A LIFE IN THE THEATRE
March 20, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Five years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Hal Linden for my book Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway. He endeared himself to me immediately, ordering lox and cream cheese on a bagel at a deli in Marina del Rey, the spot he’d picked for our meeting. Primarily, our talk was to discuss his version of events about the 1970 musical The Rothschilds, the show that, as if by the rub of a genie’s lamp, granted him new life as an actor. When the opening night reviews came in for his portrayal of Mayer Rothschild, Linden’s career was forever changed. He became that rare thing: an overnight star — even though it arrived after seventeen long, hard years in the business. Today is Linden’s 87th birthday, and he is still going strong, taking on new challenges wherever they lead him. In the five years since we talked, a small sampling of Linden’s stage work has included Nathan Englander’s The Twenty-Seventh Man at the La Jolla Playhouse (2014), and in 2017, the role of Solomon in Arthur Miller’s The Price at the Arena Stage in Washington. D.C. (“The role fits him like a soft leather glove,” wrote The Washington Post).
Harold Lipschitz, was born in 1931 in New York City. A clarinetist, he attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, then took his music studies further at Queens College. Eventually he graduated from City College and went on to play in dance bands until being drafted into the Army, where he sang and performed for the troops. Once back home, Linden enrolled at the American Theatre Wing where he trained in voice and drama (“My first scene was with Bobby Morse,” he told me, proudly).
But things didn’t quite go the way Linden hoped. His early work in the theatre left a lot to be desired. “My career was very checkered. I did grunt work for the first seventeen years. I had four kids by then. So I had to keep working. Understudy, standby, you name it … I made a career through stage managers, understudy rehearsals and demonstration records for songwriters, things like that. That’s how they knew me. By the time I did The Rothschilds, I was forty years old. I didn’t really start at any level until I was forty.”
Linden’s understudy and standby credits throughout the late 1950s and ’60s were numerous: Bells Are Ringing, Subways Are for Sleeping, Illya Darling and On a Clear Day … to name but a few. In addition, he suffered the trials and tribulations of roles in Broadway shows that either folded after a brief time (Something More and The Education of Hyman Kaplan), or closed out of town, like Love Match and Strip for Action. Once, when he was again hired to replace an actor well into a show’s run, he discovered a new and different catch:
“I auditioned originally for Larry Blyden’s parts in The Apple Tree, but he got it, obviously. A year later, they contacted me. ‘Would I take over for Larry?’ I was thrilled, of course, but they knew that when they replaced Larry with me the standby would quit. So the deal was take over for Larry, but also cover Alan Alda. I was finally going to have my own part on Broadway and they still wanted me to be the goddamn understudy!
Now I said, ‘I’ll do it, but I want Larry’s billing.’ The three of them [Alda, Blyden and Barbara Harris] all had alternating billing over the title. So as far as I know, at that time, I was the only understudy ever with star billing over the title. I should be in The Guinness Book of World Records.”
But not only did The Rothschilds win him the Best Actor in a Musical Tony, it was responsible for his landing the title role in the now classic, Emmy Award winning sitcom, Barney Miller. It was a role written by the show’s creator, Danny Arnold, with Linden specifically in mind, though that was something of which he had no forewarning, as he recalled when he told me the story:
“Danny Arnold was in New York having got a ticket to go along with his children to see The Rothschilds,” Linden told me. “He never said anything. He never sent me a note … didn’t come backstage. I did not know the man existed until two-and-a-half-years later when I was in California doing a guest appearance on some TV show and I got a call.
‘Can you get on a later plane? You got a luncheon meeting with this guy Danny Arnold.’
And we met and he tried to convince me to play Barney Miller. I never auditioned, and no agent ever submitted me for it.
Eventually I said to Danny, ‘What was it? Why me?’
He said, ‘I wanted to imbue Barney with a sense of Talmudic justice.’”
What Arnold wanted, was someone who easily conveyed smarts as well as a healthy Jewishness. Linden had certainly revealed that to Arnold when he saw him play The Rothschilds and, perhaps in a subtler form, that afternoon at lunch. What Arnold was tapping into was Linden’s genuine nature — what he was born with — which resulted in the two best roles of his career.
Finally, some luck! Character meets destiny.
I’ll end with one final story he told me; one I think exemplifies the modesty and down-to-earth qualities, exhibited both on and offstage, throughout his now sixty-five year career: “I never got any original Hirschfeld drawing … the prices were always so high and I just never thought of buying a picture of myself. But Frederic Morton [who wrote the book upon which The Rothschilds was based] was with Hirschfeld when he came to Philadelphia and on the way home they stopped at a diner. He asked Hirschfeld ‘How are you going to do Hal?’ And Hirschfeld dashed it off on a napkin. Morton rescued it and gave it to me as a gift. And that’s the Hirschfeld I have on my wall.”
Happy Birthday, Hal.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.