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Interview: John Astin discusses ULYSSES IN NIGHTTOWN and working with Burgess Meredith and Zero Mostel
You may remember how I did an interview with John Astin last year for the A.V. Club, and if you don’t remember, then this is a good time to check it out, because it was a great conversation. In fact, it was fantastic, and I can’t thank his son, Mack Astin, enough for helping to set it up, but to say that it was somewhat sprawling is an understatement: it took place in two parts, one a few days before he turned 92 and the other a few days after his birthday. He’s got a great memory, but sometimes it takes him down some unexpected paths in the process of retrieving the story he’s after. Not that I’m complaining: in the end, we probably talked for the better part of three hours.
In fact, we got along so swimmingly that when his 93rd birthday came up this past March 30, I dropped Mack a line and said, “Would it be inappropriate of me to give your dad a call and wish him a happy birthday?” Mack said, “It would be highly appropriate! I don’t know if he’ll answer, but you can still leave him a message!” So I called…and it rang and rang, but the machine never picked up. I texted Mack back and said, “I guess someone else had the same idea at the exact same moment!” So I waited a bit and tried again, and it rang and rang again, but this time, just before I was about to hang up, I suddenly heard a click, at which point a familiar voice rang out: “Mr. Harris! Hello!”
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I mean, I know he has caller ID, and I know that’s why he knew it was me, but I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed hearing that voice call me by name. Seriously, it was like I got the birthday present.
Anyway, I wished John a happy birthday, and we chatted about this and that for a few minutes, him giving me updates on how things were with him, me telling him about my daughter and her impending high school graduation and departure for college. And then we talked a bit about our previous conversation, and I mentioned how I’d been sitting on a substantial chunk of material where we’d talked about Ulysses in Nighttown, an off-Broadway production that was one of his personal favorite moments in the theater. I told him I was planning to post it as part of my Substack newsletter soon, but I said, “You know, it occurs to me that you left me hanging on an anecdote.” He seemed equal parts surprised and horrified—what storyteller worth their salt wants to be told that they’ve left an audience hanging?—but I assured him that he’d just gone onto a tangent, and at the time neither of us had realized that he’d never finished the story. I only realized it when I started doing my transcription! Thankfully, he was happy to belatedly finish the story, so I’ve taken a bit from the original conversation and a bit from this most recent conversation, and now you should be able to follow the tale in question.
Now, fair warning: this conversation was solely about Ulysses in Nighttown. There are a few detours, but they all lead back to that topic. But that said, it’s still a conversation that I think you’ll enjoy, particularly if you imagine it being delivered by the O.G. Gomez Addams.
Oh, and one final bit of info before we launch into the proceedings: we open with John talking about how a friend of mine made his day by providing me with a photo [from the New York Public Library’s Friedman-Abeles photograph collection] of him from when he was actually doing Ulysses in Nighttown. He couldn’t say enough about it.
John Astin: Your friend at the New York Public Library... That is a precious item, that photo.
Mack sent me your text, so I sent it to my friend [Stephen Bowie], so he could see just how delighted you were with it. I'm glad that it made your day.
He actually sent me a link that features photos of you, Zero Mostel, Pauline Flanigan, Robert Brown... Just a wide variety of folks from that particular version. And then there are also some photos from the 1974 version as well.
Yeah, uh... [Long pause.] Obviously, that '74 version was not... I didn't bother seeing it. It was not an easy show to put on. I made a chart of all the parts of the original version. [My wife] Val found my folder for Ulysses, and what's great about it... There's a lot of untruth out there about how this show took place and so on.
I got a call from Henry Hughes, who was the drama critic for the Saturday Review. I was living in my Hell's Kitchen walkup, on the fifth floor, and that walkup figured in the whole existence of Zero in that role. One day in the Sunday New York Times, I read an interview with Burgess in which he said the idea of Zero came to him in a dream, and he got a script to him. There's not a fragment of truth in that. There was an empty apartment next to us on the fifth floor that looked out over the Hudson River, and it was very cold, because we were on the windy side. It was a corner apartment, and I guess their wind was even worse than ours. It was pretty cold!
In Three Penny Opera, when the show was a couple of years old, a contingent of people joined the show, and in that group were Ed Asner and Jerry Orbach, and they came in playing small parts, but eventually they worked their way up to leading roles in the production. They never wanted me to play anything other than what I played in it - the principal member of Macheath's gang, Readymoney Matt - so I determined along with another gang member to try and make it a standout in the show. And we succeeded. We used to keep track of the gang bravos. [Laughs.] At the curtain call, if we got a "bravo," we'd come back and mark it down.
Well, Jerry needed a place to stay, and we told him about this apartment next to us, and he and his friend Joe Goldberg moved into that apartment. And we lived our separate lives, but it turned out that Joe was a budding playwright, and an enterprising young director named Frank Perry was trying to get Joe's play on, so he was having a backers audition. And at this backers audition... I don't know if the play ever got on or not - I've forgotten! - but we sat and watched the audition, and reading a supporting role in this show that never got on was Zero. He got five bucks for being in this audition, so he did it, and my first wife, Suzy [Hahn], we looked at each other and said, "My God, Zero is Leopold Bloom!" So as soon as the audition was over, I called Burgess.
I had become very much involved in this production in helping Burgess. In fact, I was at Stockbridge doing a Neil Simon play, and I got a phone call from Burgess, and he was writing his autobiography, and...he tried to get me to write that period of his life! Because I was with him constantly. And I was accepting a cocktail when he offered it, but I tried to remain sober at all times. I can't say as much for Burgess, because he was doing a brilliant job of preparing this show and involved me in it 100%. Evidently, he heard from the rest of the cast that I'd had quite a success with my understudy effort in Major Barbara while he was putting on down the street. I was ostensibly supposed to understudy Eli Wallach as Bill Walker because I was a husky young man and fit the role. But Eli said to me, "John, I don't care if I'm on my deathbed, you are not going to go on for me ever in this play." [Laughs.] And he meant that humorously, obviously, but there was a large kernel of truth in it, and... [Long pause.] There's a really interesting story that I'm not going to take the time to tell, but when I write the book on Ulysses in Nighttown...
I might do that. I have all this data, who got scripts and everything. Jessica Tandy's name was on there, and...what was the name of the lovely woman who was George Jean Nathan's wife? She played leads in lots of stuff. I know she was the leading lady in The Time of Your Life when the [William] Saroyan play was done. I think it was Julie something...
Yes! Burgess wanted her to be in the show, and she wrote a letter to Burgess. Nathan had died not long before this, and she was putting together everything that had to do with him. I mean, it was a great love affair between the two of them. And Burgess handed me the letter, and somehow it got filed away in my stuff, and it never got back to Burgess. So I have this lovely letter from Julie Haydon turning Burgess down, but there's a lot of stuff about what she's doing for George. [Hesitates.] Was he out of Boston?
Hmmm. Who was the famous critic in Boston?
[After several seconds of Googling.] Elliot Norton?
Elliot Norton, yes! When we did Major Barbara there, Charles Laughton was absolutely great, and Elliot Norton said it was the best production he had seen in many, many years. And obviously Charles was proud of that. So when we came to New York, we had good reviews, but Charles was a little bit off on that night, and he didn't have his usual sensational evening, which was a shame, because in general this was the best of all his shows. He had a marvelous approach to it. Unfortunately, that's the way the theater is: you have a slightly off night, and the future of the show changes.
I was just going to mention that I have Burgess's autobiography, and I guess when you opted not to write about that period in his life, he drafted Robert Brown to do it.
Right! I took a look at it at a bookstore, and...there's not a gram of truth in what Robert is saying. [Laughs.] But I guess he did what he was asked to do and made up a story. Actually, Robert Brown... My first wife was on her way out of town when that show was preparing, and she left me some notes. Let's see if I can find the note. That's why this would make a fascinating book. I've got a lot of the stuff that Burgess prepared for it, and except for the first five pages, I have a working script of it. I made a special script for Burgess when he took the show to England, when everybody had to pay their way over. Let me see... I was going to prepare this for you, because that photo... If they have more stuff, it would be marvelous to get that!
I've got preview programs to this, and I've got... Padraic Colum actually wrote... [Hesitates.] You probably don't know who he is, but he's actually mentioned by Joyce in the book Ulysses. He says, "There goes that young genius Colum." He wrote a lot of interesting stuff. Some of it was classics for kids. He wanted them to know the classics, so he wrote in simpler language. I know he did the story of the Argonauts. That's one book of his I have, which could be used today in classes...if anybody would be studying the actual classics in a class. [Laughs.]
So I have this stuff scribbled - sometimes in my handwriting, sometimes in Burgess's handwriting - on my charts. I recognize his handwriting, but sometimes he also used red pencil. There's the word "Wednesday," with a question mark after it, in red. That's a relic of the life of Burgess Meredith, right here. He never got credit for the marvelous job he did directing. I was 100% behind him in this effort. I was a part-time stage manager, and I played... [Hesitates.] I'd have to add them up to get an accurate number, but close to 20 parts in this production. And the one in this photograph that your friend sent, it's the outfit and hair-combing that I rushed to put together because I was doing something else just before that. It was sort of a quick-change thing. That was the character of Philip Beaufoy.
Joyce does an absolutely marvelous thing in Ulysses. He has the meditation of Leopold Bloom as he sits on the toilet. No one had ever done anything like that in literature...that I know of, anyway. Maybe Jonathan Swift? But it was really revelatory, and it comes fairly early in the book, while he's talking to Molly about a concert she's going to have. Joyce has her sometimes singing with McCormack. You're aware of the character I mentioned, aren't you? Anything that I assume that you know about and I run by it and you don't know, just holler and tell me! Because this is old stuff, and nobody pays much attention to these things today. I know there's a new edition of Ulysses - I'll probably buy it - correcting a lot of the mistakes that are in the one that was released when Morris Ernst won the case.
It was interesting, because we were trying to put a show on, and our lawyer was with Greenbaum, Wolff and Ernst, which made me feel that we could accomplish anything. But we never got that show on. We couldn't get a church to let us in to do the play. It was written to be done in a church, and there was an Anglican priest in New York at St. James named Arthur Lee Kinsolving. The Kinsolvings were all over the priesthood of the Episcopal church in America. There were quite a few of them, and they all became rectors of various churches. One became the bishop of Arizona! And Kinsolving actually invested $200 in our production but said he couldn't do the show again because he caught such hell from the vestry.
Did you ever hear of a guy named Bob Corrigan? He was a theatrical scholar, and he started a lot of things, and he always got in trouble. He was a good friend of mine, and we were roommates when we were both in grad school at the University of Minnesota. Bob had gotten his masters at Hopkins, which is where I met him, and we became friends. His father was a very well known Anglican priest. In fact, he is the priest who ordained the women in... I think it was Philadelphia where it took place, but it was when the Episcopal church started having female priests. But he was either the number one or number two guy in the Episcopal church and was a wonderful human being. And I almost became an Episcopalian because of him! [Laughs.] He was such a good human being, and he taught me a lot. I grew up without a church, and when I was maybe 18 years old, I was the only non-Catholic on the block, so I sought out priests - Jesuits, mainly - to learn about the religion. I decided against it eventually, but the Episcopal church, it was so close to the Roman Catholic church. There weren't a hell of a lot of differences in the practices.
I'm Episcopalian, and the joke has always been, "Catholicism without the guilt."
Yeah! Where did you grow up as an Episcopalian?
In Virginia. The Virginia Beach area.
Oh, well, Bob's father was the rector at St. Paul's in Baltimore. Bob was a very bright guy, and I did an off-Broadway play by Christopher Frye called A Sleep of Prisoners, and it was basically a play about these soldiers who were prisoners in a bombed-out church, and they go to sleep and they dream, but they dream in Bible stories. Well, I realized that nobody knew the Bible stories. [Laughs.] I had people reading the Bible stories. I broke it into two acts - it was originally a one-act play - and before the first act, we read the first two stories. The first story involved Cain and Abel, then the second story involved King David and Absalom. And I had the stories read by good readers. There was Sorrell Booke. Do you know his stuff?
I do. I almost hate to say it, but I first knew him from his work on The Dukes of Hazzard. But I certainly know more of his career now.
Yeah, actually, Sorrell was a good actor. He almost... [Hesitates.] Do you know the Irish playwright Denis Johnston?
I know the name.
In class, Harold Clurman assigned something to me from The Moon and the Yellow River, which is a wonderful play. Denis was helping us on... [Hesitates.] You know how I paused earlier on the consequences of Burgess Meredith leaving Major Barbara for a couple of weeks? Well, Burgess called me up to help him do the Nighttown section from [James Joyce's] Ulysses, and I ended up working with him on the script, and I acted about four or five roles in the piece, but I also became a sort of glorified production stage manager. I hung out with him for a month, and it was a wonderful experience.
You know, I found the listing for that production when I was doing research for our conversation. It caught my eye in particular because Carroll O'Connor was in the cast.
It's a pretty impressive cast beyond that, too. Anne Meara, Zero Mostel...
And Bea Arthur!
Oh, I didn't even see her name.
Yeah, originally she was in it. She was part of the original cast, as was Annie Meara and... Let's see, there were lots of readers. I remember Gilbert Seldes was one of the readers. Lots of Burgess's friends from the past. He knew everybody. But for Bloom... I had seen Zero in a backer's audition, and I thought, "My God, that's Bloom!" I called Burgess immediately, and he just sort of said, "Yeah?" He wanted a friend, I guess, to play it. I mean, he was thinking of Hugh Griffith or... Oh, he offered it to all kinds of people. In fact, if I can find the pieces of yellow paper... [Long pause filled with much rustling.] Okay, I found what I was looking for! I'm just going to read, so you get some idea of the people we were pursuing.
There's Jackie Gleason; Hugh Griffith; Theodore Bikel; Hume Cronyn, crossed out because he wanted Jessica Tandy and [Burgess] didn't want to use both; Lloyd Nolan; Martyn Green from the D'Oyly Cart [Opera Company]; Franchot Tone from the Group Theater; David Wayne; Myron McCormick; Melvyn Douglas; Jonathan Winters... And here is Zero Mostel's name! He's on this list because of my phone call right after I saw that backer's audition. But I was a naughty boy: I went to Zero and gave him a script. After Zero is Burl Ives, Jose Ferrer, Peter Ustinov... And that's the end of that page. These are people who were offered Bloom!
And they all turned it down?
Yep! Before it was offered to Zero. Okay, here's another page, and this was probably another day, because there are some repetitions. Virginia Curtis, Leora Thatcher, Pauline Flanigan... Pauline, you know, was in it, and was wonderful in it. Micheal Mac Liammóir, who was an Irish actor. Bea Arthur, who I mentioned. Rae Allen, who played Nancy in Oliver! at one point on Broadway. Carol Gustafson. Michael Lewis. Michael Lipton. Helena Carroll. Grania O'Malley. Stephen Joyce. Dermott McNamara. Barry Macollum. Here's Zero's name popping up again, with an address written by it. Nancy Marchard. Sanford Meisner. Howard Wierum. Patrick O'Neal. Lane Clancy. Will Geer! Oliver Sayler and Marjorie Barkentin, who were the ostensible authors of this, wanted him to do the part of Elijah. I ended up doing Elijah, but they wanted Will to do it. Milt Kamen! He was a Jewish comedian who was a serious consideration for Bloom. There are a lot of women on here because there were lots of women to cast. Let's see, can I find some of the people who were actually in the show? [Laughs.]
But as far as Bloom goes, eventually the part was owned by Sorrell Booke, who came with the recommendation of Denis Johnston. I was looking for more money for the show to get it on, and I ran into some people who had it, and they wanted to see Bloom. And Sorrell came in and had a bad reading. It just wasn't right. He just bombed at what he had done beautifully before. You know, the pressure that comes with something like that. So we didn't have a Bloom!
Well, I had gotten the script to Zero probably a couple of months earlier, so I said, "What about Zero Mostel?" And there was a blacklist discussion, which...the blacklist was ignored. And a couple of the producers went up to where Zero lived, and Zero read for them, and they called me up and they said, "Make the deal!" So I did! And Zero never knew this. He thought he was the only person who was asked. [Laughs.] And I let it be. I didn't want to damage his confidence or anything like that. But I'll tell you, he was really brilliant in that. His performance was a masterpiece. The production was wonderful, actually.
I would think, between the cast and the content.
Yeah! There were a lot of very good people in it. Belita was in it.
I saw the name, but I wasn't familiar with her.
She was a famous ice skater. She was in Hollywood, and she was actually very talented. And Maria Karnilova, who went on to play Zero's wife in Fiddler on the Roof, she was in Ulysses also, because she was a dancer. Valerie Bettis, who helped us, was also in it. Burgess wanted as much dancing as he could get into it. There's a dancer named Swen Swenson who was in it. And there was Michael Clarke-Laurence, who was a fine actor. Tom Clancy of the Clancy Brothers was in it with his Tipperary accent. [Laughs.] We had a wonderful, wonderful show. Carroll O'Connor was Mulligan, and Robert Brown was Stephen Dedalus. Oh, and there was a guy named Donald Hotton who was painting on the set - he was part of the crew, building the set - but he looked just like James Joyce. He was very talented, but he didn't get it because Robert Brown came in, and Burgess loved his leading-man look, so...that's how Robert got the part. Pauline Flanagan was in it, and she was recommended by an Irish playwright. I still have the letter he wrote about Pauline. She played Molly Bloom, and she was terrific. Now, mind you, when they redid this, it was not the same show, but what we did at the Rooftop Theater was what I had to do.
Actually, Burgess wanted me to be the production stage manager of The Thurber Carnival, which he was doing on Broadway, and I thought about it - and it took some thought! I didn't get along with the director of a play that we were doing in the park, so... [Hesitates.] What's his name? The guy who ran it?
Yeah, Joe Papp! Joe called me up and he said, "I owe you one. You're gonna be happier out of it." So I said, "Well, Joe, I'll be waiting." And I'm still waiting. [Laughs.] At the same time, Burgess is offering me a production stage manager job. Now that's a big job. That's a lot of money. And I held out. I said, "If I do this, I will never act again." Because I was getting jobs that pay a lot of money!
I had done with my friend Sidney [Kay]... This is when Waiting for Godot was death at the box office, and Harold assigned the part of Pozzo to Sidney, and Sidney said, "I don't know what this is about. Would you help me with this?" And I said, "Sure!" So Sidney and I... This was the first real example of my approach. I was able to do it with Sidney because...I didn't have Meisner training, but I'd studied with Clurman for five or six years. So we're working away on this thing, and we do it in class. We don't tell anybody what it is, we just start the play. And eventually we say we're waiting for Godot, and they know what it is, but there's about 10-15 minutes that go by before that's mentioned.
We did about half an hour of it, and it scored really heavily in the class. And Harold said to Sidney, "Who directed this?" He said, "Johnny did!" And Harold said, "This is the first time I've seen this play directed properly!" You can imagine how thrilled I was. And the last time I saw Harold, he said, "John, are you directing?" And, you know, the actor in me is saying, "Harold doesn't think I'm that good an actor! Well, I'll show him!" [Laughs.] That's silly, of course. But actors have that disease! Anyway, I took a real step forward in my approach to acting with my relationship with Sid. Unfortunately, he passed away some years ago. Nobody ever really knew how talented he was, except for those people in Houston.
You see, Alan Schneider was the original director of Waiting for Godot, and he had a Ford grant. You see, Harold did something he'd never done before: he had us repeat the scene, and he invited people to come and see it. And Alan was one of the people. And he called me up the next day and said he wanted to do it with Sidney and me at the Alley Theater in Houston, which was way back when Nina Vance, the founder of the theater, was doing it. So that's what happened after I didn't do the production stage manager job for Burgess.
But I will say that Burgess was a terrific director. He was half-plastered all the time, but he was still a terrific director regardless of the alcohol, and he was really creative. He did all kinds of stuff in rehearsal that was very helpful to the actors. And he let me take care of most of the technical stuff, which I did with joy. I was still playing a few roles, but Zero never liked it when I went out to watch the show. He'd say, "Do your other parts! Come on!" They were all set-ups for jokes. "Get somebody who's clear!" I'd say, "Okay, tomorrow I'll be up onstage. Don't worry." "You'd better! I've got people coming! Jack Gilford will be here!"
One of the most shocking things I ever heard in the theater came from the mouth of Luther Adler. Evidently Luther had made a date with Zero [Mostel] to meet him after the show, and we were at the Rooftop Theater, so you took an elevator, came up, and walked in the theater. And I was actually sitting in the audience, taking notes, and the end of the play... I don’t know how well you know Ulysses, but the Ulysses of Joyce's book is Leopold Bloom, a Jew in Dublin. And the figure of a son is this young student who appears in other Joyce materials, Stephen Dedalus. And if you remember the story of Icarus and Dedalus... Well, anyway, Robert Brown was Stephen, and Zero was playing Bloom, and brilliantly, I should say. And I had various parts in the show, but I was also kind of a glorified production and stage manager, and when Burgess left for any reason, I was in charge of the show, so every once in awhile I'd go out and see if there was anything I had to fix. And this was one of those times.
I was sitting in the theater, and...the play ends with Bloom having gone through all this trouble and challenge, and there is a gift, a reward at the end of it all. We had two scrims that were circular, and one was on stage right and the other was on stage left. And Bloom and the action that went on with Bloom and Stephen being knocked out by the policeman and lying on the ground, all of this is taking place on the stage right circular scrim. And as Bloom is standing there, not knowing what to do, he sees an image of his son - who he named Rudy and who died shortly after being born - in the other screen, and he's got a prayer shawl on, and he's reading from right to left, obviously a good young Jewish boy who's about 10 years old. And he sees it, and he extends his left arm, palm up, and chokes out Rudy's name. "Rudy..." And it's a gorgeous moment. And the narrator reads some of the material from the book there, and it's gorgeous prose as Bloom stands there, looking at this vision of his son Rudy. And when Zero said, "Rudy..." the audience is just completely wrapped up in it.
And that's when Luther yelled out, "ZERO!" [Laughs.] He was in the aisle, and he started to come down...and I don't think his eyes had adjusted, because I don't think he realized that the audience was there. And I don't know what he thought Zero was doing with the stage lights on and everything, but Luther was near me when he did it, and I practically flew out of my seat. And at that moment, Zero - who knew that it was Luther - started cursing at him. And the curtain's coming down, the lights are going out, and Luther's standing there like, "What the fuck did I do?" It was an amazing moment of theater. I finally had to run backstage and try to quiet Zero, because he was destroying the image that he'd created with the audience!
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