Thirty years ago tonight, Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy opened Off-Broadway at the now demolished John Houseman Theatre. I saw it some six months later on a night so cold, that when I walked out into the bitter wind, the tears on my face froze. It was sensitively directed by Ron Largomarsino, and featured Dana Ivey as Miss Daisy, the feistily independent old woman, whose twenty-year relationship with her chauffeur Hoke, as played by Morgan Freeman, made for one of the most memorable evenings I’ve ever spent in the theatre.
Dana Ivey and Morgan Freeman as Miss Daisy and Hoke Coleburn (1987)
Based on Uhry’s own grandmother, the character of Daisy Werthan is a “humdinger” as her son Boolie would say. Perhaps I related to the character because my own grandmother was a Miss Daisy; a Jewish southern belle who never lost the musical North Carolina lilt to her voice, in spite of moving to Brooklyn as an eighteen-year-old and never returning to Durham, where was born and raised. Urhy, born in Atlanta, drew from his family tree in order to create the play, as he described in a 2011 interview: “Two of the characters were composites of people in my family — my parents, my grandmother, my brother-in-law, my aunts, a few cousins and myself. The third character, Hoke Coleburn, was pretty much based on Will Coleman, my grandmother’s chauffeur. I wrote very specifically about time and place. All the events really happened, one way or another, though I moved things around a bit to serve my purposes. It was a family memoir, and I didn’t think it would have much appeal to anyone who wasn’t familiar with Atlanta in those days.”
Then what was supposed to be a limited five-week run in an intimate 74-seat space on 42nd Street at Playwrights Horizons, turned into a three-year run eventually moving to two more theatres, each one larger than the next. That it would earn Uhry the Pulitzer Prize for Drama was a total surprise, as was the Academy Award he won for Best Adapted Screenplay when the film version was produced in 1989 (it also won Best Picture and Best Actress for Jessica Tandy). The reason for its success in both mediums is that Uhry tells its story honestly, without unnecessary embroidery. That on stage, its physical production consisted of nothing more than a couple of chairs and a table, added to its beauty and simplicity.
This was the role that put Morgan Freeman on the map. At age fifty (the same age as Uhry when the play was produced), Freeman had been a working actor for thirty years, but still struggled from job to job. A month before his success with Miss Daisy, he received excellent notices for the film Street Smart, which didn’t do much business. However, by the following February, Freeman’s name was among those nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. It was the first of his five nominations, winning in 2005 for Million Dollar Baby. When Freeman was chosen to repeat his role when the film of Miss Daisy was made, it was a shame that Dana Ivey’s performance also wasn’t preserved, as she really nailed every aspect of it on stage. At the time it was announced there were many actresses who were considered (and many who coveted it) since it was such a juicy role for an actress over the age of fifty. Among those bandied about were Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Maggie Smith and even Lucille Ball. Angela Lansbury pursued it, but was turned down. She would finally get to play it on stage at age eighty-six in a 2011 Australian tour opposite James Earl Jones. A video of that production was broadcast on PBS’s Great Performances in 2015 and is available for viewing at the PBS website.
Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy ( 2015).
Alfred Uhry, something of a late bloomer, described in that same 2001 interview how he turned to writing his first play: “I was here in New York, trying to be a lyricist writer and not really liking my lyrics very much. I found it very hard and very unrewarding. And I always knew that Sondheim was so much better than me, what was the point? In the back of my mind I had always wanted to write a play, but I didn’t have the guts or the time or the this or the that. I graduated from writing lyrics to writing the book of musicals, which I certainly liked better, and then I wrote Driving Miss Daisy.”
Eventually winning a Tony for his follow-up play to Miss Daisy, The Last Night of Ballyhoo (also directed by Ron Largomarsino), Alfred Uhry claims a vaulted position as the only individual to win the Oscar, a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize for dramatic writing.