In the summer of 1984, as my fiancé, James Greene and I made preparations for our upcoming wedding, he was involved in a production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. It was produced in a small, off off Broadway theatre, The Harold Clurman Theatre, on 42nd St. west of 8th Avenue, and he was playing the role of Nagg. He had elaborate white chalky makeup to disguise his youthful 57-year-old features, and wore a jaunty night cap atop his head as he emerged from the ash can down stage right. His entrances were throughout the play, but he was able to retire to the comfort of his dressing room in between his perches, due to the escape stairs under his and Nell’s barrels. During the wedding week, when family were beginning to gather for our nuptuals, Jimmie showed his thoughtfulness when, on the evening that my Grandmother was coming to see the play, he moved quickly from his dressing table, where he sat, dabbing on his white makeup to across the street from the theatre at the West Bank Café, where he knew that my Grandmother Betsey, my father and his wife, Joan, and I were all eating a pre-performance dinner. Horrified that she might “meet him” for the first time when he emerged from his barrel as an 80-year-old man, he had quickly scrubbed off his makeup and run across the street to shake hands with her. For the rest of her life, she always remarked about how thoughtful that had been of him.
The following year, in June of 1985, the production was invited to perform at the Jerusalem Theatre Festival. The production was supposed to have been directed by veteran theatre director, Alan Schneider, but he had been killed in May the previous year, while, looking the wrong way while crossing the street in London, apparently on his way to mailing a letter to Samuel Beckett. The festival participants in Jerusalem went to a hillside, where we planted trees in Alan’s memory, prior to their performing Endgame for the first time. Jimmie and I both wore goofy white tennis hats acquired at the airport to ward off the sun while we planted the trees.
The festival performances of Endgame took place in the Gerard Behar Centre, where Adolph Eichmann was tried and convicted; there, the historic status of the building and the location of the barrels down stage right where Eichmann’s glass booth had been precluded a trap door to the basement. Jimmie and Alice crouched heroically for 90 minutes, clutching onto small metal handles attached to the sides of the barrels. Jimmie was still a runner at the time, so this did not pose the perils it would if he were asked to do the same today.
Another Israel episode was the day we drove down to the Dead Sea, behind some military trucks. We arrived at the edge of the sea, and Jimmie was first in, frolicking in the dense salt water, which would not allow you to sink, due to its viscosity. I approached the shore, bent down and touched the water, feeling how slimy and salty it was. I shouted out to Jimmie,
Did you take off your wedding ring?
Jimmie looked down at his hand in horror and the day was ruined, as we realized his ring had fallen to the bottom of the Dead Sea. This did not seem the least bit auspicious for the newlywed couple that we were, but we returned to New York and went back to the jewelry store to replace it. 31 years later, we’re still going strong, so I guess we survived the incident.
Alan Mandell, the director and Hamm of the upcoming Kirk Douglas Production of Endgame, called us several weeks ago, to see if Jimmie might consider standing by for actor Rick Cluchey, in the upcoming production. Alan was being cautious, he had spoken earlier that evening with a very weak Cluchey; he called to see if Jimmie might be interested. Jimmie considered the offer carefully, and when he called Alan the next morning at 10:00AM to accept, learned from a shaken Alan that Rick had passed away the night before shortly after Jimmie and Alan had hung up. Alan then offered Jimmie the role of Nagg. Jimmie accepted. Just last week it was made official. He is so pleased, but regretful he it was due to another actor’s death.
All of us in the theatre have had several weeks of terrible loss, losing such theatrical giants as Rick Cluchey, Brian Bedford, Alan Rickman, David Margulies, and our dear friend Jason Wingreen.
Jason, whom I wrote about in a previous post, passed away quietly in his sleep on December 25, 2015 at about 11:00PM. The ideal way to go, if there is one, at the ripe age of 95, at home, having bid his son good-bye, and quietly without pain. We should all be so lucky. There is a strange limbo period between the time that an actor dies and the world learns of it. It was strange in the ensuing weeks, until the obituaries of Jason and Rick began to appear; for those few days the news had not hit the internet yet. It was almost as though they were still alive. A Google search still listed them in the present tense.
Earlier this week my friend Lynn Johnson Minney, with whom I had stage managed a production of “Camping with Henry and Tom” at the Pasadena Playhouse called to tell us that she and her husband and daughter were going to be in LA, and she wanted to get together. It never occurred to me until much later in the week that she was coming to attend Rick’s celebration of life, until I remembered that she had stage managed a production of Krapp’s Last Tape also 20 years or so ago. She had met Cluchey when she was in her early 20s and had worked on numerous productions with him. It is startling sometimes how concentrically our lives revolve around each other. I thought of Lynn this morning as I did my yoga practice, because she practiced Bikram yoga when we worked together those many years ago, and frankly, I thought she was crazy.
Other circles – Jimmie worked for months with Brian Bedford at The Phoenix Repertory Theatre, in the 1971 production of “The School for Wives,”which began at the Lyceum Theatre in NY before touring to San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago. David Margulies had been in “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd” with Jimmie, and I had worked with him on “Conversations with My Father.” That’s how it works in the theatre – we drive around in our little artistic bumper cars, careening off and then back together. You never know when you will reunite with a former colleague and friend, but you know that when you do, for good or for bad, you have a deep connection. Our work is so intimate that it begets connections that are significant.
My thoughts drift to the current producers of Endgame, Center Theatre Group. They must be sobered by the fact that their cast members range in age from the youthful Irish Barry McGovern, 67, to Charlotte Rae, in her late 80s, and Alan and Jimmie at 88 and 89, respectively. When Jimmie got the call, my brain immediately kicked into production/stage manager mode, asking Alan,
Who are the Stage Managers?
They will need to have a special understanding of the needs and niceties for aging actors.
Jimmie doesn’t drive any more; the same may be true for the other actors. I fantasized that the theatre would organize some sort of senior actor happy bus to shuttle around town to get the actors for their daily rehearsals? Would they modify rehearsal hours? These are important questions when revving older actors up to an 8 performance week after a rehearsal and tech period. Alan already has tackled the issue of the comfort of the ash cans, remarking with a laugh that scenic designer, John Iacovelli, had responded:
They will be so comfortable they will want to move in!
After Alan’s call, I drove to the Samuel French bookstore in Hollywood, to buy a copy of Endgame. Picking out the script, I went home and put it into Jimmie’s eager, outstretched hands. Later in the afternoon, at the nail salon, I turned to look at Jimmie, whose hands cradled the script, his face modeling the behavior I had fallen in love with those many years ago, that of an actor in complete concentration. He repeated the lines silently, gaze falling slightly down, eyes fixed alternately on the script and then at some vague point in the air in front of him. Anyone married to an actor knows this far-away-look in their partner’s eye. Jimmie used to pace around the room, or go outside in the back yard to speak his lines out loud. Just now, I found him pacing near the dining room table. This phase typically precedes the moment maybe a day later when said actor will turn lovingly and say,
Would you mind cueing me? I think I’m ready to give it a shot.
We have shared that moment so many times in our lives together, and Jimmie has practiced it for decades before we ever met. I don’t think either of us thought we would experience that again. I am so thrilled for Jimmie with this opportunity. He is so ready and willing to get back on the boards, back in the can, back in the saddle, whatever the lame metaphor I choose. He is, after all, my Nagg.
Beautiful post, Els! And so glad John Iacovelli will be seeing to the actors’ comfort!
Hi, Dan! Thanks for careening your bumper car my way and reading the post. I will never forget stranding John in the genie lift on stage painting one night as I left the building and turned off a switch that powered his genie lift. Fortunately I heard his plaintiff cries before I left the shop. 🙂
That’s one of your most beautiful entries, Els. Thanks for a wonderful read.
Thanks so much, Rich! Hope to see you when you come out to LA!
Oh – and how silly of me to omit my tremendous respect for Jimmie, revisiting this role after so many years. Congratulations, Mr. Greene.
Els, this fascinating history of End Game and other stories is simply so touching and moving….thank you!! oxoxoxrenie