Closeup/Showbusiness

A legend in the making

Bernie Slade has much better things to do these days

Ron Base July 10 1978
Closeup/Showbusiness

A legend in the making

Bernie Slade has much better things to do these days

Ron Base July 10 1978

A legend in the making

Closeup/Showbusiness

Bernie Slade has much better things to do these days

Ron Base

The producer finally reached Bernard Slade in Boston, just as the playwright’s new play, Tribute, was about to open. “Listen,” the producer said, his voice anxious, “I’ll give you $200,000 for the first read on anything else you write. Let me produce it, and I’ll make you millions.”

“I don’t want millions,” Slade said. “I don’t want money.”

In Hollywood such talk is like a foreign language: it is never understood. The producer was stunned. “Well,” he said finally, “what do you want?”

“I want immortality,” Slade announced flatly.

The producer paused for a long time. “I don’t know if I can get you ] that,” he said dubiously.

Slade was merely being facetious^ of course. Or was he? “What Bern would like more than anything is to be a legend in the theatre,”, says his old friend, broadcaster^

Elwy Yost.Evenas ayoung summer stock player and struggling * television writer from St.Cath-

arines, Ontario, Slade had a certain air about him, a cockiness that suggested he would do bigger things. That self-assurance was sometimes mistaken for conceit, but it marked Bernard Slade as a young man to be ^watched. Sure enough.

■ Slade not only migrated to lollywood,but he became me of the hottest telewriters around,

churning out not high dramas, but low situation comedies such as I Dream of Jearmie, The Flying Nun, The Partridge Family, The Girl with Something Extra. He earned a great deal of money and developed cluster migraines that sometimes went on for six weeks at a time. But he always remained serious about himself. He was witty and glib, but always disciplined . never frivolous. If jmeone dropped his )ants ataparty,it was certainly not Bernie Slade. He did not drink much md he stayed away from the funny cigarettes and the white powders that allowed other television writers to see flying nuns and talking chimps. He has even remained married to the same woman for more than 20 years, an attractive, extremely charming former actress named Jill Foster, and despite the fact that he played tennis avidly, he never allowed himself to look Hollywood. He affected a nicely greying mustache and goatee, leather patches on the elbows of his houndstooth jackets, an ascot around his neck, a battered old pipe in his hand. He was more reminiscent of Alexander Woollcott than he was of Robert Evans.

Slade’s demeanor, his expectations of better things, eventually paid off. Advised to get out of Hollywood after a fight over a script, Slade pulled out a pad of paper on a plane to Hawaii and scribbled out a romantic comedy about a man and a woman, George and Doris, who have an affair one weekend each year over a 25-year period. He called the play Same Time, Next Year, and when it opened on Broadway in 1975. the program notes failed to mention thal this new playwright had ever done anything so déclassé as writing for television. Which was fine with Slade, since Clive Barnes, then The New York Times drama critic, wrote that Same Time, Next Year was “the funniest comedy about love and adultery to come Broadway’s way in years.” Three years after its opening, Same Time is still playing on Broadway. There have been more than 50 productions around the world and Slade has earned $5 million. Television is now only a memory and Bernard Slade has become, as a friend observed, “the man he always said he was going to be.” Still as delightful and charming as Same Time is, Slade was out to make his mark on Broadway with something more lasting—more serious. After all, perhaps he was a flash in the pan, a one-shot wonder. He would need more than a single play, no matter how successful, to prove himself.

Jack Lemmon first heard the sound in Boston, where Tribute went public in April. Unnerving. From all over the theatre came the sound of men clearing their throats. With Tribute, this Hollywood superstar was returning to Broadway for the first time in 18 years. First, there were 3'/2 weeks to play in Boston, then four in Toronto, and the sound of so many men coughing out there in the darkness was disturbing him. He rushed backstage and cornered Bernie Slade. “Jesus, Bern,” he said in the same harrassed, staccato voice he employed so successfully in movies such as Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, “they’re restless out there.” And Slade, also concerned, carefully scouted the theatre during the next performance. He discovered that the men in the audience were cryingl They were clearing their

throats to draw attention away from the tears. This delighted Slade because he did not intend Tribute to be another romantic comedy in the same vein as Same Time, Next Year. “I had decided to do something really different,” he explained, “and try and stretch, and take some chances and maybe fall on my face.”

Tribute is about a press agent named Scottie Templeton (Lemmon), a goodtime Charlie, who has failed at just about everything, except at being charming. Now the charmer is dying of leukemia, and as a sort of final swan song, he attempts a reconciliation with his pompous and humorless son, Jud

The boy once found his father making love with another woman and never forgave him for it. “The framework of the play is a tribute to the man from all his friends,” Slade said. “But essentially Scottie is a man who has trivialized his entire life. The boy is the adult in the relationship and keeps criticizing his father because his life has been so trivial. But the son can’t get through because the father deals in comedy all the time. Scottie says at one point that he has never faced an emotional confrontation unless it was underscored by Dmitri Tiomkin.”

No one would ever suggest Slade was anything like the carefree Scottie. Slade, after all, took life much more seriously. Scottie had been suggested by a friend, a producer-director named Jerry Davis, who always enjoyed a good time and a fast quip.

Still, some of Slade’s friends did note at least one similarity between himself and Scottie: Both had difficulty showing their true feelings. Slade tended to hide behind a studied urbanity and an easy wit. He is a very private man and does not reveal emotions easily. There was some speculation as to whether he could drop his guard enough, so that he could pour his deepest feelings into Tribute. Slade, for his part, was worried about the balance that had to be struck between comedy and drama so that the play did not become mawkish. He tried to reassure himself by simply calling the play ‘“a new comedy.” His wife, Jill, finished the manuscript and shook her head. “It’s not comedy, it’s drama. It has comedy in it, but this is a drama.” Slade could not accept that. “Bernard,” she said, her voice rising to make the point. “I know this is a shock to you, but it’s d-r-a-m-a.” Instead, Slade simply called Tribute “a new play.”

Whatever Tribute was, it failed to elicit the enthusiasm Same Time, Next Year had received. Slade’s producer, Morton Gottlieb, with one eye on the cash register, said: “My God, this is about a man dying of cancer. Does it have to be cancer? I mean, what do I tell people it’s about?”

“It’s not about a man dying of cancer,” Slade explained patiently.

“I know that,” Gottlieb said. “But it’s about a man .. . dying of cancer\”

Gene Saks, who had directed Same Time, Next Year, read the new play and turned down Slade’s offer to direct it, saying that he did not understand what it was about. Some people did not like the character of Scottie and others were shocked that Slade would attempt to write something with serious overtones. Slade was undeterred. He worked diligently, scribbling away in longhand from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. in the study of his Brentwood, California home while Johnny Carson and Tomorrow blared away in the background. Tribute went through 12 drafts before Slade was satisfied that he had solved the problems of balance. He also developed Jud’s character so that he was something more than an irritating horse’s ass beside his bon vivant father. Jack Lemmon, who received the script in a brown paper bag, loved both the play and the character of Scottie, and immediately agreed to do the show. Slade was particularly pleased because he had written Scottie with Lemmon in mind from the beginning. And Lemmon turned out to be a joy to work with so that Slade’s experience bringing Tribute to Broadway was in sharp contrast to his experience with Same Time, Next Year. That show’s stars, Ellen Burstyn and Charles Grodin, had been nothing but problems. Burstyn, who at that time won an Academy Award for her work in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, was temperamental. If she liked Slade’s play, she gave scant indication jof it. Both stars insisted that rehearsals be held on a closed set and spent much of their time talking over the characters. “We had endless discussions, nine-hour discussions,” Slade recalled. “They rehearsed four lines, they discussed it. It was crazy time.” Every so often, Burstyn and Grodin would announce: “Let’s improvise.” On those occasions, Slade quietly got up and left.

Grodin, who is best known as the star of The Heartbreak Kid, rarely came out of his dressing room between the matinee and evening performance. He liked to keep his quarters at a hothouse temperature of 110 degrees. It was like a womb that he seldom allowed anyone to penetrate, except, on one occasion, Slade. “Shut the door, I’m really concerned about something.”

“What’s the matter?” Slade inquired as he closed the dressing room door.

“I’ve got a feeling the audience likes Helen better than they do me.” Helen was the name of his wife in the play. She is mentioned in several anecdotes, but is never actually seen on stage. Slade pointed this out.

“I know,” Grodin said. “But every time I tell a story about Helen, the audience goes crazy. They love Helen! I feel this love for Helen. They must hate me!”

“Well, what do you want me to do?”

“I want you to write a really rotten story about her. Not funny or amusing, just put her in a very bad light.”

“Tell you what, Chuck,” Slade said, getting up to leave. “If she gets a Tony nomination for best supporting actress, I’ll write the rotten story.”

Even after Same Time opened successfully, there were problems. In London, actor Michael Crawford insisted on referring to himself in the third person—“when the people come to see Michael Crawford”— and fighting with his leading lady, whom he accused of eating garlic before each performance. Finally, another actress was' brought in as a replacement. The French brushed off the fact that the characters are middle-class and gleefully adorned them in expensive Givenchy costumes. In Los Angeles, Carol Burnett agreed to do the play with Dick Van Dyke, but played the prude and refused to say a certain four-letter expletive for intercourse. She finally consented to uttering the word “hump” instead. She was not, however, without a sense of humor. When Slade and his wife opened in an Edmonton production of the play, Burnett sent a telegram which read: “Don’t hump it up.”

Slade did make sure he enjoyed his success, touring the various European capitals where his play opened, playing a lot of tennis, and buying a beach house in Malibu, an expensive toy complete with a deck that slides out electronically, and a Jacuzzi. Occasionally, he concerned himself with casting problems in connection with the movie version of Same Time, blanching when Barbra Streisand and Warren Beatty were mentioned, warming considerably when television actor Alan Alda, who had been his first choice for the stage production, and Ellen Burstyn, were finally signed. All sorts of offers poured in: Hitchcock wanted him to write a movie, and so did Billy Wilder. Fred Silverman, television Wunderkind recently appointed president of the NBC network, tried to persuade him to come back to television. “Not unless my children get rickets,” Slade replied.

He turned down all the offers. He was a playwright now, proud of the fact, but just a bit scared of it. When Tribute reached Toronto in May, between Boston and Broadway, a New York Times reporter found him the picture of confidence: “Bernard Slade did not look like a man with a burden.” Actually, Slade was nervous and apprehensive. After all, he was playing for much higher stakes this time; not money, but serious recognition. “By the time 1 get to New York,” he sighed, “I’ll be convinced that we’ll get disastrous notices and that we will close in three days. It is a very tense, awful time.”

Tribute played at Boston’s old Colonial Theatre and the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto before going on to Broadway. Because the show sold out on the road, it earned a profit of $277,108 on a total gross of $774,138. The profit enabled Tribute's producer Morton Gottlieb to pay off the play’s entire $300,000 investment at the opening night party. No other Broadway show within memory had ever paid off its investors so fast. In addition, there was a huge advance sale which would ensure Tribute's box-office success for months to come, and Paramount had guaranteed $1 million for the movie rights to Tribute before the show even opened. So Tribute was an unqualified financial success. Only the final approval from the New York critics was needed and Bernard Slade might well have his immortality.

Sadly, it was not to be. The New York Times critic Richard Eder left the Brooks Atkinson Theatre where the play opened early this month, went back to his office and wrote: “Tribute is a sticky morass in which an occasional funny joke or witty line surfaces and sinks and in which some valiant efforts by Jack Lemmon end up defeated.” Everyone—Time, Newsweek,

Walter Kerr writing in the Sunday Times—liked Jack Lemmon. But nobody thought much of the play. Only Clive Barnes, the former Times critic who now writes for The New York Post, was able to muster any enthusiasm for it. He called Tribute a “nifty vehicle.”

Still, given the interest in Lemmon, and its huge financial success, Tribute was almost certain to run successfully. After all, if it is nothing else, it’s a play carefully constructed to appeal to the Broadway audience: greying middle age in conflict with headstrong youth, and greying middle age, for a change, triumphant by the final curtain.

One suspects that deep down, Slade

knew he had not written a great play. Finally faced with a blank piece of paper, and a Broadway audience eagerly awaiting his second play, Slade could not forsake a good laugh; he couldn’t simply search out the honest emotions within himself. He tried to balance Tribute on a precarious edge using comedy and drama. Tribute tumbled into a deep gorge of mawkishness and sentimentality—popular theatre but not great theatre.

Slade has already beaten a retreat to glib comedy. He has written a new play, this one about a couple who attempt to get involved with each other over a number of years but always end up marrying other people. Slade says it is a take-off on every romantic comedy ever written, and is called, understandably, Romantic Comedy. Also understandably, the plot line is reminiscent of Same Time, Next Year.

Slade once mentioned this to a sometime tennis partner named Neil Simon. “Don’t wo^ry about it,” Simon replied cheerfully. “I wrote the same play over and over again for a long time.”

For the moment, however, Slade must deal with the implications of success. This was not immortality, but it was the bottom line. Slade’s business manager was on the telephone. “There’s one sticky point they won’t pay for, and I’m gonna get it.” “What’s that?” Slade asked.

“The sequel rights to Tribute." “Murray,” Slade said patiently, “there are no sequel rights. The guy dies, Murray.”

“Well, how do you know that?” “Murray, I wrote the play.”

This stopped the manager but only for a moment. “All right,” he said, brightening, “what about a television series?”

Bernard Slade just sighed, and shook his head.cÿ