AN ACTOR’S ACTOR

July 20, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today

The actor William Redfield died more than forty years ago, so it would seem that writing about him might be of little interest, especially as many of his major triumphs were on stage and seen by far less people than actors with more vast film and television careers. But I’d like to take advantage of my being solely responsible for the choices I make when writing about the theatre, which in this case will take the form of a well-earned tribute to one of the good guys.

Born to an orchestra conductor and a former Ziegfeld Follies Girl, “Billy” Redfield made his Broadway debut at age nine in the musical Swing Your Lady. By twelve, he was cast in the original company of Thornton Wilder’s classic drama Our Town. By fourteen, he was the lead ingénue in Junior Miss, a big hit back in its day, directed by the estimable Moss Hart. As an adult, Redfield was famously directed by Sir John Gielgud as Guildenstern in a 1964 production of Hamlet that Richard Burton brought to Broadway. This was at the peak of Burton’s reign as a superstar and during his fresh (and first) marriage to the most famous woman in the world, Elizabeth Taylor (they officially tied the knot between the Toronto and New York engagement).

While out of town, and through its 137 performances on Broadway, Redfield dutifully kept a diary (in the form of letters to friends) of what it was like to be in this Hamlet, as well as his musings upon his life in the theatre. Later, he published it as Letters from an Actor, one of the most charming and hilarious backstage books ever written. After years of being out-of-print, it returned to circulation a few years ago, only to lapse back into unavailability again. As entertaining a book on the theatre ever written, it is well worth finding. For years, I would buy used hardcover copies on Ebay and hand them out as gifts. I still do.

“Letters From an Actor,” published 1967.

​​Redfield was a sterling example of what is known as “an actor’s actor,” meaning someone highly talented, extremely versatile and a skilled professional, all of which contributed to his consistency as an in-demand actor. He was looked up to by his fellow players, many of whom were never happier than when he was a part of their company (it wasn’t surprising that he and Burton became fast friends). Cast time and again in everything from dramas to comedies to musicals to classical theatre, he also appeared in films like the Academy Award winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as Harding, playing poker with Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy, and on TV, perhaps most memorably mimicking the finicky Tony Randall in an episode of The Odd Couple as Felix Unger’s brother Floyd. By his own personal count, Redfield estimated he had been in over 2,000 stage, radio, television and films.

As Harding in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1974).

I was too young in 1964 to have seen Hamlet, although there is a filmed record of it, long thought destroyed for twenty years. In fact, its destruction was contractual. It was produced to exclusively be shown in movie theatres for a brief period, then never exhibited again. After Burton’s death in 1984, his widow found a single print in their garage, and allowed it to be distributed on what was then state-of-the-art VHS tapes. Eventually, it was upgraded to DVD later on and there are still copies floating around, retitled Richard Burton’s Hamlet. You still can find it (though it doesn’t come cheap—a used one is presently for sale on Amazon for $55). That is, if you’re brave enough to even view it. As Redfield writes in his book (and I’m paraphrasing here) “there is a whole lot of acting going on up on that stage.”

My first time seeing Redfield on Broadway was in a play that ran for four days with the catchy title, The Love Suicide at Scofield Barracks (and they wondered why no one came). Later that same year, I saw him in a monumental disaster, the musical, Dude: the Highway Life, to which I devote an entire chapter in my book, Up in the Cheap Seats. Eking out a two-week run, Dude managed by the time of its closing (due to an extended and troubled preview period) to have entered the annals of Broadway history as the most expensive flop of its time. It lost $800,000, a lot of money today, but a ton back then.

This rock musical came from two-thirds of the team who created the far superior and far more successful, Hair, and it took a well-intentioned but foolish environmental approach towards its physical production. In a misguided effort at realism, actual dirt was distributed onto the stage floor that wound up soiling the already expensively distressed costumes and causing dust storms whenever the actors trampled on and off, all to the accompaniment of coughing fits from the audience. The first remedy for correction was to hose it down, turning everything — literally — to mud. The second fix involved scraps of brown felt laid down to fake the look of things which, after failing, gave way to plastic — the opposite of dirt. When I spoke with Redfield’s widow, Lynda, she recalled this anomaly in her husband’s rich and diversified career:

“Poor Bill. He signed on with such hopes that Dude would be this bold new experiment and it was quickly apparent that everyone was in over their heads. And the physical exertion was so awful with all that mud and dirt. I had to go to Hammacher-Schlemmer and buy a portable Jacuzzi so he could soak it all off! I was there at the last performance. They played it to an empty house in that cavernous theatre. It was all so sad.”

To see just how good an actor Redfield was, one needs no proof other than his one scene in Elaine May’s off-beat and truly wonderful film, A New Leaf (1971). As Walter Matthau’s exasperated accountant, Redfield’s valiant attempts to explain to a deluded and grandiose millionaire that he is now flat broke, begins calmly, then grows into disbelief, moves on to frustration, until finally boiling over in riotous anger. It is a sight to behold — and savor. Comic acting at its very best.

Redfield as the Accountant opposite Walter Matthau's confounded and clueless millionaire in "A New Leaf."

In an often difficult profession, Redfield was a survivor. That is, until the Leukemia that killed him proved too tough a battle, ending his life at only forty-nine. It’s an awful shame, as his role in Cuckoo’s Nest brought him great reviews and newfound acclaim. He was gone ten months after its release, though he continued to work in film and television right up to the end — ever the “actor’s actor.”

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.

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Ron Fassler

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Ron Fassler is a theatre historian, drama critic and author of "Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway."