Monday, July 14, 2014

All in the Family - The Making of Town Diary - Corner of First and Exes

"Whenever you want to marry someone, go have lunch with his ex-wife" 
-Shelly Winters, who had three ex-husbands and a lot of ex-lovers**

Around the time I met my ex-wife, Maureen, I also met a young actress named Annie. She had auditioned for the first play I directed,  a silly whodunit called  Kidnap Kaper.  It was written by a bitter older British actress, whose name I have thankfully forgotten. We'll call her Brit.

Brit was one of those actresses who clearly had been known for her looks at one time, but that, her only real asset,  had faded. Now, she ran this hole-in-the-wall theater in Hell's Kitchen,  and tried to relive glory days that weren't all that glorious.

I had already cast a girl as the young ingenue when Annie walked in. Annie's headshot was so bad I thought she was more like forty than the 24 year old beauty she was, all red hair and energy. The other girl was good; Annie was perfect.

Unfortunately,  Brit was also a redhead,  and Annie clearly reminded her too much of the young starlet she no longer was. She hated my choice, and proceeded to make Annie's life miserable during rehearsal. It got so bad that I insisted she put a stop to it, which led to a blowup about a week into the show. When she tried to fire Annie,  myself and the entire cast quit.

Annie, like Maureen, was Canadian by birth, and they  grew up pretty close to each other (albeit years apart) in  Southern Ontario.  We all became great friends, the three of us going out together whenever Maureen (who still lived in Ontario at this point) was in town.

Annie went on to study with famed acting guru Sandy Meisner in Bequia, and later LA.  It was near the end of his life, but the training clearly made Annie not only a better actress,  but eventually, a very good acting teacher herself.

Annie had moved to LA, and we would hang whenever I was out there. This was before Facebook,  but we kept in touch the old-fashioned way,  by phone or, later, email.

I wrote the character of the lead character's ex-wife from personal experience.  Maureen and I are great friends to fhis day, but in the script,  I wrote her from the tempestuous days leading up to our divorce.  I also added kids who were not big fans of their mostly absent dad, something Maureen and I did not have.
I sent the script to Annie without telling her anything.  The phone rang a few days later.

"She's Maureen, " Annie said, referring to the  characters. I explained that it was based on Maureen,  but that I had tried to hide it. Annie laughed.

"You did a bad job of hiding it," she said. "Don't worry. I can definitely play Maureen."

Indeed,  she went on to do a great job. We flew her in from LA,, and it was worth it the days we shot her scenes. It didn't hurt that she (like some others) did not particularly like our lead (much more on that later), and the Method actress in Annie made her avoid any 'friendly' contact with the actor beforehand.

The scenes were tough for me. I had to push Jack to shoot them more sympathetic to her than he would have, as his experiences with exes were not the same as mine. They are among the best scenes in the film.
Another 'first' was John S, who would play the reckless younger brother of the lead character's best friend, Frank Ryan. Jimmy Ryan was the younger brother dependable Frank always got out of trouble.

My first theater company as Artistic Director was in Allenton,  PA., where I did three one-acts around Sam Shepard and Patti Smith. The main part of the evening was Cowboy Mouth,  which Shepard and Smith co-wrote and performed together at times around their crazy days living together at New York's Chelsea Hotel.*

The Chelsea Hotel came up a few times in my life.  My good friend Kevin O'Conner lived there, and I dated an actress who lived there who had an "imaginary friend.'  What can I say? She was cute, funny, and though we had to set  place for him when we had dinner - in or out - at least I didn't have to feed him. Besides,  a life spent with actors and film people makes you a lot less judgemental.

There were "favorites" at the local theater company,  but I passed them all over to cast John S. as Slim, the Shepard character described as a "rock and roll hero with a cowboy mouth."

John S. was then a student at Muhlenberg College under a truly under-rated theater teacher and director,  Charlie Richter.

I had seen John S. in a student production and been impressed with his charisma and energy.  His background was as an athlete,  but his instincts were great.  Although he was a raw talent at the time, I knew he would be worth a little extra coaching. He was.  Every performance was fresh and real.

John S went on to work in other film and TV, and eventually,  Broadway. My only regret in casting John S. is that, in retrospect,  I gave his character some of the cheesiest dialogue.  He overcame it, for the most part, but his talent would have come through more if I'd done a better job.

It was great working again with John S. and Annie, but I went to the well once too often when I reached back into my past to try and cast the lead with an excellent stage actor I had met years earlier. In fact, casting the leads proved difficult on a number of levels.  While I had planned to address that casting here,  explaining the background on John S. and Annie took up more space and time than I thought, so it will need to wait for the next post.

Brevity,  you are no friend of mine.

* Ok, I did cover much of this story of working with John S back in a 2009 post. However, I find that readers don't like flipping back and forth, and I won't assume that every reader was around when I posted the original over five years ago. A little about my time with Actors' Collective, which will be covered in next post with actor Don, is also covered in that post. Besides, here, it is about both of these folks working with me on Town Diary.

**Shelly Winters had an interesting relationship with my mentor, Stan.

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