January 30, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
If you don’t know who the actor David Wayne is, this column might be of little interest to you. However, if you love the theatre (both plays and musicals), he is an actor you should want to know, even though he died nearly a quarter-of-a-century ago. For during his fifty-five year acting career, he created some of the most indelible roles in the theatre: Og the leprechaun in Finian’s Rainbow (1947), Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts (1948) and Sakini in The Teahouse of the August Moon (1953). He was the very first winner of a Tony Award for an actor in a musical (Finian’s), and winning his second six years later, made him just the third actor to win two. Of course, with those shows all opening before I was born, my first exposure to him was on television as one of the most enjoyable of villains (The Mad Hatter), on the old 1960s ABC series Batman, starring Adam West. I can’t tell you how hard it was for me as a nine-year-old to crudely attempt making his hat out of construction paper that enabled it to “pop up” as it did on my TV screen, mesmerizing its victims.
Since he wore the ridiculous red wig, black eyebrows and red mustache, at first I didn’t make the connection that this was the same actor who was in one of my favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone, “Escape Clause,” (written by series creator Rod Serling). When the lightbulb went off over my head, my admiration grew ten-fold, as his performance as hypochondriac Walter Bedeker, who makes a deal with the Devil for immortality, is one of the best among so many wonderful actors who appeared over the five-season run of The Twilight Zone.
The first time I heard Wayne, sing was when I was eleven, and watching the 1968 Tony Awards. One of the nominated musicals that year was The Happy Time, in which he co-starred with Robert Goulet. After seeing him perform in a trio with Goulet (who won out over Wayne for that season’s Best Actor in a Musical Tony), and future Tony Award winner Michael Rupert (then Mike Rupert and all of sixteen), I was hooked. Wayne had a voice like nobody else — the definition of a singular and unique talent. It’s all there, right down to the way he gestures with his hands and eyebrows (and very convincingly playing a man in his seventies when he was only fifty-four). If you care to take a minute and watch him be brilliant, here you go:
Born Wayne James McMeekan on January 30, 1914 (one hundred-four-years ago today), Wayne grew up in Bloomingdale, Michigan, sadly losing his mother at the age of four. That trauma was compounded when his father (for reasons unknown) turned the young boy over to close family friends to raise him. And, like many an actor, Wayne fell into the profession. In 1935, at age twenty-one, while working as a statistician in Cleveland, he auditioned for a local Shakespearean repertory company and won the role of Touchstone in As You Like It. It was his first time in front of an audience, and the rest (as they say) is history. He made his way to New York quickly thereafter and, in 1938, debuted on Broadway in the ensemble of Escape This Night, a melodrama that closed in 11 performances.
Save for time spent when he served in World War II, Wayne worked in the New York theatre with steady consistency, though he never appeared in anything resembling a hit. But that all changed on January 10, 1947 with the glorious Finian’s Rainbow, when the critics finally took notice of the young actor. Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times wrote of Wayne as “having a grin just a trifle too worldly for complete innocence. His best song, sung with Miss [Ella] Logan, is entitled ‘Something Sort of Grandish.’ It and he should be inscribed in the Hall of Fame.”
Though more often a supporting player in films over the years, he found himself in profoundly good company. To name a few: Paul Muni, Charles Laughton, Susan Hayward, Joanne Woodward, Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe (with whom he played in four films, more than any other actor). And in Adam’s Rib, he co-starred with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, playing Kip Lurie, a character based on Cole Porter. When Garson Kanin (the film’s co-screenwriter with his wife Ruth Gordon) had written a song for Kip to sing in the film that no one liked, it was Hepburn who convinced Porter himself to write “Farewell, Amanda,” which Wayne performs expertly in the film. As played by Wayne, the character of Kip is sexually ambiguous, even though he has a “thing” for Hepburn’s Amanda. Somehow Wayne makes it more about stealing her away from Tracy’s Adam, who he sees as unworthy of her, rather than any outright attraction. It’s especially progressive for 1950, and it should be noted that Wayne doesn’t resort to mincing around either, which is pretty much what you got back then, during those strictly censored years in Hollywood.
Even with his prolific work in film and television, Wayne always kept one foot in the theatre. In the twenty-one years between Finian’s Rainbow and The Happy Time, he commuted in from his home in Westport, Connecticut to do fifteen Broadway shows (not counting two that closed out of town). But in 1977, he and his wife Jane Gordon, whom he married in 1941, moved to Santa Monica, and from then on, Wayne worked exclusively in film and television. Upon his wife’s death in 1991 after fifty years of marriage (pretty impressive by show business standards), Wayne retired. He died of lung cancer two years later, at the age of eighty-one.
At 5' 7", and a character actor par excellence, I believe my initial interest in Wayne stemmed from relating to him as someone whose career I could emulate. After all, he excelled at musicals as well as dramas like James Baldwin’s But For Whom Charlie and Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy. But careers like David Wayne’s are few and far between. Take a listen to him not only on the cast recordings of the shows already mentioned, but on 1958’s Say, Darling and the 1966 Lincoln Center revival of Showboat as well. There’s something about his singing voice that is music to my ears.
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.