boxer in Howard Sackler's The Great White Hope of 1969 and the failed baseballer in August Wilson's Fences of 1987. Both won Tony Awards and Pulitzer Prizes as Best Plays of their respective years, and Jones allows there are other similarities as well: "They're both about very assertive men‹assertive to the point of cruelty, sometimes. There's the same kind of energy‹sometimes plaguing us, sometimes driving us along‹in both those productions. They're poetic dramas as well. When I learned my lines in The Great White Hope, I said, 'I know this character is from Galveston, but I don't know any Texans who talk like this.' The same thing with Fences: I'm from Mississippi, and this character is from Alabama‹I don't know any Alabamans who talk like this. So, ultimately, both characters are playwright inventions‹playwright-poet inventions." Finding him in competition with his fellow actors is an uncomfortable sensation for Jones, who prefers to think of it as just another horserace, and he places his bets accordingly. "The most fun thing to do is to pick someone other than yourself who is likely to win and put money on him. That way, if you lose, you win."

Tony Award Winner: Best Actor in a Play, The Great White Hope, 1969; Fences, 1987.

"I look at it on any given day as I pass my mantelpiece, and every time I see it, it makes me feel good. Maybe I have poor character, but having whatever it means to win a Tony and being awarded one‹it's had a lasting effect on me. I love having it."
Tony Award Winner: Best Actress in a Play, The Sisters Rosensweig, 1993.

Arthur Kennedy was the only actor to have originated, on Broadway, roles in four Arthur Miller plays: All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible and The Price. For Salesman, both Arthurs were honored with 1949 Tony Awards. Kennedy put in 15 months on Broadway playing Biff Loman to Lee J. Cobb's Willy, but it didn't always run smoothly. His favorite anecdote, which he relayed to his actress-daughter Laurie Kennedy, involved the actor playing the fantasy figure of Uncle Ben. "This actor," she says, "had a very lyrical line to Willy‹'It's dark here, but full of diamonds'‹but his agent was in the audience that evening and his nerves got the better of him. What came out‹lyrically‹was 'It's dark here, Diamond, but full of Willies.' Not a bad reading when you think about it."

Tony Award winner: Best Featured Actor in a Play, Death of a Salesman, 1949.

"The two ladies who won my Tonys for me were both creatures under the influence: the drugged-out, pathologically disoriented Gwen who tried to escape by disappearing into the Bermuda Triangle [in Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July], and the tragic, battered Bananas who barked and mewled like a dog, yearning to be noticed in her own home [in John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves]. Where else but in the madness and the sadness of the theatre are dreamers, lunatics and multi-personalities cherished and rewarded?"

Tony Award Winner: Best Featured Actress in a Play, Fifth of July, 1981; The House of Blue Leaves, 1986.

Two-time Tony winner-to-be Swoosie Kurtz remembers watching the 1973 Tony Awards in her uncle's home in Omaha and bursting into tears when John Lithgow was announced the winner for his performance in The Changing Room. "I barely knew what the Tonys were back then," she recalls, "but I sort of knew John‹I think it was the first time somebody I knew won‹so it was very exciting. Then, just a few months later, I got to work with him at Long Wharf. He's an actor's actor‹and always was."

Tony Award Winner: Best Featured Actor in a Play, The Changing Room, 1973.

John Mahoney, who is spending his hiatus from TV's Frasier in his Chicago homebase of operations (Steppenwolf Theatre Company, world-premiering the new play by Alexandra Gersten, Supple in Combat), readily admits he didn't think he would win a Tony for his first Broadway show (The House of Blue Leaves), particularly considering the previous Tony nominees he was up against. "Still," he says, "when they started reading the names, my heart started beating like a trip hammer. Then, when the winner was announced, my heart literally stopped, and it was as if someone had filled my head with applesauce. I couldn't think. I simply couldn't remember half the people I wanted to thank‹hell, I couldn't even remember my own name. I wanted to be so cool, but I couldn't get the stupid smile off my face."

Tony Award Winner: Best Featured Actor in a Play, The House of Blue Leaves, 1986.

"Just to be nominated"‹goes the cliché of the rationalizing also-ran, but Joe Mantegna (who subsequently won the Tony for Glengarry Glen Ross) insists it's true‹"is as exciting as winning," he recalls. "The doorbell rang, and when I answered, a man handed me a small shopping bag with the Tony emblem on it and inside a bottle of champagne and the nomination letter. My wife and I read the letter with tears in our eyes. Many years of sitting in front of the TV as a young aspiring actor watching the Tony telecast, thinking wouldn't that be nice, flashed through my mind. I'll never forget it."

Tony Award Winner: Best Featured Actor in a Play, Glengarry Glen Ross, 1984.

"One of the things I do remember‹in this day and age of No Technique‹is that, on the third day of rehearsal, he asked Gar Kanin if he should light his pipe on this word or that word," said Bethel Leslie, yanking back a memory from Years Ago, Ruth Gordon's 1946-47 comedy about her turning actress at the turn of the century over the objections of her irascible Massachusetts pop. Director Kanin was, in fact, pulling a portrayal of his late father-in-law from the illustrious Fredric March‹a portrayal that shared with Jose Ferrer's Cyrano de Bergerac the first Tony for top Dramatic Actor‹and Leslie was cast as the best friend of the Gordon character, played by Patricia Kirkland. On opening night in New York, Leslie remembered, March broke her up onstage by lowering his eyelid till his upstage eye was entirely closed. "It wasn't a blink. It's a technique thing. You have to learn it. I practiced all year, and on closing night I did the same thing to him and broke him up. It was my happiest moment of that whole year." Forty years later Leslie found herself in the Tony running, playing the drug-addicted Mary Tyrone in a revival of the play that won March his second Tony Award: Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. "Oh, I saw him in that," said Leslie. "He was a fantastic actor‹an actor who liked to act. He was great fun to work with‹I think that's one of the things that should be known about him. You enjoyed being onstage with him. You looked forward to acting with Freddie. He was always alive onstage. Every great actor I ever played with always had a great sense of fun when they went onstage. None of them thought this was a question of life and death. They thought it was a question of giving people a good time‹and that included themselves, so they always had a twinkle in their eye. It was a question of make believe, and they made believe awfully bloody well."

Tony Award Winner: Best Actor in a Play, Years Ago, 1947; Long Day's Journey Into Night, 1957.

Walter Matthau's definitive depiction of the adorable slob‹slovenly Oscar Madison in Neil Simon's The Odd Couple‹is, in view of Jack Lemmon (who returned the serve, on screen, as the fastidious Felix Ungar), "the single best comedy performance I've ever seen in my life." Both actors sprang from the same place‹early television and New York theatre‹and, in fact, almost teamed for the lone Broadway show Lemmon did before heading to Hollywood: a revival of Room Service. Had Billy Wilder had his way on the 1955 film version of The Seven Year Itch, Matthau would have been an instant movie star, but the role instead (and uncharacteristically) went to its Broadway originator, Tom Ewell, and Matthau had to contend himself with supporting roles on screen and stage. (One such Broadway turn, A Shot in the Dark, won him his first Tony in 1962.) It was The Odd Couple that brought him Tony Number Two‹and immediately, if long-overdue, stardom; it also took him forevermore into films, via his Oscar-winning stint in The Fortune Cookie with Wilder and Lemmon. Currently, Matthau leaves the Tony-talking to his son: "My father has always been proudest of his stage work and of the Tonys he won," said Charles Matthau, "and he engendered in me the highest respect for the Broadway stage as the stomping ground of the world's finest actors."

Tony Award Winner: Best Featured Actor in a Play, A Shot in the Dark, 1962. Best Actor in a Play, The Odd Couple, 1965.

(Continued in Part 3)

-- By Harry Haun

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