Theatre yesterday and today



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As previously stated, I am currently immersed in the world of summer stock, directing a production of The Producers that opens this Thursday night in Plymouth, Mass. During the past month, I've been researching how certain actors' lives were enriched by this time-honored tradition; one that has fallen by the wayside a bit in terms of how it encourages and strengthens the abilities of emerging young talent. With the average age of my seventeen-member troupe around twenty, it is not lost on me that this experience is one that (for better or worse) they will carry with them for some time.

So I have enjoyed reading about how some of my all-time favorites, such as the late Martin Landau who I wrote about last week, took to heart lessons they learned, when as fledgling actors, they first entered the world of summer stock. This morning, I found an interview with Lee Remick, an actress I greatly admired and who left this world far too soon at the age of fifty six, just over twenty-six years ago. I never got to see her on the Broadway stage, where she created the leads in Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents's short-lived Anyone Can Whistle as well as Frederick Knott's hit thriller Wait Until Dark (both produced before I was of theatre going age and began attending regularly as a teenager). But in 1985, I did get to see Remick in Follies in Concert at Lincoln Center, at one of just two performances where she led an all-star cast, alongside Barbara Cook, George Hearn and Mandy Patinkin.

Remick was a vision that night; poised and spectacularly beautiful. She embodied perfectly the character's qualities of sophisticated, wit and dangerous narcissism. With little to no rehearsal, she was the actor among the four leads who came through with a complete performance.

Lee Remick as Phyllis Stone in Follies in Concert (1985.)

By then I was already a longtime fan of her work, having first fallen in love with her as a kid while watching her on TV in two of her greatest films. My first experience was her stunning debut when she was twenty-one years old in the Elia Kazan directed Face in the Crowd, playing a teenager infatuated, then disillusioned and discarded by Andy Griffith. The second one was Anatomy of a Murder, where she went toe-to-toe with James Stewart, George C. Scott and Ben Gazzara. Not only are these films as riveting sixty years later, but the way she shines in them brings color to black and white photography.

Top in A Face in the Crowd; bottom in Anatomy of a Murder.

Remick was born in 1935 in Boston, and was raised mostly in New York City. Her mother, Patricia Remick, was a working stage actress in New York, which is where Lee was educated, attending some of the city's best private schools. A dancer, she had the temerity to audition in March of 1952, while just sixteen years old, for a summer stock company in Hyannis on Cape Cod. Without telling anyone, she lied about her age and then got the job, contracted for nine shows in ten weeks that summer. Her parents allowed it, and this is where she made her first appearances in plays and musicals of any kind, since her only stage experience in school had been as a dancer. Though it turned out to be "a summer of magic," as she once described it, her first view of things was less so:

"I asked my father to drive me to Hyannis to see the theatre. When we got there, all we found was a big hole in the ground. We hadn't understood that the theatre was a real tent, put up in June and taken down in September." Among the shows she recalled doing were Kiss Me, Kate, Where's Charley?, The Firefly and Carousel. "I was paid about sixty-five dollars a week, which went for room and board. Before each performance, we rehearsed from nine in the morning until six in the evening—for the following week's show. I never felt tired. I would have done anything they asked of me. I loved everything I did, everything around me, including my primitive dressing room—a tiny cubbyhole in a cottage across from the tent. The high point of that beautiful, exciting summer came when we did Carousel. I played one of Enoch Snow's daughters, and I was given my first real lines to say—'My father's bought me my pretty dress,' and 'Your father was a thief.' They were my lines, and it was my show. There wasn't anything being done by anyone anywhere, we all felt, that could compare with what we were doing."

Those last two statements are the ones that get me. "They were my lines, and it was my show." Now there's an actress!

"There wasn't anything being done by anyone anywhere, we all felt, that could compare with what we were doing," is a sentence that encapsulates everything there is to say about such an experience, both overstated and true at the same time.

My most indelible image of Lee Remick came when I was eleven, and it came by accident. One Sunday afternoon, I rode my bicycle a couple of miles away from my home in Great Neck to attend a second run theatre—the long defunct Herricks—one town over in New Hyde Park. I had no idea what was in store for me that day as I was going mainly to see Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple. But back then, when a film would start to wane at the box office, they would put it on a double-bill with one that hadn't done so great to begin with. I would always stay for the second feature no matter what it was, as two-for-the-price-of-one was a bargain hard to say no to. In this case, the lower part of the bill was a sexy murder thriller called No Way to Treat a Lady. And it's an understatement that I was in no way prepared for. It starred George Segal as a detective on the trail of crazy Rod Steiger, who was randomly murdering women who reminded him of his mother (seriously). It went for a satiric quality (that it missed), but what it had going for it was Lee Remick, playing that most stereotypical creation of 1960s cinema: a hip young woman who oozed sex and titillation with every line reading (or least did so for my eleven year-old self). When Remick talked about her past affairs to Segal she told him, "I swinged and swanged until I swung."

You don’t forget lines like that … or entrances on film like the one she made below, in this flimsy orange dress with no back.

In 1990, I was living in Los Angeles and remember how excited I was when I heard that Remick was going to play Desire in a limited engagement of A Little Night Music. It was a wonderful piece of casting, only it wasn't meant to be. She had to withdraw before rehearsals even started, following the diagnosis of a fast cancer that would claim her one year later. Having met many people over the years that knew and worked with her, it did my heart good that every single one of them recalled her not only as a very special talent, but a very special person. I haven't even mentioned her Oscar nominated performance in The Days of Wine and Roses, or her stellar work on television in such mini-series as Nutcracker and as the actress Margaret Sullavan in Haywire. Check them out, as well as A Face in the Crowd and Anatomy of a Murder. I guarantee you will wind up singing her praises.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: HistoricalBroadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8-4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book