December 5, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
When a man dies, people often say that in life he was “a prince.” Perhaps it stems from one of the final lines of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when his friend Horatio eulogizes him by saying, “Good night, sweet prince.” Of course Hamlet really was a prince … but I would offer that even though he was hardly one by birth (his father was a carnival worker from New Jersey), Philip Bosco was a prince. Not only a princely man, but a prince of a theatre.
Hell, he was a King.
When I first began attending the theatre on a steady basis as a twelve-year-old, Philip Bosco was already a well-established actor in regional and New York Theatre. When I saw him for the first time, it was as part of a company that made up the Repertory of Lincoln Center, where between the two theatres (the Vivian Beaumont and the Forum — later the Mitzi Newhouse) eight productions were produced every season. I saw them all, mostly at the cost of $2 on student rush. The first was Moliere’s The Miser (at the crazy price of $1.50), and in a minor role with just one juicy scene, Philip Bosco strolled out on stage, tucked everyone (including the scenery) neatly in his pocket, and strolled off. That, in a nutshell, was Philip Bosco.
A native son of New Jersey, Phil passed away from complications of dementia on December 3rd at his home in Haworth at the age of eighty-eight, surrounded by his wife and seven children. Married for sixty-two years, he was a devoted family man, not only to his seven kids and their spouses, but to his fifteen grandchildren. Born and raised in Jersey City, N.J., he attended St. John’s elementary school, then moved onto St. Peter’s Prep. It was there he met retired actor James Marr, who he credited with creating in him a love of the theatre. Then, like a number of esteemed theatre people (Walter and Jean Kerr, Paula Vogel and Frances Sternhagen, among many others), he studied drama at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Besides honing his skills as an actor, it was there he first laid eyes upon his beloved wife, Nancy (nee Dunkle).
He didn’t exit the D.C. area immediately, staying for two seasons with the Arena Stage, then one of the best regional theatres in the country, boasting a year-round rep company. When he got to New York, he very quickly landed a role in a Broadway play, Benn W. Levy’s The Rape of the Belt. It closed in a week … but would be the first of Phil’s six Tony Award nominations.
By my count, in a stage career that spanned forty-six years, he appeared in fifty-two Broadway plays and musicals, and twenty Off-Broadway (it’s probably more). Even if you take into account that many were for limited runs at such established places as Lincoln Center, the Roundabout and Circle in the Square, it is still an astonishing number for any actor to achieve — and all of them in New York! It’s difficult to pick personal favorites, especially since he excelled in every kind of role: leading actor classical (especially with Shaw in Heartbreak House, Major Barbara and You Never Can Tell); leading actor contemporary classical (A Man for All Seasons; The Heiress); leading actor contemporary comedy (Lend Me a Tenor — his one and only Tony Award, Moon Over Buffalo); leading actor contemporary drama (Copenhagen, Twelve Angry Men); leading man musical (MacHeath in Threepenny Opera); supporting actor classical drama (Judge Brack in Hedda Gabler, Reverend Hale in The Crucible); supporting actor classical comedy (Pistol in Henry V, Malvolio in Twelfth Night); supporting actor contemporary drama (A Streetcar Named Desire, Streamers) … and so on.
He possessed a mellifluous voice, one he could command with great authority, suitable to roles of men with great power. He could easily assume the mantle of one to-the-manor born, but he could also be equally adept as a gangster or a thug. After all, he hailed from New Jersey. And though he unfortunately suffered from certain phobias (a fear of flying prevented him from ever having any sort of career in Hollywood), as well as not liking to take elevators, or go to certain parts of the city that made him uncomfortable, he eventually conquered them, to a certain extent, later in life. This made it possible for him to take on a greater number of film and television roles (far more lucrative for his family than all his stage work), and served to make his face a more familiar one to the average American, than for his roles in Shakespeare and Shaw.
As a teenager, I was given free rein while frequenting backstage at the Lincoln Center theatres after the shows I saw, to knock on any of the dressing room doors I cared to (it was a different time). It’s where I met Al Pacino (before fame and fortune), Colleen Dewhurst, Jessica Tandy and many others. But since he was in so many of the shows at Lincoln Center, Phil quickly became not only my favorite actor, but my favorite guy. He was uncommonly gracious to me. Figuring this out all these years later, I realize now I was twelve when we first met, and he was thirty-nine, roughly the age of my father. He called me “kid,” and he always asked me what I thought of the show, as many were classics and often a bit over my head. The one conversation I had with him that I can recall with perfect clarity these many years later, was when after seeing him as Peter Stockmann in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, I bid him farewell saying, “See you next time when you’re King Creon in Antigone.”
For those not in the know, Antigone is the Greek tragedy by Sophocles that should be be pronounced phonetically as “an-tig-oh-knee.”
Being as green as I was to Greek tragedy, I pronounced it “Anti-gone” (gone rhyming with phone).
“Anti-gone,” he cried. “It’s Antigone, schmuck!”
Now he really was just like like my father.
And to finish this tribute, I can do no better than quote from the full text of Horatio’s speech:
Now cracks a noble heart.
Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway at Amazon.com, available in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.