Theatre yesterday and today



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The actor Fritz Weaver passed away this weekend at the age of ninety. If you don’t know his name, his face is certainly familiar. With a career that spanned sixty years as a working actor, and more than a hundred film and television credits, he was one of those types who always treated the theatre as his true calling. I consider myself fortunate that I had not only the pleasure of seeing his work on stage many times over the decades, but to have had a wonderfully informative and entertaining two-part conversation with him for my book Up in the Cheap Seats two years ago. I cherish that I had the opportunity to speak with an actor who had always been one of my favorites.

Fritz Weaver (1926–2016)

1970 marked the first time I saw Fritz Weaver on stage in the thriller Child’s Play. In one of his greatest roles, that of Jerome Malley, the rigid and tortured Latin teacher in a Jesuit school for boys enveloped in a cloud of paranoia and treachery, his performance was truly haunting—especially to a thirteen-year-old who had never before had an evening in the theatre that was actually terrifying. For his performance, not only did Weaver receive the reviews of his career, but the Tony Award for Best Actor. At the ceremony, the first thing he said was: “I believe in playwrights and I have to say thanks to Bob Marasco for imaging that wonderful school in which I teach.” When I asked him if he recalled the speech he said, “I do remember that. That’s our nourishment. That’s how we get to do what we do. That play opened up my eyes to something and my gratitude was for him [Marasco] much more than anyone else. I’m so glad I said it because he didn’t win a Tony… and I was so happy when he came up to me and told me ‘You were the only one who gave me a mention.’”

Child’s Play ended in a chilling denouement that has remained steeped in my memory bank for almost fifty years. When I brought this up in our conversation I said, “The curtain rising and the curtain descending can be the most thrilling thing about a show if done right. I guess today’s directors think there’s something old fashioned about it, but there really is nothing old fashioned about it at all.”

Mr. Weaver responded: “You are so right. And may I add that you were at a highly impressionable age when you were going to the theatre all those years and your memories are acute and are a correct use of theatre. You were scared out of your mind by Child’s Play and that’s the great effect of the slow curtain. What you want, and what I would like, is that kind of theatre to come back again. But it’s gone.”

Ken Howard, Fritz Weaver and Pat Hingle in Child’s Play (1970)

Thought that sentiment may sound a bit bleak, I don’t believe that was Mr. Weaver’s intention. For in the next breath, he brought up how excited he was by the prospect of returning to the stage the age of eighty-eight. “There’s talk of a revival of The Chalk Garden with Angela Lansbury, which was my Broadway debut. I was the young man. And if she feels up to it, I’m hoping that I can join her and play the old man in the play this time around.”

When it was announced that Angela Lansbury was indeed going to return to Broadway with The Chalk Garden, my first hope was for Mr. Weaver to be healthy enough to fulfill his fantasy. Unfortunately, a short time thereafter, Ms. Lansbury decided not to do the show after all and the revival was jettisoned.

But that yearning to continue working, learning and improving speaks volumes to the passion for his craft that fueled Fritz Weaver for his entire career. He was most articulate when it came to discussing the work of his fellow actors, which gave me the entry to prompt a discussion about Joseph Buloff, with whom he worked in a 1979 Off-Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s The Price. Buloff, who began his career as a child in the Yiddish theatre, gave a performance in that play that ranks among the five greatest I’ve ever seen. We spoke about what it was like to work with the actor, who was then in his eighties:

“He would sit on stage for an hour prior to show time behind the curtain and he would listen quietly to the audience coming in. He told me, ‘They are expecting a great evening and I want to absorb their excitement.’ … You see, Buloff was communing with the voices beyond the curtain before they were even aware of him… At one point I asked him, “What language did you speak when you were young?” And Buloff said, ‘We learned through observation and gestures because there were usually five languages going on at once.’ I think that’s one of the reasons that made him such an expressive actor.”

Fritz Weaver, Joseph Buloff and Mitch Ryan in The Price (1979)

Besides seeing him on stage, it was always great to see Fritz Weaver on the streets of New York. One memorable night, I was standing on the Christopher Street subway platform and noticed that he and Barnard Hughes were seated on a bench waited for the uptown local just as I was. They were heavily involved in discussion going over a scene from a play there were appearing in steps from the station, Lanford Wilson’s Angels Fall, at the now defunct Circle Rep. I loved eavesdropping on these two theatre animals, engaged in animated conversation on their way home to their apartments on the Upper West Side together.

There was something old school about Fritz Weaver, even when he was a young actor. There’s no question he was an old soul, and he explained it to me by way of this story: “I wanted to be an actor from the moment my brother and I saw Walter Hampden as Cyrano. Years later, I was appearing in Boston and Elliot Norton singled me out in a review saying, ‘He gives a very impressive performance in the old Walter Hampden style of acting.’ And that made my day! My brother went on to become a very famous artist and painted Hampden as Cyrano. It hangs in my living room.”

Walter Hampden as Cyrano de Bergerac

I could go on, but I’ll end with a story that I had heard for many years (and have enjoyed telling countless times). As the main character is Fritz Weaver, and I had only heard it third hand, I had to ask him if I had been telling it correctly all this time. Here’s how it goes:

Fritz Weaver gets in a cab and the driver spies him in the rear view mirror:

Cab Driver: I know you. You’re an actor.

Fritz Weaver: Yes, I am.

Cab Driver: You’re… you’re… wait, now don’t tell me…

Fritz Weaver: Oh, that’s all right. You don’t have to rack your brain.

Cab Driver: No, I’m gonna get it. Give me a minute.

Fritz Weaver: Most people know me by my face, so —

Cab Driver: I got it. You’re Fritz Weaver.

Fritz Weaver: Yes, that’s right. How did you know?

Cab Driver: Oh, I’m an expert at trivia.

We shared a laugh and then I asked, “Did I get it right?” And the dear man said, “I tell it a bit differently, but I like the way you tell it better.”

Rest in peace, sir. You will be missed both on and off the stage.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway,

is coming in January from Griffith Moon Publishing.