Remembering Tony-Winning Play Performers -- Part 3

Tony Awards   Remembering Tony-Winning Play Performers -- Part 3
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 night I won my Tony," recalls the winner of the Best Actor Tony for Amadeus, "I walked out after the ceremony, and there was a full set of bleachers across the street. The crowd began to cheer, and I looked behind me to see who was causing the stir. I was very surprised to discover that it was me. That was lovely. But my favorite Tony moment might just be the night I was presenting an award in 1992 and predicted from the stage that Angels in America would win the Tony when it came to Broadway. I was right, twice. It won two years in a row for its two parts."

Tony Award Winner: Best Actor in a Play, Amadeus, 1981.

In Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's fictional facsimile of the Scopes Trial, Inherit the Wind, Darwin's theory of evolution inspired some classic courtroom histrionics on Broadway‹Paul Muni v. Ed Begley‹and their Tony-winning sparks illuminated the theatre for years to come. On the sidelines, making cynical asides between the play-by-play, was Tony Randall as the H.L. Menkein figure, one "E.K. Hornbeck," and it appears he literally did inherit the wind: After a five-year struggle, Randall's National Actors Theatre gave Broadway a first-class 40th anniversary revival starring George C. Scott and Charles Durning. This calculated déjà vu did much to joggle his memory about Muni's magnificence. "He was a very slow worker," Randall remembered recently. "He took his time, and he felt his way. It would be something for young actors to watch because he didn't give anything resembling a performance in rehearsals. He just worked on the part, in the most painstakingly slow way‹he had a very hard time learning his lines‹then, when it all came together, it was an explosion. It was just like building the atomic bomb. Little by little, he added this and added that and added this and added that‹then, he lit a match. He didn't do that until about the dress rehearsal, but, once he had it, he hit it every single time. He was a tiger, too. When he turned on Hornbeck at the end, he'd whip his head around at me and say, 'What!' Just like that. It actually hurt my ears. His voice was penetrating and enormous. So was his talent."

Tony Award Winner: Best Actor in a Play, Inherit the Wind, 1956.
"Isn't it good to be there at the beginning?" says Patricia Neal, who winds up being the only performer in that first wave of Tony winners from 1947 still alive. In Another Part of the Forest, Lillian Hellman's prequel to The Little Foxes, she played the ingenue edition of Regina Hubbard‹a tough act to precede in that the character had already been played in a more mature form by Tallulah Bankhead onstage and Bette Davis on screen. "The awards then were compacts. I still have mine‹with P.N. engraved on the inside." And, recently, she received a second one, re-created by Tiffany's and presented to her at an American Theatre Wing luncheon honoring Tony-winning actresses. "It's like winning all over again," Neal told the gathering. "My first love is, and always has been, the theatre‹which I thankfully have been part of for over 50 years‹and, while I've received numerous awards for my courage facing death, let me tell you that that is nothing compared to facing an opening-night curtain!"

Tony Award Winner: Best Featured Actress in a Play, Another Part of the Forest, 1947.

Asked to reflect on his two Tony Award trophies, Jonathan Pryce responded: "Before the ceremony in '77, Mike Nichols (the director of Comedians) made me promise that if I didn't win, I would stand on my seat and scream, 'It's a fix! It's a fix!' In any event, I didn't have to, thank God, and the extraordinary time I had experienced on my first trip to B'way was crowned by a Tony. Fifteen years later‹heavier, grayer, but no wiser‹I was ready to scream again. But the only screams came from the cast of Miss Saigon as I held my second silver prize. I cherish my Tonys, and at home in London they are reminders of the friends I have made and the wonderful times I have had in the theatre community of New York."

Tony Award Winner: Best Featured Actor in a Play, Comedians, 1977. Best Actor in a Musical, Miss Saigon, 1991.

Right after she played Stella to Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski for the last time‹the Oscar-winning time, it being for the movie version of A Streetcar Named Desire‹Kim Hunter returned to Broadway to support Claude Rains's Tony-winning performance in Sidney Kingsley's Darkness at Noon. As she recalls it, Rains and Kingsley had been friends of long-standing‹"but Claude had not been on stage for years, so he was nervous about it, and Sidney was not the easiest director in the world. Before rehearsals I had chats with Sidney about my character, and we agreed on a lot," she says, "but once we got into rehearsal, somehow it was different. It may have been the times. It was around the time of the blacklist‹the McCarthy days‹and I think Sidney was terribly afraid people might think the play was pro-Communist as opposed to anti, so when we got into rehearsal, everything had to be black and white. Jack Palance's character had to be all black, Claude's had to be all white, mine had to be all white. Their friendship did not survive the rehearsal period. Sidney got very unhappy with Claude because he wouldn't do anything that he wanted him to do, so he started looking for somebody to replace him, if you can believe it, but all of the agents in town were on Claude's side. Nobody would have anybody there to take over the role for him, so Claude opened, by God, and to gorgeous notices."

Tony Award Winner: Best Actor in a Play, Darkness at Noon, 1951.

The winner for The Most Exotic Excuse for Being A.W.O.L. at Your Tony Triumph has to be Roger Rees, who, the night his Nicholas Nickleby number came up, was in the Far East shooting Saigon‹Year of the Cat. "Ginger Rogers had to say, 'Roger Rees is not here. He's filming in Bangkok'‹which must have been the most extraordinary statement anyone has ever had to make at The Tonys," he now laughs. The good news got to him after a long hard day filming in the Bangkok underbrush when the van dropped him off at The Oriental Hotel. "About 300 yards down this long corridor, I saw some people waving, and through this kind of Eastern miasma with a band in the background playing colonial music, I learned I'd won the Tony. Then, we had a little champagne. It was a very mystical Oriental experience, my winning the Tony‹and a wonderful image I shall retain forever. It's not like being at the ceremony, but it's pretty good‹second best."

Tony Award Winner: Best Actor in a Play, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, 1982.

Despite the Tony, the Emmy and the two Oscars, Jason Robards avers, "I'm not a big award guy‹especially when they say 'Best' this and 'Best' that. That's not what the whole business is about." That offending four-letter word, "best," is nowhere to be found on his Tony‹it's just "The American Theatre Wing presents to Jason Robards Jr. this award for his performance in The Disenchanted." The night he received it at a black-tie dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria, he was up against the illustrious likes of Alfred Lunt, Christopher Plummer, Robert Stephens, Cyril Ritchard and Cedric Hardwicke‹and he still remembers his reaction: "In that kind of company, are you kidding? I thought it was undeserved. I thought, 'I don't know why they're honoring me." Robards's reputation as the foremost interpreter of Eugene O'Neill was won without Tony's blessings, strangely enough, but there were Tonys for his co-stars and his director, Jose Quintero. "I think everybody but me won for A Moon for the Misbegotten‹José, Ed Flanders, Colleen [Dewhurst]‹and I was very pleased." He still recalls who won the Tony the year he was up for the supporting award for the legendary original production of Long Day's Journey Into Night‹"Frank Conroy for The Potting Shed"‹but he figures the play reaped enough glory without it. "I don't think Florence [Eldridge] won, but José won, and Fredric March. I remember Freddie made a nice speech and was gracious to us. He was the best to work with. Nobody better. He and my father were contemporaries. Those kinds of actors don't come around anymore." Indeed, his fondest memory of The Disenchanted is not that it brought him the Tony; it's that it brought him his one and only opportunity to work with his father. "I played a guy like Scott Fitzgerald, and he played a guy like Max Perkins. It was absolutely fabulous. I've never had such a good time. Besides being my father, he was my best friend. Then, to act with him‹well, it was the best."

Tony Award Winner: Best Actor in a Play, The Disenchanted, 1959.

Paul Scofield stepped up to international stardom, winning both Tony and Oscar, as A Man for All Seasons‹Robert Bolt's depiction of the doomed Sir Thomas More‹but he wasn't first choice for the role, incredibly, according to Robert Whitehead, who co-produced the first two productions of the play. "When Bob Bolt sent me the script, I wanted to do it here first and was trying to get Freddie March, who was the right age," says Whitehead, "but Bolt said, 'I think we should do it in England first,' so I did it there through Binkie Beaumont, with Paul Scofield. It was successful in London and played at the Globe Theatre all through a season, but I think we did it better here. It exploded here in a much bigger way and ran between two and three years." Not so incidentally, the chief competition that both the play and the performance encountered for their respective Tonys came from another historical title portrayal: Fredric March's depiction of Paddy Chayefsky's Gideon.

Tony Award Winner: Best Actor in a Play, A Man for All Seasons, 1962.

Emmy-winning director Walter Miller has a hard-and-fast rule never to tape dramatic sequences in advance‹"My theory has always been 'Get it live on our stage' "‹and, in the decade he has been doing the Tony Awards telecasts, he has allowed only one singular exception to that maxim: for Maggie Smith. Because of a back problem, the Dame-to-be was planning to skip the Tony to-do altogether, but Miller talked her into permitting him to pretape a Wednesday matinee of her Lettice and Lovage and, if that didn't work, to come back and do it again in the evening. The scene he selected to shoot required a little restaging for television. Not only was she amenable to that, she executed the alterations flawlessly on Take One. "Everything went so well I saw no reason to come back," Miller remembers. "I told her how pleased I was and added, 'May I say it has been an honor working with you?' She curtsied and said, 'Yes, you may.' And I said to her, 'Now, will you come to the Tonys? I really hope you win.' And she said, 'Yes, I'll come.' And she did come‹and won that night."

Tony Award Winner: Best Actress in a Play, Lettice and Lovage, 1990.

What does it feel like to win a Tony, Part II? "What the hell," said Maureen Stapleton on receiving her second, "it's better than getting hit with a wet fish."
Tony Award Winner:

Best Actress in a Play, The Rose Tattoo, 1951; Gingerbread Lady, 1971.

Blanche DuBois always depended on the kindness of strangers‹and they also looked after the Tony she won for the actress who originated her, Jessica Tandy. "In those days the Tony wasn't the Tony we now know‹it was a bracelet with a medallion on it," recalled her husband, Hume Cronyn, recently. "She lost it on tour in Canada. Some years later, a man walking along a riverbank near London, Ontario, saw something glittering in the sand and picked it up. It was Jess's Tony. He was smart enough to know the name, and he sent it back to her. In the meantime they'd replaced the old Tony with the regular Tony, so she wound up with the old Tony safety-pinned to the new Tony." Speaking of her later Tony for Foxfire, Cronyn discussed the scene when Tandy's character goes into a gentle waltz and suddenly becomes a young woman again. "I don't know how she did that," Cronyn confesses. "She was an actress; that's how. Susan Cooper wrote that particular scene, and I remember when she turned it in, Jessie said, 'I can't do that'‹then she proceeded to do it beautifully. A lot of people remember that moment. It even worked in the film, but, on the stage, it was pure magic."

Tony Award Winner: Best Actress in a Play, A Streetcar Named Desire, 1948; The Gin Game, 1978; Foxfire, 1983. Lifetime Achievement Award, 1994.

"Do you want to hear what his speech was when he got the award?" asked Anne Jackson, taking the phone from her husband, the honoree. "What he did was terribly sweet. There's a line in The Rose Tattoo where he says to the woman, 'There's nothing so beautiful as a gift between people.' And that was his speech for the Tony. Isn't that adorable? You know, he doesn't even remember that. I remember that." Following this are some muffled male rumblings in the background. "Oh, wait, I'm going to let him talk now," she says. "His memory is revived." Eli Wallach takes the phone and tacks on a postscript: "I do remember saying, 'I want to thank my agent,' and the audience laughed. I said, 'No. I mean it.' "

Tony Award Winner: Best Featured Actor in a Play, The Rose Tattoo, 1951.

"I am completely convinced that the 30-second time limit [imposed on winners to say their thanks you] is because of me," B.D. Wong declares firmly. "I blame myself for that. I had no idea what I was saying." What he does remember is that his older brother came in from Seattle to see him through the event and the possibility of failure. "He was there to bring me moral support and to make sure I didn't get bent out of shape because I really didn't want to be disappointed. Consequently, when we got there, we were both convinced that I wouldn't win, and we were both very comfortable with that, more or less prepared so I wouldn't be disappointed. Then, there was a Sardi's dinner between the dress rehearsal and the actual telecast. We were eating, and I hadn't heard my brother say anything for a while. I remember turning to him, and he was muttering to himself, almost in a prayer-like trance. For me, he was putting on this game front that I wasn't going to win, and, of course, he was just as hopeful as I was." After the prayers were answered and the thanks given, Wong found himself suddenly part of "a weird little parade" in transition from the Minskoff to the restaurant where the press had gathered. "I rode in this ridiculous golf cart, beside Amy Irving, down the middle of the street, with all the people standing outside cheering at you. I distinctly remember bawling the whole time, and Amy kept saying to me, very seriously, 'Are you all right?' I think she thought I was having a nervous breakdown."

Tony Award Winner: Best Featured Actor in a Play, M. Butterfly, 1988.

"The Tony is a legendary thing in the theatre, and it's very exciting and very thrilling to be chosen," Irene Worth conceded the other day by phone from London, "but, on the whole, I'm really against awards because it doesn't mean you're the best‹it means, somehow, you were lucky. I feel sometimes we should have won it all together. Awards create losers. What I loved was the times we had Tony Awards that were very quiet. They weren't on TV and didn't have a lot of rah-rah. It was like a big family gathering and we got prizes. I remember when I got a Tony for Tiny Alice, Mike Nichols crossing the ballroom floor at the Astor Hotel to congratulate me. It seemed to be much more of a celebration of the theatre. Now, I think we've got too much medium machine going. I like the theatre to be family, within ourselves. We are closer knit that way."

Tony Award Winner:
Best Actress in a Play, Tiny Alice, 1965; Sweet Bird of Youth, 1976. Best Featured Actress in a Play, Lost in Yonkers, 1991.

-- By Harry Haun

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