UNHAPPY ACTOR OR: WHEN HENRY FONDA SAID “YES,” INSTEAD OF “NO.”
In 1957, the creative team behind a new two-character play were thrilled when they discovered a relatively unknown actress to play their female lead: the twenty-six-year-old Anne Bancroft. Then, securing Henry Fonda as the other fifty percent of the cast — an actor thirty years into a remarkable stage and screen career — left everyone feeling doubly blessed to have landed “a star.” But as the playwright himself chronicled in a book he wrote about the experience, Two for the Seesaw was anything but a happy road to Broadway, even though it ended in major success. Read about it in today’s “Theatre Yesterday and Today.”
Inside books written about the theatre by its participants are most often great fun to read; and the juicier the gossip, the better the tale. Besides the sensation of feeling like a fly on the wall, there’s a great deal to learn from the warriors who survive these battles of bringing a show to New York. Today, with the stakes raised by massive budgets, it’s fascinating to see that more than sixty years ago the risks and anxieties were exactly the same. The Seesaw Log, playwright William Gibson’s memoir based on diary entries he kept chronicling Two for the Seesaw’s long road to Broadway in 1957–58, includes figures right down to the penny, making clear that even with far lower budgets, the intensity and fear of failure were just as strong with an $80,000 risk as an $8 million dollar one today. It’s taken me many years to open Gibson’s book, even with it on my shelf for some time (we all know how THAT goes). It turned out to be so much fun that I read it in one sitting.
And in spite of Two for the Seesaw being a hit — and bringing Gibson much-welcomed financial security — the poor man didn’t feel like celebrating. It was that painful a journey.
Reading about Fonda’s behavior through Two for the Seesaw is a real chink in the armor of this gallant actor. While always keeping his professional mien, in truth, he hated playing the part of Jerry Ryan almost from the start. In Gibson’s telling, it feels as some masochistic element was at play in Fonda’s certainty that nearly everything he did wasn’t working — even if the audience thought the opposite. Good soldier that he was, he played it through gritted teeth until the day his six-month contract ended. According to Gibson, after opening night, he was forbidden to visit Fonda in his dressing room at the Booth Theatre.
To be fair, the problems with the role of Jerry were there even before Fonda was cast. It seemed that most who read Two for the Seesaw liked it a great deal, as the quality of the writing was quite good, especially with the character of Gittel Mosca, the foul-mouthed dancer from the Bronx who can’t catch a break. Down on her luck, she meets Jerry Ryan, a lawyer from Omaha who, after discovering his wife was cheating on him, has fled a secure job with his father-in-law’s firm. Heading to New York City to get away from his troubles doesn’t help and it’s while feeling lost and adrift he meets Gittel: a fellow misfit (of sorts) with whom he winds up falling. And through clever staging, there is rarely a moment either of the two actors are offstage. The precision timing of the set revolved to reveal different aspects of the apartment, which included quick-change costume planning — all painstakingly worked out — the result of which clicked with audiences. After it opened and proved a smash, it sold to the movies for $600,000, which was quite a bit of dough in 1958.
But an imbalance was at play from the get-go in this two-character drama. For starters, there was no question that the role of Gittel, by virtue of being the extroverted one, was more exciting and interesting to play than Jerry. Then, when you add in the Anne Bancroft factor, it wasn’t unfounded that Fonda could find himself being upstaged. In her Broadway debut, she easily won the Tony due to the award’s strict rules of billing being the standard for what constituted “leading” and “featured” performances. Bancroft’s win in the latter category for what is the ONLY female role in the play — unquestionably the co-lead — was just plain dumb. And when you take into account that even before rehearsals began, all the principals involved knew Jerry was underwritten, it made for a recipe that could have produced a fatally under-baked cake. But that’s what rehearsals are for, right? Surely, they would find the core of Jerry to make him fully three-dimensional, especially with an actor with the innate honesty and powerful presence of Henry Fonda. This was an actor who lived and breathed a character on stage in ways that other actors can only dream of.
But Fonda simply hated every change that Gibson offered him each time new pages would be delivered. He found most of his lines “unplayable” and didn’t like this Omaha lawyer — at all. And coming from Omaha himself, Fonda really dug in his heels, convinced he knew what felt right and what didn’t with every “if,” “and” and “but.” Nothing the director Arthur Penn, the producer Fred Coe, or poor Gibson could say or do was enough to make Fonda happy. And oh, how they tried.
The other problem was that Fonda and Bancroft had two completely different acting styles. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; sometimes two actors coming from different places can make beautiful music together if they approach it with truth and heart. And according to the audience response more than sixty years ago, they were deemed effective in the play. But Fonda was old school: hit the mark and say the lines. Bancroft was new school: loosey-goosey with a touch of Actors’ Studio thrown in. As Gibson characterizes it from his book:
“Annie [Bancroft] was confused about the inner logic of a passage and with Arthur’s prompt [director Arthur Penn] went through it improvising her own lines in lieu of mine, exploring the emotional content under them; but Hank would not improvise back, he responded firmly with my exact words like a shield; the moment contained in miniature two generations of acting approach.”
I was fortunate enough to see Henry Fonda on the Broadway stage while still a teenager and I have to say, there was nothing quite like it. Best to go to Gibson’s own words again:
“This was our first day on a stage, in a 42nd Street rooftop theater used for private shows a generation earlier by Flo Ziegfeld and in which the air had not been changed since; but when I entered with my suitcase in hand and saw Hank [Fonda] walking about onstage, I had no nose for anything else. His figure commanded the entire playing area. For a year I had been listening to Leah [Gibson’s agent] talking about ‘star quality,’ a favorite term in the theater which to me signified nothing but a religious respect for the golden calf, including some cows I could name; now I saw it incarnate, any body that stood near Hank’s shrank in interest. Penn said with some admiration, “He stalks that stage like a stallion.’”
After engagements in Washington D.C., then Philadelphia, the sets were brought to New York where they were installed on the stage of the Booth Theatre. Then, after only two previews (de rigueur in those days) Two for the Seesaw had its official opening night on January 16, 1958, resulting in what can only be described as a “surprise hit.” After the agony of changing lines and scene endings practically right up to the last minute, audiences lapped it all up. According to Gibson:
“Anne and Hank had never acted it better; they did nothing unrehearsed that Arthur had not labored tirelessly for in the past ten weeks, but their best moments came together in one performance now, and I was reminded of a definition attributed to Jack Dempsey, a champion is someone who is at the peak of condition not five minutes before or after but at the precise instant the bell rings; for the first time in weeks I enjoyed the show.”
Funny addendum: Having suffered the indignity of having to pay for his own tickets for he and his wife to attend opening night, Gibson wrote: “I thought it was worth seventeen dollars.”
The reviews were excellent, and the theatre management even had to break through the wall of the box office and install another ticket window to handle the long lines. The show broke the theatre’s forty-five-year long record for attendance, and as previously mentioned, was quite remunerative for Gibson. In his next venture, he once again had Fred Coe to produce and Arthur Penn to direct and, breaking a rule of show biz, invested in the show himself. It was The Miracle Worker and starred Anne Bancroft (the role offered to her even before Two for the Seesaw had its opening night). Bancroft not only won a second Tony, but the Academy Award as well for her performance in the 1962 film version (along with co-star, Patty Duke).
Henry Fonda, of course, continued to work on stage and film until the end of his life (1981’s On Golden Pond, his farewell to the big screen, earned him his one and only competitive Oscar). He died less than five months after the ceremony, which due to ill health, he did not attend.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.