Theatre yesterday and today



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The actor Ron Leibman died on Friday at the age of eighty-two. Though a stage veteran throughout a more than fifty-year career, the headlines of many obituaries — like this one from People Magazine —have led with: “Actor Who Played Rachel Green’s Dad on ‘Friends’ Dies.” For a theatre animal like Leibman, someone who devoted many days and nights to “getting it right” eight times a week, this would not at all be kosher. In fact, years ago in an interview (with People, as irony would have it), he said, “It’s amazing, the power of the tube. I’ve done all this body of work, and they say, ‘Oh yes, Rachel’s father.’ I go, ‘Give me a break.”

Ron Leibman as Roy Cohn in Angels in America (1993).

Having in 1992 had the privilege of relishing his Roy Cohen in Los Angeles in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, prior to its 1993 Broadway run, I can attest to what it was like to see Ron Leibman at his most electrifying (and terrifying). In fact, “Leib” is Yiddish for lion (or “leyb”). And if there was ever an actor more ferocious, I would have trouble coming up with who it might be. Yes, those lion-like jaws of his could chew scenery, but as his commitment was all, most times you bought it. He could tear into comedy with such relentlessness that when reviewing his performance in Neil Simon's Rumors, Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote that he reached “a level of red-faced farcical apoplexy that recalls the valedictory performance style of Zero Mostel.” Rich went even further, pronouncing that “This actor is the soul of farce.”

Born in 1937 in New York City to a father who worked in the garment industry and a homemaker mother, Leibman graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University and from there went to Chicago, where he became involved with the improvisational Compass Players, the precursor to Second City. When he returned to New York, he was accepted into the famed Actors Studio and shortly thereafter began appearing off-Broadway and in regional theatre, prominently in some early works of John Guare and Robert Lowell.

Ron Leibman, in one of his early headshots.

He made his Broadway debut in a 1963 comedy titled Dear Me, the Sky is Falling, which starred the legendary Gertrude Berg, and also featured William Daniels and Howard DaSilva (later to co-star in 1776). Two months after its run ended, Herman Shumlin, the director of Dear Me, cast Leibman in a new play Bicycle Ride to Nevada, which sadly opened and closed on the same night. A few months after that, the prolific Mr. Shumlin cast Leibman once again, this time in a play which had a far more respectable run of 316 performances. The Deputy was German playwright Rolf Hochhuth’s indictment of Pope Pious XII's failure to do little to help the Jews during the atrocities of the 30s and 40s. And if you think that the Jewish Mr. Leibman essayed a character of his own religious heritage, you would be wrong. He played Captain Salzer: a Nazi.

In fact, it was such an incongruous role for Leibman, that it made for a number of stories about his time with The Deputy, one of which he told on the 1979 Tony Awards in front of a live television audience (you can catch it at the 21.00 minute mark):

I first encountered Leibman in 1969, when at the age of twelve, I saw Cop-Out, in which he shared co-star billing with his then-wife Linda Lavin. This one-act by John Guare (in his Broadway debut) was paired with Home Fires as its “curtain-raiser.” Unfortunately, the curtain fell on both plays within a week of its opening. As was my custom in those days, I went backstage and met the husband and wife team and even got their autographs. It was forty years later when I next engaged with Leibman, when I met him at an Emmy Governor’s Ball (he was with his second wife Jessica Walter, who had been nominated for her priceless Lucille Bluth on Arrested Development). In spite of not winning, Walter was very much the belle of the ball that night, with well-wishers offering congratulations on her breakthrough comedy performance. I noticed Leibman by her side, seemingly comfortable sharing the spotlight. This was her night, and he knew it. But I chose to lean in anyway, and over the din of the very loud room, semi-shouted into his ear “I saw your Roy Cohn. I have no words.” He gripped my shoulder in response, and with that gesture, expressed his thanks — no words.

Of his Roy Cohn, for which he won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a play, much has been written. The role does tend to honor its players, with Al Pacino winning an Emmy for the 2003 HBO film, and Nathan Lane a Tony for the 2018 Broadway revival. But Leibman got there first, and put his stamp on it in only the way he could. In their book The World Only Spins Forward, in which Isaac Butler and Dan Kois gathered stories from hundreds who were involved with Angels in America over the past thirty years, Leibman admitted: “To be honest, I had qualms about playing Roy Cohn. I loved the play. But I detested him as a human being in real life so much. I thought Tony had done a wonderful job of creating his own version of Roy Cohn, but nevertheless I was always ashamed of him. I was ashamed of him because he was a Jew. I was ashamed of a lot of things about him. If I was going to play him, I was going to have to go to places that were very uncomfortable in order to make the character uncomfortable.”