December 18, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
George Grizzard (1928–2007) gave a half-century’s worth of memorable stage performances, among them Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which he created the role of Nick. In an interview conducted when he was sixty-five, the elder Grizzard looked back upon his thirty-four year-old self with insight and clarity: “Virginia Woolf was a very painful part because I played Nick as if I were Nick. When they started sticking knives in me and the audience started laughing, and the more knives the heartier the audience laughed, it was painful because I was Nick … But acting is also a great hiding place. If you’re going through a bad time in your life, Doctor Theater is wonderful because you go there and your concentration in that part is such an escape from what your own life is about at that time. You give some of your best performances when you are in misery.”
When I read this recently, it made me stop right away. I didn’t question it, as it came from an actor with a wealth of experience to back it up, expressing his own truth as he experienced it. As I interpreted it, instead of letting the negative aspects of the audience destroy his self-confidence, Grizzard chose to look at the positive by his belief in Doctor Theater. I had never heard this phrase before reading this interview, though the concept of using one’s acting to transcend pain is not a new one. Still, it sent me looking through the vast interviews I have collected over time, which sit in volumes of books on my shelves (and are also readily available to me via Google), in search of others and their experience with “Doctor Theater,” even if no one else but Grizzard may have called it that. And as I suspected, it has often provided a prescription for many an actor over the years, when transcending pain is one’s primary objective, be it before, during or after being on stage:
Cherry Jones: “You can be going through a tremendously difficult time, and you walk onstage, and it becomes this haven, and you’re able to connect in a way that you’ve never been able to connect.”
Frank Langella: “When I closed in King Lear I went into a period of depression for about three weeks, and every actor I’ve talked to who’s ever played a major, major Shakespeare role has done this. It really rips you to shreds, it just does. I don’t mean that in any kind of oh please — I’m very strong. But it does, if you want to play the truth of it.”
Liev Schreiber: “There’s something about sports, for me, in particular, boxing and running … When I see an athlete pull out the last two meters of a 100-meter dash or something and pull ahead, I just get emotional and I start to cry. I have it with fighters too. When I see a guy push past past his exhaustion, push back what is humanly possible to give of himself … just continue to push past his own boundaries, to break through the pain and whatever’s attaching him to the ground and hits that other level … I feel like it expresses in their victory, in their defeat, in the drama of their sport, they express our potential. But I think they also express like that thing in Shakespeare that they express the inexpressible. It must take some profound emotion to reach down to get to that place.”
Whether it’s really Doctor Theater or not, Grizzard is entirely correct that there’s something at play that helps get you to that place Schreiber describes. In early 1963, after only three months in Virginia Woolf, Grizzard left the original company due to a prior commitment. This was done with the full blessing of the Virginia Woolf producers (and Albee), because that’s how much they wanted him as Nick. But for Grizzard, the chance to play the title role in Hamlet at the brand new Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, in what was to be its inaugural production, wasn’t to be taken lightly. Quoted as to what it meant to him, Grizzard said, “After Hamlet, nothing scares you.”
If you never saw him in the theatre, George Grizzard’s name might not mean much, even though he did a good deal of film and television throughout his career (he won an Emmy in 1980 for his role in The Oldest Living Graduate opposite Henry Fonda). Due to my watching and re-watching every episode of The Twilight Zone, I was well acquainted with Grizzard’s work from the time I was a child, as he starred in two episodes: The Chaser (1960) and In His Image (1963). The latter scared me senseless — mainly due to this image when Grizzard’s character discovers he is a robot, peeling away his skin to reveal the mechanics inside:
But the stage was where Grizzard lived and breathed. “I don’t like my work in films,” he once said. “The parts aren’t very good and I need a good part. I can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and I don’t like playing small parts. It’s all so fragmented and you have no control. Everything out there is a business.”
In 1996, when Grizzard took home the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play, he was deeply moved by the recognition from his peers. In his acceptance speech he said, “No mater how long you do this, it’s wonderful to get a pat on the back every now and then.”
Or in another words, it was just what the doctor ordered.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in both hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.