My Nagg

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1984 Production of “Endgame” at the Harold Clurman Theatre. L to R, Alice Drummond, James Greene, Alvin Epstein, also the Director, and Peter Evans

 

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.

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Standing under the sign for the Peace Forest, where the Endgame company planted trees in Alan Schneider’s memory.

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The Cultural Center in Jerusalem where Endgame was performed in 1985.

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.

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A dramatic photo of Jimmie taken backstage at the Gerald Behar Center.

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.

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Jimmie floating in the Dead Sea, blissfully unaware that he had just lost his wedding ring.

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.

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Jason Wingreen, b. October 9, 1920, d. December 25, 2015.

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.

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Endgame’s senior happy bus

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.

 

May the Force Be With You – In Life and Death

Star Wars fans all over the US are reveling in today’s opening of the latest Star Wars feature, Star Wars: Episode VII, The Force Awakens. This week’s news in Los Angeles, in addition to an unprecedented closure of LAUSD schools, featured a block long tent in front of Mann’s Chinese Theatre where A-Listers partied after the premiere.

You know what? I could care less.

I’ve got much bigger things on my mind this week. Matters of life and death. Our granddaughter is coming along this week; she will be here momentarily. Boba Fett, The Bounty Hunter, or more accurately, the voice of Boba Fett in The Empire Strikes Back, actor Jason Wingreen, now 95, discharged from the hospital this week, has returned home to live the remainder of his days. Life and Death. As one precious life begins, another nears its close.

Jason_WingreenMy husband has known Jason since the 1950s, back in New York, when they were neighbors in their Cornelia Street apartment building, just across the street from Caffe Cino, a coffee house/gathering place for the burgeoning off-off Broadway scene. In addition to a mutual interest in theatre (Jason was a founding producer for Circle In the Square, where he and Jimmie also acted in many productions), they shared a wife. Well, more accurately, Scotty, married to Jimmie for three years, until their marriage was annulled, later married Jason. Jason and Scotty lived below Jimmie and his second wife, actress Betty Miller in the Cornelia Street apartment, in an arrangement evocative of a Preston Sturges film.

When Jason and Scotty moved out to Los Angeles, late in the 50s, Jimmie and Betty remained in touch. After Jimmie and Betty divorced and I came along as wife #3, I remember meeting Jason and Scotty for the first time after one of Jimmie’s performances. The Wingreens lived in California then, Jason working on “Archie’s Place.”  I was so nervous, but shouldn’t have been, because Jason was a warmly welcoming raconteur and Scotty was always sensible with a wry wit and direct candor. I took to them both immediately, and felt at ease.

Cut to the mid 1980s, when we moved to LA, and began to see Jason and Scotty socially. Scotty was a wonderful cook, and we had frequent dinners in their beautiful home. An example of Scotty’s wit was after I had learned how to make crème brûlée, and had made it two times in one week, she said,

Els, are you trying to kill him?

We shared the ups and downs in our lives, his loss of Scotty to cancer in 1996, the loss of my Mom in 1997.

Jimmie and Jason shared a passion for the Boston Red Sox, and together, we surfed the cycle of suffering as the team routinely failed to break the curse of the Bambino. In 2004, when the Red Sox came back from a 3-0 game loss to the New York Yankees to win the 2004 ALCS and go on to play in the World Series for the first time since 1986, both Jimmie and Jason were like kids on Christmas morning. We all gathered to watch the games in the our family room. Both Jason and Jimmie have sons, which they worked to indoctrinate as Red Sox fans, Jimmie perhaps more successfully than Jason.

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Jimmie, Chris and Jason celebrate the happy victory!

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Jimmie on the phone with stepson, Frank, in the moments after the Red Sox clinched the World Series in 2004.

Jason has always been a generous man. After Scotty passed away, he frequently invited friends to dine at the Atheneum, the Cal Tech Faculty club,  an alumnus perk of their son, Ned’s four years as a Physics student.

Last week, we had a call from Jim, Jason’s business manager. He told me that Jason wanted to get a card to our son Chris. We worked out how I would pick up the card. Then Jason ended up in the hospital;IMG_5531 however, he kept insistently prodding Jim about  the card. At a moment when most people would have ceased to worry about others in light of their own health issues, Jason was dogged about Chris getting this card.

Last Saturday, I drove to Jason’s house and picked up the card. Today, when I spoke with Chris, I opened it and snapped some pictures of the card texting them so that he could see the card before our trip this weekend.

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His now wobbly signature has graced so many generous cards and head shots.

We talked about how special and yet typical it was of Jason to remember Chris.  Chris laughed about all the Red Sox games that he had watched with Jason and Jimmie in straight backed cane chairs, facing Jason’s tiny television.

About ten years ago, one of Jason’s great nephews outed him as being the voice of Boba Fett, the Bounty Hunter. Since then, he has received thousands of letters from adoring fans from all over the world, and requests to autograph photos. Jason has been far more accommodating of these intrusions than many actors might be, but he has also taken a lot of pleasure from the personal letters, reading us his favorites when we saw him. And when each of  us had a birthday, Jason would sing “Happy Birthday” on the phone machine, as Boba Fett, ending his messages with a somber, grumbling voice:

This is Boba Fett calling to wish you a happy birthday!

So now, as we await the imminent birth of our grand baby, her mama and papa-to-be counting the hours, and as Jimmie and Chris and I think fondly of Jason’s healthier days, suddenly the Star Wars movie seems more pertinent. To both the inevitable coming of life and coming of death, I entreat:

May the force be with you.