Theatre yesterday and today



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So an actor named Barry Nelson was born a hundred years ago today… ancient history, right? But growing up as I did wanting to be an actor (and carefully watching actors in the 200 Broadway shows that I attended over a four-year period in the late 1960s and early ‘70s), I have always been fascinated by the careers of those like Nelson — one of Broadway’s most prodigious leading men. In 1968, when I began going to the theatre on a regular basis, Nelson was one of the most in-demand actors of the day. Solid and reliable in both drama and comedy; handsome, with a deft flair; he could also hold his own against a host of powerful leading ladies, none of whom looked upon him as a threat to steal the show from them. Oh, he might quietly walk away with the best reviews… but it was with a wink and a smile. His kind doesn’t really exist anymore, and with today being his 100th birthday, I’d like to pay tribute to him and the entire breed of working actor he so well represented.

Barry Nelson in the hit comedy Mary, Mary (1961)

Born Haakon Robert Nielsen in San Francisco, he was the son of Norwegian immigrants. Raised in nearby Oakland, upon graduation from the University of California at Berkeley in 1941, he was snapped up by an MGM talent scout who saw him in a college production of Macbeth. He made his film debut in 1938 and for the next few years worked his way up to bigger and better roles. Though when he finally got to sharing the screen with Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne in A Guy Named Joe, his career was waylaid by World War II.

As part of the Army’s entertainment unit, he made a well-timed Broadway debut in 1943, billed as Pvt. Barry Nelson, in Winged Victory, a gerry-rigged propaganda piece written and directed by Moss Hart and commissioned by the U.S. Army Fair Forces as a morale booster and fundraiser. Working with Hart proved fortuitous when Hart offered him the role of the playwright Peter Sloan in what became the hit Broadway comedy Light Up the Sky in 1948. From thereon in, Nelson began working non-stop on stage and in the early days of live television. One of those TV projects found him the first person to ever play James Bond (and as an American!). It was an adaptation of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale that aired on October 21, 1954 as an episode of the CBS anthology series Climax! Nelson claimed to not have any idea how to play the role. “At that time, no one had ever heard of James Bond. I was scratching my head wondering how to play it. I hadn’t read the book or anything like that because it wasn’t well known.”

“Bond. James Bond.”

On Broadway, he first hit it big with The Moon is Blue, by F. Hugh Herbert, which was considered “racy” in its day and caused a lot of commotion when it opened in 1951. Words like “virgin,” “seduce,” and “pregnant,” contained in the original play’s dialogue, was all it took to create controversy — and to help it run for two years. Nelson’s next hit was 1961’s Mary, Mary, by Jean Kerr, that ran four years, though much of it without him, especially as he got to repeat his performance in the film version in 1963. Forever busy, in the ten years between 1961 and 1970, Nelson starred in seven Broadway shows — one of which he directed himself.

Besides, Mary, Mary, the other long-run that Nelson appeared in was Cactus Flower, an Americanization of a French “boulevard comedy” that had a bona fide star in Lauren Bacall. But while out of town, her leading man, Joseph Campanella came up short. By firing Campanella and hiring Barry Nelson, the problem was solved. The show ran three years, of which Nelson played two. In his book on Broadway, The Season, first published in 1969, author William Goldman interviewed Nelson on what it took to sustain the quality of a long run: “The longer you play the performance, the more your mind resents it,” Nelson said. “You’re in the middle of a scene, and suddenly all you’re thinking about is whether you should have Chinese food after the show… I don’t think any actor really likes long runs. I don’t think humans were meant to do them.”

Though he endured them, there were shorter turns that provided Nelson with enormous variety and challenges. His talent for playing an everyman had an appeal for Edward Albee, who cast him as the lead in two dark comedies, Everything in the Garden and Seascape (which won Albee his second Pulitzer Prize). Nelson even tried his hand at musicals, the four-performance flop The Fig Leaves Are Falling in 1968 and opposite Liza Minnelli in 1977’s The Act (in which he didn’t sing). But still — it was a musical — and even brought him a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor in a Musical, the only nomination of his long and successful career.

The one and only time I ever saw Nelson on Broadway was in Stanley Shapiro's The Engagement Baby, a comedy about a rich businessman who is shocked to discover he fathered a black son from a one-time fling twenty years ago. In my review I wrote, “This is one of the funniest plays I’ve ever seen! … Barry Nelson is brilliant.”

The critics ripped it to shreds and it closed in three days.

These were the days that if you were a big enough star…

your headshot could serve as a Playbill cover.

When the second-to-last curtain came down at that Saturday matinee of The Engagement Baby, I immediately headed backstage (as was my wont in those days) at the now demolished Helen Hayes Theatre. I found my way to Nelson’s dressing room and caught him seated at his dressing room table, the door ajar, putting on his socks. He looked up at me, with my long hair and bell-bottom pants, taking in the sight of a thirteen-year-old standing alone in his dressing room. I told him how much I enjoyed him and the show, and he sort of shook his head as if to say, “Kid, if you only knew how badly I can’t wait for this turkey to fold.” He signed my Playbill and I was on my way.

An avid antiques collector, in retirement, Nelson travelled the country scouring for deals. In a 2003 interview with Antiques and The Arts Weekly, he discussed how his “acting roles have been varied to the point that one day I said ‘have been there, done that,’ and it is time to let my other interests grow.” The article goes on to describe how his travels encompassed nearly 60,000 miles a year by car, and how he and his wife Nansi became fixtures at antiques shows from coast to coast.

Nelson in 2003, as he appeared in Antiques and the Arts Magazine, at age eighty-six.

Cool, right?

Barry Nelson died in 2007, just nine days before his 90th birthday.

Thanks for the memories.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: