Speaker I met Jerome Robbins under very funny circumstances. He was directing this play the first time he'd ever directed a play as opposed to a musical. Oh, Dad, poor dad. Mama's hung you in the closet, and I'm Feeling So Sad by Arthur Kopit, which had been produced up at Harvard in the undergraduate theater there. Arthur Arthur. It was an undergraduate at Harvard. Amazingly, when he wrote that play and the play, unlike any other play of of the time of the new plays at the time, had actually been printed. It had been, it was in print. And I got a hold of a copy of it because I had heard so much about it and I read it. I thought, you know, I could play that part. I wasn't sure I wanted to, but I thought, you know, if I auditioned for that part, I could get that part.
Speaker So it was about to be done in New York. And I went around some agent's office and said, why don't you get me an audition for this? And they said, we have no idea who you are. Finally, a wonderful agent who I then was with for many years afterwards by the name of Deborah Coleman. She agreed to support me to the casting director who and she got me an appointment with the casting director, who was this sweet lady named Terry Faye, one of the big ones of that time, the early 60s. This was. And I saw Terry Faye at the end of a Friday afternoon in December, and it was dark out. And she had that look that I came over the years to associate with people who were casting shows for Jerry Robbins because he just he couldn't make up his mind and he would see people over and over and over again and he would get excited about somebody and kind of not excited. And she just looked exhausted and she said, well, what have you done? And I said, well, I was an apprentice at the Williamstown at the Williamstown Theater Festival, as it's now called. And I get in all the plays in college, you know, and she said, well, you know what? And she, like, rubbed her eyes and she said, we might as well see you, you know, because they hadn't been able to find what they were looking for. And they were saying, I heard who all they they were seeing the best young actors in New York, actors who, as it happened, were much more accomplished than I was. And but he wasn't. There was a thing Jerry wanted. So this was kind of late on a Friday afternoon. And so she said, OK, come by the theater. It was the auditions are being held in a Broadway theater. The show was ultimately an off Broadway show. Come by the theater where we're auditioning it, I think like three, 15 on Tuesday. So that was the weekend coming up. And into Tuesday, I called up a couple of actresses I knew like and I made them a tag team. I rehearsed it all weekend. I learned all the lines.
Speaker I it was like I was going into a show, you know, like saying you have to open on Tuesday night. So I went to the theater, I went through the stage door and I got there like half an hour early.
Speaker And actors I knew for all the for all the parts, for the part of the mother, for the part of the girl, for the part of the guy were coming in and out of there, sometimes looking quite upset. And 315, which was my time, came and that was four o'clock and five. And they just kept not calling me. And finally at six o'clock, the auditions were ending and I was still seated on the steps there. Where would you go? Up to the dressing rooms back there. And this guy came out who who proved to be Jerry's assistant on the show was William Daniels. He said, Who are you?
Speaker I said, I. And I said my name.
Speaker I said he said, why are you here to audition or what? I said, Well, actually I was supposed to audition at 315. It's not six o'clock. He said, Oh. And he looked, oh, my God, we just forgot. He said, we forgot. He ran out to the stage and he said, oh, and he came back, said, well, Arthur, companies had to leave. He's he's already gone. But Jerry is just putting on his coat, you know, Jerry Robbins. But he'll see you for a couple of minutes. I mean, we don't want you to have sat here for no reason. And he was awfully sweet, but he was saying, in effect, you know, this isn't a serious issue that's about to happen. But you have been here for three hours and we don't want you to.
Speaker So I went out and indeed, Jerry was in the middle of putting on his coat, and he was very funny and very sweet and apologetic. And he left. He apologized profusely. He was not insensitive to the moment at all. And he said, just just read a couple pages of the first long scene with the girl. The that ultimately was played by Barbara Harris. So I read it opposite. Opposite William Daniels. We sat on the set of the play that was playing in this theater and we just started to read and it's and he said, just read the first two pages. The scene is 20 pages long. Well, he didn't stop me.
Speaker And we got through the whole scene.
Speaker It went on for almost half an hour, and he had his he had he would he'd been putting on his coat and I kept thinking, well, you know.
Speaker I'm a star, you know, and he said that that was that was incredible and he was very, very he said that was great. And he asked me just a couple of questions about my background. Then he said, we're going to have you come in on Friday so Arthur Cockpit can see you. So on Friday, I came in again and it didn't work.
Speaker It just didn't work, I had no craft at that point.
Speaker I didn't know how to, although even now that I've acquired some craft that, you know, that often happens at a callback, a callback of the first audition is gone really well, sometimes it just doesn't work. So that that night after the callback, I went out with friends and I got drunk as much as you can get. I mean, crawling finally around the floors of bars at 2:00 in the morning saying, I don't care.
Speaker So I didn't get the leads in the new Geria. I would say it doesn't matter, you know, and I got something else and, you know.
Speaker And so. That was Friday and I was half the night Friday night drinking, and then on Saturday I took my my laundry to the laundromat. I thought, you know, why are you there something you got upset about here? I mean, it was like, you know, maybe this woman who submitted me for this will not submit me for something else or something like that. And I just you know, and I came back to the apartment, the phone rang and it said, is Austin Pendleton, this is Jerome Robbins.
Speaker Would you come over to my apartment? I want to talk to you. So I went over to his apartment and across town and I he said, look, it didn't work yesterday. It was so great on Tuesday and didn't work yesterday. And Arthur, the playwright, didn't doesn't think it's a good idea, but I have a feeling that it might be. So why don't you come in again? And he talked to me a lot about the part and what he needed to see in the part. And he gave me directions that I still am receiving from other people. I guess somehow every actor has their own unique way of going wrong. Yeah. And so I. And you maintain that over all the years, no matter all you think about your whatever you think about your development and growth, you have the same problems inherently. So he talked at length about that and he was very, very nice. But he was very firm about the fact that it hadn't worked the day before.
Speaker Well, OK, make a very long story short now. I auditioned like four or five times. I finally went home for Christmas and then I get a call at home in Ohio from from the agency saying, can you come in tomorrow? I was planning to stay the whole holidays. So I flew in and I read again. This was the sixth time now. And I read with Barbara Harris. And then I got the part, as did she. She, too, it turns out, had read a few times and he couldn't quite make up his mind about her. And he was he was frustrated about me because I didn't any in any of the auditions. Except for the one except for the one with Barbara. I didn't come at all up to.
Speaker What I've done on the first one, so that's how I met him. What was your impression of him? I liked him.
Speaker He was nice. And then we went into rehearsal two weeks after that, after I got the part. And at that point, they still hadn't cast the mother. And finally they announced it was going to be Jo Van Fleet.
Speaker I read someplace that Sheldon said that you remind you, Jerry, he thinks that you remind Jerry of himself as a young man to ever tell you that.
Speaker No, no, I've heard that. I've read that in a book, I think somewhere. But I know and I knew Jerry for years. I knew him, you know, like ever after that. And and we would we would talk. We would we would. We would you know, he he would come and see shows I was involved with over the years sometimes like off off, off off Broadway shows. He was very loyal. And I tried, of course, to see a lot of his work and and we would talk sometimes we have lunch and stuff like that. But he never got close to anything like that. And I never felt. Well, I mean, how do you say to Jerome Robbins, hey, I hear that I read in a book that you think I remind you. So I don't I don't know that that may have been a communication between Jerry and Sheldon.
Speaker You know, I'm going to call up Sheldon and ask him about that.
Speaker Yeah, tell me about the play. Um, what was it? Comedy. Drama? What was it? What was it about? It was a very unusual piece, as I understand it. So tell me about it as if I know nothing, which I almost do. And you mean. Oh, Dad. Oh, Dad. Yeah.
Speaker Oh, Dad. Poor Dad was a play at that time. It was.
Speaker It was a very peculiar play. It's a terrific play. It had defeated the only other attempt to produce it before then. There was a production with American people in it involved with it had open open in London a few months before that was supposed to come to New York. And some really good people worked on it and it was a flop. So they didn't bring it to New York. Who knows? Had they brought it and fixed it, it could have been great. I don't know. But so then Jerry picked it up and then he I repeat, he had never, ever directed a play before. He directed, oh, two musicals at least that were had extremely sophisticated librettos that were practically plays in themselves like, you know, Gypsy and West Side Story. But he'd never directed a play.
Speaker And the thing about Old Dad is, was a parody of absurdist theater. But at the same time, it had a. You had to take it seriously, that you had to believe these were real people, and so it was very tricky to find the tone of it. And Jerry was insecure about his ability to work with actors because that because he had come up, you know, he had he had had primarily worked with dancers. So when he began to direct the musicals, that that required a lot of acting, such as Gypsy and West Side Story, where the books for those shows are so amazing, probably that they the high watermark of book writing, musical theater, those two books.
Speaker But Arthur Laurents, he would he he Jerry would hire somebody.
Speaker As an assistant to work with the actors on the scenes, and that's that was that was the use of Bill Daniels with his dad, who was him, who is himself an actor, a superb actor, he he originated one of the roles not long before that in the zoo story and stuff like that. Of course, since then, he's had an amazing career as an actor anyway.
Speaker So he would direct the scenes between me and Barbara Harris. He would work and work, and then Jerry would come in and see the work we had done. We would do a run-Through of a scene sometimes, as I say, like a long scene, almost a half hour scene. And he would watch it. And he had this unerring eye about what needed to happen into the scene to make the play completely clear. And so he would give us a whole bunch of notes, some some to us directly and some behind our back to Bill Daniels. And we would often rehearse, like off the books in the evenings. We would come, we would we would go out for dinner with Bill Daniels and Barbara Harris, and then we would come back in the evening and we would we got obsessed with it.
Speaker And three quarters of what I learned about acting, I learned from Bill Daniels during those rehearsals and from Barbara Harris, who is a genius.
Speaker And then Jerry would come in and he would.
Speaker Contribute his eye for what was needed, for the clarity of the piece, which was fantastically clear, but he knew himself well enough that he didn't know the acting lingo that can help actors and he didn't know how to act to avoid the kind of talk that can get an actor all confused actors.
Speaker We're all crazy, you know, and we we can't be talked to a certain way or we freeze up, you know? I mean, we're like that.
Speaker I mean, partly because we were a little what we are, but also because there is a technique to acting and you have to go about it a certain way or the court doesn't fully come alive, you know, and he was aware of that, you know, unlike a lot of people who actually direct plays all the time and who who are not aware that they don't know how to talk to actors. And I've worked with some of those. And so I really always appreciated that. Jerry understood that.
Speaker That he needed help, but he would always contribute the final say, and often he would he would then provide the blocking for the scenes, he'd provide the movement.
Speaker And that, of course, was superb, but he would he would allow us to develop with Bill Daniels what we were going to do, and we went down path after path after path with Bill Daniels.
Speaker Trying to find the kind of life in the scenes that would that would that would work for it.
Speaker So what you're describing is really more do you want to take a drink? No, no, no. What you're describing is really more of an editing function in a way, a very astute editor.
Speaker It's a bit more than that. It was it was like an overview. And then he would be in the other room and he would be working with Jo Van Fleet and he would be working with all with all the bellboys and all the all the intricate work with that with with the staging of those scenes. Then he would come in sometimes two or three times a day and he would watch us, you know. And see what we were up to with Bill, and then he had a person on Fiddler on the Roof to.
Speaker Richard Aultman.
Speaker Before we get off of that, yeah. Can you tell me just I know it had you talked about it as a parody of an absurdist.
Speaker Yeah, but it can't be finally dismissed as a parody.
Speaker It tells a very strong. Tail that play, I mean, you have to get emotionally involved with it or it doesn't work. So it's not just a parody of an absurdist play, although it is also that. So it's. You know, you can go wrong with that play, which is true of a lot of good plays. Tell me a little bit more about the play, the plays about a mom who appears by any standard I can think of is out of her mind. And she she and she lives in a hotel. She goes from hotel to hotel around the world. She she tends to stick to hot climates, it looks like. But anyway, she she arrives at a particular place somewhere in the Caribbean or the Mediterranean or something. I think as I remember, it's unspecified and she always has whether the coffin of her dead husband. And then she takes the body out of the.
Speaker When she arrives, she takes the body out of the coffin and hangs it up in the closet, and she has a boy, me, who is that is maybe 18 or 19 or 20, but he's actually like eight.
Speaker But he's not because he's you know, he's hormonal and he and who is fascinated with girls but is afraid to tell his mother because she's keeping him utterly protected and away from the world and away from girls. So he meets a girl, the part played by Barbara Harris.
Speaker Who seduces him and he freaks out and he kills her?
Speaker And that's the story of the play, and then he continues to live with his mother.
Speaker But tell me exactly how it is. How does he kill her?
Speaker He smothers her. She she gets him into the in. She she lures him into the bedroom, the girl. And while she's in the middle of seducing the boy, the corpse of his father falls across the bed. Well, to see what Barbara Harris what she did with that, all of which she found at the technical rehearsal, it's the only trap and the only transcendent performance that I know of that was found at the tech rehearsal. I mean, it was just and it was like almost midnight, almost the end of the day of the rehearsal, you know, and she just started to find all this stuff with the corpse that was utterly inspired. And I remember Jerry was running up and down the aisle and everybody was laughing. He was so excited because he knew the play was coming together. And in rehearsal, the play looked very flat. We we would have run through and Arthur's agent would come either under the carpet, of course, himself would come and the producers would come. And everybody always looked worried. As well, they should have it just there was something we weren't finding exactly that, but what she found and it was a result of all these weeks of work, it finally came to fruition at the technical rehearsal when she had the prop of the corpse. And she it was terrifying and it was absolutely hilarious and it was real.
Speaker And it was. It was amazing.
Speaker Did he ever tell you what his personal attraction was to this material?
Speaker Jerry didn't talk about his personal. Response to material, he just he knew he had material that he liked, he liked, oh, dad, he liked the courage, he like Gypsy, he liked Fiddler on the Roof.
Speaker He talked about about Fiddler on the Roof to a certain degree because of his family and his ancestors and all that. But he he would never talk for the deeper for.
Speaker The reasons of a personal nature he would involve on a play, but you felt it, you felt he I mean, you felt he really had a strong a strong emotional response to whatever material you were working on.
Speaker You talked before a little bit about how he staged it, and I read someplace that he actually had sort of choreographed it like a dance. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Speaker Well, he he choreographed the scenes with the bellboys. He didn't exactly choreograph it. But I mean, very, very intricate movement and intricately timed. And but in the scenes between in the scenes between Barbara Harris and me, it wasn't like that. It was just he he had a real eye for where people should be in relation to each other on the stage in order to tell the story. He would say he would come in and he would he would look at the at the work we've done with Bill Daniels, he said, I think that moment is terrific, but I think it would be even clearer if she were a little closer to him here or if if he were more if he were unable to get up off the sofa or something like that. And he just had an uncanny eye. And so and he would be right. We would try it and like instantly it would be clear and would be easier to play. He had as good an eye about that kind of thing as any director I've ever worked with. So it didn't have to be choreography, it could just be the movement of two people with relation to each other on the stage.
Speaker I understand that the atmosphere director said is so important. I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit. Did he foster a kind of creative atmosphere among the cast?
Speaker He did not foster a creative atmosphere among the cast, no.
Speaker If he came back today, Jerry, and he said, I'm going to do 10 shows. In three years, and I want you to be in all of them, and Samuel played, you know, like a good part and somebody played a small part. And I and I know everything I know now, I know how difficult it would be because it was I would say I'm their. I would do them all. I'd say I'll do all 10 shows, I would I would sign a piece of paper saying I'm going to do so, even though in the first three we had an awful time together, I would still be available for the other shows because he didn't exactly foster a creative atmosphere. He was a man in torment when he directed. He was so frustrated all the time with it, not with trying to find exactly the moment.
Speaker And he would he would beat himself in the head. No, I don't think he actually did that gesture. But it was as if he were doing that. He was so frustrated and you'd get halfway through trying something he said. And no, no, he got no, no, no. What is it? What is it? What is it? And and he was so and so you didn't feel. You didn't feel. You didn't feel released. Let's put it that way. He was always eaten up by a lot of a whole lot of doubt, particularly doubt of himself, but this will spill over onto the actors. And he was incredibly impatient. But you always knew see, I've worked with other directors who are like that, but it's not because they have a vision of anything, it's just that they're cranky, you know, but. But with Jerry. Yeah, he was cranky. Yes, he was. But he was you knew that whatever he saw, what he was trying to crystallize in his eye was so extraordinary and original that if you just kept at it and it was hard, it was as I say, the first things I ever was was in in New York were things he directed.
Speaker And so. And you're insecure. Well, I mean, one is still insecure, but you're insecure.
Speaker You're completely insecure. And so you at the end of each rehearsal day, you feel it's never going to come together. I'm no good. It's not, you know, but he didn't. I'm sure there are exceptions to this, but I don't know of him ever having fired anybody. I'm sure he did. But but he didn't do it a lot like some directors do. And you would get into rehearsals when some actor was, like, really in trouble, but they wouldn't get fired. He would he would just it was almost like he communicated we we're in the middle of a tunnel and it's hot and we can't find a way out of the tunnel. But we're just going to keep picking away at the walls until we find a way out of this was the atmosphere. It wasn't it was kind of terrifying, actually. And you always felt his unhappiness and his frustration, but then all of a sudden something would happen.
Speaker And that would then it would have been worth all of that and the reason those things would finally happen, like the thing with Barbara Harris, but all kinds of things like that. Hers was one of the most spectacular examples of it I ever saw. But.
Speaker The reason those things were the absolute terrific thing would finally happen is because everything else had been tried. Everything I read, everything sometimes would happen just by default, the actor just to have to have a persistence and an openness and just saying, OK, that's no good, that's no good.
Speaker He's having trouble. He's having trouble trying to articulate to himself or to us what he sees or to clarify even what in his eye he sees, even to himself. And I'm inept.
Speaker But that's just the way it is, we have to somehow we have to we have to get through this somehow.
Speaker And you were always afraid you were going to be fired. But you always hope that if you were, you would have deserved it. You know what I mean? Because he saw magnificent things in his imagination. How did you know that you just knew? He just said, well, first of all, you'd seen his earlier work, but even if, you know, I think even if I'd never heard of him, even if I'd never seen West Side Story or Gypsy or any of that stuff or the king and I you know, if I even if I hadn't seen any of that, I think I think you just knew.
Speaker Because he had a he was like a creature from the medieval times, like a like in some kind of religious fervor, religious, he had he was a visionary. He had he had actual visions, I think. But he didn't know what they were composed of. He didn't know what would release them and make them come come alive. And he didn't know. He couldn't articulate them. He was like he was like a painter who will begin a painting and then that's all wrong and paint over it and then no, that's all wrong and just go crazy and and throw and throw the paint brush around and do all. He was like that. But you knew. And then everything is certainly the two shows I worked with him on. And, you know, and I didn't ever everything I ever saw of his I thought was wonderful.
Speaker Even some of the ones that were somewhat somewhat reviled, I thought were wonderful. And often the actors would just I mean, you'd go backstage and the actors would be like.
Speaker They would look.
Speaker Yeah, yeah, and but you'd say no, I say this is great, I don't care what anybody says. This is beautiful.
Speaker This is so rare. What's going on on stage and. But that's how he achieved it.
Speaker He didn't horse around and he didn't settle. And you knew he was being at least as hard on himself as he was on you.
Speaker I understand he had I don't know if it's faith in Barbara, but he to aerospace.
Speaker Yeah, well, he one thing that Jerry had was in I, I mean. She's one of the great artists, you know. She Barbara Harris is one of the great artists, and he he has had an eye for things like that, I think he gave her room because he didn't know what she was doing. She had never worked with anyone who was like her. She came from a school of improvisation. She'd hardly been in any actual place. She'd been in a few. But her main gift at that time that people were aware of was improvisation. And she did some of the finest improvisations and shows that I've ever seen. You know, and she. And so I think he was in all of that with all of that, with Barbara Harris and he he so he didn't know where it was coming from. It wasn't any technique he ever had had known anything about. But and then occasionally he would he wouldn't know where she would she wouldn't ever do the same thing twice now to a choreographer. Of course, that's completely bewildering and frightening. She would do something that would blow you away and then she would do the scene again and she wouldn't do any of those things. You do other things. And that turned him on artistically. But it also frightened him. And I remember that night at the tech rehearsal when she when she began to achieve the whole final scene of the play and then she began to change it. And I remember he ran down. It was like five to 12.
Speaker And he said, no, Barbara, please don't change it. Please don't change it, please.
Speaker And we all laughed, you know, but I think he was in awe of her. I mean, he wasn't in awe of me and he wasn't involved Jo Van Fleet, because we worked in a more conventional way than Barbara Harris. But so he although he never had direct actors that much, he sort of knew the techniques we were using. And Joe Van Fleet was extremely accomplished with those. And I was a beginner, but but they were techniques that he knew. But where is Barbara Harris coming from? And then he used her again in Mother Courage, in which she was again, extraordinary. About I'd say we opened somewhere around the 1st of March. And in the middle of June. I decided I couldn't we run an off Broadway contract where you could quit, you know? And I thought, I can't do this anymore. I'm so I spent all day and anxiety, I had no craft and also the roll contained elements which were very personally hard for me. And I had I didn't have any kind of a craft. And I mean, those on the one hand were where sometimes the wind in my sails and on the other times they were a pretty strong headwind. And I never knew from night tonight. And it got worse and worse and worse. The performance kept improving and then it would also get worse.
Speaker And I never knew what was going to happen on any given night. And I was I would spend all day and great anxiety. And it was just it was becoming and I thought I was really doing the play a disservice and I was personally embarrassed and everything. And I the cast was terrific. Barbara Harris in particular was very sweet, very, but I just couldn't handle it. So I think it was in June and I was like, OK, maybe as early as the enemy anyway. At that time, Jerry lived in an apartment two blocks away from where the theater was on the east side, Upper East Side, so I lived on the west side and I and I told the stage manager who was terrific, he was at that time a very young guy named Tom Thomastown. And I said, you know, I don't I got to quit this thing, I can't I just can't do it.
Speaker And and Tom didn't know what to say because he knew. I mean, he was he was there every night, he saw what was going on then every once in a while I'd do like a few performances. No, that would just eight times as good as the ones I'd done before when I was good. And so it was very I mean, and everybody would breathe a sigh of relief. And then Awam, I would hit a brick wall again. So now I was in the middle of a brick wall this particular time. So I get this call from I think from Jerry or his assistant saying on your way to the theater tonight, would you stop at my place? So I did. He said, I hear you're thinking of quitting. I said, I got to Jerry. I just have to. I just can't I can't do it anymore. I'm not I can't handle it, I can't control it. I can't. It's terrible and it's terrible for the show. I think I even said, Jerry, it has your name on it. And it's not what you directed. And he said. Well, he said, I can't prevent you from quitting because because you have a two week out, but.
Speaker I'm telling you, you're not going to quit.
Speaker I said, well, what do you mean is this is it's ridiculous. He says, no, if you quit this, first of all, you probably won't get hired in the industry again. But even if they do, you won't be able to go back on the stage. This could it would could end your career. You yourself will end it. You won't want to go back on the stage. And you'll be afraid to you have to get through this somehow. If there's anything I can do to help, but you have to get through it because I don't, I want you to have a career as an actor.
Speaker So I stayed. That's the story.
Speaker There was a physical component to it, wasn't there speech?
Speaker I couldn't talk now the character's not supposed to you know, he's supposed to have a lot of trouble, but I mean, it was like now I'd acted a lot before, but I'd never played a part before that had that component in it. And indeed, in rehearsal, all the times I kept saying, why don't you have more trouble with, like the character's supposed to and go, oh, I will, I will, I will.
Speaker But but in my heart, I thought, I'm not going to do that because it'll get out of control.
Speaker And I went into acting to not do that, you know, and and and but he said.
Speaker But I couldn't control at certain times I would be almost completely without it, almost two completely without it for the moment, but I didn't mind that at all. Sometimes it would be just right. And then sometimes it was I'd tell you it was awful.
Speaker I know what you're talking about, but you didn't actually say.
Speaker I stuttered and so did the character.
Speaker But like any art, you can't just go on and be unable to say a word and and there was there were performances that were like that. However, the really interesting thing is that in the first part of the play, he has this problem, the character. Then he he figures everything out. And he had the whole long final scene with the girl that he's he's written completely fluent and not once in the entire run was anything but fluent in that scene. But it was that earlier scene, which is the better scene. Which is a great scene, the scene I had auditioned with where he's he has trouble talking, but then he gets fluent and then he gets back into trouble. And it's all very beautifully, like, orchestrated in the writing. Well, I had no control over that orchestration. There were a whole lot of performances where I would hit it enough and then somewhere I just wouldn't have any trouble at all. And you wonder what the problem was so that in its end that in its way was also a problem. And if I wasn't having any problem, I wasn't about to engineer one. And then it then but there were some performances and they would and you never knew when they were going to happen where that whole long first scene with her, which is I mean, the first scene with her, which is scene two of the play, which is I say is I'll put it this way, the scene as, say, a 25 minute scene.
Speaker Sometimes it would be well over half an hour. I don't know how to put it any clearer than that. It wasn't fun to watch. And how Barbara Harris was able to maneuver around that, I have no idea. But she did. She's an artist and she had that background in improvisation.
Speaker And Tom Stone would call me in to help out sometimes with rehearsals, with with the different actresses who came and went who were her understudies.
Speaker And he would try all kinds of things with me, which would help. He would he would reblock the scenes just this afternoon. Let's reblock the scene, how this was supposed to help the new understudy, I don't know. But, you know, let's just reblock the scene. And I would totally open me up. And then for a few nights, that would be great. But it was very you know, you couldn't tell couldn't. And I was going to leave. And I'm sure I'm sure Jerry's right. I'm sure if I had left, I wouldn't ever have gone up for another part. And I and probably I wouldn't gotten hired either.
Speaker I mean, word gets out, you know, he said, no, you're going to stay. I said, well, I don't know what to do. He says, I don't either, but you're going to stay. I said, and I repeat, I said it says, Directed by Rob Robards. He says, I'll take that risk.
Speaker That's extraordinary. Now, just to be clear.
Speaker This was an issue that you had previous to I'd had it all my life up until that point, that problem stuttering But but I would act in the school plays and I would act in all the plays. At Yale, where I was an undergraduate, I wasn't in the drama school, but in all the undergraduate plays. And pretty much I was I was almost completely free of it. That's why I went into acting. Now, this whole thing is coming. So I'm having I'm in my first play in New York and it's a hit and now is there for everyone to see. It was like it was a nightmare.
Speaker And so in this, it was. You're describing the car, right? Yes. Actually required that you stutter in that scene.
Speaker It was required that I stutter in the whole first part of the play scene, one where I hardly had anything to say with, which is with the mother in the bellboys. And then scene two with Barbara, which is a very long, brilliantly written scene. Brilliantly written scene and but and but it's very carefully orchestrated in the writing of that first long scene with Barbara Harris. Where I'm fluent, where I'm not.
Speaker All that would go out the window on a bed, it was just half an hour of me trying to get to get words out.
Speaker It's hard even to think about 10 years after that I was asked to do that scene in some kind of evening about the Phoenix Theatre would produce the play and they would do an evening of scenes from their greatest hits. So I did the scene this time with with an actress who was a replacement for Barbara at the end of the run, Alex Elias, who was also very good.
Speaker It all came back. The problem all came back, and I was comparatively free of the problem by then. I had a lot of training and speech and voice by that point, and I had slowly gotten, you know, a pretty good amount of control over it. It all came back. I thought, I'm never going to appear in public in this material again. I'm just not going to do it. But it wasn't as out of control as the horrible nights had been, but it was not pleasant. And people said, oh, that was great, you ought to do this play again. I said, if my career depended on my doing this play again, I would not do it.
Speaker I just let's just let's move on. I thought I had moved on, so let's just keep moving on.
Speaker It was really hard.
Speaker It was hard. But it's extraordinary in your career that that launched your career.
Speaker Yes. And I think I learned a lot about acting from the struggle with it that year. If I what I learned ultimately from this is all because Jerry made me stay in, it is the only way to to meet of fear as an artist, I suppose this is true in life, too, is to head right into it. And I think the reason I'd been in such trouble in some of those performances was I was trying to avoid it, but I wouldn't. I was trying to avoid it as the reality of the scene. And I think if I had and I gradually learned on some subconscious level just by being in the play every night for a year. Because he told me to stay on, I was in for a year, I gradually learned that just. Allow that to be the reality and it will start to shape itself artistically, don't.
Speaker I think a lot of actors, we go into acting in order to hide certain things about ourselves, we're ashamed of.
Speaker Now, now those things are the gold in any way you have to have them under control, but what is controlling control means you're using them to create something larger than that. But what you're going through it, you're not going around it and you're not concealing it.
Speaker And and in at the same time, you have to continue to work on the problem, but the anxiety about the problem is real and it's part of you, even if it doesn't ever manifest itself. And that I don't think if I'd had that extraordinary year and I didn't even fully begin to comprehend all that.
Speaker For some years after that, as I got increasing control of the problem through work with a lot of excellent people on the problem, but on the speech problem, I mean, people in speech and voice and I learned how to sing in order to be in Fiddler on the Roof and I and all that helped, you know, and but you have to your your fears.
Speaker I teach this now at HP. You're your fears. A part of your equipment is in your fears about yourself. The things you're ashamed of in yourself are part of what your your.
Speaker What you have to contribute as an actor, they can't be. Swept under the rug.
Speaker And that's what I learned because Jerry made me stay on. And I'm still kind of learning it, but that was such a dramatic illustration of it. Am I being clear?
Speaker Absolutely, and causes me to ask you if you think the same could be said of director.
Speaker Is it true that what makes a good director is the director?
Speaker Is always is that a good director was always in touch with the thing that they're afraid of or ashamed of in themselves? Oh, yes, I never thought of that. But yes. And and Jerry was plenty ashamed of a lot of things.
Speaker But, you see, so is everybody. But with Jerry, it was right out there. He wouldn't articulate them, but, boy, was it there.
Speaker That's I think probably if you look through everything he ever directed, there are certain thematic lines. I don't know what they are, but but there are these work is very, very personal. And I think that that's the there's isn't and I mean, his work is incredibly accomplished and realised, but it's not slick. Because I think he's right in touch with the things that he's troubled about in himself.
Speaker In his work.
Speaker And so here's here's the man I learned from. You know, so so you not only learn a lot of craft from him, but you learn that, too. You learn about being in having your hands, like having keeping your hand on the on the hot stove or.
Speaker Before we get off our dad, is there anything else that you would like to tell me about it?
Speaker Well, it shaped me, oh, dad poured out, it shaped me, it I it practically killed me. It was the it was the ultimate example in artistic terms in my own life and the artistic part of my life. It was the ultimate example of what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger, which is what he was telling me when he said, stay in the show. You have two options. It'll kill you or it'll make you stronger, is what he was saying. I think Jerry knew all about that. That's what I think. And although I knew him for years, I never got to know him, like real real close. He wasn't the kind of guy you sit and have a beer with and learn everything, you know. But you knew that that he had his life made him stronger and it didn't kill him.
Speaker Which it could have done.
Speaker I read that you were the very first person to be cast in Fiddler on the Roof. How did that happen?
Speaker I was the first person to be cast in Fiddler on the Roof because. When I was in Odan about halfway through the year that I ended up being, you know, that I got accepted into the training program at the Lincoln Center, which at that time was was about to be won by Elia Kazan and Robert Whitehead.
Speaker And in the year before the company was going to begin performing plays, they selected a training people for a training program for eight months, for eight hours a day, for five days a week. Now, you didn't have to pay for any of the training, but you also were not paid to be in the training program. So if you already had a job, you could stay in that job. I was in Audette, so I continued, you know, dead for. At least the first half of the eight months of the training program and I got into that training program because of Odan. And, you know, the combination the combination of those eight hour days was that every night finally became too much and and I had to leave all that finally just just just a few weeks before it ended, as it turned out. But. In those eight.
Speaker In those eight months, I learned that was when I really began to learn how to use my voice better and and and movement and and just acting, the acting teacher was Robert Lewis, who.
Speaker Was a great acting teacher and one of the most amusing men I have ever met, and but in a fierce acting teacher, if crying were acting, my Aunt Rivka would be do so. I think that Bobby Lewis would say. But anyway, then I was accepted into the company and for their first season of the actual plays, like the play by Arthur Miller and stuff like that. And that was, you know, pretty intense. And then I auditioned to be in Fiddler and I and. But I had to I had to know whether I was going to be put in Fiddler because if I wasn't in Fiddler, I was going to do the season at Lincoln Center.
Speaker And which at that time was in a theater all the way downtown anyway.
Speaker So he had to cast me and he kept on. He had to he had to cast me or he was going to lose me for in Fiddler. I mean, I don't think he likes. I don't think he liked that.
Speaker I mean, I think that Jerry, he liked to have a lot of time and just to decide he was it would you someone then decide who gets to decide, you know? And he kept auditioning me for the role of pertschuk, which is the part that I wanted. And pertschuk, of course, is the guy who goes off to Siberia who's the revolutionary. I loved that part. And he would bring me in again and again to read for four or five times. I came in and read for pertschuk and I would sing because because I'd begun to take singing lessons now and all of that. And he was he was impressed. He was interested in that. I thought, oh, pertschuk pertschuk is the opposite of the character I played, you know, Dad, poor dad. He's so articulate. He's so completely connected to his eloquence and his beliefs. And I've always been drawn to people like that anyway. I mean, even today, people who are revolutionaries in the purest sense of the word, you know, and I just thought all of this. I was so excited about that. But and when is he going to give me the part? I kept thinking, you know, and then I think the fifth time I came in to read for Pertschuk and Aswan for weeks, which is like Oded. I mean, it was just like the auditions for the. He said, oh, while you're here, will you read a scene from the part of the tailor? Will you read the part of the novel? And I said I hadn't worked on it. And I thought it was a stupid part. And I said, OK. And I read OK for that. But I thought, there's no there's no problem here because I didn't read half as well from the tailor as I did for Project. But, you know, whatever he wants to read. Then I heard I got the part of mudhole. Oh, God, for this, I'm going to leave Lincoln Center. Oh, I had very small parts like in the Arthur Miller play and stuff, but still Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller and Lincoln Center and this whole new enterprise.
Speaker And I said, all right, OK, but I don't get to play project well. So I ran into Jerry. So I accepted the part. Because because I knew then how much I owed to Jerry and I thought it's not going to kill me. So a few weeks after that, I ran into Jerry kind of late one afternoon on Columbus Circle. He said, Since I know now you're going to play the tailor, we're going to rewrite the whole part and here's how we're going to do it. And he outlined the whole part, how he wanted it to be, which wasn't in in the script.
Speaker And. I thought, wait, this is exciting, he said.
Speaker He said, I didn't know what to do with the part until I cast you in it, but now I know what it's going to be and it's going to be like you with dad and not not the part. No, dad, but you where the guy is hopeless. He can't he's so shy and everything, but he just hangs on and he's completely tenacious and he gets what he wants. That's what we're going to do with it because it's you. I thought, oh, my mike. So we're going to act out.
Speaker What happened in in. Oh, Dad, I don't mean in the character. No, but but but, you know, and I thought and all of this he was hurring on the way to an appointment. So he stopped me. He grabbed me, he told me all this and he ran on it must have taken three minutes. And I was like I stood in Columbus Circle knowing what it was like Octobers. Whoa. Then as it happened, the show had to be delayed because to get Zero Mostel, who had another commitment. So we didn't we didn't even go into rehearsal until the end of the season, like in June of the following year. And he called me up and he was so apologetic. He said you could have done this season at Lincoln Center.
Speaker I said, oh, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. And then an extraordinary thing happened.
Speaker The person who was in charge of teaching the movement classes during the previous year of the training program was this wonderful little woman who was a great. She was a teacher of dance and a choreographer at the time named Anna Sokoloff, who I guess who who knew Jerry very well.
Speaker She and she said to me, look, if you want to still come down and take and take the dance classes.
Speaker You know, you're totally open to that, even though you're not with with the with the program at Lincoln Center anymore. So we had a new acting teacher coming in place of Bobby Lewis. I mean, and and I wasn't involved in the acting classes anymore. I was back with him, but. But I could come to the dance classes because Hannah was so was so nice, you know, so we got through with the dance class incomes. Paul Man One day it was a big, overbearing man.
Speaker And he said you and he pointed out, he pointed to me and I'm there in my leotards, he says, you know, we are beginning one of the bravest new.
Speaker Things in the New York theater in 30 years, you are asked to be part of this, you are chosen, you leave this to be in a Broadway musical.
Speaker And he was yelling at me in front of all the other students. And Anna, who was half his height, comes up. She says, Paul, and she's looking at him.
Speaker Paul, the Broadway show that Austin is leaving for is an adaptation of the stories of Salaam Aleikum, written by Hurricane Buck and Joe Stein, directed by Jerome Robbins. If we do anything remotely that interesting at Lincoln Center or that brave or that ambitious, we will be doing very well indeed. And this huge Paul man, he withdrew and she was right.
Speaker Well, after the fall, I think is is a great play, you know, but and Kazan directed it. And that would have been thrilling just to have the little part, I suppose, to have in it.
Speaker But but the but still her point was just stop putting these labels. When you have Jerry Robbins, you don't talk like that. You don't just say it's some trashy Broadway show and you know no one who is. What she was saying is anyone who devotes their time to being in any production by Jerry Robbins is not is not lowering themselves.
Speaker That was her point. And the fierceness with which she said it and it was a great and it was a great musical, of course. I mean, fiddler. It was a great musical and we rehearsed it for eight weeks, and then we were on the road for eight weeks and it was before Equity said you had to have a day off every week. The days off were at the discretion of the director. Well, if the directors. Jerry, Robin, that's that's openly a joke.
Speaker He does he eight days off, Jerry. He just that's his idea of purgatory is a day off.
Speaker We were so tired all the time. It was great.
Speaker I understand the first two weeks of rehearsal he spent just with the daughters and their suitors. Is that right? I remember that probably I forget the kind of exercises, you know, I don't remember.
Speaker I remember anything like that. What he did was he just he would work with us and he had development as the one to help him with the actors. But he was also I remember there's this little opening scene where they're preparing for the meal for the Sabbath meal. It's before the first entrance of zero. There's this little scene. Maybe four or five pages long where the mom is telling all the daughters what to do and, you know, to prepare for the Sabbath, for the Sabbath meal, and then I come in and and I I want to see Sitel played by Johanna Merrilyn, who will ultimately become my bride.
Speaker And I'm the poor tailor and. I remember one night now this is a scene that virtually any other director of a musical that I've ever heard of or have worked with would they would put it up on its feet.
Speaker And that would be it, and it's a it's a it's an OK little scene, it's quite well written and it establishes a whole lot of things about all the people. But it's just this little scene. It's not one of the big scenes of the show at all. Comes it comes immediately after tradition, the opening number. So which was Jerry's idea, as everybody knows. OK, so here's this first scene. It was Sunday for some reason. We were rehearsing afternoons and evenings and it was in June in New York. We stayed until 11 o'clock, he restaged that scene completely, and I'm not exaggerating 25 times, people were going crazy now.
Speaker Wait, wait. Now, where do I put the fork on this there? And, you know, he would just he again, he was like a painter. He would, he would, he would, and every time he staged it, I thought it was. I thought it was breathtaking, you know, but he no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, wait, wait, wait, wait. And then he restage it and he weighed about that long. He'd go, wait, wait, wait, no. OK, here's what we'll do. And he'd try a whole new thing completely different, all with exactly the same dialogue.
Speaker But all the movement would be different because it was kind of intricate because of, you know, in a very small room, all the girls are helping to prepare the meal and to put the meal on the table and all that and it and he couldn't get it in exactly the sharp clear.
Speaker A place he wanted to be and finally he did.
Speaker And it never changed after that, except occasionally a few trims or something, but it I mean, I've never been in a rehearsal like that in my whole life ever ever since 2005 time I tried to do that as a director once and some. So I was directing. But there was a party scene. I thought, I'm going to do like Jerry did. Well, after about two hours, we had to say, can we just move on? Because you have to be really good at that. To be able to improvise that way as a director in a group scene. I tried to stage the birthday party scene that way in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof once at Steppenwolf, and and it was the first scene that we rehearsed. And I could see the actors thinking where the hands of a lunatic here. But we didn't think we were in the hands of hands of a lunatic with Jerry. We thought we were in the hands of a very obsessive man. But we never once thought, even though he would every time he staged that, he would go, no, that's all wrong. You didn't feel he doesn't know what he's doing. You didn't ever feel that. He just felt again what you felt was he has something in mind. And when he sees it, he will know it when he sees it. So we just have to keep on trucking here and and enacting terms finally by as early as two hours before the rehearsal ended. We were no longer acted at all to present them, you know, and it but he didn't care. He just kept on plowing ahead. And he would look like the covers on those penguin editions of the works of Dostoyevsky. You know, the look in those eyes of those that have the heroes that he would get that look on and he's staging this harmless little scene. But the whole the whole time of Fiddler was like that, and we open on the road after eight weeks of rehearsal in New York, we open in Detroit.
Speaker Which even then was not what it had been in the end of July and the reviews were just simply not good. And. He didn't care, he just he just he kept on working.
Speaker Um, I'm just going to go back to a question I started to ask you before, I think maybe I was I didn't ask you well. I think that he gave you either it was exercises or maybe it was some kind of material that would enable the cast to get a sense of what it was like to be discriminated against or to be outsiders. He said at one point that he wanted the cast to feel like they were.
Speaker I think he said he wanted us to feel like a settle, and indeed I got the part in October and we wanted to rehearsal in June. And he all through that, all through those intervening months, all through the like, in the depths of winter, I would get a call from him saying we're going to a Hassidic or Orthodox wedding over and over in Williamsburg. So and you have to come. And he he would give me books to read about the shtetl. But in terms of, like exercises in rehearsal, I don't remember anything like that.
Speaker Tell me about the homework Daddy did and took you to we'd go to we go to a wedding or as Zero Mostel would say when we were and where he goes to a couple of weddings in Williamsburg.
Speaker This is supposed to imbue him with the Jewish spirit.
Speaker Zero was a bit of a skeptic. He called him Rhinehart, whereas Rhinehart, he would say. But anyway.
Speaker But I wanted to say to zero, although I never contradicted zero ever in his presence, I was in awe of zero.
Speaker I loved him, but I, I just I agreed with what I would say, Ed. But if I would have said anything to zero, I would have said something like I didn't know anything about Orthodox weddings in Williamsburg or anywhere else. And I'm the groom in the play. I'm glad we went. I didn't know you stepped on a glass and stuff like that. You know, I'm I'm a Protestant from Ohio. You know, I didn't know there were Orthodox Jews until Fiddler on the Roof and Ed, that you were married under a canopy and all this stuff.
Speaker And I and I didn't know what any. And then when I did go, I didn't know what it meant. I'd say, why are they why does he step on a glass?
Speaker Well, here's what they believe. And and then and then I then I would read the books, you know, about this about the life in the shtetl. Why would they do this? Do a thing on the door. I was I was a total ignorant, Midwestern ignorant. Ignorant child, so I was extremely grateful for all the stuff now a whole lot of people in the cast were Jewish, so I think they didn't really need a lot of indoctrination and certainly zero didn't, but I did. But all that winter, I remember he would call me up every two or three weeks. They we're going to go here. We're going to go there or come over to my apartment tonight. We're going to play the songs for Hal Prince. And I would go over and I would be the only one who was going to be in the cast because I don't know who was cast at that point. And I would hear on some snowy night in the middle of winter how Prince would be there and the designers and Jerry and they would play through the score. Heinicke and it was thrilling. And I was I was the one in the show. I was the only person on the show. It was it was fun. I liked it.
Speaker Tell me a little bit more about the rehearsal process, how did Jerry. Get these performances out of the cast.
Speaker Say he got these performances out of the cast and fairly well, first of all, how one gets a performance out of Zero Mostel. That's a whole separate art. As one critic wrote, he it's like he he conducted zero, I mean, I've never worked with an actor like zero in my life. I think he's maybe the greatest actor I've ever worked with. But he was like a fountain that wouldn't stop with every breathtaking thing that would come up with, but also a couple things that were pretty bizarre. But they all kept coming and he would edit them. He would say, Nazarro, that's brilliant. That is I mean, that's what anybody would be, right.
Speaker And people were saying, you can't work with zero. He you know, he disagrees with you about the House un-American Activities Committee. And Zero is totally undisciplined and all of that. And I would say, yeah, but I mean, he's a great artist. So that was the other thing about people said about Joe Van Fleet. Oh, she's so she's very difficult and she'll go her own way, all of which was true. And they. And they did. She did. And zero did.
Speaker He was drawn to great artists.
Speaker These directors today say, oh, I won't work with that person, they're a little they won't do exactly what I say. And here here is Jerry, the control freak, supposedly the choreographer. Now he wants that he he knows a great artist and zero would. So then as the run went on, of course, there were there were nights that zero. But I always thought even the most bizarre nights that zero did where I have this weird it was like a Picasso version of the character that he was playing where where. And I would be up here and I would be down here. You know, that was the acting equivalent of that. And I think, Jerry, he knew what that vitality was. He so he's a whole separate issue, zero with all the rest of us. It was like, oh, that he had Dick Altman to help us with the scenes. Then he would watch the scenes. And he he would always have he would always know how to how to make them clearer.
Speaker And but he respected what the was doing as he had respected what Bill Daniels was doing with O'Dare and as I think he had Jerry Friedman on on West Side Story.
Speaker And he always respected these people, he was he he knew what they were contributing. All Jerry wanted was everybody to do their best and what he what he thought was that what the best in somebody was, was a few steps beyond what they would naturally do.
Speaker That's what he knew and. He was right. And to push to prod someone from what they would what they would do to what they could do. That's when it gets very painful and frightening and ugly sometimes, but he would do it.
Speaker He got me so upset once when you're out of town and Fiddler, I said to Dick Altman, he's not I mean, I was crying. I'm not proud of this.
Speaker I said in my dressing, I said, you tell him he's not to speak to me for a week. So to my horror, Dick Altman went and told to speak to me for a week. And he didn't he didn't speak to me for a week. We continued to rehearse all these different scenes and everything, and he would say, would someone tell Austin to cross over there? He wouldn't speak to me for a week. And I and I meanwhile, I went into freefall.
Speaker I was just you know, I was such a neurotic young actor. Oh, gee, I'm still somewhat neurotic. I was like, I was a mess.
Speaker What did he do to make you so angry?
Speaker He described my performance to me in a way that was very humiliating. He said, well, he went into things I'm not going to say, but he said he said I had to leave the scene last night of of the where you and Sitel get married. I had to leave the wedding scene and go out in the lobby. The thought of that wonderful young woman being stuck with you as a husband was so revolting to me, I had to go out into the lobby.
Speaker Now, he had a point. I regret to say. In fact, I even knew, as he said it, that he had a point, but boy, did that hurt, but he was getting frustrated with me.
Speaker He thought I was getting well, I mean, he said a whole lot of things. But the underlying thing of it was I was I was getting really kind of lazy. And he said and he put it in very unkind way.
Speaker But he said, the one thing I know you have problems. The one thing I never thought you were was this kind of stupid and lazy and complacent. And the idea of she's giving her her life over to you is disgusting. It's against the whole reason I'm doing this play and why I put you in it.
Speaker And I can't even watch it anymore. It's just revolt's me. Well, I had the complete nervous breakdown. Well, no, no, let's not call it a nervous breakdown. I got upset. A nervous breakdown is a nervous breakdown. And I and finally, Hal Prince took me out for a drink one night in Washington. This will you just stop listening to him? I'm sure they were working in tandem on this. I'm positive that it didn't occur to me at the time. But over the years, I've thought, oh, they talk this out, the good cop in the bad guy, because the fact was I was in some kind of a rut.
Speaker I don't know what it was. I didn't know and I wasn't an actor yet. Even with Bobby Luis's good efforts and Hooda Hoggins, good Edwards and her, I still had a long way to go as an actor. And so I would get into a rut and I would not know how to get out of it or even that I was in one. And so he applied like a cattle prod is what he did at the end of that week of not speaking, he was all cheer for. He said, I think I think you're going to be great in the show. But he know. But again, it was like the opposite almost of what he did with dad. He said he was saying that this is unacceptable. I'm not going to flatter you by giving you directions about how to improve it, you just this I don't accept this and in fact, it revolts me.
Speaker He never threatened to fire me, but he was just he was he was furious and mean really me.
Speaker But other directors have been means I get and I mean see when he would get like that. Like, mean. I got to be honest, I'm not sure he knew what he was doing.
Speaker I'm not sure this was all. Now, if I do this, this is going to push Austin to something or whoever the actors or the designer or who or the dancer or whoever is going to push them into a new place, I think it came my my instinct is it came from the from the gut. Then I think once in the case of this particular instance, I'm talking about that we were in the week where he wouldn't speak to me as I had requested him not do, but I didn't mean it. You know that I suspect I have no proof of this when I'm going to ask Hal Prince. But I think that he said he and Hal talked about what are we going to do with this actor who is now in total paralysis on the stage?
Speaker And but anyway, how about three quarters of the way through that? What what turned out to be that week of that? I came off stage and Hal was in the wings, he said, hey, I'm going to take you for a drink. I thought, OK, that's it, I'm being fired. That's it, I mean, and and I don't blame them and I want out of this thing anyway, I've never I mean, I thought God and. So I went back to the hotel and I got all dressed up in a suit and tie thinking, if I'm going out, I'm going out in style, you know?
Speaker So I went and he said, let's sit way over at the corner, far over in the corner, because it was it was it was a bar in the hotel that all the actors went to after the show. Oh, yeah. We're going to. Now, I know I'm being fired. It's the table way off in the corner. And he brought me the strongest. He brought me like a triple whiskey or something like that. OK.
Speaker I look good. I'm going back to New York and. And this time, I didn't think, well, I won't ever act again.
Speaker Uh, I thought people will feel sorry for me because they'll know that Jerry was mean to me, you know, which is really mature, right?
Speaker So I don't care, and I've been dumped me now, I was trained by Babbelas, I can call up Lincoln Center again. I can get, you know, all these were slightly delusional, but I was thinking all these things. So Hall says, oh, you're really unhappy, aren't you?
Speaker I said, yeah, oh, it's awful, it's awful.
Speaker I was drinking, like you said, so Jerry, he kind of gets to you right as well, how he was just very mean, very mean.
Speaker I was pretty fatuous, you know?
Speaker And he said, well, you know what? Just don't pay any attention to him. I said, What do you mean, he's the director. Yeah, but come on. Would you like to repeat what he said to you? I said, no, no.
Speaker Well, whatever it was, you know you know how he talks.
Speaker You know, just how do you think actors on all his shows survive that comes out? You just don't don't pay any attention anymore. So I went back and I thought, you know, I'm not going to I'm not going to do that. He's right. He's right. I'm not going to pay any attention what juries I do, what I feel like. And so and my performance begins. But this all wouldn't have happened if Jerry hadn't put it so much on the line the week before. Now, I realized that I would I would put down some cash on the idea that they work this out together. But I think it began from a just an instinct response from Jerry. I think he I believe him. He walked out into the lobby that night during the wedding scene. And if you want to think about it, it's flattering.
Speaker That's what Margaret Layton said to me once the great English actress, I was in a play with her and once again, I was having trouble with the director.
Speaker When you have troubles with the director again and again, you after a while, you have to think that something could do with you, you know, and I said he's always criticizing me and she's and she said, Aasta darling. That's always a good sign.
Speaker I mean, that means they're not giving up.
Speaker She and she told me about things that she did when she was a young actress, how she'd had certain directors who she said I was ghastly. But you you must surely you can imagine how ghastly I was. She would say, but they would just keep after me. And I was so sad. Finally, an old character actor took me aside, said Maggie, darling, don't you realize this is a compliment, treatment from jury duty, your performance, and ultimately it made it stronger. Because I was stronger on stage, I, I didn't kind of lay back and be all whatever I was being that made him so revolted, I stopped being lazy, I stopped being sure of what I thought I was doing, which is the worst thing an actor can do.
Speaker He hated that oh, he hated that enactors, you know, who he loved and actress of that time, he told me during rehearsals for Fiddler that she was in a play and that every time he she did a play he saw twice was that great actress, Kim Stanley. She was in the Three Sisters, then he said, I saw three sisters again and I said, Oh, you've seen it twice. Every time she does anything, he says, I see it twice because she Kim Stanley, you saw Kim.
Speaker Kim Stanley was always on edge. And and that's what he liked. He you didn't. Kim Stanley was what we call in the moment. He loved that enactors. And I'm sure that he had ever had a partner, Kim Stanley, he would have put her in it and they would have fought and it would have been difficult. And but that's what he liked.
Speaker How did he deal with the people you want to drink? No, no, no. How did you deal with the people who were not parts but who would in some other show have been coarse people in order to get them not to think like coarse people, but like villagers and how he would get mean?
Speaker He would say this poor, older, older person in the chorus, he would say to her and she wasn't very good.
Speaker She had a look, you know, and with her babushka, she looked the thing and but she would say two zero zero zero. I cry every time you play the scene.
Speaker When I'm in the scene and I'm crying on stage zero yellower, you have lose lacrimal glands. She was she was the poor.
Speaker She wasn't really a very nice person, but she. But still. And Jerry would say, you know what, you are he would say in front of the whole you're the kind of person who has pictures of yourself in four different corners of your of your of your picture to show that you can play different characters.
Speaker That's the kind of performer you are. Would you just be a real person?
Speaker I mean, it was he would say things like that. He would say to to a girl in comedy. He'd say June Allyson. He would call her. I mean, and not in a kindly way he would. You know, and then there were other people in the cars he loved, he loved it when people act like real people.
Speaker Even you know, even zero was his own his own version of a real person, it was actual it was authentic, you know, it wasn't just some idea of how to play a part. And he liked that. That was the. And I think when he got so angry at me and Fiddler was I was subsiding into some complacent thing.
Speaker And he thought what he had told me and in Columbus Circle that day and what he wanted was, your life is on the line.
Speaker That's what this musical is about with all the characters your life, you are challenging centuries of tradition to get the girl you want and you don't have anything to offer other than that you have no money. You're shy, you're awkward, but you are. Challenging everything and because your life depends on he that's the kind of actor that he liked, he liked.
Speaker I think that's why he didn't want me to leave Oded to. That it's great when your life depends on it. He hated the comfortable things actors would go to so he would get mean to the people who were in the cars, who went to conventional ideas of how you act in a chorus about a village. And I leave it to your imagination with some of those things were. But there were other people in the cars he loved.
Speaker Because they had grit and you could tell he he would say.
Speaker Every day is a struggle with poverty, which is, of course, helpless about his own ancestors in the shtetls. Every day. And, you know, Jerry himself, by this point, he'd gotten rich and very successful, but in his heart, he was still hungry. And he was that till the day he died, he he he was totally unsatisfied with himself as an artist, so he had that anxiety.
Speaker He liked to see anxiety on stage. He liked to see people.
Speaker Out on a limb.
Speaker And if he didn't if if there was an actor or performer in the chorus or somebody who wasn't, whose instinct was not to bring that, he would he would humiliate them. Because one thing about humiliation properly applied is. It moves people along, which is what he did with me and Fiddler. He he he tries everything and then he goes for. You're revolting, and I'm leaving out the worst parts of it, but but it's like he just he wants to get you so frightened.
Speaker That you're going to just be as frightened as the character is and then you're going to try to conquer the fears of the character, but if you're not if you're not frightened, why is the audience even there?
Speaker You know, that's what drama is about. That's why he loved it so much.
Speaker What about the author?
Speaker Oh, well, that was hard because he kept on cutting her part.
Speaker He he I mean, her part when we went into rehearsal was huge, she was going to win the Tony for that thing for the supporting actress in a musical. There was no doubt. And on the road, I mean, she would get laughs. I mean, she's so talented, you know, she's just got her own thing. So there was a bar across the street in Detroit. We would all repair to this every night after the show and we would have been rehearsing all afternoon and changing things. And then we do the show, which is way long. And then and the reviews were terrible. And then we'd go to a bar every night, which is.
Speaker We would release, as I guess, the figure and she was in it was very hard on her.
Speaker And I it must have been humiliating for her, although he didn't mean that to humiliate her, he just thought in terms of the old kind of line of the show. And he was right. I would not want to have been in her position because she took the part because of what it was. It was it was the flashiest part of the show. I mean, he had written brilliantly for her, Jostein. He'd just written Arias for her to say that was so accurate and so funny and so touching and just so real. And she was right in them and they whittled all away.
Speaker And he says she's just there as the matchmaker. She's not there in order to do, obviously. Each day he would cut a little more. She was in a lot of pain, but, you know, she was a professional and she stayed with the show and she was good.
Speaker But I don't think he director other other than cutting her part down. There wasn't anything to direct, I mean, she was right there, she was all there from the first day of rehearsal.
Speaker Sheldon said that he was Jerry was like the world's greatest district attorney because he was always asking what the show was about. Yes, and I wonder if that what kind of an impact it had on the actors.
Speaker He would tell he Jerry would tell us every day what the show was about. He said the show was about the breakdown of a tradition and he wanted the audience to feel two ways about that. Like all great artists, he believed in ambiguity. You know that there are two sides to almost everything short of the Nazi party. There are two sides to everything, you know, and and he he believed that.
Speaker There was something very healthy and courageous about about the traditions being challenged, but the loss, I remember that on an evening when I went over during the winter before we we went into rehearsal for the show to get to hear them play the score. And afterward we were eats and drinks and we were all talking. And I said to him, I said, Jerry, this is.
Speaker This is wonderful. This is really wonderful. This is going to be a wonderful show and I meant it, of course.
Speaker He said, you know, what, do you know what what I like, what what we're going to do with this show?
Speaker And he was so fierce again, he had that look of Dostoyevsky. He he said, we're going to.
Speaker Show a world. And alternative. To how to.
Speaker Honor things in life to this crap we have now. In our society. And.
Speaker It was courageous and honorable for these people, in particular, the part that I was about to play to challenge the tradition, but it didn't have to turn into this, didn't have to turn into this empty, stupid world we live in now. And he was and we were going to put on the stage what that was the honor and what that was the beauty, the and and the and the discipline, the honesty in that way of life. And that was what he was doing, he wasn't just putting on a warm, sentimental musical.
Speaker And in order to get to that, he had to pitch the drama of it high and where he kept what he got out of them, when he would ask them again and again, what it's about was this whole thing of the challenging of tradition. Which is why if we're all still around 2000 years from now, you can still put on that musical and it'll mean something.
Speaker Tell me a little bit about how he used dance in the show. There is dance in the show, but it's not like it is not like the show stops and then they dance.
Speaker Well, except sometimes.
Speaker Well, well, what almost all the dance is based on the folk patterns of the Jewish dance of that time. It's breathtaking in the recent revival. Which was a little eccentric still in the contract, they had to use his choreography.
Speaker They had to use the Robbins' choreography and the show begoing along, and all of a sudden those when you got to a number, you were there because it was so spontaneous. What he did was.
Speaker And he did this. I mean, he did some. Deliberately, he talked about this.
Speaker He wanted not just to show the patterns of the folk dance, he wanted to show the impulses in situations that would provoke people into them, what the need for them was, the pressure cooker of the drama that would provoke people to go into that particular dance, which happened to adhere to to a a traditional form. So it would be informed by a new spontaneous energy. That it had to do with survival also.
Speaker And of course, he believed that entire life was about that.
Speaker Is the dance's survival, it's not just. Something else, it's survival. And that's show.
Speaker Oh, God, I'll never forget I didn't know about the bottle dance in Fiddler, which takes place at the party after the wedding.
Speaker Of course I am on stage one night and they do this bottle that I didn't even know. They were rehearsing it at my wedding. They're doing this bottle dance. I thought I couldn't believe it because he took an old form, but there was a beauty and a clarity and again and again he was drawn to a sense of danger. I mean, the danger of being the bottle could fall off of your head. But I mean. And but. It was informed by the fact that it was extraordinarily that these two people were getting that they were getting married, this wasn't the wedding that was supposed to happen. So the so the guys in the town had practice and had taken the old form of a dance with a bottle on their head. And and the danger of it and risk of it was a tribute to the fact of the wedding itself, not just on the part of the bride and the groom, but of the father of the. Of the bride and the groom and her mother, the risk everyone was taking and having these two people become a couple was reflected in the.
Speaker People don't think like that anymore. They they can. They should it's not like it's out of date, just think two or three steps further and that's what you get to.
Speaker That's what he did. He just kept going.
Speaker The things that were added to that show on the road of which the bottle dance was an example, but some of the best, just some of the songs that were added and some of the and the and the new ideas of how to play scenes. It was just when we got a terrible review in Variety. And I would getting calls from that wonderful agent of mine in New York, I told you about Deborah Coleman, dear. I hear that. I hear that. I hear. I heard. I hear the jury's going to be fired. It was all over town.
Speaker What are they, nuts, you know, but the reviews were terrible or they were worse than terrible, they were dismissive. They were dismissive of a musical directed by Jerome Robbins, by Harnik and barred from Salaam Aleikum with their. But they were dismissive of it, which is the ultimate inside insult, you know.
Speaker So at the at the bar across the street that he was alone at the bar, he would he was always alone. You know, I'd say, Jerry, I said, you know, what are you going to do being a man of the self-control? He was he didn't punch me in the nose. When I said that, I said, what are you going to do? He said 10 things a day.
Speaker That was him, just keep going, keep going, just keep pushing. Don't fall by the side of the road and don't sit down in the road and have a picnic. Just keep going. There's more. We are working on such awesome material on such a deep truths. And this was true in Odetta. There's something around the next curve, but you just have to keep going. That was him. And that was and of course, actors, people don't want to after a while, they said I was fine, you know, and then if he really thought you were dragging your feet, then the meanness would happen. But only then I never saw him be I saw him be too mean, but I never saw him be gratuitously mean.
Speaker Now I've seen a lot of other directors. He could be gratuitously mean. They just don't know what they're doing. They're just being mean. All they do is be destructive. But that I don't think anyone could say that of Jerry, he was he was sadistic sometimes.
Speaker But as Maria Kornilov has said to me, you know, you have a choice to not be upset about that.
Speaker And I said, well, it's like you were walking in the August heat in Washington, D.C., I said, Yeah, no, I don't have a choice.
Speaker If the sun is shining down like it is now, I don't have a choice to not sweat.
Speaker That's a bad analogy, Austin. That doesn't hold up. She was right. She had worked with him before. And I thought, you know, she's right.
Speaker There's a I mean, I wouldn't put it this way to myself, I was nowhere near that together, but I thought over the years I thought there's when someone is being mean to you as an artist, there's there's a destructive element to it. There's also a value to it. You get to choose which one you want to take from it. Now, if you're going to throw away your time with Jerry Robbins, only only choosing to pick the destructive element out of it when there is a whole other element there, a whole other possibility there, you're just being stupid.
Speaker That's what she was saying, and she was right. Who cares if he was mean and.
Speaker I can take me well, I can't, but I can I can't take lazy or inept or or cliche ridden.
Speaker Or stuff like that.
Speaker That's that's what you learn from working with someone like him, and even if people hate working with him, I didn't hate it. You know, I was often upset, but I certainly didn't hate it. But even people who hated it, like 15 years later, you'd run into them on the street and they'd be in some other shell and they'd say, you know something, I miss Robbins, because you know what?
Speaker We're in rehearsal and not one thing of interest is taking place. You know, yeah, it's cool if you can achieve really, really great work without ever being mean, but sometimes you can't.
Speaker This is very serious business.
Speaker You know, yeah, it still is it's still is a very serious business.
Speaker Did he ever. I'm guessing no, but I'm just checking. He never talked to you about his own feelings, his own Jewishness, did he? No, no.
Speaker OK, he never talked to to me about his own personal feelings about anything. We had lovely talks sometimes over over the years.
Speaker I would run into him on the street and that he would be walking his dog. I would be walking my dog. We would stand with our dogs pissing and everything, and we would talk. And it just I mean, and those are very relaxed. And then he got very interested in a play I wrote just a few years ago called Uncle Bob, and he came to see it two or three times. He brought people to it, including a guy who then translated into French and got it in Paris. Steve Sondheim came to it at his head. His recommendation, he and he had a lunch with me about he was very supportive of that play. And we would, you know, so we kept up.
Speaker Oh, I would love to to have worked with him again, but, you know, I wasn't equipped to be in any of his ballet that wouldn't have worked, you know, so but so and we would talk, but it never, ever got into anything really personal.
Speaker Well, maybe you could articulate, though, for me. Why was it in spite of the fact that it could be so mean and that he did push people so hard that they wanted to work with him repeated?
Speaker His meanness, as I say, had purpose, there are values in meanness. There are actors, let's just say actors, I imagine this is true of dancers to. But I'll say actors, because they know more about that. I'm an actor. This still happens to me as an actor. You get to a certain point and you feel you know what you're doing.
Speaker And you don't want to abandon that you fought hard for it and you don't want to abandon it. And you don't want to go certain places. Every once in a while, there's an actor. This is not true of.
Speaker But the majority of us, we even work very hard and we do a lot of work and we do the work on our part and we get honest and we but there's some invisible line and we don't even realize it that we don't go past now.
Speaker How are you going to get the actor past that? Well, one way is a shock treatment. The omelet is the purpose, not the egg, you know, so. As I say about Jerry.
Speaker People would want to work with him again, and as I say, I would right now, I would do it. People would want to work with him again because.
Speaker The meanness always push things further along. I don't know of any instance. I'm sure it happened, but I don't know of any. I certainly didn't witness any incidents and I never heard of any instance where the meanness just existed to now. I mean. When a person is capable of being mean certain.
Speaker Things are being fulfilled in them. That's just a fact, but.
Speaker So it may be accomplishing other things within him to that, but that's not the point. The point is, is it accomplishing anything? Is it accomplishing anything that might not get accomplished any other way? And yes.
Speaker In Gerry's case, yes.
Speaker And I just keep thinking I owe. Well, I certainly owe my career to him. That's that's without a doubt that's provable, but I also. I get complacent with myself as an actor, I just